This was a trip I’d been looking forward to for a long time and I finally got to make it this past weekend. For those that do not know, the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove is one of the TWO UNESCO World Heritage Sites we have in Nigeria.
Before I go any further, I have to give a heartfelt shout out to the Nigerian Field Society and in particular Robin & Hugh Campbell for organizing an excellent trip. My experience of the trip would not have been the same without Robin’s dedication and organization – everything from transportation to accommodation to hospitality was superbly arranged. Robin & Hugh Campbell are the Chairpersons of the Lagos Branch of the Nigerian Field Society (NFS). More information about the NFS can be found here.
Description of the Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove (from the UNESCO site)
The Osun Sacred Grove is the largest and perhaps the only remaining example of a once widespread phenomenon that used to characterise every Yoruba settlement. It now represents Yoruba sacred groves and their reflection of Yoruba cosmology. It is a tangible expression of Yoruba divinatory and cosmological systems; its annual festival is a living thriving and evolving response to Yoruba beliefs in the bond between people, their ruler and the Osun goddess.
The grove covers 75 ha of ring-fenced forest alongside the Osun River on the outskirts of Osogbo town, Western Nigeria. About 2 million people live in Osogbo. The grove in Yoruba cosmology is the domicile of Osun, the goddess of fertility. Ritual paths lead devotees to 40 shrines, dedicated to Osun and other Yoruba deities, and to nine specific worship points beside the river. Osun is the Yoruba personification of the ‘waters of life’ and the spiritual mother of the Osogbo township. It also symbolizes a pact between Larooye, the founder of Osogbo, and Osun: the goddess gave prosperity and protection to her people if they built a shrine to her and respected the sprit of the forest. Unlike other Yoruba towns whose sacred groves have atrophied, or disappeared, the Osogbo Grove has, over the past 40 years, been re-established as a central, living focus of the town. The Osogbo Grove is now seen as a symbol of identity for all Yoruba people, including those of the African diaspora, many of whom make pilgrimages to the annual festival.
The grove has a mature, reasonably undisturbed, forest canopy, which supports a rich and diverse flora and fauna – including the endangered white-throated monkey. Some parts were cleared in the colonial period, and teak plantations and agriculture introduced, but these are now being re-established. The grove is a highly sacred sanctuary where shrines, sculptures and artworks honour Osun and other Yoruba deities. It has five main sacred divisions associated with different gods and cults, located either side of a path transecting the grove from north-west to south-east.
The Osun River meanders through the whole grove and along its length are nine worship points. Throughout the grove the broad river is overhung with forest trees. Its waters signify a relationship between nature, the spirits and human beings, reflecting the place given to water in the Yoruba cosmology as symbolizing life. The river is believed to have healing, protective and fertility powers. The fish are said to have been used by the goddess Osun as messengers of peace, blessings and favour.
Traditionally, sacred trees and stones and metal objects, along with mud and wood sculptures, defined the deities in the grove. During the past 40 years, new sculptures have been erected in the place of old ones and giant, immovable ones created in threatened spaces in the grove by Suzanne Wenger working with a group of local artists called New Sacred Art. These sculptures are made from a variety of materials – stone, wood, iron and concrete. There are also wall paintings and decorative roofs made from palm fronds.
There are two palaces. The first is part of the main Osun-Osogbo shrine. The second palace is where Larooye moved to before the community established a new settlement outside the grove. Both buildings are constructed of mud walls with tin roofs supported variously by mud and carved wooden pillars. The three Ogboni buildings are constructed with sweeping roofs rising high over the entrances and supported on a cluster of slender carved wooden posts.
The Annual Osun-Osogbo festival is a 12-day event held once a year at the end of July and the beginning of August. The grove is seen as the repository of kingship, as well as the spiritual heart of the community. The festival invokes the spirits of the ancestor kings and rededicates the present Oba to Osun, as well as reaffirming and renewing the bonds between the deities represented in the Sacred Grove and the people of Osogbo. The finale of the festival is a procession of the whole population, led by the votary maid Arugba and headed by the Oba and priests, all accompanied by drumming, singing and dancing.
