Asian and African studies blog

36 posts categorized "Africa"

04 October 2021

Khadija Saye’s Art and the ‘Toothbrush Tree’

The British Library exhibition ‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ (3 Dec 2020–7 Oct 2021) shows nine self-portraits by this talented and innovative Gambian–British artist. In each, she displays a particular artefact associated with Gambian culture. In this blog, Kadija Sesay, the exhibition’s external curator, explores the cultural and scientific uses of one of these objects.

The multiple properties and uses of the Salvadora persica, commonly known as ‘the toothbrush tree’, can be sourced from every aspect of the tree - the seeds, bark, stem, leaves and flowers - for food, medication and scientific purposes. Wherever it is native to a region, which is most of the African continent, South Asia and the Middle East, it has claimed a significant position within society. Its many uses seem to bestow near-magical properties on it, and it is thought to provide solutions and remedies for everyday problems and ailments.

Sothiou (Chewing-sticks/toothbrush), Khadija Saye (2017)

The botanical description of the Salvadora persica is of a large, well-branched evergreen shrub or tree, from the Salvadora species. As well as the Salvadora persica (known as Khari Jaal in India), this species includes the Salvadora oleoides (known as Meethi Jaal in India).

Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations
Salvadora, from Lamarck’s 1823 collection of botanical illustrations: Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières par une Société de Gens de Lettres, de Savans, et d'Artistes. Botanique. Recueil de planches. Vol. 1. (Paris, 1823).  British Library, J/12215.r.1/12a. Noc

Medical and other scientific elements feed into the tradition and culture of those societies where it is found, as the health benefits of using the miswak for oral hygiene are well known. They have been used for cleaning teeth for centuries. They are cheaper than imported toothbrushes and toothpaste, and scientific studies have shown them to have antibacterial properties that maintain and enhance oral hygiene, contributing to strong teeth and healthy breath. For these practical, economic and health reasons, they have been recommended for regular use by the World Health Organization within the communities in which they grow.

In The Gambia, the longer branches of the tree carry varying spiritual meanings within African indigenous faith: they may be used to make proclamations or promises to God, to invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or to claim protection from Satan.

The shorter branches, as well as being used for toothbrushes at home, have cultural attributes specifically for women as they also symbolise, when seen in public, that they are women who are due respect. As sothiou is known to have cleansing properties, the visual symbol of a woman using it reflects on her personal cleanliness, not only with respect to her mouth and body, but in the way that she leads her life. This in turn reflects on the raising of her daughters, showing that they maintain their personal cleanliness and virginity.

Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017
Khadija Saye working on silkscreen prints of ‘Sothiou’ with Matthew Rich, 2017.
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London. © The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Clean teeth are a symbol of beauty, too. Therefore, older married women in The Gambia known as ‘Jegg’ (younger married women will be referred to as ‘small Jegg’) can be seen publicly with sothiou in their mouths when they attend high-end events and family ceremonies such as weddings. For these reasons, it is common to see women who use sothiou more than men.

The commonly known attributes of the Salvadora persica have led to further research and investigation of its properties, some of which are highlighted briefly here.

For culinary use, the fruit of the tree is an edible sweet berry which can be fermented into a drink. In East Africa, the leaves are cooked in a sauce as a vegetable dish and although bitter in taste, the shoots and leaves can be included as part of a salad.

The plant’s potential pharmaceutical and other scientific uses are many. The seeds, for example, are commonly used as a diuretic and the oil from the seeds is used to ease rheumatism. The bark and root, apart from producing antiplaque agents, are also being investigated by scientists for a number of other apparent qualities including analgesic, anticonvulsant and antibacterial properties. The stem bark, for example, is used for gastric problems.

The use of Salvadora persica has shown that reliance on natural organisms supports the communities in which they grow, where they simultaneously become woven into local cultures and traditions. In her artwork, Khadija Saye has captured culture, history, tradition and science simply by focusing on and drawing our attention to an object which simultaneously reinforces the importance of our natural environment locally and globally. As her work so powerfully testifies, the information and knowledge that local communities carry in their family, traditions and culture should be recorded so that more research can be undertaken.

Other objects in the work of Khadija Saye were discussed in the British Library event ‘Cowries, Incense and Amulets’ on 17 May 2021.

