Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Oríkì Unfolds

The Oriki is the Yoruba Art of Oratory in Yoruba eulogy or praise singing of human beings, animals , places, things and other objects or subjects of interest.

I have to publish this comprehensive article on the importance of the Oriki in Mural Art in Yoruba Culture to give you a full meaning of the Oriki from the fundamental origins in the history of the Yorubas in Africa.
If you have questions, please feel free to ask me.


Oríkì forms the basis of formal praise poetry. These are most often given to people, but may also describe class, animals or inanimate objects, and they are usually laudatory.
6 Although not very common today among the educated Yorùbá elite, it used to be a day-to-day form of showering praises on children by their parents when they greet them in the morning. I did enjoy such endearment from my grandfather while he lived.

Oríkì (cognomen) are permanent titles held by individuals, some of whom have several of these names so that a collection of them recited together resemble loosely constructed poem about the person praised.
7 Various scholars (Johnson, S.1976: Karin Barber, Olatunji, O, 1984) have identified several forms of oríkì. There is oríkì sókí - one word oríkì, as in Àkàní, Àbèní, Àjàó, Àrèmú, and so on. There are also oríkì of lineages, towns and places, chiefs and kings, divinities, plants and animals.8 These later oríkì are often descriptive, for example:-

Òjó kúrè, Alágada ogun
Òjó ò sí nílé, omo adìe dàgbà
Òjó wà nílé omo adìe kò kù kan
Òjó ún wè lódò
Gbogbo omoge yo wóse
Òjó kúrè, alágada of war
In the absence of Òjó, chicks grow to maturity
when Òjó is at home, chicks are devoured
while Òjó takes his bath at the river,
all young ladies come with soap.

The discipline and characteristic role of oríkì evokes the feeling of well-being in the subject as he or she has a comprehensive citation being presented about him or her.
9 This you experience when you visit most, if not all Yorùbá palaces. It is the duty of the court drummers and akéwì at the òyó palace to wake the Aláàfin with such praises every day. The same applies to chiefs and notable personalities whenever they visit the palace. Oríkì is spoken, chanted, or sung (and in the context of this essay, painted) depending on the situation of performance.10 They contain expression, which praise and characterize its subjects. Such expressions and characteristics of the subject being praise are fully experienced on the images and forms realistically displayed on the òyó palace mural.
Oríkì in Òyó Palace Mural

The Òyó palace mural as we shall find out, reveals a vivid example of the influence and significance of oríkì in Yorùbá mural decoration. This painting, commissioned in 1933 by late Aláàfin Siyanbólá Ládigbòlù, known for his love of creativity and flamboyant nature is richly decorated with numerous human, animals and inanimate royal objects. Ruth Finnegan was right when she wrote that the most frequent subjects for panegyrics are human, especially kings and chiefs, and that praises of kings are most formal and public of all.
11 In addition Bólánlé Awé mentioned the focus of oríkì on deified heroes and kings, ògún, Òrànmíyàn, Obòkun and others were not only commended and praised for their valour and bravery but also for their protection. In summary, their oríkì describe their hierarchy and function in warfare.12 Oríkì also play a very important role in self aggrandisement and glorification in the society, they were the main instruments through which reputation was publicly acknowledged and enhanced, here, Karin Barber13 says the ‘big man’ is on display. In a public gathering, “oríkì singers would address those they perceive as the most important, the most successful individuals would have the largest corpus of oríkì. Both the mystical and material attribute with which the Oba is endowed sets him apart from the rest of the population. Next to him are the chiefs.” Salami Alabebe who painted this palace mural displayed a high sense of knowledge when it comes to his to people’s culture. There is no doubt that he dug deep into the different oríkì and other praises showered on the Aláàfin.

When Aláàfin Siyanbólá Ládigbòlù wanted to be sure that the painting being commissioned had not been done anywhere else in the whole Yorùbá country, he was only living true to one of the common oríkì of the òyó people. The oríkì that bears this out is:

Ají se bí Òyó làárí, Òyó kìí se bíi enì kokan –
People wake to comport themselves like the Òyó,
but the Òyó never behave like anybody else.

