The Yoruba Naming Ceremony

The Yoruba are one of the largest ethnic groups in West Africa. The majority of Yorubas are in Western Nigeria. There are also established Yoruba communities in Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Benin, Brazil, Cuba, Dominica, Ghana, Grenada, ….Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Sierra Leon, Trinidad and Tobago, Togo and the USA.

The naming of a child is a very important part of the Yoruba culture. A child’s name is often derived from the circumstances of birth – for example, if the child is one of twins – or from a family trait or value. Names are typically selected by family elders, though members of the community can also pay to name a child. The naming ceremony, wherein the community welcomes the child and accepts joint responsibility for raising him or her, occurs between 7 and 9 days after the birth of the child.

The key participants in the ceremony are usually the child, the father, the mother, family elders, grandmothers, grandfather, and the parents’ siblings, particularly the mother’s younger sister and an elder sibling or brother of the father. Honoured guests and community members also attend.

The ceremony begins with an introductory speech and brief prayer by the nominated elder, who is often a grandparent of the child, setting out the purpose of the gathering and calling on the ancestors and / or God. Wine is offered to the ancestors, inviting them to join the blessing of the child. Alternatively, if the family is Christian, a candle is lit to signify the light of the world and ask for the presence of God.

The elder then presides over the rest of the ceremony, which involves presenting the child with seven core symbolic items. Traditionally, the items are rubbed against the child’s lips, but the modern approach to this practice involves the mother tasting the items on behalf of the child. The core items –water, salt, honey and /or sugar, palm oil, kola nut, bitter kola, pepper, and dried fish – and their symbolic significance are described below:

Item Symbolism / nature Purpose
Water (omi) Water is everlasting and has no enemies, since everything in life needs water to survive. Given so that the child will never be thirsty in life and that no enemies will slow its growth.
Palm oil (epo) Used to prevent rust, to lubricate and to massage and soothe the body. Given for a smooth and easy life; and living a life in love and no friction.
Bitter Kola (orogbo) Unlike most other kola nuts, bitter kola lasts a very long time. Given so that the child will have a very long life.
Kola nut (obi) Kola nut is chewed and then spat out. Given to repel the evil in life.
Honey (oyin) Used as a sweetener in food. Given for a sweet and happy life.
Pepper (ata) Pepper has many seeds within its fruit. Given for a fruitful life with lots of children.
Dried fish (eja) A fish lives in water, its natural environment, and uses its head to find its way in water, no matter how rough the water may be. Given so that the child will remain in its natural environment (the love of its parents) and will find its way in life and never be overcome, even in tough times.
Salt (iyo) Used to add flavor to and preserve food. Given so that the child’s life will not be ordinary, but filled with flavor, happiness and substance, and so that the child will preserve all that is good.

Additional items which may be included in a modern ceremony include a pen and holy book.

Pen The words written by a pen can be used for both good and evil. Given so that the child will not use the pen for evil and no one will use the pen for evil against the child.
Holy book Contains the word of God. Given so that the child may have knowledge of God and be book-smart, so that God may be with the child and to keep the child following God’s path.

With each of the items administered, the community responds ‘So it shall be’. The child’s names are then given starting with the grandparents and parents, and afterward by the wider community.

All the names of the child are called out, and repeated by the community. There are more prayers.

The ceremony concludes with food, dancing and celebration to honour this new life.

Addendum: These naming ceremonies take place in the communities in the West too. The events are usually much smaller affairs than would be held in Africa, with fewer guests.

Dele Alafun

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Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

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One Response to “The Yoruba Naming Ceremony”

  1. Maj says:

    The pepper used for the ceremony is atare also called alligator pepper.

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