Alafin of Oyo

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Alafin of Oyo is the title given to the supreme political ruler of the Yoruba. During the height of the Yoruba kingdom in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Alafin once ruled an empire that stretched from the Niger Delta to Togo, reflecting his military-political reach within Western Africa. The Alafin of Oyo, like many African leaders, is considered legendary and sacred, and there are many regulations and rituals that go with his position. The Alafin is a divine person who must live apart from ordinary people who in the past were not allowed to see his face or to speak to him directly because he was a god. He was never seen eating or drinking in public. In fact, he did not die. The Alafin passed from one village to another village, but death was not a part of his existence. In this way, the people are protected in their daily lives, and the stability of the nation is direcdy related to the stability of the Alafin of Oyo.
There were occasions when the Alafin was forced to commit suicide, particularly if the people felt his divinity has slipped away from him because of some violation of a taboo or some gross irregularity that threatened the kingdom. Normally, however, no one dared to disrupt the Alafin's rule because his enthronement was enough to ensure his divinity. He was god in human form. This entry looks at the context in which the Alafin ruled and describes some leaders who held this tide.

Historical Background

To understand the role and place of the Alafin, one must appreciate the fact that the Yoruba are an ancient people who presently live in southwest Nigeria, but whose mythology claims a legacy from East Africa. Their history is long, and there are oral traditions that trace the origin of the people to the Nile Valley. One historian has written that the precise origin of the Yoruba is ancient Egypt. In many respects, the great body of customs and rituals of the Yoruba reflects their religious beliefs that are contained in a system called Ifa.
This system of Ifa is a philosophical corpus related to the myths of origin, ethical ideas, and cosmological understandings. Contained in 256 odus, the Ifa can be used by a babalawo to give insight into the ethical decisions that one makes in ordinary life. This system is responsible for keeping moral, cultural, and political order among Yoruba. No Alafin of Oyo rules without adherence to the traditions of Ifa.
In the tradition of Yoruba people, two leaders emerged as the principals of the society: the Oni of Ife and the Alafin of Oyo. Ife became identified with the spiritual and ethical life of the people and reflected in many ways the Yoruba's belief in the presence of cosmological influences on the life of the people. Thus, the Oni of Ife is usually referred to as the spiritual leader of the Yoruba nation. In contrast, the Alafin of Oyo was centered in the political capital of the kingdom and enshrined the notion that the nation could not exist on spirit alone.

Some Key Leaders

Indeed, the Alafin of Oyo embodied the living power of the ancestors and carried forth the idea of the invulnerability of the people based on the political will he inherited from ancestors. In fact, the Alafin had to be a direct descendant of Oranyan, one of the founders of the nation. In his capacity as Alafin, direcdy descended from Oranyan, the political ruler was divine, that is, he was an ever-living presence who would never die so long as Alafin succeeded him, took the same power, and made the same oaths he had made to the ancestors and the people.
The Alafin may have used his power to create innovations. For example, it is said that Alafin Ajagbo, who reigned in the mid-17th century, ordered a theatrical contest by masking the societies of Oyo for his entertainment. On the occasion, a Nupe man nicknamed Gbarada made two spectacular masks, a male and a female, that danced, sang, and made comic remarks. When all of the other performers had paraded before the Alafin and gave their performance, the one that the Alafin remembered most of all was that of the Nupe man, Gbarada. His name was “he who stole the show.” As a close friend of Oyo Aso, one of the grandsons of Alafin Ajagbo, Gbarada went with Oyo Aso when he went to settle at Egbado. The tradition of Gelede was introduced among other Yoruba people because of the actions of Alafin Ajagbo and his grandson.
Another Alafin was responsible for changing a custom among the Yoruba as well. He was the Alafin Ajaka. At one time, the Yoruba practiced twin infanticide. They believed that twins were signs of a bad omen and consequendy had to be put to death or left in the forest to die. However, during the 16th century, the Alafin of Oyo, Alafin Ajaka, married, and his wife gave birth to twins. He refused to kill them or abandon them to the forest, but ordered the mother to take her twins to another part of the kingdom to raise them. The banished wife went with her children to a remote part of the kingdom, and the twins rose up to be rulers of the present dynasty of the kingdom of Ondo.
During times of political or military stress in the nation, it is the Alafin who unites the people by appealing to the subkings of Yoruba to support the mission of the nation. Should Yoruba go to war, it is the Alafin who manages to harness the strength and vitality of the Yoruba people. A history of skilled Alafins added to the expansions of the Yoruba population, but they were unable to prevent many Yoruba from being enslaved by Europeans during the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet the vibrancy of the cultural and political roles of the Alafin was not forgotten.
Thus, the Alafin of Oyo is a powerful title of the political and military ruler of one of the great peoples of Africa. As such, he reflects the popular traditional African idea of the divinity of the king who embodies the spirit of the first ancestors.

References

Keywords

  • twinning
  • ancestors
  • on call systems
  • Africa
  • nation
  • forests
  • military

Author(s)

Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Abimbola, W. (1977). Ifa. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Karade, B. I. (1994). The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. New York: Samuel Weiser.