In most African societies, cultural festivals have their roots in the early history of the communities where they are celebrated. The Osun Osogbo festival held yearly in the honour of a woman who is in the Yoruba mythology believed to be very powerful as evidently she is the only female of the sixteen major Yoruba deities. Her full appellation is Osun Sengesi Olooya Iyun which means ‘Osun the owner of the flawless, perfectly carved beaded comb’.
Osun is coined from ‘Orisun’ meaning ‘source’ and therefore, it is believed to mean source of a river, a people, or children. Among other things, Osun is regarded, among the Yoruba, as the goddess of wealth and beauty, an herbalist or healer, a diviner, a dyer, a giver of children, a goddess of fertility, protection and blessing, and a leader of women.
During her lifetime, she was said to be the youngest and the favourite wife of the three wives of Sango, the famous 17th century Alaafin of Old Oyo.
The other two wives were Oya and Oba. She was said to have turned into a river after her husband hanged himself along with her two mates Oba and Oya who became the goddesses of Rivers Oba in Osun State and Oya (River Niger) in the Middle Belt of Nigeria respectively. It is believed that the original source of the river is Igede Ekiti in Ekiti State of southwestern Nigeria but the main shrine of this powerful river goddess is located in Yoruba town of Osogbo.
The origin of the Osun Osogbo festival is traced to the prominent role played by the Osun goddess in the founding and settlement of Osogbo. The various versions of the traditions of origin of Osogbo agree that the ancestors of Osogbo led by Lajomo, Olarooye and Olutimehin migrated from Ipole Omu in Ijesaland due to water scarcity and settled on the flood bank of the Osun River. In their bid to clear the bush around their new settlement, a tree fell on the river and the water surface turned blue immediately. To the astonishment of the people, a voice came from the river saying: “Laro, Timehin, gbogbo ikoko aro mi le ti fo tan” meaning “Laro, Timehin, you have broken all my indigo dye pots”. Afterwards, settlers heard the voices of some water spirits commiserating with the goddess in these words: “Oso Igbo pele o, Oso Igbo rora o” meaning “Wizard of the forest, sorry and take it easy” and so the name Osogbo is derived from the word ‘Oso Igbo’ i.e. ‘Wizard of the forest’ which referred to the goddess herself.
The Osogbo traditions continued that after this incident, the ancestors of Osogbo offered a special sacrifice to the goddess in order to placate and appease her for their misdeed. The goddess was said to have accepted the sacrifice by sending a god-fish named ‘Iko’ i.e. ‘representative’ to the people which was received by Olarooye, the first king of Osogbo on his palms. This event earned him the title ‘Atewogbeja’ which means ‘One who receives god-fish on his palms’ which is the traditional title of the natural ruler of Osogbo since then. After the offering and acceptance of the sacrifice, the goddess was said to have reappeared to the people and gave them instructions that they must continue to offer the sacrifice to her every year while she would continue to support and protect the settlement. She also gave certain instructions as to how the annual sacrifices to her should be made and promised that her ‘Iko’ i.e. messenger/representative would be sent every year to pour curative water into the calabash held by the reigning Ataoja for cure of any form of ailment.
The mutual consent to this agreement between the goddess and the ancestors of Osogbo marked the origin of the annual Osun Osogbo festival which has grown to become one of the most famous cultural festivals in the world. In order to show her readiness to fulfil her own part of the agreement, the goddess was said to have ordered the settlers to move to the upper terrace of the river called ‘Oke Ohuntoto’ and settle there to avoid the incessant floods of their settlement and ensure its rapid growth and development. The people heeded this advice and moved to the upper terrace of the river where they built a palace for their king and established a market. From then, the town began to grow from strength to strength and the people attribute this to the influence of the worship of the goddess through the annual Osun Osogbo festival. Thus, the people of Osogbo celebrate the Osun festival annually to commemorate and renew the pact between Osun goddess and the ancestors of Osogbo.
