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As with all native writers when they write of their homeland, Wole Soyinka, author of Death and the King’s Horseman, incorporates several cultural and religious themes in this play. Wole Soyinka was born into the rich and unique cultural heritage of the Yoruba people of Nigeria while being heavily influenced by British colonialism. These differing cultures play a major role in Death and the King’s Horseman and add to its significance within the scope of literary classics. It shall be my endeavor to describe some of the larger details of Yoruba history, culture, arts, and religion and show how these themes are incorporated in Death and the King’s Horseman.

The Yoruba people possess a rich and stirring history, full of glory and struggle. Although their oral history goes back into ancient times, their more recent history will be discussed since many events in the past few centuries have influenced Wole Soyinka in the writing of this play. The Yoruba people share a great deal of history with the entirety of the country of Nigeria, even though Nigeria as a nation was solidified much later. Before the 16th century A.D., the peoples of Nigeria were divided into many large ethnic groups, the Yoruba being the more dominant (Aronson 569).  The Yoruba were originally a migrant group, moving all across Western Africa (Aronson 569). In the 8th century, the migrant communities solidified into various city-states (Aronson 569). At this stage of history, urbanization accompanied with art induced the growth and strength of the city states (Aronson 569). Terra cotta and ivory sculptures dominated the art scene and were instrumental in their worship of the Yoruba Pantheon. In the fifteenth century, trade, military success, and centers of religion pushed the political structure of the Yoruba from agricultural communities and city states into mighty empires. With the coming of Portuguese explorers and traders came the growth of trade through many exports like ivory and slaves. The major empire during the 17th and 19th centuries was the Oyo empire, an empire which was closely matched by the empire of Benin only until 1850 A.D. (Wikipedia 1). The political structure of the various kingdoms was headed by the Oba (elected king) who ruled the land with the help of the Oloyes (ruling council) (Wikipedia 1). Yet the golden age of the Yoruba did not last long. In the 19th century, the Fulani, a Muslim group of people, attacked the Oyo empire and splintered it, sending most of the Yoruba southward to the present city of Oyo (Wikipedia 1). Shortly after this, the splintered city states waged war with one another until the British took over in the 19th century. The British ruled for many years until 1960 when Nigeria finally became unified as an independent country under the presidency of Nnamdi Azikiwe (Wikipedia 1). It was during this time that Wole Soyinka began writing about his country and its culture. The First Republic of Nigeria did not last long and in 1967 the country was embroiled in a civil war which lasted until 1970. From that point onward, Nigeria has been ruled as a series of republics (Wikipedia 1).

The Yoruba of Nigeria possess a truly unique culture and forms of art which coincide with the historic polytheistic religion. Since the culture is best displayed through art, I will describe the art of the Yoruba people. As the Encyclopedia Britannica states, “The Yoruba have traditionally been among the most skilled and productive craftsmen of Africa. They worked at such trades as blacksmithing, weaving, leatherworking, glassmaking, and ivory and wood carving” (1). Even from the 5th century B.C., the Yoruba have created useful tools for farming, an occupation which many Yoruba still engage in the manufacture of such tools increased trade and is perhaps one of the reasons why the Yoruba were successful in creating strong city states. The beadwork of the Yoruba is incredibly beautiful and often displays some part of their own culture or religion. In the Yoruba culture, one illustration of how their culture and religion influences their art is in regards to twins. As Nicole Mullen writes in her article “Yoruba Art & Culture”, “The Yoruba have one of the highest rates of twin births in the world. Twins (ibeji) are considered special children whose birth signifies good fortune” (9). One of the most common art forms are beaded ibeji statuettes. If a twin dies as an infant, the mother has a memorial figure made and the soul of the deceased twin is transferred to it. The figure is then kept in the home and the mother continues to take care of it. She offers it food and prayers weekly and performs more elaborate rituals on the twin’s birthday” (Mullen 9). Their culture is also heavily represented in dance and music. Mullen notes that “Yoruba traditional music focuses on Yoruba deities” (26). They use drums to accompany their chants and singing along with hand bells and similar instruments. Mullen also says that since the Yoruba language is a tonal language, the music reflects such speech patterns (26). One principle form of Yoruba music is the “Juju” dance. It originated in the 1920’s but is based on traditional drum music (Mullen 26). She also states that “Juju is dance music played by large ensembles centered around guitars and drumming. Singing is a major part of Juju music and is inspired by Yoruba poetry, proverbs, praise songs, and the musical character of the language” (26).

