Some months ago I was chatting with Baba Nathan Lugo, searching for an Ọbàtálá symbol to include in an artwork. He suggested: “You could draw an ọ̀pá Òṣooro!” – I had no idea what that was. While I waited for his detailed explanation, I started to read about other Yorùbá ọ̀pá, translated as "walking sticks" and gathered (often confusing) information from these books. Let me share what I found out! This is a brief introduction to this topic.
Ọ̀pá gbóngbó ní nṣíwájú agbọ́ọni.
It is a small walking stick that goes before the person who walks a path overhung with foliage that is wet with morning dew. (Meaning: One uses the tools or weapons at one’s disposal to tackle challenges). Oyekan Owomoyela: Yoruba Proverbs, 2005.
Certain iron staffs are a symbol of authority among the Yorùbá people and signify the presence of an Òrìṣà or an initiated Olórìṣà. The tool is charged with Àṣẹ. The dictionary translates “àṣẹ” with the words “order, command” and the one who owns it, the “aláṣẹ”, thus is an “authority”. As we know in the Orisha scene, there’s a more complex concept behind the word Àṣẹ. To make it short, let's call it “universal life force energy" used to activate and make things happen in our physical world (see Abiodun: Yoruba art and language). The stick with its Àṣẹ is not an ordinary object or a symbol for an Orisha. It is ritually prepared, has a certain power on its own and is used by someone who has learned how to handle it. You can’t buy it around the corner – though many people do so on the “tribal” arts market. This article deals with Yorùbá walking staffs made of iron and some related objects.
This is primarily known as Ọbàtálá`s iron staff. On top is a so-called agogo (bell), it looks like one of the broad-shaped bells used e.g. for Ifá ceremonies. Along the edges it has lose rings attached. There can be a clapper inside or not. The ọ̀pá Òṣooro is used in rituals and as a walking stick by Ọbatálá priests. A quite similar ọ̀pá Òṣooro is used for Òrìṣà Iyemòwó (Yemòó), the main wife of Ọbàtálá. This one is kept covered in cloth at the shrine and has some other features, but only initiates are allowed to see it. Nathan Lugo saw a similar stick used among Yemọja devotees in Abẹ́òkúta and a shorter ọ̀pá with an agogo on top in use for Ọ̀ṣọ́ọ̀sì, which has also other items such as figures, swords, men on horseback, bow and arrow. The literature about the ọ̀pá Òṣooro is confusing: in books I found the word spelled as Òṣòorò or Òṣoòrò and categorized as another name for the ọ̀pá Òòsun below.
Òòsùn’s staff is used by babaláwo in Ifá rituals. Òòsùn is an Òrìṣà, but has no initiation procedure and accompanies Ọ̀rúnmìlà. On top of the staff is one large bird (sometimes two) standing on a flat disc. Usually the bird and its wings are shaped out of flat pieces of iron mounted together into a three-dimensional figure. It is interpreted as a pigeon, ẹyẹlé (lit. “house-bird”), an animal used as a sacrifice and said to bring good luck, many people keep pigeons at home in Yorùbáland. Abiodun mentions an Ifá text from Èjì-Ogbè how the ẹyẹkàn (the single bird) turned from ẹyẹ-oko (wild pigeon) into an ẹyẹ-ilé (domestic pigeon) after sacrificing to Ifá. The Òòsùn staff is used “to implement Ifá`s orders to solve problems”.
The staff has one or several upturned cone-shaped “cups” on top below the bird. These are so-called ààjà, slim bells with a clapper inside, though they may also come without a clapper. These bells take the offerings when fed, e.g. palmoil, blood or kolanuts. The flat disc above the bells covers and protects them, but does not close them. In this sense they are a ritual container accumulating the Àsẹ̀, the life force energy. Other groups of bells can be attached to the stick on lower levels and are turned downwards, their jingling sound reinforces prayers. You can see the typical form of this slim bell in a documentary about the production of bronze ààjà bells for the river deity Ọ̀ṣun in this Youtube video.
