This guide through the Sacred Groves of Ọ̀ṣun Òṣogbo was written by Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger, several versions exist. It was published in the book “The Sacred Groves of Oshogbo”, edited by Augustine Merzeder in 1990 and distributed in Nigeria. After all the copies of the book have been sold Wenger produced a cheap booklet and had parts of it reprinted, subtitled “Excerpt from the Book”. There is a third version from 1988, predating these publications, which was edited by linguist Victor Manfredi.
By chance I found an old copy of the cheap booklet when I was visiting Òṣogbo in 2015. It was very inspiring reading Susanne Wenger’s text about the shrines - inspiring like a visit to the Grove must have been together with her. I thought it should be available to a large audience again. This text is published with kind permission from Gusti Merzeder-Taylor, member of the Àdùnní Olórìṣà Trust in Nigeria and the Susanne Wenger Foundation in Austria. She published this text in the book mentioned above. Thank you Gusti. Thank you to Victor Manfredi, long-term collaborator with Susanne Wenger, for the permission of using Yorùbá language translations from his version of the text. Thank you to Dunja Herzog for letting me work with her archive of poetic photos from the Grove. Dunja Herzog is a contemporary artist who visited Òṣogbo several times doing research on Susanne Wenger and her artwork. Thank you very much to Wenger's daughter Doyin Olosun who welcomed me in Òṣogbo and explained the world of the Orisha to me. Oore yèyé òòò!
The photos I chose from Dunja Herzog's archive (and combined with some of my own) will not introduce you like a tourist to all the shrine architecture, sculptures and artwork mentioned in the text. Instead they capture the spirit of the Sacred Grove, the realms of nature Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger loved and that deeply influenced her work and life with the Òrìṣà.
A Visit to the Sacred Groves of Òṣogbo
(Excerpt from the Excerpt from the Book)
by Àdùnní Olórìṣà Susanne Wenger
The visitor’s first encounter with Òrìṣà, the Yorùbá gods, is Igbó Ọya, the Ọya Grove, on the left. The original Ọya Grove was in town, behind the present Ojú Orí Ọba Kòso, Dúró Ládípọ̀’s mausoleum and the former Mbarí Mbayọ̀ club. The grove was transferred long before the beginning of the New Sacred Art. Now here on the spot and altar where Ọya priests lay down atonement offerings, stand magnificent statues of the goddess Ọya and her beloved husband, the god Ṣàngó. The twin sculptures, carved by Kàsálí Àkàngbé, are really one, carved from a single teak tree stem (embedded in the ground) which branches into two. This symbolizes the ritual and emotional closeness of these divine personages in the oneness of ideal marriage.
The forest which abuts Ọya Grove is that of Ọbalúayé and Alájere, but while the Ọya Grove reaches the river, Ọbalúayé’s grove reaches close to Àwọ̀wọ̀, the steep precipice where Ògún Tìmẹhìn encountered the helpers of the god of floral-magic potencies, Ọ̀sanyìn, an encounter which catapulted Tìmẹhìn into divine status and beyond time. Thus Òṣogbo’s timeless myth lingers on here under taboo, fed by the river’s mystic prowess.
The visitor is advised against roaming about unguided in this and other parts of the Sacred Groves. This warning should not be disregarded. The visitor who treats frivolously what we feel to be serious is not welcome in our precincts of worship. Remembering our warnings about poisonous snakes (in the service of the gods, like all that lives here), the visitor may follow the guide.
As one advances uphill, nearly ascending the height of Ontótóo, the teak plantation recedes. The teak replaces what were once the groves of Ẹgbẹ́. Bravely invading the havoc of scattered roots and branches, under cover of night, we managed to save two of our dying floric friends by wrapping white cloths around their doom-expecting bodies. (One of those saved was recently burned alive, however.) Between this plantation sector and the present Orò groves, a path branches off. On this intersection of three paths (all the roads were once forest paths) is Idí Èṣù. Èṣù is always ritually remembered on crossroads, which physically correlate with his meta-intellectual complex of multidimensional assignments. Èṣù is responsible for regulating traffic among the illimitable thought complexes of his friend, the oracular Ifá. The statue on Idí Èṣù is by the artist Ṣàká.
