The Ibeji — the Children of Miraculous Birth

Ibeji re, omo edun ibeji re, omo edun kere-kere-yan.  (Behold twins, children of the monkey. They do not die.) — from an ancient Yoruba chant to the Ibeyi.

Imagine a world without doctors, without medicine, an era in which life and death walk hand in hand closely, taking the lives of the young mercilessly and without care. Disease and famine sweep clear whole villages of the weak, the infirm, the young, and the elderly. Imagine a time when to give birth was to risk one’s own life for the sake of that newly emerging; and this risk was always a gamble, for even if the mother survived there was no guarantee that the infant would. Such was the world of the ancient Yoruba. Infant mortality was a given: infant survival was rare and risky. Lacking medicine, elaborate rituals and systems of propitiation were designed to bring down the watchful eyes of the orishas on both mother and newborn. Oracles were consulted, priests and priestesses employed in their attempt to not only survive and build an empire, but also to preserve their own blood, their own lineage through that of their offspring. Wealth was not counted in one’s material possessions or economic status. Good fortune meant being fertile, having a strong wife that could bear many children, and eventually having many children that would grow up to bear more.   There was no greater poverty for a woman than that of barrenness, and a man without offspring was impoverished even if he could afford the finest goods. Life was harsh, and survival was the goal.

In spite of the Yoruba desire for large families, this group was wary of one phenomenon that happened to them repeatedly: that of multiple births. When two children were born together, they called them Ibeji (Yoruba spelling). The word itself was a contraction from two simpler words: ibi, birth, and eji, two. Among those descended from these people, twinning (and sometimes-greater numbers of children) occurs at a high rate – forty-five out of every one-thousand births results in at least twins. Compared to the rate of multiple births in the United States or Europe, twinning occurs at a rate four times greater among this ethnic group. In the days before old Oyó became the dominant Yoruba Empire, most giving birth to multiple children died, and their infants, being poorly developed, died as well. These deaths were seen as a blessing since twinning was common of animals, not humans. The Yoruba believed that the mother had done something sinister, making pacts or deals with the ayé (the witches) or evil spirits. In the rare instance that all three survived, townspeople put them to death to avoid ancestral wrath. At times the mother and only one child would survive the dangerous delivery of twins; and while the mother in these instances would sometimes be allowed her life, the child was exposed, his or her soul set free to rejoin its sibling in the other world. Surely, the Yoruba believed, to have one living twin would bring the wrath of the deceased upon their people.

Exposure and death were not consistent between the city-states. From the Northern regions of the ethnic group, a patakís spread regarding the origin of the Ibeji. Oral literature reminds us that in a small, now defunct village, an old Oba (king) had no male heirs to inherit his wealth. He had many wives and daughters from those wives, but male offspring eluded him. The senior wife was barren, as was the youngest wife. Both knew that conceiving a boy would guarantee their place in the household, so each consulted with diviners for advice on how to conceive a boy-infant. Through the art of ebó, the two wives became pregnant and produced male children at the same time. But the orishas were very sympathetic to the younger wife because she was abused by the older wife, and so they gave her twins, one male and one female. Even though the rest of the Yoruba regarded twin births as evil, the king thought this was a sign of heavenly favor for both he and his youngest wife. Her status in the house was enhanced; she was given dominance over the household. Unfortunately, this love of twin births did not flourish throughout the empires for quite some time; throughout the majority of the territories, the birth of twins remained an offense punishable by death.

Sweeping change came to the nation in the eleventh century, a change borne in the kingdom of ancient Oyó. It was about this time that Shangó lived among the Yoruba as a man; he was an accomplished king, the fourth of the city, and it was under his reign that peace and greatness were brought to the Yoruba nation. Shangó’s skills as an Oba (King) and warrior were great; blessed by the Yoruba gods with beauty, strength, and political genius; others regarded his words as the words of an orisha even before his legendary ascension. As a human, he had three wives; and it happened that his favorite wife, Oshún, gave birth to healthy twins. Shangó had been away at war fighting for his nation when they were born; and Oshún kept one of the two children hidden lest those in the compound accuse her of sorcery and put her to death. All three, the mother and two children (one male and one female) survived. Being the leader of a growing nation and father to many children by his other wives, Shangó consulted the oracles and declared that the birth of twins was a herald of prosperity and blessings – a testament to the virility of both parents. The ancient empire ceased the slaughter of innocent children and their mothers, paying homage to the virile nature of the family from which twins emerged.[1] Because the Oyó Empire spread, amassing land, wealth, and prosperity, the national thought regarding twin births changed.

