Several versions of the Yoruba origin exist, the most popular of which revolves around a figure named Oduduwa. As recorded by one of the earliest Yoruba historians, Reverend Samuel Johnson (an Ọyọ convert to Christianity), Oduduwa was the head of an invading army from the East (a locale often identified with Mecca, Egypt, the Sudan, or northeastern Nigeria) who established the constitutional monarchic system of government amongst the indigenous population he found.
Other versions of the myth posit that Oduduwa was sent down by Ọlọrun Olodumare, the Creator, to fashion the first human beings out of the clay soil of Ilė-Ifę. Odudua is also the name of an important Earth goddess, the wife of Ọbatala, and some scholars postulate a connection between the semi-mythical founder of the Ifẹ, Ọyọ, and Benin monarchic traditions and the ancient female deity. The name Oduduwa has been translated to mean “the one (“O/Ohun”) who created the knowledge (“odu”) of character (“iwa”)” or “o dudu, o l’ewa/o n’iwa”: he’s black and beautiful/well-mannered, signifying the figure’s paramount role in establishing Yoruba philosophy and blackness, whether mythical or historical. Yoruba people are always referred to as “Yoruba, Omo Oduduwa(O’odua)”, sons of Oduduwa. The name is also linked to the literature of the Yoruba geomantic divination system, Ifa. The poetic chapters memorized and chanted by divination consultants (babalawo) during an Ifa session are called “odu”.
Oduduwa was the founder of Ile-Ife. He was sent from the heavens by Olodumare to establish the earth and create its inhabitants after another minister of Olodumare, Obatala, failed to do this. To this effect, Oduduwa was given a cock and a sack of sand since the earth was covered with water at that time. While climbing down from the heavens, he lost grip of the cock that started flying down and in his bid to catch the cock let loose the sack of sand. Sand started slipping down onto the water down below. Getting down, Oduduwa realised that the sand had formed a small “land hill” protruding from the water and that the cock had perched on it spreading the sand with its legs. The land started spreading forming the soil of the earth. He named that spot Ile n’fe, the earth was extending, and hence the name of Ile-Ife, the ancestral town of humanity and the Yoruba. Obatala later came down with the others and created the humans.