The Orò Grove is separated from the premises of Ògbóni by a path which belongs to the teak plantation but is also used by visitors to reach Ọjà Ontótóo, without intruding into Ilédì Ontótóo. Orò and Ògbóni are closely linked in ritual. This is why the walls are adorned together, as one work of Sacred Art, with representations of the Egúngún, sacred masks, by the artist Òjèwálé Amọo, the first Òṣogbo person to produce New Sacred Art.
Facing Igbó Orò across the highway are the premises of Ọbàtálá (Òrìṣàálá, “Òrìṣà of White Cloth” or Òrìṣànlá, “The Great Òrìṣà”), whose buildings house symbols of some of the “white gods”, a multi-branched cult complex of enduringly creative sacred-force impersonations. This building is taller on its left wing and deeply sculptured on the front is the shrine of Òrìṣà Ajagẹmọ. It is named Ayé Dákun Yípadà “World, I beg you to reconsider your ways”. The artworks represents the embrace of Ọbàtálá and Ṣàngó, a meta-psychically and contradictory double spiral of antipodal intellectual forces from different Òrìṣà hierarchies can be seen inside the shrine. The shrine’s steep, winding staircase resembles the inner column of the shell of ìgbín, the big, edible snail and symbolically correlates with the Baroque Mariolatry, the ritual representation of the Mother-of-God. Ìgbín is Ọbàtálá’s ritual food through offerings and is one of his organic instruments of creation.
Inside the middle tract, secured in the ground behind fencers, are buried magic-mystic emanating objects of Òrìṣà Olúfọn and Òrìṣà Ògìnyọ́n, two eminent branches of the Ọbàtálá religion. A bending passage leads from here to Ayé Dákun Yípadà and to the base of the winding stairs. This long, half-lit room and its furniture represent the floric aspect of Ẹgbẹ́, the heavenly complex of angelic soul-particles from whence our souls come like bees from a hive. Where that room empties out onto the base of the stairs is the altar of Ọya, representing the dark heaviness of the spiral thunderclouds from whose inner magic cauldron her husband Ṣàngó takes the flash of lightning (which is his emblem, not hers). At the top of the stairs is Ato Orí, a meditation chamber dedicated to Orí, Olódùmarè’s meta-intellect.
Flanking the anterior-room of the Ọbàtálá altars and either through the right or the left hand wings, lead passages, towards the actual Alájere premises and shrine. This building is a dwelling place, which the god and occasionally his priests, humans and snakes, may take physically as an abode and dwelling place, finding furniture, such as the bed and cupboard sculptured artistically from clay ready for their use. The front of the building is sculptured with thorny creepers, sacred to the god for their psychodynamic qualities. Alájere’s living quarters are furnished with an earthen bed, shelf and cupboard in the inner room and a floral altar whose abrupt position shockingly near the entrance represents the god’s pubescent unpredictability. Outside, between sculptures representing elements of Alájere’s myth, a path leads away to the god’s meditation sites. Where the path bends to the right towards Àwọ̀wọ̀, there stands a statue of Ọbàtálá gesturing atonement and welcome to Alájere, his ideational son. Alájere, arrived from the outer spaces of the universe into Ọbàtálá’s meta-psychic proximity carried in a sash of ọ̀já àkókò (Sanseviera Liberica) by Naná Buùkún (Ṣọ̀npọ̀nná’s “aunt”).
On this bend, the path is crossed by two scissor-like pythons, who probe the purity of one’s intentions. (Symbolic reality is passive, so the truth of this statement is relative.)
The height of the Àwọ̀wọ̀-precipice is flanked by two statues of Alájere, as unlike in character as the different sides of his nature. Here, on the brink, he dances lyrically for Ọ̀sun, who as the river silently flows by far below. There he jumps over the cliff. This death-life, life-death motion represents the flow back and forth into the universe from where he comes and to where he goes impersonating the to the Yorùbá typical ambivalence of sacred force as such.
The visitor may now be guided back across the road to the premises of Ilédì Ontótóo the club house and ritual site of the earth cult, the Ògbóni “secret society”. Visitors are refrained from entering (with or without a guide), but only as far as the first room of the right-hand entrance.
