“Behold Twins, Children Of The Monkey Do Not Die”
Nothing embodies the spirit of cultural transcendence that is the legacy of the African Diaspora quite so poignantly as the exquisitely carved Twin figures, called Ibeji. These figures represent an African tradition that was so heartfelt and deeply ingrained that it was able to survive the Middle Passage.
For the Yoruba, a mother of Twins is indeed doubly blessed. With the birth of her Twins, comes the family’s ability to attain a better life through the aid of these special children who are considered close to the gods. As is often the case in Africa, and in life, good fortune can turn to disaster if it is not handled properly. The Yoruba believe that special ceremonies must be performed, praise songs sung, and special foods be served to Twins so that they can maintain their favor with the gods and hence that of their family.
The Yoruba people are widely known as having the highest naturally occurring rates of Twinning in the world. Unfortunately, the mortality rate for Twins is also high. If the birth of Twins is cause for great celebration, the passing of a Twin is cause for great mourning. If one or both of a pair of Twins dies, the family will consult a diviner who may say that a small wooden figure must be carved to contain the spirit of the lost child. The figure resembles what the child might have looked like in the prime of life had the full promise of its birth been realized.
Twins double the financial burden of the family; at the same time they are considered to be extremely beneficial in bringing about blessings to the family. Often, Twins of poor families were put to death to ease the family’s financial burdens. Through divination, Ifa discovered the killing of the Twins was offending Shango, the God of Thunder. The oracle informed Ifa that the mother of Twins must dance to Ibeji, the spirit of the Twins, every five days.
“You are the ones who open doors on Earth. You are the ones who open doors in Heaven. When you awaken, you provide money; You provide children; you provide long life; You, who are dual spirits.”
Ibeji re, omo edun ibeji re, omo edun kere-kere-yan Behold twins, children of monkey, They do not die
The last line of the song above is true in that the Yoruba people believe Twins share the same Soul. Upon the death of a Twin, the mother commissions an ere figure. This figure is thought to provide a resting place for the deceased Twin’s Soul. If the ere figure is not provided, the Yoruba people believe the Soul of the deceased will seek vengeance by bringing terrible misfortune to the other Twin, or the entire family. Ere figures are carved as the same sex of the deceased Twin, but as an adult.
The Ere Ibeji are placed on the household altar. There they are fed and clothed just as the surviving twin is fed and clothed. This is thought to placate Shango. Ere Ibeji figures are dedicated to Shango by the application of cam powder. Shango is also known as Oko Ibeji, (husband of twins.)
The first born Twin, whether a boy or a girl, is always called Taiwo, meaning “having the first taste of the world”, whereas the second is named Kehinde, meaning “arriving after the other”. Although being born first Taiwo is considered as the younger Twin. His senior Kehinde is supposed to send out his partner to see what the outside world looks like. As soon as Taiwo has given a signal by crying, Kehinde will follow. Kehinde is supposed to be more careful, more intelligent and more reflective, while Taiwo is believed to be more curious and adventurous, but also more nonchalant.
In the event that one or both Twins dies in infancy, precautions must be taken immediately, to counteract the danger implicit in such an event. After consultation with the Ifa priest, the Ere Ibeji Twin figurine, is made. A commissioned sculptor carves the small wooden figurine which will serve as a symbolic substitute and dwelling place for the Soul of the departed. The Diviner will then perform the traditional ritual of transferring the Soul of the deceased to the ere Ibeji figurine.
Legend and Myth
Twins are also called Ejire, or “two who are one.” According to Yoruba tradition, everyone on earth has an Ancestral Guardian Spirit or Soul counterpart in the sky that duplicates his or her actions. This Soul is constantly and cyclically reborn. Twins are thought to have a double Soul. Because there is no way of distinguishing the Twin who is a divine being from the mortal Twin, both are treated as sacred.
*** The Ibeji are not simply the Yoruba “worship of twins.” It deals with the nature of Twins being born in pairs and how this Twin nature is the true nature of creation. Twins symbolize the pairing of two things from creation in order to perpetuate further dual creation. The Ibeji are depicted as Twins (usually male and female) because their symbolism transcends a married couple. They are Twin brother and sister. They reflect kinship, equality, and unity in accomplishment far beyond just marriage. This is why nothing we wish to achieve can be done alone. We must work in pairs. It is our true Twin nature. This is the metaphor behind the veneration of Ibeji and other West-Central African twinned divinities…