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Adebayo Adegbembo: Nigerians, How Well Do We Know ‘Esu, the Devil’?

Adebayo Adegbembo

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dreamstime_m_23655550“Would you eat at a Nigerian restaurant with images of Esu, Sango or any Yoruba Orisa visibly present?” I asked my colleagues as we sat enjoying a Chinese buffet one fine evening. We were all Nigerians and their answers sounded familiar: ah! I no fit o! It’s against my religion. It’s a sin. God forbid! Idolatory! Tufiakwa!

Next, I pointed to a Buddhist statue seated by the corner of the restaurant unhidden. They smiled, shrugged and didn’t seem to mind as they continued enjoying their meals.

So, what would happen if a Nigerian restaurant decided to honor Yoruba deities like mainstream religions openly do around here with symbols of their faiths? The reaction that would likely trail such decision is predictable: dedicated sermons and crusades, conspiracy theories on the destiny of every customer etc. until the business eventually dies. It is common knowledge that Nigerians are a religious people. Though, the depth of our religiousness is questionable given the sharp contrast between our open piety and moral standards. Yet, that’s not the core of this piece.

Rather, the subject matter is on how well we really know what we are constantly fighting against and passionately blocking off even with the wealth of information that surrounds us. To illustrate my point, I’ll share another personal experience.

Recently, while cold-calling on primary schools across Lagos for my Yoruba language-learning app, I found myself in a typical situation. Here, the school was interested in adopting the Yoruba101 app to complement its Yoruba teaching but we had a situation on our hands as the principal insisted something had to be done about characters like Sango, Oduduwa and Osun who are present in the app. It didn’t matter that these are playful cartoon figures designed to make the educational Yoruba game app fun for kids. Rather, the bone of contention was that we needed to protect the pupils from those it deemed diabolical figures and a threat to their core religious faith as championed by the school. While the principal argued that we had to take them out notwithstanding the technicalities involved, another teacher weighed in on the need to explain the relationship between Yoruba culture and its deities to the kids without glorifying the latter. In other words, there would be an attempt to talk about Sango, Osun and ilk but with some degree of bashing to ensure their relegation to a place of irrelevance before the kids. Long story short, I lost the deal but came out convinced as to how much challenges we had to deal with towards promoting our own cultural attributes.

Yet, with all these stereotypes about our traditional deities lies a contrast to what obtains in Latin America where they are embraced by tens of millions, hence I wonder about the basis of our perceived expertise and view on this subject. It begs the questions of how much we truly know. The answer to that question varies but it hints at a deeper issue that we have failed to address: how best to preserve the originality of our traditional heritage without conflicting our popular faith based beliefs.

What I have observed is most of us here simply stigmatize the traditional religion as evil from a one-sided perspective. Hence, we don’t know about the positive values they instill or the deep knowledge associated with their practice. Even the media often portrays traditional religion in negative contexts with plots that pit them against popular faiths. But, are our traditional faiths pure examples of outright evil? How well do we know the root of even the most accepted religion among us today?

Last year, my curiosity led me to the Osun Osogbo festival where I interviewed traditional worshippers asking the number one question on the minds of people: “why is our traditional religion attributed to evil?” One of my respondents made a brilliant distinction between spirituality and man’s actions with related knowledge. In other words, as with any religion, its true doctrine on one hand and what followers make of it on the other hand.

To buttress my point about how little we probably know about our traditional faiths, I came across snippets of this presentation from Professor Wole Soyinka on the subject of Esu where he explained its origin as we have now come to accept in Yoruba Biblical terms. Remi Oyeyemi’s piece – Esu, the revenge of Bishop Ajayi Crowther – sheds more light on the subject. In similar terms, contrast our stereotypic perception with one of over 100 million adherents of Yoruba religion I met during a recent to Brazil:

This thing about Eṣu and the devil is so Christian and European. You see, in Candomblé and other Yoruba religions, we don’t believe in such thing as devil. Eṣu is the messenger. Without him, there is no Candomblé. This is ignorance and of course racism!

