Àbíkú Songs in Yorùbá Land

(This article was originally published in 2005.)

This ethnographical work examines the Yorùbá concept of “Àbíkú” (lit. born-to-die)1 by analysing their songs. The study begins with the analyses various “Àbíkú” names seen in their songs by looking at their interpretations from sociological perspective. It delves into classification of àbíkú among Yorùbá drawing line of demarcation from varying attributes given as their characteristics for categorization. The paper discusses the social context of àbíkú songs in the Yorùbá indigenous religious system. It proves that regardless of Western scientific medical justification that proves the non-existence of àbíkú, The Yorùbá still believe in its existence up to the moment. Though the context of àbíkú songs and rituals associated with it had given way to modernization and foreign religions. Still, the practices of domesticated religions-Islam and Christianity authenticate the Yorùbá belief in àbíkú syndrome. This work concludes with the examination of some àbíkú songs by categorizing them into Propitiatory, Incantatory, Satirical and Praise.

Introduction

Song is part of Yorùbá culture. It is a form of poetry or verbal art that has become integrated into their lives. Yorùbá people love to express the intent of their hearts including thoughts or feelings of joy or of sadness in songs. They use songs to express joy, happiness, sadness, protest, resentment, worship, invoking of spirits, among others. Many scholars have worked on Yorùbá poetry especially songs. Among them are Olukoju (1973), Beier (1974), Ogunba (1975), latunji (1982), Vidal (1982), Ilesanmi (1985), Agbaje (1995) and Akinymi (1998). Attempts have been made to classify Yorùbá songs and the widely accepted classification based on utilitarian as criteria is that which classifies them into religious and secular. This classification may not be regarded as all embracing; neither is it all encompassing. This is because it is difficult to put a clear-cut demarcation.

Àbíkú songs fall into religious category. Though the songs of àbíkú and rituals associated with it had given way to modernization and foreign religions still the practices of domesticated religions-Islam and Christianity also authenticate the belief in àbíkú syndrome in Yorùbá land. A close observation of the prayers and deliverance services of the African Indigenous Churches (AIC) proves that the Yorùbá belief about àbíkú still exists. Many of their prayers and deliverance especially for a barren woman or a pregnant woman focuses on prayers against àbíkú and deliverance from the spirit of àbíkú. The idea of dissociating an àbíkú and emèrè (yíyo kúrò légbé) from their heavenly mates in the traditional practice by the Ifá priests is equivalent to deliverance from the spirit of àbíkú and emèrè by the deliverance ministers and preachers in the Indigenous Churches in the contemporary society. They adapt this Yorùbá belief in order to fit the new beliefs. This idea of spirit-children among the Christians in Yorùbá land is not limited to prayer and deliverance services, it is finding its way in the Christian home videos. The Captive of the Mighty produced by Mike Bamiloye, a popular Yorùbá Christian dramatist is a good example that illustrates the belief of Yorùbá Christians in the existence of àbíkú/emèrè even in the contemporary society. Thus, it is a way of revitalizing the Yorùbá indigenous cultural forms.

Who are the Àbíkú Children?

Death is not a strange phenomenon among the Yorùbá. However, premature death is considered mysterious and tragic. This is called òkú f. The Yorùbá belief that everybody is going to die is revealed in one of the sayings that “àwáyé è kú kò sí, run nìkan làrèmab” (trans. “Everybody born into the world is bound to die, it is only existence in heaven that is permanent”). In Yorùbá society a àbíkú child is that child believed to have been born and has died but reincarnation several times and being born each time by the same mother or another depending on circumstances.

Therefore, when a woman loses her infant children several times consequently not long after birth, it is believed that it is the same child that has come to the world several times. This belief in reincarnation is reinforced if the new child bears resemblance to the deceased. Idowu (1973: 175) spoke about àbíkú that:

There is a strong belief about another curious category of spirits. It is not certain whether these began as spirits of deceased persons or not. But they are the spirits known to the Yorùbá as Àbíkú or to the Igbó as Ogbanje: that is, spirits ”born-to-die”. The belief here is that there are wandering spirits who specialize in the sadistic mischief of finding the way into wombs to be born in order to die.

From the above, it is clearly evident that the concept of “àbíkú”, that is, ”born -to-die” children is prominent among the Yorùbá. Not only this, the belief that some children are born to die is not limited to the Yorùbá people. The phenomenon is also prevalent among the Igbó people of Eastern Nigeria. It has also been suggested that “àbíkú” are wicked spirits who engage in the mischievous enterprise of coming to this world several times to torment the parents by dying young.

