LOVE SUPREME: DEVOTION, INTIMACY & ECSTASY IN AFRICAN AND DIASPORIC RELIGIONS AT HARVARD UNIVERSITY 2014
The Complexities of Intimacy between Olokun and his Brides in Benin Kingdom, Nigeria
By Daryl M. PeavyThis abstract looks at complexities of intimacy between Olokun, his brides, and the royal palace involving gender association, female fertility, wealth, and witchcraft.
Great Benin is an ancient warrior kingdom located in present-day southwestern Nigeria. It has no known history of ruling queens, and in the early periods of the Oba dynasty, the elders forbade royal female enthronement. Cosmology is viewed as an intimate complex of beings (High God, sub-gods, humans, animate and inanimate objects) having a vast influences on the physical world. In one Benin myth, Osa–the High god’s most senior children are Obiemwen–archaic female deity of childbirth and Olokun–king of the sea (Izevbigie, 1997, 46fn). Obiemwen, although the oldest child, cannot inherit because she is female. By default, Olokun, a male deity, inherits all of His Father’s possessions. This begs several questions.
Why is a non-warrior deity the most prevalent god in a warrior culture?
Olokun’s popularity can be attributed to owning and controlling success during life, as well as funerary rites (Izevbegie,1978, 71-72), and being the progenitor of female fertility and childbirth.
How does a warrior culture benefit from a non-warrior divinity?
I believe that female fertility or the process of rebirth and wealth are more important to Benin Kingdom cultural survival than conquest and warfare. Thus, the deity associated with these attributes is able to take prominence over warrior deities. Olokun is the only deity that must be appeased in order to guide the dead in and out of the spiritual world. From birth to death, the soul comes from the spiritual world to the physical realm in a boat–one of deity’s symbols (Izevbigie, 1978, 100). In addition, the female amniotic fluid can be looked at as a watery gateway.
Why are the majority of devotees of Olokun—a male deity—female?
Female devotees are drawn to Olokun because of the deity’s powers of female fertility, childbirth and wealth. The single most dreaded fear is to die childless (Izevbigie,1978, 98). Children are extremely important because they assist in old age, as well as perform the necessary funerary rites for their parents. The deceased cannot make the transition to ancestor hood without surviving offspring. An example of this importance is given by designations at death indicating a successful life. The most sought after death is called Ofiya–death in old age and leaving surviving children (Izevbigie,1978, 20). Oguomirere is childlessness from some sort of death of children. Agan refers to a death at old age without having a child at all (Izevbigie, 1978,98). Uwu means death at a young age without no children (Izevgbie,1978, 20). Therefore, women are able to achieve the ultimate goal for Benin society–continue family lines through childbirth.
Why is the deity who is the source of female fertility male rather than female?
Benin society needed to amalgamate the attributes of a female deity with a male deity in order to further its cultural objectives of ancestorship and inheritance. Olokun replaces his sister Obiemwen as the deity of childbirth and has taken on some of her feminine traits as the progenitor of female fertility (Nevadomsky in Galembo et.al.,1993,:Curnow personal communication, 2014).
What is Olokun’s association with wealth?
According to legend, Olokun petitioned Osa to endow him with all the riches he would need to help his devotees be successful–wealth! (Osadolor,1980, 12). A Benin proverb succinctly illustrates this point, “No one ever lives without knowing Olokun, except one who never spends money” (Osalodor,1980, 17). Many of his devotees adorn their shrine with symbols of wealth–cowries and money, and also wear ritual garments studded with these items (Osalodor, 1980). In Benin, the greatest sign of wealth and joy is children (Osalodor, 1980, 17).
What is the relationship between wealth and children?
For the Benin, wealth is children. Here are a few Benin names that illustrate the importance of children as wealth. Ef’ omo ‘refe–having children is wealth rather than anything else. Omosigho-having a child is better than having money. Omokaro (Omokaruefe)–a child is first in wealth (Izevbigie,1978, 67).
What is the significance of women’s prominent access to Olokun in a male hierarchal culture?
