Yoruba People and the history of scarification

Yoruba People and Scarification

Posted on August 12, 2013

With a population close to 40 million, the Yoruba People are one of the largest tribal ethnic groups of West Africa, found predominantly in Nigeria. One distinguishing feature of the Yoruba are their tribal markings, also known as tribal beautification or scarification marks. This practice is considered an ancient art and cultural activity for the Yoruba.

Due to the sheer number of individuals within the Yoruba, these tribal markings became a way and means of identifying the origin of an individual, their lineage, and which community or sub-tribe they belonged to within the Kingdom of the Yoruba.

Tribal marks were also originally made on young children in an attempt to protect them from slave trading. It was the absence of these markings, which made them vulnerable to being captured. For those tribe members who were sold into slavery, these markings allowed the Yoruba people to identify and recognize one another.

Sacred text describes the history of tribal marks. It is believed King Sango, who reigned during the Oyo Empire, sent two slaves to a distant country on an important mission. In due course they returned and the King found that one slave had successfully achieved what he had been sent to do, while the other had accomplished nothing. The king therefore rewarded the first with high honors and commanded the second to receive a hundred and twenty two cuts all over his body. This was considered a severe punishment, although when the scars healed they gave the slave a rather remarkable aesthetic appearance which took the fancy of the King’s wives.

Sango decided that in the future, cuts should not be given as punishment but rather as a sign of royalty, at once placing himself in the hands of the markers. However, the king could only stand the first two cuts, so from that day onwards two cuts on the arm have been the sign of royalty. Various other markings came to identify different tribes.

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