Wale Ogunyemi’s Experiment With Myth & Ritual in Obaluaye

By Foluke Oluwasanmi (Nee Ogunyemi)

Obaluaye is a Yoruba music-drama about syncretism of religion. It also focuses on the consequences of foreign religion on indigenous Yoruba culture. It is about a Baale of a Yoruba town who neglects the religion of his people for a foreign religion (Christianity) thereby invoking the wrath of the gods on himself and the town.  The introduction to the play brings this to the fore:

           The Baale of a Yoruba town has brought
           the curse of Obaluaye otherwise known as
           Sonponna, on his town through his refusal
           to worship Orisa.  The Baale is a
           Christian convert who would have nothing
           to do with Orisa worship in the town.
           Obaluaye is angered and summons the help
           of his fellow gods in inflicting punishment
           on the town.  The punishment, of
           course, is a small-pox epidemic which
           quickly spreads round the town affecting
           both the vaccinated and unvaccinated.

           The Baale himself soon catches the disease
           and dies.  The Ifa priest is summoned and
           after performing a ritual, he succeeds in
           awakening the dead Baale.  The brief trip
           to the land of the dead seems to finally
           convince the Baale that a man in his
           position should not neglect his own traditional
           Orisa even if he embraces Christianity. 1

The King in African society is very sacred and held in high esteem. To the Africans, the King is the life of tradition.  He is paramount and a direct representative of God on earth.  In traditional context, the Baale is the second in command to the gods.  They are mystical and religious heads. They are the divine symbol of their people’s health and welfare. The individuals as much may not have outstanding talents or abilities, but their office is the link between human rule and spiritual government. The kings are therefore, divine or sacral rulers, the shadows or reflections of God’s rule in the universe.  Myths surround the origin and persons of the kings as do also all kinds of taboos and superstitions.  Amongst the Yorubas, there is the belief that Obatala is the one who proposes and also disposes; this is because of Obatala’s great power as the ‘proposer’ who wields the sceptre.  The sceptre, according to Yoruba belief, was passed on to him by God.  Since Obatala received the sceptre from God, the human king (Oba or Kabiyesi) then becomes derivatively a divine ruler when Obatala passes the sceptre on to him (figuratively) at his coronation.

The sacred position of African king is shown in many ways.  In some societies, the rulers must not be seen in ordinary life. They take meals alone, the king must not touch the ground with his feet and has either to be carried or walk on a special mat.  To protect and strengthen the position and investive of the king, various measures are taken, mainly in form of sacrifices, the wearing and keeping of amulets, consulting diviners and ritual playing of the rulers.  The death of the king is kept secret for a period, usually for days or until the new one is chosen and installed, or until after the burial is over.  Since the king is sacred, his death is not spoken of in the normal manner.

It is this sacredness of the king that makes many bluebloods want to run away from their birth right and communal responsibilities as being kings.  Some say it will make them lose their freedom. Apparently any individual that is made king in an African society will not be free to lead the normal or social life as he has been living before coronation.  The chiefs and the palace servants have to know where the king is at any particular time.  He should not be seen wandering about because he is the life of the community.

As soon as a king is coronated and the ritual that follows the coronation is performed, he no longer belongs to himself or his family. He becomes the property of the community and the community in turn becomes his.  He has to embrace all the religions practiced in his domain. As a result, it is no longer of consequence whether he is a Christian or a Muslim. This is what gave rise to the notion that all African kings are idol worshippers or traditionalists. 

The people consider kings to be holy mainly in a ritual rather than in a spiritual sense, and they must therefore speak well of them, respect them, bow or kneel before them, pay them taxes and dues, obey and reverence.  Ritual, defined by Robin Hortens is “a means of acting on the world, bringing about and controlling things”. 2 On the other hand a la Bettelheim defines ritual as “An expression of sub-conscious forces of the human mind”. 3  
Ritual is an expression of structural and cultural features in the society.  Ritual is formal, rigidly prescribed action.  There is a compulsory aim to it and a definite way of performing it.  One can either think of ritual as representation or enactment of the myths, or one can think of the myths as the interpretation of the ritual..  Festivals existed in which myth and rituals were related.  In these festivals, the king took the leading role in the rituals.  Such festivals are regarded as acts which brought material benefit to the community.  Festivals came into being when we choose to represent events already narrated in well-known myth.

