Myths and Metaphors of the Yorùbá Landscape

Myths and Metaphors of the Yorùbá Landscape

Résumé en français

La sagesse indigène se réfère à la façon dont les civilisations locales ont été capables d'appliquer des connaissances locales pour concilier des utilisations concurrentes des terres et protéger les processus naturels en tant que ressources culturelles et écologiques importantes dans le temps et l'espace (Adejumoet Adebamowo, 2012).  La récente crise sanitaire mondiale et les dés équilibres climatiques ont suscité de sérieuses questions sur les défis auxquels sont confrontés les canons séculaires decompréhension des paysages en fonction de leurs diverses utilisations. Cet article retrace l'évolution culturelle de la façon dont les paysages indigènes Yoruba ont répondu à l'éthos local dans la formation cosmologique des établissements, depuis le niveau de la propriété jusqu'aux échelles régionales.

Les oralités et autres mécanismes sociolinguistiques de transmission des normes, coutumes et traditions sont inscrits dans l'ontologie géomantique des consultations Ifá, une mesure permettant de vivre dans des paysages favorables et d'atteindre le bien-être souhaité pour les civilisations futures (Larson, 2007; Oluwole, 2017). Les récits historiques indiquent que le concept de royauté a également déterminé la distribution durable de l'agriculture (assurant la sécurité alimentaire et les moyens de subsistance) dans la planification des villes avec les agro-forêts périphériques environnantes. (Johnson, 2010). Des influences diverses au sein des frontières culturelles façonnent continuellement les paysages de soutien via des mèmes complexes, desconstructions sociales omniprésentes et des pratiques traditionnelles. La préservation par les systèmes de croyances des caractéristiques naturelles telles que les collines, les affleurements rocheux, les rivières, la plantation d'arbres indigènes en tant que bosquets sacrés dans les villes a favorisé l'équilibre climatique local.

Indigenous wisdom refers to how local civilisations have been able to apply home-grown knowledge in reconciling competing land uses and protecting natural processes as significant cultural and ecological resources in time and space (Adejumo and Adebamowo, 2012). The recent global health crisis and climate imbalances prompted serious questions about the challenges faced by the age-old canons of understanding landscapes in terms of their diverse utilisations. This paper traces the cultural evolutionary account of how deep time Yorùbá indigenous landscapes responded to local ethos in the cosmological formation of settlements from the homestead level to regional scales. Oral history and other socio-linguistic mechanisms for passing down norms, customs and traditions are enshrined in the geomantic ontology of Ifá, a measure for living in supportive landscapes and achieving the desired well-being of future civilisations (Larson, 2007; Oluwole, 2017). Historical narratives indicate that the kingship concept also determined the sustainable distribution of farming (ensuring food security and livelihoods) in the planning of towns with surrounding peripheral agro-forests. (Johnson, 2010). Diverse influences within cultural boundaries continually shape supporting landscapes via complex memes, pervading social constructs and traditional practices. Belief-systems’ preservation of natural features such as hills, rock outcrops, rivers, and native tree planting as sacred groves in towns has promoted local climate balance.

History of Yoruba Landscapes

Every landscape is a product of the inhabitants’ way of life.

A well-known author of Yorùbá history, Samuel Johnson (2010), described the origin of the Yorùbá people as one that is still unclear and full of undocumented nuances. Many studies of indigenous consciousness on the man-made environment have interrelated approaches to understanding human settlements. This is perhaps why traditional landscapes usually engender cultural memories, local identity, and collective existential consciousness. Historical, social, and anthropological layers of Yorùbá landscapes speak of upheavals, internecine wars, unrest from external attacks, religion, territorialism, colonialism (1861-1960), Tropical Modernism, and globalisation(1960-2022), affecting the cultural kinship system (Manz, 2003). A complex combination of these factors left indelible effects on the geomorphology and canvas of the local landscape. In the process of these transmutations, many local places and bioregions currently have fading identities and weakening local values (Obateru, 2006).