Yoruba religion is particularly interesting and rather complicated with its pantheon of gods. The fundamental belief of the Yoruba according to Nikole Mullen is that the Yoruba believe that “the world made up of two connected realms. The visible world of the living is called Aye, and the spiritual world of the Orisas, the ancestors and spirits, is called Orun. Ase is the life force that is given to everything by the Creator of the universe. Ase is in everything: plants, animals, people, prayers, songs, rocks, and rivers. Existence is dependent upon Ase because Ase is the power to make things happen and change” (21). The Yoruba believe in a supreme creator god, “Olurun” who rules the universe along with many other gods, a belief similar to Greek mythology (Mullen 21). A distinguishing factor between Olurun and the other gods is that he is the only one to have lived on earth (Mullen 21). In addition, no special shrines or group of worshippers are set aside to worship this god unlike with all the other gods (Mullen 21). There are about 400 different deities in the Yoruba pantheon called Orisas (Mullen 21). Mullen continues, “Some of the Orisas are worshiped by all of the Yoruba. Other gods are only worshiped by certain towns or families. Every person is given or receives a special deity to worship. A person usually worships the god of his father, but some worship the god of their mother. Some people are contacted by a particular god in their dreams and are instructed to worship them” (21). Certain gods are important for different reasons or have differing qualities, i.e. Esu, the messenger god is very similar to Mercury/ Hermes and one of his roles is to punish those who do not pray or worship the gods, hence the Yoruba pray that he might not harm them (Mullen 23). Another major part of Yoruba religion is the practice of divination. Mullen defines divination thusly, “Divination is a method of solving problems and foretelling the future” (24). She also states that, “Ifa diviners are called babalawo (fathers of ancient wisdom). The function of the Ifa diviner is to determine the reasons that are causing a person’s misfortune. He does this by performing a ritual with the person which reveals the source of the problem” (Mullen 24). They are mainly concerned with invoking Ifa the god of divination. Such is the complex religion of the Yoruba.

With all this in mind, I will endeavor to delve into Death and the King’s Horseman and how it correlates with several themes in the Yoruba history, culture, and religion just discussed. The context of this play harkens back to the portion of this essay about history. The play is set in colonial Nigeria during World War II (Soyinka 3055-7). Soyinka was born in 1934 and therefore grew up most of his life under British rule until Nigeria was granted independence in 1960. Yet even though the context is WWII Nigeria, the culture of the village and the people of Elesin Oba is of a different time, a culture that had not been shaken too much by colonial Britain. There are references to trade and everyday life within the play to give one an idea of what I said earlier about trade, agriculture, and urbanization being major parts in the Yoruba culture. The opening setting for the opening scene is a market place in its closing stages, “The stalls were being emptied, mats folded. A few women pass through on their way home, loaded with baskets” (Soyinka 3025). As with most African polytheistic cultures, the practice of polygamy is very common and therefore there the Elesin has several wives. This is manifested by Elesin, “This night I’ll lay my head upon their lap and go to sleep. This night I’ll touch feet with their feet in a dance that is no longer of this earth” (Soyinka 3026). His actions of taking another wife before performing his death ritual are seen by the Iyaloja as disgraceful and greedy (Soyinka 3034).

There are other ways in which Death and the King’s Horseman parallel the culture of the Yoruba people particularly in art, dance and song. Yoruba art is found throughout the play. It is primarily seen in the clothes that the people deck Elesin in for his ritual suicide. He is described as having “rich clothes, cap, shawl, etc. His sash is of a bright red alari cloth” (Soyinka 3032). Ritual death masks are also described and are worn by the Pilkings to the ball. The masks once belonged to the “egungun men” or death cult as Amusa describes (Soyinka 3036). The Yoruba, as well as other African cultures and ethnic groups, often made masks for rituals and dances. Amusa even though he is a Muslim, is fearful of the mask since its power would be known and feared by all.

Religion is perhaps the primary corollary between my research and the play. As one learns in reading the play, once the king dies, his retinue must die along with him. This practice is common in many pagan cultures from the Vikings to the Yoruba. Yet unlike the burial customs of the Vikings or other cultures, those who must die to accompany the king or Oba to the world of the dead, must “dance” themselves into a trance and therefore pass from one world to the next. I think it would be save to surmise that Elesin is one of the “Oloyes” since he is known as the “King’s horseman” The primary idea behind Yoruba religion is discussed in the play especially when Iyaloja reprimands Elesin for cheating death. She affirms that there are two different worlds in her statements about Elesin offending the Oba’s passage into the world of the dead (Soyinka 3071). One of the Yoruba gods is mentioned in the first scene when Elesin talks about the day, “That Esu-harassed day slipped into the stewpot while we feasted” (Soyinka 3025). They also mention Orayan the creator god (Soyinka 3027).

Wole Soyinka, due to his education in British colonial Nigeria as well as a traditional Yoruba home, knew both sides of his world. He had been educated at the University College in Ibadan and at the University of Leeds. Therefore he has quite a bit of authority and credibility in incorporating two opposite cultures, both of which he grew up in. He captivates the tone and cadence of both speech patterns as well as their own cultures so beautifully that his work is very realistic. It is interesting to note that Soyinka originally wrote the play in English instead of his native language as most other African writers had done. Yet with the abstractness of the English language, Soyinka has created a drama that brightly incorporates many themes of his own native culture and history.

Works Cited

Aguilar, Mario Ignacio. Contributor. “Yoruba Religion”. Overview of World Religions. University of Cumbria. Web. 22 November 2010.

Aronson, Dan R. “Yoruba”. The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: 2005. Vol. 21: 569.  Print.

Mullen, Nicole. Yoruba Art & Culture. Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Antropology: 2004. Print.

Wikipedia contributors. “History of the Yoruba people.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 21 Nov. 2010. Web. 22 Nov. 2010.

“Yoruba.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Web. 22 Nov. 2010