The application of this oríkì and its influence in the execution of the painting can best be appreciated today when it is certain that not all Yorùbá palaces can claim to have such murals on their walls talk less of comparing their murals with the Òyó mural
14 The Òyó palace mural is also described as one of the most spectacular of all traditional murals in Yorùbáland.15
This painting chronicles the attribute of the Aláàfin. Most of the animals depicted were actually kept in the palace by the Oba. (elephant, leopard, horse, tortoise, chameleon, ostrich, egret, hare and others). All the images depicted show clarity of form and are realistically rendered.
16 Other images were chosen to enhance and promote the position of the Oba. Scenes like attendants and visitors prostrating before the Oba and attendants holding silken parasol over the Oba are depicted (fig. 2).

Apart from the clarity of form and images represented on this painting, some of the images depicted are frequently mentioned in some oríkì of the Aláàfin. In these various praise songs, the Oba is sometime compared with very strong animals, which are associated with leadership, authority and power. Some of these animals have cognomen attributed to them. It has been affirmed that oríkì can be concerned with almost anything - animals, birds ... make apostrophized in high-sounding terms.
Some of the oríkì assert:

“Àjànàkú kò ni èèkàn,
Oba tí yóò mú erin so kò tíì j e
The elephant has no post to which it is tethered;
the king that will tether the elephant has not been crowned.

This thus shows the great power of the Aláàfin over other Obas, more so when he is described as:
Aláse igbá kejì òrìsà
One with authority next only to the gods.

The elephant is often praised in some oríkì (praise names) as:
Erin oníbú owó
Alágbàlá òkun
Elephant owner of abundant wealth
and a courtyard of sea.
These praises summarily symbolize the wealth of the Aláàfin on the mural. In another oríkì the elephant is described in relation to the Oba,
Erin á gbé nú igbó yan bíi ba
Elephant the jungle dweller who walks majestically like a king.
Other oríkì describe, erin as:-
àjànàkú, òkan soso àràbà tíí mi igbó kìjikìji
elephant, the only gigantic one like àràbà tree who shakes the forest violently.

This in reference to the Aláàfin shows him as the all powerful amongst the other Obas.
The antelope (egbin) is also depicted tethered like the elephant. The antelope is known for its long horns which symbolises àse, (life force) because it is the traditional container for àse a kind of medicine which make wishes and utterances to materialize. “Àse as a word, means authority”.
18 The antelope can also be said to be a symbol of beauty as it is evident in its oríkì19 (Fig. 3:). The oríkì reveals the descriptive beauty of the antelope as an animal that:

“Uses velvet leather as bed sheet-
beauty of the forest
animal with shining fur”
“ fàwo àrán se’aso àtésùn
dára níjú,
ranko abara yòòyò”.
it is also described in another oríkì as:-
“Very beautiful antelope, its rival does not exist in the forest”
Egbin dára títi, elegàn egbin kò sí nígbó

In relation to the Aláàfin Siyanbólá Ládigbòlù at whose instance the mural was executed, there is no such beautiful palace, mural or even king as the Aláàfin. He is the embodiment of beauty. For this reason, the ostrich (ògòngò) icon is the most prominent of the images on the mural. Ògòngò is associated with leadership, the following oríkì describes:
“Ògòngò baba eye
Ògòngò, king of birds.

When chanting songs or praise names of the Aláàfin, his wives always refer to him as “Ògòngò baba eye” meaning he, the Aláàfin, is “the king of kings” in Yorubaland
20 (Fig. 4: Alaafin and wives).

Another significant image in the mural is the figure with a bow and arrow. This I have identified to either be a warrior or hunter. Both professions are very important to Aláàfin Ládigbòlù and all other Aláàfins before him. Hunters and warriors were very useful to the kings in carrying out their numerous Calvary and assaults in their bid to gain supremacy over other territories. This is no longer so in modern times where such exalted positions have been taken over by state military personnel. The hunter could probably represent those who killed wild animals for the Oba, or his warriors.