The religion and philosophy of the Yorùbá ethnic is centred around Ifá, -a multifaceted system of divination practised for centuries, based on oral scriptures known as OduIfá or the Ifa corpus - a collection of unique spiritual traditions (Wande Abimbola 1976; Oluwole 2017). Yorùbá believe that Ifá must be consulted as the oracle for wisdom and guide for the establishment of all cultural truths. Consequently, most Yorùbá towns with few exceptions are built on one uniform template: the origin being more or less the same, all having identical features in common. A group of adobe huts around the farmstead/homestead of an enterprising farmer or hunter as the founder-progenitor (Olórí-Ìlú) of the settlement is usually the point of origin or centre of the village/town. Sometimes, it can be the resting place along a route of travel between far flung destinations. In any case it is one individual that first attracts others to the spot; if the site is on the road to a large town, so much the better.

Women are ever ready to provide refreshments for adventurers, thus rendering the spot in time as a recognised place of rest. The more distant it is from a town, the more essential it becomes as a resting place; if a popular node, a market soon develops in the place. Hence, neighbouring farmers bring farm produce for sale, and weekly trading begins. Initially, native trees such as Igi-ọdán (Ficus mucuso or Ficus thoningii- and Igi Ìyeyè (otherwise called Hog Plum or Spondias  mombin). Several species of Ficus are referred to as Igi Odán in the Yorùbá language, the family name being Moraceae (Adejumo 2012).  

These fig trees are also planted at street junctions for socio-cultural gatherings or in front of the chief’s house (Olóyè) and in markets to provide shade from the hot-humid climate. It is pertinent to note that markets, apart from serving as political-economic centres, are highly spiritual spots according to Yorùbá religion and mythology. Invariably, settlements gradually begin to spring up and a hamlet or village is formed. For order and control, such markets are then integrated around specific traditionally earmarked days.  Myths and folklore record that Ibadan, as a place-name, with the Oríkì (praise-names) translate into 'a place of abundant fruits for dinner’. One of the Global South’s largest cities of the 20th century was founded on this myth (Babade, 2008).

Myths and Metaphors in the Landscapes

Every tribe is native to a particular place within specific biogeographical space and other landscape features.

Often, human/environment interactions gradually transform these places into homelands for ethnic groups as they build on nature’s canvas for survival (Adejumo, 2012). Thus, diverse human influences within cultural boundaries continually shape supporting landscapes via language, norms, and pervading social constructs and traditional practices. Indeed, contextual landscapes over time have become parchments on which the immobile art, tangible and intangible essences and architectural narratives of a people are expressed. Ancient landscapes as we know them today have been broadly used for agriculture, aesthetics, health, industrialisation, and socio-political purposes by many civilisations. However, due to external acculturation, many indigenous territories have lost the identities, values, mythical morphology and maps (representation) of Yorùbá settlements. Through the several metaphors that the Yorùbá ethnic live by, important cultural norms and values are mirrored into how native landscapes are planned and inhabited in hierarchies that conform with societal myths.

Desk-based evaluation, historicity and ethnographical exploration of native symbolism identified that deep-time religious beliefs in the Òrísà pantheons (much like the saints of Catholicism), in the Yorùbá religion, the plethora of Òrísàs act as the mediators between man and the supreme creator, and the rest of the spiritual world. The linguistic metaphor of Ìbílẹ̀ Oòdùà (land of birth), myths, and geo-cosmology drove prehistoric landscape planning philosophy.  This is in contrast to the colonial footprint of urban developmental ideas. Local urbanism was grounded in home-grown socio-cultural and earth-worship systems that established the market (Ọjà) timetable that in turn promoted social, economic, and political values in a cohesive manner. Oko-etíléis is a farm within one mile of the homestead for daily food supply, while Oko-ẹgàn are much bigger cultivations in outlying areas usually a few miles away from the village walls (see Figure 1). They are both sited for livelihood, food security, and kinship aimed at societal well-being.

