Itan - Legends of the Golden Age Series





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I grew up listening to stories of the legendary Oduduwa, the progenitor of the Yoruba people, as I sat outside as a child in Ibadan with other children on moonlit nights. I was told these old stories by two great story-tellers in my family, my mother, Adedotun and my grandmother, Efunyemi. And even after I became a physician, my interest in the legends, myths and history of the the Yorubas never diminished. The more I read, the more I was determined to tell this story in a new and complete way, not only to people in Yorubaland but to the whole world. The story, I felt, should be told not just in snippets in old, out-of-print paperbacks in obscure libraries, or in short stage plays about Moremi and Sango. There should be a major effort to tell the story in a written, widely circulated format that would be easily available to everyone. What is more, it should be told in a way that is fun and engaging.


The reader might well ask, ‘Why is it important to have a book in the popular genre that tells the story of the Yorubas? Why would the ancient stories, myths and legends of this African ‘tribe’ be important or interesting to readers living in modern North America, Europe or Australia?’


Well, it happens that the Yorubas are one of the most dynamic and influential ethnic groups to emerge out of the African continent in the past two centuries following the colonization of their continent by European powers in that era known in history as the ‘Scramble for Africa.’

Yorubas consider themselves to be a great and ancient people. Their ancestral African homeland, in the grassland and rain forest of western Nigeria, extends to the neighboring west African countries of Benin, Togo and even Ghana. By virtue of the spread of many of its people through the transatlantic slave trade between the 15th and 19thcenturies, and voluntary migration for the proverbial ‘golden fleece’ in the twentieth and twenty-first century, Yoruba language, customs and ideas have become part of the popular culture in Canada, U.S., the Caribbean, Cuba, Latin America and the United Kingdom. This Yoruba Diaspora, as it is called, is vibrant and dynamic, contributing positively to the growth and commerce of the communities in which Yorubas are found in large numbers. Today, it is estimated that the population of persons claiming Yoruba culture or origin, or speaking a form of the Yoruba language number about 50 million around the globe. Yorubas are to be found in every country of the globe. Thus a story about the origin and myths of the Yoruba people is of interest, even importance to the modern world.


'So, why can’t we modern Yorubas, an important African ethnic group, have a written epic of our own? Why can’t we enjoy a published classic that would be like Homer’s 'Iliad' or Malory's 'Morte d'Arthur?’ These were the questions I asked myself as I sat down to write the series of stories that became "Itan,' or legends of the golden age. 'Itan' in Yoruba means story. This is the story of the children of Oduduwa.

The writing of this book was my response to a call from my ancestors asking that their story be told to a receptive modern audience. And instead of the retelling of a boring list of historical events and dates, I asked myself, 'Why not tell the story with a liberal injection of imagination that will combine well-known ancient legends with actual history, so that the reader is both entertained and educated?' Thus, I chose the literary device of the 'historical novel' with the book deliberately written as an epic. The goal was that those who know something about Yoruba history and mythology will enjoy a fresh and complete retelling of these tales while the rest of the world will be introduced to one of the richest of the world’s oral literary legacy from the world’s oldest continent. 

The writing of the ‘Itan – legends of the golden age’ trilogy proved to be an ambitious undertaking, given my lack of time as a busy physician and the paucity of original research on the early periods of Yoruba history. In the end, the subject proved so massive that the story went from being a single book of a couple of hundreds of pages to a 3-volume trilogy of 1500 pages and an accompanying book of short stories.


The trilogy starts in Book 1, 'Gods and heroes' with the establishment of Ile-Ife by Oduduwa. It relates the stories of the ‘golden age’ of the Yoruba dynasty of kings which ended with the collapse of the Oyo Empire in 1836. Book 2, 'A time of troubles' takes us through the climactic nineteenth century, the era of the warlords. It ends with the colonization of Yorubaland by the British at the end of that century. Book 3 'A new age' is the aftermath of the coming of the white man as new heroes emerge to write a new chapter in the story of the Yorubas. 


