Inside Nigerian traditional religions - Sàngó, the god of thunder.
Updated: Oct 10
Religion is a touchy subject especially when it comes to African countries. It's role in shaping society is often understated and the general unwillingness to address certain things ironically has made me want to ask more questions. In Nigeria, majority of people are either Muslim or Christian but before those came about, there were religious systems in place - systems that I believe do a better job at telling the African story.
When one hears about traditional religion in Nigeria, most people immediately think about the negative elements and narratives portrayed by decades of colonial and Nollywood brainwash. This hasn't sat well with me for years, after all, which religion doesn't have negative elements? After a few weeks I had come up with something that resembled a plan - research, visit a shrine, discuss with some experts and clarify what misunderstandings that I could.
What I found
The Yoruba people believe that beings existed in the spirit realm before they were reincarnated as human beings. These beings are referred to as “Orisha’s” and their role was to aid humanity in their pursuit of success on earth (aye).
I had always been confused about that concept. I didn't know if these beings were real life people or if they were myths, but it turns out they were a bit of both - kings and queens whose valor, charisma and conquests surpassed the boundary of reality.
Anyway, out of all the Orisha’s, Sàngó (the god of thunder) is the most popular. I learnt that somewhere in the middle of Agbeni market, Ibadan, there’s a 150 year old shrine dedicated to the deity. The worship of Sàngó was largely limited to the Yoruba people whose towns were part of the old Oyo empire and I decided that I had to see it for myself.
A bolt was the most convenient way to get to the entrance of the market. The last time I came to this area was to see the Sanusi Giwa Mansion and driving there was hectic. Agbeni market is busy so it's best to be on foot or on a bike. I came across multiple people selling their wares and asked for directions to "Oju Sàngó" (Sàngó's eyes). It didn't take long before I had met someone who navigated the innards of the community like it was second nature and shortly after, the piece of history stood before me.
It was more spacious than the research gave it credit for, I observed. The priest, Mr Isiaka Akanji, is a middle aged man but his face gave off a look of wisdom that transcended eras. I introduced myself and what I was there for despite my poor Yoruba speaking skills but this didn't hinder the flow of things too much and he started to show me around and explain what was what. Our traditional religions rely heavily on symbolism so there are a lot of seemingly random items, but each one has a very specific meaning.
There isn't any artificial lighting, so the inner section is quite dark but you can see the altars dedicated to the god of lightning and his wives - Oba, Osun and Oya.
The "place of power" (ase) is usually the centerpiece and it is bowl that contains Sàngó's thunderbolts. This is typically where food offerings are placed and there were some beans on it.
A lot of the items displayed signs of the age, but the wall of statues seems to be in good shape. Once again, these represented Sàngó and his wives and you can see the speckled pattern (white dots and lines on a red background), which is reminiscent of Sàngó.
The forms of these figures are quite significant. There is clear distinction between male and female forms, alluding to the roles they play in creating life. Some were depicted with large pots on their heads, a metaphor to the power of Sàngó. Carry with care, lest one be consumed by it.
Beyond the main shrine area, the structure opens up to a space that held some more artifacts. This ornately carved door above is a stunning work of art and represents the passage way between the spirit and earth realms.
How about some more context
Sàngó is quite the complex Orisha. He is the deity of political power and is portrayed as being unpredictable, self serving and "rides fire like a horse", all while being the giver of children, a source of medicine and a giver of beauty to women.
This dichotomy is a very common theme in Yoruba traditional religion. It is structured on balance; between life and death, light and darkness, yin and yang. Though contrasting in nature, one cannot exist without the other and such is the way of the world. For a hunter to provide for his family, he must kill a part of nature and for a farmer to do the same, he must till the land.
I found it quite remarkable that there was this much complexity in thought at such an early era, our people perceived the universe through lenses that were more complex than we give them credit for.
It will be irresponsible not to acknowledge that people perform heinous acts in the name of ritual sacrifice to these gods. An oral culture does poorly on 2 things: keeping accurate timelines and passing on complex concepts across generations. Some people don't even want to address the topic at all and the concept of traditional religion is taboo for them, but I think there's a lot to learn. We should have written a lot more things down, but that's in hindsight now. The best we can do is start documenting today.
At this point, the priest could sense that I was marveled by all I was seeing and he grabbed one of the staffs by the altar and made a gallant pose, beckoning me to take a photo of it. He was proud of his roots, and this in turn made me feel proud.
I thanked him for his time, gave Sàngó something small for palm wine (his favorite) and Mr Akanji something for himself and bid him farewell.
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