Figure 1: Typical Yorùbá indigenous planning model

Re-conceptualising the restoration of damaged landscapes should be addressed in the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) context of ecological assets, climate change actions, land use, cultural identity, and other eco-responsive indigenous practices. This paper advocates the development of neighbourhood, city, and regional landscape restoration agendas to create meaningful, productive, and people-centred landscapes based on homegrown metaphors in relation to local values and identity. Ifá corpus and the oral history of Yorùbá towns documents unique paternal affiliations and the patriarchal Odùduwà (the mythical forebear of the Yorùbá stock), which determined the dispersal of descendants to parts of the southwest bioregion of present-day Nigeria by virtue of divination (Fatunbi, 2004; Adejumo, 2018).

Historical narratives show that kinship also determined the sustainable distribution of oko-etílé and oko-ẹgàn (see Figure 1) for food security and livelihood frameworks in the planning of towns and the peripheral agro-forests. Diverse influences within cultural boundaries continually shape supporting landscapes via complex memes, pervading social constructs and traditional practices. Undeniably, contextual landscapes over time have become parchments on which the architecture, tangible and intangible essences, and architectural narratives of a people are expressed (Manz, 2003).  

Precolonial landscapes as we know them today, are largely degraded as a result of urbanisation and globalisation, such that local landscapes earmarked for agriculture are becoming increasingly depleted. Eroded natural values, worsening environmental health hazards, industrialisation, and socio-political actions negatively affected the old landscapes. Colonialism relegated many linguistic values (odes, proverbs, idioms, lores and metaphors) in shaping the landscape, as in the case of Tropical Modernism metaphors ‘form follows function’ or ‘the house is a machine’ doctrines. Indigenous approaches of engaging myths and metaphor (language components) in the establishment of traditional towns and villages should be evaluated for cultural landscape preservation and contemporary planning applications.

Geomancy and Cosmological Origins

Landscape is also a product of peoples’ belief systems.

Geomancy is defined as an act of foretelling or discovering the fortunes of the ‘futures of place’ through preternatural means on natures’ parchments (Nemeth, 2010). Geomancy spiritually relates human design with cosmic design forms so as to harmoniously access intangible attributes entrenched in radiant earth energy for physical use. On the other hand, cosmology is the investigation of the physical world, its origin, its cohesive parts, its formation, the energies that drive the tangible and intangible nature of the earth (Fatunbi, 2004; Nelson, et al, 2010). From the religious perspective, Yorùbá towns/villages were believed to be established by geomancy and other customs deriving legitimacy from the Ifá corpus as both religion and philosophy (Chuen-Yan, 1974; Oluwole, 2017).

Early documentation of Yorùbá sacred traditions was carried out by missionaries (Christian/Islamic), adventurers and explorers who wrote from their respective religious position of perceived ‘barbaric/uncivilised’ indigenous practices. The indigenes believe that ‘spirits’ inhabit categories of natural phenomena such as trees, hills, rivers, rocks, and other animal rituals. (Olupọna, 1993). Other theories from the ethnological angle held that cosmology and the belief-system are centred around the organisation of the sixteen deities widely accepted across Yorùbá bio-geographies.

The current landscape was shaped by human/environment interactions transforming these places into homelands as people inclusively script and build on nature’s canvas for survival (Nelson, et al, 2010). The natural capital of pre-colonial Yorùbá regions was dependent on the agricultural success of surrounding villages and hamlets. Traditional religious belief systems in Ifá engendered a form of cultural village planning pattern, where verdant parcels of land were earmarked for ancestral worship, as sacred groves around palaces and also for farming purposes. This local practice was later built upon through the government’s establishment of National Parks and forest reserves in various Yorùbá geopolitical zones. Later, the superimposition of the Kibbutz system on Yorùbá rurality generated farm settlements as an expression of regional development in the post-colonial years.

