Ife coronation rituals and the primacy of history

The palace gate in Ile-Ife

The palace gate in Ile-Ife


As the process leading to the emergence of a new Ooni of Ife gathers momentum, Prof. SUZANNE PRESTON BLIER, in her latest seminal work, Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power and Identity, undertakes an excursion into the coronation rituals that the king-elect will
undergo to transform him from a mere mortal into a god (orisa), before ascending the throne.

IFE enthronement rituals add further insight on royal crown traditions. The coronation process, as summarized by Eluyemi, is divided into a series of structured parts, only certain aspects of which are widely known.

The Ife royal enthronement begins with the king-elect being brought to a local stream (Aborohaye) and from here traveling to the centre of Ife where he enters the Odudua temple. In addition to being shown certain symbols (the orun ‘heavens’ chief among these) by the Yoruba-risk-CopyOdudua Priest (Obadio), the king-elect begins the very intensive rituals known as ‘making of the king’ (ji-joba – from ji ‘to eat,’ referring to the gerund ‘ing’ (meaning here, ‘eating’). These actions serve in essence to ‘cook’ him, thereby transforming him from a mere mortal into a god (orisa). The making and cooking metaphors used here not only bring into play idioms of rulers as pots discussed by Warnier, but also, and more specifically, convey to the Ife king an identity like that of a sculpture, as someone or something whose very fabric (flesh) has been transposed through firing into a more permanent version (a skeuomorph in essence) of the person he once was.

The next phase of the enthronement takes place this same day in the open area at the front of the palace (Enu-Geru) where he is greeted by the public with the words ‘Baba yo-o, Kabiyesi’ (Father, the Authority That Commands Without Anyone Questioning).

Here the Chiefs Obalufe (representing the people of Ife) and the Lowa (an inner palace chief) face each of the four directions and offer prayers. This act recalls, in part, myths concerning the original creation of the world at Ife in which the earth is said to have spread to the four corners of the universe, an action also suggested by the four column-like beads secured to the front of the Ife royal crown. This rite also references the ordered universe, an action also suggested by the four column-like beads secured to the front of the Ife royal crown. This rite also references the ordered universe that will be a key aspect of the new king’s control.

As with Obatala’s role as deity in making the earth solid through the sacral power (ase) that he kept hidden in his textile wrapper knot, and the ‘‘knot” of beads at the rear of the Ife royal crown, the next part of the enthronement focuses on sanctifying (and making solid) the king’s new power, Adediran points to Chief Obalufe’s role in this rite as the powerful ruler (oba) of the city of Ife as opposed to the ruler of the state (the Ooni himself).

“(T)he Obalufe was in charge of the guardian spirit of the Ooni. He was, and still is Orunto, a title which suggests that he performed heavenly mysteries on behalf of the Ooni. The first important ritual an Ooni-elect performs is a visit to Obalufe’s courtyard for rituals at Agbala Orun (heaven’s courtyard) where (the king) is initiated into some cults and where he takes the oath of office.”

Since Chief Obalufe also is one of the autochthonous Ife chiefs, their traditions in this ceremony continue to be important.

From here, the Ife king-elect will travel along Edena Street to the nearby temple of Obatala (Igbo Itapa). Processing toward the Obatala temple, the group is joined by priests beating iron gongs (laalo ewo) to which the king and accompanying crowd will dance as he slowly makes his way. These iron gongs reference both the ancient Ife iron god, Ogun, and religious traditions of Ife’s autochthonous population – the thunder deity, Oramfe among these. The use of iron gongs in this rite harkens back to the tradition that when each new Ife king is enthroned, the Oramfe priest, Chief Obaluru, buries a newly forged iron gong (ewo); this same iron gong, suggests Eluyemi, is unearthed and stored at the death of each king. The celt (axe) shapes of these iron gongs further link them to the thunder god pantheon and to related rulership prerogatives over life and death. Frobenius’ identification of one each gong with ‘‘Olofun” (Obalufon?) reinforces this identity as well. These gongs also have a role in the annual royal festival, Olojo, the only time historically that the king emerged from the palace.

Once the group has arrived at the Obatala temple, the king-elect will be anointed in front of this god and then initiated into the Ogboni association, the Obatala-linked group created to safeguard the rights of Ife’s autochthonous residents. The Obatala temple is a core part of the enthronement rites, explains Eluyemi, for it is from this god that the king derives his ‘‘divine power of sanction called ase – symbol of authority.

Ceremonies at this temple are overseen by the Obatala priests, Obalesun and Idita, Aketitan, son of Ife’s Obatala priest explained to me the additional importance of this temple, noting that it was here that a major battle involving Obalufon took place between the Oduduwa and Obatala supporters for control of the city during the early Ife Civil War.

