The Tripartite Function of Riddles in the Socio-cultural System of the Ilaje People in Southwestern Nigeria

Academic Paper, 2021

21 Pages, Grade: 74




Definition of terms

Ilaje Ancient Riddles

Tripartite Function of Riddles in Ilaje Socio-cultural System

Riddles as Tool for Education.

Riddles as Tool of Entertainment

Riddles as Tool for Preservation of Cultural Heritage




"Undoubtedly, the place of riddles as a form of oral literature cannot be overemphasized in the socio-cultural system of the Ilaje/Ugbo people. Riddles are repository of artistic expression, traditional wisdom, knowledge and values that had in time past sustained Ilaje autochthon heritage being that, they were passed down from one generation to another through the medium of mouth. Thus, helped to develop children cognitive, preserve cultural heritage while serving the duo purpose of entertainment and education. The core of this paper therefore is to catalogue riddles, originally written in Ilaje dialect while it takes a cursory look at the tripartite function of Riddles in Ilaje socio-cultural system using the historical narrative methodology. The paper concludes that, in a world where elders who are repositories of oral literature are dying and autochthon heritage is disrupted by modernity, theres urgent need for the transmission and rejuvenation of unique forms of cultural knowledge and heritage.

Keywords: Autochthon, Ilaje, oral tradition, riddle


Ilaje is a local government area in Ondo State, Nigeria. Its headquarters is located in Igbokoda. The Ilaje people are a distinct and linguistic sub-group of Yoruba race.1 The Ilajes were formerly known as Ugbo or Orunmilas after the evolutionary creation.2 They were said to be aboriginals to present day Ile-Ife, the cradle of civilization. However, history has it that they were displaced by Odùduwà (the Progenitor of the Yorùbás) and his group between 100 and 200 A.D, after launching an onslaught on them.3 (See Ikuemonisan, Bababo. The Kingdoms Olugbo of Ugbo and Ọọni of Ife: A Controversy of Manipulation of History or a Fact from Antiquity). Thus, leading to the mass exodus of the Ilajes out of their autochthonous abode to the oil rich coastline in the present day Ondo State of Nigeria.

The Ilajes are highly skillful and civilized people, made up of four geopolitical entities namely; Ugbo, Mahin, Etikan and Aheri.

Ilaje local government area has a landmass of 1,318km. It is bounded by the Ijebus to the west, the Ikale to the north, the Itsekiri to the east, the Apoi and Arogbo-Ijaw to the north-east and the Atlantic Ocean to the South.4

The Ilaje people are naturally conditioned to a difficult terrain; surrounded by creeks, rivers and lagoons that make it impossible for commerce and industry to thrive. However, as one of the world's most dynamic and industrious people; blessed with sea, river and lagoon wizardry and couple with their ability to adapt, the adventurous and industrious Ilaje race was able to turn their harsh geographical environment to their advantage.5

Suffice to assert that, the word "Ilaje" has been accorded various etymological interpretations by different scholars. To some scholars, Ilaje is referred to as "the staff of Authority" (Opa-Ilaje) which was supposedly brought from Ile-Ife. To some, the name "Ilaje" means "Ile-Aje", which loosely translates, a land of riches/wealth later coined as "Ilaje". To others, the name "Ilaje" was initially "Alaje". However, it later became "Ilaje" which means "have wealth and enjoy it". Furthermore, some scholars suggest "Ilaje" to mean "the line on the paddle" while the people are referred to as "Ilajes" (paddle line)6 owning to their expertise in paddling.

No doubt, the expertise of the Ilajes has always been put to practice from primeval times. As gods of the aquatic, the Ilajes travelled in their indigenous sea and river canoes and settled along the coasts of West and South Africa. They founded settlements in Gabon, Cameroon, Togo, Dahomey, Ivory Coast, and Ghana among others. Despite their exploits, they often returned to their original homes for one festivals or the other. This therefore points to the fact that, Ilajeland is unique in culture and her people are adherence to their ingenious culture, rich traditions, beliefs and entertainment.

