In Wole Soyinka’s A Dance of the Forests, time is tricky. The past and the present blend, overlap, and interact with one another in a way that is deeply influenced by Yoruban mythology and culture. Written for a celebration of Nigerian Independence in 1960, A Dance of the Forests suggests that history is a pattern of unearthing and reconstruction, the present pursued by the past and the past pursued by the present.
Geraldo Magela/Agência Senado
The Yoruba people are an ethnic group that makes up a fourth of Nigeria’s population and resides in western Africa. Coming from a Yoruban family, Yoruban mythology and culture have a large influence on Soyinka’s work, including A Dance of the Forests, which incorporates Yoruban deities, called Orishas, that are sent by the Almighty to help guide mortals living on earth.
In the play, we see Ogun helping Demoke. Ogun is an Orisha that is “universally worshipped everywhere in Yorubaland on an annual basis” (Falola 85), and he is the god of war and metal work. The other gods as well are seen helping and interfering with the humans’ lives, and they go against what the humans expect them to do since, instead of imparting only an expected kind of wisdom, they end up squabbling and are not above pettiness, much like humans. Other gods from the Yoruba pantheon are also seen or alluded to in the play, including Eshu and Yemoja.
Yemoja is a Yoruban water Orisha that is referenced in A Dance of the Forests. Abayomi Barber - National Gallery of Art, Nigeria.
Wole Soyinka is a Nigerian playwright, political activist, poet, and essayist known for his plays The Lion and the Jewel, The Strong Breed, and A Dance of the Forests. A Dance of the Forests (1960) was written for a celebration of Nigerian independence and was therefore deeply controversial among social elites for its criticism of Nigerian politics and the future of the country. The play deals with history, reincarnation, redemption, and atonement.
1) Falola, Toyin, and Akíntúndé Akínyẹmí. Encyclopedia of the Yoruba. Indiana University Press, 2016. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1255396&site=eds-live&scope=site.
This is an encyclopedia of Yoruban culture, including mythology and religion. It’s a useful tool because I’ll be using it to look at religion, reincarnation, and the views of time and the past and present as it informs A Dance of the Forest and what Soyinka’s saying about the past.
2) Odom, Glenn A. “‘The End of Nigerian History’: Wole Soyinka and Yorùbá Historiography.” Comparative Drama, vol. 42, no. 2, 2008, pp. 205–229., doi:10.1353/cdr.0.0001.
This article is a look at Soyinka’s work, including A Dance of the Forests and some of his poetry, as it relates to Yoruban ideas of life, death, reincarnation, and time. It’s an in-depth examination of A Dance’s use of the Half-Child as the Half-Child relates to Nigerian independence.
The Yoruba have two “predominant notions of reincarnation: àkúdàáyà, reappearance of a dead person in a different location, and àtúnwá, rebirth of an ancestor” (Falola 291)—this is particularly relevant to the play, as we see the different ways in which characters are “brought back”: either through àtúnwá, such as with Madame Tortoise and Rola, or àkúdàáyà, as the Dead Man and Dead Woman appear as themselves. When it comes to àtúnwá, the concept “centers around the notion of the human features or characters of the ancestors being reborn in some children … The Yorùbá think that this form of reincarnation is experienced by people who die in old age and become ancestors through their exemplary, righteous living on earth. It is considered a form of rebirth, as exemplified in terms such as yíyà-ọmọ (turning into a child) or àtúnwá (another coming)” (Falola 291). In the play, the human characters are understood to be both reincarnations of their ancestors as well as fully capable human beings who are separate from their ancestors; the sins, it seems, carry over, but they are still able to do something different about the injustice done to the Dead Man and Dead Woman because they aren’t one hundred percent their ancestors.