Could it then be a matter of ignorance that we simply criticize those who practice it or refuse anything with ties to it? That I find more dangerous than anything else. For in openly ignoring this, we are perpetuating ignorance of what is inherently ours and sacred to our fellow humans.

In my continuous learning, what I have come to accept is the beauty of keeping an open mind. With that, we can find creative ways to deliver authentic stories of who we are to the younger generation without the cloudiness of personal religious views. Even more, it serves to ensure harmonious living amongst us as a society.

So, how well do you know Esu, Sango, Zangbeto, Ekwensu and other deities?

Photo Credit: Mikhail Malyugin | Dreamstime.com

Adebayo Adegbembo is the founder of Genii Games Limited; creators of interactive mobile apps, animated videos and workshops to make African Cultures fun for kids. A trained Engineering Surveyor from the University of Lagos, Bayo went the route of entrepreneurship in fulfillment of his passion for writing, technology, arts and culture. Follow him on Twitter @technobayo

40 Comments

  1. Las

    August 16, 2016 at 9:02 pm

    Interesting piece.

    We are afraid of what we do not understand. I am a Christian, but I have always been fascinated by mythology. I believe Esu’s counterpart in the Greek and Roman would be Hermes and Mercury respectively. I think of it as history and I think it is possible to learn about another religion’s pantheon without becoming an adherent.

    • Damilola

      August 17, 2016 at 2:12 am

      Chinese, Asian restaurants in general don’t hide their budha statues. It’s very obvious but intriguing. In Greek mythology, the gods sound less threatening. It’s celebrated in a positive light. Their pictures are not as weird looking.
      I think Yoruba deities can be quite scary due to how it’s celebrated, used and connected to witchcraft/juju. Even watching some naija movies, the way the babalawo is dressed, the music playing, the rituals performed is intimidating. It has also been used to perpetuate wickedness, evil and death.
      Just hearing the name “esu” sounds terrifying, imagine someone throwing around the word “lucifer”(although there’s a TV show) but Americans are naive and not as exposed to darkness the way many Africans have.

    • Nonso

      August 17, 2016 at 6:29 am

      What the hell are you saying?

    • The Real Oma

      August 17, 2016 at 11:38 am

      Americans are not as exposed to darkness??? What does that even mean?

    • Damilola

      August 17, 2016 at 6:19 pm

      @real oma
      Darkness may not be the perfect choice of word but I will explain. Halloween for example is celebrated by Americans with nothing deeply attached to it, just a day to dress up creatively and distribute candies but I’m also aware of some American Christians who don’t celebrate it. However, Nigerians connect it to something evil and dark immediately. My mom once referred to it as ” the devil’s day”. Every Nigerian has a story of witchcraft, something that happened in the spiritual realm where we have developed deep fear of evil subconsciously which has also led to us being spiritually conscious. We have history, connection and interpretation of things that most Europeans are oblivious to. We can’t freely announce pregnancy, great news without fear of juju because we’ve heard stories of a women who is barren or her child died. If something bad happens, it’s blamed on witchcraft/devil. Americans, and Europeans rarely talk or think in that context. They most likely will blame it on not being mentally stable.
      Yoruba deities is the real god to some people. Many pray to it for protection, success and destruction. And these babalawos, spiritual healers pray to ifa, ogun, shango, orisha, esu etc. That’s where they derive their power from supposedly. My grandmother practiced Islam, traditional and christian beliefs all mixed together before she became a real christian. She grew up on sacrifices and rituals. She had an ogun statue she carried around with her, and brought it to the U.S before she passed away. She did her incantations to it and believed it brought destruction to her enemies.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Thank you Las. I couldn’t agree more. Knowledge is power and with that, we can better make informed choices on the subject of our faith in relation to ourselves and others.

  2. Debbie

    August 16, 2016 at 9:05 pm

    Fresh write up. Haven’t read something like this in a while. The question though is this – ” Who Esu or Sango epp”?