While ended within the state of old Oyó, evidence remains that the practice continued for some time among the smaller, divided Yoruba villages. While those who were wealthy in both money and offspring were allowed to keep their children and their lives, those who were poor or had no other children were still put to death. Another legend born after Shangó’s ascension tells us that for many months, strange illnesses and diseases began to claim the lives of the wealthier families’ children, but not those of the poor. The legend states that the parents of these children tried in vain to save their youthful lives, yet it was all to no avail. Finally, the wealthy villagers went to the babalawo and consulted with Ifá; and there with Orúnmila it was decided that the barbaric practice of exposing twin infants after birth was angering Shangó who himself fathered twins as both human and orisha. Ebós were marked to placate him, yet before the reading could end the orisha demanded that twins be worshipped, not destroyed. It was also decreed that that the mother of twins would go into the streets once every five days, dancing to honor the Ibeyi – the divine spirit of twins fathered by the mighty Shangó. No one who saw the mothers dance would deny them alms and the Ibeyi would make the family prosperous beyond their wildest dreams. Thus was their cult born, and their power for redistributing wealth became well known.

To understand the full implications of twinning among the ancient Yoruba, or the significance of twins and the Ibeyi in this religion’s modern culture, one must study the metaphysics of this ethnic group. Old Oyó divided their world between two concepts: nature (also symbolic of the unseen world) and civilization (symbolic of all things visible). While civilization consisted only of the village and the cultivated land for farming around each village, the raw, natural world occupied a limitless, eternal realm. It was the home of wild animals and spirits (ancestral, natural, and malicious spirits were all said to reside in the forest). While wild animals (and spirits, so they believed) were able to emerge from the depths and into the village at will, people could not venture into the depths without risking loss of life. Yet twins were primeval, almost magical in nature. Like an animal mother, the human mother had given birth to more than one child – thus, the nature of their birth brought some of the otherworld’s power into their own lives. Twins are often self-absorbed in the early stages of life; they develop their own language and share a unique “wildness” between themselves. No matter the type of twin born, identical or fraternal, their aura was one of closeness and mystery.

Ejire, the sharers of one soul – this was the mystery of human twins.   The lore soon came to say that the spirit indwelling one child was so vast, so strong, that two minds and bodies had to be created so it could properly incarnate[2]. Although both grew up to develop separate personalities, tastes, and dislikes, this was not because they had parted spiritually as they had physically; it was because the one soul, being infinite, wanted to experience life on a finite level. Even identical twins, which were believed to have the strongest connections, grew up into two very different individuals. Yet they were expected to live and remain close throughout both life and death. When one twin died, the child’s mother would go to the oracles for consultation; usually, an ebó was marked – the creation of a shrine for the deceased sibling. Unless that one was honored and propitiated, experience taught them that the remaining twin would die; the deceased would pull its sibling close in death as it had been in life. So powerful, so charged was the remaining child with magic that even though one was gone, the remaining could still bring blessings and fertility to both family and community. As time passed and the lore of twins increased, the cult of the Ibeyi grew; and it was believed that the reception and propitiation of these powerful orishas would miraculously change the lives of those that honored them.

The mother who was blessed enough to have ibeji conceived in her womb received a special title: iyá ibeji. Literally, she was known as “the mother who gave birth to two.” Her womb was blessed, but spiritually hot; as soon as possible, iyá ibeji were expected to conceive at least once more, giving birth to a child known as Idowu. The third child born to iyá ibeji, while the youngest of the three, is said to be the eldest spiritually. Because not even two bodies can contain the vastness of the soul born with twins, Ideú comes to contain the non-corporeal portion of the twin’s soul, and cools the fire and volatile energy brought to the home when twins are born. Religious lore says that a mother who has twins and fails to have an Idowu may go mad. It is believed that the wild and stubborn Idowu (the non-manifest portion of the twin’s soul) will fly into her head, driving her insane. The child born after Idowu is named Idogbe if male and Alaba if female.[3]

With the historical shift on the perspective of twins and the birth of sacred lore surrounding the divine children of Shangó and Oshún, the cult of the Ibeyi was born. Even today, between the modern cities of Lagos and Badagry is an area known as Erupo; there, a special shrine was erected to the Ibeyi. Both parents (mother and father), and their twin offspring are expected to make a pilgrimage to that shrine at least once in their lifetime. In our religion, the twins have names: Taewó and Kaindé. Taewó is Oshún’s first-born, and his name means the “first to taste life”. The name of Oshún’s second twin, Kaindé, means “the final to be born”. Note that in some houses of ocha, there is a curious custom when it comes to dressing the dolls that are washed with the sacred implements of the Ibeyi. For a year after they are born, the two dolls are dressed in white completely; then, after the adherent’s Ibeyi are a year old, new clothes are made. Taewó, the male[4], is dressed in red and white gingham and put under the protection of Shangó, his father. Kaindé, the female[5], is dressed in blue and white gingham and put under the protection of Yemayá, the adopted mother of twins. While Taewó is born first to prepare the way for Kaindé’s arrival, spiritually, the first twin born is said to be the youngest of the two. Kaindé is physically younger, but spiritually will always be the eldest. Note that among human births, the first born twin is said to be specially protected by the orisha Shangó, and while it is not a blanket rule, often this twin, if he or she goes on to make ocha, is crowned Shangó. Likewise, the second child born of twins is protected by Yemayá; it is this awesome orisha, the great mother to all, that will protect and guide him or her throughout life. Oshún, the forlorn mother who gave them both up when she realized she was too wild, too frivolous herself to care for the children stands behind Yemayá and Shangó as their protector – she bestows her blessings upon these two children so that they might grown in power and stature. From these three orishas, the Ibeyi receive most of their power.

