Various cultures throughout the world believe that the human body is an ephemeral vessel for the soul. Among the North American Hopi and African Yoruba there exists a conviction that spirits can also endure within the confines of small wooden effigies, respectively called Katsina dolls and Ere Ibeji. The Hopi Tribe, a sovereign nation located in northeastern Arizona, spans 1.5 million acres and comprises twelve villages across three mesas. The Yoruba primarily occupy the city of Lagos, situated in southwestern Nigeria, though they have also migrated to cities in neighboring countries.
Representing the largest ethnic group in Africa, the Yoruba are distinctive for having the highest rate of dizygotic (fraternal) twins in the world. Due to the prevalence of this genetic anomaly, Yoruba mythology has shifted social attitudes toward twins from overwhelming distrust to reverence. Twins are celebrated as auspicious, near-mystical beings bestowed with the ability to bring joy and prosperity. Yoruba believe that twins enter the world as two halves of a whole, sharing a soul. As a result, the death of one twin can trigger a hazardous spiritual imbalance for the surviving twin.
Upon the death of a newborn twin, the mother will attempt to restore harmony for the extant twin by consulting a Babalawo, a Grand Priest in the Ifá religion. Able to divine knowledge from the Orishas—the spirit manifestations of the tripartite Supreme God—the Babalawo can advise the grieving family. Following this discussion, it is customary for the family to commission an artisan to carve a small, symbolic wooden replacement for the lost child. These Ere Ibeji (ere: sacred image; ibi: born; eji: two) figures realign spiritual balance by functioning as hosts for the wayward fraction of shared soul. As a representative twin, the Ere Ibeji are washed, fed, and clothed on a regular basis.
Across the Atlantic, settled high above the remote, arid desert of Arizona, the Hopi rely on their sacred covenant with Maasaw, the ancient caretaker of the earth. The word Hopi itself means peaceful people, and it is indicative of the lifestyle the Hopi strive to uphold. Akin to the Yoruba Orishas, Hopi venerate a pantheon of spirit gods called Katsinam. According to Hopi tribal members, “Katsinam are Hopi spirit messengers who send prayers for rain, bountiful harvests, and a prosperous, healthy life for humankind. They are our friends and visitors who bring gifts and food, as well as messages to teach appropriate behavior and the consequences of unacceptable behavior. Katsinam, of which there are over two hundred and fifty different types, represent various beings, from animals to clouds.”
The Katsinam visit the Arizonan mesas to dance among the Hopi for six months each year. On the night of the summer solstice, they return to their spiritual home amid the lofty San Francisco Peaks. To keep the essence of the Katsinam close all year, the Hopi carve allegorical Katsina (singular form of Katsinam) dolls out of cottonwood tree root. These dolls, used as teaching tools for children, generally represent spirit beings, guards, racers, ogres, and clowns. From ages one through ten, Hopi girls receive roughly two Katsina dolls per year. Often pigmented with natural dyes so they are not toxic to children, these dolls connect the Hopi with their ancestry by guaranteeing that each generation learn the significance of what it means to be a peaceful people.
Katsina dolls and Ere Ibeji are tactile figures, designed for family members to touch and interact with. It is important to remember that while children may handle these models, they are not toys. As the corporeal manifestations of familial spirits, these figures are deeply rooted in the Hopi and Yoruba religious experiences.
Bonus Fact: Katsina State is the name of a northern state in Nigeria.
Cultural Parallels is a new weekly feature dedicated to introducing readers to the ties that bind global traditions. Check back each Tuesday for new installments.