The totality of Ilédì Ontótóo and especially its roofs, represent three pre-historic (or pre-genetic) lizards and one toad. The leftmost wing with the deeply sculptured front wall is the intensely tabooed altar room. Such taboos do not primarily hide material riches or curiosities, but are established for the hygiene of emanations. The visitor is therefore not missing anything by leaving it alone. Even a glimpse over the walls is felt to be an intrusion and a priest, discovering such impertinence, may become rude.
From the room into which one enters, one can see over the carved gate, a long, wide hall with traditionally painted walls. It bears repeating that visitors are admitted to the Ògbóni area only with a guide or as our personal guest, accompanied by one of us.
We may leave the Ilédì premises by the back road, although it is not to be entered from there. Along the forest path, we next reach a flat rock, Ọjà Ontótóo. Ọjà means “market” and in the present-day language this has the same implications as in Western languages. Less than 25 years ago, however, every market was a complex ritual situation and the act of buying and selling was just one part of a wider range of outdoor ritual procedures, all of them sacred as spiritual-material interchanges. Ọjà Ontótóo is a market for gods, subterranean and supernatural beings, angels and clairvoyant humans, i.e. those humans who “see” gods and spirits. It is an amphitheatre where earthly and heavenly beings are actors and audience combined. The holes in the rock floor are remnants of a prehistoric time before geologic upheavals raised the riverbed (seafloor). Later on, these whirlpool pans were used for grinding raw iron before melting.
It is from Ọjà that Tìmẹhìn, the subsequently apotheosized hunter and Ọjà’s mystic discoverer, first heard the sound of the Ọ̀ṣun River. A path (sometimes closed to the public) leads from there to the river shrine and altar of Ọ̀ṣun Láọkan. The riverbank both upstream and downstream of this shrine are presently closed to the public, the visitor will return along the same path back to Ọjà and along the road which circumvents the Ògbóni premises, back to the highway.
The highway descends past a small group of cement figures representing Ògún. These were the first work of the artist Adébísí Àkànjí. Then a small shrine and a big arch mark the place where the annual Ọ̀ṣun procession branches towards its final goal. The continuation of the Àwọ̀wọ̀-precipice is Arugbá’s own path, but the crowd must continue on the main road under the big arch.
Arugbá (aru-igbá) means “carrier of the calabash” containing sacred symbols which, “reloaded” on that day with Ọ̀sun’s emanations, can physically represent the goddess for another ritual year. Her path leads through the small but intensely form-intent Ilé Iyemòwó. This shrine represents birth into another dimension of reality. Only deeply initiated priests protectively accompany Arugbá on this, her exacting errand into the spiritual realms of Omi, the “Waters of Life”, i.e. into the parallactic instant, when physicality and metaphysicality coincide, in which the gods procreate physical offspring. (It is for offspring that most of the pilgrims come, on that day of sacred fecundities.)
Arugbá next approaches Idí Irókò, where annually the primary man-river encounter must happen again, Arugbá’s mind is ecstasized by ancient incantantory songs, as she “descends” into the depths of Ọ̀sun’s metaphysical truth forms, whose paragon she is on that day. Whip-bearers accompany her, not only whipping the air for the sake of transcendental fecundities (a world-wide archaic practice), but also, if necessary, to fend off persistent non-initiate intruders into this vulnerable ritual privacy.
The crowd, which numbers many thousands, proceeds under the arch, which represents – oddly enough – a flying, giant tortoise. The tortoise symbolizes the heaviness of matter, and its taking to the air evokes a turning point in one’s rational habits. For here, other laws prevail.
Arugbá’s path then rejoins the public way. Protected from view by her entourage, she enters the shrine, where she will rest until they all return. Meanwhile, her mind is with Ọ̀sun, while Iyá Ọ̀sun and other priests receive food offerings and kola nuts, heaping all of them up on to an enormous tray. In the evening, the river will be fed from this tray. That is when, to their spiritually opened gaze, the goddess and her messenger, Ìkódí, will appear and bless them. (To the metaphysically dull eye of the merely curious and to the ever-ready-for-the-kill camera, this sight remains blank.) After the river has been fed and everyone has gone home, the river and its precincts are drawn once again into reverie and silence.