  3. Hian

    August 16, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Truth is we like deceiving ourselves. Ask any Nigerian what religion he practises and the answer is either Christianity or Islam. The baba alawos and dibias are still in business, who are their customers?

    • Miss Ghana

      August 17, 2016 at 6:23 am

      They know where to run to when in crisis. but in the meantime they are all angelic christians following western ways of worship.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:05 pm

      Lol. Hypocrisy is definitely big here. The Babalwao, Dibia and ilk are with us because they are relevant in certain respects. Our stereotype towards them explains the contrast between who we claim we are and who we truly are. Until we openly embrace our truths, we’ll continue to deceive ourselves,

  4. nikky

    August 16, 2016 at 9:38 pm

    This was a very interesting read. I believe there was a cultural genocide in most parts of Africa because of the Europeans. A lot of Africans don’t know the gods their forefathers prayed to for thousands of years before Christianity came. There has to be a conscious effort on our part learn about our own Deities and our local traditional practices, but there is none of that happening.
    As much as I am not a religious person, I don’t like how folks look down on African gods and associate them with darkness and evil.
    In almost every religion there are the good gods and bad gods. All African gods are seen as bad which is really not the case.

    • ElessarisElendil

      August 17, 2016 at 1:47 am

      A lot Europeans don’t know the gods their forefathers prayed to either, ditto Americans and Asians, only Nigerians are constantly bringing it up. Quit stargazing at the past.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      well said. Thanks.

  5. Love it!

    August 16, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    I am not Nigerian, but I love IFA! I love the spirituality, the concepts that are timeless. More than ever, we need to look at our endogenous cults without fear, and what we will see, will surprise us in a good way! The first time I heard about the link between Ogun and technology, it blew my mind. Since that day, I was hooked. I decided to openly identity as an animist. It’s strangely liberating to be able to say without complex, to all the friends you went to catholic school with :”No, I don’t go to Church, I am an animist” …

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:10 pm

      Many of us grew up with the fear of these traditional faiths. The question though is, are they real? Ask even those who fear them and they’ll say yes, it’s real. Sadly, they know it’s real only from the perspective of having seen or heard from being used to perpetuate evil on someone they know and it’s all over the media too. That said, the knowledge within these faiths are deep hence the connection between technology and their practice. I’m still learning.

  6. Love it!

    August 16, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    It’s also a good way to find out who really likes you…

  7. okay

    August 16, 2016 at 10:39 pm

    coming from a spiritual family and background, i understand that u might be be fascinated and might want to know sango, but i assure you it is best sango or esu doesnt know you.The people that are fascinated are people that dont know what this things entail, just read it like story book and be talking mythology.If you are christian, focus on christ and the blood of Jesus. Go deeper,then you can take part in spirirtual exercises and even be more fascinated.

    • Las

      August 16, 2016 at 11:35 pm

      Acts 19:15 “One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?””

      If you are living the life of Christ, you will be known by all spirits, both good and evil.

    • Ok

      August 17, 2016 at 5:44 am

      We get it. You’re a Christian. But that’s not the point. You won’t eat at an Indian or Chinese restaurant with statues of the Buddha or Hindu gods? (would you even pay attention?) How does that take from your Christianity? Or does it ?
      But a statue of Sango and you want to shout “tufiakwa”
      These deities’ priests were the ones who punished evildoers, prayed for rainfall etc. Now we only see
      them in movies as killers and love potion givers

      Christianity is in Nigeria, but women are still treated like slaves and cows, and 8 year olds are taken from the village to become unpaid nannies. (I distress) but still

    • Nkechi

      August 17, 2016 at 2:08 pm

      I don’t need to know any other God. Jehovah is enough for me. He speaks to me, leads me and blesses me. Why should I run around like a yoyo. If I see an image in a Chinese restaurant. I don’t eat there. There are Chinese Christians who have restaurants. I can also make Chinese at home. Youtube is my friend. Jesus is the way and I am satisfied.