Ladele et al (1986: 87) prove that “àbíkú” are spirit children and that they are common among small children. Furthermore, are “àbíkú” believed bot God-given but that they originate from the Devil (Èsù, the Yorùbá Trickster Deity) with the covenant to trouble the mother who give birth to them in the world. Maduka (1987: 17) opines that “àbíkú” is an aspect of Yorùbá religion dealing with the beliefs in reincarnation and predestination. He describes the “àbíkú” as:

The child, who is generally a paragon of beauty, constitutes a constant source of anxiety to his/her parents because of his/her idiosyncratic behaviour, which may manifest itself in any form of mental or physical illness. The parents make frantic efforts to perform rituals (normally supervised by specialist priests/doctors) in order to break the bond of kinship of the “àbíkú” and the kindred spirits.

In his contribution, Maduka makes us to realize that the sadistic acts of these spirit-world children constitute a psychological problem to the earthly parents. Not only this, their earthly parents take various precaution to prevent further occurrence including visiting traditional healers.

Another scholar, Wenger (1990: 58-59) has also carried out studies on “àbíkú”. On them, she says:

Àbíkú are children who are so emphatically concerned with experience of their “playmates in heaven” (i.e. their distracted subconscious emotional complexity) that they mostly die young, so as to return to them. But, they do so only to long again for their earthly parents, allowing them to give birth to them again, only to desert them soon again. One performs ritual to the sacred central instance of gb, where with one may find the remedy for this calamity. One also inflicts scares on the little dead body, with which they are often reborn (as a fact). These scars then help as a psychic focus in the forthcoming ceremonies, destined to make the mischievous “angle” stay…

According to (Hawley 1995: 30), Àbíkú are regarded as spirit children who are given special treatment such as special jewellery and foods prepared to tempt them to choose life rather than return to their playmates in “heaven”.

Abimbla (1995: 57) describes “àbíkú” as a situation, “When a mother loses her young children, one after the other, she is believed to be troubled by a certain kind of wicked children who are born only to die sooner or later. Such children are known as “àbíkú””

Abimbla”s explanation of “àbíkú” also corroborates others” explanation on “àbíkú” that they are special children wielded with power to die and come again.

In this work it has been found out from Ifá priests and traditional healers that there are different categories of “àbíkú”. Not only this, they have been given various names that show Yorùbá cosmological beliefs about these strange children. Looking at these various names that Àbíkú is called will shed more light on their personality and attributes.

Appellation of Àbíkú

Apart from the common name “àbíkú”, there are about seven other names by which they are called. These are:

  • Emèrè – The one who takes/uses the profit
  • Elérèé – The one who exhibits mysterious attitude
  • Èrèé igbó – Mysterious being who lives inside the bush
  • Onípààrà – The one who repeats visits
  • gbrun – The society in heaven
  • Èsèkú orun – The Fairy beings in heaven.
  • Egbe èwe – The society of little children.

These are not oríkì (verbal salutes/praise descriptive poetry/panegyric) but proper names, though; they could form part of their oríkì. Àbíkú is synonymous to the above names hence they are used interchangeably. They are also called “Èré“, which is a short form of Èrèé igbó .

One could observe that these names give insights into the personality of the “àbíkú” as conceived in the philosophy of Yorùbá people.2 It is noted that “àbíkú” children are from heaven or the spirit-world, who usually cause grief to their earthly parents in the world by making them to spend their profits on unproductive ventures. They are also seen as a formidable group or society in the spirit-world with the power to shuttle between the spirit-world and earth whenever they liked with their earthly parents being the victims of their shenanigans. In fact, there is a Yorùbá saying that confirms the people”s belief that Àbíkú children have powers above that of traditional healers and herbalists. “Àbíkú s olóògùn dèké– herbalist turned into a liar by Àbíkú “). This implies that a Àbíkú child is so powerful that no herbalist can curb his/her powers.

Among the Yorùbá where this belief prevails, people are always seeking protection against this category of spirits. It is believed that divination and certain rituals can curb them or prevent them from ever again attempting the prank on the same woman. Even though it is difficult to curb àbíkú from their evil acts, but sometimes, the spirit may be made to decide to break the pact with its spirit companions and remain a human being on earth. Therefore, when it is noted that any àbíkú child has decided to stay he/she will be given name like: Kúkyí (death rejects this one), Málm (Don”t go back), Bámijókòó (Sit/stay with me) etc.

