Wale Ogunyemi’s Use of Myth in Esu Elegbara

By Foluke Oluwasanmi (Nee Ogunyemi)

The play, Esu Elegbara, is based on the myth of creation and on the myth of Esu (trickster god of mischief).  The play is about the coming to the world of the gods and goddesses.
On the eve of their journey to the world, Olodumare summoned the creator god, Obatala to go with other gods to place the world down. But no sooner did they set foot on the expanse of this world than they started fighting for supremacy. They took on human frailties thereby leaving undone what should be done. They allowed the seed of hatred and disunity to germinate in their various gardens with fatal consequences. Esu, the trickster god of mischief, was the perpetrator of all these evil that has now plagued the world.  When he was discovered, he was branded as an anti-establishment and was accordingly rusticated.

In the play we learn how the gods and goddesses embarked on a journey into the world and how discontent broke out in their ranks fostered by Esu on the issues of making Orunmila king. Obatala, the creator god, who is accepted as the leader of the gods because of his role as the creator god, decided to make Orunmila the king of all the other gods on the strength of his importance and attributes.  Obatala rightly puts it that he needs someone as a relief.  He carefully described the type of person worthy to be his deputy.
            Some in this company
            Are versed in seeing into the future.
            Him you must recognize and respect.
            It is my great pleasure, therefore,
            To ask Orunmila to the throne. 1

Thus Orunmila became king. Everybody accepted him but Esu became jealous. He cannot understand why any other god who should be his equal would be made his king. He convinces the other gods to switch allegiance to him and they refused to acknowledge Orunmila as their leader. Progress became stilled and not until they variously suffered for their misbehaviour by losing some of their children to death that they came to their senses and repented.

Ogunyemi shows Orunmila as the Babalawo (herbalist) who used his Ifa to solve problems and cure diseases. Everyone of them conspired against Orunmila but they had to run back to him for refuge. Even Osanyin who is referred to as the “Bringer of leaves and lord of medicine” could not cure his only child of his sickness, because Osanyin is not given the power of diagnosis, so Orunmila who has that power diagnosed the child’s ailment and administered a cure to Osanyin’s child. In appreciation Osanyin says:
            In appreciation of your kindness in reviving
            my child from his sickness
            This small gift of money I offer you.  2

Orunmila is a very powerful, learned and knowledgeable god that can see into the future.  He is just like a prophet equivalent of Jewish & Christian Old Testament. He already knows that the gods will conspire against him but they are all misled by Esu because the conspiracy could have been avoided if the others did not connive with Esu. Orunmila tells them at the meeting:
            All this I had seen
            If you have not all been wrongly guided
            by him, All that happened could have
            Been prevented – for I saw all
            And envisaged everything.  3

Esu is brought to judgement before the other gods and he is cursed. Esu is sent out of their midst and this is synonymous with how God sent out Satan from heaven when he offended God.  Obatala cursed him.
            You are therefore – rejected
            Your home will be at the crossroads.  4

Esu’s attitude towards Orunmila is that of the belief that he is the one who produces disorder and chaos and undermines the order Ifa creates. Esu and Orunmila’s relationship is one of opposition and co-operation involving the opposing principles of certainty and uncertainty.

It is said that in the process of creation itself, we found that Esu has tricked Obatala into drinking wine before the gods and goddesses had actually set foot on the expanse of the earth. Intoxicated and in a state of stupor, Obatala lost his bag of authority which Orunmila claimed and usurped. The bag of authority now confers extensive powers on Orunmila because he is in possession of it. This mischief was instigated by Esu and for this reason he wanted to claim supremacy over all the other gods.

Esu is not a bad god but he is somehow a hero to the gods.  He is the force which makes man turn to the divinities both in explanation and propitiation and without which the gods cannot exercise their vengeance.  Esu is the anger of the gods and he is the first to visit the victim of a divinity. He is responsible for all troubles among men and between man and the gods. He is the instigator who tricks man into offending the gods.  As a mediator between the gods on the one hand, and aids the gods in their vengeance on the other hand.  He is approached as a guardian divinity.

The play is symbolic in a way if one sees the actions of the gods, especially Esu, through the eyes of the society today. Ogunyemi on the other hand uses the character of Esu in this play to satirize what is happening in the society. He puts all the blames of all the happenings on Esu when Orunmila says:
            Esu, we came to this world with a purpose
            To create,
            To work together as we would want our
            Creatures to behave
            To make good everything
            But you went the other way round.  5

The Yorubas have a singularly prescriptive culture. There is a well defined pattern of status and role expressed in prescribed behaviour forms. Yoruba culture is very stable and the Yoruba compensate for the rigidity of their social system on the one hand and externalize responsibility for any disruption that might occur on the other hand. Esu is especially important to the Yorubas because what prompts them to do evil is considered to be outside themselves and they are incapable of holding themselves responsible.

