Africa's Ogun, Second, Expanded Edition: Old World and New

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The second edition of this landmark work is enhanced by new chapters on Ogun worship in the New World. From reviews of the first edition:

... an ethnographically rich contribution to the historical understanding of West African culture, as well as an exploration of the continued vitality of that culture in the changing environments of the Americas." -African Studies Review

... leav[es] the reader with a sense of the vitality, dynamism, and complexity of Ogun and the cultural contexts in which he thrives.... magnificent contribution to the literature on Ogun, Yoruba culture, African religions, and the African diaspora." -International Journal of Historical Studies

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1 The Many Faces of Ogun: Introduction to the First Edition


Sandra T. Barnes

There is a privileged class of supernatural and mythic figures who consistently grow in their renown and complexity. One thinks of such figures as Oedipus or Siva, each of whom plays a significant role in the traditions of many groups of people, to the extent that they have become metacultural, or international in scope. The contributors to this volume focus their attention on another such figure: Ogun,1 an African deity, who thrives today in a number of West African and New World contexts, including the Caribbean, South America, and, more recently, North America.

Ogun was one of many deities carried to the New World by Africans during the slave diaspora which took place between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. More recently he, and the complex ideological systems of which he is a part, have been carried from Brazil to its neighboring countries and from the Caribbean to North America. In this more recent, twentieth-century movement of peoples and their belief systems, Ogun’s appeal has transcended the boundaries of ethnicity, race, and class so that today’s adherents are not simply people of African descent but people representing many walks of life. The story is equally dramatic in West Africa, where Ogun’s popularity also has flourished and expanded.


2 The Etymology of the Word Ògún


Robert G. Armstrong

The cult of Ògún is highly elaborated in Yoruba country and shows amazing vitality among people directly concerned with modern technology. In 1974, for example, the drivers of the Ibadan University Motor Transport system performed a sacrifice to Ògún in the presence of the Vice-Chancellor and a dozen or so of the other high officials of the university. One of the drivers, who came from Igara, an Igbira (or Ebira) town in the northwestern extension of Bendel State, was a particularly enthusiastic participant in the dances that followed the sacrifice of a dog. I cite this case as an illustration of the point made by Barnes that the Ògún cult continues to appeal to socially rather marginal men who are directly involved in the use of modern machines constructed largely of iron and steel. She goes so far as to call the Ògún cult “the cult of revolution,” i.e., “the technological revolution brought about by the introduction of iron-making and the occupational specialization necessitated by that innovation” (1980:44).


3 Ogun, the Empire Builder


Sandra T. Bames and Paula Girshick Ben-Amos

During the years between 1400 and 1700 a cluster of conquest states rose to power along the Guinea Coast of West Africa and dominated large areas of this forest-belt region for several centuries. The expansion of these states was based on their many advantages, the most obvious of which was that each had a well organized and heavily equipped army, using a highly developed iron technology and, in a few cases, a mounted cavalry. The states included the Edo Kingdom of Benin, the Fon Kingdom of Dahomey, and a series of Yoruba kingdoms, the largest of which was Oyo (see Map 3.2). All of these states owed their political dominance to a policy of aggressive militarism.

It is no accident, we think, that each of these polities shared a symbolic complex which incorporated the three elements of iron, warfare, and state-building. This complex centered on Ogun (also known as Gu). For centuries there was close interaction between citizens of these states, thanks to migration, trade, warfare, and the itineracy of craftsmen and other specialists. Through this ongoing and intensive interaction, knowledge of a deity such as Ogun could easily have diffused.


