Every year in August for twelve days, no fewer than 60,000 people from across the globe visit the town of Osogbo, Osun State for a singular purpose - to honor the goddess of the river, Osun. She is one of the most loved and revered among the Orishas. Those we call Orishas are the Yoruba nature gods that serve as the medium between humanity and Olodumare (The supreme God).
Amongst the sixteen major orisha, Osun is the only goddess and she is a symbol of wealth and beauty, a herbalist or healer, a diviner, a dyer (textile artist), a goddess of fertility, protection and blessing, and a leader of women
Osun is coined from the Yoruba word 'Orisun' and this translates to 'source' because all good things flow from the river goddess - children, wealth, good health, amongst other blessings.
There are three broad categories of activities that take place during the sixteen day festival - sacred rituals, secular ritual reenactments and public entertainment activities. Analysis of these activities show that they are dramatized re-enactments of historical events that led to the founding of Osogbo.
The Osun sacred rituals are conducted by the Ataoja (The Traditional leader of Osogbo) and the Osun devotees. This part of the festival is done in seclusion and it’s purpose is to reaffirm the sacred bonds as well as reopen the pathways between the goddess and the people.
The first public event however is the Iwo popo, a symbolic path clearing event that officially marks the start of the festival. The town's main road is cleared of weeds and traditional security is provided for the festivities. The idea is to welcome visitors into Osogbo and make them feel safe. The path-clearing is symbolic because it was on a mission to find an alternate water source that a path in the grove was cleared and the Osun river discovered. People then settled along the river and founded the town of Osogbo.
The lighting of the sixteen point lamp (Atupa Olojumerindinlogun) is also quite significant. The lamp is made from brass and holds sixteen trays. The trays are filled with palm oil and cotton wool and set alight and these will burn for a week.
The lamp lighting is significant because as the story goes; the founders of Osogbo came across a group of spirits dancing around the lamp while exploring the forest. They seized the lamp from the spirits and when the goddess heard about it, she made them promise that the lamp must be celebrated the way the spirits celebrated it.
All these events are a buildup to the grand finale of the festival, a spiritual pilgrimage like no other. The grove, all seventy-something hectares of it, was bursting with people from end to end. Data says approximately 100,000 people from all over the world come to Osogbo for this. It brought joy to see people from Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, etc. travel down to Osogbo to celebrate ancestral heritage.
Laughter, music, dancing, regal outfits, gunshots, dance performances, as well as the rituals lent an electric and exciting atmosphere to the ceremony. Initially you are overwhelmed because of the scale but before long you shift to a sense of belonging. There is an aura of "come as you are" because everyone is welcomed as a child of Osun.
Some people sit by the river bank singing songs of praise to the goddess, others made offerings of chickens, pigeons and goats. The last ritual drama is the Arugba Osun march where a virgin of royal blood must carry a symbolic calabash containing sacrificial items on her head. She must do this and walk to the groove without stumbling or falling and her Olose (whip boys) ensure this. The Ataoja then offers these sacrificial items to the goddess at the river bank and this officially marks the end of the rituals of the Osun festival, and the festivities continue with an extra ounce of joy and praise.
Ancient African religious practices require nuance, and without it, one isn't able to grasp the depth and the spirituality of the Yoruba people. The bond with the land and the reverence given to the ancestors creates channels for economic, social and spiritual development. It is a thing of beauty and it fills you with unbridled joy to witness an event that is unapologetically and proudly Nigerian.
Now, there is something that is happening that would displease the great mother, present day devotees and even the unborn. Dangerous levels of arsenic and mercury have been discovered in the Osun river, a result of illegal gold mining in the South Western region. Al Jazeera conducted that test and the results are 800% and more than 2000% respectively above WHO permissible levels.
People collect and drink water from the river as a way of connecting and imbibing the spirit of the goddess, same as the Jordan river, the Zamzam well and other pilgrimages. It is said to have healing properties but I am afraid that due to corruption, it will have the opposite effects. There's no amount of money that is worth the harmful effects that these toxins will have on millions of lives. Travelers are less at risk but local people need it to survive - it was the main reason the town was founded.
It did feel quite surreal to have experienced this great Yoruba pilgrimage. As a Nigerian and particularly as someone of Yoruba heritage, it left me with a great sense of pride to see tradition celebrated in such a fashion. Words don't really do the experience justice so you have to see it for yourself, so I made this video. I will however end this article on this note - a Yoruba proverb that says “Odo kii san ko gbagbe orisun” meaning “A river does not flow so far that it forgets its source”