According to Obalufon priest Owakinyin, Igbo Itapa also is the place where Obalufon ascended to heaven. He adds that other traditions identify Igbo Itapa as the locale where Obalufon was transformed into stone (thus to live eternally). Whatever the validity of these statements, each underscores the importance of royal enthronement as a time when Ife’s early political turmoil is recalled.

The next stop this day is to a place known as the Ilofi, identified as the Atobatele House near the modern Barclays bank. The king-elect stays in the Ilofi for a number of days, during which he is introduced to Ife’s political chiefs (Ihare) and undertakes rites that seem in part to reaffirm the victory of Ife’s second dynasty chiefs over leaders who formed part of the first dynasty. Each chief arriving at Ilofi presents to the king-elect a ritual song addressing something of his family’s history. Reinforcing this event in dramatizing Ife’s political history, some of Ife’s defeated chiefs, among these Obawinrin, the head of Ife’s autochthonous Igbo population, are called on to ‘‘supply music as a sign of submission”. The feather fans (abebe) they wave also underscore the theme of defeat. Offerings made here by the Odudua chief and others are intended to promote abundance and peace during this ruler’s reign.

The king-elect, using the Ilofi as a temporary residence, leaves on short forays (or sends his representatives) to visit each of the Ife deities one by one to gain their favor and trust. In the course of these various temple visits, he is also introduced to the sacra of these ancient gods. These introductions in some ways complement the positioning of core elements of divine rule within the interior of the royal are crown before it is positioned on the king elect’s head. One of the important stops is the Obalufon temple. Once the king-elect arrives, the various ‘‘things” of Obalufon are presented to him. ‘‘It is not the Obalufon throne alone that is shown to the new Oni,” according to Ife’s Obalufon priest Owakinyin. ‘‘One shows him everything that was part of Obalufon, everything that was in Obalufon’s shrine. One presents this to him during Ilofi.” These revelations are consistent not only with Obalufon’s identity as an important early ruler in Ife but also in his identity today as deity of regalia (textiles, copper, beaded crowns) and the god must closely associated with rulership longevity and reign success more generally.

The other principal deity shrines visited by the king-elect during the Ilofi part of the enthronement are, like the Obatala and the Obalufon temples, often closely associated with Ife history: Baba Sigidi (an ancient warrior and healer controlled by the Igbo lineages); Esidale (earth deity); Olokun Seniade (goddess of bead working and trade); Igbo-Odi (the royal cemetery); Oluorogbo (the messenger god); Orisa Teko (god of agriculture); Osara (Aramfe’s wife and prolific mother); Yemoja (mother deity and goddess of sorcerers); Yemoo (historic queens and industrious market woman, as well as Obatala consort); and Yeyemolu (the sacred palace well and traditional wife of every king). It is through this lengthy process that the king-elect acquires the necessary authority to rule from the various deities, many of which are associated with Ife’s autochthonous lineages. Largely for this reason, it is Ife’s powerful priest chiefs Obalesun (the Obatala priest) and Ompetu (Onpetu, the chief priest in charge of Ido) who are in charge of this rite (as documented by Eluyemi).

Consistent with the latter’s vital role in the enthronement, one of the most important parts of the Ilofi residence sojourn is the king-elect’s visit to the ancient chiefly center of Ido (Oke-Ido) that is under the authority of Ife’s powerful chief, the Ompetu of Ido.

Ido, a hill-top community a few miles to the northeast of Ife on the road to Ilesha also is located near the ancient center of Ibodi, discussed earlier in this chapter. Both sites are important to Ife’s early history and first dynasty rulership line. Consistent with this, one of King Obalufon’s praise poems is: ‘‘Obalufon, Master of Ido.” The king-elect makes a visit to Oke-Ido during the enthronement, explains Obalufon priest, Owakinyin, because ‘‘Obalufon’s ase is in Ido. There is a tree there where the ase is kept.”
Like Ibodi, Ido is closely identified with Oramfe, Ife’s ancient god of thunder and lightning one of whose shrines is located on the adjacent Oke Ora (‘‘mountain of Oramfe”). As we have seen, this deity is credited not only with bringing and diverting storms but also with empowering rulers through special powers to promote well being (through rain-related increase in agriculture, wealth and human births) and bringing necessary punishment as a factor of royal control (here symbolized through the violence of lightning, the defeat of state enemies, and the weight of justice).
Similar issues are discussed in reference to the Oramfe-linked Janus sculpture taken up in the Introduction. Significantly, according to oral traditions cited by Adediran, the Ife confederacy originally was under the authority of Ora (Oramfe). Local myths suggest that Odudua came to earth initially at Oke Ora. These narratives acknowledge the primacy of the Ompetu of Ido and this center in the era prior to Odudua’s arrival, as also do traditions at the nearby center of Ibodi.
Once the king-elect has arrived at Ido, as historian A.A. Adediran points out, he ‘‘visits Oke-Ora (hill of Oramfe) where a crown is made for him by the Ompetu of Ido.” Price highlights the unique historic significance of this headdress as the region’s ‘‘first crown,” explaining that the king’s official crown is a hat made for him by his personal attendants, and embellished with leaves taken from a sacred tree growing on a hill named Ido, four miles from the city.”

