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Indiana University Press
Africa's Ogun / Edition 2

Africa's Ogun / Edition 2



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The second edition of this landmark work is enhanced by new chapters on Ogun worship in the New World. From reviews of the first edition:

... an ethnographically rich contribution to the historical understanding of West African culture, as well as an exploration of the continued vitality of that culture in the changing environments of the Americas." —African Studies Review

... leav[es] the reader with a sense of the vitality, dynamism, and complexity of Ogun and the cultural contexts in which he thrives.... magnificent contribution to the literature on Ogun, Yoruba culture, African religions, and the African diaspora." —International Journal of Historical Studies

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253210838
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/01/1997
Series: African Systems of Thought
Edition description: Second Expanded Edition
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.08(d)

About the Author

Sandra T. Barnes is Professor of Anthropology and Director of African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is author of Patrons and Power: Creating a Political Community in Metropolitan Lagos and Ogun: An Old God for a New Age.

Read an Excerpt

Africa's Ogun

Old World and New

By Sandra T. Barnes

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 1997 Indiana University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-21083-8


Sandra T. Barnes

The Many Faces of Ogun: Introduction to the First Edition

There is a privileged class of supernatural and mythic figures who consistently grow in their renown and complexity. One thinks of such figures as Oedipus or Siva, each of whom plays a significant role in the traditions of many groups of people, to the extent that they have become metacultural, or international in scope. The contributors to this volume focus their attention on another such figure: Ogun, an African deity, who thrives today in a number of West African and New World contexts, including the Caribbean, South America, and, more recently, North America.

Ogun was one of many deities carried to the New World by Africans during the slave diaspora which took place between the sixteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. More recently he, and the complex ideological systems of which he is a part, have been carried from Brazil to its neighboring countries and from the Caribbean to North America. In this more recent, twentieth-century movement of peoples and their belief systems, Ogun's appeal has transcended the boundaries of ethnicity, race, and class so that today's adherents are not simply people of African descent but people representing many walks of life. The story is equally dramatic in West Africa, where Ogun's popularity also has flourished and expanded.

As a consequence, more than 70 million African and New World peoples participate in, or are closely familiar with, religious systems that include Ogun, and the number is increasing rather than declining. Yet the claim that a god from a comparatively small religious faith, particularly one stemming from a nonliterate tradition, flourishes in spite of the overwhelming dominance of such large global religions as Islam and Christianity jars our expectations. Why does a deity like Ogun survive? How can he grow in popularity, especially when deities of global faiths are themselves gaining strength? Furthermore, how can we say that Ogun of the New World is still the same as Ogun of West Africa, given the limited interaction of peoples between hemispheres in the past century or more and the markedly different cultural influences that have obtained in each place during this period? Clearly, if we are to understand the Ogun phenomenon as more than a mere anomaly, a reassessment is needed of the way we view contemporary religious processes. This is a primary concern of my essay. As a first step, let me introduce Ogun in his more obvious manifestations.

Ogun is one of many gods and goddesses in West African pantheons. As such, he is embedded in belief systems of great complexity. It is not the intention of this volume to dwell on these systems in their totality, but it is important to know that, like the religions of the ancient Greeks and Romans or contemporary Hindus, Ogun always is one part of a larger whole. Perhaps because he has an uncanny ability to stay abreast of the times, Ogun has been a major figure in this larger picture for as long as historical records reveal.

Ogun is popularly known as the god of hunting, iron, and warfare. Today, however, his realm has expanded to include many new elements, from modern technology to highway safety—anything involving metal, danger, or transportation. In the minds of followers, Ogun conventionally presents two images. The one is a terrifying specter: a violent warrior, fully armed and laden with frightening charms and medicines to kill his foes. The other is society's ideal male: a leader known for his sexual prowess, who nurtures, protects, and relentlessly pursues truth, equity, and justice. Clearly, this African figure fits the destroyer/creator archetype. But to assign him a neat label is itself an injustice, for behind the label lies a complex and varied set of notions. As his devotees put it, "Ogun has many faces."