  8. lol

    August 16, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    Why do other races consider african gods to be evil,.isn’it an idea rooted in racism,meaning black people are bad so everything coming from us are cursed?it is really an honest questiion. As a black person, i’ve been really struggling with that.

  9. Miss Ghana

    August 17, 2016 at 1:35 am

    How rude and shameful that you come here in the name of a religion that was forced upon your ancestors through rape, torture and murder to tell us that the gods of your ancestors are evil. Choi! Europeans really did a number on your people. They empowered you to carry on their vile long after they are gone. Go and expand your knowledge. I would call you a slave if I could see your face. Tufiakwa!
    And I will restrain myself from educating you because your mind is long gone. If you want to know who Estate really is, you will know. The information is out there.

  10. Miss Ghana

    August 17, 2016 at 1:40 am

    This is for those bashing traditional religion. Not the writer.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:13 pm

      Knowledge is power. Knowledge is there for all. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Gorgeous

    August 17, 2016 at 2:51 am

    Actually Esu is the balance between good and evil. Esu is not evil but a prankster and a messenger of the god’s. I don’t know why Esu was demonized so badly. Maybe because Yoruba’s will say Esu tricked them into doing some bad things they did. Esu actually does not trick but is a figure that gives you the right to Choose your path and not enforce a doctrine. Yoruba traditional religion is extremely complex and very beautiful. The Odu Ifa is outstanding and will rival any religion in the world if not best it. It is so sad that we are afraid of such a beautiful religion. I am open minded and when I have more time I will read more on it and hopefully find time to pen the whole thing down. This is a goal for me!

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:14 pm

      It’s really fascinating and I’m still learning myself. Religion is complex yet fascinating for the curious. Thanks

  12. Tee

    August 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

    In 1208, Pope Innocent III opened an attack on Cathar heretics who believed in a world in which God and Satan, both having supernatural powers, were at war.  The Church attempted to discredit the Cathar belief by spreading stories that the heretics actually worshiped their evil deity in person.  Propagandists for the Church depicted Cathars kissing the anus of Satan in a ceremonial show of loyalty to him.  As a result of the Church’s sustained attacks, the public’s understanding of Satan moved from that of a mischievous spoiler to a deeply sinister force.
    Many adherents of Catharism, fleeing a papal inquisition launched against their alleged heresies, had migrated into Germany and the Savoy. Torture inflicted on heretics suspected of magical pacts or demon-driven sexual misconduct led to alarming confessions.  Defendants admitted to flying on poles and animals to attend assemblies presided over by Satan appearing in the form of a goat or other animal.  Some defendants told investigators that they repeatedly kissed Satan’s anus as a display of their loyalty.  Others admitted to casting spells on neighbors, having sex with animals, or causing storms.  The distinctive crime of witchcraft began to take shape.

  13. Tee

    August 17, 2016 at 9:02 am

    1484 Pope Innocent announced that satanists in Germany were meeting with demons, casting spells that destroyed crops, and aborting infants.  The pope asked two friars, Heinrich Kramer (a papal inquisitor of sorcerers from Innsbruck) and Jacob Sprenger, to publish a full report on the suspected witchcraft.  Two years later, the friars published Malleus maleficarum (“Hammer of Witches”) which put to rest the old orthodoxy that witches were powerless in the face of God to a new orthodoxy that held Christians had an obligation to hunt down and kill them. King James authorizes the torture of suspected witches in Scotland-Scotland’s witch-hunting had its origins in the marriage of King James to Princess Anne of Denmark.  Anne’s voyage to Scotland for the wedding  met with a bad storm, and she ended up taking refuge in Norway.  James traveled to Scandinavia and the wedding took place in at Kronborg Castle in Denmark.  After a long honeymoon in Denmark, the royal newlyweds encountered terrible seas on the return voyage, which the ship’s captain blamed on witches.  When six Danish women confessed to having caused the storms that bedeviled King James, he began to take witchcraft seriously..Exodus 22:18 Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.  (KJV)
    Leviticus  20:27 A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death: they shall stone them with stones: their blood shall be upon them