The Yorùbá knowledge of living harmoniously with other members of the ecosystem revolve around geomantic planning, a form of planning that explores the landscape for energy convergence in the Yoruba world view as ideal urban nodal space where man and nature are in perfect agreement (Adejumo, 2019).

Isochrones and Landscape Urbanism

When human beings interact with the land as an entity, ‘points of contact’ are established through spiritual sensitivities and physical realities.

Isochrones are defined in this context as the alignment of several sacred sites (ley-lines in this paper refer to places with common mythical essences), earth-energy spots, or charts. Isolines are  places with similar identities and characteristics that distinguishes them from others in time and space. They are connected by roads and mythical pathways (Nemeth, 2010, Oluwole 20). Another narrative surrounding the origin of the Yorùbá stated that earth worship, Ifá divination and other geomantic customs are usually responsible for the locating of important towns/villages.

Geosophy emphasises appropriate wisdom and knowledge acquired in living within the ecological structure of a location in the biosphere, achieved by a localised method of site planning to detect and determine culturally conducive attributes of the earth-scape for a fruitful existence. As noted by Famule (2005), and further explained by Adejumo (2012), Yorùbá mythology attributed the earth as a spirit-being carrying positive (good) and negative (bad) energy. Such energy is believed to enhance desirable harmonic relationship between humans and nature for economic, social, ecological, political, and cultural well-being (Adejumo, 2019).

Regrettably it is common to find that this indigenous system of territorial planning suffered colonial disruption which modified original town plans due to the superimposition of foreign concepts over local ideas and palimpsests. Because of animism, associated religious beliefs and customs, many natural landscape features such as rivers, in the case of Osun Osogbo, hills in the case of Òkè Ìbàdàn and Ẹ̀gbá Abeokuta, igneous outcrops (Olósunta and Ọ̀rọ́lẹ̀) at Ìkéré-Ẹ̀kìtì and Ìdànrè Hills, the ocean (water) as the symbol for Lagos (Èkó), (see Figures 2 to 4,) are worshipped as ‘spirit of place’ through seasonal rituals for the cultural well-being of such towns.

Figure 2: Ọ̀sun Òṣogbo Grove access road (Photo: Mokọládé Johnson)
Figure 3: Ọ̀rọ́lẹ̀ Rock, the second deity of Ìkẹ́rẹ́-Èkìtì (Photo: Mokọládé Johnson)
Figure 4: Olúmọ Rock -the guardian spirit of Abẹ́òkúta

Many Yorùbá palaces are associated with large acres of sacred groves solely for the coronation ceremonies and burial rites of the king. These landscape features hold the essence for place-names and the overall development for the unique identity of indigenes. By extension, agricultural forests (oko-ẹgàn) for livelihood and food security in oko-etílé completes the value-chain on the overall landscape. Sacred groves are expanses of pristine or untouched forests with rich diversity, which have been protected by unwritten laws for centuries through cultural and religious beliefs and taboos. It is widely believed the deities reside in them and protect the dwellers from different natural or artificial mishaps. Every sacred grove carries its own legends and myths, which form an integral part of the invisible walls that demarcate the sacred grove from the rest of the land. An inextricable link between present and past society in terms of biodiversity, culture, religious and ethnic heritage exists in the harmonious environments of sacred groves (Johnson, 2021).

Relevance to Community Planning

Among the over 400 ethnic nationalities in Nigeria (population of around 200 million), Yorùbá language is widely spoken by an estimated 40 million people in the bioregion of southwest Nigeria, extending to neighbouring states such as Togo and the Republic of Benin in Sub-Saharan West Africa (Figure 5). When a group of people share a set of values, beliefs systems, a common worldview, symbols, folklores, and dialects, learned and transmitted from one generation to the next, they are said to belong to the same culture (Oluwole, 2017). Archaeological information records that harmony of tradition is strong in the Yoruba ethnic group because of the shared kinship within the same biogeographical space (Geoffrey, 1967; Larson, 2007). The principles which guide the organisation of space, time, meaning and communication show a high degree of similarity because they are linked systematically to aspects of customs and practices handed down to coming generations (Oluwole, 2017).

