The ancient Yorubas had a well-developed sense of justice, and honor. Children honored their parents. The young honored the old. And subjects honored their king. They developed an elaborate system of greeting, accompanied by curtsies, kneeling, and prostrating before elders that was absent among other people.
The code of honor of this ancient people was rigid, and it was scrupulously followed. It was death before dishonor. Especially was this so among the rulers, warriors, and the nobility. If a leader no longer felt that his chiefs and people respected or followed him, he committed suicide rather than suffer disgrace. A king who was deposed most often had to end his life. But while the king was alive and reigning, his word was law. The people could only hear and obey. But even though the Alafin of Oyo was the supreme overlord, he rarely acted as an absolute monarch. Next to the king was the council of chiefs, which acted as a check on his power. As our people became more sophisticated in interpreting the will of the gods, these councils became more organized and powerful.
In the ancient Oyo empire, this council, comprising seven of the highest chiefs in the land, was known as the Oyo Mesi. The Oyo Mesi and the religious cult known as the Ogboni kept the Oba’s power in check. The Oyo Mesi was the voice of the chieftains and the highborn princes, while the Ogboni spoke for the common people.
In other towns of our people where there was no Oyo Mesi, there was only the Ogboni or Osugbo as the advisory council made up of ordinary people and chiefs. They advised the king and performed judicial functions such as the settling of civil cases brought by plaintiffs. In their judicial role, they were helped by the next line in the hierarchy, the priests.
Since justice ultimately resided in the hands of the gods, the priests, who were the messengers of the gods, enforced rules and pronounced guilt or innocence. These priests and priestesses were also prophets and seers. They consulted their deities and advised the king and his people on when to go to war, when to plant, and when to harvest. They organized festivals that bound the people together as a community. Along with the aroken, the court historians, the priests were also the main custodians of the history of the people and their gods. This history was handed down orally since our people had no written alphabet. Certain families of priests performed this function in different city-states.
Next in order of hierarchy, following the chiefs and the priests, was the warrior class. These were war captains who had distinguished themselves in battle in defense of the kingdom. These military heroes formed the third leg of the tripod of leadership. Among the larger Yoruba city-states that maintained an active military force, there developed a distinct class of warriors who carried out the bidding of the king when it came to the use of force. In Oyo, they were called the eso, an elite band of the bravest and most accomplished warriors of the land.
At the highest levels, this earthbound hierarchy was a rule mainly of men, not women. This was mainly because the chiefs, priests, and soldiers were men. After all, women did not go to war. And a woman could not succeed as king. However, there were important leadership roles for women in their society. Women were honored and respected as mothers, priestesses, and successful captains of commerce. They were neither silent or silenced.
Original art work. 'When gods ruled the earth' oil on canvas, Chinedu, 2018
In Oyo at the time of Sango, the most important person in the household of the king was the Iyaba—the king’s mother. Dukiya, as the king’s mother, was the major adviser to Sango. This tradition in Oyo was continued after this so that it was the Iyaba or king’s mother who would place the crown on the head of the Alafin when he was installed. Her position became so privileged that she was the only other person allowed to be present when the Alafin and the Bashorun performed the orun ritual.
Another woman in the king’s household who wielded great power was the Iyamode. She it was who attended to the spirits of the departed kings of Oyo. She invoked the egunguns or spirits of these dead kings in a special room allocated to her in the palace at Oyo. At his coronation, Sango knelt in greeting to this priestess, even though the king was not expected to kneel before anyone except the gods. Other women occupied important social and civil positions. The Iyalode was the leader of the women of the town, and she was usually also a member of the inner council of the king. The Iya alaje, mother of commerce, ran the markets. And many priestesses and seers were women, including the priestesses of Ogun, the god of war at the time of Sango.
Women did not just stay at home to cook or to take care of children. They left the house, farmed, traded, and contributed to the financial survival of their families, often feeding their children irrespective of the contribution of their husbands. In those early days, before and after the time of Sango, it was women who tilled the farms and brought in the harvest when men went to war. And there were stories of women who themselves went to war, including a few Iyalodes of old Oyo. These women were so powerful that they commanded their own troops in battle.
In time, each town in the golden age of our people came to be organized to have the same hierarchy as Oyo at the time of Sango. If a town was big enough, it had a king. His title was derived from the name of the town. Thus, we had the Olusabe of Sabe or the Olowu who ruled over Owu. If the town was small, the ruler was called the Bale. Power spread down from the ruler as it did in Ile-Ife and Oyo through the high chiefs, priests, and powerful men and women such as the Iyalode, down to the people.
It was a community of decision, worship, and justice. And the tie that bound this system together was the belief in the gods and a common trust in their omnipotence and justice. There was a perceived congruence between the governments on earth and in heaven. The old kings—Oduduwa, Oranmiyan, and Sango—became gods, and as gods, they continued to watch over the society.
And so sound and convincing was this foundation of society, on earth, dispensed by obas, chiefs, and priests, and in heaven, dispensed by the gods and spirits of departed kings and heroes, that this system lasted a thousand years in the golden age of our people. It reached its apogee in the age of the hero-kings like Sango, who were deified as gods.
Soon after the time of Sango, the pantheon of the gods of our people became complete. Olorun, Lord of Heaven, was supreme, although he did not interfere much in the routine, daily affairs of men. Each deity or god under Olorun had his or her place for a particular function in the affairs of heaven and of men. Obatala, later known as Orisanla, was the god of creativity. Orunmila, patron of priests, was the god of divination. Ogun was god of iron and war, and Sango was god of lightning and thunder. Olokun ruled over the mighty ocean. Esu Elegbara carried messages between gods and men. Oya protected her people, while Osun brought joy to the barren and took care of children.
Thus, men and women knew they were not alone in the world, unsupported in the tedium and harshness of their daily lives. They had the ear, support, and protection of immortal beings, which meant that as long as the gods existed, the very survival of our people was guaranteed. Men and women died, and 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.
It was an age in which gods walked the earth.