This Is The Story Of How The Ijimere (Patas Monkey) Became Sacred And Important In Yoruba Traditional Religious Beliefs
Iroko ni baba igi (Iroko is the father of all trees)
Ijimere ni baba obo (Ijimere is the master of all monkeys)
Olomoshikata baba agbado (Olomoshikata is the father of maize)
Iyen lo n bi won ninu (That is why they are furious)
Ti won fin sare kiri (And makes them scamper around)
Won gba oju ile (Through the main entrance)
Won gba ona eburu (Through the hidden routes)
Nitori iwonikan (All because of you)…
King Sunny Ade, in one of the his timeless songs.
Yoruba traditional beliefs idolize a number of animals and one of the most prominent of these creatures is the Ijimere (Patas monkey, Erythrocebus patas). But why is this particular monkey venerated in traditional beliefs of the Yorubas? What makes it so special? That is what I will be looking at in this piece.
Ijimere is the reddish-brown patas monkey (some other say it is the brown savannah monkey but whatever the case, it should not be confused with the Edun which is the forest-dwelling Colobus monkey). In Yorubaland, Ijimere occupies a very prominent role and in the Oyo area of the southwest for example, Ijimere plays a role so integral that the skulls of the Ijimere are embedded in or carved into the headdresses of some of the most important Egunguns.
The patas monkey is a ground-dwelling monkey found in the semi-arid areas of West Africa, across to East Africa. The males are much larger than the females and can reach 85 centimeters in length. Because they can reach speeds of up to 55km/h, Ijimeres are the faster runners of all the primates (this allows them escape easily from predators), they are coloured red-brown on their backs and grey white on the chest. They can also be easily recognized on their faces with a black brow ridge and nose and a white area around their mouths.
According to Yoruba myths, the Ijimere was once a human being and devoted follower of the great god, Orunmila. As a human being, Ijimere was a highly-gifted hunter who also had overflowing powers of magic. But on one occasion, he committed an act of disloyalty against Orunmila who out of anger placed a heavy curse on Ijimere and he was transformed into the monkey that he is today. The myth goes further that although Ijimere retains some of its human features, the curse meant that it will forever live inside the forest but will be superior to other animals in intelligence. Wait a minute, does this mean that the Yoruba ancestors had some ideas on human evolution? Also called Iji, Ijimere is the red patas monkey while Edun is the brown/black monkey, they should not be mixed up.
Another myth states that Ijimere was produced when a woman mated with an ape but scientifically that is not even a possibility. However, the ifa myth that gave us this line is called Owonrin Meji and according to that divination narrative, Ijimere then asked that he become the first masquerader named Labala for ’in this form his animal features would be covered up’.
Now that you know of the esteemed status of Ijimere before the ‘might fall’ from grace to grass, here are some of the beliefs that Yorubas still have about the Ijimere:
- When Ogun the god of war, iron and hunting went for his very first hunting expedition, the Ijimere was one of the first animals that he killed. Other animals that he killed on that same occasion were the Egbin, Agbanrere, Igala and Esuro. The interesting thing is that all these animals are found in Yorubaland while animals like the alpaca or llama of South America never feature, another fact that lends credence to the idea that religion is nothing but a construct of a specific region accentuated by a blend of social and cultural norms. Why didn’t Ogun kill the Siberian tiger for example? Lol! Anyway, let’s move on. Because Ogun killed these animals, it is obligatory for the Layewu masquerades to use their skins as part of their costumes during their festivals.
- Whenever it is time to make the charms for vanishing and disappearance (these charms are called afeeri and egbe), one of the ingredients used is the skin of the Ijimere alongside the skin of Igala, Esuro and other medicinal herbs all of which are blended. Whether we can coat our air force planes with this preparation to make them invisible to radar is what I do not know yet.
- Yoruba hunters believe that when one of them becomes deceased, he or she has metaphorically become an Ijimere whose spirit can be summoned if need be.
- Ijimere is not only venerated among the followers of Ogun, it is also equally very important in the Egungun (Masquerade) mythology which states that Ijimere is half-monkey, half-human and was the very first Egungun. Followers of the Egungun cult take the Ijimere to be the transition between man and animal and that is why the Egungun festival itself is considered the bridge between life and the hereafter. Yoruba traditional religions do not have the concept of eternal punishment, Heaven and Hellfire as in Middle Eastern Abrahamic religions like Islam, Christianity and Judaism but the idea of an afterlife where existence continues is prevalent.
- That is however, not all about the Ijimere and the Egungun cult, they also see this monkey as the link and connection between this life and the spirit life by the way it ascends and descends trees. So the belief is that Ijimere can connect this world with the other world and effortlessly navigate between these multidimensional realms of existence. Because of this extraterrestrial ability they believe the Ijimere has by being able to see into the next world, it is seen as a symbol of wisdom and vigilance. The red costume that Egungun worshippers wear as part of their costume is to honour the Ijimere which also has a reddish fur.
- The paws and skulls of the Ijimere are usually ground to powder or paste with some other ingredients as medicine to prevent death of human beings due to sickness. The belief in Ijimere is this high and people still do it till today. Ulli Beier’s nickname Obotunde Ijimere is a reference to this creature. Movies have been made named after the monkey and even songs have been named after it. See below:
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
- Patas monkey
- African Arts, Volume 11, African Studies Center, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977, pages 22, 28.
- Two, Three, Four: Multiples in Africa Art: Essay by Donna Page, L. Kahan Gallery, African Arts, 1987.
- Funeral Dirges of Yoruba Hunters by Bade Ajuwon, Nok Publishers International, 1982, pages 106, 126, 127.
- Patas monkey
- Patas monkey
- Patas monkey
- Odu, Volume 18, Institute of African Studies, 1978.
- Egungun Among the Oyo Yoruba by S O Babayemi, Oyo State Council for Arts and Culture, 1980.
- Nigeria Magazine, Issues 145 – 151, Federal Government of Nigeria