Friday 17 December 2021

Encyclopedia Of African Religion (200)


"Some scholars attribute Olokun’s origin to the Edo or Bini people whose famous lost-wax bronze and terra cotta sculptures have become cultural hallmarks. Yet Olokun also belongs to the Yoruba, who are equally known for their exquisite bronze sculptures, carvings, and elaborate masquerading traditions in the arts and other cultural practices. In fact, Olokun can be viewed as the nexus between the Yoruba and Edo kingdoms.

In both traditions, strong centralized, hierarchal political and religious systems preserve rich cosmological and empirical histories. In both traditions, the relationship to Ile-Ife and competition for dominance of Ikoye, better known as Lagos, abound. In the Republic of Benin, Olokun is also known as Awoyo. Despite variations in her name and some characteristics, Olokun is associated with the Atlantic Ocean generally, with Lagos and Badagry in Nigeria, and with the cognomen Okun Yemideregbe. 

Among the Edo, Olokun worship is intimately tied to patriarchy and the court of the Oba of Benin. In this tradition, the wealth, peace, fertility, and abundance of the deity is idealized in the regalia of the court and the king. Olokun’s abode in the depths of the ocean is emblematic of the Oba’s power in the former Benin kingdom in Nigeria. Olokun’s wealth lies in the cavernous waters of the ocean, suggesting the unfathomable nature of wealth, as well as the struggles and dangers associated with its attainment.

Bini fishermen as well as the Bini traders who first met the Portuguese in Badagry and Lagos Harbor in the 15th century found wealth as well as their struggle against wealth as they sought to attain it. The Edo or Bini were among the first to trade with the Portuguese seafarers who first sought gold and other minerals from the interior.

Whereas Olokun’s persona is male dominated in the Bini tradition, the Yoruba Olokun is distinguished by gender duality or balance. 

Where Olokun resides in the ocean’s depths, Yemoja, his or her spiritual twin, resides on its surface and in its waves. In this regard, each protects the other with Olokun supporting the beauty and power of Yemoja. The Olokun/Yemoja dichotomy reflects a dominant aesthetic in the Yoruba worldview that heralds duality, especially in its cosmology.

The nature of Olokun is distinguished by gender duality and functional roles that not only differ from those found in Benin, but that also find resonance among Yoruba diasporic communities. Within the Nigerian Yoruba tradition, Olokun is portrayed as the last wife of Orunmila. In this role, she represents the maternal source of life, activating as it were the wisdom of Orunmila and the ase (also called axe and means life force, spiritual energy) of Olorun.  

By Diedre L. Badejo

The Olokun head  © National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria NCMM 38.1.2  - The Olokun head reconsidered

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