The main shrine is ancient, older than the town of Òṣogbo (which is not older than 400 years, according to Chief Olúgunna’s research). The outer shrine walls and central altar room were almost intact when the late Iyá Ọ̀sun appealed to us worshipper-artists who, at the time, were rebuilding Idí Bàbá. Termites had invaded the shrine, eagerly devouring the altar, walls, pillars and roof. We responded destroying the termites and repairing damage. Our minds, inspired by our own annual ceremony, spiritually urged some of us to create art on the repaired walls. This was the beginning of the New Sacred Art.
The outer portico’s clay walls were still standing in almost their original condition, very solid from endless wetting and patting by the hands of the worshipper-builders: an antiquity par excellence with which we would not tamper. But the original veranda posts had fallen prey to the excesses of our climate. We could not repair them, so we created them anew.
Evolution is a fact, not to be hailed, not to be regretted. Òrìṣà no matter how intensely harassed, cannot but be intensely alive. Alive, too, are our correlated talents. The living gods and our living art are, both, modern. Repetition of the past cannot but be an absurdity.
The ritual function of our architecture is anthropomorphic, floral and faunal, and is the outcome of our art’s submission to nature’s perfection. Gods are nature’s sublimest manifestation. We would never impose on it. Admiration helps us to underline it.
The statue where the river reaches Ojúbọ Òṣogbo is from the hand of Ṣàká. It is a reverent replacement for one which fell when its author, Òjèwálé Amọo, violated one of the goddess’ taboos. The stone sculpture and ritual objects near the pind do not belong to Ọ̀sun, but to Òkè, whose sanctuary on Òkè Ọbatedo was destroyed.
Other sculptures occupy the places where the priests of various gods sit on the day of the Ọ̀sun river procession. On that day, all the Òrìṣà are represented with drum orchestras, which resound together with a multitude of soundborn emanations and rhythms, all drummed-out praises of the gods, one big symphony in praise of inspired life.
Visitors to the premises and river shrines of Ojúbọ Òṣogbo as well as to the Ọ̀sun shrine at Atáọja’s palace (which is Iyá-Ọ̀sun’s residence) are hereby informed that, traditionally, it is their due to give a decent amount of money to the priests. They have no other income than the fees which they receive as indispensable intermediaries for the supplicant who seeks the goddess’ favours. This is a fact of the culture on whose ground the visitor stands.
Visitor should give politely and according to their ability. This act can, after all, be understood as compensation for the intrusion of an outsider.
On Yoruba ritual grounds, including Ojúbọ Òṣogbo, grows Peregun (Dracanea Fragrans), a short, treelike plant with sword shaped leaves. The stems are to be cut short annually – according to the traditional hygiene of the sacred – so as to prevent their sudden outbursts into blossoms, which appear overnight, without warning, on armlong branches. An oversight in pruning is understood to be catastrophic, as from these explosive blossoms would emanate swarms of Ṣọ̀npọ̀nná’s most horrible helpers.
Palm fronds, split along mid-rib and hung up curtain-like, indicate “Stop! Ritual in progress!” to those who are not involved.
Exiting Ojúbọ Òṣogbo through gateways, the visitor may turn to the left along the small road to the “old” suspension bridge, brainchild of the Welsh District Officer in colonial times. In the open space by the entrance to Ojúbọ Òṣogbo stand two (formerly three) giant tree, which jointly impersonate one of Osun’s epiphanies, Olọ́mọ́yọ́yọ́, “The One with Many Children”. There existed one sacred carving which represented Olọ́mọ́yọ́yọ́ playing ayo (note: a Yorùbá game played on a wooden board) with Èṣù. When this was stolen, together with several other ancient images, the third tree withered within four days to such an extent that it had to be cut down as a danger to the approaching annual procession. Ṣàká’s beautiful cement work was created on top of the stump cross-section, but as the wood decayed this base was replaced by stone and cement.
Before, when coming to the suspension bridge, one can see the entrances to the Igbó’fá, the new Ifá Grove. To achieve ritual force accumulation it is not open to the public. The ancient Ifá forest altar is still frequented by the oracle priests, despite its desperate situation of progressing destruction.