Classification of Àbíkú

The concept of àbíkú children has faced a great challenge especially from modern medical practitioners. It has been vigorously suggested that the high rate of infant mortality in ancient Yorùbá society was the influence of lack of parental care and diseases including sickle cell anemia. This is contrary to Yorùbá world-view that is founded on their belief and sociological experiences. From the data collected on this subject, the Yorùbá have classified the àbíkú into three types:

  • Àrùn-sọ-ón-dàbíkú / Diseases turned them into àbíkú.
  • Àj-sọ-ón-dàbíkú / Witches turned them into àbíkú.
  • Àbíkú-ẹgbérun / Àbíkú of the heaven”s society.
  • Àrùn-sọ-ón-dàbíkú are those children who die repeatedly at a tender age or those that die in the womb, at childbirth or the stillbirth (àsbí).
    This group also includes those affected by abortion and miscarriage. Those in this category are not regarded as belonging to the spirit world (àbíkú gbrun).

Witches are members of female secret cults who possess irresistible powers. They are believed to have power of second or spiritual sight and are able to see the foetus inside the womb and inflict such with death marks. They usually trouble people with different mishaps such as barrenness and pre-mature death among others (Thompson 1984: 74). They are believed to be the source of àjé-sọ-ón-dàbíkú children. Again, those in this group are not members of children of the spirit world (àbíkú ẹgbérun). Their deaths could be traced to witchcraft through divination.

The third category is the àbíkú ẹgbérun also called “Àbíìbá“.3 They are believed to belong to a strong and unconquerable society and reside, meet and operate in and from the spirit world. They operate independently and whatever effort made by their victims they would not stop until they are ready to go to somewhere else. They are given various names to demonstrate despite for them and various “punishments” are inflicted on their corpses in order to deter them from revisiting their victims. Usually, all these are to no avail.4

This categorization confirms that the spirit-world àbíkú are those in the third category. Our analysis of àbíkú is worthwhile in that it shows us that the third category are the original àbíkú in Yorùbá belief, those who are wondering spirits, who have their company or cult. The songs would apply specifically to this category. The categorization is also useful as it corroborates the claims of modern medicine to a great extent, confirming that medical inadequacies might be the source of high or incessant infant mortality rate in particular families, among the Yorùbá before the advent of orthodox medical care and among the poor households. But it does not nullify the Yorùbá philosophy and belief in àbíkú in their cosmology.

The Social Context of Àbíkú Songs among the Yorùbá

It is pertinent to know that there are three social contexts of performance of àbíkú songs in the indigenous Yorùbá society. In the past in Yorùbá land (and even to the present in certain remote places) sacrifice is made to appease these mysterious children. A shrine is usually made for them in the bush in the outskirts of the town. In Òsogbo, a community in Òsun state of Nigeria, there is àbíkú shrine located in the main shrine of Òsun, which is the civil deity of this community. It is called Ẹgbé shrine as seen in the picture below.

Àbíkú shrine in Òsun
Àbíkú shrine in Òsun court in Òsogbo picture taken by the author, July 2000

A day is dedicated to àbíkú children during the period they are worshiping ànpnná.5 They are also worshiped weekly6 at the same spot with items like he-goat (òbúko), groundnuts (èpá), wine (otí), kola nuts (obì), sugarcane (ìréké), bitter kola (orógbó), alligator pepper (ataare) and other edible materials or food items. Their shrine is usually made by Ifá priests.7 Most of the àbíkú songs are rendered either during the annual or weekly or periodical worship usually by women who have been or still victims of their mischievous acts. Here we categorize them into satirical, praise, propitiatory and ‘incantatory’. The reason why Ẹgbé/Àbíkú shrine is located within the court of Òsun is not far fetched. Òsun, the communal River Deity of Òsogbo community is a goddess associated with healing all manners of paediatric diseases and sicknesses with her mystic water (Ajibade, 2003). Hence, she is praised as the one capable of solving problems of barrenness, infertility and àbíkú. She is praised in this manner to portray this trait:

Onígbòó àbíkú– the one who has the capacity to handle àbíkú cases,
Onígbòó àrùn– the one who has the capacity to solve diseases,
Òrómi tutu soògùn àbíkú– the one who uses ritualised cold water to cure àbíkú

Various songs have been developed among the Yorùbá to addressing the àbíkú for the purpose of entreating or warding them off. This is the second social context of producing àbíkú songs. There are masquerades (Egúngún) in many Yorùbá communities that are used for the purpose of warding off epidemics and bane forces and spirits including the spirits of àbíkú. They believe that the deities (Òrìsà) and ancestors in the form of Egúngún through piety, rituals and sacrifices can help to prevent or avoid the wrath of bane forces in their communities. The deities gives the benefit of sound health, wealth and blessings of children and at the same time they punish neglect and breaking of social and religious taboos. This idea reinforces their attitude of venerating the deities and ancestors to help them ward off the wicked spirits and powers that are inimical to their existence. During this kind of occasion many songs are rendered the masquerades that is chorused by the spectators to ward off àbíkú and other pernicious spirits. The type of drum designed for the masquerade usually accompanies the song. But Bàtá drum is the commonly used drum by many masquerades. As they sing they dance with the hope of being victorious over these forces.