Further reading

Basil H. Aboul-Enein, ‘The miswak (Salvadora persica L.) chewing stick: cultural implications in oral health promotion’, The Saudi Journal for Dental Research, 5, 1, (2014), 9-13.
World Health Organization, Prevention of oral diseases. WHO offset publication No. 103. Geneva: World Health Organization; 1987), p. 61.
M. Khatak, S. Khatak,1 A. A. Siddqui, N. Vasudeva, A. Aggarwal, and P. Aggarwal, ‘Salvadora persica’, Pharmacognosy Reviews 4, 8 (2010), 209–214.

Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, 'Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe' Ccownwork

 

18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition reopened at the British Library in May 2021 and the exhibition run has been extended to 7 October 2021. Advance booking is no longer necessary.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, until 23 August.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until 7 October 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
CCBY Image

The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

01 February 2021

Highlights from the British Library’s Collection of Ethiopian Manuscripts

Painting of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus on horse back followed by group of men and women, in colour, above text in red and black in Geez script
The Nativity of Jesus from an apocryphal text first written in Coptic in the 5th century. The full text only exists in the Ethiopian version. This 18th-century MS has 265 illustrations and was written for King Iyasu. The Holy Family is often depicted fleeing the persecution of Herod. (ነገር ማርያም [Nagara Māryām / History of Mary], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 607, f 17r)
CC Public Domain Image

Travelers, missionaries and military officials active within Ethiopia enabled western collectors to continually acquire manuscripts from the region since the fifteenth century. The exact number of such manuscripts housed within collections outside of Ethiopia cannot be determined. Nevertheless, many were acquired by European Cultural Institutions via donation, bequest, official transfer and commercial purchase. The three most significant of these bodies are the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the British Library in London possessing a combined holding of two thousand seven hundred Ethiopian manuscripts.

Image of child speaking to adult woman with people behind her in front of large fire, in full colour, outlined by red frame
Illustration of one of the most venerated martyrs in the Ethiopian Church, the child St. Kirkos & his mother St. Iyalota. (ገደለ፡ ቅዱስ፡ ቂርቆስ [The Acts and Miracles of Cyricus], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 720, f 50r)
CC Public Domain Image

In its entirety, the British Library’s Ethiopian Manuscript Collection covers all aspects of Ethiopian literature. Biblical and apocryphal literature, service books, prayers, music, poetry, theology, lives of saints and exegesis (commentaries) are well represented. There is also a rich diversity of secular works covering mathematics, science, grammars, vocabularies, astrology, magic, poetry, divination and medical texts. Official material taken from Ethiopia’s Royal archives can also be found. It also includes one of the most significant illuminated collections outside of Ethiopia, totalling one hundred and twenty individual manuscripts created between the fifteenth and early twentieth centuries. More than ninety of these are lavishly illuminated containing up to a hundred separate illustrations.

Image of man on grass in front of structure with thatched roof and trees in the background with sun, in full colour, with text in Geez script in red and black ink in top left-hand corner
In the 6th century, St Yared invented a musical notation system representing pitch/melody still used by the Ethiopian Church. He named his complex melodic layers after the three birds St Yared saw in paradise. This manuscript, copied in 1735, contains text in Ge'ez, Izil & Araray. (ድጓ [Dēggwä], Ethiopia, 1735. Or 584, f 232r).
CC Public Domain Image

The first donation of Ethiopian manuscripts housed in the British Library was made by the Church of England Missionary Society which included seventy-four codices acquired by missionaries during the 1830s and 1840s. The largest was made in 1868, following the official transfer of three hundred and forty-nine manuscripts taken from Emperor Theodore’s capital at Maqdala by a British punitive expedition the previous year. The British Library’s Ethiopian Manuscript Collections are therefore culturally and historically significant.

Multiple scenes in frames including one showing small child talking to older man; man talking to an angel; man speaking to an assembled group under a tree, all in full colour, under text in Geez script in black and red ink
The movement of heavenly bodies and of the firmament, revealed to Enoch in his trips to Heaven guided by the angel Uriel. (መጽሐፈ መድበል [Mestira Zaman], Ethiopia, 1721-30. Or 790, f 9r)
CC Public Domain Image

In 2016, the British Library launched its Heritage Made Digital Programme to digitise collections of particular national and international cultural significance in addition to fragile objects deemed unsuitable for physical use. The Programme’s long-term objective is to make this material available for global research and consultation via a single online platform. Given the significance of Ethiopian Manuscript Collections, the Maqdala Collection was one of the first to be selected for digitisation by the Heritage Made Digital Programme.