4 Systematic Remembering, Systematic Forgetting: Ogou in Haiti


Karen McCarthy Brown

Ogou is a central figure in Haitian religion. While little known in some areas of rural Haiti, in others he is one of the most important spirits1 of African origin who are venerated in the Vodou religious system. In cities he has a more prominent role, so that in Port-au-Prince, where no temple neglects him entirely, Ogou frequently is the major spirit of priests and priestesses. Among Haitians who migrate to New York City, those who have Ogou as their met tet, “master of the head,” may well be in the majority.2

Ogou in Haiti has his roots in the Gu or the Ogun of the Dahomean or Yoruba peoples, who (along with the Kongo peoples) seem to have contributed the largest concentrations of slaves to Haiti and consequently to have had the strongest influence on its culture. However, he is not simply a reproduction of these African deities. Certainly the Old World played a strong role. Large numbers of slaves were young men whose activities in the African homeland were often centered on the military, hunting, or ironworking—the areas where Ogun was a major patron (Barnes 1980:3, 17, 19–30, and personal communication). It was only natural, then, that this preponderant sector of the incoming population should bring ideas of Gu/Ogun to the New World. In Haiti, however, hunting and smithing were no longer crucial to everyday life, while the soldier took on new guises and added significance. Thus the Haitian Ogou became important to men, and women, of all ages. He also came into contact with Roman Catholicism, the religion of the slaveholders. Indeed, the Catholic saints penetrated the whole world of Vodou—its visual representations, where chromolithographs of the saints came to be used as images for Afro-Haitian spirits, and its naming system, where saint names and Afro-Haitian spirit names came to be used interchangeably. Also central to the development of the Haitian Ogou were several centuries of political and military upheaval, a historical legacy which transformed the African religious cosmos.


5 Ogum and the Umbandista Religion


Renato Ortiz

To understand the role of Ogum in the Umbanda religion it is necessary to be familiar with the structure of the Umbandista universe as a whole and, above all, its meaning within Brazilian society. Umbanda is not an Afro-Brazilian religion; unlike Candomblé, the religion with which it will be compared here, Umbanda roots are neither black nor African. This does not mean that the African contribution has been unimportant to the formation of Umbandista religion. Quite the contrary, it is fundamental to the development of this new type of possession cult. However, the histories and the scope of influence of the two religions differ. Umbanda is a national religion; Candomblé is one cultural group’s religion. Consequently, Ogum differs in each of them. The Ogum of Candomblé is one god among many; he is an unpredictable but accessible member of the spirit world. By contrast, the Ogum of Umbanda has been elevated to an inaccessible position in the cosmos, where he controls unpredictable spiritual forces; indeed, this Ogum has been elevated in some sectors of Brazilian society to the extent that he is a symbol of national identity.


6 The Dreadful God and the Divine King


John Pemberton III

  1  Atótó! Arére!

  2  Kéléjí ó má f, kigbárája ó má lura ra wn.

  3  Àwa dé, ègbodò ilé kò gbd d poro.

  4  Ílgì kò gbd lo úkúúkú.

  5  m kékeré ilé kò gbd skún kí ngb.

  6  Kí lmú ó fi mú b m r lnu.

  7  j Ògún tòkè b a iná ló fi bora, wù j lów.

  8  p olókó ló fi òkò r dáná;

  9  p olóbò ló 1’àbò r dáná.

10  dun olú irin, àwnyè òrìà tií bura r sán wnyìnwnyìn.

11  Iff lolè lebu, panlaw, olùjkà, má bù mí j.

12  A mu sí Pngà; ó ba Pngà j.

13  A mu sí Àk-Ire, o là k dànù.

14  A mú Ògún wdò Ògún sí là orni lgbgba.

15  rù jj tií ba ará àdúgbò.

16  Ògún gbr ló ni ajá òun lapa já fún.

17  Ògún Ònírè ló lj; Mlàmlà ló ni èkuru.

18  To ní gbàjámo, irun ló nj.

19  Ti klà nií j ìgbín.

20  Ògún gbnàgbnà igi lónj.

21  Suminiwa, Ajkopo.

22  Èrù Ògún mà ḿbà mí o.

