The deities of Yorubaland are many and varied in their manifestations, physical descriptions and attributes. And it is not to be thought that since many of these gods like Ogun and Sango once walked the earth as ordinary men and women, they would not have the power of the older gods like Obatala. Our forefathers believed that all these ancient gods were endowed by Olorun, Owner of the Sky, with the knowledge and vision of all things past, present, and future. They were immortal and immutable. Possessed of vast powers, they could change the fortunes and tragedies in the lives of men by the imposition of their will. Many are the stories that have come to us of these immortal beings, of which the story of Olokun and Shigidi offer a singular excursion into the myths and legends of the Yoruba people.
Olokun always held a special place in the devotion of our people. When he was an infant, Olokun’s mother noticed that he had the genitals of both sexes. He was a hermaphrodite. As he grew older, everyone remarked on his beauty. He had large dewy eyes with upturned eyelashes like those of a maiden. He had full sensual lips that promised lust and pleasure without granting them. But despite these sensuous and effeminate features, Olokun was tall and muscular, with muscles that rippled when he flexed his great biceps. Everyone marveled at his great strength. And from his infancy, he was full of wisdom and knowledge. He could talk before he was three months old.
He loved both men and women, but he disdained their advances with an equal indifference. His was the passion that could never be fulfilled. It was a love so strong, it transcended physical dimensions.
From an early age, Olorun, his father, constantly spoke to Olokun. Even when he was awake, he had visions that told him what to do, how to make things right, and how to help people in need. He was conscious of an expanded and complete knowledge of the universe, of the trees, the forests, and the fauna that inhabited them.
But above anything else, it was water that fascinated and attracted Olokun. He had a knowledge of all forms of water, from the rivulets that rolled down from the hills after a rain to the gentle streams and mighty rivers that washed down into the sea at the coast. He had an intimate knowledge of the ocean, the water beneath the surface of the earth, and the watery clouds in the sky.
When he went to a river to bathe and felt the water wash over him, Olokun became the river itself. He knew all the river gods and goddesses. He talked to them about the fish, hippopotami, and crocodiles that inhabited those ancient and muddy rivers. He flowed with the rivers as they washed down from the mountains and became one with the sea. And when he followed the rivers into the sea, he embodied them, both the rivers and the sea. It was then that he discovered who he was.
He was a god. He was the son of Olorun, Owner of the Sky. Every droplet of water that came from the rain and washed down into the rivers came from him, Olokun. The sea waves that swept over the sandy beaches were his very being. Just as the rivers and the ocean had no beginning or end and would go on forever, so would he, Olokun, continue to exist till the end of time.
He was immortal. He could create things out of nothing. He could transmute elements from their original form and rebuild them into something more precious and more beautiful. He could create wealth. And he could give these riches to those he favored or let them dissipate and go back to naught in the twinkling of an eye.
But Olokun did not go to live in the Sky with Olorun and the other gods. Instead, he gathered all the seas together and formed Okun, the great ocean. This became his abode. He let the great rivers flow into Okun, continually replenishing its power. And then he gave the water back to the earth in the form of condensation and rain that fell from the clouds over the great mountains until the rivers swelled again like a pregnant woman and nourished the land, its suckling child. Our people called him Olokun, Owner of the Sea, because of the great ocean he had created.
Another story of the Old Woman told us that long ago Olokun collected a mass of corals and other sea treasures that the sea had given to him, its deity. For eons, this treasure lay in a great mass on a mysterious beach, and so rich and vast was this cache that it excited the greed and dreams of men and gods.
Olokun insisted that his devotees worship him with simplicity. They wore white clothes. In some lands, he was worshipped not just as the deity of the sea but the god of wealth. In Ile-Ife, he was worshipped as a male. In other places like the land of Binis, he was female. In those early years, his devotees sang this song for him.
Orisa alagbara, olori okun
To waso funfun;
Gbogbo aiye ni juba re
Mighty Orisha, ruler of the sea
Who is clothed in white;
He has male and female genitals,
And all the earth worships him.
‘The Guardians,’ Pencil on paper by Oladele Olusanya
Very early in his existence, Shigidi was the adversary of Olokun. Born not far from Okun in the mysterious forest known as Igbo Olodumare, the circumstances of Shigidi’s birth explained everything that happened afterward.