The crown is fashioned in part from iroko leaves and placed on the king-elect’s head by the Ompetu of Ido. It is these leaves that also are seen to furnish the ruler-elect with the necessary ase (authority to rule). The Ido crown is described further as being safeguarded by the orisa (god) Olojudo, the historic owner of the crown,” meaning here the iroko tree. The iroko tree is characterized by it notably deep roots, great size, and the hardness of its wood, features conveying to this crown (and office) ideas of stability and strength. In Ido as in many other places, the iroko tree is seen to have a unique spiritual power. Eluyemi explains, with respect to the Ido enthronement ritual and the associated crown of leaves that: ‘‘the aborigines lost their crown to the more powerful invaders…. (This is why) the Onpetu (of Ido) presents the crown to the Oni-elect during the coronation ceremony at Oke-Ido”. As Eluyemi points out, the crown also is important because ‘‘the rudiments of the are crown” are associated with it.

Interestingly, in the course of Oramfe rituals in Ondo, a Yoruba center south of Ife whose kingship structure was introduced from Ife, Oramfe’s messenger (Sora) wears a copper alloy crown similarly interlaced with green leaves. These traditions not only are linked to Oramfe, but also to Obalufon (the latter as patron deity of copper alloy casting (brass, bronze), crowns, regalia, and rulership legitimacy more generally). As with the Obalufon family narrative cited earlier in this chapter, the Ido, Ondo, and related rituals emphasize the continuous ‘‘ownership” (control) of the Ife crown by the Obalufon family lineage that historically ruled at Ife.

The re-creation of an ancient crown is not the only enthronement ritual involving Ido and the ancient thunder god, Oramfe long identified with this size. According to Olusopo, the royal sword also must be brought to this site for associated ceremonies. In Olosupa’s words, the king-elect: ‘‘must stop at Impetu of Ido. When he gets the sword he has to spend the night in Impetu Modu.” In short, while the official Ife royal sword is closely identified with Oranmiyan, it too is sanctified by the historic chief priest of Ido. This sword is an important focus of the annual royal Olojo ceremonies in Ife taken up in Chapter 8. The same sword also has a broader significance in terms of Ife and Yoruba enthronements in the larger area. Like crowns, the state swords of the latter kingdoms are modeled in part of this Ife model. Such swords are brought to Ife to be sanctified as part of the coronation rituals for each king, an act serving to sanctify and convey legitimacy to these other rulers.

At the Ilofi site at around 1.00am on the last day prior to the actual enthronement, the king-elect’s hair is shaved and closing ceremonies are undertaken at the Odudua temple by the latter’s priest, Obadio. The ruler-elect travels to Iwesu (Obalayan’s farm on Ifewara Road) where he meets the priest of Obasin, God of storms, one of the powerful autochthonous chiefs. This chief ‘‘cleans” the monarch-to-be ritually with a ram. From here they proceed to Chief Obalaayan’s residence where the king-elect will be ritually cleaned in a two-hour ceremony known as iwesu. In the course of this rite, the king’s head is sanctified by the placement of sacra into the skin of the head. The consecration of the ruler-elect’s head and its infusion with medicinal substances enhance the ruler-elect’s connections to the gods, Ora (Oramfe) and Orisanla among these.

At around 8.00am, the king-elect proceeds first to the city’s eastern gate at Lekun Ode. The procession to this gate follows the road Odudua is said to have taken into Ife when he arrived at this center. Here he meets Chief Walode, head of glassworkers and in whose compound is an important shrine to Olokun. It is this family historically who helped to fashion the glass beads used in making the crown, a headdress empowered in part by Olokun, the goddess of beads, trade, and increase.

The king-elect travels from here back to the center of Ife heading back along Igbo Itapa street to a site adjacent to the Obatala temple, where the Obalufon priests (Chief Obalara and others) have set up a small shed-like structure between two tall akoko trees. The coronation site itself is known as Igbo Obalara (alt. ile balea) in reference to Chief Obalara, who plays such a critical role in these ceremonies. The adjacent akoko trees, as Odewale points out are associated with both long life and the concomitant ability to take flight from danger since a branch of this plant when placed in the ground will grow on its own. Related concerns are important in preparing the king for dealing with the risk and danger that comes with being ruler.