The many meanings of Ogun are revealed in a vast array of rituals, myths, symbols, and artistic representations. The same is true of other deities in the pantheon, who formulaically number from 201 to 401 and even more. Each deity has different features; for example, only Ogun devotees wear iron emblems, display fiery red eyes when possessed, and dance with swords. Such differences do not prevent deities from interacting with one another in the spirit world; they reproduce, have kinship relationships, and generally quarrel, love, help, and harm just as humans do. Rather, the differences perform a valuable service by separating one deity's meanings from another's.

The interactions of humans and deities take place in a varied range of contexts. They often involve several deities or groupings of deities. A devotee who venerates Ogun alone may retire to a private household corner to offer prayers and simple food sacrifices to his iron tools (see H. Drewal, this volume, Ch. 10). By contrast, communities stage public spectacles that are as complex in their staging as European opera; indeed, they are grander in scale than opera, since entire towns, from the king to the lowliest servants, participate for days and even weeks in their dramatic pageantry (Pemberton, Ch. 6). Between the extremes lie ritual encounters with divinities that take place during rites of passage and in a bewildering variety of family, occupational, and cult groups. These encounters are neither as solemn nor as standardized as those of Western missionary Christianity. Neither are they similar in substance. West African adherents put emphasis on sacrifice, divination, and possession as ways of communicating with deities, and they stress pragmatic, everyday concerns as the content of such communication.

Finally, ritual encounters put emphasis on emotions and personality traits. Ogun's devotees display fiery outbursts of anger to the extent that they may heedlessly injure bystanders; just as easily, they may dwell on Ogun's human-itarianism and self-reliance with poignant recitations of heroic deeds that require outstanding levels of courage and leadership. To a great extent, whether it is in thought, deed, or mood, humans and deities mirror one another in West African philosophies. Therefore, character strengths and character flaws are as divine as they are human.

Ogun plays a central role in these philosophies. Like all deities he advances understanding, unifies knowledge, and, as Durkheim and Mauss put it, creates "a first philosophy of nature" (1963:81). Stated more succinctly, he represents a theory of what life or part of life is about. To uncover this theory, however, we must return to a concern which I introduced earlier on.

If we are to appreciate Ogun's significance in contemporary religious life, any reassessment of that life must depart from past approaches that, by implication, relegated figures like Ogun to a dying tradition. The thesis here is that a deity's capacity to survive, flourish, and expand depends on the meanings he projects and, perhaps equally important, on the way those meanings are "packaged." Within the meanings of Ogun resides a philosophy of the human condition that can be stated as a theoretical proposition. The theory in Ogun embodies a profound and compelling observation of human nature. This theory enables us to examine a realm of ideas that explain, in deeply moving terms, certain strengths and weaknesses that are universal to the human condition. Still, there is no one source for these ideas.

The many manifestations of Ogun yield many meanings. Multiple meanings inevitably give rise to multiple interpretations and, by extension, multiple anomalies. Can we then claim there are common threads in Ogun traditions, particularly when these traditions are so geographically and historically separated? Clearly, if we are to understand what is unique to Ogun—or whether, in fact, he is unique—a reevaluation is needed of the way we treat meanings, particularly as they are reflected in a single cultural figure.

I will begin this endeavor—explaining why Ogun survives and by necessity what he means, since my thesis is that meaning and survival are connected—with a look at the scant but instructive historical evidence. The value of history lies in its ability to provide baselines from which to measure the deity's ongoing permutations. My excursion into Ogun's past is followed by a brief examination of the historical and contemporary processes that shaped, and continue to shape, his meanings and that also account for his expansion.

