Death and the King's Horseman by Wole Soyinka

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In Death and The King's Horseman, what are the indigenous people's beliefs about suicide?

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Death and The King's Horseman focuses on a man named Elesin Oba, chief horseman to the king of Nigeria's Yoruba people. In the story, the king has recently died and, according to Yoruba law and tradition, his horseman (along with his horse and dog) must undergo a ritual death in order to appease the gods; otherwise, the king's soul will wander aimlessly across Yoruban lands bringing misfortune to the people. Therefore, being the king's horseman entails the great responsibility of ensuring the king's ascension to the afterlife.

The Yoruban people's notion of suicide is deeply rooted in a culture imbued with superstitions about how celestial beings view human duties and responsibilities on earth. Concepts of honor, shame, and protecting the community come together to form traditions intent on interpreting the will of the gods. In addition, their society is constructed around a staunch masculine ethos that sees men as necessary orchestrators in maintaining spiritual harmony through ritual suicide. Failing to follow through on a ritual suicide could lead to the shaming of your family and ostracism from the community.

The book is based on an actual event that took place in the ancient Yoruban city of Oyo in 1946 when Nigeria was a British colony. The British authorities found the practice of ritual suicide barbaric and did not want it to be witnessed by the Prince of England, who was visiting the area. This intervention was based on more Western-style, Judeo-Christian values that viewed suicide as abhorrent, ignoring the idea that preventing the suicide would bring shame to the horseman by his neighbors.

In the end, Elesin's son, Olunde, kills himself via ritual suicide instead, believing he can act as a surrogate for his father in order to restore his family's dignity and bring harmony back to the universe. Here again, adhering to the cultural view of the male's responsibilities in protecting the family and community reach beyond the physical to the metaphysical, making the fear of death itself far less burdensome than the fear of supernatural retribution.

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