Yoruba God

Orisha Oko

Wooden dance mask by Yoruba artist (pre-1908).

Wooden dance mask representing a follower of Orisha-Oko, by Yoruba artist (pre-1908).

British MuseumCC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Overview

Oko—also known as Orisa-oko—is the Yoruba god of farming, harvesting, fertility, and agriculture. As the patron god of farmers, he is a popular deity among the Yoruba people. A shrine dedicated to Oko can be found in nearly every village, especially those involved with agriculture.

When Oko’s worshippers call on him to aid with their crops, he is thought to appear as an old man with a walking stick or staff.[1] After his work is done, he disappears back into the earth; only his staff remains to be worshipped.[2]

Like many other oriṣas (the Yoruba word for gods), Oko is a god of fertility. Not only does he produce fertile land and bountiful harvests, but he also provides children to those who ask. Annual festivals dedicated to Oko often include fertility rites; the appearance of rain during these rites is considered a very favorable omen of the god’s blessing.

Unlike some other oriṣas, the priesthoods of Oko are open to both men and women.[3]

Pronunciation

  • English
    Yoruba
    Orisha-OkoÒrìṣà-oko
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    oh-ree-sha-oh-kohò.ɾì.ʃà.ō.kō

Oko and the Village of Irawo

Staff of Orisha Oko (Opa Orisha Oko), by Yoruba artist (19th century).

Iron and wood staff of Orisha Oko (Opa Orisha Oko), by Yoruba artist (19th century).

Brooklyn MuseumCC BY 3.0

According to legend, Oko was once a farmer who lived in the village of Irawo. One day, three blackbirds landed in the village’s fields and ate the entire harvest, causing a famine. When the birds reappeared the following year, the villagers were terrified; they tried their best to defend their crops, but the birds were invincible to arrows.

Desperate for aid, the villagers went to Oko and asked for his help in stopping the birds from destroying the harvest again. Oko was known to be “well versed in medicines and the lore of leaves and herbs,”[4] so he made a medicine that drove the birds from the farms. From then on, the crops flourished, and there was no more famine in Irawo. The villagers were so happy that they appointed Oko king of Irawo.

Unfortunately, this happy ending did not last long. The people became suspicious that Oko was using the same medicine (or poison) against them, so they drove him out of the village. But with Oko gone, the birds returned and once again devastated the crops.

The villagers ruefully asked Oko for his help again, but this time he refused. Disappointed by their lack of loyalty, he descended into the earth, leaving only his staff behind. Today, if villagers need Oko’s assistance, they can thrust his staff into the ground to call for him—but only if they are in imminent danger from famine.[5]

References

Notes

  1. Jan Knappert, African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend (London: Diamond Books, 1995), 186.

  2. Knappert, African Mythology, 186

  3. Jonathan Olumide Lucas, The Religion of the Yorubas: Being an Account of the Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Yoruba Peoples of Southern Nigeria, Especially in Relation to the Religion of Ancient Egypt (Lagos: C.M.S. Bookshop, 1948), 122.

  4. Ulli Beier, Yoruba Myths (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 48.

  5. Beier, Yoruba Myths, 48.

Secondary Sources

Beier, Ulli. Yoruba Myths. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Knappert, Jan. African Mythology: An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend. London: Diamond Books, 1995.

Lucas, Jonathan Olumide. The Religion of the Yorubas: Being an Account of the Religious Beliefs and Practices of the Yoruba Peoples of Southern Nigeria, Especially in Relation to the Religion of Ancient Egypt. Lagos: C.M.S. Bookshop, 1948.

Citation

Mackay, Danielle. “Orisha Oko.” Mythopedia, April 26, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/orisha-oko.

Mackay, Danielle. “Orisha Oko.” Mythopedia, 26 Apr. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/orisha-oko. Accessed on 17 Jul. 2024.

Mackay, D. (2023, April 26). Orisha Oko. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/orisha-oko

Authors

  • Danielle Mackay

    Danielle Mackay is a writer and scholar who received her MA in Classical Studies from Rhodes University in South Africa

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