Orisha Orò is a male entity whose cult is closely connected with the political council known as Ògbóni or Òṣùgbó. Orò acts under its command and carries out their sentences. The cult is very secretive and excludes women completely. The sound of the sacred bull-roarer, a sound-producing instrument, accompanies the public appearance of the Orò masqueraders in Yoruba towns. In these nights women must hide in the houses, because they – and even men not being members of the cult – run the risk of being killed if they happen to see the procession or the rites. Orò cult survived the middle-passage and the Orisha is still worshipped in Cuba, although not known to a broad audience.
Bullroarers are simple musical or sounding instruments and are used around the world in different cultures. Most likely you could have seen them in a documentary about Australian Aborigines. It is usually a thin slat carved out of wood, attached to a long cord. This cord can be fixed to a flexible pole around two meters long. The pole is rotated and the wooden spatulate can be whirled with a big momentum. The slat is swung in a circle above the head and at the same time spins around its axis, till the cord winds fully, in one direction. The vibrating sound produced by the slat moving through the air can be modulated by the length of the rope and the way it is swung. Especially large bullroarers (up to 50 cm or 20“ long) produce a low-frequency tone that can be heard over long distances.
The Yoruba call the bullroarer iṣẹ́ Orò. It is usually around thirty to fifty centimeters (twelve to twenty inches) long, made of camwood or bamboo and can be decorated with figurative carvings. Once consegrated it is an absolute taboo for women to see this phallic representation of the Orisha. In addition every initiate receives a smaller version of a bullroarer, this one is called ajá Orò, literally Orò’s dog. On the one hand the metaphor of barking through the sounding of an instrument announces the coming of the Orisha and on the other hand vice-versa also invokes the Orisha’s attention, like a dog might do. In addition, because of its smaller size, the ajá Orò produces a higher frequency tone mimicking also the voice of a smaller animal rather than the low frequency tones of the larger iṣẹ́ Orò bullroarers. Iṣẹ́ Orò are usually reserved for the elderly members or are kept in the shrine in the igbó or ojúbọ Orò, the sacred forest of the Orò society out of town, where only initiated men are allowed to enter.
Listen to the voice of Orò here in this recording of a profane bullroarer:
Orò in Nigeria
In precolonial times the Orò cult performed legislative, executive and judicial functions in the Yoruba society. The origin of Orò can be found in the Ẹ̀gbá subgroup around the town of Abẹ́òkúta, from where it diffused among the Yoruba subgroups of the Ìjẹ̀bu, Ẹ̀gbádò and Àwórì. The cult started to decline when the British established their protectorate in Nigeria at the end of the 19th century and the traditional rulers lost their political influence. Orò executed criminals, could exile persons out of town (or sold them into slavery) and cleansed the community of witchcraft. Orò is a kind of male counterpart to the Iyáàmi, the female witches, and their senior lady Ontótóo.
Orò is a Yoruba ancestor cult, like the better known Egúngún cult, they can be called "twin brothers". Both manifest themselves in annual masquerader festivals. The devotees of Orò direct their attentions to a collective of ancestors rather than to personal ones. Spirits of the dead play an active role in the daily life of the living, they are sought of for protection, guidance and are being consulted via means of divination. Orisha Orò commands the spirits of the executed criminals and those who have spilled human blood upon the earth, what only the most powerful players could do in the past, the Ọba (kings), Ògbóni members and Ifá diviners. With his power Orò lets those deceased ancestors intercede in present day human affairs to establish social order in the community. At the burial of deceased Orò members, ìsìnkú, Orò rituals will be performed as a rite of passage. Necromancing, ìpàdẹ, allows to consult the soul of the deceased members to clarify contending issues. In the Oròópagi or Oròójẹgi ceremony (literally killing or eating of a tree) the clothes of a deceased person appear hanging on a tree, that is stripped completely of its leaves by magic incantations. Especially important is this for the Ọba, the king. When installed on the throne the king becomes èkejí Òrìṣà, a partly de-individualized demigod for the rest of his earthly lifetime. After his death his individual soul has to go through a set of ceremonies to get relieved from the immortal existence of the Ọba. This is directed by the Orò cult-members.
Although Orò lost his official political power the Orisha is still worshipped up to today in Yoruba towns to ensure peace and to ward off evil in the community. The annual festival, Orò dóko, when Orò comes out of the sacred forest, is usually held at the end of the yam harvest season around August and lasts for several days. In modern towns this can cause conflicts on various levels. Yoruba belief demands women and children staying at home during these days, as they must never see the Orò procession moving through town. If they did, they would get killed by Orò, as it is an absolute taboo for women to see the virile entity of Orò. According to Adunni Olorisa even to encounter an Orò possession, or wander into the Orò groves, would be catastrophic to the traditionally attuned woman. The woman who enters there on purpose or even by accident will be barren for the rest of her life or give birth to a monster, begotten by one of Orò's slaves, ẹrú, the criminals executed by him also called páakọ̀kọ̀. During festival time he takes over the land outside, "Orò gb’ode", and takes with him all those criminals and offenders who have to be punished. In the past beheaded corpses could be found after Orò was out in town, or people just disappeared and never have been seen again, with their clothes hanging in trees. Orò took them away.