Full colour illustration of Jesus on yellow background inside octagonal frame surrounded by images of an eagle, lion, bull and human in the four corners of the page, and two people's face on either side of the inner frame
The Four Living Creatures - the lion, the ox, man, and the eagle - are venerated in the Ethiopian Church and considered to be nearer to God than all other celestial beings. (አብቀለምሲስ [The Revelation of St. John], Ethiopia, 1700-1730. Or 533, f 30r)
CC Public Domain Image

This work not only provided an important opportunity to increase awareness about this collection leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Maqdala in 2018, it also enhanced our knowledge of the collection’s holdings leading to the discovery of several little-known illuminated manuscripts covering biblical, hagiographical and apocryphal themes. Currently, over fifty thousand pages from the library’s remarkable collection of Ethiopian manuscripts are now freely available online for researchers and the general public.

Full-page colour illustration of an elderly bearded man in a robe tied at the waist standing in front of lions and tigers all lying on the ground
St Gebre Menfes Kidus an Egyptian hermit, the founder of the 14th-century monastery of Zuqualla, in an extinct volcano mountain in Ethiopia. (ተአምረ ማርያም [Miracles of Mary], Ethiopia, 17th century. Or 639, f 174v)
CC Public Domain Image

Users can find all relevant digitised manuscripts through the Digitised Manuscripts platform, www.bl.uk/manuscripts, by searching in the keyword(s) search box for the word "Ethiopian".

Image of manger with Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus with cattle beside them and the the three kings in attendance, with adult Jesus and an angel in the clouds in the top-right of the image announcing the miracle to three men seated and laying in the bottom right of the image; with text in Geez script in red and black in above
The Nativity of Jesus, from an 18th-century hymnological composition. (ጥበበ ጠቢባን [Wisest among the Wise], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 590, f 41r)
CC Public Domain Image

Eyob Derillo, Curator of Ethiopian Collections
CCBY Image

28 January 2021

Digitisation in Asian and African Collections 2019 to 2021: what’s new online and where to find it

In the past year and a half we’ve made over 650 items from the Library’s Asian and African collections newly available online. To make it easier for you to find and explore our wonderful collections, we’ve put together a list of recently digitised items with links to their online versions for you to download here: Download AAC Jan2021. They are arranged by collection area/project, so you can easily search and filter to your heart’s content!

One of the biggest additions to our digital collections are the 300 Ethiopian Manuscripts digitised as part of the British Library’s Heritage Made Digital programme and made available in 2019. These rare and beautifully illustrated manuscripts date mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries and are predominantly written in the classical Ethiopian language Ge'ez.

ገድለ ጊዮርጊስ, The Acts of St. George, 18th century. Or 715, folio 2v
ገድለ ጊዮርጊስ, The Acts of St. George, 18th century. Or 715, folio 2v  noc

ተአምረ ማርያም, Miracles of Mary, 1717. Or 643, folio 2r
ተአምረ ማርያም, Miracles of Mary, 1717. Or 643, folio 2r  noc

2019 also saw the launch of the Discovering Sacred Texts online exhibition, which brings together expert articles and learning resources on the Library’s religious treasures. You can find many Asian and African collection items on the site, some of which have also been digitised in full. There are 21 now available, including Hindu, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist texts. The image below shows Add MS 11746, a Chinese manuscript containing the Buddhist Heart and Diamond Sutras with illustrations painted on fig leaves.

Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations on fig leaves, 18th century. Add MS 11746, folio 1r.
Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations on fig leaves, 18th century. Add MS 11746, folio 1r  noc

We have now digitised the Library’s entire collection of Zoroastrian Manuscripts, with 34 made available in the last year and more to come over the coming months. Among these you can find Zoroastrian texts in Avestan, Middle Persian, New Persian, Sanskrit and Gujarati, decorated with floral and geometric designs. As well as this, we have published 32 Bugis Manuscripts from South Sulawesi in Indonesia. These manuscripts date from the 17th to early 19th century, and highlights include court diaries from Bone, where on particularly busy days the writing curves around the page to save space (see Add MS 12355). We have also made available 13 West African Manuscripts, including loose leaf manuscripts in leather carrying cases and five Qur’ans, mainly in Arabic.

Bugis diary from the court of Bone, 1774-1793. Add MS 12355, folio 86r
Bugis diary from the court of Bone, 1774-1793. Add MS 12355, folio 86r  noc

An 18th century copy of the Visperad, with floral decoration. MSS Avestan 27, folio 6v
An 18th century copy of the Visperad, with floral decoration. MSS Avestan 27, folio 6v  noc

Another exciting addition is our collection of Japanese Design Books, some of which featured in the Library’s ‘Exquisite Patterns: Japanese Textile Design’ exhibition in 2020. Around 80 have now been digitised, with 29 currently available and more to follow in the next year. These are visually stunning and well worth a look for textile, toy and even sweet designs.

