Interview: Osun priestess reveals origin of Osun worship, how her father killed elephants, dealt with gnomes

Yorubaland is believed to be a sanctuary of deities, about 401 gods and goddesses (generally called Orishas) are said to be in existence in the region – Southwest Nigeria, with each venerated in various ways, by its adherents. People worship these deities with great reverence and their annual festivals are always something to behold; new clothes, offering of sacrifices, rituals, dances, festivities and merriments all accompany the occasions.
River Osun in an important river in Osun state and indeed the state is named after the river called “Living Spring” and is held to have a goddess, a benevolent one, which opens the womb of the barren women when placatory prayers are offered to it and answers many other prayers if reverently and sincerely placed before her. It is the acclaimed goddess of fertility.
The goddess has a sacred grove or shrine in Osogbo, capital city of Osun state, Nigeria, which people, led by its followers, swarm every year in August during its annual festival. The goddess believably appears at this sacred grove so she could be communed with. It is usually a big tourists’ event.
This year’s Osun Osogbo festival ended over two weeks ago, with Osun adherents from across the globe returning to participate in the festivity.
Ogbomoso, second largest city in Oyo state is blessed with several rivers and streams too including Oba, Oje, Ora, Oru etc and it is said wherever there are water bodies, there are found guardians and children of Osun, called Olosun (Osun adherents).
It is thus a chance encounter to be face-to-face with several Olosuns at the one year anniversary of the establishment of Aaje chiefdom (in Ogbomoso North local government) and installation of the first Baale Aje, High Chief Reuben Adesina Amao, on August 14. The Olosuns had also come to grace and perform at the occasion.
It was not difficult to spot the leader of the group, and so she was engaged by, during which she revealed the origin of Osun goddess and her worship, their attachment to the deity and a whole lot of things about the lioness of water.
In addition, the elderly woman, who is the head or priestess of her group in Ogbomoso (for she discloses there are other Osun worshippers groups in the city), and who simply introduces herself as Alarape Mayegun of Ogbomosoland recalls some of her adventures in the ”forest of thousands demons,” as an apprentice hunter under her father.
Her father she said was a valiant hunter and she narrates how the group mowed down wild animals particularly elephants and their encounters with gnomes or demons in the dreadful forests.

Chief priestess Alarape
Worshippers at Osun Osogbo festival

Excerpts below:

You do exclaim, “oore yeye o,” what does this mean?
That is how we praise Osun – ‘Oore yeye o’ because Yeye Osun implies goodness and purity.

So we have Osun worshippers in Ogbomoso also?
Yes, Osun is worshipped in Ogbomoso too. Wherever there is a river and there are Osun’s tributaries we worship Osun there. There is one Osun tributary beyond Areago Community High School area, it is part of Osun. It is a tributary to Oba and Osun and Odo-Oba conflate at a point. Osun River surrounds us. We are worshipping Osun presently, we do join them in Osogbo during the annual celebration, we will eat and rejoice and bring home Osun water.

How do we describe Osun in Yoruba tradition?
Osun is part of our culture and tradition; it is adayeba, akunleyan la deyeba, adayetan loju n yanni (We met it on ground, it is pre-existing, something pre-existing is destiny, but when we came we aren’t contented). A baby was recently set apart by Osun, she was just weaned, she is picked out by Osun as she suddenly began to shout “oore yeye Osun..” and so we carried out initiation process on her; we bathed her with Osun water and performed other rites. Osun has many children all over, if we have all come here today, from my group alone, this place won’t be able to contain us. We do hold meetings every five days, my own group’s meeting is at Olomi area in Ogbomoso.

What is the significance of Osun?
When Osun arrived the earth, she was so beautiful, the king’s servants saw her and quickly rushed home to inform the king that they saw a very beautiful woman, and the king asked that she be brought to his presence and she was brought and the king commanded that she be given shelter within the palace but she responded that she couldn’t be housed, that she had rather come to render them good services, that she couldn’t be a wife. They then asked her where she would be living and she retorted that where she was accosted, she was returned there and she transformed into the river. She told the Oba that day that any woman seeking the fruit of the womb with all honesty and sincerity should come, assuring such would be given children.

Why do Osun adherents have preference for white attire?
It is because we have a pure heart. And if evil is schemed against any true Osun adherent, such a person will be protected by the Osun deity, the evil doer on his or her own will instead suffer calamity, as Osun will fill his/her tummy with water and there won’t be any cure.

How did you end up an Osun priestess?
My father was a traditionalist and a brave hunter. I also had my hunting gear or clothe (gberi ode), I only stopped going for hunting expeditions due to old age, I used to follow my father to the forest to hunt wild animals. I was a witness to how he killed elephants; we the younger ones were the ones who would butcher the elephant after it was killed.
There was a time I lived in Ghana but I couldn’t stay there because anytime I slept I would dream of being in water, roaring water and when I woke my clothes would be all drenched and they would think I bed-wetted. They had to return me to Ogbomoso to my parents.

Where did you kill the elephants?
Inside deep forests, in those days we would take off in the afternoon, we would trek long distances, and as we entered the forest, we would begin to tie grasses as an indicator of the path through which we came to avoid getting lost on our return journey.