23  Abi-w-gbçgbgb tii y m rè nínú fin.

24  Y mi.

  1  Silence! Silence!


7 A Portrait of Ogun as Reflected in Ijala Chants


Adeboye Baballa

Ìjálá are Yoruba poetic chants used in entertaining and saluting Ògún. As those who are familiar with the Ògún tradition very well know, the oríkì Ògún (verbal salutes to Ògún) within ìjálá reveal, little by little, the nature of the deity. One of the most striking revelations of the ìjálá is the contradictions found in them. This paper addresses these contradictions and argues that Ògún symbolizes a universal contradiction: humans are strong and, at the same time, they are frail. The constant oppositions in the texts of ìjálá artists are therefore a necessary and explainable part of this poetic tradition.

The contradictions, and in some cases the variations, found in Ògún traditions as they are rendered by ìjálá chanters are of three kinds. First, the figure of Ògún displays opposing personality traits (e.g., he is fiery and cool) or symbolic traits (e.g., he represents death and healing). Second, the literary construction of the chants opposes metaphors and images thereby reinforcing, through structure, contradictions that occur in content and meaning. Third, the devotees of Ògún place him in a bewildering variety of contradictory mythical traditions. Ògún founds many towns, conquers many people, and pursues several occupations. The wide variation in traditions raises questions as to the authenticity or correctness of any of them. But this problem is resolved in the ìjálá verbal salutes to Ògún. As one ìjálá artist declares: “Ògún méje l’Ògún-ún mi” (The Òg ùn that I know are seven in number). Thus, many forms are attributed to the god Ògún. But what is important is the total picture that the many contradictions and variations eventually create. It is the sum of the parts that provides insight into what Ògún actually represents to the Yoruba.


8 Ogun’s Iremoje: A Philosophy of Living and Dying


Bade Ajuwn

Oral traditions maintain that the god Ogun led four hundred and one Yoruba divinities when they descended to earth at If-Oodaye, the exact location of which we are, today, not sure. These traditions also state that Ogun helped the divinities to survive in their initial settlement on earth and to effect harmony among themselves as they struggled with new and unforeseen circumstances. Ogun’s ability to direct the various activities of the other divinities emanated from his philosophy that one must display courage and heroism in living and in dying while serving one’s fellow men. For Ogun, the only means of achieving honor in life was to live up to this philosophy. The leadership ideals associated with Ogun have been preserved in ritual and oral traditions associated with hunting and warfare, both of which Ogun enjoined his followers to know and to perform. Today, one of the best sources for examining them, and the one on which this essay concentrates, is Ìrèmjé, a corpus of poetic chants sung at funeral ceremonies, also known as Îrèmjé1 held for deceased hunters.


9 Dancing for Ogun in Yorubaland and in Brazil


Margaret Thompson Drewal

Dance is an integral part of African ritual.1 Addressing metaphysical beings or powers, it is a poetic, nonverbal expression continually created and re-created by countless performer/interpreters over generations. In its formulations of time, space, and dynamics, dance transmits a people’s philosophy and values; it is thought embodied in human action. A primary vehicle for communicating with the spirit realm, it is at the same time perceived to be an instrument of the gods through which they communicate with the phenomenal world. As such, ritual dance is an unspoken essay on the nature and quality of metaphysical power. Indeed, for the Yoruba, dance—in certain contexts—is metaphysical force actualized in the phenomenal world.2

In western Yorubaland this is dramatically illustrated in ritual dances associated with Òguń, the deity whose quick, aggressive actions may bring violent death and destruction or, by contrast, may bring the birth of children. It is also evident in dances of Candomblé in Bahia, Brazil, where during the early nineteenth-century Yoruba captives were sold into slavery (Pierson 1942:35) and where, as a result, the influence of Yoruba culture, and of Òguń, is strong (Bastide 1978:66, 205–206, and 253–55). To place these ideas about dance into a broader Yoruba philosophical context, the following discussion considers the Yoruba concept of metaphysical power and its more well known relation to utterances.


