The meaning of my name — Part II

About seven weeks ago, I wrote about the meaning of names in Yoruba here, which was what I hoped would be the first step of an ongoing journey into the Yoruba language and culture. I chose to start with names for two reasons: first, they are the first connection with Yoruba, and for many in the diaspora the only constant connection; second, they are a fun way to explore a culture trough its vocabulary. Yoruba names are usually taken from well defined categories, the first two of which, Òrùkó Àmútọ̀runwá (names from heavens, destiny names) and Òrùkó Àbísọ́ (names given at birth, given names) are by far the most popular.

In this occasion I am going to delve into the third and last main category, Òrùkó Oríkì, which is connected to the characteristic Yoruba cultural phenomenon of praise poetry (panegyrics). Oríkì is the combination of Orí (= head) and (= greet, praise), and translates to ‘praising the mind’.

An Oríkì can be addressed to a single person or to a lineage, to gods, to animals and inanimate object. When directed at an individual, it is aimed at praising their ancestry and galvanising them: being addressed to by an elder with such chants arouses the spirit and inflates the mind.

They can vary in length: the shortest are single words, names (which I will get to at the end of this article), the longest are modular songs which require training and a long life to master. The more I read about this cultural form, the more I realized that explaining what Oriki’s are with the degree of completion I wanted to was naive at best.

Oriki chants can be accompanied by drummers

Oriki represents one of the most important keys to navigate the Yoruba culture and nothing less than an anthology can achieve that objective. Thus, I will only present a few examples that impressed me together with translations (to the best of my abilities and with help from my family). I refer to the previous part for the words that will not be explained in this article.

Oríkì Ọlọ́run (The 2000 names of God)

The performer in the music video above is the TV and radio presenter Abereola Oluwaferanmi Ashamu. The list of names of God commences at 0:30 and includes names like

Ọlọ́run : Owner of the heavens, Lord of heavens

Kabiyeesi : King

Ibẹ̀rẹ̀ ati opin : The Beginning and the End

Olúsegun : The conqueror (ogun = war)

Ọlọ́run agbalagba : Ancient of days (abgalagba = elder, elderly)

Alaànu : The merciful one (aànu = mercy)

Asọrọmáyé : The one who makes word reality (or ‘The one who brings words to life’, ọrọ = word and aye is life/reality/world)

A name can also be a phrase

Ọba ti mbé nibi gbogbo nigba gbogbo : The king that lives everywhere at every time —Ọba is another word for king or chief; gbobo indicates a totality and nibi, nigba are respectively a spatial preposition and a temporal preposition. This is partially a derivation of the classical Christian idea of the eternity of God and partially a reflection of the animistic roots of the Yoruba culture. Abstraction is rarely found in Yoruba, so the claim of God living everywhere at every time is not to be interpreted as an abstract thought or the definition of a potential, but the narration of an act.

As’oloríburukú d’olorire : The one who removes the inadequacies from ones life — The s particle, like in Asọrọmáyé, indicates a transformation. It is a common particles in the names of God, because of the fundamental association between the ideas of divinity and transformative power. Olori, which contains orí and the particle l that indicates possession, means those who posses an head (mind) qualified by burukú and ire. The former indicates ugliness and badness while the later indicates beauty and wellness.

Ọba t’oni gbogbo ọpẹ́: The king who deserves all praise — Ni is a verb for possession. In this case possession indicates the ultimate destination of the possessed entities. ‘He who possesses all praises’ = ‘He whom all praises shall be given to’.

Ọba ti o ma wa nigba t’áyé o nì sí mọ̀ : He who will remain at the end of all things — Wa is the verb for being, while nì sí mọ̀ translates to ‘not be there any more’. is a negating particle, is a form of being and mọ̀ is the equivalent of any more in negative temporal sentences.

Imole ninú okùnkùn áyé : The light in darkness — Imole is light, like daylight. Okùnkùn is darkness. Ninú is a spatial preposition.

The abundance of names hints to the fact some of them have been transferred from the deities traditionally worshipped before the arrive of Christianity. Among the deities that the people of Ondo used to worship, there was one above all others called Olodumare which was deemed too powerful and sacred to be worshipped directly. The name, presently, now goes to indicate the Christian God and the past connotation is mostly lost to current Nigerians. The oriki in the (subtitled) beautiful video below is for Sango, god of lightning and thunder.