Any study of meanings, especially when they are attached to a deity whose history spans centuries and whose devotees span continents, is incomplete without a discussion of methods. This will form the next part of the essay. How can we uncover the deepest meanings of a metacultural figure? More particularly, how can we expect to uncover common meanings when there are wide variations in them? Fortunately, analytical tools for this kind of endeavor are beginning to reach a state of some refinement. By combining several of them we can grapple with complexities that previously stood in the way of our ability to generalize about culture on a grand scale and yet retain cultural uniqueness as part of that generalization.

Finally, I will return to Ogun's meanings, this time in search of his philosophical principles and how they are put together in ways that are easily but profoundly communicated. There is no single myth, ritual, or other context that captures his meanings in a comprehensive, unified way. Therefore, the theory of human nature that we encounter through Ogun and, I suggest, the thing that accounts for his survival, is drawn from the rich body of evidence provided in each of the chapters that follow.

The History of Ogun

No date can be assigned to the birth of Ogun, nor can a place be assigned to his origins. The ideas out of which Ogun emerged are undoubtedly ancient ones. In an earlier study it was proposed that many of the themes surrounding Ogun are rooted in a set of Pan-African ideas that probably accompanied the spread of iron-making technology throughout sub-Saharan Africa as far back as 2,000 years (Barnes 1980). I call these ideas the sacred iron complex. The three most commonly held ideas in the complex are that iron is sacred, that ironworkers are exceptional members of society with particularly high or low status (since their work makes them either feared or revered), and that iron workplaces (smelters and smithies) are ritual shrines or sanctuaries for the dispossessed (e.g., warrior refugees). A recent study suggests that sacred ritual and its attendant ideology may have been essential to iron-making as a formulaic way of remembering and perpetuating the steps and ingredients involved in the iron-making process (van der Merwe and Avery 1987:143). This being the case, the ideology attached to iron technology needed to be sufficiently flexible and general to be communicated easily and then adapted to various local cosmologies. H. Drewal (Ch. 10) describes just such an adaptation in the iron-smelting ritual of a Yoruba community and shows how local ideology symbolically plays on the notions in the sacred iron complex.

Lévi-Strauss suggests (1966:16–22) that ideas such as those in the sacred iron complex are randomly distributed notions until people collectively join them together in ways that fit their own cultural contexts. He calls the people who engage in this collective enterprise bricoleurs, people who work with materials at hand. Each group of bricoleurs creates new patterns with random materials, making it difficult to compare cross-culturally the common denominators in the patterns without decontextualizing them and thereby reducing them to truisms. Although I return to this problem, it should be said here that in the forest-belt kingdoms of West Africa, a conventional pattern for dealing with extraordinary ideas, culture heroes, or anomalies in nature was to deify them. The genesis of Ogun, therefore, quite likely involved a deification that grew out of a set of commonly held notions about the mystical properties of iron and the powerful people who made or used it. But Ogun's beginnings need not have relied exclusively on iron-related notions.

Armstrong (Ch. 2) provides evidence to suggest that several equally fundamental, metaphysical ideas may have been involved in the genesis of Ogun. They center, first, on an association between pollution and killing—killers must be purified before they can be reintegrated into society—and, second, on the mystification of disorder—misfortune is supernaturally determined. These ideas are attached to a widely shared set of cognate concepts, Ògúnògwú-ògbú, meaning "kill." Armstrong found that cognates of the term Ògún exist in six neighboring language groups in West Africa. Linguistic evidence led him to propose that the concept is at least as old as the beginning of the Iron Age and probably older. In two of the language groups, an Ògún- related term is the name of a ritual that is held to resocialize a dangerous hero—hunter or headhunter—by honoring his deed and, at the same time, cleansing him of the pollution of death with water from a blacksmith's forge. Thus Armstrong takes issue with the hypothesis that Ogun arose out of Africa's iron revolution and its accompanying sacred iron complex. He proposes, instead, that earlier themes—hunting, killing, and the resultant disorder that killing brings—are more likely foundations on which an ogun concept, and later an Ogun deity, were constructed.

