Decoding the Bini-Yoruba Creation Stories

One has to be intrigued by

the long-standing feud

between the Ooni of Ife and the Oba of Benin as to

which city-state preceded which, and to whom did another contribute a royal

genetics. At the center of this feud is the ego of ancient grandeur; it is the

longstanding contention of cousins contending for legendary historical superiority.

It was with an eye to resolving the mystery that I decided to undertake a

literature review to try to decode the mysteries of the origin of the people of

Ife and Benin.

Literature review (or in

this case oral tradition review) is reputedly unreliable due to the never-ending

manipulation of orally handed down traditions to suit the sentimental cravings

of the “tellers”. However, a superimposition and side-by-side examination of

two contending oral traditions may reveal some salient truths that can point to

the background fact often omitted in the “single stories” from which they are

individually derived.

The story of Ife goes as

the spiritual origin of the Yoruba people. Odùduwà, phonetically written as Odùduwà, and sometimes contracted as Odudua, Oòdua, is generally held among the Yoruba to be the ancestor of the crowned Yoruba kings (he reigned as king of Ife in the 1100s). Odùduwà is

generally said to be of Easterly origins (some in Oyo say Mecca, but historians

generally assume Ekiti-Okun region at the confluence of the great rivers and

the general area where language shift occurred between the Yorubas and their

neighbors). The Ife oral traditions, on the other hand, tell that Odùduwà was the son

of the supreme God, and was sent by him from heaven to create the earth.

It was established that when Odùduwà

arrived ancient Ife, he and his group conquered the component communities and

eventually evolved the palace structure with an effective centralized power and

dynasty. Oral

history tells us that Oduduwa had a son known as Okanbi. Okanbi had EIGHT children. SEVEN (Onipopo of

Popo, Onisabe of Sabe, Alara of Ara, Ajero of Ijero, Orangun of Oke-Ila, Owa

Obokun Ajibogun of Ijesaland and Oranmiyan) by his “legal” wife, and

one (Ooni) by his slave turned wife, named ORUNTO. Ooni reportedly usurped Oranmiyan while he

was away from Ife. Oranmiyan departed to found Oyo on his return.

Ooni reportedly inherited the magical

powers of his father, and that accounts for the spiritual commitment of Yoruba kings

to Ife, as opposed to political supremacy, which rose and ebbed with the

affluence and influence of the individual kingdoms (Oyo Empire for the most

part in the golden ages). Note that Alaketu of Ketu was one of the original

seven kingdoms Yoruba land, but was founded by a daughter of Odùduwà. It

is also true of Owu; founded by the son of Oodua’s daughter.

Special Note: An

original, but now disputed, account by Samuel Johnson puts the Owa Obokun,

Oragun of Oke-Ila and Alara of Ara as brothers of the same mother who was “kept

under the care” of Akanbi (“Olofin”) and as such were foster children –ppg.

23-24, History of the Yorubas, Samuel Johnson). The same account puts the

founders of Owu and Ketu as granddaughters of Oodua (through Okanbi) not direct

daughters of Oodua. Some accounts also

omit the Ajero of Ijero in favor of the Oba of Bini (“Ado”) , this is however

disputable since some of these accounts also hold on to the legend of Oranyan

(as brother of the Ado) and Eweka his son (as king of Bini i.e. Ado). Both

stories cannot exist side by side in congruence.

This genealogy must be distinguished from the modern day Yoruba

people, who lived in the lower western Niger area, at least by the 4th century BC, were not initially known as

the Yoruba, oral historians confirm the existence of people in this region for

several millennia. In fact, the name “Yoruba” is very much of recent; often

attributed to the long-standing trade relationship between this common

linguistic group and those to the North (Nupe, Hausa and Tivs). Indeed, maps of the 1200s clearly showed so called “Yoruba tribes” extending to

present day Liberia, and Ife as a distinct empire, with Nri land (present day

riverine Igbos) to the East of it.

The Odùduwà story is at the heart of contention between the

Yoruba’s and the Binis. Indeed, the Benin regards Odùduwà as Prince Ekaladerhan, once a powerful young warrior and well loved but who was

banished from his kingdom. On leaving Edo he travelled in a westerly direction

to the land of the Yoruba, and assumed ‘Izoduwa’, (which in his native language Edo language means, “I have chosen the path of prosperity/(I have arrived

(home)”). It was this Prince, who later sent a son Eweka I, of “pure Edo

origin” to become the first Oba of Bini (marking the end of the previous Ogiso

dynasty).

First, in examining these oral traditions few things are mutually

agreeable:

1.

That Odùduwà was not native to Ile-Ife (in all stories, he

migrated and met aboriginals and was made king due to unique leadership

attributes)

2.

That Eweka was not born of Bini (in all stories he was repatriated

to lead and derived such claim due to patrician links to the great leader-

Odùduwà)

3.

That Odùduwà emerged somewhere from the East of Ile-Ife

4.

