Oduduwa artwork in OAU Ife
A 10-ft piece of artwork in Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife illustrates the Yoruba creation story with Oduduwa descending to spread dry land with a cock. Source: Lagos City Photos Blog

Oduduwa is the eponymous founder and ancestor of the Yoruba race. Both titles attributed to him, however, appear not to be literal. The most plausible representation of him is of a Prince installed by, or aligned with the Byzantine imperial powers, who fled to West Africa due to a major religious strife between Chalcedonian Catholics and the anti-Chalcedonian Catholics, which snowballed, into a Civil War. The more idealized version must have developed much later, owing to the need to develop a more idyllic view of this respected King of Ife, probably the first. That Oduduwa came from heaven is apparently the imagination of subsequent Yoruba kings who desire, like their counterparts in Medieval Europe, to be seen as having derived their authority from God. It is not surprising that all Yoruba kings trace their genealogy to Oduduwa some way. The name Oduduwa probably means Odu, the container, and Iwa, behaviour; hence, Oduduwa must have been seen as gentleman personified, or the essence of culture. This etymology again, appears to be older than the other version, which explains the name simply as Odu, a container, hence, accepting it as meaning ‘container of existence.’

That Oduduwa was a Mecca prince has been contested by one of the earliest modern day Yoruba historians, Samuel Johnson, his reasons been that there is no parallel record in the annals of Mecca princes, of a riot of such magnificence.  Oduduwa may have been a black occupier of some Arabian territory, backed by foreign powers, possibly Byzantine imperial authorities. If this line of thought is true, then nothing can be more probable than the supposition that this prince was either Egyptian himself or backed by the Egyptians who were at that time practicing mainstream Catholicism. This theory, brought forward by Samuel Johnson himself, together with insight given on the person of Oduduwa also sheds a light on the dating of this event.

One thing that is apparent from stories that were told of Oduduwa is that he was chased to Ile Ife not by Moslem enemies but by fellow Christian adversaries who opposed the Chalcedonian orthodoxy. The Idi, traditionally known as the Koran that was recovered from these enemies were said to have been kept by the Oduduwa warriors and venerated as a spiritual object. Common logic proves this inaccurate. One is more likely to burn an enemy’s artefact than venerate it. Idi, as Samuel Johnson also conjectured, could have been a copy of the Bible, a precious substance to the two opposing camps, the Bible at that time, been a very scarce item.

What seem more probable about Oduduwa is same historian’s hypothesis that Oduduwa was a Christian conqueror of minor Eastern territory, whose sale of idols has been misconceived by early Oyo oral historians as polytheism. The idols could have been images of Virgin Mary, and of the saints. Gods, after all, are supposed to be objects of veneration, not to be sold. It is unthinkable that a Middle Age priest would sell the images of the gods to people and engender personal relationship of the people with the gods, thereby compromising their own relevance. One is bound to wonder if Asara, who was Oduduwa’s priest, would rather not have people come to his shrine to grovel at the image of his gods. The sound of Oduduwa’s priest name, Asara, lend further credence to this supposition, Asara, being a corrupted pronunciation of Ansara, the name by which followers of ‘Christ the Nazarene’ are frequently called.

Now, if Oduduwa was a Christian, a full traditional one who remained aligned to the church in Rome after the great controversy that torn the church in Egypt apart, what kind of Christian was he? Definitely not more than a ceremonial one. He must have seen religion as a tool of power and as a powerful minority leader, has subdued the Coptic Christians in his minor province with the help of the Byzantine authorities, the empire that survived the fall of Rome. On his expedition across the Sahara, he had met Agbonniregun, who introduced Ifa divination to him. He had also subsumed his own ways under those of the aborigines. Political influence, been the goal of his policies. However, there are indications that he must have made efforts at evangelizing, because the earliest of Yoruba histories showed perverted understanding of the scripture. The story of Moremi and her son, Ela, is much like that of the Virgin Mary and Christ, especially because Ela, or Olurogbo was supposed to come back to the earth to reign probably same way he ascended into heaven. Also, Oranyan, who was Oduduwa’s last son, as king, had left a stern injunction to his beloved servant Adimu at Ile Ife to keep the Idi (most likely a Bible) together with Orisa Osi as the national objects of worship.

Oduduwa died in Ile Ife, loved and cherished by the people. He must have reigned as Ife king in old age, or at least in his middle age, hence, his highly cultured, fatherly disposition. The people of Ile Ife, from which the entire Yoruba nation arose, did not only see him just as a king or father but as the first most important figure in their long oblique history. It may thus be accepted that he was the founder of the Yoruba nation.