The sound of the bullroarer announces the coming of Orò’s terrifying activities and men on the streets are shouting "Páakọ̀kọ̀, páakọ̀kọ̀!", calling the spirits of executed criminals that are always accompaning the Orisha. During festival time public life and business in the streets can get interrupted severly. Modern lifestyle, christianity, islam and traditional belief get into conflict. Ethnic diversity in modern towns is also part of today’s struggle with the cult of Orò. In 1999 around 60 people got killed in ethnic conflicts at Sagamu, a small town northeast of Lagos. A Hausa woman was out on the streets at night during Orò procession and died, what led to more violent outbursts between the Yoruba and the Hausa people.
Òwe, Yoruba for proverbs, allow us to take a closer look on the Orò cult in Nigeria. One rule for proverbs is: translating does not mean understanding. Without knowing the cultural context often you can not interpret them correctly. It is a good way of getting familiar with another culture. Oyekan Owomoyela has published a great book I can recommend to everyone interested into Yorùbá culture (Oyekan Owomoyela: Yoruba Proverbs. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2005). There I found some good examples that express how present-day people think about the Orò-cult.
A kì í dájọ́ Orò ká yẹ̀ ẹ́.
One does not set the day for an orò rite and then ignore it. (One must not let important matters slide.)
Etí l’obìnrín fi ngbọ́ ohùn Orò.
It is only with the ears that a woman hears the voice of Orò. (One must not intrude into affairs that do not concern one; undesirable people should be kept in the dark about important or delicate matters.)
“Mo mọ̀ ọ́ tán” l’Orò-ó fi ńgbé ọkùnrin.
“I know it all” is the reason for Orò’s carrying a man away. (Knowing it all leads to disaster. “I know it all” is used like a name for a person here.)
A kì í rí àjẹkù Orò.
No one ever sees the leavings of Orò. (What must be consumed must be completely consumed.)
Bí eégún ó bàá wọlẹ̀, Orò ní n ṣe.
A masquerader who wishes to disappear into the ground cries “Orò!” (A person intending to do something extraordinary should give prior warning.)
Ẹni tó ránṣẹ́ sí Orò-ó bẹ̀wẹ̀ fún àìsùn.
Whoever sends for Orò is contracting for sleeplessness. (Whoever deliberately provokes trouble should be prepared for a difficult time. Orò is feared by all.)
Bí ẹnìkán bá fojú di Orò, Orò a gbé e.
If anyone defies the Orò mystery, it does away with him or her. (Whoever disdains potential dangers eventually pays for the disdain.)
Bí obìnrín bá wọgbó Orò, a ò lè rí àbọ̀-ọ ẹ̀ mọ́.
If a woman enters the ritual grove of the Orò cult, no one will ever see her return. (Any person who engages in forbidden action courts destruction.)
Ẹni tí Orò-ó máa mú mba wọn ṣe àìsùn Orò.
The person who will be the sacrificial victim of Orò is joining in the revelry on the eve of the sacrifice. (The intended victim innocently helps in making preparations for his or her own demise; if there is the slightest possibility of peril, one should not act carelessly.)
Obìnrin tó gégi nígbó Orò, ó gé àgémọ.
A woman who cuts wood in the grove of Orò has cut her last. (Whoever tempts a fate that is known to strike unfailingly has tempted her last.)
Òjò n rọ̀, Orò ń ké; atọ́kùn àlùgbè tí ò l’áṣọ méjì a ṣe ògèdèmgbé sùn.
The rain is falling, and the call of the secret cult is sounding loudly outside; the shuttle that lacks a change of clothing will sleep naked. (If one has not made provisions for rainy days, when they come one must suffer the attendant hardship.)
Àpagbé l’Orò n pagi.
Killing-without-recourse is Orò’s way of killing trees. (When unanswerable disaster befalls a person, there is neither recourse nor response.)
Àwíyé n’Ifẹ̀ n fọ; gba-n-gba l’Orò n pẹran.
Explicitly is the way Ife speaks; it is openly that Orò kills animals. (Whatever one has to say, one should say without mincing words. Ife refers tot he oracle here.)
Àgbà l’ó tó Orò-ó lọ̀; ọba l’ó tó ehín erin-ín fun.
