Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove
Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove
Cultural Nigeria Africa Osogbo, Osun State

The Osun Sacred Grove is the largest and perhaps the only remaining example of a once widespread phenomenon that used to characterise every Yoruba settlement. It now represents Yoruba sacred groves and their reflection of Yoruba cosmology. It is a tangible expression of Yoruba divinatory and cosmological systems;its annual festival is a living thriving and evolving response to Yoruba beliefs in the bond between people, their ruler and the Osun goddess.

The grove covers 75 ha of ring-fenced forest alongside the Osun River on the outskirts of Osogbo town, Western Nigeria. About 2 million people live in Osogbo. The grove in Yoruba cosmology is the domicile of Osun, the goddess of fertility. Ritual paths lead devotees to 40 shrines, dedicated to Osun and other Yoruba deities, and to nine specific worship points beside the river. Osun is the Yoruba personification of the 'waters of life' and the spiritual mother of the Osogbo township. It also symbolizes a pact between Larooye, the founder of Osogbo, and Osun: the goddess gave prosperity and protection to her people if they built a shrine to her and respected the sprit of the forest. Unlike other Yoruba towns whose sacred groves have atrophied, or disappeared, the Osogbo Grove has, over the past 40 years, been re-established as a central, living focus of the town. The Osogbo Grove is now seen as a symbol of identity for all Yoruba people, including those of the African diaspora, many of whom make pilgrimages to the annual festival.

The grove has a mature, reasonably undisturbed, forest canopy, which supports a rich and diverse flora and fauna - including the endangered white-throated monkey. Some parts were cleared in the colonial period, and teak plantations and agriculture introduced, but these are now being re-established. The grove is a highly sacred sanctuary where shrines, sculptures and artworks honour Osun and other Yoruba deities. It has five main sacred divisions associated with different gods and cults, located either side of a path transecting the grove from north-west to south-east.

The Osun River meanders through the whole grove and along its length are nine worship points. Throughout the grove the broad river is overhung with forest trees. Its waters signify a relationship between nature, the spirits and human beings, reflecting the place given to water in the Yoruba cosmology as symbolizing 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.

Traditionally, sacred trees and stones and metal objects, along with mud and wood sculptures, defined the deities in the grove. During the past 40 years, new sculptures have been erected in the place of old ones and giant, immovable ones created in threatened spaces in the grove by Suzanne Wenger working with a group of local artists called New Sacred Art. These sculptures are made from a variety of materials - stone, wood, iron and concrete. There are also wall paintings and decorative roofs made from palm fronds.

There are two palaces. The first is part of the main Osun-Osogbo shrine. The second palace is where Larooye moved to before the community established a new settlement outside the grove. Both buildings are constructed of mud walls with tin roofs supported variously by mud and carved wooden pillars. The three Ogboni buildings are constructed with sweeping roofs rising high over the entrances and supported on a cluster of slender carved wooden posts.

The Annual Osun-Osogbo festival is a 12-day event held once a year at the end of July and the beginning of August. The grove is seen as the repository of kingship, as well as the spiritual heart of the community. The festival invokes the spirits of the ancestor kings and rededicates the present Oba to Osun, as well as reaffirming and renewing 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 whole population, led by the votary maid Arugba and headed by the Oba and priests, all accompanied by drumming, singing and dancing.