Another context of performance of àbíkú songs among the Yorùbá people is during the preparation of a prospective couple for the marriage ceremony. In the past among the Yorùbá, every step in marriage contract involves different types of divination with the ultimate aim of enhancing peaceful and fruitful marriage. This divination involves knowing through oracular consultation the type of person a prospective wife would be. If Ifá oracle forecasts that the would-be wife belongs to the children of the spirit world (àbíkú or Emèrè) there is the need to undergo a ritual whereby they will prepare a type of sacrifice called Ẹrù ọkọ òrun literally “load for the husband in heaven”. The ritual is to detach the born-to-die child from the ‘assumed husband’ in the spirit world. It is the belief of Yorùbá that most of these àbíkú that are females are already married to their male mates in the spirit world ever before they were born by their earthly parents. It is the belief that if the ritual is not observed the betrothed lady might die before her marriage day. And that the spirit husband (oko òrun) might be tormenting her and consequently render her marriage childless. It is also the folk belief that the spirit-husband will have sexual intercourse with her and will also bear him children in the spirit world.

In order to forestall this the Ifá priest (Babaláwo) prescribes the ritual items similar to the aforementioned ones to be offered to the sprit-husband and his other mates. These sacrifice materials are carried into the bush at the outskirt of the town in a place chosen by Ifá oracle. This is usually at the base of either Mahogany (Àràbà) or Ìrókò tree. These trees are believed to be the major meeting places of these groups of mysterious children. They sing to detach the spit-child from her mates in the spirit-word as they carry the sacrifice to the chosen spot. The parents of the àbíkú may also join cults devoted to interventionists’ sacrifices and prayers (ìwúre) meant to detach the àbíkú from the spirit-world mates. Another context of producing àbíkú songs is during the bride rendition of valedictory poetry- nuptial poetry. It is the customary practice among the Yorùbá girls during their marriage to ritualise their parting with their kinsmen and women with the nuptial poetry. Some of the songs render by the bride are for deliverance from this kind of wicked children who are born only to die prematurely. This is an example of such songs:

Ire, àní kí n má fàbíkú sẹwó– pray for me so that my first child will not be àbíkú,
Ire, àní kí n má yà nísò àgàn– pray for me so that I will not be numbered with barren women.

The havoc brought by women in Yorùbá society especially during the time that there was high rate of infant mortality is enormous. In order not to suffer from their mischievous acts new brides make it a cogent prayer point when performing epithalamium.

Here, a few Àbíkú songs are examined in order to bring out what they reveal about the cosmological beliefs and practices of Yorùbá people of Western Nigeria.

Satirical Songs

Satire serves as corrective measure for people who are in dire straits of social misbehaviour. It improves the moral standard that sustains the society. It expresses dislike for a particular deviant behaviour in a person, group of people, idea, opinion and institution. This is concomitant to Gilbert (1962: 231) who maintains that satire “wounds and destroys individuals and groups in order to benefit society as a whole”.

It is the belief of Yorùbá people that when they give certain names or make some statements to ridicule or lampoon the àbíkú it could help to discourage them from perpetrating their vices. Names in this category include Àkìtán-kyí (the dunghill has rejected this), Kòsk (there is no hoe – to dig ground – for your corpse), and many others. It is believed that open rebuke can make way for a change of attitude.

The Yorùbá placed much value on children as they despise barrenness and infertility. They believe that it is better for someone to have Àbíkú than not to have child at all. This captured in the Yorùbá saying: “Àbíkú pó jàgàn“, meaning, “Having àbíkú is better than barrenness”. However, Àbíkú are regarded as mysterious children and that is why they are ridiculed. In a particular song they are likened to useless plants, which are found on human body. They are found on human body because they are essential as children but they need to be ridiculed if this can prevent them from embarking upon their mischievous acts. The song says:

Èré-igbó ó dojúm o, Pàntí àjámra ó dàb o
(Good-bye fairy being in the bush, good bye useless plants on the body).

A number of other songs also belong to this group of satirical songs. The essence of satirical in Yorùbá ontology is to curb bad behaviour.