The actual apotheosis of Ogun—that is, transforming the concept into a divine being—appears to have occurred in a much later period than the creation of an ogun concept. The earliest reliable date that can be fixed to the existence of an Ogun deity is the latter part of the eighteenth century. The evidence comes from Haiti, where the cessation of slave imports from Africa by this date acted as a cutoff point for the introduction of the slaves' home culture. Brown (Ch. 4) indicates that Ogun had to have been firmly entrenched in Haiti by this time inasmuch as today he is a significant figure in its religious culture, and oral traditions tie him to a long series of Haiti's historical events. Clearly the god Ogun existed, and was widespread, before the 1700s in the West African societies whose peoples contributed to the slave diaspora, or he could not have emerged as strongly as he did in Haiti and elsewhere in the New World.

Yet dates for the emergence of this deity in West Africa must be inferred. One suggestion is that Ogun arose in eastern Yorubaland in the sixteenth century, when there was an increase in the supply of iron and an expansion of warfare (Williams 1974:83). The hypothesis is based, in part, on the fact that ritual objects made of iron, which can be dated because of their use of imported metal and which are commonly used by Ogun devotees, began to proliferate at that time. This hypothesis is pictorially reinforced by a brass plaque depicting a Benin warrior wearing miniature iron tools—the almost universal symbols of Ogun—that dates to the fifteenth or sixteenth century (fig. 3.1). An even earlier date for the emergence of Ogun is suggested by an annual ceremony, also in the Kingdom of Benin, which dates to the thirteenth or fourteenth century and which featured ritual battles and sacrifices of the type that today are appropriate only to Ogun (Barnes and Ben-Amos, Ch. 3). Both of these suggestions pin the emergence of an Ogun deity to activities associated with warfare. Furthermore, they pin the geographic area of his emergence to eastern Yorubaland and to the Kingdom of Benin, where ritual reen-actments of battle between kings and town leaders have long figured in large civic pageants dedicated to Ogun. Ritual battles featuring Ogun also became significant in Dahomean kingship ceremonies, especially those honoring the military, and they have continued to the present day on a smaller scale elsewhere in eastern Dahomey (now People's Republic of Benin), western Yorubaland, and throughout the New World where Ogun appears.


Excerpted from Africa's Ogun by Sandra T. Barnes. Copyright © 1997 Indiana University Press. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
A Note on Orthography,
Africa's Ogun Transformed: Introduction to the Second Edition Sandra T. Barnes,
1 The Many Faces of Ogun: Introduction to the First Edition Sandra T. Barnes,
PART ONE: The History and Spread of Ogun in Old and New Worlds,
2 The Etymology of the Word "Ògún" Robert G. Armstrong,
3 Ogun, the Empire Builder Sandra T. Barnes and Paula Girshick Ben-Amos,
4 Systematic Remembering, Systematic Forgetting: Ogou in Haiti Karen McCarthy Brown,
5 Ogum and the Umbandista Religion Renato Ortiz,
PART TWO: The Meaning of Ogun in Ritual, Myth, and Art,
6 The Dreadful God and the Divine King John Pemberton III,
7 A Portrait of Ogun as Reflected in Ijala Chants Adeboye Babalola,
8 Ogun's Iremoje: A Philosophy of Living and Dying Bade Ajuwon,
9 Dancing for Ogun in Yorubaland and in Brazil Margaret Thompson Drewal,
10 Art or Accident: Yoruba Body Artists and Their Deity Ogun Henry John Drewal,
PART THREE: Transformations of Ogun,
11 A Comparative Analysis of Ogun in Precolonial Yorubaland J. D. Y. Peel,
12 Repossession: Ogun in Folklore and Literature Donald J. Cosentino,
13 Unveiling the Orisha Philip Scher,
14 Ogun and Body/Mind Potentiality: Yoruba Scarification and Painting Traditions in Africa and the Americas Henry John Drewal and John Mason,
15 Ògún: Builder of the Lùkùmí's House John Mason,

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