The annual Osun Osogbo festival is a two-week long celebration spanning sixteen days of rituals, drama and festivities. The various parts of the festival are led by the Ataoja, the traditional ruler of Osogbo, the Iya Osun (Osun Priestess), the Aworo Osun (Osun Priest) and other Osun devotees. The first public event of the Osun festival is the Iwo Popo i.e. traditional clearing of the major Osogbo main road which on Monday, twelve days prior to the grand finale of the festival. On this day, the Ataoja, accompanied by his wives, chiefs, Osun priestess and other devotees, proceed from his palace to Gbaemu at the centre of the town. At the designated point in Gbaemu, the Ataoja would sit down with his full paraphernalia of office and accept communal gifts from his subjects. Several categories of people such as traditional chiefs, local rulers, family heads, members of traditional societies, men, women and children come to pay homage to the Ataoja while he showers royal blessing on them. The Ogala of Osogbo has the responsibility of the traditional clearing of the roads and the provision of security during this exercise.26 After this traditional pathclearing rite at Gbaemu, the Ataoja returns to the palace amidst pomp and pageantry. This event symbolises the traditional clearing of the town’s main road of weeds and over-grown shrubs that might hamper the easy influx of visitors to Osogbo and indicates that traditional security has been provided in the town. With this event, the annual Osun festival has officially commenced.
There are three major categories of activities making the celebration of the annual Osun festival. These are the sacred rituals, the secular ritual drama and the numerous public entertainment activities. It must be emphasized that, among the Yoruba, rituals (etutu) are very popular and are performed to propitiate their deities, ancestors or spirits during special occasions or hard times.
The Osun sacred rituals are those activities which are conducted in seclusion by the Ataoja and the Osun priests and priestesses and which reaffirm the sacred bond and re-open the pathway between the goddess and the people of Osogbo. On the other hand, the secular ritual drama refers to those ritual activities which are witnessed by the general public during the celebration of Osun festival. It must be stated that both the sacred and secular rituals of the annual Osun Osogbo festival at different places within the palace of the Ataoja and the Osun grove at the outskirt of the town.
The lighting of the sixteen-point lamp known as Atupa Olojumerindinlogun (the sixteen-point lamp) is another major event of the Osun festival.
It comes up nine days to the grand finale of the festival and the venue is the Ataoja’s palace courtyard. The Olojumerindinlogun lamp is a brass column that holds sixteen tray-like receptacles on which cotton and palm oil are placed. The sixteen lamps represent the sixteen major Orisa who organised the world, the sixteen major Odu Ifa and the sixteen palm nuts used in Ifa divination. The lamps are lighted at about 7.00 p.m. on Thursday and kept burning till day break on Friday-a week to the grand finale of the Osun festival. On this day, the Ataoja, his wives and attendants, the Osun priestess and other Osun devotees dance round the lighted Lamp three times at three intervals of prayers and invocations inside the Osun shrine at the Ataoja’s palace. The Ataoja, accompanied by his relatives and traditional chiefs, is also expected to dance round the market square before he finally returns to the palace. Other events of the day include singing, dancing, drumming and spiritual invocations. Significantly, the origin of the Olojumerindinlogun lamp and its association with the Osun festival celebration is rooted in Osogbo traditions. According to Osogbo traditions, after the settlement of Osogbo ancestors at Oke Ohuntoto following their relocation from the bank of the Osun River, Olutimehin, the hunter and co-founder of Osogbo seized a sixteen-points lamp (Atupa Olojumerindinlogun) from some spirits dancing round it during one of his hunting expeditions. The tradition continues that when the goddess heard of this incident, she instructed Olarooye and Olutimehin that the seized lamp must be celebrated the way the spirits were doing when Olutimehin seized it from them anytime Osun festival is nine days to come. This was the origin of the lighting of the historic sixteen-point lamp during the annual celebration of Osun festival.