Although, Ilaje land terrain is more hostile to record keeping especially in a situation where houses are shifted, rebuilt or thatched almost every time 7. Nonetheless, the people like other groups of Yoruba race were able to preserve their autochthonous heritage through oral traditions and folklore which sustained salient information about their past and became a major source for the reconstruction of history. In this context, riddles as an oral art form will be focused on.

Definition of terms

What are oral traditions? What are riddles? Is there any similitude between them?

Several attempts have been made by scholars to define oral traditions, and riddles, and what constitutes both. For an in-depth understanding of the concepts, it is apposite to explore the concepts and the nexus between them.

In his highly cerebral and resourceful Oral Tradition as History, Jan Vansina defined oral traditions as verbal messages which are reported statements from the past. Vansina in his definition specified that, the message in oral traditions must be oral statements, spoken, sung or called out on musical instrument.8

Okediji (2017) sees oral traditions as cultural heritages transmitted from one generation to another. She further pontificated that, oral traditions are messages, information and testimonies of a group of people transmitted through speeches, songs and the likes.9

Sophie Oluwole in Socrates and Orunmila: Two Patron Saints of Classical Philosophy opined that oral tradition is folk thought. By this concise definition, the scholarly luminary considered oral Tradition common possession of members of the society in which it exists. Despite her brief definition, Sophie brought to the fore in her text that the sustainability of oral traditions is oratory and brain's duty when she acknowledged Yoruba ancestors who ensured that their intellectual culture didn't die by meticulously memorizing from one generation to another, the innumerable verses in Ifa literary corpus 10 and by extension poetry, chant, riddles, beliefs etc. which were taught in oral language.

Put simply, oral traditions can be defined as the transmission of the sum total of human experiences i.e. history, customs, beliefs, artifacts etc. from one generation to another through the medium of mouth.

Oral traditions are as old as human documented history. Despite they are unwritten statements or messages about the past of people, they occupy a special place being that, they are used as source material for the reconstruction of history. Although, oral traditions have flaws especially with the frailty of the human memory, it susceptibility to falsification, distortion and manipulation. Nonetheless, are the means through which the sum total of the distant past human experiences, culture, traditions, beliefs and values of pre-literate African societies were transmitted and the primary basis for the reconstruction of history. Little wonder, Jan Vassina posits that, whether memory changes or not, culture is reproduced by remembrance put into words and deeds. 11

Fasuyi (1973) gives further credibility to oral traditions as valid source for the reconstruction of the past of mankind when he argues that, Oral tradition remains an indispensable cultural heritage management strategy among pre-modern and pre-historic Africans which continues to be relevant in the contemporary. The scholar further stresses that, most oral traditions obtained through ethnographic studies have been confirmed by archaeological and historical findings.12

Moreover, People in what Eurocentric scholars called pre-literate African societies may not have come in contact with the Europeans or had access to western education early enough. However, they proved their ingenuity and geniuses by preserving useful information, culture, complex ideas and instructions for existence through Oral Traditions which formed the bedrock for historical reconstruction.

Riddles like oral traditions have been defined variedly. defined riddles as verbal puzzle, mystery, or other problem of an intellectual nature. 13

Stanley Madonsela considered riddles as traditional verbal expressions containing one or more descriptive elements, the meaning of which need to be deduced from the parts. 14

Riddles can therefore be defined as concise yet witty expressions and are essential tool to derive information of the forbearers deeds as it is an ancient verbal poetic form of reciting past significant events in a poetic rhyme.

It must be noted that, nexus exists between oral traditions and riddles and this is not unconnected to the fact that, both oral traditions and riddles are oral literatures. Thus, the verbal forms and literary style both adopt shares distinct literary similarities and formed the basis for the reconstruction of history of people in pre-colonial African societies.

