Ile Ife (ile ife): Sacrifice, Religion, Nutrition and the Afrikaner

Ile Ife (ile ife): Sacrifice, Religion, Nutrition and the Afrikaner
by Eben van Tonder
23 June 2023


Two weeks ago, I visited the ancient African City of Ile Ife. I re-examined the reason we sacrifice and why blood is so important. I noted my initial observations in “My First Visit to Ile Ife (ile ife): Foundational Work in Uncovering our African Nutritional Heritage.”

I share my notes on the city. I separated the more disturbing elements from the rest, and I call those notes “restricted”.

My interest was to see if locked up in the ancient practices are physical realities that are connected to nutrition. My suspicions grew stronger following my volcanic experiences in the holy city.

The Ooni of Ife, Oba Enitan Ogunwusi’s Palace

Human Sacrifice

There has not been any human sacrifice in the city probably since the early 1910s. The fact that it existed till so relatively late intrigued me and offered me a unique opportunity to get close to a culture that relatively recently still practised human sacrifices so that I could understand it.

Human sacrifice occurred with regularity in Ife in days gone by. Jacob Olupona described a ritual song associated with the Igogo festival of the Olowo and the townspeople that warn strangers to depart from the city. Citizens of Ife are exempt. It translates as “It is forbidden to offer an Ife indigene for sacrifice.” He recounts a tradition that tells the story “when a ‘stranger’ on his way to the sacrificial place was captured for the annual festival to honour Orosen, the victim, after declaring that he was an Ife indigene, was instantly released by his captors. Olupona remarks that the Owo people claim the event generated a song to remind them that Ife indigenes are sacred and thus taboo as offerings for sacrifice.” (Olupona, 2011)

I still had to make sense of human sacrifice. Jacob Olupona from Harvard Divinity School discusses the “why” behind human sacrifice in his work, “City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination.” He puts human sacrifice in context. Not just in the emergence of the Ifa system of beliefs but much broader in terms of the existence of all the other systems of faith. It involves the co-existence of the natural and observable and the religious mythology.

Religion and its Development

A few preliminary thoughts on the development of religion. Olupona describes religion as being in the first place “pretheoretical.” He writes that “in the first encounter, religion is not an ‘intellectual’ enterprise. Before codified and written or oral corporal, the religious doctrines of various cultures all over the world occurred to their ‘founders’ primarily on the basis of a series of unique spiritual experiences, each particular to a specific geographic and cultural region. Canonical authority for devotees of various religions came into being long after the death of their founders. Consequently, there is confusion between religion as a unique phenomenon and religion as an intellectual exercise.” (Olupona, 2011)

Olupona encourages Westerners and those with Western thinking who want to understand the Yoruba faith system of Ile Ife to reach “beyond the limitations of secular humanism, and scepticism. One must be willing to develop an awareness of Yoruba and African worldviews, imagination, and hermeneutics that allow for a culture that is remarkably adaptable, profound, and open to creative meanings and interpretations.” (Olupona, 2011)

In Olupona’s consideration, the natural and observable is a physical space, namely Ile Ife but I think the concept can just as easily be extended to include a mental space. It is the heart of my contention that before the city of Ile Ife or any other such location on earth, there had to be a mental world that developed where observable facts were used as the reason for including physical elements into religious mythology. I, of course, refer to the fact that blood became the key sacrificial offering mainly due to its observable value over any other part of the animal carcass in its close relationship with life (you can live without a limb, but not without blood) and its seemingly magical nutritional value.

In The Ile Ife (ile ife) Notes, I have shown that the sacrificial system related to blood possibly originated in the dietary value of blood, which we traced back to its iron content and the observed reality that as blood leaves the body, “life departs” leading to the conclusion that the life of the animal is in its blood. It is, therefore, the intersection of symbolic and physical myth.

The existence of what is brutal must be considered in particular as it is this fact that is most troubling to the mind. Olupona (2011) shows Ile Ife as a place where “symbolic and historic myths intersect.” He references the work of David Carrasco who investigated the Aztec civilisation and emphasized the importance of Tenochtitlan “as one of the few historical examples of a city that emerged out of a ritual centre based upon religious violence integral to urbanization.” He analyzed the Aztec city as “a public sphere that becomes possible only because of ceremonially cultivated cruelty and institutionalized hatred.” “As urban centres continued to expand outward from their ceremonial cores, a civilization emerged that used institutionalized human sacrifice as a means to construct both warrior and urban identities based on a series of myths, hierophanies, sacred centres, and rituals.” (Olupona, 2011)

Referencing Long, Olupona (2011) says that “the ceremonial centre allows for the ‘domestication’ of space. . . The urban community relies upon this sacred centre as a means of defining itself and projecting an identity to the world at large.”This sacrad centre “organizes human consciousness by domesticating both conceptual and physical space.” (Olupona, 2011)