The town of Osogbo is believed to have been founded around 400 years ago. It is part of the wider Yoruba community, divided into 16 kingdoms, which legend says were ruled by the children of Oduduwa, the mythic founder, whose abode at Ile-Ife, south-east of Osogbo, is still regarded as the spiritual home of the Yoruba people.
The earliest settlement seems to have been in the Osogbo Grove and included palaces and a market. When the population expanded the community moved outside the Grove and created a new town, which reflected spatially the arrangements within the Grove.
In the 1840s Osogbo became a refugee town for people fleeing the Fulani Jihad, as it moved south from what is now northern Nigeria. The Yorubas retreated further south into the forests and Osogbo, right at the northern edge of the forest, became an important centre for northern Yorubaland.
The Fulani attacks on Osogbo were repelled and, as a result, Osogbo has become a symbol of pride for all the Yorubas.
During the first half of the 20th century, the town of Osogbo expanded considerably. In 1914 British colonial rule begun. As it was delivered under a system of indirect rule through traditional rulers, the authority of the Oba and priests were sustained. A greater change was brought about from the middle of the 19th century through the introduction of both Islam and Christianity. Islam became the religion of traders and ruling houses – as it gave contacts to northern trade routes and links to returning exslaves from Central and South America. For a while all three religions co-existed but as time went by it became less fashionable to be identified with the Ogboni and Osun cults.
By the 1950s the combined political and religious changes were having a marked detrimental effect on the Grove: customary responsibilities and sanctions were weakening, shrines were becoming neglected and traditional priests began to disappear. All this was exacerbated by a rise in the looting of statues and movable sculptures to feed an antiquities market. At around this time part of the Grove was acquired by the Department of Agriculture and Forestry for agricultural experiments. Trees were felled and teak plantations established; sculptures were reportedly stolen and hunting and fishing begun to be recorded – previously forbidden in the sacred Grove.
It was at this crucial point in the history of the Grove that Austrian born Suzanne Wenger moved to Osogbo and, with the encouragement of the Oba and the support from local people, formed the New Sacred Art movement to challenge land speculators, repel poachers, protect shrines and begin the long process of bringing the sacred place back to life through once again establishing it as the sacred heart of Osogbo.
The artists deliberately created large, heavy and fixed sculptures in iron, cement and mud, as opposed to the smaller traditional wooden ones, in order that their intimidatory architectural forms would help to protect the Grove and stop thefts. All the sculptures have been done in full respect for the spirit of the place, with inspiration from Yoruba mythology and in consultations with the gods in a traditional context.
The new work has made the Grove a symbol of identity for the Yoruba people. Many from the African Diaspora now undertake a pilgrimage to the annual festival.
In 1965 part of the Grove was declared a national monument. This was extended in 1992 so that now the whole 75 hectares are protected.
Iya Mapo – Goddess of Women. This is one of the three giant sculptures erected by Susan Wenger and the New Scared Artists. The goddess has six arms and extends them out to all women assisting them with any problems (fertility, etc) they may have. She was feared as a witch too and on the side is a bird which she purportedly used as a messenger to people far away from Osogbo.
Ela – Orunmila’s son and revered intermediary akin to Jesus (Christianity) or Mohammed (Islam). His feet never touches the ground. Can’t explain the giant phallic structure jutting out between his legs! 🙂
Alagere, Oba Lowaye – the god of healing (chickenpox and small pox were his specialties). Within the structure are people lying postrate before him asking for healing.
