Yoruba Culture and Traditions in Death and The King’s Horseman
Death and the King’s Horseman, written by Wole Soyinka, is a play depicting the transition between life and death. Throughout the text we come across different cultures such as the Yoruba society and the British colonials. These two society’s do not agree with one another when it comes to the Yoruba traditions. Furthermore, this play was based on a true event. The king of Oyo passed away and a British colonial officer’s intervention tried to prevent the ritual suicide. Wole Soyinka captures the transitions of life throughout this engaging story. The elements of fate, obligation, duty, hesitation, and bad timing all play a big role in this short story and bring us to an unexpected ending.
In the beginning of the play, we are informed that the King has passed away. Elesin, the King’s Horseman, knows what must happen next to follow the Yoruba tradition. Following the death of the King, Elesin must follow in ritual death. According to Elesin, “I embrace it. And let me tell you, women- I like this farewell that the world designed, unless my eyes deceive me” (Soyinka). Elesin claims he is not afraid of death. He knows this ritual must be followed through with no exceptions. Furthermore, in this quote, he shows that he readily accepts his fate.
Next, we move into the second scene of the play. Amusa, a member of the native police, shows up at the local district officers’ bungalow whose name was Simon Pilkings. He brought with him an urgent report. This report states that Elesin must commit death tonight before his burial. He must join the King in heaven and help his spirit ascend to the afterlife. If Elesin does not follow through with the ritual, the King’s spirit will wander the earth and harm those around.
Meanwhile there was drumming going on outside. “I don’t think I’ve heard this particular sound before. Something unsettling about it” stated Pilkings. He didn’t know what all the drumming was about. He called in his servant Joseph and questioned him about what was going on. Joseph told him it had to do with the King’s Horseman and Simon was flustered. The sound continued to increase as time went on. “If it were a ritual murder or something like that I’d be duty-bound to do something,” exclaimed Simon (Soyinka). Simon continued to wonder if it really did have something to do with the ritual like Joseph had said. The whole thought of this native custom had Simon concerned. He knew he must interfere with Elesin’s plan to commit the ritual suicide as part of his duty. Wasting no time, Pilkings sends Joseph to find Amusa to give him a note. He had a plan to lock up Elesin in his study before he could commit the murder. Amusa will keep watch until Simon returns. This way Elesin cannot escape.
Meanwhile, while this was all going on the Pilking’s were preparing to go to the ball. This ball was unlike others because it had a special guest attending. It was going to be the Prince. Pilking’s knew there could not be a riot in town with the Prince there. Therefore, he was so concerned about the whole phenomenon. The Prince would be very disappointed that a ritual murder was going on because it would go against the British colonial law. This couldn’t have been any worse of timing with the Prince stopping through on the tour of the colonies.
Moreover, Amusa goes to the marketplace to capture Elesin. In the process of arresting Elesin, the girls continuously taunt him. They claim it is Elesin’s wedding night and do not want to be disturbed. As Amusa is arguing with the girls, Elesin comes out after his wedding was complete. He announces that he is now ready to complete his duty in honor of the King. “My faithful friends, let our feet touch together this last time, lead me into the other market with sounds that cover my skin with down yet make my limbs strike earth like a thoroughbred” (Soyinka). He begins to dance in a deep trance. As time went on it seemed as if he was sinking deeper and deeper and losing a sense of life.
Meanwhile Simon’s wife encounters Olunde. Olunde is Elesin’s eldest son. He has returned home from England because he heard the King has died and knows it is now time for his father too as well. He would now have a funeral to arrange.
Finally, Elesin is surrounded by his bride, the guards, Pilkings, and Olunde while sitting in his cell. Elesin states, “The world is not at peace. You have shattered the peace of the world forever. There is no sleep in the world tonight” (Soyinka). In this quote he tells Pilkings what he has done is wrong. Because he will not fulfil the Yoruba tradition, people will not sleep peacefully. Pilkings is destroying Elesin’s life as well as the lives of others. He explains to Simon that they see their duties differently. Simon’s duty is to keep Elesin alive while Elesin’s duty is to follow the King up to heaven by committing ritual murder.
In the end, Iyaloja goes to visit Elesin and yells at him for not going through with his death. “You have betrayed us” stated Iyaloja. Elesin knew what was expected of him, yet he let everyone down. He does not deserve to be called a leader, for he did not fulfill his duty. The women from the market place also came to see Elesin at this time. They were carrying a burden wrapped in cloth. In the bundle of cloth was his eldest son no longer breathing. It was then that Elesin finds out that Olunde had committed suicide. With no hesitation, Elesin strangled himself although it was already too late. He had waited too long. Olunde had already fulfilled his father’s duty to restore the family’s honor.
In conclusion, the elements of fate, obligation, duty, hesitation, and bad timing all played a significant role in this story. Because it was Elesin’s fate, obligation, and duty to die, he had no other option but to fulfil the task. The Prince was in town which made the ritual hard to follow through with. Pilking’s stopped at nothing to save Elesin’s life while the Prince was visiting. Elesin claimed he was not afraid of death, yet he hesitated and that also started a big controversy. He wanted to get married first and leave a legacy behind by impregnating the woman.
When he finally decided it was time to end his life, it was too late because Olunde had already taken his own life to restore the family’s honor. No one expected this outcome in the end. Moreover, this was a very interesting play. I enjoyed learning about the different traditions. Who knows what will happen in the future between the two society’s if something like this were to occur again.
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