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Edun Ara Oshe Shango (Axe Dance Wand)

The Unknown's picture

Rosa Nanasi Haas

Exhibiting Africa

Monique Scott

Oct. 21, 2016

Edun Ara Oshe Shango (Axe Dance Wand)

Edun Ara Oshe Shango (Axe Dance Wand) is made out of carved wood with patina and was given to the Bryn Mawr College’s African Art and Artifact Collection by Mace and Helen Katz Neufeld. This double-edged axe is from Nigeria, but the specific city and community that it was created in is unknown. Other than knowing that the axe was made by the Yoruba people, much is left for interpretation, including the description of the object and its uses. The double ax-blade motif on the figure’s head represents a thunderbolt, which is associated with the sudden, overwhelming, and unpredictable power of Shango in Yoruba culture (Bryn Mawr College Library Special Collections 1). The word “Yoruba” describes both a language and tribe living across Nigeria and the Popular Republic of Benin, in an area of savannah and forest. This axe is referred to as an Edun Ara, and symbolizes Shango’s power as the god of Oyo, where the facial scarification pattern, or abaja, are sets of three lines, referenced by the sets of three stripes carved onto each side of the blade. In the Yoruba culture, Shango is considered the god of thunder and lightning.

The origins of the Yoruba can be traced back to the end of the first millennium like the civilization of Ife. After the collapse of the Ife civilization, many kingdoms, such as the Ijebu and the Oyo emerged ("No. 100 Chocolate Patina Yoruba Axe of Shango with Female Devotee - Berz Gallery of African Art" 3). These kingdoms disintegrated throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but were revived by the colonial powers at the end of the 19th century and today still form the political structure of the Yoruba people.

Shango is the god, or orisha, of thunder and lightning, and is also associated with warfare, according to Yoruba tradition. He is also the orisha of justice, the masculine force or energy, the fire and the rays, and the owner of the drums Wemileres, Ilú Batá or Bembés and music (Muñoz 2). Oshe Shango refers to a double-headed axe that is the divine weapon of Shango. Carrying the axe on one’s head is a metaphor for bearing the weight and force of Shango’s power. Shango symbolizes masculine beauty and represents passion, intelligence, and prosperity. Shango is thought to control the great powers of nature as one of the orisha, or gods. According to tradition, Shango hurls a thunderbolt from the sky at those who do not respect him during dreadful storms ("No. 100 Chocolate Patina Yoruba Axe of Shango with Female Devotee - Berz Gallery of African Art" 3).

 Shango’s hunderbolts take the form of ancient stone axes that are exposed on the surface of the earth following heavy rains. Shango’s worshippers believe that these stones fall to the earth when lightning strikes and that they carry the Shango’s power. These people-made objects are believed to be meteorites that have fallen to earth. Stone axes made in neolithic times are found lying on the ground in fields and collected to be placed in covered containers on the altars of Shango shrines.

Followers of Shango carry dance wands called oshe shango during ceremonies and celebrations. The oshe shango dance wand is one of the many art forms associated with the reverence of Shango. The Yoruba Shango staff is sculpted in relief. The staff symbolizes Shango’s violent and unpredictable power that is personified through dance.

Wands display Shango’s thunder-axe and feature kneeling womyn as representatives of all supplicants. This signifies the act in Shango initiation in which the initiate balances a vessel of fire on top of her head to demonstrate Shango calmness in the face of danger. The femelle figure balances the axe or thunderbolts on her head, which represents a devotee of the god. The femelle figures frequently hold or lift their breasts as a gesture of offering and acceptance. The femelle figure accompanied with the axe is equated with the caprice and creative experience of humyn sexuality. Some scholars have compared Shango’s power to the libidinal drive which may prove dangerous to the possibilities of creative sexual relationships. This interpretation may strengthen and support racial stereotypes of African male sexual prowess.     Shango symbolizes the joy and necessity to live. Shango is also the patron saint of twins and giver of children. Shango provides for children and protects twins. He symbolizes the greater number of favorable and unfavorable situations.

Shango symbolizes the intensity of life.  Yoruba gods carry, cradle, wave, and thrust the staff, oshe shango during dances in Shango’s honor. At the annual festival for Shango, an entranced devotee, elegunshango, dances to staccato rhythms of the bata drum and waves the Oshe Shango in threatening motions and then abruptly, in a quiet and calm gesture, draws it to himself. Shango dance staff are frequently decorated with dark blue indigo pigment, which is thought to beautify the object and is believed to provide protection. At times, an oshe shango is simply kept as a reliquary on a shrine devoted to Shango.

Shango is associated with the expansion of the Oyo empire in western Yorubaland. The historical personage Shango was a descendant of Oranmiyan and the tyrannical fourth king of Oyo during the second dynasty of Oduduwa in the 18th century after the destruction of Katonga, the first administrative capital of the Yoruba empire (Muñoz 2). Shango was a powerful ruler and his reign brought prosperity to the kingdom. Yet, he had an explosive temper and was fascinated with mystical powers. Some oral traditions claim that he misused his power and he was a despot. One account asserts that Shango unintentionally created lightning that struck his palace, taking the life of many of his subjects along with many of his wives and children, and eventually destroying the capital. The city of Oyo was destroyed by thunderstorms and Shango was coerced into surrendering his crown. Shango was exiled, leaving the kingdom in repentance and later travelled to Koso and committed suicide.

In Shango’s attempt to control mystical and magical powers, he was incapable of mastering them, and was ultimately overcome by them. Shango was a sacred king but he can still be presented as a merciless dictator whose need for control overstepped the boundaries suitable for authority. Likewise, when Oyo continued to suffer devastation, some followers of Shango attributed the thunderstorms to Shango and said they represented his vengeance and proclaimed him an Orisha or god. His followers established a priesthood for worshipping him.

Shango’s supporters denied his death and declared that he had become a god, merged with the forces of lightning and thunder, which they called down on their adversaries. Shango’s supporters acquired powerful medicines to defend Shango’s name and raise violent thunderstorms. Shango’s devotees demanded that Shango be recognized as a god. Prayers were said, shrines were created, and priestesses were initiated as mediators between Shango and his community. The Shango legend illustrates a crucial facet of Yourba orisha: they are not idealized.

All of the stories concerning Shango symbolize the theme of power-capricious, authoritative, procreative, destructive, magical, medicinal, and ethical power. Perhaps the Shango cult may instead be a warning of the arrogant use of military power to attain and maintain political leadership.

Works Cited

Muñoz, Junior. "SHANGO." YORUBA RELIGION:. Cuba Yoruba, n.d. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

"No. 100 Chocolate Patina Yoruba Axe of Shango with Female Devotee - Berz Gallery of African Art." No. 100 Chocolate Patina Yoruba Axe of Shango with Female Devotee -            Berz Gallery of African Art. Berz Gallery of African Ar, 2016. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

"Object Results." Edun Ara Oshe Shango (Axe Dance Wand). TriArte, 21 Oct. 2016. Web. 19  Oct. 2016.

"Object Results." Oshe Shango (Dance Wand). TriArte, 21 Oct. 2016. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.