Finnegan (1970) underscored that riddles have close connection with other aspects of literary expressions such as stories, enigma, eulogies etc. However, maintained that riddles are distinct type of literary expression in most African cultures and are viewed as peculiar domain relating to the instruction of children. In this regard, riddles are deliberately rooted in comprehensive knowledge as touching the social values of a particular society. 15

Although, unlike other genres of African oral art forms such as; Oriki (Praise poetry), owe (proverbs), Ese-Ifa (Ifa literary corpus), and Ijala (Hunter's poetry) riddles have not attracted much research. In fact, knowledge of the interpretation of riddles is largely unexplored in constructing cultural history of African people because riddles contain ambiguous speech with big expressions of hidden meanings. It is therefore against this backdrop that this discourse focuses on the tripartite function of riddles in the socio-cultural system of the Ilaje people.

Ilaje Ancient Riddles

Ilaje ancient systems of education and entertainment included riddles that heralded story telling at night especially at moon time. The audience of various ranges in age and number heard and/or posed the riddles one after the other. Lessons are taught and learnt on etiquette, moral standards, bravery and other societal values and/or ethos.

The opening word(s) is "aloo". It has no equivalent in English Language but simply described or said as "story-story" when narrating longer tales/anecdotes. When the word is pronounced, the audience will respond by saying "Alo".

Each puzzle/riddle requires an answer. If not correctly answered, the poser has the option of answering it by him/herself or "sitting" on it. If a puzzle is duplicated, the audience will shout "Wo ji ogiri je" meaning that you have stolen and eaten fermented melon. Alternatively, you may request for a town (Gbe oja ghun mi) as a gift. If pleased with the "town" given, then you may answer the riddle by yourself. There were sometimes interjections or music/poetic interlude while the riddles went on, such as; "Aigbede Èdè ja mogun Onẹ yi e gbo èdè Ji èdè run wo ọkọ" Shortly put as telling anyone that is ignorant to go and live in the bush.

The music/poetic interlude played an important role during the riddling exercise. It is usually started by a member of the audience while other members sang the song or chanted the poem along. Most times, the audience gestured and made dramatic body movements to the song or poem for complete funfair or enjoyment. Afterward, order was restored with the music/poem slowly dying down and the audience sat back to continue with the riddling.

It must be noted that, the musicality of the riddling gives credence to riddle as an oral art form and a highly performative one at that. In fact, poetry, chants and songs were the basic forms of expression upon which Ilaje riddles thrive. It is also significant to mention that gestures and clapping are essential for appreciation of intellectual superiority as the riddle went on.

In the subsequent paragraph, attention will not be focused on the explanations or interpretations of Ilaje riddles, instead an astonishingly subtle catalogue of extensively collected Ilaje riddles is provided for purely intellectual purpose with replies/answers thereof. Care must however be taken that, the riddles are written in Ilaje dialect, not the common Yoruba language because the riddles are originally Ilaje. Ilaje dialect has two more alphabets than the common Yoruba language of twenty-five letters which are /GH/ used for words like agharo {crab}, aghanrighan {alligator} and /WH/ which names the act of rowing {uwha}, quarreling {whi ejo} etc. Hence, when studying them, it is necessary to take cognizance of the differentiation in word formation and spellings.


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The Tripartite Function of Riddles in the Socio-cultural System of the Ilaje People in Southwestern Nigeria
Adekunle Ajasin University
History and International Studies
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Art history, African Oral Literature, Culture, riddles, parables, proverbs, Rhetoric, Ilaje, Ile-Ife, London School of Accountancy, Oral literature, Oral arts, African artifacts, Socio-cultural Studies, Stanford University, United States of America, Britain, Canada, Aso Rock, Filmmaker, Shortfalls, Scholar, Scholarship, Art of Science, Science of Art
Quote paper
Bababo Ikuemonisan (Author), 2021, The Tripartite Function of Riddles in the Socio-cultural System of the Ilaje People in Southwestern Nigeria, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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