How easy was it to kill elephants then?
My father used Dane gun, the moment they chanted its name it is done, the beast would bow and surrender.

Did you on your own go on hunting expeditions after the death of your father?
I used to follow my father, but on my own I only hunted near the town not into the deep forest. It is old age and other commitments that made me stop.

Did you ever witness your father confront any gnome (iwin)?
We did see many gnomes. They are humans too, but their hands are terribly deformed (wolowolo), their legs are warped as well (wolowolo), and there are head straight upward (gboro) and thin (tinrin). They are a terrible sight.

But did you have problem with them?
None, our fathers were fortified, we would see them too, they would just go on their way and we would on our way too, nothing did happen.

But can an ordinary person see a gnome?
If you want to see them, you will, I will give you what will make you see them.

What is the relationship between the Osun worshippers and other deities in Yoruba pantheon?
We are one – Ifa priests, Egungun worshippers and other deities, we cooperate. We have a worship place at Ijeru and at Masifa areas, we are one, we don’t fight each other.

Does Osun only answer those seeking fruits of the womb or all problems?
As long as one is pure hearted Osun will answer him or her. If you don’t have evil intentions, Osun will answer you.

Does Osun get angry?
Osun has clarified that she only relates cordially with the pure hearted, anyone that is mischievous she gets angry at such. If you offend her, you should fear when rain cloud starts to gather because a little flood can carry you away. Contrarily, if an Osun devotee finds himself or herself in a river he or she will walk out unscathed. You can confirm this from fishermen, I recollect recently when we held a festival, about six of our children plunged into the River Oba at the dam side cavorting and playing gleefully and they came out on their own without any problem. The surprised Hausa fishermen who were there could only exclaim, Yah Allah, yah Allah, you can go and confirm from them. A true devotee of Osun can never drown in water except if the person is a bastard.

Some adherents of Osun performing at Aaje

How do you get your members, are they constituted by only those born into it or anyone can join group?
I just mentioned a case, a toddler found out by the Osun goddess, shouting ‘oree yeye o,’ she has become our child.

And her parents were never followers of Osun?
They never were. They are Christians, CAC members for that matter.

So, most of your members are picked!
Yes, from a young age though some came to join us.

If someone like me shows willingness to convert to Osun worshipping, will you accept me?
No, you are older than us.

What of if I bring my child?
Except the deity chooses him or her. If we go ahead to accept the child and we get to Osun she will say the child is not hers and won’t take it.

People do say, ‘aye laba’fa, aye laba imole, osan gangan nigbagbo wolede,’ (We met Ifa on ground, we met Islam, but Christianity came much later,’ what do you make of this?
Ah! Only God knows who is worshipping Him. Don’t you hear the song, ‘Boya laye o rogbo (2x), bi ao ba sodun ibile mon o, bo ya laye o rogbo’ (if we stop traditional festivals it is probable if there will be orderliness in the world).

Are you saying these new faiths have not been beneficial to us?
(Laughter) yes o, ‘etutu lai se s’Ogbomoso o, Osun ti e ri yen, etutu lai se s’Ogbomoso o’ (Osun you see is used to offer sacrifice to Ogbomoso).

Chief Mrs Alarape flanked by Chief Mrs Eleriko (right) and Chief Mrs Iyabo Emmanuel

What advice do you have for Nigerians regarding religion?
At this juncture, she requested a colleague, Eleriko Ile Foyanmu, to answer this question. And so Eleriko Ile Foyanmu responds to the next four questions. Hear her, “the advice we have is that we should cooperate for progress and peace to reign. We should unite because we call on the same God. If we traditionalists take herbs or roots we call on God to make it potent and it will be so. It is the same one God we call on, it is people that introduce schism,

Why are you not in white today?
I was attending a Sango festival when they called me to come here. We all celebrate with one another.

Do you assure that if we return to traditional religion, there will be orderliness in the world?
Certainly! We do hear over the radio that religion ought not to cause chaos. We all call on the same God. It is we humans that are bringing separation. God created all of us.

What is the relationship between Ayelala and Osun because Ayelala also fills the tummy of those it punishes with water?
Yes, Ayelala belongs to the fishermen. It is their own Osun, they are Osun worshippers too. That is why they inhabit the river.

Still another of her co-travelers, Chief (Mrs.) Iyabo Emmanuel, Iyalode Aba, takes few other questions:
Are you a Christian?
Do you go to church?
How did you become an Osun worshipper?
I inherited it from my parents. And my husband is an Osun enthusiast too. If I jettison Osun worship, unsavoury things will happen to me. It is a source of blessing to me.

You are close to traditional rulers?
Yes, there is no Oba that doesn’t know about isese (traditional religion) unless he won’t last long.

But there are Obas who cling to either Christianity or Islam solely?
Such Obas suffer the consequence unless they won’t own up. It is problem to them. Our Baba, Baba Soun do say that whoever keeps traditional worship at arm’s length is not a true traditional ruler.

Do you believe in judgment after death?
Some of our children are Christians and some are Muslims, our own belief is that judgment will be based on how you lived your life whether good or bad.

River Osun

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