呉竹 / 市田彌一郎, Kuretake / Ichida Yaichirō. Kimono design - ORB.40/1208, folio 53r
呉竹 / 市田彌一郎, Kuretake / Ichida Yaichirō. Kimono design - ORB.40/1208, folio 53r  noc

There are too many to mention here, but in the last year and a half we have also digitised and made available collections of Chinese Manuscripts, Japanese Manuscripts, Tibetan manuscripts, Korean Rare Books and a selection of photographs from the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project. You can find all these and more by downloading this excel spreadsheet, which lists all recently available shelf marks and hyperlinks: Download AAC Jan2021

And take a look at the blogs listed below for more in-depth information about our digitised collections.

There’s still more to come ...

There’s still more to look forward to in 2021, including more Zoroastrian Manuscripts, Korean Rare Books and Japanese Design Books, and new content from the on-going Lotus Sutra and Javanese Manuscripts digitisation projects. And don’t forget to check out content already available through the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

We are very much still open online and doing our best to make as much available as we can. So stay tuned and keep checking back for further updates @BLAsia_African and @BL_MadeDigital.

How to find digitised content

You can find digitised printed material via the main Explore catalogue. Search using the ‘Available online (beta)’ tab, select ‘I want this’ and ‘Go’ to view a collection item online.

For manuscripts, search the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Again, select ‘I want this’ and ‘Go’ to view a digitised collection item.  You can also search directly in Digitised Manuscripts by shelf mark or keyword (e.g. ‘Ethiopian’).

Sara Hale  ccownwork
Digitisation Officer, Heritage Made Digital: Asian and African Collections
Follow us @BL_MadeDigital

Further reading

Ethiopian manuscripts
African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia
A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art
The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts

Zoroastrian manuscripts
Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination
Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’
Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

Bugis manuscripts
Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts
The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library
Bugis flower power: a compendium of floral designs
Bugis manuscript art
Animal days: three Bugis amulets in British collections

West African manuscripts
The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

Japanese design books
Zuan-cho – Japanese design albums in the late Meiji Period
Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books
Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

Visual representations of the third plague pandemic
Bombay Plague Visitation, 1896-97

 

 

02 September 2020

Early Yorùbá books at the BL and how to find (some of) them online

This blog deals with the earliest Yorùbá books held at the British Library up to 1870, some of which have been digitized. At the end of this blog is a link to a bibliography of all these items and where they are available digitally.

Vocabulary of Yoruba Language by Samuel Ajayi Crowther
Vocabulary of Yorùbá Language by Samuel Ajayi Crowther (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)
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The first Yorùbá-language published item in the British Library dates to 1843. That is:

Subsequent items published around the same time give an insight into the early days of Yorùbá language publishing — a list of them is available for download at the end of this list. There are thirty-five items I found catalogued between 1843 and 1879, using a list of catalogued entries with ‘yor’ language classification, along with other speculative searches on BL Explore.

Out of these, fourteen have been successfully digitized and exist either as a digital collection item or on Google Books, with a few exceptions. But all reachable from the British Library website.

The last digitized item is —

Both Crowther and Gollmer have been dead for more than seventy years, which allows for their work to be made public in this way, as prescribed by copyright laws governing the entry of published books into the public domain. All the other works in this list also fall under this description.

What is most notable about these works is that they are mostly either a record of missionary activities or a record of outputs of missionary activities of these early writers. The books of the bible were common. The first in this list is

This is the first published book of the bible into Yorùbá. Others followed at different times.

Then there are books of common prayers, like

But there was also commentary on the religious practices of the environment in which these missionaries worked. For instance

Or

Kristi ti Awon Sacramenti. Shelfmark General Reference Collection 012991.r.14
Kristi ti Awon Sacramenti
. One of the early missionary books in Yorùbá published in 1960 by Longmans London (General Reference Collection 012991.r.14)
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There is also travel writing, for instance:

which has invaluable knowledge of the àrokò system, described briefly in this essay by the British Library Africa Curator, Dr. Marion Wallace;

Abbeokuta or Sunrise within the Tropics an outline of the origin and progress of the Yoruba Mission
Message of good will from Abbeokuta; or Sunrise within the Tropics: an outline of the origin and progress of the Yoruba Mission
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and

The rest are grammar books, like the aforementioned Vocabulary of the Yorùbá.