Ile Ife is sacred “because it represents a point of intersection between heaven, earth, and the underworld. The symbolic union of these three cosmic regions is identified through ritual, magic, and historical myth. This identity of residents of the sacred city requires that people be ordered and stratified according to patterns described by sacred myth and set at the city’s genesis.” (Olupona, 2011)

He quotes Long that “the experience of the sacred reveals the social structure as an arena in which intimacy and obligation, actualities and potentials, and habits and conduct are defined and clarified. It is within the social structure that the dynamic relationship between groups and persons express a generality of conduct and behaviour that becomes normative for the society, thus defining the events of social life.” He draws the conclusion that “the need for such definitions explains the genesis of oral texts, mythologies, and belief systems that bring order, ethics, and a system of morality to a multidimensional centre. The centre is determined, not solely by the specific geometric dimensions imagined in Western scientific thought, but instead by several microcosms collectively constituting a sacred space.” He makes the important remark that “it is space that expands from such places as the ritual drum, which expresses the energy of the divine and which only the drummer can truly hear.” (Olupona, 2011)

The centre, even for the Yoruba culture, is not only the sacred city, but also includes the beliefs, ritual practices, mythology, and arts of the inhabitants of the city.


My questions about offerings, where I link it with an ancient observed value of blood, caused confusion when I presented it in Ile Ife. This was pointed out to me by Araba Agbaye, the “highest-ranking priest in the world” or “the leader of all priests worldwide”, in WhatsApp communication in the week following my return to Lagos. He told me that his view is spiritual and my starting point is physical or scientific. My questions stem, however from a hypothesis that the two are interrelated. Olupona (2011) observes that Ile Ife is sacred exactly because it represents a point of intersection between heaven, earth, and the underworld. “The symbolic union of these three cosmic regions is identified through ritual, magic, and historical myth.” My thesis about the origins of the use of blood as observed nutritional value, intersecting with a desire to please or appease the divine and mythology that is created around this is the point of my work on the subject and is in line with the conclusions of the nature of Ile Ife as to what makes it a sacred space.

Human sacrifice is to me simply the extension of the same logic. Blood is better than intestines or meat. Meat is better than fruits and vegetables. Human is better than animal.

Unexpected Insights into the Afrikaners of South Africa

In evaluating the validity of Olupona’s approach and conclusions, I realised that there are striking similarities between his characterisation of the development of religion within a particular geographical location, the observed phenomenon that these often develop from institutionalised violence and that mythology, historical events and physically observed phenomenon intermingles to create a “cocktail of beliefs” that collectively becomes the morality and faith system of a particular cultural group.

For the first time in my life, I was able to identify the religious movements among the Afrikaners from South Africa to have followed a similar trajectory. There has been a tight connection between being Afrikaans and the faith of the Afrikaner as it developed from the late 1800s till 1994 in what is referred to as Afrikaner nationalism, but in reality, had all the hallmarks of a distinct religion. The faith-system of Afrikaner Nationalism was largely dismantled when the advent of democracy necessitated a radical re-alignment of the complete system when apartheid became illegal. Similarly, I have found the emergence of new mythology within the Yoruba tradition following the imposition of a rules-based society in Nigeria where human sacrifice was outlawed.

Still, there are large parts of the Afrikaner community in South Africa who still hold on to the old belief system in the same way as there are still very small pockets of Nigerians who embrace human sacrifice.

The old classic Afrikaner religion (Afrikaner Nationalism) has largely been replaced by a dynamic, inclusive, progressive and generally productive branch of Christianity that is able to accommodate the realities in Africa with all its challenges better than most other Western cultures. Olupona’s conclusions are validated by the experience of the development of Afrikaner Nationalism.

Even in Apartheid South Africa, not everybody was fooled by Afrikaner Nationalism. I am proud to say that from my great-grandparents, and by and large, most of my family rejected racial discrimination as not consistent with their religious tradition. They saw the violent Old Testament realities as contrary to a new path that was taught by Jesus Christ who brought about a progression of the old faith of violence and genocide to a faith system where every human is equal. As such, I am able to embrace the African spirit of my forefathers where I can hold on to the teachings handed down by them with an inherent belief in the equal ability of all cultural groups. Since my visit to Ile Ife, I have engaged in many “discussions” with my forefathers whom I developed the greatest respect for over the years. I have been able to study their lives through the work of my Uncle, Jan Kok. There is a large group of South Africans who, like my family rejected Afrikaner Nationalism and who saw it as a quasi-religious movement.


I see this exact same kind of progression in the Yoruba faith system of Ile Ife where there is an inherent dynamic element in the faith that is able to hold on to old traditions while it re-invents itself to accommodate new and changing realities that face its adherents.

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