Nathan Lugo mentioned another detail I did not find in any book: There can be a seed fixed to the staff, the so-called iku Ìjẹ̀bu. This seed is big, rounded, very hard and can’t be cut with a knife. It has to be drilled with a piercing instrument. The iron staff is passed through the seed, which is then held stationery with small iron rings. The seed is so hard that birds cannot eat it, it cannot be destroyed by a peek. It is a symbol for protection against “witchcraft”. Birds represent "witches", a term often used as a translation for the "iyámi" (Yor. my mother). "Witchcraft" follows an European concept, to the Yorùbá it is a certain female spiritual power and not necessarily evil, the river godess Ọ̀ṣun is the head of all "witches" for example. If you look at art auction images of "herbalist's staffs" online, you can quickly spot the iku Ìjẹ̀bu fixed to the walking staff. The ọ̀pá Òòsùn should never fall down or lie flat, it is associated with one’s well-being. In case that it falls down the oracle is consulted. If the stick was in use recently, mariwo (split palm fronds) or other remains can be found on it, usually it is stored vertically in the shrine of the babaláwo.
The importance of Òòsùn in Yorùbá society is shown in names: "Amósùn" (a-mú-Òsùn) means "the bearer of the Òsùn staff" and "Dòsùnmú" (di-Òsùn-mú) means "Hold on to the Òsùn staff". Information from www.yorubaname.com.
As you see in the names above, Òòsùn is often written Òsùn, but there's hardly any Yorùbá dictionary that mentions this Òrìṣà. Ọ̀pá òrìrẹ̀ is another correct name for the staff, as is Òòsùn gàgà, which is an oríkì (a praise name) and Òòsùn àwòro (not to be confused with àwòrò, which means chief priest of an Òrìṣà). This information is from Nathan Lugo, who practices West African Orisha traditions, is fluent in Yorùbá language and was taught these names by elders of the tradition. Some authors call it Òòsùn babaláwo, especially if you are not fluent in Yorùbá, this makes it clear what you are talking about. If you ask a Yorùbá speaker who is not Olórìṣà about Òòsùn, he/she will quickly think you want to know more about Ọ̀ṣun. In Chief Fama's Ede Awo dictionary the staff is written ọ̀pá ọ̀rẹ̀rẹ̀, a version used in many books like Abiodun's. Sometimes ọ̀rẹ̀rẹ̀ is written òrèrè, without dotted letters, maybe the authors had problems with Yorùbá writing. Lawal even writes it òréré, what is a completely different melody, Yorùbá for "long vista, view from the top, huge space without limits" and to my knowledge not used for the Òòsùn staff.
The Edo people from the area around the city of Benin in Nigeria also use Òòsùn staffs. They worship many deities similar to the Yorùbá, their first king was also a son of Odùduwà. Many of these highly adorned and massive Òòsùn staffs, often made of cast brass, are in Western museum’s collections today, as the British devastated and looted the Benin kingdom in a punitive expedition in 1897. An incident that filled the archives of anthropological museums worldwide. Very likely you will come across Benin relics and their Òòsùn staffs when you visit an exhibition about West African Benin art.
Don’t confuse Òrìṣà Òòsùn (low-low-low tone), often written Òsùn (low-low tone) with osùn (mid-low tone), the red camwood powder from the African rosewood tree (osùn dúdú) used as a dye and paint in rituals and initiations. Especially in Cuban literature I often read about Orisha Ósun as "color" or related to a "tree". That sounds like Òòsùn and osùn to me, two different words. For those not familiar with Yorùbá language, Òsùn also has nothing in common with Ọ̀ṣun (low-mid tone, dotted ọ and ṣ), the river deity. Ọ̀ṣun is written Oshun in English, but might be written Osun by Yorùbá people who do not find the ọ/ṣ with a dot below or diacritics on their keyboard. Finally, the river deity Ọ̀ṣun is often pronounced Ọ̀sun (with a “normal” s) in certain dialects – confusing, abi? Not for speakers of a tonal language like Yorùbá.
There is always one large bird on top of this iron staff. Below this bird are up to sixteen smaller ones, sometimes stylized into abstract, hook-like shapes or arranged on different levels on the staff. They are equally mounted on a ring around the larger bird, turned towards its center, and deliver their messages from all directions. I have also heard interpretations, where the smaller birds are described as the evil ones, dominated by the larger bird, Ọ̀sanyìn himself. Other symbols, tools or shapes of human figures can be added to the group. The dominating bird is a symbol for the power over the before mentioned “witchcraft”. Ọ̀sanyìn himself is said to be able to change his form into a bird and in this form moves between the physical and spiritual world. He is the deity of plants and herbal medicine and works closely with diviners. The staff is stuck into the ground or used as a walking stick.
