In this article:
- Though rare, twins are born every year and the phenemonon has existed for probably as long as humanity has existed.
- In Africa, different cultures have different longstanding beliefs about what it means when someone gives birth to twins.
- For some, birthing twins is a bad omen but for others, twins are rare living gods to be cherished.
Thanks to advancements in modern medical science, we now know that identical twins are born when one ovum splits into two after being fertilized. Meanwhile, fraternal twins are born when two different ova are fertilized by two different sperm cells, forming two genetically unique children.
Additionally, we also know that people over the age of 30 are far more likely to have twins. People who are especially tall and people with high levels of extra body fat are also more likely to conceive twins.
As research continues, medical professionals will surely grow closer and closer to having a full scientific explanation for the genetic circumstances that lead to the birth of twins. However, if you were to ask the people of West Africa in the Iron Age what caused the birth of twins, they would have a very different answer.
The mythology surrounding twins in West Africa is very important culturally and has been reflected in the art, storytelling traditions, and family values of the region. However, different communities in West Africa have different mythologies surrounding twins. Some of the people of this region believe twins to be an evil omen bringing bad luck while others believe them to be supernatural beings that have protective powers and should be cherished within the society.
While these beliefs were believed to have originated during the Iron Age (between about 200 BCE and 1000 CE in Africa), some of the inhabitants of West Africa still hold these beliefs today.
As is the case with many beliefs, the superstitions surrounding twins in West Africa were more than just stories. They dictated real people’s behaviors and affected real people’s lives. Let’s take a look at the mythology around twins in West Africa and the ways in which it affected the societies in which these mythologies existed.
Twins in Igbo Mythology
The Igbo are an ethnic group in present-day Nigeria with a not-so-friendly mythology about twins. During the Iron Age, they believed that twins were bad omens sent by the gods to bring devastation to a community.
In this belief system, twins are a scourge that must be removed from society before they bring destruction and death. Thus, many twins were killed by their own parents to prevent terror from raining down upon the tribe.
Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart, the most widely studied, read, and translated African novel of all time, was heavily influenced by traditional Igbo culture and very familiar with belief about twins.
In Things Fall Apart, he writes that twins were viewed as “an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender.” He then details the way in which twins were disposed of, saying, “Twins were put in earthenware pots and thrown away in the forest.”
Unfortunately, the practice of killing twins may have outlived the Iron Age with some reports of a few small communities continuing to practice infanticide in secret. Isolated groups in the Bassa Komo tribe are reportedly killing twins based on the belief that they’re blood-sucking demons who will kill either one or both of their parents if they’re allowed to survive.
This practice is terrifying and sad, but the Nigerian government and local humanitarian groups are working to rescue infants and spread educational campaigns to dispel the harmful beliefs about twins.
Twins in Yoruba Mythology
The Yoruba, another West African ethnic group living primarily in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, have a much different view of twins than the Igbo.
For the Yoruba, the birth of twins was an occasion to be celebrated. Twins were believed to have special powers that could bring great wealth to their parents. They were also thought to be under the protection of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning. Twins were greatly valued by their parents and their communities, so much so that a community would have monthly feasts in honor of the twins.
The Yoruba term for twins is “Ibeji” and it holds connotations of prosperity and protection. The first-born twin of a pair would usually be named “Taiyewo” and the second-born would be named “Kehinde.”
When one or both of the twins died, an Ibeji statue would be carved out to depict the siblings. It was believed that parents who neglected the care of their living twins or their Ibeji statue would be stricken with poverty and illness.
Indeed, parents were expected to sing to their Ibeji statues and even feed them. Ibeji statues would typically be made out of wood and adorned with necklaces made out of terracotta clay.
Interestingly, the connection between the Yoruba people and twins seems to be more than just mythological. In the Nigerian city of Igbo-Ora, where more twins are born than anywhere else in the world, as much as 5% of all Yoruba births are twins. While that still may not seem like much, the U.S. sees twins in just 3% of births by comparison.
While some say it could be genetics, others suggest that a potential cause is the prominent role of yams in the local diet. Yams contain a natural hormone known as phytoestrogen, which might just stimulate the ovaries to produce eggs from both sides more often. Regardless, it seems like a pretty nice coincidence that the city with the most twin births has a culture that values twins so much.
Twins in Photography
While an Ibeji statue is the typical way that Yoruba parents mourn the death of a twin, sometimes, a photograph will also suffice. This is part of what inspired Lagos-based photographer Stephan Tayo to start his ongoing project titled IBEJI.
Tayo, who was born in Ikere-Etiki but moved to Lagos years ago, is concerned with documenting local customs in an increasingly globalized world. IBEJI is a way of immortalizing a vital part of Yoruba culture through beautiful and thought-provoking photographs.
As Western influence spreads through the world and swallows up local cultures, finding ways to preserve folk traditions and beliefs becomes more and more important.
Collections like Stephan Tayo’s IBEJI are a way of helping modern Yoruba people remember the cultures of their ancestors and pay tribute to those who came before them. On top of that, there’s something extremely satisfying about looking at a photo of twins wearing the same outfit, regardless of whether or not they’re going to bring good luck to the world.