Themes in Death and the King’s Horseman

This article summarises the themes in Death and The King’s Horseman – a book rife with Yoruba culture. The themes in Death and The King’s Horseman include life and death amongst others.


Themes in Death and The King's Horseman


Death and the King’s Horseman is a play written by Wole Soyinka. Published in 1975 while in Political-motivated exile at Cambridge College, UK, Death and the King’s Horseman chronicles the life of Elesin, an Oba’s horseman who must die to enable the Oba transition to the afterlife. His position as the king’s horseman requires him to commit suicide, following the king’s death. 

In the course of the month-long process leading up to the sacrifice, Elesin finds himself tied heavily to carnal things, making him struggle to give up on life on the specified sacrificial day, leading to the intervention of the colonial officers preventing the ritual from taking place. This threw the community in fear of looming destruction as a consequence.



Themes in Death and the King’s Horseman


Responsibility and Duty

Both Elesin and Simon Pilkings have conflicting duties to perform in the play. Elesin feels it’s his responsibility to commit suicide to enable him to make it to the afterlife with the king and save the world of his people from impending catastrophe. Simon, on the other hand, thinks he’s exercising his duty to police the Africans by stopping the sacrifice and every other primitive practice from taking place in the British colony.

Moreover, he thinks he’s doing Elesin good by saving his life without knowing he’s doing a disservice to his people, who believe the disruption of the sacrifice will lead to the collapse of the world.



Colonialism hides in every scene of the play. By the time the play is set, Britain had a foothold in Nigeria and took it upon itself to stamp out the Yoruba culture. When Elesin Oba desires to commit suicide to save the Yoruba world, the colonizers misunderstand him; they see the culture as primitive and think they’re civilizing them by stopping the sacrifice and other Yoruba practices. 

However, the act connotes danger to the Africans and the dwindling of their culture. The British colonizers, with their superiority mentality, assume they’re doing the Yoruba people a favor by imposing their perceived advanced civilization on them, whereas in reality, the tradition of the natives is gradually dying off the surface of the earth.

Simon Pilkings and Jane seized the egungun because they saw it as a fetish; however, they wore the fetish egungun around even to parties; this embodies hypocrisy. They inflicted fear on the locals, making them hide to practice their traditions. When Elesin failed to complete the sacrifice, Iyaloja blamed him for not being fast enough, which resulted in the intervention of Simon Pilkings. They divided the locals against themselves. For example, Amusa was hired by the British colonizers to police his people. He reported to Simon about Elesin’s plan to commit ritual suicide.


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It’s the responsibility of the Elesin Oba to sacrifice himself after the king’s death to enable his journey to the afterlife. In Yoruba tradition, the Oba will be bogged down on earth if proper sacrifice is not done, which would offset the balance of the world. Since Elesin could not complete the sacrifice, his son, Olunde steps in to complete it to save the planet from near destruction and bring back dignity to his family.



Life and Death

The play starts with the death of Oba, the traditional ruler of the Yoruba people. Whenever the Oba dies, according to the tradition this play is based on, the Elesin, a title of the Oba’s horseman, must commit suicide before the Oba can transition to the afterlife properly. 

Elesin Oba is aware of this fact right from inception. In the play, when the Oba died, Elesin was given a month to prepare for his death. His death connotes salvation to the Yoruba people; thwarting it is feared as it would pull the world off its axis. 

In the course of the sacrifice, Elesin surrounds himself with things that give life pleasure. The market women make the most adoring clothes for him. While he awaits death, he demands Iyaloja link him with a beautiful girl for sex. Despite the girl being betrothed to Iyaloja’s son, Iyaloja agrees, considering the heaviness of his sacrifice. She only cooperates because of her desire to make Elesin live the best of his life within the month.

As the play progressed, Elesin becomes too harnessed to life, making the Praise-Singer query him about his readiness to follow up with the tradition. A few hours before the sacrifice, Elesin expresses his wish to marry the young lady he had requested Iyaloja to link with him for sex. Iyaloja fears Elesin marrying a few hours before the sacrifice might Influence his mind negatively, hence warns him of planting a seed of curse.

Although Elesin becomes attached to life through his behavior, in the end, the way he thinks about death is honorable in contrast to the British characters like Simon and Jane, who see his act as unholy and unreasonable.



Gender Roles

Although the play is explicitly not about gender roles, however, gender is an important part of the play. Women in the play are loud and angry at the dissidents of the law. Soyinka portrays them as reminders of social roles and safe-guarders of the gasping culture. The most notable woman in the play is Iyaloja, the leader of the market women. Iyaloja sacrifices her time to ensure Elesin keeps going with the tradition and always stands to repudiate Elesin’s gasp of marrying the young girl. 

Moreover, she makes Elesin live his best life in the transition period by even going to great lengths to accept his wish to arrange the young with him for sex, despite the young girl being betrothed to her son. She pours her wrath on him when he falters in the sacrifice time, leading to the intervention of the British colonizers. She talks Elesin into committing suicide in the colonial prison and, thereafter, turns her anger against Pilkings for causing catastrophe to befall her people. 

The power of women could also be felt in the play when the market women chase Amusa away when he comes to disrupt the sacrifice.

Generally, the way women are treated in the Yoruba culture can easily be understood through the character of the young girl, whom Elesin vehemently wishes to marry. The young girl, unlike Iyaloja is just a sort of pawn used to soften the heart of readying to die Elesin. She is indecisive and agrees with whatever she was told.

On the colonial side, Jane possesses more power in comparison to her African counterparts. She speaks freely and condemns her husband’s harsh treatment of the Africans. Although Jane expresses herself without restraint, Simon unhesitatingly dismisses her suggestions and opinions. 


Did you identify other themes in Death and The King’s Horseman? Please share in the comment section below.


Comments (1)

  1. Thank you for your sharing. I am worried that I lack creative ideas. It is your article that makes me full of hope. Thank you. But, I have a question, can you help me?

    July 1, 2023 at 6:37 pm

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