WOVEN CULTURE: FACIAL MARKS IN YORUBALAND
The facial marks are one of the tribal marks a part of the Yoruba culture usually inscribed on the face by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood. The primary function of the tribal marks is for identification of a person’s tribe, family or patrilineal heritage.
The other secondary functions of the facial marks are symbols of beauty, Yoruba creativity, healing, spiritual protection and keeping mischievous children alive (ila Abiku). This practice was popular among Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo but now mostly a thing of the past.
Yorubaland is indisputably one of the cradles of this practice of facial marks. the advent of western religions and civilization, most tribes stopped the process because it was deemed unhealthy and pagan.
During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, facial marks as a form of tribal identification became important and well appreciated. Some repatriated slaves later reunited with their communities by looking at facial marks.
Tribal marks are made through scarification technique. People who make these marks usually use razors or sharp objects to make them on children’s faces or other parts of their bodies. Then they rub native dye from charcoal marks to prevent the skin from closing up as the body tries to heal itself. The native dye also helps to stop bleeding.
The facial marks are for the purpose of distinguishing the various Yoruba families. Of these, only those of the principal ones can be indicated. They are designated: Abaja, Keke or Gombo, Ture, Pele, Mande and Jamgbadi.
OYO FACIAL MARKS
The Oyo marks are; The Abaja, Keke or Gombo, Ture.
The Abaja are sets of three or four parallel and horizontal lines on each cheek; they may be single or double, each line being from half-an-inch to one inch long.
Lines in sets of three:
The double sets are those of the Royal Family of Oyo the single that of the older line of Basoruns.
Lines in sets of four:
These marks distinguish some noble families of Oyo. Variations of these marks are made by adding three perpendicular lines to them as a family distinction thus:
The latter of these facial marks is common amongst the Ibolos and Epos.
THE KEKE OR GOMBO
The Keke or Gombo consists of four or five perpendicular and horizontal lines placed angularly on each cheek; they occupy the whole space between the auricle and the cheekbone; three small perpendiculars are also placed on the horizontal lines on both cheeks thus:
A variation of this is sometimes made by adding on the left cheek the Ibamu i.e. a line running aslant from the bridge of the nose to the horizontal lines. This also is for the purpose of distinguishing a family.
When the lines are rather bold, the mark is termed Keke, when fine and faint it is termed Gombo. The Keke or Gombo is a common mark of all Oyos and of the Egbado tribe.
The Ture consists of four perpendicular lines somewhat like the Gombo, but longer, with the three small perpendiculars but without the horizontals.
The Pele is three short perpendicular lines over the cheekbones, each about an inch long. They are not distinctive of any particular family, but are used generally by some men who disapprove of tribal distinctions, usually Moslems, but would rather remain plain-faced as shown below.
THE MANDE AND JAMGBADI
The Mande and Jamgbadi are no longer in use; the latter is said to be distinctive of aliens naturalized amongst Yorubas.
These are the principal facial marks. The other principal Yoruba families are distinguished by a slight variation of these marks:
THE EGBA FACIAL MARKS
The Egba mark is known as Abaja Oro (upright Abaja)
For the Egba people, Abaja Oro i.e. the upright Abaja is distinctive of them. They consist of three perpendicular lines each about 3 inches long on each cheek. The younger generations, however, have their lines rather faint or of shorter lengths indistinguishable from the Pele.
THE EGBADO FACIAL MARKS
SAME AS OYO FACIAL MARKS
The Egbado marks are the same as the Oyo marks generally as this family remained in close connection with Oyo and in their allegiance to the Alaafin long after the break-up of the kingdom, and the establishment of tribal independence.
THE OWU FACIAL MARKS
Owu marks. These are of two kinds, both being variations of Oyo marks. They are; Abaja Olowu and Keke Olowu.
The Abaja Olowu are three horizontal lines surmounted by three perpendiculars each about one-and-a-half inches long.
The Keke Olowu is like the Keke or Gombo with the lines discrete or interrupted.
THE IJEBU FACIAL MARKS
The Ijebu facial marks are also of two kinds, namely: Abaja Olowu with horizontal curves and Abaja Oro (Upright Abaja)
ABAJA OLOWU WITH HORIZONTAL CURVES
the first of the two Ijebu facial marks are much like the Abaja Olowu (the tribe from which they are partly descended) but with the horizontals curved.
ABAJA ORO (UPRIGHT ABAJA)
The other is the Abaja Oro of the Egbas. The former is more distinctive of Ijebus.
THE IFE FACIAL MARKS
Ife marks are three horizontal lines like those of the original Basorun’s marks, each being shorter, about half-inch long. Otherwise, the people of Ife are usually plain-faced.
THE ONDO AND IDOKO FACIAL MARKS
The Ondos and Idokos have only one bold line or rather a gash about one and a half inches to two inches long over each malar bone.
THE IJESA FACIAL MARKS
The Ijesas, as a rule, have no distinctive marks; they are mostly plain-faced; some families, however, are distinguished by having on each cheek 5 or 6 horizontal lines. They are closely drawn and much longer than any Oyo mark.
Amongst the Efons an Ekiti family, the lines are so many and so closely drawn that the whole together forms a dark patch on each cheek.
THE YAGBA FACIAL MARKS
The Yagbas are the most north-easterly tribes of Yoruba; they are distinguished by three long lines on each cheek, far apart behind, but converging to a point at the angle of the mouth.
THE IGBOMINA FACIAL MARKS
The Igbominas are by some classed with Oyos, and by others with Ekitis. It will, perhaps, be more correct to say they are Oyos with Ekiti sympathies. They occupy a midway position between the two; and so, their facial marks are parallel like those of Oyos, but long and far apart like those of Yagbas, yet not convergent in front e.g.
On the whole, speaking generally, the finer and more closely drawn lines, are more elegant than the same drawn bold, and too far apart.
We may note how each of the principal marks is indicated by a different verb signifying “to mark”:
To be marked with The Pele is o ko Pele
To be marked with The Abaja is o bu Abaja
To be marked with The Keke is o ja Keke
To be marked with The Gombo is o wa Gombo
Today, the general use of tribal marks as a means of identification and beautification among the Yoruba tribe is no longer a norm and some Yoruba states have enacted certain laws that prohibit the use of the marks. Violators of the law are liable to fines or imprisonment (or both).
In Oyo State, for example, the prohibition of tribal marks is an integral part of the state Child Rights Law, a law that imposes fine or one-month imprisonment or both for violation. According to the law “No person shall tattoo or make a skin mark or cause any tattoo or skin mark to be made on a child”
The main purpose of Yoruba tribal marks and their names is simply identification. Today, tribal marks are a tradition in remote villages.
Parents do not need tribal marks for identification anymore, a lot of villages and tribes no longer make marks on children’s faces or any part of their bodies for the purpose of identification, although there are some Yoruba people who still make marks on both children and adults for spiritual purposes.
Can you date someone with facial marks? What’s your take on facial marks, is it a culture we should preserve?
It’s almost impossible to find these marks on the faces and bodies of modern young people, but who knows? Maybe, one day these marks will become stylish again!
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