Praise Songs

There are songs that portray àbíkú as special beings that need to be revered and worshiped may be if they are praised they can change their attitude. One of such songs goes thus:

Ìyá Èré lẹ rí lẹ dúró-You saw the leader of Èré and you are standing.
Ìyá Èré lẹ rí lẹ ò bèrè– You saw the mother Èré you did not prostrate.
Èyin ò bèrè kára ó rò yín-You did not prostrate and live peacefully.
Ẹ dúró gangan ẹ bélésin dógba– You are standing as the horse rider.
Ẹ sin Èré o– You must worship Èré.
Èré làá sìnÈré must be worship.
Ẹni tí ò sìn– Anyone who refuses to worship.
Èré ń tanra rè jẹÈré deceives him/herself.

The above song is cryptic with meanings. There is a myth about àbíkú that in the spirit world they have their society and that their leader or mother called “Ìyá Èré” or Ìyá Jánjàsá coordinates the society. She is the one who gives any of the members who wants to go into the world the permission to do so. Thus, whenever people worship àbíkú, this mother of àbíkú is present with them to listen to their plea and might thereby show mercies on them. The song is also revealing the power and prowess of àbíkú and that anyone that refuses to hallow them could suffer punishment and have no peace. That is why the call is made that “Èré” must be worshiped. The singers at the shrine of Èré believe that the Ìyá Èré is present with them at the shrine that is why they made their requests known to her though she is not visible. Another song in this category goes thus:

Ìbà èré o– I pay homage to Èré
Èré, mo júbà oÈré, I pay homage to you.
Bómọdé ń kọrin– When a child is singing.
Aá júbà èré o– He/she must pay homage to èré.
Èré, mo júbàÈré, I pay homage to you.
Aráagbó adamọyọyọ– Fellow in the bush who is accompanied by plenty children.
Mo palé– I”ve beautified the house.
Mo sòsè– I”ve performed weekly ritual.
Má dá mi lóró– Don”t harm me.
Fọmọ mi fún mi– Give me my children.

Rituals accompanied by praises are of great importance in the worship of the Àbíkú children. This is because of the people’s belief that the Leader of these mysterious children is at present with them at the scene. They will dance to her, and make genuflexions to reverence her so that she can grant them their requests. It is a form of performance that could be regarded as cult drama and each phase is symbolic. Till today, this ritual process of appealing to their society in the spirit world for their favour and mercies is still in operation. It has not given itself to modernism or technological inventions for people still hold reference to beliefs in mystical beings and powers. Even, the incursion of Islam and Christianity has not succeeded in eroding this traditional belief from the people. Instead, these domesticated religions reinforce it in some ways.

Incantatory and Propitiatory Songs

The next category of àbíkú songs is incantatory and propitiatory songs. As noted earlier, the Yorùbá believe that it is rare for the power of Yorùbá traditional healers to curb the activities of the àbíkú. Therefore, they try to employ incantations, which they believe can ward off these strange spirits. This idea is reflected in a song rendered by a masquerade called JÀDÙKÚ.8 This masquerade comes out annually during egúngún festival in a town called Ekosin.9 As the masquerade sings round the town many items including, blood of he-goat, groundnuts, wine, kola nuts, bitter kola and honey. This pot will be thrown in a flowing river called Ògùn, located at the outskirts of the community. As they move round the town, these children will be singing after the masquerade thus:

Lílé: Òní làbíkú ó lọ nílè yìí oSolo: Today, àbíkú will cease from this land
Ègbè: Òní lọlómọ ó jèrè ọmọ-ọn rẹAll: Today, parents will have profit from their children
Lílé: Òní lemèrè ó lọ nílè yìí oSolo: Today, Emèrè will cease from this land
Ègbè: Òní lọlómọ ó jèrè ọmọ-ọn rẹAll: Today, parents will have profit from their children

Though the above song is a kind of incantation, but it is also a form of prayers. It is meant to ward off evil, including àbíkú spirits, and to prophesy into the community that parents who have been suffering from the àbíkú menace would begin to experience the joy of parenthood. This is because the children would live to ripe old age and succeed their parents. That children are expected to outlive their parents is further confirmed in another Yorùbá proverb that says, “Ọmọ kò láyòlé, ẹni ọmọ sin ló bímọ”. (Trans., your rejoicing at the birth of a new baby is not real, it is only the person whose children succeeded or who was buried by his children after his/her death could be regarded as the one who has given birth to children).

If somebody lived to a ripe old age but his children had died while he was still alive – no matter the age of the children – such person is not considered a successful parent. That is why everything possible is done in Yorùbá communities to prevent premature death, which they regard as a bad omen. It is relevant to know that there is a kind of link between masquerade and àbíkú. The Yorùbá word for the masquerade is either egúngún or ará òrun (host/person from heaven). Similarly, the àbíkú are called ará òrun.

