The Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove (also known simply as the Osun Sacred Grove) is a dense forest covering an area of 75 hectares on the outskirts of the city of Osogbo in Osun State along the Osun River. It is one of the last remnants of primary high forest in south-western Nigeria, which extended to the edges of most Yoruba cities before extensive urbanisation eroded its reach. The Grove is believed to be the home of Osun (the Yoruba goddess of fertility) is dotted with sanctuaries and shrines, sculptures and art works in her honour. The sacred Grove, seen as a symbol of identity for all Yoruba people, is the last in Yoruba culture – a testimonial to the once widespread practice of establishing sacred groves outside settlements.
In the Yoruba traditional religion, groves are sacred places reserved for rituals. The river goddess is credited with the founding and establishment of Osogbo town four hundred years ago. Some accounts describe her as Oso-Igbo, the queen and original founder of Osogbo town. The Osun-Osogbo festival, which has been celebrated for about six centuries, was built around a relationship between the river goddess and the first monarch of the Osogbo kingdom, Oba Gbadewolu Larooye. It is part of the wider Yoruba community which was divided into sixteen kingdoms and, according to legend, ruled by the children of Oduduwa, the mythical founder of the Yoruba whose abode at Ile-Ife, south-east of Osogbo, is still regarded as their spiritual home.
The town’s founding myth can be traced to the story of a hunter named Olutimehin, who found a grove during a hunting expedition and informed his friend Gbadewolu Larooye of its existence. Ipole-Omu, where Larooye came from, was suffering from drought and famine so Olutimehin suggested that Larooye and his people settle in the forest. Larooye immediately left with his people and built his first palace (later known as “Ile-Osun”). Having being settled, he and his people dialogued with the deities and engaged in farming. While clearing the bush for farming, one of the trees being felled fell on the dye pots of Osun. A loud voice came from the river shouting: “Laro Timehin, you have broken all of my dye pots.” The voices of other spirits came out from the forest commiserating with Osun saying, “Oso-igbo” meaning “spirit of the bush, we empathise with you” (this is how the name Osogbo − by which the town is now known – came about).
In order to make amends, Oba Larooye sealed a pact with Osun: if Osun would solve the townspeople’s physical and spiritual problems, they would respect the deities’ houses. Osun also promised to expand their community if they would build a shrine for her and worship her; thus, the earliest settlement, which including the palaces and a market, was established in the grove.
Oba Larooye and his people soon migrated from the flood plains of the Osun River where they had first settled to a hilly place (Oke-Ontoto) where they found an easier place to live. At Oke-Ontoto, they established a mythological market called “Oja Lara” or “Oja Otonto” – the first in Osogbo – where human and spirit beings are said to have interacted. A second palace (now known as Ogboni House) was also built. As the community continued to grow, it became impossible for the people to remain in the Grove. They migrated to another location where they built present-day Osogbo town.
Ode Osogbo (the Yoruba name for the town of Osogbo) mirrors the structure of the Osun-Osogbo Grove: the palaces in the Grove resemble the one in the town. There are shrines to Osun (in commemoration of Oguntimehin) in both the Grove and the town palace. The shrines of several other divinities were built within the Grove; like Osun, they are consulted and worshipped every five days to this day.
Suzanne Wenger and the Grove
The introduction of both Islam and Christianity in the middle of the nineteenth century led to a great change in Osogbo. Islam became the religion of traders and ruling houses, as it gave contacts to northern trade routes and links to returning ex-slaves from Central and South America. For a while, the three religions co-existed but it became less fashionable to be identified with the Ogboni and Osun cults.
When British colonial rule formally began in 1914, it was delivered under a system of indirect rule through traditional rulers which sustained the authority of the Oba and priests.
By the 1950s, the combined political and religious changes had led to a detrimental effect on the Grove: customary responsibilities and sanctions were weakened, the shrines were neglected and the traditional priests had begun to disappear. All of this was exacerbated by a rise in statues being looted to feed the antiquities market, as well as the Department of Agriculture and Forestry acquiring part of the Grove for agricultural experiments. Trees were felled and teak plantations established, and hunting and fishing – previously forbidden in the sacred Grove – flourished.
It was at this point that Austrian-born artist Suzanne Wenger moved to Osogbo. With the encouragement of the Oba and the support from local people, she formed the New Sacred Art Movement to challenge land speculators, repel hunters and thieves, protect the shrines and begin the long process of bringing the sacred place back to life.