In “Awon Oríkì Oríle” by Adébóyè Babalolá, he mentioned, “the progenitors of Olú-Òjé who were brave elephant hunters using spears, bows and arrows. They killed elephants for the queen in òyó Ilé. He also goes on to mention the relationship between hunting and warfare. The Oníikòyí’s weapons were said to include bows and arrows and so Oníkòyís are praised in an oriki as:-
“Àwon omo oníle olófà
ta fà má tàsé
olófà mímú, olófà oró
tíí pa egèbrin ènìyàn”
“Owner of the land of arrows;
sharp shooters,
shooter of sharp arrows,
poisoned arrows with which he killed 800 people”.

Distinct from the oríkì of the animals are the direct oríkì of the Aláàfin. These are known as oríkì orílè. Oríkì orílè, totem denotes foundation or origin.
22 It is however not a name in that it represent every conceivable object such as, erin, (elephant) ògún (the god of iron and war) òpó (post) àgbò (a ram), òkín (peacock) and many others. In orílè, the lineage of the Aláàfin is revealed, making the representation of the images on the murals much more meaningful. In relationship to the interpretation of the images on the Òyó Palace mural, the oríkì and orílè becomes relevant. For example, erin (elephant) is the totem of the original line of kings.23 Because orílè, (totem) is never used by itself, as it would be meaningless, it is always expressed along with oríkì when endearment or admiration is intended.24

Aláàfin Siyanbólá Ládigbòlù Àkànbí Erin and Aláàfin Oláyíwolá Adéyemí III. Àtàndá Erin both share the same totem of the original line of the Òyó kings. Erin, the elephant being mentioned here again as it has been interpreted on the mural. In some lines of various versions of oríkì chanted by Mrs. Afolábí, an akéwì, and a descendant of a family well versed in the in oríkì of the Aláàfin of òyó, some of the images depicted on the palace mural were mentioned.
25 A testimony of this is narrated in lines such as-

“Bí ó wo dò, ariwo esin esin
Bí ó gòkè odò, eruku esin
ó fesè esin somi rùkú rùkú rùkú
Oba aborí esin bààbà lonà kòso
bìrìn esin tìkò tìkò lona bàrà”
“When he enters the river, it’s the noise of horses
When he comes out, the horse raises dust
He stirs up the river with the horses’ hoofs
He, strides reluctantly like a horse towards bàrà”

In the above lines of oríkì, esin (horse) seems to be the point of reference. Therefore, the representation of the horse on the mural is justified. (Fig. 5: Horse) In another line, the ostrich was mentioned,
“Ode Ògòngò tíí rìn tomi tomi”.
ostrich hunter, who walks with water).
In another line, the Aláàfin is praised poetically in which the sword is mentioned as:
èyin lomo ò sòrò gbooro
gbédà gbooro kó
òrò gbooro ò tán
idà gbooro ò wàkò”
You are of the descendants of those,
who speak words of volume.
who hang the long sword;
long sword too long for the sheath.

The sword depicted on the mural may be the one mentioned in this line of oríkì (Fig. 7a & 7b: The real sword and its representation on the mural).

Oríkì is especially set to record the events of an individual’s life in most favorable and glorious light and to exalt and glorify him or her. Yùngbà chant is one of the important varieties of oríkì that is reserved only for the noble people of òyó in person of the king, (Aláàfin) his son, àrèmo and the senior brother of the king. (Baba Ìyaji) Although mention can be made of other individuals in the course of their citations, The Yùngbà chant by the Akinyùngbàs’ is particularly to document all the major activities that happened during the reign of each of the Aláàfin.
One of such historical events was during the reign of Aláàfin Ládigbòlù who commissioned the palace mural. The ’Akinyungba’ documented the close friendship between Siyanbólá Ládigbòlù and Captain Ross; after all, Captain Ross had been instrumental in the installation of Ládigbòlù as Aláàfin after his fathers’ death. Of course, Ross accomplished this with the help of the Òyó–mèsì. This event marked one of the socio-cultural changes being witnessed by the Yorùbá people at the arrival of the colonial masters. The colonialists desired to have a hand in most of what happened around them. It was such influence that brought a constitutional change in the system of succession to the monarchy in Oyo, in which the crown prince no longer commits suicide at the death of his father, but stands the chance of succeeding him. This was a means by which the colonial masters introduced their infamous direct rule system.
27 The eventual result was the gradual erosion and usurping of the Oba’s powers. In the chant the Akinyùngbà said.