Apart from this, the babaláwo and Onísègún (Native doctor) who are exponents of incantations use the same to ward off these àbíkú children. This they do as they carry their rituals to the outskirts of the town. This is contained in Ejìogbè of Ifá’s literature. The ritual materials include: fifteen fowls, fifteen pigeons, sugarcane, grind dry corn mixed with palm oil (ààdùn), groundnuts, salt, pepper and bean cake. They put these materials inside new calabashes and clay pots and it is carried to a dunghill where the ritual takes place. The Ifá priest will be reciting the incantation as they put the articles of rituals on the ground thus:

Ará òrun ẹ gbà yèwòHost of heaven consider this
Ẹbọ àìkú rè é oThis is sacrifice for long life
Ará òrun ẹ gbà yèwòHost of heaven consider this
Ará òrun ẹ pèyìndàHost of heaven from him/her
Ẹbọ Èjìogbè ọmọ òn mi rèé oThis is Èjìogbè sacrifice
Ará òrun ẹ pèyìndàHost of heaven abstain from him/her
Èsèkú òrun ẹ pèyìndàÈsèkú of heaven abstain from him/her
Èsèkú òrun ẹ pèyìndàÈsèkú of heaven from him/her
Ẹbọ Èjìogbe ọmọ òn mi rè é o.This is the Èjìogbè sacrifice of my son.

The Yorùbá believe that the inner selves of these spirit children have control over their heath and their willingness, either to live or to die. Therefore, the incantation-like song is used to address the inner selves (Orí inú) of these spirit children in order to secure their lives.

Though the Yorùbá employ incantation as a means of solving the problems of àbíkú in their communities, yet they have found out that they need to entreat the àbíkú rather than resort to force. That is why Yorùbá will say “èbè làá bẹ òsìkà“, that is “the wicked person is entreated”. This takes us to the last category of àbíkú songs, the propitiatory songs.

This category of àbíkú songs reveals many things about them. These include their personality as spirits or gods to be worshiped and propitiated so that they can show pity on people. They also reveal the articles of propitiation or worship, and the nature and structure of their society. This class of their songs constitutes the bulk of the songs that are sung for them. A possible explanation for this could be the inadequacy of using charms and incantations to curb their activities. This is why some àbíkú bear names that suggest they are being propitiated such as ÈBÈLÓKÚ10

(trans; the only thing left is to treat the child). One such song is rendered thus:

SoloTa ló le sèré na?– Who is capable to worship Èré?
AllMaa serè– I will worship Èré
SoloÒbúkọ béléjé– (With) fat calf
AllMaa serè– I will worship Èré
SoloÀkùkọ gàgàrà– (With) a tall or hefty fowl
AllMaa serè– I will worship Èré
SoloOwó orúpè wúwo– (With) big plenty of money
AllMaa serè– I will worship Èré
AllÈré làá sìn Ẹni tí ò sèré ń tanra rè jẹ– The person who refuses to worship Èré is deceiving him/herself.

The above song shows that Yorùbá people regard àbíkú as objects of worship. Also materials used in worshiping them are seen mentioned in the song. These include fatted calf, fowl and money. Women suffering from Àbíkú syndrome would present the items. Due to the special nature of these children, only special materials could be used in worship and not the ordinary or regular ones. This is reflected in the adjectives describing those materials including “fat”, “hefty”, and “plenty”. The song concludes with an important warning that it is compulsory to worship àbíkú children who operate mainly in the spirit world. It is not that they are physically seen when called but they are believed to be present at their shrine.

These children are regarded as mysterious and terrible and they can put their parents into shame due to childlessness or grief over their loss. Hence they appeal to them in a song like this:

Ọmọ má jẹ n té o– Child, don”t put me to disgrace
Ọmọ gbèbè mi– Child, accept my plea
Ọmọ má jẹ n té o– Child, don”t put me to disgrace

It implies that they need to be entreated so that they will not nip the joy of their parents in the bud by dying prematurely. It is the belief of the singers of this song that the inner selves of the àbíkú child hears the requests of the mother and consent to them. Childlessness brings a lot of reproaches to women in indigenous Yorùbá society and even till now. That is why a Yorùbá woman does all she could in order to have child that last. In the philosophy of the Yorùbá people a woman is not seen as a bonafide member of her husband’s family unless she has child. A typical Yorùbá woman would therefore prays that, “Kí Ọlórun jé kí n rídìí jókòó nilé ọkọ mi -may God give me the chance to sit down in my husband’s house”. Sitting down in her husband’s house portends bearing children for the husband that will make her to be well respected and treated as someone that has come to add to the numbers of people in her husband’s house. Another àbíkú propitiatory song that portrays them as powerful individuals who can show pity on their earthly mothers when entreated goes like this:

Lile:Solo:
Mò paléI have tidied up the house
Mo SòsèI have performed rituals
Má dá mi lóró fọmọ mi fún miDon”t punish me, give me my child
Ègbè:Chorus:
Mò paléI have tidied up the house
Ìyá Èré mo SòsèI have performed ritual, mother of Èré
Ojú ní ń rójú sàánúAn eye shows compassion on eyes
Má dámi lóró fọmọ mi fún miDon”t punish me, give me my child

The above song is loaded with meanings. Apart from confirming that rituals and sacrifices are offered to the àbíkú children, it also reveals that they have mother in the spirit world called “Ìyá Èré“.11 Ìyá Èré is believed to be the one presiding over the meetings of the Àbíkú group in the spirit world. She is also regarded as having the power to recall any àbíkú who is over staying his/her specified time on earth. Due to this tremendous power the Ìyá Èré possesses, those suffering from àbíkú syndrome/disorder entreat her.

Since women are easily the most affected when their offspring dies, they are usually the ones worshiping at the àbíkú shrine. That is why the mother of Àbíkú is regarded as “Eyes” that should pity or have compassion on “Eyes” which stands for the mothers of Àbíkú on earth.

In most cases, all pleas, rituals, sacrifices and propitiatory services made are directed towards this mother of the àbíkú children. She is also called “Ìyá Olúpèéde” in another song in Eksin.12 In that song, she is the mother Olúpèéde, the mother of born-to-die children who is called or entreated. The song goes thus:

Solo:Ìyá Olúpèéde– Mother Olúpèéde
All:Ma, pè é– I will call her
Solo:Ogún Orógbo– (With) forty bitter Kola nuts
All:Ma, pè é– I will call her
Solo:Òjì obì– (With) forty Kola nuts
All:Ma, pè é– I will call her
Solo:Èkuru wèlèmù– (With) fine bean cake
All:Ma, pè é– I will call her
Solo:Òbúkọ béléjé– (With) fat calf
All:Ma, pè é– I will call her
Solo:Àkùkọ gàgàrà– (With) a tall and hefty fowl
All:Ma, pè é– I will call her
All:Ẹgbé ò ò-Members of the society
Ìyá ò ò– Mother.

From this song, different materials used in offering sacrifice to the mother of àbíkú children in the spirit world are mentioned. These are twenty bitter kola nuts, forty kola nuts, fine bean caké,13 a fat calf, and a huge fowl. Àbíkú are worshiped like any other god or goddess in Yorùbá pantheon of Òrìà. The mother (Olúpèéde) is considered important and worthy to be called upon in order to show mercies on women suffering from child loss through the àbíkú syndrome. It is observed that women shoulder almost all responsibilities for child-care. That is why they are found entreating àbíkú children. It is believed that the spirit of mother Èré or Jánjàsá is present at the place of worship. Whatever ridicule cannot achieve; it is possible that praises can do.

From this song, different materials used in offering sacrifice to the mother of àbíkú children in the spirit world are mentioned. These are twenty bitter kola nuts, forty kola nuts, fine bean caké, a fat calf, and a huge fowl. Àbíkú are worshiped like any other god or goddess in Yorùbá pantheon of Òrìà. The mother (Olúpèéde) is considered important and worthy to be called upon in order to show mercies on women suffering from child loss through the àbíkú syndrome. It is observed that women shoulder almost all responsibilities for child-care. That is why they are found entreating àbíkú children. It is believed that the spirit of mother Èré or Jánjàsá is present at the place of worship. Whatever ridicule cannot achieve; it is possible that praises can do.

We gathered from our field work that many Yorùbá people still believe that àbíkú exist up till today and that when they are properly entreated they will stay with their mother on earth. In Òsogbo, many of these children who believed that they belong to this group of spirit children usually come together at the main shrine of Òsun during the annual communal worship of this civil Deity to sing with pride that they belong to the group. Below is an example of their songs.

A jogún nínú ẹgbé ò é é é– we have inheritance in our society,
A jogún nínú ẹgbé o à à à– we have inheritance in our society,
Olórìsà ló jogún òjé– It is the Ọbàtálá worshippers that inherit the lead,
A jogún nínú ẹgbé ò é é é– we have inheritance in our society.

This group of women are still visible during the performance of Òsun festival in Òsogbo. It shows that the belief in this mysterious group of children still exists.