There are also periodicals, such as

which I have talked about at length in an earlier blog.

The digitization of some of these materials have put them in the hands of people who may not have been able to physically come to the British Library — especially now during this time of the pandemic. While the physical copies remain at the Library and will remain available for time to come, having them digitally present extends the reach of their use to a wider audience. It is of immense benefit for researchers interested in the origins of Yorùbá language publishing, the work of the early Yorùbá language missionaries, the record of the original translations of the bible into Yorùbá, the thoughts of people traveling within the Yorùbá country in the middle of the 19th Century, and any other interesting tidbits that can be obtained by contact with such records.

One of the books within this range—

—no longer exists as a physical item at the British Library. A note in the record says “Physical condition: Copy at D-4419.h.24.. Destroyed in World War II.” It may exist in some other library or private hands, but the record puts into sharp relief the benefits of digitization for the long term survival of these records.

As I mentioned earlier, some of these items are on Google Books while some are on the British Library website. Their presentations are also different. The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, for instance, does not have its cover page on Google Books; one lands on the title page. Whereas, in the BL Viewer, one begins on the cover page, with a chance to see the cover art and enjoy a little faux sensation of encountering a real book. The BL viewer also presents full metadata on the right side of the page. What Google Books has that the BL Viewer does not is a search box, allowing the user a chance to go directly to the search term they may be looking for. On the BL Viewer, one can only go to specific pages, not to specific terms/words.

Having both options available for researchers is a great help. Unfortunately, not all the digitized options show up on the BL search results. I have indicated in the linked list: Publications in Yorùbá 1843 – 1879 held by the British Library where they have been digitized and where they have not.

A story of the mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country, published by the Basle Missionary Society.
Oguyomi. A story of the mission at Ibadan in the Yoruba country, published by the Basle Missionary Society. Romansch. Basel, 1867 (General Reference Collection 884.a.13.(2.))
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Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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14 August 2020

How Should We Write Yorùbá? Diacritics in Modern Yoruba Writing

Chart of letters with diacritics in Yorùbá in black and white
A version of Yorùbá letters for the computer.
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Working in the British Library collections — as Chevening British Library Fellow in the Asian and African Collections — has given me a unique insight into some issues in the orthography of Yorùbá. Having spent close to a year working with the printed materials in the language from the very first published texts to the modern day, I have as much familiarity with some of the problems as many new questions of my own. As my fellowship wraps up, I consider this an opportune time to engage with relevant stakeholders in a conversation on this subject with a view to providing direction to the future of the language. And with COVID-19 keeping everyone at home, an online conversation provides a good opportunity.

The proposed event — an online symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century — will be held on Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020, 15.00-17.00 (details below).

Writing in Yorùbá with the computer has always been an issue. I first noticed it as an undergraduate at the university in the early 2000s, where my Microsoft Word underlined my name with a red wriggly line because it was not recognizable in English; but also when I couldn’t find the diacritics under the symbols menu to properly write the name. Yorùbá, being a tone language, uses diacritics (special symbols under and on top of vowels and some consonants) to differentiate words that have similar spellings but different meanings. (I spoke more about this problem in a recent essay on a new writing script for Igbo.)

Names in Yorùbá are given with the express purpose of couching meaning, cultural values, ambitions, prayers, and aspirations for the child, among others. If they are written in a way that doesn’t convey their meanings, perhaps because of the lack of diacritics, then their purposes have been defeated. Yet many writers have had to write Yorùbá names without diacritics, mostly for the lack of computer technological resources to write them in any other way; but also because over time, literacy in reading and writing Yorùbá also had begun to wane, leaving many to assume that the language can be written in official publications without the use of diacritics.

As an adult graduate of linguistics, I found that the issue was not limited to Yorùbá or Nigeria at all, but to many minority languages in the world, especially ones with special characters.

Three books at an angle over a book stop with a toy-sized man
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But there are other issues in Yorùbá orthography that are worth discussing. Since Bishop Àjàyí Crowther first wrote the language down in 1843, there have been very many changes made to the writing of Yorùbá, most notably in 1967 by Ayọ̀ Bámgbóṣé, a Professor of Linguistics. There have been others, from formal critiques and reviews to informal suggestions and creative use in literature and social media. And scholars working in the language — even writers using it in code-switching instances in their literature — have had to grapple with the many complications arising from using Yorùbá in the 21st century, not least how it is supposed to work on the web – where young writers are circumventing the old orthography with words like “oshey” or “wayray” or “jor” showing up to replace “oṣé” (thank you), “wèrè” (a mad person) and “jọ̀ọ́” (please).