10 Art or Accident: Yoruba Body Artists and Their Deity Ogun


Henry John Drewal

Yorubá who live and work with iron (irin, ògún) are also worshippers of Ògún, the god of iron. Iron is Ògún. Ògún lives in his followers and they in him, a reciprocal relationship which can be documented in the lives of Ògún devotees. In considering the attributes of Ògún, iron users, and iron itself, and then in focusing upon body artists, this essay explores the way art, tools, and techniques express the presence and impact of Ògún in Yorùbá life and thought.

A cluster of traits portrays the essence or life force (àq) of Ògún. Among these are physical force, hotness, quickness, directness, sensuality, firmness, and tenacity. For some he is known as Ògún onígboiyà, uOgun the brave one” (Ògúnole 1973). Òguń’s mode of operation implies no moral connotations; it is neither bad nor good, negative nor positive. It is not how he operates, but what he does, and when, that determines whether people consider him harmful or beneficial. On one hand, Òguń’s quickness or impatience can result in hasty, careless, irrational behavior causing wanton destruction. This dangerous side of Ògún evokes images of hot violence, vengeance, blind rage, and indiscriminate destruction for, more than anything, Ògún is associated with bloodshed; he is “the one who is steeped in blood,” a-m-kúkú l’j (Oluponn 1975). One widespread tale recounts his arrival in a town where the inhabitants offended him by what he considered to be an inhospitable reception. In a blind rage, Ògún began to destroy everything. Not until the appropriate offerings (dog, snail, oil, and soothing leaves) were made and his praises sung did he come to his senses and realize that he was killing his own people.2 Thus, when he is ignored, angered, or affronted, Ògún destroys indiscriminately. Yet, appropriate rituals can avert destruction and calm him by turning his à to beneficent ends.


11 A Comparative Analysis of Ogun in Precolonial Yorubaland


J.D. V. Peel

About Ogun, there seems to be a high degree of consensus on two general points: (i) that Ogun is a Pan-Yoruba deity of fairly uniform character and significance, and (2) that his cult has adapted remarkably to the conditions of the modern world and across the Atlantic. In this essay I with, through a comparative examination of mostly contemporary evidence of the cult of Ogun as it was in the second half of the nineteenth century, to qualify the first of these points; and this should clear the way to a fuller appreciation of the second point.

The first edition of Africas Ogun lacked a specifically historical account of the Ogun cult in precolonial Yorubaland, other than a number of historical references that were incorporated into Sandra Barnes’s and Paula Ben-Amos’s synthesizing essay, “Ogun, the Empire Builder,” which covers a broad span of both time and space. It is inevitably tempting to regard the cult of Ogun in precolonial Yorubaland as providing a baseline for assessing the cult’s divergent development under different conditions across the Atlantic, and I think this has possibilities, provided it is done with great circumspection. The origins of much of Ogun’s cult in the New World go back to before the mid-nineteenth century, and to treat Ogun in Yorubaland as it was between 1845 and 1912 as unproblematically equivalent to what it had been a century or more earlier, implies that it could have undergone no development in West Africa. Any historical analysis must be strongly oriented to the recognition of temporal change, and thus will tend to be drawn into opposing that predilection in Yoruba cultural studies to emphasize continuity, often by the postulation of “time-binding” cultural essences. “Traditional” religion is widely regarded as the vehicle par excellence of ethnic and communal identity, and perhaps nowhere more so than the cult of Ogun, insofar as Ogun is celebrated by Wole Soyinka, the leading Yoruba man of letters of our day, as an icon both of a personal vision and of Yoruba (perhaps also African) values.2 This makes a historical study of Ogun more consequential and also more difficult than that of topics that are less culturally charged.


