The incidence of twin births is extraordinarily high among the Yoruba peoples, but so is infant mortality. Ere ibeji are Yoruba memorials to twins who have died. In 1830, the British explorer Richard Lander encountered mothers carrying carved wooden figures, which he understood were little memorials. The ere ibeji shown here represent deceased female triplets or siblings from two sets of twins in one family, a relationship indicated by their identical facial markings.
Twins are believed to be the children of Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. They are also thought to possess supernatural powers and share the same soul. A memorial figure serves as a receptacle for half of the shared soul.
Although representing deceased infants or children, ere ibeji depict them as adults in the prime of life. Each figure is dressed and adorned according to the gender, social status and religious affiliation of the twin for which it stands. These ere ibeji wear an elaborately beaded vest, a sign of royal status. The decoration is symbolic. The birds on the shoulders, for example, indicate the protection of Oshun, a river goddess, while the color-filled zigzags refer to Shango's thunderbolts. The interlace patterns, called salubata, are associated with royalty or leadership. The pattern may also depict intertwining snakes, symbols of continuity.
The mother of a departed twin carries an ere ibeji tucked in her wrapper and treats it as a live infant in the belief that to deny twins--Shango's children--is to court their wrath. Thus, to forestall grave misfortune, the sculptures are bathed, rubbed with oil, clothed and adorned. They are kept in the family's twin altar or in a calabash container with paraphernalia used in Shango worship.