Along this 1,000 year journey, we meet the deities and great heroes of Yorubaland. We start with the heroism and sacrifice of Moremi, the great national heroine of the Yoruba people, and we are treated to a believable re-enactment of the coming of Oduduwa from the east. The longest chapter in the book, 'When gods walked the earth' details the ancient customs and rituals of the Yorubas interspersed with exciting stories of their ancient gods and heroes. Foremost among these are the adventurer and conqueror, Oranmiyan, as well as Sango, who became the god of thunder, and his two wives, Osun and Oya, who were also deified after their deaths. We journey with the hero Obanta on his epic quest to establish Ijebu-Ode and marvel at the heroic deeds of Oba Ozolua and Esigie of the Benin Empire. The chapter, ‘The sacred river’ is a totally imagined journey into myth and fantasy tied to the story of the founding of the town of Ikenne. In the closing chapters of Book 1, the reader is taken through the annals of the great Oyo Empire at the pinnacle of its power when it defeats the mighty Ashanti Empire at the Battle of Atakpame, followed by its decline and fall in ‘An empire falters’ and ‘The last of the hero-kings.’  Along the way, we meet such historical and arresting figures as the British travellers, Mungo Park and the Lander Brothers. 


In books 2, A Time of Trouble the reader is treated to stirring tales of Kurunmi, Ogunmola, Ogedengbe and other famous warlords of the 'time of troubles' as well as Madam Tinubu, Oba Akitoye, Esan Da Rocha, Ajayi Crowther and Capt. C.P.L. Davies, colorful figures who dominated the story of the early colony of Lagos. As the action switches to the twentieth century in book 3 , A New Age, we hear the stories of Israel Ransome-Kuti, Obafemi Awolowo, Tai Solarin and Col. Victor Banjo, modern Yoruba heroes whose names have entered into popular folklore. 


Throughout the books of 'Itan - legends of the golden age', these tales of heroes, gods, adventurers and emperors are seen through the eyes of members of the author’s family. Their stories are told to children who grew up in the early twentieth century in the town of Ikenne by the Old Woman, of whom my grandmother, Efunyemi was a protege. The 'Itan' trilogy is filled with great scenes from the mythology and history of the Yoruba people. In telling the story, I have tried to use a voice that is heroic but authentic, with a prose style that hark back to the heyday of the nineteenth century European novel - Walter Scott, Turgenev, Victor Hugo, Balzac, even Rider Haggard in 'King Solomon's Mines.' Based on exhaustive research, the scenes are given an aura of realism and authenticity befitting a 'historical' novel. For instance, in the story of Oya, the book gives a very plausible description of the moment of the apotheosis of a great goddess.


She looked up at the sky and saw the clouds part. She thought she heard a voice say, ‘Come to me, my daughter, my child. Welcome home,’ She listened again but she heard no more. With this, she made up her mind. She squatted, coiling her body like a baby in the womb. Yes, it would be a new birth for her. She was going back to the eternal womb where she came from. A life among the immortals. Without a sound, she made a springing movement like that of a cat and leapt into the river below. 

(Book1, Chapter 3: When Gods walked the earth)

There are stirring scenes of war, as in this story of my ancestor, Osogbesan, confronting one of the dreaded female Dahomean warriors, known as 'ahosi,' for the first time on the battlefield.

As he stepped back from the thrust of that expertly wielded sword, Osogbesan slipped on a fallen comrade, losing his saber. The ahosi rushed in, a savage look of triumph on her face. Osogbesan crouched low, his hand reaching blindly behind him for his fallen weapon, while he gazed upward at that beautiful face of doom looming over him. But at the very moment that she raised her hand to strike, his assailant stopped. To Osogbesan, the world seemed to stand still in that instant. The ahosi looked at him intently for a second, then her beautiful wild eyes took on a faraway look of shock and surprise. And just as suddenly, the spell was broken. Without a sound, the maiden fell forward and collapsed on Osogbesan. Her eyes were glazed and fixed. The young face wore a painful last expression. Blood now rushed out of the open mouth. As the body fell face down on the earth, Osogbesan saw that there was a wooden-handled projectile sticking out between the shoulder blades. It was a grotesque, almost perverse sight, even to a war captain used to seeing men fall in battle. The ahosi had been transfixed from behind by a spear thrown by one of Osogbesan’s men.