Women have upward mobility through the Olokun cult. The Iyasere–highest priestess in the cult–makes most of the temple decisions. Technically, the Okaivbo or Odionwere, the oldest male senior leader in an Olokun communal temple is the chief priest. However, their functions often overlap or are joint. Where there is no communal Olokun temple, she is the highest authority for the deity (Izevbigie, 1978, 83). Another example of female prominence is when there is a dispute about eldership in the community, an oath must be taken before Ora Nosidova goddess–favorite wife of Olokun. Yet another example of female prominence is Igbaghon-nowi, the most senior wife of Olokun, who must generally be present at all major sacrifices (Izebigie, 1978, 189). According to traditional thought, women control childlessness (Nevadomsky, 188, 189).Traditionally, women are automatically enrolled into some form of Olokun initiation. Women who are especially concerned about child-bearing become Olokun priestesses. In addition, there are special advantages set aside for women in the Olokun cult. Female Olokun chieftaincy title-holders may pass their titles to their heirs. However, males cannot (Izevbigie, 1978,187). Another representation of feminine prominence in Olokun’s temples is the fact that Olokun’s Ehi, or guardian angel is female. According to Izevbigie, Ehi-Olokun at Evbobemwen and Urhonigbe temple wears a queen mother’s crown (1978, 215), and not a king’s crown. This is notable because one’s Ehi or guardian angel is a major component of the Benin birth-rebirth continuum. Ehi normally switches place with a person upon the next cycle of re-birth. I believe that this may show Olokun switching places with Obiemwen, His sister. In addition, in order to approach Olokun, Ora or mammy wata–Olokun’s favorite wife, must first be appeased before petitioning the deity (Izevbigie, 1978, 137).
Does Olokun possession demonstrate male or feminine qualities?
In possession, the initiate demonstrates feminine qualities in her/his dance movements. According to Rosen, “In full Olokun rhythms the body moves in harmony with vine-like and snake-like arm movements, then with twirls and spins. The hands are graceful expressive mirrors of flowing water ” (Rosen in Galembo et. al., 1993, 42), mirroring feminine qualities and association with His wives. In contrast, when aggressive male deities come down to possess the initiate, a more masculine type of dancing takes place (Rosen in Galembo et. al., 1993, 42).
What is the relationship between Olokun, market women and the Benin palace?
Market women control the ebb and flow of commerce, as well as representing both Olokun, and the witches –all intimately connected to the palace via the marketplace. One of the ways that the palace controls the market is through palace title-holders called Ekpate or article lifters–female title-holders who assist the court jester and can impound goods that are banned or improperly displayed in the market, as well as share in market income. According to Curnow, they are considered as witches or people who have many places to visit at night. (Curnow,1997, 89), night is associated with witchcraft. Market women associations sometimes go to the palace to petition or ask favors from the Oba of Benin. Emovon states, in an effort to restore security, the leaders of market women’s groups sent a delegation to appeal to the Oba of Benin to use his spiritual powers to curtail the terror of the notorious bandit called Anini and his gang. After the audience, the market women went out and publicly cursed those who wouldn’t disclose Anini’s location. A few days later Anini and his gang were arrested and summarily executed (2006, 212). I believe that the market women and the Oba palace have an intimate relationship that nurtures the super-natural world, as well as the local economy.
What is Olokun’s association with witches?
In Benin, witches are a natural and essential part of the cosmos. The cosmos is composed of positive and negative forces for the workings of creation. There is nothing that expresses the power of the Night more than witches. Appeasing witches can make life pleasant or neglect–a nightmare. There is a day market for the average citizen and a night market for the witches–where spiritual forces are gathered and offerings are submitted. The day market brings wealth. It is the night market–portal to the astral world–where neglect can impede success (Odede personal communication, 2010).
What is the association between Olokun and Benin kings?
The title Oba is common both to Olokun and the king of Benin (Izevbigie, 1997, 235-293). Part of the king of Benin’s title is Omo n’ Oba–child of the king or child of Olokun. A Benin proverb illustrates the association between Olokun and the Benin kings. “the king of the sea who is greater than the one on land” (Izevbigie, 1997, 152). The Oba of Benin’s right to rule is sanctioned by Olokun (Izevbigie, 1997, 52-53). Also, the Benin kings are considered to be a reincarnation of Olokun (Egharevba, 1960). However, in ritual authority, Olokun is senior to the Oba. An example of this is when a High priest/ess of Olokun appears with the ada-Olokun (ritual ceremonial sword), the Oba of Benin must tip his own ada downwards in acknowledgement of the deity’s elevated status (Izevbigie, 1997, 62).
Is Olokun really a queen?
I believe that Olokun is male. As stated earlier, all of the mud statuary portrays Olokun as wearing kingly regalia (Izebigie, 1997). In Benin, there have only been male kings–the traditional law forbids a female on the throne (Egharevba, 1960). Also, Olokun is depicted as having many wives–a Benin ideal–this is an indication that He is male. In addition, if Olokun were female, His regalia would go against royal Benin sumptuary laws.
If a queen, is Olokun a deity borrowed from the Yoruba pantheon?
Okun is a word both common to the Edo and the Yoruba languages (Osadolor, 1980). In accordance with Yoruba customs, a female can become queen. Therefore, it is easier to make a female transition from a male king to a queen in Yoruba land.
In conclusion, Olokun a deity associated with the Benin kings, is a male deity. However, Olokun is also linked with feminine qualities such as: female fertility, childbirth, the market/wealth and witchcraft, all essential for social and cultural survival. Women have staked their ground through amalgamation into the core of a male-oriented society where they have been able to rise socially, economically and religiously, through His cult to their advantage.