Osun is the Yoruba goddess of love, lust, fertility, fresh waters, women’s health, witches and wealth. Osun has been compared to and is sometimes thought of as the Yoruba representation or reincarnations of goddesses from other cultures such as Nekhbet, Sekhmet, the Chinese goddess Kuan Yin and Hindu goddess Laskhmi.
Each year a large festival is held in her honour in Osogbo which is located in South-western Nigeria. This festival is called the Osun Osogbo festival and is held by the people of Osogbo to renew ties between the town and the goddess. Several thousand people come to attend this festival bringing sacrifices and prayers in the hope that Osun will answer their prayers. One of the highlights of the Osun Osogbo festival is the arugbá, a votary maiden who must be born into a royal family. She serves as a mediator between the Osun people and the Osun deity. The arugbá each year carries on her head a large calabash filled with BRASS figures and other symbols of Osun in a procession from the King’s palace to the banks of the Osun river where all sacrifices are summarily dumped at the foot of a statue that represents Osun. The arugbá is always a woman and she must be a virgin (*rolls eyes* this is because she is supposed to serve as a ‘symbol of morality’: yeah we know the Yoruba had/have this obsession with female virginity).
I remember when I was in secondary school, talk of this festival came up. Of course the talk was centred on how devilish and pagan this festival was. I remember a friend justifying the presence of ‘demonic powers’ by saying, ‘Do you know how heavy that calabash is? Yet it is a small girl who has to carry it on her head for hours. The fact that she has the strength to do this proves that there is something wrong going on there.’
The arugbá is not always enthusiastic about her work. I mean in the movie (which I will soon be talking abouy), the maidens shown seemed to enjoy their work. They danced and smiled but in other videos I’ve seen such as the one from CNN, the arugbá looked so tired. I figured out that since they were most possibly possessed (I don’t see this as ‘demonic’) to be able to carry the Osun bowl then there’s no room for tiredness and lackluster performances.
Last week I watched a movie centred on the life of the arugbá of an upcoming festival. The film itself is called, Arugbá and is directed by Tunde Kelani who was inspired to make the movie while researching for a documentary on the Osun Osogbo Festival ten years ago. It was the arugbá, a girl called Gbonjubola, of that festival that left a mark on him inspiring him to make a movie about a woman who is strong, independent, entiwned with her tradition and culture and also dreams of Yoruba goddesses. I’ve been watching more Nigerian movies lately which is a new thing for me. I wasted money on a sh***y Ghanaian movie last week and this week I bought Arugba because when I saw the movie poster in a DVD store, my first thought was ‘she is sooo pretty!’
‘She’ turned out to be the star of the movie (obviously), the arugbá called Adetutu. The movie is not only centered around her but also comments on life in the town, corruption among the traditional leaders, HIV/AIDS and other such topics. Another good point to Arugbá is that the movie is a musical. Arugbá is a musical done in a very classy way. While watching the movie, I could not help but compare it to the few Hausa movies I have watched which did not do music well at all. In Arugbá the music was on point, the choreography was great and the songs had meaning.
It turns out I had seen a preview of the movie sometime ago and at that time I immediately wanted to watch it because it opened with a song in homage to Yemoja. While Osun is the goddess of sweet waters, Yemoja rules over salty waters. She is basically a mother goddess whose children are like fish (as many as the fish in the sea). Yemoja is special to me because she was the first Yoruba goddess I learnt about and she was sort of the door that lead me to understanding the complex Yoruba belief system(s). Prior to that I had almost swallowed that mentality that all our ancestors were worshipping ‘the devil’ before Christianity and Islam came to free us all. Anyway the fact that the first thing you hear in the movie is ‘Yemoja o!’ was good enough reason for me to know that I’d love the movie.
I really do not have enough praise for Arugbá. First off, it’s well done. The quality of the movie is much much higher than other Nigerian and Yoruba movies out there. The actors did great jobs. The movie itself was wonderful in its exposure of Yoruba culture and religion. Oh and the effects (which I’m beginning to think are a must for all Yoruba movies) were well executed. After watching the movie, I felt proud even though I do not come from anywhere near Osogbo. I was and still am extremely happy that the Osun Osogbo festival which is 600 years old is still taking place and has not been destroyed…yet.
When you think about it, one African religion that is still been practiced today by many is the Yoruba traditional religion. In that term it seems like it is going to be pretty difficult for Yoruba gods to be forgotten. I know the practitioners of Yoruba religion cannot hold a torch to the major world religions but still festivals dedicated to Orishas take place in parts of Nigeria and South America.
I believe the Osun Osogbo festival is the largest Yoruba festival to a Orisha that takes place on African shores. I am tempted to ask why as there are other festivals that take place in other parts of South-western Nigerian. Apparently part of the reason why the festival is so popular is due to Austrain-born artist Susanne Wenger, who apparently rebuilt the shrines and worked to get the Osun grove protected. I’d like to read more on her.
Now I think about it the Osun Osogbo festival will take place this month! I wonder if I’ll be able to make it this year? Lol, my mother encourages my interest in Yoruba culture and history but I doubt she’ll be keen on me going off to attend the festival.