Figure 5: Map showing the cities and towns of Yoruba stock

Metaphor, is the representation of an idea through a reflection of a notion in another opposing context. It involves placing two contrasting phenomena side by side to draw out a solution hitherto unimagined. “Ibi orí dáni sí làágbé” is a metaphor meaning the place of birth is the place of existence, an oral Yorùbá mythical rule that connects indigeneity to place. This place-making metaphor evokes a sense of belonging of natives to their place of birth from cradle to the grave (Oluwole, 2017).

Myth, according to Oluwole, is the product of man’s emotion and imagination, acted upon by his surroundings. Local myths are traditional stories which embody a belief regarding phenomena in which the forces of nature and of the spirit (essence) are personified. In other words, myths are sacred stories regarding a deity’s involvement in the origin of a people and their worldview (Darr, 2006). In the Yoruba worldview, deity worship is often tied to sacred parcels of forest lands, known as sacred groves reserved for seasonal rituals and appeasements. Though this is entirely a religious act, it has favourable ecological advantages in preserving biotic balances and harmonious environmental aspirations (Sotunde, 2016).

Yorùbá urbanism – A people-centred Landscape

Yorùbá urbanism is the tangible expression of the socio-political, and religious system of the people manifested in the physical arrangement of the natural environment and its relationship to human ethos (Kadiri, 2009). The classical pattern of a settlement is similar to a wheel, where the royal palace is the centre and the radii a series of roads that radiates from the palace, linking the village with other quarters. Beyond the town-walls are the farmlands: first, the ‘Oko-etílé’ (surrounding farms), and Oko-ẹgàn (outlying farmland) that merge imperceptibly with the ‘Oko-ẹgàn’ of the adjacent city. For defence and security purposes, as a result of internecine wars, settlements are demarcated by a system of walls and moats for communal defence. These are known by different names given to them by the ethnic people (Keighren, 2005; Quinby 2020). (See Figure 1).

Besides the religious significance of sacred groves and the myths surrounding their establishment, they are known to effectively double for biodiversity preservation and serve as a green haven for endangered animal and plant species, and as safe natural parks protecting vulnerable medicinal herbs. The sacredness, religious beliefs and restrictions play a significant role in promoting sustainable utilisation and conservation of the groves as a bioregional resource. However, in many instances, these sacred groves have become degraded due to changing perceptions and trans-culturation. Needless to say, a holistic understanding and re-conceptualisation of the ecological importance would be beneficial for natural heritage preservation, carbon sequestration and climatic advantages. This cannot be attained unless appropriate knowledge about indigenous places is acquired, and strategic management of the whole range of the anthropogenic systems within which we live, work, and play - from the most pristine landscapes to the most developed environment is learnt.

A comprehensive knowledge of key sustainability principles for human/environment interactions is necessary to maximise beneficial human contact with natural elements. While the other (socio-political) landscape preservation tenets that shape indigenous places are equally of great importance, this paper considers the adoption of SDG principles as the ideal viewpoint around which achievement of sustainable settlements revolves.  This attempt is dependent on the human capacity to create a synthesis and desirable relationship with the environment. Indigenous landscapes must be understood on interdependent levels. First is climatic harmony - the periodic or seasonal synergies to chart a supportive ecosystem via animistic belief that plants and animals are valuable elements of the landscape.

Some species of trees, such as Iroko, are objects of worship by the Yorùbás, usually set apart around town gates or within settlements and forest lands. As energy touch-points, it is usual to find ritual tokens around such trees, idolised in the culture. This relates to life in harmony with nature, the sphere of biomimetics from which environmental planning ideas can be adopted.

It is advocated that solution-driven, eco-friendly, and people-centred concepts should be rooted on cultural principles and indigenous practices in response to current climate anomalies.


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