That’s why the British Library, in partnership with the Lagos Studies Association and Africa Writes, is organising an online conversation to discuss these issues. It is titled:

How Should We Write Yorùbá?

A Two-session Online Symposium on Yorùbá Orthography in the 21 st century

(Wednesday 2 and Thursday 3 September 2020

15.00-17.00, West African and UK time).

The event brings together experts in the field to share their experience and thoughts. There will be plenty of time to discuss issues raised by our panels as well as by audience members, who we hope will come from all around the world.

The conversation will be of interest to anyone interested in Yorùbá, writing in any tonal language that uses diacritics, publishing, code-switching, language scripts, language evolution, and challenges in African language writing in the 21st century in general.

Day 1: Yorùbá: From Mission Field to Web Page

Wednesday 2 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Day 2: Using Yorùbá Today: Literature, Leisure and the Academy

Thursday 3 September, 15.00-17.00 West African/UK time

Register here to attend.

Head shot of man outdoorsHead shot of woman outdoors
Presenters Dr Túndé Adégbọlá (left) and Professor Karin Barber (right). (© Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún)

Confirmed speakers include:

• ● Professor Adélékè Adéẹ̀kọ́,Humanities Distinguished Professor, Ohio State University

• ● Dr Túndé Adegbọlá, Human Language Technologist, and Executive Director, African Languages Technology Initiative

• ● Mosúnmọ́lá Adéọjọ, doctoral student and Writing Instructor at the University of Florida

• ● Àrẹ̀mú Adéọlá, the Yorùbá scrabble inventor

• ● Professor Karin Barber (CBE), cultural anthropologist and academic; currently London School of Economics Centennial Professor

• ● Dr Carli Coetzee, editor of the Journal of African Cultural Studies and Research Associate, African Studies Centre, University of Oxford

• ● Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún, Nigerian linguist, creative writer and currently a Chevening British Library Fellow working in the Asian and African Collections

• ● Mọlará Wood, writer, cultural activist and critic

Host: Dr. Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, at the British Library

I look forward to seeing you there.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist, scholar, and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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10 August 2020

Magic and Divination in Ethiopian Manuscripts

Inset of amulet scroll focusing on image of rider with lance
One of the most beautifully illustrated 18th-century amulet scrolls featuring a rider bearing a lance fighting a horned demon armed with a sword. (Or 12859)
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With the exception of a few works, magic, medicine, talismans, and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts have received little serious scholarly attention. Research on the subject has so far been mostly restricted to the texts found on manuscripts. The scholarship on Ethiopian magic is very small and not fully investigated; the subject is still in its infancy.

This short illustrated blog will explore some magic and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts and other items, such as amulets from the collection, making use of images from some of the best examples of the manuscripts and amulet scrolls in the British Library’s collections. As well as containing spells, charts, magical squares and numbers, these manuscripts are adorned with rich illustrations. For an introduction to the amulets, see my previous blog post.

Collection of illustration in red and black ink from practitioner's handbook
An 18th-century practitioner’s handbook. This manuscript is decorated with over 200 illustrations of magical pictures, squares and lines of magical and talismans. (Or 11390, f. 47v)
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The English term "magic" is a cultural construct rooted in Western thought and in a particular ethnocentric history, more specifically in the complex of Greco-Roman culture overlaid with Judaeo-Christian theology. Thus, the late 19th-century Western approach to the study of magic was, to a large extent, shaped by its inheritance. Consequently, the term "magic" has been problematized, and has become the focus of endless scholarly debate leading to a situation in which both its definition and its relation to religion has become contingent upon the interest and research area of each particular scholar. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of agreement that one of the main characteristics of magic can broadly be described as having an immediate goal, while the purpose and function of religion is long term.

Close-up of charts and magic squares in Ge'ez script in red and black ink
While most divination treatises are usually just texts, this example has an elaborate drawing of charts and magic square. (Or 12034, f.64v)
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There are many factors distinguishing the Ethiopian tradition of magic from its Near-Eastern counterpart. One aspect is the strong connection between the divination and amulet scrolls. Only the Ethiopian tradition has a firm, established, and attested connection between the amulet writers and the Church; this is not found in either Near-Eastern Christianity or Judaism.