Esu is also a satirist who dramatizes the danger which faces men and the follies to which they are prone.  Esu sets out danger for men and men on the other hand pay dearly for their offence from the gods.  As he pointed out to Lagbaja in the play.  Esu has already visited Lagbaja’s house without Lagbaja’s knowledge.  He says:
            When I appeared
            At yours, a day or two before,
            I saw no one
            But goat I met and
            Hen in hibernation.  6
Esu’s sponsored rebellion only caused the people discomfort and the loss of their children.

The Yorubas say Esu is Orunmila’s dog.  A bowl which receives the sacrifice to Esu must be at every divination.  All men must acknowledge Esu, and the first part of all sacrifices to other gods must be offered to him.  Ogunyemi brought this attribute of Esu out in this play.  Lagbaja’s child is attacked with smallpox and he went for wine to appease the gods.  He met Esu at the crossroads pounding, and demands that he should let him taste of the wine first because he has precedence over all the other gods.  Lagbaja refused to let Esu taste out of the wine and also called Esu a stranger.  Lagbaja went away with the wine and did not let Esu taste of it.  Esu in his anger sent words to the gods not to accept Lagbaja’s sacrifice
            Accept no charity orisa all,
            Sacrifice or offering
            That bears not
            My teeth print –
            The mark of my lips
            First thing first.
            That is me.  7
Lagbaja came back with the gourd of palmwine full because the other gods refused it until Esu has tasted of it first.  Lagbaja begged Esu to accept the wine and give the gods his words.
            The wine is yours
            The gourd is yours
            Take it
            Take me
            Give the gods your words
            Let them accept this wine
            After you shall have tasted it
            So that my child
            May be well again.  8

It is said that Esu is the instigator who tricks men into offending the gods, thereby providing them with sacrifices and that without Esu the other gods would starve.  There is no sacrifice that the Yorubas will make, that Esu is not first appeased before any of the other gods. This is to make their sacrifice accepted.  It goes for the saying that “Esu Odara is the difficult one.  The little father knows no relatives”.

Esu is also portrayed as a confusionist.  He confused Tamodu, Lakesegbe and Lamorin.  The three started arguing about the colour of the clothes and cap of Esu.  They argued about this until they started fighting themselves.  This is in accordance with the myth of how Esu broke up the life long friendship of two men whose farms were adjoining.  Their friendship was so great that they were always seen together and always dressed alike.  Elegbara decided to walk down the paths which divided their farms wearing a hat which was black on the one side and white on the other.  He puts his pipe at the back of his shoulders so that it hung down his back.  After he had passed, the two friends quarreled about the direction the old man had taken and over the colour of his cap.  One asserting he went one way and wore a black cap, the other insisting he went in the opposite direction and wore a white cap. The quarrel grew to such proportions that it was brought to the attention of the king. While each of the friends was still hotly accusing the other of lying, Esu told the king that neither of them was a liar, but that both of them were fools and then confessed to his mischief.

Ogun himself in the play talked about Tamodu, Lakasegbe and Lamorin as beings fools.
            Poor children
            They know not which hand conveys the morsel
            Into the mouth
            They do not know Esu Laroye.
            I laughed at them as I watched from my
            Hunting vantage point.  9

Esu as a confusionist has helped in the drama a lot because there is no drama if there is no conflict.  There must be conflict in any dramatic work.  Ogunyemi has been consistent in making Esu a hero in some of his plays as a lone person causing conflict to arise.  In Poor little Bird it is the effigy of Esu that was stolen that brought out conflict and tragedy in the play.  In Be Mighty Be Mine, the play is a mythical fight between Sango and Ogun over Oya.  It is said that the devil finds work for idle hands.  Esu caused the fight between Sango and Ogun. Esu tempted Sango to seduce Oya, Ogun’s wife, while Ogun was away fighting wars and seeking for adventures. The other gods had to intervene and the matter was settled between them.

In every drama this conflict has to arise. Wale Ogunyemi’s use of Esu as an avenue for conflict in drama could also be seen in J.P. Clark’s Ozidi. The conflict and conspiracy that was initiated by Esu in Esu Elegbara is equivalent to the sinister role of Ofe in Ozidi, who uses the agitation for the new king in Orua as a mask to get rid of Ozidi. Ogunyemi used Esu as a hero to cause conflict and confusion amongst the other gods. He has used his creative mind to write a play on the myth of creation without putting the myth on stage as it is told but has put something dramatic into it.

The dress of Esu or the description given in the play of Esu by the three friends, Lamorin, Tamodu, and Lakasegbe can help the costumier and the make-up artist in costuming and making up for the character Esu. So also goes for the other gods in the play. A little research just has to be done into the Yoruba traditional religion to find out more about each deity in costuming them. For instance, Obatala; Obatala is said to be a god that loves white and everything about him is white.  It is said that his name suggests that he is the king of white character.

Esu Elegbara by Wale Ogunyemi is a very good dramatic piece.  Although the play deals in myth but the playwright has creatively put some theatrical elements in recreating the myth for the purpose of literature or drama and not history.

Foluke is Wale Ogunyemi’s first child.