Cultural Information and Background
The information found here goes slightly beyond the notes of the Red/Blue Books and index card that accompany the images. Because the Drewal Collection primarily centers on the Yoruba and Mami Wata spiritual traditions and material cultures, the focus of images are of specific implements of the deities and priests, such as staffs, pots, stools, thrones, statues, and bells. Also included in the collection are images of divination, sacrifice, and other important rituals, festivals and ceremonies. What is given here is pertinent background information on the cosmology of the Yoruba and Mami Wata spiritual traditions as it relates to the iconographical focus of the slides.
In Yoruba cosmology, there is a supreme being commonly referred to as Ọlọdumare. Ọlọdumare is essentially understood as being genderless or androgynous. There are no shrines or spiritual implements dedicated to Ọlọdumare. The Yoruba believe that Ọlọdumare is too vast and its power too strong to be channeled into one building or space. Everything is a part of or expresses an aspect of Ọlọdumare. Through the appeasement of the Òrìsà Ọlọdumare is served. The Òrìsà are the emissaries of Ọlọdumare sent to the world to assist their devotees in every day life. There are hundreds of Òrìsà within the Yoruba pantheon. Deities such as Ọbatala, Ifá, Èshù, Ọshún, Shango, Ọsanyin, Yemọja and Oya are worshipped throughout Yorubaland; there are also deities that are specific to particular locations and are not as popular as the aforementioned eight.
Implements of the priests are classified as sacred art. These spiritual tools are not only instruments of the priests, but ultimately, they are tools for the Òrìsà. It is important to understand that the shrines are not the Òrìsà. This very prominent misconception has plagued traditional practitioners both in and out of Yorubaland for centuries. The emphasis of reverence is placed on the spirit associated with the materials used to construct a shrine or ceremonial item and not the item itself. The shrine and other sacred tools serve as vortices to channel the ashe or power of the Òrìsà into the physical world.
Ifá is a term that has been used to refer to the Yoruba traditional spiritual system. However, Ifá also refers to the Òrìsà of divination, Ọrunmila, as well as the system of divination used by the priests of Ọrunmila. Ifá's role as a diviner is so important in Yoruba cosmology that he is referred to as Ẹlẹri ipin, ibikéjì Ọlọdumare (witness to all destinies, second only to Ọlọdumare). The Drewals were allowed to follow the process of three initiations and other sacred rituals performed by priests. Certain rituals cannot be witnessed by non-initiates; however the Drewals were able to photograph many of the sacred rites of the initiation process. The roles of the Ifá priest vary. Divining is a very important role of the Ifá priest, and the tools used to divine are also sacred. There is a section of the collection dedicated to images of divination tools and the Ifá shrine.
Èshù is another one of the most important deities within Yoruba cosmology. Èshù is the keeper of ashe and the inspector of all sacrifices. His image is carved into the top of the Ifá divination tray (ọpọn Ifá) because he is a witness to all actions, thoughts, and events. According to Yoruba cosmology, he is an unbiased observer who will convey only the truth of any subject. Both Ifá and Èshù assist devotees in overcoming unsavory circumstances and bad luck, according to the Yoruba. There are many roads (aspects) of Èshù, each performing a specific duty in a devotee's life. Shigidi is one of the more powerful aspects of Èshù. One can see the noticeable differences between the Shigidi and the yangi (laterite or sculpted clay used to create an Èshù shrine).
The implements that are found on traditional Òrìsà shrines are based on Yoruba mythology. For instance, the odo Shango, ritual mortar, is found on almost all shrines dedicated to this particular Òrìsà. The legend goes that he used an inverted mortar to kill a leopard that was terrorizing the people of Enpe. The odo Shango is sometimes used to support the container that holds the "thunderstones" (lightning struck stones) of Shango's shrine. The inverted mortar is also used as a stool for priests or initiates to sit. Shango's priests usually keep their hair braided, even if the priest is male. Equestrian figures are utilized in both Shango and Oya sacred art. Oya is the only female deity in the Yoruba pantheon that has ever been depicted riding a horse. Yoruba mythology states that Oya is a warrior goddess who accompanies her husband, Shango into battle and fights by his side. Together the husband and wife team is associated with thunderstorms. Oya is mythically related to the winds that precede the thunder and lightning that are both said to be associated with Shango.
There are several types of staffs or dance wands seen in the Drewal collection. In the case of dance wands, they are often times utilized during spirit possession. In some instances, the shrine of the Òrìsà is only the staff of that particular deity. Such is the case with the ọpa Osun, a deity associated with Ifá and his devotees and the ọpa Òrìsà Oko, the deity of agriculture.
The Ogboni society (also known as Osugbo) possesses a mixture of spiritual and governmental power within the traditional Yoruba community. It was the foundation of order in traditional Yoruba society. The focus of worship and veneration amongst Ogboni members is Onilẹh, the Owner of the land or Earth. Sometimes one may hear the term Onileh, Owner of the house, instead. Both pronunciations can be used and carry significant meaning in either case. However, the consensus of scholarly research associates Ogboni with the Earth. In that case the term Onilẹh is more suitable.
Egúngún and Gelede festivals are of significant importance amongst the Yoruba. The Egúngún society is dedicated to the veneration and appeasement of honorable ancestors. This can take place in private or public. Families celebrate their deceased relatives' lives and accomplishments privately through sacrifice, prayer and celebration. In a public arena ancestors from the community are given recognition. The Yoruba have long believed that community solidarity and welfare begins with the family. In honoring one's personal ancestors as well as benevolent community ancestors, the family receives the blessings of those that reside in the spiritual realm—those who have become ara ọrun, or the people of heaven. Because the Yoruba believe in reincarnation, it is thought that the ancestors will one day return to the material world in a future lifetime. If proper rituals and prayers are performed, the spirits returning will have a better chance of being assets to society by hopefully making positive contributions to the elevation of the Yoruba people.
Gelede is always a public event. The time of year which the festival will take place is dependent on the locality in which the festival is being held. Gelede focuses mainly on the feminine and the role of women in society. Female deities such as Yemọja, Olókun, and Ilẹh are associated with Gelede. Another aspect of major importance to Gelede is the inclusion of Ìyánla, the Great Mother, which is a reference to Onilè. This reference is but one facet that connects Gelede to the Ogboni society. It is also during the Gelede festival that Awọn Ìyá Wa, Our Mothers or the Mothers, are petitioned and appeased so that they may not interfere with the positive efforts of the community.
Both the Egúngún and Gelede festivals help to ensure prosperity, abundance, and fertility of the people. It is through these festivals that indecent conduct is addressed in hopes of exorcising the root of such behavior. It is believed that bringing any disgraceful and inhumane acts to the forefront encourages individuals to act responsibly in all matters.
The final subject presented in the Drewal Collection is of the Mami Wata traditions in West Africa. Representations of Mami Wata often include foreign images, usually of Indian gods, to describe the attributes of Mami Wata as a deity. The term Mami Wata refers to a water spirit or a collective of water spirits. The names associated with the original African water spirit(s) have long been forgotten in some regions of West Africa where Mami Wata is worshipped. However, in other areas, the term Mami Wata is interchangeable with the indigenous name used to identify the water spirit(s). There are variations to the worship of Mami Wata throughout West Africa, yet similarities prevail. Togo is most popularly associated with the Mami Wata tradition. Most of the slides featuring Mami Wata devotees in the Drewal Collection were taken in Togo.