  14. Lucinda

    August 17, 2016 at 9:04 am

    I can relate. I was recently looking up sightseeing deals around Abu Simbel temples in Egypt. In the middle of my search I asked myself if I was willing to spend same hundreds of thousands of naira at Osun Osogbo grooves. I had thought of going to shrines in Bali or Vietnam but the thought of looking inwards seems repulsive. Good article.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 17, 2016 at 2:34 pm

      Lol. I know the feeling. It’s psychological. It’s hard to explain but I’d say look no further than how our very society even at the institutional level treats these faiths and related sites etc. It’s hard to shake off as an individual without some form of reflection, open mind or informed knowledge.

  15. Tee

    August 17, 2016 at 9:10 am

    Who devil epp? Let my children be children for now when them grow finish dem fit go learn about devil and see it as story/history at least then dem go have a more solid foundation.

  16. Adio_Braimoh

    August 17, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Civilization has migrated the Africans to the western and arab mode of worship. Actually, their emergence has brought a good message to be our brothers keeper, believe in judgment hereafter after life spent on earth and God is a jealous God that doesn’t want a side god. But, however our earlier mode of worship can’t be overruled by those who still have connection to this deities.

  17. Aku

    August 17, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    Difficult as it may be from writing an epistle here, I will try to be brief. This is by far one of my favorite topics to discuss with enlightened people; the issue of our TRUE religion. Its really sad the decline in its practice and the way in which these our generation of false God worshippers react to it (I put your god in capital letter for reference sake) Anyhow I am just rambling here, but the gist of what I’m trying to say is before you open your mouth to say nonsense do effective and unbiased research on both our ancestral religion and your christian or muslim religion, and then be the judge, because your grandfathers and co were practically forced to accept due to mere luck in geo location; muslims in the north, predominantly catholics are in the south east – due to a larger amount of catholic missionaries and so on…..basically you should get the point.
    Oh well my expectations from majority of Nigerians with respect to their borrowed religion never actually surprises me, when your government constantly fails you and your pastor is there for comfort and advice by all means abandon all means of rational thinking and undiluted common sense and listen to him. Igbo history is very interesting if I may add (yes I am being partial because Igbo Kwenu) I am also very eager and in the process of learning about other traditions in Nigeria for now and the rest of Africa. Oh well. Bye for now…

  18. Teawine Penner

    August 17, 2016 at 6:01 pm

    Very interesting and different article!
    I believe one should not shy from understanding our history!
    It only reinforces your decision on what religion to practise.
    Sadly, instruments like movies, media that ought to potray historical stories do a poor job at it, except for very few movies done after quality research, likes of Saworoide! As for teaching it to school pupils, this is the place of Yoruba education, igbo ed or hausa, or whatever name, and my opinion, caution should be put in place on the quality of materials for kids, so as not to get it twisted.

  19. Aim

    August 17, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    So here goes, I particularly find this piece and comments fascinating. This is by far my most favorite topic; Religion, History and their relatives and off-shoots. Openly, I voice out my distaste for religion itself, the fact that it has gone a long way two obscure history and blind many of those who of course it is not their fault of having gone blind. Not many have the will to have an OPEN MIND. For them ‘ignorance is bliss’. Not many have the strength it takes it to take the EPIPHANY all in. Its like the world waking up one day to see a breaking news on CNN that ‘that this thing we call Earth is a 4.5 billion year old spaceship. A self sufficient, organic, complex spaceship. That we are orbiting a power source that is a million times larger than our ship. That there are 200 billion more power sources, possibly with ships like ours, in our group. That there are 40 more groups in our neighborhood. That our neighbor is moving at 2 million miles per hour to an object that is 150 million light years away…..’

    The close human mind would want to implode or shrink to this fact- It is confusing, but you get my point. Lol.. Dont blame people who decide to bite as much as they can chew, like Nkechi here.