12 Repossession: Ogun in Folklore and Literature


Donald J. Cosentino

The degree to which Ogun may be comprehended as a single deity with a common c.v., a particular iconography, a unique role in a complex cosmology has by no means been established by scholars of Yoruba religion(s). To be sure, the corpus of Ifa verse and other oral poetic texts, geographically rooted festivals, genealogical myths, and rituals largely controlled by initiated priesthoods have all worked to establish some consistent dimensions for the orisha on his home turf. But even there his uniqueness is contested, as Karin Barber noted: “Like other orisha, Ogun is distinct and yet not distinct, participating in a spectrum of and capabilities shared by the whole array of spiritual beings. The feature [most] commented upon, for example—Ogun’s internal fusion of destructive and creative qualities—is in fact a central characteristic of all orisha, to different degrees and in varying proportions. Many of the specific qualities attributed to Ogun in oral poetry are attributed, in the same imagery, to other orisha as well. He exists in a complex shifting configuration of relationships, sometimes overlapping, sometimes separated, in some towns occupying one role, in others another” (1990:290).


13 Unveiling the Orisha


Philip Scher

Peoples of African descent in the New World do make of Africa and Slavery a profound presence in their cultural worlds, and seek rather to describe the tradition of discourse in which they participate, the local network of power and knowledge in which they are employed, and the kinds of identities they serve to fashion.

—David Scott

The legacy of African American anthropology in the United States until recently was marked in large part by a search for cultural survivals. From the scouring of the material and cultural worlds of African Americans for “Africanisms” (Holloway 1990), to the more abstract and perhaps more sensitive search for “grammars” of African origin still operating in African American patterns of behavior and aesthetics (Mintz and Price 1976), the task has been essentially the same: to authenticate an African past for New World descendants of Africans.1 It has been pointed out that investigations into African American culture that stress authentication at some level ignore the very real and active uses to which the past is put by African Americans themselves.2


14 Ogun and Body/Mind Potentiality: Yoruba Scarification and Painting Traditions in Africa and the Americas


Henry John Drewol and John Mason1

Erin Ogun ki se awada “Ogun’s laugh is not a laughing matter” Ogun a sale fun orisa “Ogun clears land [and heads] for the gods” Ogun okoko yeri ogu “Ogun, the hoe that opens the earth to bury us”

—Verger 1957:187, 188, 193

Throughout the lives of persons who live according to Yoruba ways, Ogun “opens the road,” helping them to actualize their iwa, their character, personality, and destiny. As patron of all who use iron, Ogun guides those who incise bodies, either with tattoo scarifications (kolo) serving principally aesthetic purposes (Drewal 1988, 1989), or those marks (gbere) whose inscriptions have primarily curative, protective, and empowering objectives.2Gbere include inoculations that deal with a variety of crisis situations, as well as those performed during initiations of orisa devotees. Initiation gbere, accompanied by head/body painting, attract and encourage divine forces to occupy the bodies of the devout, who then literally embody sacred presences and powers. Reflecting upon our own studies and experiences of Yoruba/Lukumi body arts, we offer some thoughts on how visible markings on bodies signal invisible transformations of persons.


15 Ògún: Builder of the Lúkúmí’s House


John Mason

The Lùkùmi love Ògún because he had the courage and ability to go out into the wilderness alone, armed only with his intelligence, strength, and a cutlass, and carve out a permanent and exalted place, for both himself and his followers, in the hearts and minds of men.

The term Lùkùmí (Olùkùmí—my friend) is an ancient designation still used by the Yorùbà and their descendants in Cuba. It is found on several ancient maps of West Africa, where the kingdom of Ulcumi or Lucumi or Ulcami is shown to the northwest of the kingdom of Benin. This word is also used to describe the Yorùbá language. In Cuba, the name is used when addressing African descendants who clearly distinguish themselves as having Nàgó, gbà-dò, Ìjçà, y, or Îjbu ancestry. Since 1959, the United States has provided the latest site in the Americas where Lùkùmí-Yorùbá culture has taken hold, brought by African-Cuban, African-American, and African-Puerto Rican initiates. In the United States the term Lùkùmí is seldom used but is replaced by the designations “Òrìà worship” and “Òrìà follower.”



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