We got a rare opportunity to see a few of the shrines and sacred places that are generally not open to tourists. Don’t know what the consequences would have been if one didn’t have permission. One thing I must say was that the grove did feel very much like a sacred place – tranquil and peaceful – similar to other sacred places of worship I’d been to (Buddhist temples in Thailand for example)
One of the numerous shrines we saw and some of the statutes (sculptures) in front of it. Each of the statutes depict figures in Yoruba mythology. Most of the art in the grove were personally carved/sculpted by Susan Wenger and the New Sacred Artists beginning in the 1950s till now.
This gentleman is one of the New Sacred Artists. He sculpted all the works at this shrine. He was such a nice man and he told me he just molds the figures without a plan by simply letting the spirits move him.
Osun River again – flowing.
Entrance of the market place mentioned earlier.
The market square area.
Artwork on the border wall of the market square.
The three “heads” of the Ogboni Shrine.
Artwork on the Ogbonni Shrine
The Ogbonni Chiefs. The lady in all white in the picture is Susan Wenger’s adopted daughter, Chief Adedoyin Talabi Faniyi. She is trained as an Osun Priestess both traditionally and academically. She has a BA in Yoruba Studies from the University of Ilorin and an MA in African Studies from the University of Ibadan. In addition to being an Ogboni Chief, in her role as High Priestess Chief Faniyi conducts traditional rituals in Osogbo including at the annual Osun Festival where she leads the Arugba procession to the Osun Shrine.
If you have always wanted to see what the inside of an African Shrine looks like, today is your lucky day! This is the interior of the Ogboni Shrine. People are normally not allowed in, so I felt really honored to be allowed to take pictures inside. There was a locked room we could not go into or take pictures of though. The hieroglyphics on the walls are sacred divination and each symbol has a meaning. Three types of dyes/chalk are used, but I honestly can’t remember them. Anyone that has knowledge about this should please share!
Wood sculptures (similar to Native American totem poles) depicting the various Orishas/gods.
A sculpture of a snake which is the sacred symbol of the Ogbonis.
Shrine where Susan Wenger, the Iya Adunni Orisha is buried. Still a live and active shrine.
Sculptures dotted throughout the grove.
Pathway leading to the Osun Shrine and through which the procession walks during the Annual Osun Osogbo festival. The festival is very big and Yoruba religion followers from all over the world especially in Cuba, Brazil and some parts of the US make the pilgrimage to the festival annually.
Entrance to the Osun Shrine/Temple area leading to the Osun River.
The Osun Temple/Shrine – I had the privilege of entering into the Osun Temple. We were not allowed to take pictures inside and had to take off our shoes to go in. Inside the shrine were similar sacred hieroglyphics as in the Ogboni shrine. The Osun Shrine is a big enclosed compound. Once through the doors, you face see the main Osun shrine and the spot where the Oba’s (Ata-Oja of Osogbo) stool is buried. It is also the spot where the Oba has to sit to pay homage to the Osun goddess every year during the Osun festival. Flanking the main shrine on both sides is a row of open rooms where the worshipers of other Orishas/Deities – Ogun, Obatala, Sango, etc. usually go worship their chosen Orishas.
The Osun High Priest. Was very intimidating, but a nice man. He said very extensive prayers for us including that Boko Haram will not touch us! 🙂
Statute of the Osun goddess welcoming all to her sculpted by Susan Wenger. Legend has it that in the old days, the Oba would come and offer sacrifices to the goddess to thank her for her protection over his kingdom. The Osun goddess would send her fish out of the river with healing waters in its mouth. The Oba would use the healing water to heal all in his kingdom over the next year. This is why the Oba of Osogbo is called the Ata-Oja, short for “Atewo Gba Ore Lowo Eja” which literally translates to “He Who Receives Blessings from the Fish.”
Apparently the water is referred to as a “concotion” or Agbo in Yoruba and no one drinks from it. People still offer daily, weekly and annual sacrifices to it though.
Another artist’s depiction of the goddess Osun. She is also known as the goddess that provides children, hence the children around her in this statute.
Friendly monkeys were all over the grove! 🙂