The Nigerian Ibeji dolls are figures of great symbolic importance to the Yoruba. The Yoruba live in present day southwestern Nigeria (see blue-shaded area on map at right), in tropical rain forests and northern savanna grasslands. Commonly known as Ibeji twins, carved wooden dolls like the one pictured above, are representative of the Ibeji cult of worshiping twins. The figures are also known as Ere Ibeji: “ere” meaning sacred image; “Ibi”, meaning born; and “eji”, two. The Yoruba of Nigeria have a high rate of twin births: 45 out of every 1,000 Yoruban births result in twins. Comparatively, in the US, only 29 out of 1,000 births are twins.
At one time considered a curse, twins were victims of infanticide. In the mid-1700s, opinions changed and they were revered as omens of great fortune and promise. Therefore, when a twin or both twins died, an Ibeji doll was commissioned by the parents of the deceased child. These hand carved, wooden dolls represented the spirit of the deceased twin or twins. The Yoruba people believed the spirit of the deceased twin must be placated to ensure prosperity, wealth and overall good fortune. Since the Ibeji dolls hold the position of deceased children in life, they are fed, clothed and cared for by the women of the family. Many believe that to neglect the dolls brings great misfortune to the family.