Ládìgbòlù Àkànbí
Adégbóyèga, ìpekun Oba
Afínjú oba tíí pèèbó ránsé
Adegboyega Akanbi lawo Rosi (Ross)
Ladigbolu Akanbi
Adegboyega, the greatest of kings
A fashionable king that sends a white man on errand
Adegboyega Akanbi is Ross’ confidant.
It will be true to assert that the significance of the oríkì is much more revealed in the execution and interpretation of the Òyó mural. The reason for this may not be far fetched. The Aláàfin being human lived and dined with the people unlike most of the deities who are mythically known. It was therefore easy to ascribe or attribute so much praise to him. From these oríkì and other sources, the Salami Alabebe drew his subject and inspiration. As earlier mentioned, the oríkì became the driving force by which the artist executed his masterpiece.
Influence of Oríkì on Pópó Shrine Painting

Another painting, which has a considerable influence of oríkì, is the òrìsà Pópó painting in Ògbómòshó. òrìsà Pópó is the name by which Obàtálá is known in Ògbómòshó. As a deity his praises are daily expressed by the devotees. Many Yorùbá deities have a series of praises expressed in figurative and obscure language, sung by the priests. When the òrìsà is to be worshipped or praised, its praise songs are played or recited one after another until it takes possession of one of its worshippers
29 , this statement seems to confirm the claim of the painters that they are inspired by the òrìsà in executing the painting. However, we can positively say that various praise songs and chants are the real inspiration in the execution of the painting. The use of colour, images, and forms are all embedded in the oríkì of some of the deities. In 1960, Ulli Beier described this painting as one of the most beautiful shrine paintings in Yorùbáland; a recent photograph (1995) taken however betrays this statement (Fig. 7: Pópó mural). The deterioration of the painting and the skill shows the decline in the artistic decoration of the shrine wall.

As earlier mentioned, òrìsà Pópó is the same as Obàtálá.
30 Because Obàtálá worship is widespread in Yorùbáland, he is known by other names in other Yorùbá towns. In èjìgbò he is known as ògìyán, òrìsàìkirè in ìkirè, òrìsà olúfón at Ifón, ìrèlè in ìkìrun, and òrìsànlá in Ile-Ife.31 This is confirmed by the oríkì of Pópó as chanted by one of the female devotees at the shrine.32 Every divinity has a set of cognomen with stories, which are recited in commemoration of his attributes, greatness and nature. It is therefore not strange to find images, forms and colors testifying to the lines in the various versions of oríkì. The painters also state categorically that the recitation of oríkì gives the painters inspiration as they perform their religious duties. As the creator god, Obàtálá or Òrìsà Pópó is saddled with the responsibility of making humans. He is therefore known as the sculpture divinity33 .

The walls of Òrìsà Popo’s shrine are painted with a rhythmic pattern of gods, men and animals to show the acts of Obàtálá in the course of creation. Animals like birds and goats, though not so distinct are represente.
34 (Fig. 8: Birds). One of the practical applications of oríkì on the painting is expressed in:
“Eni sojú se mú
òrìsà ni máa sìn
Adá ni bó ti rí
Òrìsà ni maa sin”
He who fashion the eyes and nose
it is òrìsà I will worship
He who creates as he wishes
It is òrìsà I will worship

