Story by MUSA JIBRIL
Photos by OMONIYI AYEDUN
If you are a fan of D.O. Fagunwa’s novels, Ògbójú Ọdẹ nínú Igbó Irúnmalẹ̀ (“Forest of a Thousand Demons” as translated by Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka) or Igbó Olodumare (The Forest of God) you are wont to regard the Osun Sacred Grove as the real version of the fictional forest the author portrays in his books. Deep inside the luxuriant tropical forest, white-throated monkeys roam free, rare birds tweet loudly and fishes in the strong-flowing Osun River are forbidden to human consumption.
However, the grove is nothing like a forbidden forest. It is an active religious site where daily, weekly and monthly worship takes place.
First declared a national monument in 1965, and eventually designated UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 2007, the 75-hectare rainforest harbours antique courtyards, shrines and temples of the original settlers led by Larooye some five hundred years ago. Mud buildings with tin roofs supported pillars of mud and carved wood. Besides the three Ogboni buildings with sky-high slanted roofs over their entrances and supported on a cluster of slender carved wooden posts, other attractions include 40 shrines and several sculptures erected in honour of Osun and varieties of other Yoruba deities. Along the riverbanks are five sacred places and nine worship points, with designated priests and priestesses.
A farrago of sculptures and artworks––mostly the art of the late Suzanne Wenger––is scattered all over the forest. These imbue the grove with an air of spirituality. The Austrian-born artist left indelible footprints; her last three major works, though uncompleted, are awe-inspiring.
Her sculptures, made of iron, cement and mud are large and frightening. During a conversation with one of the artists who worked in the grove with the late Adunni Olorisa, he disclosed that the Austrian got her inspiration from dreams, and she usually worked at night with a butane-powered torch.
If you are a first-timer to the festival you might be surprised at the turnout of white people at the grove on Osun day. Europeans mostly came as curious scholars and filmmakers. Those who come with religious intent are mostly Germans. Once I had come across a Japanese devotee, his oriental features setting him apart from others around him.
The vast majority of Diasporan devotees come from Latin America. Colombians. Mexicans. Venezuelans and Brazilians. In religion, Brazilians and the Yoruba have a shared interest. Listen to Clara Nunes’ 1970’s ode to orixas. Or one of Caetano Veloso’s number. Or Clementina de Jesus’ songs of praise. All are replete with words that invoke Yoruba traditional religion imagery and symbols. Axe (ase). Xango (sango), Ogum (Ogun), Oxala (Oshanla) and Oxum (Oshun).
The Afro-Brazilian tie was strengthened further in 2018 with the State of Bahia’s recognition of Yoruba as an official language and African history as part of its school curriculum. This development is open sesame for Osun traditional religion, (which in the last decade has attracted followership in Europe and Latin America), to make further inroads into South America.
Dr. Olosun Adigun, the Baba Osun of Osogbo, who frequently travel to the Americas to promote and propagate Yoruba traditional religion consider the development a good omen.
“It will create more awareness and make people benefit more in the religion as they will know the Yoruba language which is the language of the religion,” he says.
During a recent interaction, the principal priest of the Osun Osogbo, gives further insight.
“My travelling all over the world is to promote Osun, educating people and teaching them the tradition and practice of the African traditional religion,” he begins, “It is not only Osun I am promoting, but I am also Babalawo and Babalorisa. I have many godchildren in Latin American countries of Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina. Usually, we conduct indoctrination in their houses. Some travel down to Nigeria. But the Yoruba Tradition Elders Committee has drawn up guidelines that will now be employed for use abroad. Soon, I will commence initiation of those in the diaspora worldwide.”
Good news. Nonetheless, there is also an unwholesome development that should trouble devotees of Osun Osogbo, moreso because the development is beginning to take the shape of a parallel to an unfortunate narrative that is usually recounted in low tones, an incidence of impiety and broken taboo that provoked vehemence and vengeance of the gods. Hardly recounted among the Oloosa, the incident happened in the last 15 years.