Ọ̀pá Òrìṣà Oko
Worshipped all over Yorùbáland is Òrìṣà Oko, the deity of the farm and agriculture. His symbol is a huge sword-like iron staff called ọ̀pá Òrìṣà Oko. It is made out of old iron plow blades or hoes and is of such thickness and weight that it is kept in a beaded sheath at an erect position at the shrine. The staff has a small square marked by a cross in its middle section, representing a face or the eyes (ojú) of the Òrìṣà and a wooden decorated, carved hilt, often with a pointed iron cap on top and wrapped around with thick iron spirals. The sword is adorned with fine engravings, symbols and patterns. It is not a walking stick, but called ọ̀pá in the sense of being a “heavy pole” (Susanne Wenger, Life with the gods). The sword is a symbol for Òrìṣà Oko being a warrior. It is always combined with a beautiful sheath, embroidered front and back with colored glass beads. The sword is kept inside this case when not in ritual use. It is said that Oko once was a king who ruled over Ìràwò, where all his swords are forged until today. Only the blacksmiths there have a secret knowledge how to make them. The sheath typically has small roundish triangular extensions along its side and shows motives like faces, patterns or entwined band-motifs, the typical "endless-knot" symbols of the Yorùbá and Edo people. The beads show the wealth associated with Òrìṣà Oko, who also has a beaded crown in his shrine.
Various other ọ̀pá exist in Yorùbáland. Depending on the dictionary, the word ọ̀pá means “staff of authority", "stick”, “walking stick“, "pole", "rod", "batton", "standard measure of one yard" or "totem for family lineages" and is the name of various plants (like Melastomataceae, Verger 1995). Ọlọ́pàá, lit. “the one who owns a stick”, is the contemporary term for “police”. Other simple beaded scepters are used by kings and chiefs and are called ọ̀pá ìlẹ̀kẹ̀, ọ̀pá Àṣẹ, ọ̀pá oyè or ọ̀pá aládé, or by warriors or military called ọ̀págun. The ẹ̀yọ̀ masqueraders from Lagos carry an ọ̀pá àbatà, while a drumstick is called ọ̀pá ìlù. Depending on its use, dozens of such ọ̀pá names exist (see the Global Yoruba Lexical Database by Yiwola Awoyale). Some of the ọ̀pá of authority can have beaded figures or animals on its top or beaded veils hanging down from a circular platform - like this one here from a king's portrait in Ọ̀yọ́.
The iron ọ̀pá Erinlẹ̀ often resembles the ọ̀pá Ọ̀sanyìn in its form, I mentioned an ọ̀pá Ọ̀ṣọ́ọ̀sì which can have elements from the ọ̀pá Òṣooro. Yemọja priests can use an ọ̀pá ìwòrò (“staff of an Orisha priest”). There is a huge variety, artistic freedom is used in its interpretations and depends on the exact ritual use, personal preferences, creativity of the artist and local traditions. The images used in this article are examples and not definitive fixed forms, see the photo above.
As you know, the metal iron (Yorùbá "irin") is the element of Ògún. He does not just own it, he "is" the iron itself. Doing research I came across a description of an ọ̀pá Ògún, "a granite rock or machete or piece of iron on top of a rod", but I have never seen one, except for some "Ògún axes" in auctions. Many smaller ritual Yorùbá objects like tools, swords, cutlasses, bells and scepters are also made of iron. Another metal for Òrìṣà tools like fans, staffs, bows and arrows or swords is brass, associated with the river deity Ọ̀ṣun. Enough for more articles to publish here in the future.
The small (10"/25 cm) inverted-cone-shaped Lukumí Ósun (also written Ózun or Osun) in Cuba with a rooster on its top is related to the concept of Orí (lit. “head”) and Obatalá. It is given to everyone who makes a step into the world of the Orìṣà, even before becoming Olórìṣà ("hacer santo") in the Cuban tradition, e.g. together with the “guerreros”, the Cuban warrior deities Eleggua, Ogún and Ochosi and in the “awofaka” ceremony (Yor. ọwọ́’fá kan, one hand=set of Ifá palmkernels, called "ìṣẹ́fá" in Yorùbáland) by a babaláwo. Small jingling bells can be attached to the platform on top. Inside the metal cup are secret ingredients. Like in Yorùbáland, the Cuban Ósun should always stand erect, when it falls down it is a warning: danger is near.
