The Creation of the Universe and Ife

The Creation of the Universe and Ife

  • "The Creation of the Universe and Ife" originated among the Yoruba people of Nigeria
  • The Yoruba people quarreled often with nearby city-states; ancient Yoruba people were more likely to identify with their city-state than with the Yoruba people as a whole. "Ife" was the principal Yoruba city, and the Yoruba people considered it to be sacred. This particular creation myth attempts to explain the origins of humanity, as well as the sacred city of Ife.
  • Yoruba gods are human in form, and they experience imperfect human emotions, such as love and anger.

Olorun: Ruler of the sky; creator of the sun. 
Olokun: Ruler of the sea.
Obatala: Creator of humans and land on Earth (Olorun's "favorite").
Orunmila: Prophet God; oldest son of Olorun.
Eshu: Messenger God.

In the beginning, the universe consisted only of the sky, the water, and the wild marshlands. The God Obatala believed that the world needed more–he goes to Olorun, ruler of the sky and creator of the sun, asking for permission to create mountains, valleys, forests, and fields. Olorun grants Obatala permission to create solid land on Earth.

Obatala goes to Orunmila, the God of Prophecy. Orunmila tells Obatala that he will need a gold chain to reach from the sky to the waters below. Obatala goes to the goldsmith, who agrees to build the chain, if Obatala brings him the gold. Obatala goes to every god, asking for gold. When the chain in complete, Obatala descends onto Earth, carrying a snail shell filled with sand, a white hen, a black cat, and a palm nut. When Obatala climbs down, he realizes that the chain is not long enough. Orunmila calls out to Obatala, and tells him to dump the sand onto the Earth and drop the hen. The hen scratches at the sand, spreading it around and forming the first solid land on Earth.

Obatala lets go of the chain and falls to earth, naming the place where he landed “Ife.” He plants the palm nut, which immediately sprouts into a palm tree. Obatala keeps the cat for company. Although Obatala keeps the cat, he still becomes lonely. He begins to make clay figures in the likeness of himself. Obatala grows tired while assembling the clay figures, and decides that he needs some wine to drink. He makes wine from the juice of the palm tree, and he becomes drunk. He continues to make clay figures in his drunkenness, and the figures become deformed. Olorun breathes life into Obatala’s figures, and they become human beings. Obatala realizes that his drunkenness has resulted in deformity, and he vows to be the protector of all who are born deformed. The humans created by Obatala come together to form the first Yoruba Village in Ife. Obatala returns to the sky–thereafter, he splits his time between Ife and his home in the sky.

Obatala’s kingdom of Ife was created without Olokun’s permission. As such, Olokun becomes very angry. She sends a great flood to destroy Obatala’s kingdom. The flood destroys most of Obatala’s kingdom. The remaining people send Eshu, the messenger god, to Olorun and Obatala, asking for help. Orunmila goes to Earth, causing the waters to retreat. 

Olokun challenges Olorun to a weaving contest. Knowing that he cannot beat Olokun, Olorun devises a plan to accept the challenge, without actually participating. He sends a chameleon to judge Olokun's skill; every time Olokun weaves a new cloth, the chameleon mimics the fabric.  Olokun accepts her defeat. 


"The Creation of the Universe and Ife" is an example of a creation myth; as it provides an explanation for the origins of land and life on earth. The myth offers an explanation for humanity's imperfections: Obatala becomes drunk while he is creating humanity. As such, Obatala's shortcomings become humanity's shortcomings.

The story also displays characteristics of a flood myth. Olokun sends a great flood that destroys almost all of humanity.

 The myth’s events are set in motion following the delivery of a prophecy

"The Creation of the Universe and Ife." World Mythology: An Anthology of the Great Myths and Epics. 3rd ed. Ed. Donna Rosenberg. Lincolnwood, Illinois: NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group 1999: 509-514. Print.