We must therefore be cautious when discussing "magic" in general outside of its cultural construct in Western scholarship, since the difference of terms changes their meanings from culture to culture. In order for us to understand Ethiopian magic and what constitutes it, it needs to be contextualized by its historical and cultural heritage and characterized in reference to a variety of areas of study.

Divination cycle arranged as a wheel in red and black ink
Another example is this 17th-century divination manual Awda nagaśt “Cycle of the kings” (Add MS 16247, f. 14v)
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Ethiopian magic and divination books are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian material culture. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations that were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and the supernatural, making the invisible visible for all believers.

Inset of illustration in red, yellow and black inks from amulet scroll
An 18th-century amulet scroll composed of three strips of parchment measuring 1570 X 70 mm. It features an incantation against various diseases, accompanied with talisman and magical characters. (Or 5424)
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The British Library's collection of magic, divination, and magico-medical writing that fits into this group of manuscripts numbers over 40, making it the largest in the UK. The Wellcome Trust possesses 16 manuscripts, and the Cambridge University Library holds 14 manuscripts.

The majority of the Scrolls were acquired after the Maqdala collection catalog's publication in 1877. The provenance preserved in some of the manuscripts themselves or in the library register allows us to confirm their origin; however, the vast majority of the Scrolls contain no mention of where they came from.

Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support
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Further reading:

Derillo, Eyob, “Case Study, Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners' Handbooks,” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts , edited by Brian C. Keene (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019), pp. 121-124. (Document Supply on order)

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997. (LB.31.b.15213)

27 May 2020

Èṣù at the BL: Journeys Through Literature and Technology

A sculpture of Esu against a backdrop of books
A sculpture of Èṣù. (© orishaimage.com, used by permission)

This character in Yorùbá mythology, Èṣù, achieved a somewhat more controversial status at the beginning of the 19th Century when it entered into literature. (The name is sometimes written as “Eshu” or “Exu/Echu” in Latin American literature or Legba, Elegba, Laaroye, Legba, Elegbara, among many others).

Oyelaran (2020) describes the deity as “the most important primordial bastion of the Yorùbá people’s metaphysical embodiments of organising and regulatory existential principles.” A mouthful of a description, more comprehensive than previous easy substitutions like "trickster god" or "messenger god", which have been used in the past, especially in Western literature. Wọlé Ṣóyínká calls Èṣù a “master dialectician” — one of the many important deities in the Yorùbá religious system, notable for its role as a sort of intermediary for other higher deities. Èṣù’s errands, according to stories in Ifá literature, were of different shapes, but the outcome — at least for those who crossed paths with him — could be either good or bad. But it was never just one thing, and those who worshipped it, or encountered it in a shrine or on the road, knew what propitiation was necessary to avoid its wrath or seek its warmth or direct them on another errand. Sophie Olúwọlé called Èṣù something akin to a policeman, a law enforcement agent who did not make rules but was often called upon to enforce them.

In the early 19th century, however, notably at the hands of the early missionary translators, Èṣù became something else: a total and exclusive symbol of evil. In translating the words “Satan” and “Devil” in his book Vocabulary of the Yorùbá Language (1843) [Digital Store 1333.f.23.], Samuel Ajayi Crowther had settled on “Èṣù” as the most appropriate word.

A listing of words including Satan along with its Yoruba translation
The entry on “Satan”. (Crowther, Samuel, Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language: Part 1 (London: Church Missionary Society, 1843). (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)).
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Àjàyí Crowther was an early missionary and the first African Bishop on the Niger. A Yorùbá man himself — though he was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. After his rescue by the British, he was educated in Sierra Leone and eventually returned home. He was intimately familiar with Yorùbá religious and cultural patterns, which made his choice of "Èṣù" for "Satan" an odd one. By settling on this rendering, however, history was forever changed. It had huge, perhaps unintended, consequences for the worship of the deity, the attitude to those who bore it as a root morpheme in their names (Èsùbíyì, Èsùgbàyí, Èsùlékè, Dáraléṣù, etc), and the perception of good and evil in Yorùbá culture and religion. (The same, later, happened in Igbo with “Ekwensu”).