That there was discontinuity of governance between the Ogiso

dynasty and Oba dynasty of Bini that indicated angst at the preceding dynasty

followed by a decline

The differences in genealogical account are where the story gets

complicated; was Eweka the son or great-grandson of Oodua? Evidence points to

the later. Oduduwa emerged in Ife on or before 1100 CE as an adult; Eweka ruled

Bini as a mere boy at about 1200 AD. Hundred years or more is too far in-between

for father and son. Indeed, the grandsons

of Oodua are documented in Yoruba oral tradition that predates the present day

contention for genealogical supremacy between these peoples in modern Nigeria. Of

course, the near stranger-king emergence in the dynamic monarchial settlements

of 1100s is not by itself unusual. Kings in that era ruled on the strength of

their warrior valor; and many kings were not of aboriginal descent. Hence, it

made sense that Oduduwa was not of Ife origin. It makes sense that Eweka who

began a new dynasty in Bini didn’t need to be from Bini to achieve that feat.

Today, many Yoruba towns are ruled by aboriginals whose claim to

fame solely possessed a beaded

crown from Ile-Ife and being regarded as the bearer of the spiritual strength

inherent in Ife and its Odùduwà heritage Princes. Indeed, Ikere-Ekiti today has

a dual monarch, Ogoga of Ikere is of Bini origin (as a reward for prowess in

war and saving Ikere) and the Olukere of Ikere who is second in command but of

local origin. In Egbeoba of Ikole, the Elekole family is acknowledged as

migrants to the region, yet rules as paramount rulers as possessors of the Ife

beaded crown. Indeed, even as an offshoot of the Bini monarchy, the

predominantly Yoruboid origin Itsekiris around the fifteenth century adopted a

prince (Ginuwa) from the Kingdom of Benin as a monarch, and quickly coalesced into a kingdom under his rule.

At this juncture, one must also note that while it is true at

least one oral tradition of Ife did reference an attempted return of Oranyan to

“the east or Mecca” to avenge the expulsion of his great-grand father (i.e.

father of Odùduwà). The complete iteration of that story reveals that he never

succeeded in that mission to reach the “east” placed as north east of today’s

Ife; having being stopped by the Tapas (i.e. Nupe) from crossing the “okun”

i.e. River Niger and settled at Oyo Ajaka from where the Oyo empire was spurned

(note: beyond contemporary Oyo town). This story rather proving the emergence

of Odùduwà from Bini city (definitely never situated beyond the Niger), in fact

places his origin beyond the northeastern territories and from the earlier Nok

or Benue Valley civilizations.

It is on record that Oranyan was a warrior, and who variously

fought and conquered territories beyond Ife during his time…varying stories in

fact link this pattern to either his brief ascension to the Ife throne, and

later abdication, usurpation or abandonment (depending on the story you

believe). Oranyan (Oranmiyan) at his death the first Alaafin of Oyo, was buried

in Ife.

Now a few posers to the unbelievers:

1.

Given Oranyan’s renowned war prowess, would it be out of place for

Bini to seek to draw from his monarchial line?

2.

If indeed the Bini sought Izodua up to Ife and met Oranyan, will

be out of place for this territory hungry king to adopt that identity and as

such use his boy son to extend his genetic rule?

3.

Should the hundred year’s gap between Oodua and Eweka give any

historian some pause, and/or the absence of Okanbi and Oranyan in Edo oral

tradition?

The only rational extrapolation from the confluence of this story

is that:

a.

The need for the Ife oral tradition to explain the away the

non-local origin of its king (by assigning magical emergence) is clearly

sentimental

b.

The need for Bini oral tradition to link an extinct Ogisu dynasty

with a new Oba dynasty (and explain away Eweka’s foreign origin) is also

clearly sentimental

c.

An interesting intuitive need for names of disputed characters to

be linked linguistically to the language of the party laying claims seems to be

predictable pattern. .e.g. Odùduwà (as ‘Izoduwa’), Eweka (as Owo mi ka i.e. “I

can handle it” in Yoruba or “I have succeeded” in Edo), the title “Oba” of Bini

as translation of “red clay” in Edo as opposed to an Ife-Yoruboid adaptation. Note

that the Ife did not linguistically feel a need to explain Odùduwà; did neither

Oranmiyan (nor his father Okanbi) figure out in the Edo adaptation of the oral

tradition of Eweka the boy king.

d.

The linguistic and ethnological distinctness of Edo and Yoruba

peoples is not disputable. Indeed, the association between these two peoples

may have been limited to a shared royal dynasty springing from one man: Odùduwà

What appears to be recurrent is the near absolute might, and

perhaps influences of this one man- Odùduwà, in the debate. Is it possible that

a man that might have emerged to the North East of present day Yoruba land (beyond

the Ekiti-Okun region) is a direct progenitor of royalties of aboriginal lands

that stretch from modern day Togo to the western banks of River Niger? Without contention,

it appears the ego-massaging contest between Ife and Bini is unnecessary, since

it appears Odùduwà after all was neither Bini nor Ife.

However, he was definitely powerful, and awe inspiring enough for

failing kingdoms around him to unite around his lineage to appoint leaders. The

more interesting fact is the near autonomy of the kingdoms that Oodua

descendants led; be it in modern day Dahomey, Yoruba land, Itsekiri or Benin

from the center of Oodua’s power i.e. Ife. Who says leaders are not born? And

yet, it is just a theory.

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