(Book 1 Chapter 8: An empire falters)


And as expected in a heroic and sometimes tragic epic, many of the heroes would meet a violent end, as in this description of the death of Afonja.

It was then that another horseman, clad all in black, appeared at the end of the courtyard. He had his turban wound around the lower half of his face, covering his mouth and nose, like a veil. It was Abdulsalam, son of Alimi, Afonja’s former friend. His father had promised that he would be made emir of Ilorin, which would become a Fulani state ruled under Moslem tenets, once Afonja was gone. The veiled horseman pointed his horse at the struggling group, dug his spurs into the flanks of his horse, and at full gallop, launched his lance at Afonja. The lance went right through the middle of Afonja’s chest, transfixing him and the Fulani who held him from behind to the wooden post that supported the roof of the porch on which they stood. Afonja was already dead and made no sound as his assailants descended on his erect body, hacking with their daggers and throwing their spears at him. Death must have come quickly, but the body stood transfixed in that macabre upright position, held in a death embrace by the dead Fulani cavalry man behind him who himself was fixed to the wooden post. The black clad Fulani said something and the furious attack on the dead Afonja stopped. He dismounted from his horse and came close to peer at the body. His companions stood around him, watching silently. They did not touch the body. After a few minutes, satisfied that Afonja was dead, the horsemen left him there and rode away, cheering and singing a Hausa song of victory.

(Book 1 Chapter 8: An empire falters).

In summary, I have tried to tell the story of a great and ancient African people who continue to have a great influence on the culture of our modern world. Deliberately written as an epic, the story gives the reader the whole tableau of Yoruba history and mythology as a vast and rich panorama, seen through the eyes of a single Yoruba family and the Old Woman, the fabled story-teller. The actions, scenes and dialogue are largely my invention. Each chapter has been deliberately constructed so it can be read by itself. There are stories within stories, so that the reader is asked to peel back layers, like the skin of an 'alubosa' or onion. I have used the power of the imagination to create new myths and legends that hopefully will take their honored place alongside the well-established traditional fables of our people. I have also tried to retain an atmosphere of realism. In these stories, the men walk, talk and act like actual persons. They betray those who love them. They scheme for power and position, much like our modern political and military leaders. The women are real, with the foibles and idiosyncrasies of their sex. They plot against their rivals and they succumb to the charms of men who seduce them.


In the end, I hope I have written a book that throbs with the vigor and excitement of youth - the youth of the heroic age of the Yorubas, everyone’s youth, the youth of the whole world of mankind. For whose heart would not ache with pity for the pain of Moremi as she knelt in tears before the shrine of the goddess Osirimi as her triumph in defeating Ojuwere and his ‘igbo’ invaders turned to ashes? Who would not hail the strength of Sango, rejoice in his triumphs, recoil at his excesses, and welcome his return from the dead as a deity – the god of thunder? And whose heart would not pulse with excitement at being a witness to that epochal battle when the brave but outnumbered Oyo cavalry turned back the mighty Ashanti army at Atakpame. No major story, myth or landmark in the history of the Yoruba people is left out in this vast compendium of stories, a fact that will be welcome to the legion of happy enthusiasts who delight in the folk tales and myths of Africa, a part of the world that has not been much written about.

The general reader anywhere will surely delight in these stories of myth, history and imagination as if they happened yesterday. These are universal stories of gods, heroes and demons, of the eternal fight between good and evil, the quirkiness of fate and the inconstancy of fortune, that people of every race have loved since ancient times, and for which we still yearn in our modern age.

'The ancient Yorubas knew they were not alone in this world, unsupported in the tedium and harshness of their daily lives. They had the ear, support, and protection of immortal beings. As long as the gods existed, the survival of their people was guaranteed. Men and women died, children were born, but the cycle of existence would continue, anchored in place by the creativity and actions of the immortal and immutable Olorun and his hierarchy of gods and goddesses. It was a world of comfort, order and permanence, established in that era long ago when men were heroes, and heroes became gods.' 


-Book 1 Chapter 3 'When gods walked the earth'



Oladele Olusanya, Author,

'Itan - legends of the golden age' trilogy

Published by Xlibris, USA, copyright 2018


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