Only a (male) elder is qualified to invoke Orò; only a king is qualified to blow a horn carved out of elephant tusk. (Certain tasks are for august people only.)
Ọ̀pọ̀ èèyàn kì í wọ Orò kí Orò gbé wọn.
A multitude of people cannot enter the Orò grove and be carried away by Orò. (There is strength and security in numbers.)
Ní inú ilẹ̀kú l’Orò n jẹ.
Where the dead are buried, there Orò feeds. (Some people’s misfortune is other people’s good fortune.)
Awo Eégún l’obìnrín lè ṣe, awo Gẹ̀lẹ̀dẹ́ l’obìnrín lè wò; b’óbìnrín bá fojú kan Orò, Orò á gbé e.
Only the mystery of Eégun is accessible to women; it is only the mystery of Gelede that women may watch; if a woman catches a glimpse of Orò, Orò will make an end of her. (Only certain rites are allowed to certain people; the rest are proscribed.)
Etí l’obìnrín fi n gbọ́ ohùn Orò.
Only with her ears does a woman hear the voice of Orò. (The sight of Orò is forbidden to a certain class of people.)
Obìnrin kì í tóbi k’Órò má gbèe e.
A woman is never so large that Orò cannot carry her off. (There are certain offenses a woman cannot get away with.)
Pàtàkì Orò ò ju ilé Àjànà.
The greatest authority within the Orò cult is not to be sought beyond the Ajana’s home. (Said of a person or thing that is not surpassed in importance. Ajana is the title of the head of the Orò cult.)
Orò = Oru in Cuba
It is interesting that Orisha Orò’s cult survived the Middle Passage and is still worshipped among the Lukumí in Cuban Santeria. The Cuban colonial context left no room for the political functions of the Orisha. His cult is devotional, secretive and mostly in the hands of the babalawo, Ifá-diviners. His ìlèkè, the beaded necklace, is completely black. Women are also excluded completely not to be harmed by the virile powers. Cubans call Orò in their Lukumí dialect Oru, Orun, Oro or even Orus (Horus) – see also the Yorùbá Guide to Lukumí in this blog. Omo Oru have a close relationship with ikú, the death, eégún, the ancestors and òru, the nighttime, in their spiritual work and perform efficient chanted invocations supported by his power and sacred tools.
Fernando Ortiz, the famous ethnographer, still witnessed the sounding of bullroarers in Afrocuban funeral rites around 1950. The small bullroarer ajá Orò, Orò’s dog, in Cuba became the ẹja Orò or Luk. eyá Oru, literally Orò’s fish. It is not far from Luk. ayá (dog) to eyá (fish). Ortiz described in his influential books the “pesciform” bullroarer, what might have influenced the Santeria priests to carve them in the form of a fish today. Various other forms of miniature bullroarers can be bought in the Botanicas as "Oru set" for babalawo today, see the links below. Its sound is enforcing the spiritual powers of the devotee initiated into the Orisha's cult. Elements of Yorùbá Egúngún worship also have been included into Cuban Oru worship as well. I found this especially interesting, as usually the common opinion is that Egúngún cult and ancestor worship was substituized by the Espiritismo in Cuba. So this would be worth some more research.
Michael Marcuzzi, ìbà’ẹ, wrote an elaborate study of the bullroarer cult in Cuba, that leaves hardly any questions. In his study he focuses on various levels on the Yorùbá roots of Lukumí words, the influence of academic literature on the worship and is mentioning many details, speaking about the rites, Oru’s tools, pots, switches and even transcribed Lukumí songs for Oru. See the ressources below.
Oyekan Owomoyela: Yoruba Proverbs. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 2005.
Michael Marcuzzi: The Bullroarer Cult in Cuba. Latin American Music Review, Vol. 31, No 2, p.151-181.
Susanne Wenger, Gert Chesi: A Life with the Gods in their Yoruba Homeland, Perlinger, 1983.
Olu Daramola, Adebayo Jeje: Awọn Àṣà ati Òrìṣà Ilẹ̀ Yorùbá, Ibadan, Onibonoje Press, 1969, p. 269-271.
Fernando Ortiz: Los instrumentos de la Musica Afrocubana, 1955.
Okunola Rashidi Akanji, Ojo Matthias Olufemi Dada: Oro Cult. The Traditional way of political administration, judiciary system and religious cleansing among the pre-colonial Yoruba natives of Nigeria. The Journal of International Social Research, Vol.5, Issue 23, Fall 2012.
Luis Cuevas Ifábíyìi: Orò. Rezos, cantos, encantamientos y más. Lulu books, Venezuela, 2015.
Nigeria: Oro festival including the role of the Oro priest and whether, or not, he or she is masked; whether there are any penalties invoked against those who observe the priest performing his rituals. Immigration and Refugee Board, Canada, 2000. Online.