Wenger and her artists deliberately created large, fixed sculptures in iron, cement and mud with frightening details to replace the smaller traditional wooden ones to help protect the Grove and stop thefts. The sculptures were created with respect for the spirit of the Grove and were inspired by Yoruba mythology.
Her work helped bring international attention to the Grove and many visitors from the African Diaspora and other parts of the world would come to the Grove and attend its annual Osun Osogbo International festival.
Inside the Grove
The Grove contains forty shrines and several sculptures and art works erected in honour of Osun and other Yoruba deities. It has five main sacred divisions associated with different gods and cults. There are nine worship points – with designated priests and priestesses – along the length of the Osun River. Its waters signify the relationship among nature, the spirits and human beings, and reflect water’s significance in Yoruba cosmology as a symbol of life: the river is believed to have healing, protective and fertility powers. The fish are said to have been used by the goddess Osun as messengers of peace, blessings and favour; as a result, fishing is prohibited within the Grove.
The Grove is also home to over 400 species of plants, of which more than 200 are known for their medicinal uses.
Along the two roads leading to the Grove are sacred stones and sculptures which represent the various deities inside the Grove. The sculptures are made from a variety of materials, including stone, wood, iron, mud and concrete. There are also wall paintings and decorative roofs made from palm fronds.
The forest canopy supports rich and diverse flora and fauna, including the endangered white-throated monkey. Some parts of the forest were cleared during the colonial period to make way for agricultural activities but these are now being re-established.
There are two palaces in the Grove: the first is located in the Osun courtyard (along with the Osun shrine and temple) where Oba Larooye and his people first settled. The temple contains a sacred stone stool which was the symbol of authority of the Oba first used 500 years ago. The second palace – 600 meters away from the first – was said to have been built by Larooye to avoid the constant flooding which plagued the first palace. Both buildings are constructed of mud walls with tin roofs supported by pillars made of mud and carved wood. There are also three Ogboni buildings with roofs soaring high over their entrances and supported on a cluster of slender carved wooden posts.
Activities at the Grove
The Grove is a sacred place for the whole of Yorubaland and a symbol of identity for the wider Yoruba Diaspora, a fact emphasised by its twentieth-century restoration.
It is an active religious site where worship takes place every day. The Osun-Osogbo Festival was also created to re-establish the mystic bonds between the goddess and the people of the town. It occurs annually over a twelve-day period in July and August. Thousands attend this festival, sustaining the living cultural traditions of the Yoruba people.
The festival invokes the spirits of the ancestor kings and rededicates the present Oba to Osun, as well as reaffirms and renews the bonds between the deities represented in the sacred Grove and the people of Osogbo. The finale of the festival is a procession of the festival’s attendants, led by the votary maid Arugba (calabash carrier) and the Oba and priests, accompanied by drumming, singing and dancing.
Protection and Management
In 1965, a section of the Grove was declared a national monument. This original designation was amended and expanded in 1992 to protect the entire 75 hectares.
The Grove had a well-developed management plan from 2004 to 2009 which was adopted by all stakeholders and the site is still run through a participatory management system. Under the Land Use Act of 1990, the Federal Government of Nigeria conferred trusteeship of the Grove to the government of Osun State. The federal government administers the site through a site manager from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments as empowered by Decree 77 of 1979. The Osun State Government contributes to its protection and management through its respective local governments, ministries and parastatals, who are also empowered by the state edicts to manage state monuments.
The community’s traditional responsibilities and cultural rites are exercised through the Ataoja (King of Osogbo) and the Osogbo Cultural Heritage Council. In order to protect the site from any form of threats, traditional laws, myths, taboos and customs forbid people from fishing, hunting, poaching, felling trees and farming.
The traditional worshippers and devotees maintain the site’s heritage through spiritualism, worship and symbolism. There is a management committee made up of various stakeholders which implements policies, actions and activities for the sustainable development of the site.
The Grove was named a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site in 2005. It is also part of the National Tourism Development Master Plan established with the World Tourism Organization (WTO) and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
The Osun-Osogbo Grove is a symbol of African heritage and preserves the values of the Osogbo and entire Yoruba people. It is is a thriving representation of heritage and a means of sharing traditional religion and indigenous knowledge systems with the people of the African Diaspora.
Picture source: Forum Biodiversity