To me, the small Cuban Ósun is inspired by Yorùbáland artwork in the diaspora of slavery and became more "independent" in rituals. When I was speaking with someone who does not know anything about Orisha culture, he called it a “chalice”. Aesthetically it is a good example for the Afro-Cuban culture, an African tradition was re-shaped to fit into a new social environment. Compare it to the Yorùbáland staffs described above, it is very similar, but the container is sealed. Thompson describes a staff in use in Benin Republic with a single and sealed upturned ààjà-like bell and a bird on top (Flash of the Spirit, plate 28, 1984).
Various forms of Ósun exist in Cuba. There’s e.g. an “Ósun de Ochosi” in the shape of bow-and-arrow’s, an “Ósun de Babalú Ayé” with a dog on top, others lack a cone-shaped container. The more elaborate iron “chiviriqui” for Ògún has elements from Ósun (or Ochosi). See this online botanica (a hispanophone shop for Olorisha) www.folkcuba.com for their extensive iron tool list. Some of them are knee-high, but there’s also a large walking-stick-like form called “Ósun de extensión” (Osun of height) or "Ósun de pie" (standing Ósun) which is received typically with Oricha Odúa. It looks like the staff the Odùduwà statue in Ilé-Ifẹ̀ is holding in its hand, with the five-toed hen from the Yorùbá creation myth on top. In Cuba it might have a pigeon with spread wings or a rooster on top of it and has the height of its owner. A friend told me, in one of Lydia Cabrera's books he has read that the image of the rooster in Cuba has its roots in weather vanes, but I could not find the quote. Weather vanes are huge, I can hardly imagine putting such a huge cock on an Òòsùn staff. Thompson mentions metal roosters from discarded garden furniture and other Western industrial fragments like hubcaps of automobiles (Flash of the Spirit, 1984). This sounded like a popular argument for "creolization" – so I looked for his quote and found it in the study of Geraldine Torres Guerra (Un elemento ritual: el osun, 1967). It is an incredible study of different types of Ósun and very recommended! But she just mentiones one example made of old metal parts and does not say it was a common type. On the contrary, she describes nine types of Ósun and is giving many beautifully drawn illustrations, all with their exact measures. They are unique, handmade works of art and not something quickly put together from old metal parts. In the book "El Monte" by Lydia Cabrera you can find some "Ósunes" in the photography section, one standing on an altar for Eleggua. Another one, called "Ósun de jardin" (garden-Ósun), with a very unusual form is in Natalia Bolivar's book (Los Orishas en Cuba). Torres Guerra excludes the "Ósun de patio" (courtyard-Ósun) from her study, because they are not of Yorùbá (Lukumí) origin, as she states. Other "herramientas" (iron tools) can be seen in the Cuban shrines. There's e.g. one for Erinlé/Inlé, that can have a bird on top like in the Ósun staff.
All the Cuban Ósun staffs are mounted on a round or square metal platform to stand alone. The smaller ones are either placed on top of the typical "canastillero" (Cuban china cupboards) to reside above the heads of the initiates or they stand on the floor next to the "guerrero-Orichas". Old photographs or the illustrations in books and magazines from the National Museum's collection show forms that are not so common anymore, but there’s definitely a wide range of them in use in Cuba today.
Lukumí prayers speak of maintaining an erect position for Ósun, here are two versions: “Ósun agangara, madubule, duro ganga lawosi” and “Ósun borió, ma dubule, duro ganga labose”. A possible retranslation from Yorùbá would be: “Òòsùn gàgàrà, má dùbulẹ̀, idúró gangan l'a m b’ósùn” – “Large erect Òòsùn, don’t lay down, it is in a firm upright position how we have to meet Òòsùn” or “Òòsùn mú orí ró”, “Òòsùn keep your head straight” (compare Wande Abimbola, Sixteen Great Poems of Ifá, 1975, who mentions "Òsùn mú orí ró. Má sùn silẹ̀. Òóró gangan ni a á b'ósùn, quoted via Lawal: Yoruba). If you want to know more about the basics for a (written) Lukumí re-interpretation into Yorùbá, check this guide here.