A few months ago, I was privileged to witness the Obatala Festival held in the ancient Oyo Town.
Obatala is one of the premier Orishas (gods) in Yoruba culture. He is known by several names: Orisha funfun (god of white); Orisha Ori (god of “being”/”destiny”). Legend has it that Obatala was sent to primodial earth by Eledumare (Supreme God) to mold the bodies of human kind. However, Obatala very much loved his palm wine and often got so drunk during this assignment that he started making less than ‘perfect’ humans. Oduduwa, his younger and brash younger brother, was subsequently sent to earth to finish up and complete the assignment Obatala couldn’t finish because of his love of palm wine.Eledumare, angry at Obatala forbade him from ever drinking palm wine thereafter. When Obatala sobered up, he felt remorse for his actions in creating imperfect people and he subsequently accepted Eledumare’s punishment, swearing off palm-wine for the rest of his time on earth.This is why the followers of Obatala to this day do not drink palm-wine.
As part of his atonement, he took responsibility to protect all ‘imperfect’ humans created and anyone with physical ‘imperfections’ are considered to be children of Obatala. All humans born with any measure of ‘imperfection’ ranging in some cases from birthmarks to albinos to handicapped people were according to Yoruba legend, children of Obatala, who it is believed ‘marks’ his children (with their imperfections).
Obatala is honored with brilliant white cloth, white lace, white beads and cowries, white flowers, silver coins, and silver jewelry. He is honored with white hens, snails, white melon soup, pounded yams, and other white food such as eko, fermented corn wrapped in plantain leaves. His priests and priestesses wear only white.
Obatala has been carried to many cultures in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, etc., where for centuries he has been honored as the patron of children, childbirth, albinos, and anyone with a birthmark.
Obatala is also believed to provide the moral purpose for Shango, the ancient King and Orisha of thunder and lightning.
This is the oldest, best preserved, but newly restored Obatala shrine within the city limits of the ancient Oyo town in Isale Oyo. The shrine has been restored using organic mud and paint in the traditional style. A lot of the preservation work has been spearheaded by impressive and very knowledgeable Dr. Paula Gomes. You can find more information about Paula and her work here. Notice the traditional carved totem pole that is often found at shrines or other religious places of worship in the Yoruba culture.
Dr. Paula Gomes with the Obatala worshipers at the beginning of the procession from the Obatala Shrine in Isale Oyo
The Arugba is a young virgin girl who’s task it is to carry the sacrificial offerings from the ancient Obatala shrine in Isale Oyo, to the main Obatala Shrine within the grounds of the Alaafin’s palace. She is surrounded by Obatala priests and priestesses who will guide her and walk with her in the procession. All through the trip, the Obatala worshipers would announce the Arugba’s arrival by shouting “Epo Orisha!” (beauty/lamp of the Orisha) essentially alerting town folks on the road that the Arugba was coming.
The procession arrives at the Alaafin’s Palace.
The Palace of the Alaafin of Oyo.
Interesting hieroglyphics on the walls of the entrance to the massive Palace grounds.
The 3 rectangles that can be seen at the edge of the wall are actually doors to the Palace for each of the three families among whom the seat of the Alaafin rotates. On the day of his coronation, the Alaafin is crowned by the Sango high priest in town before he makes his way to the Aafin (palace). His family’s door is then broken through and the newly crowned Alaafin must enter the Palace backwards through his family’s door as part of his coronation rights. Once he is through the ‘door’, it is resealed and remain so until the next Alaafin is crowned.
The procession arriving at the Alaafin’s reception chamber to pay homage to their monarch before heading to the Obatala Shrine with the compound. (The procession was welcomed by one of the Alaafin’s young, ‘yellow’ wives :-)).
One of the ladies went into a massive trance after we arrived at the Alaafin’s palace. It was scary and majestic at the same time, but the people were very happy as they saw that as a sign that Obatala was with them and happy with them!
The main Obatala shrine within the Palace grounds before and after the procession arrives at the shrine. Notice the giant Obatala’s head on the shrine. Fitting as Obatala is the Orisha Ori (literal translation: ‘god of the head’; figuratively: ‘god of destiny’)
This is the Sango shrine right next to the Obatala shrine within the Palace grounds. How great does this look? Unfortunately, we were not allowed into either of the shrines.
This was one of the Sango priests and he was one of our guides and an all around fun guy to hang out with. He really didn’t want his picture taken but allowed me to take this one. His hair is braided and he is wearing red both of which identify him as a Sango priest. He said he was a third generation Sango priest and that he had been given to Sango as a baby.
These totem poles are centuries old and are believed to be the oldest totem polls on the grounds of the Alaafin’s palace.
The modern wing of the Alaafin’s palace. I liked the artwork on the walls, although some of my companions on the trip didn’t like them and thought they looked too modern. What do you think?
An old, undated massive carved door within the Palace grounds. The door was believed to have been carved in the late 1800s/early 1900s and depicts everyday life in Oyo town. If you look closely you can see some of the animals hunted, children playing, women cooking, a colonial (white man) speaking with an Oyo native. Door carving was an art the Yorubas perfected.
A plastic mold/life-size cast of the former Alaafin on his throne.
An Obatala shrine at the foot of a massive tree at the entrance to the Alaafin’s receiving chambers. The lady that went into a trance was brought here to be cooled down.
The Alaafin’s receiving chamber.
Other Sights in Oyo town
Dried yam used to be ground into Elubo used to make Amala, the most iconic Oyo meal.
Decorative gourds which Oyo is well known for.
A family’s Obatala shrine that had been newly restored with the help of Dr. Paula Gomes and her foundation. Women were not allowed into this specific shrine although I was able to enter into another Obatala shrine in the town.
Sacrificial offering to Obatala. This was as close as I could get to the Shrine!