In Yoruba tradition, there are several gods and these gods come in contact with each other and they are regarded as servants of Olodumare.  It is well believed that in any community there is a god or gods that is generally worshipped by the people and these gods must be worshipped and must also be appeased so that community will be well off and disaster free.

Festivals therefore, are usually the presence of ritual acts understood or the enactment of a myth and of myths regarded as the interpretations of rituals.  Also the belief held by performers that the performance of the festivals contributed or ensured the prosperity of the community.  An example of this is the Obatala festival at Ede. A ritual play which involves the priest of Obatala and the king is performed.  The festival goes on for two days.  On the first day, the worshippers of Obatala go with the priest in a procession to the market (the market is in front of the palace) where the king receives them. Ajagemo, the priest, goes inside the sanctuary; sacrifices a cow which he will then distribute.  Then the king goes back into his palace accompanied by dancing worshippers and the priest.  The second day, dance and song accompany the action.  Ajagemo is imprisoned by Jagun, a priest of Oduduwa, thus recalling the myth of the fight between Obatala and another orisa of Oduduwa who according to some myths overthrew Obatala when the latter was drunk.  The king pays the ransom for the priest of Obatala to Jagun who frees Ajagemo.  The ritual ends in a triumphant procession.  This ritual alludes to a mythical and it is enacted at every festival of Obatala.

Ritual involves participation and the participants are the players and the audience. Western culture nearly put the African traditional religion in jeopardy.  Africans are Religion is the strongest element in traditional background and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the king and lives of the people concerned.

Africans have a very rich culture and in traditional life they do not know how to exist without religion.  Africans traditionally do not know religious vacuum.  It is the introduction of this foreign religion that made most Africans forget their cultures and their religion or what is supposed to be their communal right to do as a king.  As is the case of the king in Obaluaye. The king, as a Christian, neglected the worship of his ancestors. The participation of the king in the central role during a festival is very essential.  The king made the community to err due to his negligence.  The play opens with the anger of Obaluaye, the small-pox god.  He list all the misdeeds of the people and, in an acutely painful tone, expresses the extent of neglect.
            They neglected me, they neglected Ogun
            They abused me, they abused the ancestors 
            They abused Oro
            They abused Sango
            They insulted Esu, they abused Orunmila
            They said what will the deities do? 4

This is an expression of bitterness, disdain and disregard.  At this state of anger he summoned the other deities to join forces with him in jointly punishing this community that has gone astroy and he calls the deities…
            Deities awake ….!
            Ogun, I summon you
            Osanying whose liver is well arranged, listen
            Elegant Ogun, with many strings of coral beads
            Mischievous Sango, king who-did-not-hang
            Esu Laaroye who rules Iserimoye
            Orunmila, arise. 5

The call at this point shows that the Yoruba deities are not nominal, dormant and lifeless idols.  The deities can co-operate to fight an offender.  The gathering of the deities shows the relationship between the social and spiritual life of the community. The deities constitute the spiritual strength of the community. But the community neglects this spiritual essence of their cultural well-being and they are being punished for it. Obaluaye’s summoning of the meeting is not because he is most superior of the deities but because he is the overseer of all ailments and diseases that could afflict people as a punishment.  He is cruel, irascible and very short tempered.

Obaluaye’s attack on the community is not unreasonable; it takes the course of traditional law. The community has offended the ancestral gods and they are being punished for it and Obaluaye declares their offence –
            They have money, they gave me none,
            They have fried beans, they do not give
            to appease me.

           They have Ogun’s dog, they do not give
            to appease Ogun.

            They have Oke’s meat, they do not give
            To appease Oke

            The sacrificial fowl, they do not sacrifice.

            Bitter kolanuts that make Olukoso happy

            They do not give to him

            Esu Laalu, master of the cross-roads,
            is denied palm-oil. 6

It is quite obvious by the case Obaluaye made against the community that they have their ritual ingredients and they are rich enough to afford it but it is a case of refusing to give the deities. The community is guilty of neglect; that is, deliberate disregard for what constitute the spiritual force in the life of the community.