The enthronement itself will be performed in this temporary edifice once the king-elect arrives. Interestingly, the place where the coronation takes place sits directly behind the Wunmonije compound (the site where the famous Ife copper alloy heads were found) and the adjacent Lafogido royal burial site where the crown-wearing animal terracotta sculptures were unearthed. The proximity of this coronation site to two akoko trees (another grows adjacent to the Lafogido site) also is important. An arm fragment from the Lafogido site shows what may be a similar akoko leaf form secured to the beads. The array of artworks recovered from these two sites with coronation-related themes is striking, and the on-going importance of this area as a coronation site reinforces the historic enthronement themes for Ife kings and others with respect to the objects recovered here.

Before the king-elect arrives at this site, Chief Obatala and the other Obalufon priests have carried to this site the massive conical-shaped stone identified with Obalufon from the Obalufon temple. It is on this stone that the Ife royal crown will be placed before it is positioned on the new ruler’s head. The final events of the enthronement culminate in the actual crowning of the king-elect.

It is not just one crown that will be positioned on his head in the course of this enthronement ceremony, however. The first is the rudimentary crown modeled on the historic iroko leaf crown from Ido, near the Oke Ota mountain of the ancient thunder god, Oramfe. Others rites follow, but in many respects, the highlight of the enthronement rites is the placing of the royal crown on the Obalufon stone effigy that had been brought here from the Obalufon temple site. This ceremony underscores important connections between the ancient Obalufon dynasty at Ife and coronation rites. The history of the crown ceremony highlights the broader import of Ife’s two dynasties within the ongoing functioning of the state. Significantly around the same time that this official crowning of the king takes place, crowning of the ‘‘slave” persona, Eledishi, discussed earlier in this chapter, is completed. This event also recalls the end of one dynasty and the beginning of a new one.

As the late king of Ife explained this ceremony to Palau-Matti (in 1964): ‘‘The Oni of Ife is proclaimed king at the temple of Odudua but he receives his crown the following day at the temple of Orisanla (Obatala) where it has been brought from the temple of Obalufon,” Eluyemi adds that in the coronation rituals, Odudua is seen to retain ‘‘political power” while Obatala holds ‘‘religious power” (i.e. ase, ritual sanction, and authority).

The importance of Obatala, the deity of Ife’s autochthonous people during these rites, is noteworthy. Not only does the actual coronation occur adjacent to the temple of Obatala, but this deity pantheon also is closely identified with the Ogboni association whose members play an important role in selecting the king, overseeing his reign, and removing this ruler from power should his actions be seen as problematic.

According to Eluyemi, during coronation events: “ The Ooni visits the Obatala temple for two reasons: first, he has to be anointed, ritually, before the Obatala, and second he has to be initiated to the Ogboni cult of Orisanla before whom the Ooni has to take an oath.”

Other perspectives on these coronation rituals are seen by the insights furnished by Ife’s Obalufon priests. Oyedepo, the Obalara of Ife points out that during this rite, the king-elect must lower his head to receive the crown, an act seen to be one of deference. Other participants in this phase of the enthronement are family representatives of Ife’s historic Igbo lineages. As Chief Oyedepo, who performs this rite, pointed out to me:

‘‘Originally Osangangan owned the crown that is why the King faces down, bowing as one puts the crown on him.” Chief Owajan, the Igbo-linked chief in part charged with overseeing the Baba Sigidi shrine, the Oluyare masquerades, and other Igbo rituals in Ife, notes in turn that ‘‘Osangangan Obamakin owns the are crown. Six Igbos will go to crown the Ooni, these are led by Obalufon. They are the original owners of the crown.”

Significant here is that the king-elect must show proper deference (a lowered head) not only to the chief of the Obalufon family (Obalara) but also to six members of the autochthonous Ife Igbo lineages who are here as witnesses. This adds further evidence to the importance of this group in Ife history, although how they fit in is not entirely clear.

Most likely, members of this early area population were affiliated with the Nri priesthood who trace their origins to the Niger-Benue confluence area where scholars such as Obayemi also trace Ife’s political origins. As at Igbo Ukwu, the Nri may have traveled broadly in the region performing ritual functions important to ideas of rule.

Immediately after being crowned, Ife’s new king will process to the palace entry (Enu-Geru), dancing along the way to the exuberant cries of the jubilant crowd lining the road and the deep rhythmic sounds of royal drums that have been banned since the death of the previous king.

As Price explains when the king has reached the palace entry he ‘‘receives the homage of the chiefs, priests, traders, farmers, hunters, scribes, silversmiths, palm-wine merchants and scores of others who come to pay their respects.” At this time, according to Price ‘‘an ancient stone seat, alleged to have been used by Obalufon…(is) shown to the crowd amid cheers and drumming.” Among those attending is the chief priest of Ifa divination (the Araba) and the Obalufon priest. After these greetings, a ram (formerly a human) is offered, its blood splashed onto the king’s feet. Following this, the king ‘‘receives gifts in multiples of 201” from the various chiefs.

• Excerpts from Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife

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