Osanyin—also called Ossain—is the Yoruba god of herbal medicine, herbalists, and healing. Herbalists and healing practitioners enlist Osanyin’s help to cure physical and mental ailments thought to be caused by witchcraft. Osanyin is often referred to as “the one who sees everything.” This omniscience enables him to protect humanity from hostile forces.
Osanyin can transform into a bird to travel between heaven and earth. His symbol is therefore a bird perched on top of a staff (called an opa Osanyin, or an herbalist’s staff). As a servant and companion of Ọrunmila—the Yoruba god of divination, fate, and wisdom—Osanyin is one of the deities of the Ifa religion.
In addition to his healing powers, Osanyin is also associated with hunting, the forest, and especially trees. Though he is sometimes depicted as having only one eye, one arm, and one leg, it is said that when he hunts with a bow and arrow, he “can shoot faster than people with two arms.” The god lives in the depths of the forest, where he searches for healing herbs to make his medicinal powders.
Osanyin Discovers Herbal Medicine
A popular myth involves Osanyin’s discovery of curative herbs. When Orunmila first came to earth, he needed a slave to work his farm. He thus paid 240 cowrie shells to purchase Osanyin for this purpose. (In one variation of the myth, Osanyin was taken to the slave market after being captured in battle. When Orunmila learned of this, he hurried to the market and found his friend being sold.)
One day, while Osanyin was working the fields, Orunmila asked him to clear away some weeds. Osanyin dutifully set out to remove the offending plants, but just before he struck one particular weed, he noticed that it could cure fever.
As he went through the fields, he found that all of the plants had various healing abilities. He therefore refused to remove these miraculous “weeds.” When Orunmila heard how many beneficial plants there were, he made Osanyin the god of these herbs, for he alone knew their properties.