What started as strife in the temple became a conspiracy in which Iya Osun attempted to diminish the Baba Osun by usurping his responsibility. She reportedly cajoled a certain Aworo Oosadare to prepare the customary Osun calabash that was to be taken to the stream in the grove on Osun day. To successfully carry out the plan, she was alleged to have goaded Oosadare into an alcoholic binge, and the hapless devote on his own volition signed his death warrant. He became seriously sick. He went blind. And he died, a miserable death. But a man who pulled a nest of wasps endangers all bystanders. The calamity brought about by Oosadare also affected the reigning monarch.
This tragic precedent is the reason some concerned worshippers and elders in Osogbo are in a panic since October 2018 when a circumstance capable of brewing a religious dystopia first surfaced. As reported by Saturday Sun of January 5, 2019, the development is simmering acrimony between Ataoja of Osogbo and Baba Osun over the latter’s allegation of a missing worship object from the temple in the palace.
At a press conference held in his palace the following week, Ataoja had noted, “Whosoever that calls me a thief will not go unpunished.”
The king had also avowed his accuser would be arrested “if he comes to Osogbo from his base abroad.”
Adigun who returned a few days later had responded with a strong-worded petition to the IGP and the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism Affairs. Dated January 11, 2019, and entitled “Petition Against the Ataoja…and others in a case of conspiracy, stealing, conduct likely to cause the breach of public peace and unlawful sales of an object of worship of Osun Diety,” it was signed by his lawyer, Muhammed Aminu of
Kunle Akinyemi and Co. The petitioner demanded a refund of N15 million he allegedly spent in retrieving the said object.
On his Facebook wall, he had also posted a troubling post about a threat to his life.
The development paints a gloomy picture of discord between the palace and the temple. The rancour, Adigun blamed on the Ataoja, for interfering unduly in the affairs of Osun.
“We have an independent council that administer the affairs of Osun from the temple. As the chairman of the council of elders, I lead the council and I am assisted by elders in the Osun temple.”
The action of Ataoja of Osogboland, Oba Jimoh Olanipekun––naming a new Baba Osun and Yeye Osun––contradict this position, a move seen by many as capable of bringing schism to the religion.
Now, the crux of the matter is the calabash usually bears by the votary maid (Arugba) to the river on festival day.
“Nobody else will organize the calabash. No one else knows or has the authority to prepare it at the moment,” says Adigun reiterating his earlier position that an object of the Osun deity is no longer in the temple. “And it is unheard of to take an empty calabash to the river on Osun day. I will let the whole world be aware of this.”
He emphasizes the anomalies in the King’s appointment. “Baba Osun must be someone who grew in the temple from childhood to adulthood. Yeye Osun is a woman married to the royal family in Osogbo. She must be a woman who has reached menopause, so her loyalty is not to any man anymore. That is what disqualifies the charlatans the king appointed. The woman he appointed is not married to the royal family in Osogbo or anywhere; secondly, she is Alhaja, just as the Baba Osun is also Alhaji, I mean, that is heresy.”
Continuing, he says: “We will take care of that after we take back the temple.” As for those who broke tradition, he cautions: “You cannot do things against Irunmole and think you will escape the repercussion.”
The face-off between the king and the priest has created unease among Osun devotees in Osogbo and beyond, especially in Lagos and Ibadan.
“Osun devotees in the diaspora have reached out to us to know if we are building new Osun temple for the Iya Osun,” he discloses. “They have declared their willingness to donate money to the new temple if we decide to one.”
Dr Adigun, however, refuses to foreclose the possibility of a peaceful settlement. “The state government is in talks with the towns’ elders. I believe the elders’ forum of Osogbo will settle it the way we wanted soon in order for Osun festival to go accordingly in August. We are still seven months away from the festival, so, there is time for good settlement.”