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Olokun: Why the goddess of the sea is accorded much respect

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THE worship of Olokun is peculiar to Yoruba communities that live near the sea, or had lived near the sea before the sea receded to where it currently is, or before the communities migrated from their original lands.

Specifically, Ile-Ife, Benin-City (an extension of Yoruba kingdom), Ugbo (an Ilaje town in Ondo State), Ijebu-Manuwa (an Ilaje town in Ogun State), Ode-Irele and Igbinsin-Oloto (Ikale communities in Ondo State) are noted for the worsip of Olokun or Malokun, which is either god or goddess of the sea, depending on the people’s oral tradition or the community’s gender preference.

Among the gods and goddesses worshipped in Yoruba kingdom, Olokun or Malokun is very significant.

In Benin-City, it is the most widely-worshipped. Olu means ‘the owner,’ ‘caretaker’ or ‘controller,‘ while okun means ‘the sea.’

To the Ikale and Ilaje Yoruba, Malokun is a contracted name from Umale Okun, a deity or spirit of the sea.

Several scholars have written either on Olokun or Malokun. Among them are Adeoye, Willet, Parrinder, Eluyemi, Awolalu, Idowu, Rosen, Audu.

Eluyemi explains that Olokun was one of the wives of Oduduwa, very beautiful but barren. She was also said to have started beads-making industry in a grove in Ile-Ife known as Olokun grove.

Fragments of crucibles and furnaces for fusing bead and smelting iron ore could still be found in the said grove with fragments of beads littering the entire place.

Similarly, Audu has observed that’s beads are displayed lavishly in Olokun’s shrine in Benin-City so that the sea deity who is capable of giving wealth to people might reward the owners of shrines with abundant wealth.

Willet refers to Olokun as an Ife deity and Leo Frobenious thought that Olokun, the sea divinity of the Yoruba in whose grove a head had been found in Ile-Ife, was the same as Greek Poseidon.

Leo Frobenius, a German ethnologist dug up Olokun’s head, a masterpiece in bronze casting in 1910 at Ile-Ife.

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Parrinder also sees the head as representing a king or god of the sea.

Yoruba cosmology explains that water existed long before land, and all rivers are known to make their deposits into the sea, consequently, the sea becomes the reservoir and the heads of all rivers (Okun lo’lori omi).

Therefore, if the sea contains so much and plays such a significant role in sustaining man, then it is not surprising if Olokun, the spirit that controls the sea is accorded so much respect.

  • Israel is an Assistant Director at the National Museum of Unity, Ibadan.

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