Returning to the highway, the visitor turns left. A short walk do drive will bring him to Ẹbu Iyá Mọòpó (ẹbu means potterfield). This goddess is the patroness of all women’s occupations including childbirth. Iyá Mọòpó is, more than anything, a potterwoman and – since the creative artist and his work are essentially one – she IS the pot. To put it another way, she is the space in the pot, which defines the pot (a concept reminiscent of the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching).
As one enters the ẹbu under the body of the chameleon (an animal which plays an important part in the creation myth), the statue of Iyá Mọòpó is back to the right. This statue is really a shrine which houses, fenced away in an inconspicuous place, the magically-mystically potent symbols of the goddess. The inside, still under construction, is supported by a flight of winding stairs, the spiritual pillar at the center of creation. It is mystic countermovement to the spiral in Òrìṣà Ajagẹmọ’s Ayé Dákun Yípadà shrine.
Iyá Mọòpó is traditionally represented (as a bronze altarpiece) with two children, one head-up on her breast, one on her back, head-down. In the context of natural inspiration, we have taken the liberty of representing her children – still in accord with symbolism – as atíálá-atíòrò (allied hornbill, Lophoceros Semifasciatus), the sacred bird-epiphany of Ọbàtálá. The goddess stretches out three pairs of arms. She gestures blessings, advice and regrets. She herself has wings: she represents the ethereal dimension of matter.
The tall slender statue is Ẹ̀là. An intensely sacred principle in the Ifá oracle cult, he represents the dynamism of the god’s pubescence. Important Ifá ritual is opened with the request: Ẹ̀là rọ̀, “Ẹ̀là relent”. The third statue also represents the youthful force of a god: Alájere, who is the adolescent Ṣọ̀npọ̀nná. The three is Ṣọ̀npọ̀nná’s sacred number symbolism, and is also the number of transubstantiation in Ògbóni.
On all these constructions, as well on Ontótóo with the Ọbàtálá shrines and the Ògbóni club-house, the most sensitive first assistant was Adébísí Akànjí, who is an excellent artist in his own right, working with cement screens and batiks. In the work of these years he was the most empathic and gifted helper. Nowadays, Susanne Wenger works alone on her monumental art, without assistants except for constructing foundations and scaffolding.
As the works on the riverbanks behind Ẹbu Iyá Mọòpó are still in progress, the paths there are presently closed to the public.
The visitor may ask the guide to bring him to Ọ̀sun Búsanyìn, where on a now rather small ground a glorious building impersonates the goddess in her proximity to Orí, Olódùmarè’s paramount meta-intellect. This area is nowadays, on account of the townships rapidly increasing building activities, isolated – excepting a stripe of protected riverbank – from the totalitarity of Ọ̀sun’s Sacred Groves. (It is however included into the official survey plan.) Ọ̀sun Búsanyìn is well frequented by her ritual offspring – for ritual baths and drinking of its water (àgbo).
That organic and inorganic dirt (which, unfortunately, is Ọ̀sun’s modern acquisition in that now urban area) does not interfere with her sacredness and healing-propensities (reminiscent at the ritual immersions in the sacred river of Benares) as a token of Ọ̀sun’s metaphysical interaction with the god Ṣọ̀npọ̀nná’s homeopathic healing properties.
Augustine Merzeder (ed.): Susanne Wenger. The Sacred Groves of Oshogbo. Kontrapunkt Verlag für Wissenswertes, Vienna, 1990. (88 pages, contains lots of images printed in color and additional texts by Wenger about the Sacred Art movement, the artists, the town and various Òrìṣà, Yorùbá words are written with dotted letters and diacritic marks.)
Susanne Wenger. The Sacred Groves of Osogbo. Excerpt from the Book. (20 pages, text only, printed and published by Wenger in Nigeria around mid to late 1990s, the last page says “We apologize for omission of tonemarks”.)
Victor Manfredi (ed.): The Ọ̀sun Groves of Òṣogbo (A handbook for visitors) by Susanne Wenger. (This is from 1988 and can be found as a pdf to download on the website of Victor Manfredi. He edited the text and the Yorùbá words for Susanne Wenger.)