In ancient times, twins were considered subhuman and there was a practice of infanticide among twins in the Yoruba land. This practice was changed, one tradition says, because some parents consulted an oracle after a series of mysterious deaths among their children, and the oracle said the deaths were occurring because of their practice of killing twins. He told the people to stop killing twins and honor them. By the 18th century this developed into a practice of twin worship among the Yoruba. Twins get extra attention -- their mothers will carry the twins to the market to dance in their honor, sing their praises, and get gifts from passersby. So the coming of twins is associated with a rise in the fortune of the family and there is rejoicing. At the lecture, one of the museum staffers sang and danced a traditional song of a mother of twins. She sang, "I am not afraid, I am not afraid of giving birth to twins. There is palm oil, there are beans." It is believed that the best food for twins is palm oil and beans because these bland foods are thought to cool their spirited temperaments. The mother of twins, known as "Iya-ibeji" is given special honor.
One thing I found very interesting is their belief about who is the older and younger of the twins. Traditionally the first born twin, regardless of sex, is considered the younger of the two, and is named Taiwo, meaning "comes-to-taste-life." The second born is Kehinde, which means "comes-last." Kehinde is considered the eldest twin who sends Taiwo first to see if the world is a good place to live.
Because twins are usually born pre-term and often smaller than single birth infants, there is a high death rate among twins. If one or both of the twins were to die, the parents commission a carver to make an ere-ibeji. "Ere" means image and "ibeji" means twin -- so this is an image of a twin that is carved to take the place of the dead infant. These figures are only carved if a twin dies, it is not made at the death of a single-birth infant. The ibeji figure is believed to house the spirit of the dead twin that was divided in two at the birth of the twins. The carver is given free rein to carve the figure as he wishes and the twin figures, though usually carved for the death of infants, are most often depicted in the fullness of life. The ere-ibeji is given ritual care -- rubbed with oils and sugar cane and sometimes dressed and given food as if it were living. It is often carried by the mother in her clothing wrapper as she would carry a living baby. The Yoruba traditionally believe that if a twin that dies is not remembered by the carving of an image, this slighted twin will trouble the surviving one. If both twins die and are not properly remembered, the mother will have difficulty with conception and other misfortunes such as sudden poverty, destruction of property or persistent sickness may befall the family.
I asked the curator why, with the importance of the ere-ibeji to a family, there are so many ibeji figures in the museum and available for sale at the market. She said that with the influences of Christianity and Islam and with Western influences moving the Yoruba away from native religion, there is less respect in the culture for ibeji figures. Where they once would have been kept and tended for generations, now they are seen as something valuable to sell. Of course, there are also many at the markets that are represented as true ere-ibeji, but are newly made for the market.
I enjoy seeing the differences in styles of the various ere-ibeji, but it is kind of sobering to realize that each one represents a child who has died.