Conclusions

This study examined the Yorùbá philosophical concept of àbíkú by analysing their songs, which forms an integral of Yorùbá cultural practices. The study has brought out the various names given to the àbíkú and the meanings in relation to their characters in Yorùbá cosmography. This work also attempts a classification of àbíkú taken both the scientific or modern healthcare justification and the Yorùbá biosocial into consideration. By highlighting the performance of àbíkú songs among the Yorùbá people, I extend the analysis beyond the text in order to include the social context and extra-textual components such as the ritual objects. It also attempts a classification of àbíkú genre based on their attributes and identified the various categories of songs rendered to them. These are propitiatory, incantatory, satirical and praise songs. The study showed that propitiatory songs form the largest number of songs. The peculiarity of àbíkú children as powerful and special children makes this possible. In conclusion, the phenomenon of àbíkú among the Yorùbá has not given way to modernism and domesticated religions in their society; instead, they reinforce this belief in a different dimension, solving the problem with a different approach.

Oral Sources

1. Pa yátóògùn E.A.100, Native Doctor (Onísègùn) in Eeksin, Odò-tìn Local Government, un State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 2000 and 2001.

2. Mrs. Safuratu Ifádoyin 94, Olúòfin priestess (Ìyálórìsà) and a singer of àbíkú songs, Èéksin, Odò-tìn Local Government, un State Nigeria. She was interviewed in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

3. Fagbade Aderemi, 41, Ifá priest (Babaláwo), Òkèigbó, in Òkèigbó/Il-Olúji Local Government, Ondo State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

4. Chief Ifayinka Isola Olutolu, 94, Ifa Priest (Babaláwo), Abeokuta, Chairman, Traditional Council, Ogun State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 1999.

5. Chief-Ifaymi, lbuibn, 56, Àwí of Osogboland, Oogbo, un State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

6. Chief Ganiyu Awotunde Agbaakin of If, 61, sanyìn priest, Iyekere, Ile-Ife, un State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

7. Chief Adéwlé Ifárìnwálé Ògúndìran, 60, a Traditional healer and Àwí of Modakk, un State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 1999 and 2000.

8. Chief Jáwélá Adéwlé Àwàlà, 55, Apènà of Ìsyìn, traditional healer, y State, Nigeria. He was interviewed in 1998, 1999 and 2000.

Mrs. Adenle Omileye, 59, Chief Priestess of Osun Cult in Osogbo, 1999 to date.She was interviewed in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

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  1. In this work, Àbíkú, which is the Yorùbá word for the studied subject, is used synonymously as born-to-die children. The plurality marker cannot be indicated. In Igbo language àbíkú is called Ogbanje. Àbíkú is also called Èré.
  2. People here refer to the informants who are mainly Traditional Healers, old people, and Ifá Priests.
  3. Àbíìbá is another names for a class of àbíkú. Literally, it means died before another one is born. This refer to the condition whereby a woman victim of àbíkú will have a small baby and carrying another pregnancy but shortly before she delivers the new baby, the small baby is nursing will die. The new baby will not meet the baby already born.
  4. They also have society called “Ẹgbé”. That is why gb-related names such as Ẹgbébùnmi-the society gave/dashed me, Ẹgbéfúnmiké- the society has given me this to nurse/pet, Ẹgbédùnúnní-Society is good to have and so on are found among the Yorùbá.
  5. ànpnná is also called balúayé who kills children with small pox.
  6. Their own week is seventeen days. It means that they are worshiped on every seventeenth day in many Yorùbá communities, even till today in many rural places.
  7. Ifá speaks a lot about Àbíkú, myths of Àbíkú could be found in some Ifá verses, such as Òfúnrosùn, Ogbèsá, Ìrtká, and so on.
  8. JÀDÙKÚ means a thug. This is the name of a masquerade specifically designed for the purpose of warding off evil from Ekosin Community.
  9. A Community is Odò-Òtìn Local Government, un State Nigeria.
  10. This is one of the names usually given to these strange children. It connotes that after several means of sustaining a particular child after several births proved futile, the only means of sustaining such is by entreating him/her. This is just to proof that these children have irresistible powers.
  11. Ifá has said a lot about mother of Àbíkú in the spirit. This is covered by forth-coming paper by Ajíbádé G.O., titled “Ifa Myths of Àbíkú”.
  12. Eksin as earlier pointed out in this work is one of the locations where this research was carried out.
  13. This cake is made from beans. It is the cake made from grounded raw beans without adding palm oil as in case of Mín-mín. Potassium Hydroxide (Kánún) is added to it.

Author: George Olusola Ajíbádé

Department of African Languages and Literatures, Faculty of Arts, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, Nigeria.

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