Subsequent dictionaries of Yorùbá followed this particular tradition, retaining Èṣù as the appropriate translation of Satan, devil, or even demon. The Dictionary of Yorùbá Language, published by the Church Missionary Society in 1913 [X.208/3458.], did the same, as did many others. (See this review of Yorùbá dictionaries to see how Èṣù was rendered throughout history till current time). It was only natural that when technology took over as the repository of words and translations, Google Translate began to render the translation of Èṣù as “Satan” or “devil” or “demon” as well. This didn’t go well with a number of people. Adherents did not take too kindly to the association with evil, although for over a century they could not do anything about it.

Eshu_drawing
Oríta Mẹ́ta by Moussa Kone, ink and watercolour on paper, 76 x 56 cm, painted in 2020. (© Moussa Kone, used by permission).

When I worked at Google from 2015-2016, I worked on the first permanent fix of that online problem. I have written about that in a 2016 blog post. In the end, Èṣù, having no direct equivalent in English, was retained as “Esu" in English translation on Google Translate. Demon became “Ànjọ̀nú”, and Devil/evil became “Bìlísì” — a Yorubanized version of “Iblis”, an Arabic word for devil (which had also shown up in later translation of the bible in the line for “deliver us from evil” as “gba wa lowo bilisi”).

I had known for a while that Àjàyí Crowther had something to do with the misrepresentation of Èṣù in modern imagination — Wole Ṣóyínká in 1976 had alleged that the Bishop had “grovelled before his white missionary superiors in a plea for patience and understanding of his ‘backward, heathen, brutish’ brothers”. But many who have engaged with the topic over the years had assumed that this mistranslation happened during the Bishop’s translation of the Bible. It was, earlier this year, while working with the physical copy of The Vocabulary of Yorùbá at the British Library (referenced earlier) that I discovered the original source of the problem. It predated the work on the Bible by a number of years.

Figures of Esu2
Figures of Èṣù published in the Dictionary of Modern Yorùbá. (Abraham, Roy Clive, H. J. Sutton (illustrator), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (London: University of London Press, 1958).) (12912.m.25)
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Now while one could argue that the skills used in dictionary lexicography are necessarily different from those used in prose translation, the eventual consequences of the choice of words used still point to the influence of Christian ideas about good and evil in the Bishop’s lexicographical choices. In today’s spoken Yorùbá, the word Èṣù is used interchangeably with ‘devil’ or ‘satan’, to the consternation of those cognisant of the initial error. But this is only in Nigeria. The diaspora Yorùbá in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America appear to have kept the deity in his place of reverence and celebration, along with the other deities.

Most dictionaries of Yorùbá, alas, have followed Àjàyí Crowther. Even dictionaries published as late as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary [YC.2006.a.19076] have retained that original “evil” association. Most who speak the language today do not even know of the time when the association wasn’t always present. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today only means “child of the devil”. So whether the bell of the evil linkage can be successfully unrung is a question that will remain up in the air.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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References

Ayankunle, Lamidi (bata); Baba Lati (bata); Baba Nasiru (bata),Eshu (Erin Osun, Osun State, Nigeria: 1985). [Live performance] ( ^A184405)

Harper, Peggy (sound recordist), “Eṣu”, on Peggy Harper African Recordings (Otu, Iseyin district, Western State, Nigeria: 18 November 1968). ( ^A250464). Available for listening in the British Library reading rooms only.

Ogundipẹ, Ayọdele, Èșù Elegbára: change, chance, uncertainty in Yorùbá mythology (Ilorin, Kwara State : Kwara State University Press, 2012). [ Asia, Pacific & Africa YP.2020.a.678 ]

Ogundele, W., “Esu-Elegbara: Ambivalence in Yoruba philosophy,” in Bayreuth African Studies, 38 (2001), pp. 29-36. ( 1871.242550 )

Ogunyẹmi, Wale, Eshu Elegbara (Ibadan: Orisun Acting Editions, 1970.) ( X.908/25448 ).

 

Further readings

Adefarakan, Temitope, “ 'At a Crossroads': Spirituality and The Politics of Exile: The Case of the Yoruba Orisa ,” Obsidian, 9:1 (2008), pp. 31-58.

Bacelar da Silva, Antonio José, “Exu is not Satan – the dialogics of memory and resistance among Afro-Brazilians,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 13:1 (2020), pp. 54-67. (doi: 10.1080/17528631.2019.1637143)

Kone, Moussa, “ Yorùbá Dictionaries ,” Orisha Image Blog, 15 May 2018.

Oyèláràn, Ọ., “ Èṣù and ethics in the Yorùbá world view ,” Africa, 90:2 (2020), pp. 377-407. (doi:10.1017/S0001972019001098)

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