    The truth hurts, 8 years ago I went on a soul search, asking about life, why we are here? Who is God? Which is the real God? Which is the real religion? Many of the things I discovered made me sound like an insane person to my peers years after. You don’t tell people these things, they cant handle it. So I stopped telling. I began to observe the world from afar.

    I once had a discuss about extraterrestrials with a colleague years back, When I told him aliens existed, he asked me; “What did the bible say’? I said I dont know, because I dont read it much, but I will appreciate if he told me, but he couldnt. He couldnt tell me the history of the church he so attends, he was a christian but couldnt tell me the history of Christianity, or about the great crusades. What do these people even know? Sometimes I dont even get it.

    We have numerous religious deities who when we look deeper have many semblances of each other. These deities are worshiped by different people in different longitudes and latitudes. Each believer despising that which others worship from differential zones, saying that his is superior, unknowing to him that the difference he so sees is result of centuries of differential storytelling, by these different groups for the sole aim of dividing and conquering, their own selfish purposes. This is what happens when one story lives through centuries and has been interpreted and told in many ways and languages.

    I can go on… make i stop here. Chose what you chose to believe.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 18, 2016 at 4:19 am

      Well said, well said. What I have come to observe is the power of narratives aka storytelling. There are underlying stories to everything including the different faiths. Some fail to know out of fear. In the end, it’s an individual choice.

  20. Tosin

    August 17, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    Thanks for this.
    I know I find Esu interesting. PS not the devil really, more a creator of errors, think ‘comedy of errors’.
    I once did the Osun Osogbo festival, and while I felt empowered and as if I was touched by a loving communication, I also felt a disturbing jazzy ? encounter that made me not scared but cautious. So I’m open to learning what our ancestors want to remind us, yet wary that I don’t needlessly stir up trouble, and a bit upset that we were turned against our wealth and history just so we could accept alternative cultures – Islam, Christianity, industrialism… Not that it could be helped because those forces were huge and hugely positive too.

    I aim to learn to be even more open. I managed to get out of the mental box about other matters before; this journey will be even more rewarding. Happy to be Yoruba ?
    Thank you.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      Adebayo Adegbembo

      August 18, 2016 at 4:31 am

      Thanks Tosin. When it comes to religious issues, one can go as far or deep as he or she choses. Truth as we know is we can’t feign ignorance of the fact that each religion holds within it overwhelming knowledge that can put you in a spin, hence I understand your cautionary approach. In the end, knowledge is power.

    • Tosin

      August 18, 2016 at 8:29 am

      Thanks for the reply. I hear you.
      So I looked up ‘comedy of errors’ and it’s not just a trope , it’s the title of a play. Putting this out there: I really will like to get back to playreading hangouts…just haven’t been able to make the time these days. Yes they’re fun. I want to read Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in a little group – who’s in?

      ‘you get me in a spin oh what a stew I’m in ‘cos I don’t know enough about you’ – Ella

  21. Yummychickcummummy

    August 18, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    Well, I have actually saw a diety at a buka before.. Some yrs bk during my nysc, ogun state, sagamu Camp. D day we resumed camp me n my friends got Der early since we stayed in South west too, but we didn’t want to go in yet.. Bk to my story we wanted to explore d town a bit, so we went to this buka, fresh meat n nice efo, they were pounding yam, so we decided to wait for it. While waiting, one of my friends said she want to pee so dey describe to her to go to d b of d building, few seconds later she screamed that she is going n not eating again. What happened babe,. she said we should come, when we got to d bk, we saw a fresh dog head on the “ogun” spot with palm oil and some fetishes stuffs, na so we Waka one by one comot, d woman was surprised y we just wana leave like that, then we told her what we saw, she was laughing that it’s nothing. And doesn’t affect d food… Hmmm if I hear… We eventually didn’t eat ooo before we entered d camp. Lool
    Sorry for epistle., just one of those lovely memoir

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