Oriki Ejo (Praise of the Snake)

Gods are not the only recipients of praise poetry. The video above is part of the Oriki ejo (panegyrics for the Snake), performed by Ayanshina Khalid Ikeoluwa, popularly known as Beriola, a young Yoruba cultural ambassador and custodian (check out his Bata dance here

Oriki ondo (Praise of the Land of Ondo)

Ondo is one of the centres of Yoruba people (I was born in Akure, which is in Ondo state). This video is an oriki in praise of the Ondo people. It contains numerous references to dogs and iron, which are easilly explained by the following two facts.

One of the ancient deities of Ondo is Ogun, god of smithy and lord of iron. Ogun is believe to be an hunter came from Ile-Ife (land of Ife, a place in Yoruba land and the mythical origin of Yoruba people) to Ire-Ekiti during a game and decided to stay. Festivals in his honour are held annually across the state and combines the worship of the god with the worship of the ancestors of the Ondo people. Masquerades, palm oil, palm wine, roasted yam, cold water, cola nuts and dogs are materials used to worship the deity.

Dog (ajá) meat is considered a delicacy in some parts in Nigeria, including Ondo town. It is something frowned upon, or at least considered strange, by the majority, but the practice of eating dogs persists.

The translation is brought to you the family of my auntie in Ekiti.

[Beginning of the woman’s chant]

Will you follow me to Ondo once again?
Those who eat dogs leave in God’s Iron shrine (lit: leave in Ogun)
Those are the people who marry where there is wealth (owo = money)
Yes, I will follow the blacksmith to where is is going, to where he is leaving
Those are the children who play love, which will later turn to children

[Beginning of the man’s chant, from 0:57]

Ondo, you said you will never eat dogs again
In future, you will be called eater of dogs
Those who eat dogs are coming back again
No Ondo daughter or son should eat iran (plant variety) leafs nor the iran root

The man in the video is, in fact, Sulaiman Ayilara Aremu, known as Ajobiewe, a widely known Oriki singer, with deep knowledge and fluency about historical conquests of the Yoruba towns and lineages. This is his account with former Nigerian president Obasanjo

When I started chanting Obasanjo’s family praise, citing his pedigree, he held his head in his hands and stared at me. His eyes were misty, ready to shed tears. By the time I finished chanting his praise, he called me and gave me N40,000, announcing to the crowd that I was the first artiste he would give money.

Oriki obinri (Praise of the Woman)

In part I discussed abut the meaning of and obinrin (female, woman) and okurin (male, man); I found a poem in praise of women. The first stanza is below and I have to thank my mother for the translation. The complete oriki can be found here.

Obinrin ni aya okunrin, Obinrin ni iya okunrin
Okunrin a ma lagbara sugbon obinrin a ma l’ete
Ete si niyi, ni iwon ju agbara lo
Ni won ma fi ni wipe Okunrin ti obinrin o le mu, iyen ti mi tan l’atano
Obinrin a pa eje modi, atun fidi le le, Okunrin to t’eje lese lojo si nkan? o fin tiro rin ni.

Woman is wife to man, woman is mother to man

Man has the strength (agbara) but Woman has deceit (ete)

And deceit is stronger than strength

That is why it is said that there is no man that woman cannot catch

Woman will have blood (eje) in her sex and will still sit on it, what about the man that steps on blood? He walks limping.

Oríkì in names

Finally, we get to the use of Oriki in given names, (a.k.a. pet names); oruko oriki are different from oruko abiso in that they are focused on the child and call for special care for him or her. The following are popular for males, the prefix ak remarks intentionality of an action.

Akanbi : one who is deliberately born (bi = to give birth to)

Ayinde : one who is praised on arrival (ayo = joy / appraisal)

Akande : one who arrives in full determination

For females, popular names have the suffix ke, which indicates care

Ayoke : one who people are happy to care for

Arike : one who is cared for on sight (ri = to see)

Abike : one that is born to be pampered

In conclusion

I have listened to more I could process before the publication of this article and learnt more than I could write here during the research for it. However, I hope I have done enough to convince you of the following important fact: Oriki is a collective memory device, in the form of praise poetry, trough which traditional lore, values, virtues and accomplishments are transferred between Yoruba generations.

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