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In traditional African societies, as well as embedded within the value systems in contemporary African communities worldwide, to live to an old age was and is considered a blessing. Eldership is, however, more than mere aging. The difference is important to understand. Being an elder is fundamentally different from just being old. In regard to African religion, the purpose and practice of eldership is found in the spiritual meaning of eldership.
In fact, in traditional life, elders were the undisputed repositories of both the spiritual essence and practice of the community. The Bantu-Congo, for instance, believed that human development was a process of spiritual evolution and cultural maturation. Accordingly, elders being those persons with decades of experiential learning and spiritual refinement were more spiritually evolved and culturally mature. This entry looks at the role of elders in the Yoruba tradition and more generally.

Yoruba Tradition

In the Yoruba tradition, the distinction between an older person and an Elder reflects a significant shift in personal and collective responsibilities. Generally, it is the responsibility of adult men to protect and defend the community, whereas adult women's responsibility is to nurture and educate the community. Accordingly, adult men are often consumed with the purpose and task of obtaining and providing those resources that sustain and advance life for themselves and their families. Likewise, adult women's time and interests are devoted to securing and establishing an environment or area that is conducive to the growth and development of life for them and their families.
The symbol of eldership for the Yoruba is the Onile, which is represented by two iron figurine spikes (one male, one female) joined at the head with a chain. The Yoruba believe that the head is the site of the spiritual essence of the person. The Onile symbolizes the sacred bond shared between the male and female elders and the importance of “the couple.” The emphasis on sexual attributes of the Onile is designed to convey the mystical power of procreation and the omnipotence of the Elders.
The importance of the complementary nature that exists between men and women is similarly reinforced by the Ogboni Society's unique gesture of placing the left (feminine) fist on top of the right (masculine) fist, with the thumbs concealed, in front of the stomach. This gesture represents both a sign of giving blessings as well as the recognition of the dominance of spiritual, sacred matters—and the primacy of the spiritual over the material.
When men enter the community of Elders, they take on the role of Baba Agba, which means “senior father” or, more correctly, “nurturing father.” When women enter the community of Elders, they take on the role of Iya Agba, which means “senior mother” or “warrior mother.” It is the Iya Agba who plays the primary role as the spiritual protectors of the community. With the status of Eldership, women are devoted to protecting and defending (warrior mother) the spiritual balance of the community, whereas men are dedicated to securing and establishing (nurturing father) the spiritual harmony in the community. At the onset of Eldership, the balance and complementarities of the male and female principles are inviolate and always present.

Elder Roles

Elders are responsible for continually contemplating the good and the right. Because of their Eldership status, they are not—or should not be—driven by personal interests or individual rewards. They cannot be tempted or influenced by appeals to favoritism or personal desires. The status of Eldership places them above the needs of manipulating, of “getting over” or “what's in it for me personally?” Although male and female Elders have distinct responsibilities in traditional life, in general, as Elders, they share in the responsibility of correcting imbalances, maintaining peace, and revitalizing community life. Their singular goal was to guide and guarantee the cooperative good and collective advancement. The judgments and decisions of the Elders are always consistent with their community's cultural integrity and directed toward Truth and Justice.
Elders were and are the guardians of the culture, traditions, and history of the people. Integrity, generosity, wisdom, articulateness, subtlety, patience, tactfulness, gratefulness, and being listened to and respected by others are all qualities of an Elder. Understandably, with Eldership, one's status and value in the community rises. Although the primary work of the Elder was to advise, guide, and oversee the living in community, their fundamental value and purpose was in teaching the young what it means to be human.
The Elder knows the traditions, history, values, beliefs, and cultural laws that are inviolate. Accordingly, the experience and wisdom of the Elder is readily sought and freely shared with others. Elders are charged with the task of understanding both the material and spiritual requisites of life. In fact, to have Elders live with you, and for you to have available their daily guidance, is considered a great blessing and advantage. It is thought to be an honor to even be in the presence of an Elder. They serve as a link between the past and the present while guaranteeing that our way of life is extended into the future.
As Elders, both men and women devote themselves to the higher responsibility of utilizing the collective spirit to guide and direct the permanent ascension of the community and to channel its vital life force (spirit). The utilization and understanding of the natural spiritual power of the community is, in fact, perceived as the “wisdom of Eldership.” This is an all-consuming task. To do this, Elders are generally not involved in the survival struggles of life. They devote themselves to the full-time pursuit of wisdom—the understanding and application of the high values and traditions of the community and the spiritual meaning of being human. In effect, the Elder's “work” was and is to synthesize wisdom from long life experiences, to connect the visible (material) and invisible (spiritual) realms, and to formulate all into a legacy of the good life for future generations.



  • elders
  • spirituals
  • Yoruba tradition
  • wisdom
  • collective responsibility
  • gestures
  • tradition


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Abimbola, W. (1976). Ifa: An Exploration of the Ifa Literary Corpus. Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press.
  • Doumbia, A. N. (2005). The Way of the Elders: West African Spirituality & Traditions. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn.
  • Elebuibon, Y. (1999). lyere Ifa: An Exposition of Yoruba Divinational Chants. San Bernardino, CA: He Orunmila Communications.
  • Fu-Kiau, B. (1980). African Cosmology of the Bantu Kongo, Tying the Spiritual Knot Principles of Life and Living. Brooklyn, NY: Athelia Henrietta Press.
  • Fu-Kiau, B. (1991). Self Healing Lower and Therapy-Old Teachings From Africa. New York: Vantage Press.