One can visibly recognize stylized human figures with faces on the painting. In fact, the mural has more human figures than other forms and images, all enmeshed in white dots. Another oríkì attests to this:
Ó-s-enìkan-soso digba ènìyàn
So mí di rún
So mí digba
So mí di òtà-lé-légbèje ènìyàn
O you who multiplies one into two hundred persons!
Multiply me into one hundred,
Multiply me into two hundred
Multiply me into one thousand four hundred and sixty persons.
The thousands of dots all over the wall may be translated as meaning the eye of the òrìsà. This is expressed in:
Olójú kára bíi ajere
One who is all seeing like ajere pot.
Ajere pot is a traditional Yorùbá pot perforated with several holes. It is used for several religious purposes and sometimes in preparation of efficacious medicine.
Women play critical roles in the worship of Obàtálá. They seek help from the deity in order to give them children. The stigma associated with barrenness among the Yorùbá people is very destabilising. It is believed that every marriage must produce its own offsprings. Through this norm every married woman even in modern times goes to any length to bear children. If visiting Obàtálás’ shrine will solve the problem, why not? The societal verdict remains, without a child you cannot be considered a complete woman. A testimony of this is narrated in:-
Ó mú’lé t’ará ojà
Ó so àgàn di alábiyamo,
àgàn tí ò rí’bí, ti ró sòó leyìn olúwa wà
Neighbor at the market,
who makes barren women into nursing mother.
The barren women, stoops behind our lord for help.
This is practically depicted on the left side of the painting where female figures are painted with earrings on their ears. Close to the floor on the left side are other figures thanking Popo for answering their prayers.

Obàtálá represents the Yorùbá ideas of ritual and ethical purity, and therefore the demand and sanctions of his morality. Immaculate whiteness is often associated with him. This symbolizes holiness and purity
38 . On òrìsà Pópó painting, funfun - white is perhaps the most dominant colour (Fig. 10). The devotees are usually dressed in white, all items used in the shrine should be white, including the food (pounded yam, èko, (congealed pap) òrí (shea butter) and ìgbín - (snail). On account of that also, he is praised as:
Bàtà-banta nínú àlà
Ósùn nínú àlà
Ó jí nínú àlà
Ó ti inú àlà dìde
Immense in white robe
He sleeps in white clothes
He wakes up in white clothes
He rises in white clothes.
In another oríkì there is a particular interesting aspect, which says:
Obàtálá kò f epo
Obàtálá kò f osun
Obàtálá abhors palm oil
Obàtálá abhors cam wood.
This oríkì confirms Obàtálá’s preference for white. Pupa (red) and dúdú (indigo or black) is also seen on the mural. These two colours do not have any symbolic connotation to the òrìsà, but they serve as complimentary colours to the white to give aesthetic value and balance of design and harmony.

On the òyó mural, hunters, warriors and their tools of trade are depicted, this is not so on òrìsà Pópó painting. This is because Obàtálá is a god of peace and purity. He does not harm his children whom he moulded with his own hand. The oríkì which expresses this belief and which invariably must have influenced the painting is in:
Òòsà má jé ká ta fà nílú yí láíláí
Iyán ojú Pópó ni o jé á maa tú sénu
onílé ojú Pópó má jógun ó jà lú re
gbodò jógun ó le jàlú àwa.
Òrìsà, prevent us from shooting arrows in this town forever.
Provide us pounded yam to eat
Landlord of Pópó, do not allow war to break out in your town.
Do not allow war to break out in our town.

The significant influence of oríkì in the interpretation of this painting cannot be over emphasized. Inasmuch as the painters and devotees could not give any concrete information concerning the images they have painted, the oríkì has enabled us to understand and appreciate this mural.
Another shrine painting with some glaring influence of oríkì in the images represented is the Ògbóni Repository in Ilésà.


At 10:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your piece on oriki. I appreciate it.

At 12:23 AM, Blogger Jade om said...

This is a beautiful piece. Coherent and enlightening.Good job.

At 12:23 AM, Blogger Jade om said...

This is a beautiful piece. Coherent and enlightening.Good job.

At 2:36 AM, Blogger timilehin shittu said...

Please what is the oriki of AGBEKE and Akoni and I would love it if you can reply me(

At 4:03 AM, Blogger Dorcas Obisesan said...

it's great please what is the oriki of aremu

At 7:32 AM, Blogger Michael Chima Ekenyerengozi said...

We cannot manufacture Oriki without personal contact with a particular person and knowing the family.


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