Soyinka's Use of The Yoruba Conception of Man

Leslie L. Stern '93 (English 32, Spring 1990)

The Yoruba conception of human nature divides it into two parts: the material and the immaterial. The material body, the portion that acts and reacts to physical environment, consists of the Ara, or "physical body," the Ojiji, or "shadow," and the Iye, or "mind". The imperishable, immaterial aspects, include the Oka(n), or "heart" and the Emi(n), or "spirit". Of all the aspects of man, the Emi(n) is seen as "the seat of life" because it is the part of the individual person man closest to the gods. The highest part of humanity uses both the okan (heart) and the ara (body). The Emi(n)'s fate is determine by the actions of the person "whilst in the flesh" (J. Olumide Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas, London, A. Brown & Sons, 1948).

The Yoruba believe that personality does not consist of separate and opposing selves. In fact, the "unity of man's personality is an essential element in the Yoruba conception of man" (Lucas, Religion of the Yorubas, p. 251). All of one's selves unify and expresses themselves through the body (ara) and though the agency of the heart-soul (okan).

As a member of the Yoruba, Soyinka consistently incorporates these dichotomized elements of man into his poems. Throughout the poems in A Shuttle in the Crypt, he distinguishes between the material "mind"and the immaterial " heart / soul." For instance, in "When Seasons Change", the "souls of all living" serve as the subject of one stanza while "the mind" serves as the focus in the next stanza. Similarly, in the three stanzas of "I Anoint My Flesh", each stanza begins with Soyinka anointing a different aspect of himself: "my flesh", my voice", and "my heart". In "Conversation At Night With A Cockroach", Soyinka talks of the material "limbs / And voices carried on to cheers and whirring", and then discusses the immaterial: "But lost / Was the heart of purpose". Although Soyinka distinguishes between the different aspects of man, he believes in the unification of the material and immaterial aspects of man.

According to Lucas, "Without a consideration of man's life after death or of his destiny in the life hereafter, a description of the conception of man would be incomplete" (p.252). The material body (Ara) dissolves after death. There is no preservation of the body, however the heart, the "seat of intelligence, courage, and the residence of the divinity," is preserved. The imperishable parts, the Oka(n) (heart) and the Emi(n) (soul) proceed to Dead-land after death, but they can not rest until after the funeral. The Oka(n) and Emi(n) do not allow living members of the family to forget funerals. If the funeral proceedings are neglected, the heart-soul will haunt the living members; if the proceedings are perform, the spirits assume material forms and bless their families.

Interestingly enough, the activities of the heart-soul terminate with its reincarnation in new-born children. In several of his poems Soyinka discusses reincarnation of souls in new-borns. In "Ulysses", Soyinka writes: "The wary cycle of the season's womb / Labouring to give birth to her deathless self". In "Purgatory", he also mentions the "knowledge of rebirth and a promise of tomorrows / And tomorrows and an ever beginning of tomorrows". In "Live Burial" Soyinka questions: "Corpses of yester- / Year? Expose manure of present birth?" Apparently, Soyinka has held on to his Yoruba belief in the transmigration of souls.