Yet there is a fourth orisha that bestows great wisdom and strength upon these two Spirits: Obatalá. In the body of sacred lore known as odu, it is said that these two innocents inadvertently saved his life, and in return for their actions Obatalá rewarded them with limitless power as long as the two orishas worked together in tandem. One male and one female, each represented the dualistic force of nature – the two opposites that had to work together as one to create; dual natures that come together for one goal. Their home in odu became that known as Eji Oko, and they came to rule all that was doubled or twinned. The eyes, the ears, the brain (with its right and left halves), the arms, the legs, the ovaries, the kidneys — all these are ruled by the two powerful spirits. Our physical senses, being dualistic (even the sense of touch requires a sensation and a response) are also under their ruler-ship. Together, the Ibeyi master perception. One can watch: one can listen. The two can sit back to back and see in all directions at once. Because of Obatalá’s decree, there is nothing that can get past them, and if properly propitiated, the one who adores and worships the Ibeyi can never come to harm which is outside their personal destiny. No evil magic, no malicious witchcraft, no traps or wicked machinations escape their ever-watchful eyes.

It is for these reasons that over the centuries, those who find peace and evolution among our rituals have come to love and honor the Ibeyi as the most powerful, most darling of all the orishas. Their talents are many, and it is by “playing” with these two supernatural forces that one can come to enjoy all the blessings that they have to give. Just as Oyá owns all the wealth produced in the marketplace and Yemayá hides the wealth of the ocean beneath her mantle, the Ibeyi have access to these; they are the harbingers/givers of wealth and economic evolution. By honoring them, one draws, slowly, the opulence and resources of the world. To watch as a Mother gestates, carries, and gives birth to two children from one womb is nothing short of a miracle, and it is this miraculous power that they bring to life with them: separate, they are as nothing, yet together, they can work miracles, yielding the fiery strength of their father Shangó and the limitless power and wisdom of their protector, Obatalá. Their spiritual teaching is harmony, and it is through their harmonious forces that one can take a single brick and build a city. This is the power of the Ibeyi, their spiritual strength; and it is for this reason that those involved in this faith should receive and propitiate these awesome deities. Maferefún los Ibeyi!

[1] Some say that the mother of twins is Oyá. Most lineages believe the mother of twins is Oshún, including mine; however, there are enough who believe Oyá to be the mother of twins that it is worth mentioning in this essay.

[3] Some confuse the Yoruba custom of naming the third child Idowu with the orisha Ideú. They should not be confused.

[4] The otanes of the male Ibeyi, Taewó, are black.

[5] The otanes of the female Ibeyi, Kaindé, are white.

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8 thoughts on “The Ibeji — the Children of Miraculous Birth

  1. Let’s not forget that the Ibeji are the first two children in a line of children of “miraculous birth.” The others are Ideu, Aina, Idorbe, Oloni, and Araba. The orisha Senu is the one who freed them and taught them about their ashé, the secrets of the monte, and witchcraft. There is another orisha associated with Senu, a female, but I don’t have her and can’t remember her name. These are orishas that if you have the chance to receive them, you should. The miracles you can work for yourself and others with their ashé is amazing!

    1. And for those in my Sunday night ebó class, we will be studying the ebós through which you work their ashé. Probably not for the Ibeji (twins) but for the others — Ideu, Aina, Idorbe, Oloni, and Araba. We’ll play that class “by ear.”

    2. Even more amazing and little known or realized: When you speak about the Ibeji and their connection with Senu, you learn about loose but deep connections with other orishas of the monte. We’re speaking of orishas like Osain, Aroni, and others that have to do with these mysteries. Once you understand an orisha’s ashé and their place or places in nature, you obtain an intuitive grasp of their ashé that is hard to put into words, and probably, doesn’t need to be in words or shouldn’t be put In words. Some things need to be felt in the soul, not understood with the mind.

    1. I gave my Ibeyi a party back in the mid 90s. I haven’t given them a party since then. I didn’t do it to get a favor. I did it because I wanted to show them how much I loved them. If you do give them a party as ebó, please let me know how it turns out for you!

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