As said earlier, in the traditional Yoruba milieu, the king is the life of the community. He is the health and prosperity of the king. He symbolizes the welfare of the community. He is the link between the ancestral gods and his community. This point makes the offence very glaring.  The king, because of some foreign religion defies the gods and their powers and he made himself and the community suffers the consequences of their action. Since the king has embraced Christianity he must relinquish his commitments to ritual ceremonies in his own view (the Baale). This action has disrupted his relationship with many of his chiefs and priests of the various deities. The degree of the Baale’s offence is great and he too becomes afflicted with small-pox. While the Baale and his Olori’s do not know the nature of the ailment the Iwofa, aware of the implication of the attack, offers to go and call the Ifa priest.  The Baale retorts in sharp condemnation of the offer.
                                    Come back! Don’t you know that is insolence?
A priest in my palace! Abomination! 7
From this point we know that even though the Kabiyesi has been vaccinated, which is in consonance with his new belief, the gods are ready to make him pay dearly for his mistake.  One can also see that the new religion has so affected the Baale that he even considers the presence of a priest in his palace, which in actual fact should be a daily routine, as an abomination. This is a king who symbolizes everything spiritual and traditional.  He not only shirks from his spiritual and traditional responsibilities to the people and to the gods, he even despises them, for him there is only one saviour and he is above.

The Baale’s acceptance of Western religion makes him cast aspersion on the use of mystical powers, witchcraft, sorcery and magic. There is no African society which does not hold belief in mystical power of one type or another. The whole psychic atmosphere of African village life is filled with belief in mystical powers.  Africans know that the universe has a power and a force and it is difficult to know exactly what it is or how it functions.  Even where allowance is made for conjuring tricks, superstitions, manipulations and other skilled use of laws of nature, one is left and confronted with phenomenon which as yet cannot be scientifically explained.  The diviner or medicine man provides certain amounts of mystical power to people in form of charms, amulets, powder, feathers and homesteads.  For example, a forked post standing in the middle of the compound or a piece of pot on the house roof or a few lines of ashes strewn across the gate as one enters the homestead.

The Baale becomes so brainwashed that he begins to regard everything traditional in his community as fetish and a bye product of paganism.  While he believes that vaccination will take care of the epidemic, the traditional people do not believe in its efficacy.  Thus when the announcement was made for people to make themselves available for vaccination, a lot of them ran away and avoided being vaccinated.  When the Baale tries to defend the positive steps he has taken to avert the unpleasant situation, the Babaloosa counters his argument:
            It is a fact we ran,
            But point out those who are still alive
            and in good health of those who
            waited for vaccination then!
            They have covered their bodies with earth
            like a garment . 8
The Babaloosa’s argument is incontestable. 

This is an attempt to depict European medicine as weak and ineffective.  Despite the fact that he has been vaccinated, the Bale is attacked by the epidemic and he resorts to prayer but his prayer effort is void and of no effect.
 It is the traditional priest that eventually comes to wake him up.  He wakes up as a new man. He experienced some sort of rebirth.  As Akin Euba puts it in the concluding summary of the play
            The brief trip to the land of death
            seems to finally convince the Baale 
            that a man in his position should not
            neglect his own traditional Orisa even
            if he embraces Christianity.  10
He accepted to go to the shrine with them.  He actually went and everything went well.  The gods accepted the sacrifice and spoke to the people through the Iwofa.
            By this time of next year with the whole
            house, with the children.  With the king,
            with the chiefs may we see the next
            festival may the body be sound.  11
The king is at the apex of the community and if the king is more important than his corporate function, then the whole structure would have been infected.  The king was ledged about with rules, rites and instructions which had nothing to do with himself but everything to do with his prominence in great festivals.
            Ogunyemi has shown us the powerlessness and ineffectiveness of the foreign belief.  What the Baale’s prayers and European medicine failed to achieve is effortlessly achieved by African traditional medicine.  Not only is the Baale recalled to life, peace and pleasantness returned to the community.  The message of the play simply states that no matter how we love foreign belief we should still embrace and promote our traditional culture.  Ogunyemi puts this right to us in one of the songs in the play
            we will observe our tradition
            we will observe our tradition
            Christianity doesn’t say you understand,
            Christianity doesn’t say we shouldn’t observe our tradition
           We will observe our tradition.  12
Truly Christianity doesn’t say we should not keep and make use of what is ours in terms of culture.

Foluke is Wale Ogunyemi’s first child.