The Yoruba, to which Wole Soyinka belongs, is one of the three largest ethnic groups of Nigeria. The Yoruba, who number approximately 12 million, inhabit southwestern Nigeria and the Republic of Benin in south eastern and central Dahomey. Most Yoruban's raise yams and corn as their staple crops, cocoa recently gaining importance as a major cash crop. They produce about ninety percent of the cocoa for the entire country. Other men work as traders or craftsmen, and their economy is structured around agriculture, trading, and handicrafts. Yoruba women do not work. They attain social status through their role in the market system, rather than on their husbands economic status (The Yoruba Tribe, C.S. Intermedia).
The origin of the Yoruba in Nigeria can not be clearly deciphered. It is believed that their primary descendents, the Odudua, came from Egypt. This assumption is based on the resemblance of the sculptures found in Egypt and the sculptures found in the mythological center of Yoruban life, the city of Ife (Dictionary of Black African Civilization). According to their myths, their founders were the sons of Odudua. The Yoruba still refer to themselves as "the children of Odudua." When he died, his property was divided up among his seven sons, and the Yoruba grew after a period of wars. Even though they had a common origin, religion, and culture they never combined into a single political organization.
Most Yoruban towns were either farm oriented or were located on the crossroads of trade routes where traders stopped to rest. In most towns the market place is usually located in front of the king's palace which is in the center of the town. The towns were founded by the Baale (father of the land), who in turn was named king. He was the religious and political leader of the town. It was the king's job to name the chiefs; Otun, the "right hand man", and Balogun, the War Chief. The king was considered a sacred person, like a living god. He could not be seen or spoken to directly. He also could not eat in public . He did not die, simply passing on his crown to another Yoruban instead (National Dictionary of Nigeria).
Many of the Yoruban's are now either Christian or Muslim, but some have held on to their traditional religious beliefs. In the religion of the Yoruba a continuity can be seen between the divinities, the kings, and the ancestors. There are two major gods who have human forms. Odudua, reigned at Ife, and Shango at Oyo. Shango, the god of thunder, is refered to in many of Wole Soyinka's poem's and play's, like The Tiger and the Jewel . Many other gods hold high places in Yoruban religion like: Olokun, god of the sea, Shokpona, god of the earth, Oko, god of agriculture, and Ogun, god of war. Two other divinities are important parts of the religion. Ishu, the mesenger of the god's, and Fa or Fate, the "hidden companion" of god's and men, hold high places in Yoruban religion(Cambridge Encyclopedia of Africa).
The Yorubas are famous for their art and craftwork. Their wood sculpture has remained important up to modern times. Everything in this society was carved. Their doors, drums, and ritual masks are made of wood. The doors were often covered with carved panels of scenes of everyday life, history, or mythology. Even the hinge posts were carved with figures like that of a Totem pole. Their masks are simple facial carvings that represent different types of Yoruban religious people like the trader, the servant, and the seducer (Dictionary of Black African Civilization).