The Arugba carries the symbolic calabash containing the sacrificial items for the sacrifice. This calabash is believed to have been handed to the ancestors of Osogbo by Osun goddess who instructed that a royal virgin lady must carry it to the grove on the day of the festival. The Arugba is carefully guarded on her way to and from the grove by the Olose (i.e. Whip Boys) because she must not hit her foot on a stump or stone as this would be a bad signal for the people. Therefore, the success of the festival is dependent greatly on the hitch-free walk of the Arugba from the palace to the grove. It must be mentioned that the sacred rituals of Osun festival which reaffirm the sacred bond and renew the pathway between the goddess and the people of Osogbo are conducted in seclusion by the Ataoja and the Osun priests and priestesses inside the sanctuary at the Osun grove. However, after the sacred rituals have been carried out at the inner sanctum of the grove by the initiates (Ataoja, Osun priestess and other priests), the stage is set for the secular ritual drama during which reenactments of some historical events take place to the admiration of the general public witnessing the festival. Upon receiving the sacrifice from the Osun priestess and Osun priest, the Ataoja sits on the stone of authority in a special location at the grove, communes with his ancestors and feeds the goddess with the sacrificial items.
Significantly, this act is a reenactment of the events of the early history of Osogbo. First, the stone on which the incumbent Ataoja sits is the same stone which Olarooye, the first Ataoja, sat on when he was to offer the first sacrifice to the goddess during the settlement of Osogbo. Also, in the same way that Olarooye communed with Osun goddess before and after offering the initial sacrifice to the goddess, the incumbent Ataoja communes with the goddess and seeks his continued support and protection in the coming year. Finally, the Ataoja feeds the goddess like his ancestor and receives good tidings just as Olarooye received god-fish on his palm which earned him the title ‘Atewogbeja’ shortened to ‘Ataoja’. The feeding of the goddess by the Ataoja marks the end of the rituals of Osun festival and this confirms that the waters of the river are blessed. Thus, people begin to shout ‘Ore Yeye Osun’ meaning ‘We adore you Osun the Great Mother’. People also begin to drink water from the river, draw water from the river into all sorts of containers while some wash their faces in it. The belief of the people is that the blessed waters of the river immediately after the sacrifice have curative powers for all diseases such as barrenness, infertility, chronic headache and other forms of ailments. What followed after is the return of the Ataoja and other people to the palace where singing, drumming and other forms of entertainment continue. The whole Osogbo town is thrown into festive mood afterwards. One of the important aspects of the celebration of Osun festival is the singing of Osun praise poems (Oriki Osun) and festival songs (Orin Odun) which have a lot of historical contents.
Osun goddess is everything to the people of Osogbo. She is the real founder, mother, protector, guard and the nurturer of the town. This is not unconnected with the role the goddess was said to have played during the settlement of the town. Therefore, the Ataoja celebrates the Osun festival in remembrance of his ancestors and in fulfillment of the covenant between the goddess and his ancestors. The Yoruba proverb that says “Odo kii san ko gbagbe orisun” meaning “A river does not flow so far that it forgets its source” captures the essence of the importance of Osun festival to the people of Osogbo in this regard.
In sum, the Osun festival has historical, political, economic and cultural significance to the Ataoja and the entire people of Osogbo. Osun Osogbo festival has remained, in spite of the influence of Christianity and Islam, the most important traditional festival in Osogbo and arguably one of the most important in Yorubaland and among the Yoruba Diaspora. Due to this, the Ataoja of Osogbo, irrespective of religious affiliation, leads the annual celebration of Osun festival, not only as the birthday of the town but also in renewing the pact between him and his ancestors.
As this year’s Osun Osogbo festival grand procession comes up by August 16 at the sacred Osun groove, these are few historical knowledge about the Osun goddess I’d like you to get a grasp of.
Piece Culled from Professor Siyan Oyeweso’s work;
“OSUN OSOGBO FESTIVAL: ITS ORIGIN, NATURE AND SIGNIFICANCE FOR GLOBAL YORUBA CULTURAL ADVANCEMENT”
Professor Siyan Oyeweso is of the College of Humanities and Culture,
Osun State University and the immediate-past Provost of the College.