Shigidi’s father was a spirit of a tree, an ebora igi called Efin-niwa. Dark, hairy, and repulsive in appearance, Efin-niwa was shunned equally by men, gods, and the spirits of the wood. Desperately, he longed for acceptance and the company of women, for he had his earthly passions that came on him as he brooded in the woods. But no woman would have him. So Efin-niwa kidnapped a young girl who was the daughter of a woodcutter as she slept in her father’s hut at the edge of the forest. He took her to his dwelling place inside a tree trunk.
Now in his own way, though few tried to understand him or searched his mind, Efin-niwa loved this girl. But she would have nothing to do with him. She was repulsed by his ugliness, his crude speech, and his lack of social graces. Still, he forced himself on her. She became pregnant and had a baby. The child of this union was named Shigidi.
Shigidi grew up to be even more hideous than his father. While still a child, he grew to huge dimensions. People who saw him said he was above ten feet in height. He had a squat body that appeared to have been shaped out of a tree trunk. His legs were two thick poles that stamped and shuffled as he went through the paths of the forest. His immense body was topped by a massive head with large black evil-looking eyes that could penetrate the darkest night. They were a source of terror and nightmares to those who looked into them.
But despite his crude appearance, Shigidi was intelligent and sensitive. He knew that people did not like him because he was repulsive. He hated both men and gods for their derision and for his fate as an outcast.
“One day I will make them pay for their scorn and hatred of me,” he vowed.
The fact that the gods did not like Shigidi did not mean they would not use him for their own ends. He was employed by the gods as a messenger of retribution sent to punish those who had done evil or who had offended the gods.
Shigidi’s style was to come upon his victim at night. He would sit on the chest of his sleeping victim until that person suffocated. For a while, he faithfully carried out his function as executioner of the gods. Then as he became fully aware of his powers, darker impulses came over him. Evil men out for revenge or who schemed to take the possessions or the wives of their neighbors would hire Shigidi to kill their enemies in the middle of the night.
Thus, Shigidi became the nemesis of men, a symbol of vengeance and of deserved and underserved retribution. As an agent of death, he was implacable and unfeeling. He was totally impervious to pleas of mercy. He did not love and was never loved by women. Still, legend has it that he had a liaison with a female demon of the forest. How this came about, even the Old Woman did not know. Through her, Shigidi had a child called Anjonu Iberu. Apart from this, he was a loner. Shigidi liked to perform his work alone, and he had no assistants.
Shigidi and Olokun became adversaries because they stood on opposite poles of the ancient bar of good and evil. Olokun loved men and strove to make their lives more plentiful, comfortable, and joyful.
Shigidi, on the other hand, hated the human race. He detested the niceties that humans, especially women, surrounded themselves with. He envied and detested their fine clothes, jewelry, comfortable dwellings, and love of home and children. He roamed the roads and byways near the dwellings of men, seeking out those he would select to die.
He did not always need a reason. Even without a commission, he would enter a household at midnight, pick his victim at will, and dispatch him or her with that heavy load on the chest that forced life out of the body. He was an incubus.
But Shigidi saw himself as an agent of the divine plan. All mortals are slated to die anyway, he said. If he expedited that process, he was only doing the will of the gods.
He told himself that life was not fair.
“Look at me. See how everyone hates and detests me,” he said bitterly to himself. “I cannot help it if sometimes I punish the innocent.”
The more comfortable and well regarded his victim was, the more satisfaction Shigidi took in snuffing out his life.
And despite his wilfulness and wickedness, the gods remembered the services that Shigidi had done on their behalf as the divine executioner. So they elevated him to immortality. But they placed him on a lower plane of the immortal pantheon. He would be at the lower level of demons and demigods. Not permitted to advance to the sky, Shigidi was free to roam the forests below. At night, he slept in the deep crevasses of the earth that had existed since the beginning of time.
Now Olokun had become very wealthy, blessed as he was with the riches of the sea endowed to him by his father, Olorun. One day he gathered all his riches. He took a chariot of the sky and deposited them on a secret shore of his southern seas. The eyes of men would never view them.
But Shigidi, the demigod and agent of death and misery, heard of these treasures. His greedy heart hankered for riches. He searched high and low for them. At last, he discovered the secret hiding place of Olokun’s great treasure. Avaricious as he was murderous, Shigidi wanted these riches for himself. But at the last moment, as he was about to gather the treasures and make away with the lot, he was caught by Olokun, who had been away on a journey visiting the great ocean at the other end of the earth. This was the ocean that was said to border the land of people who talked through their noses.
Olokun seized Shigidi, the great strength of the demon being no match for the inimitable power of a god. The sea god bound Shigidi with a great chain of iron and cast him into a dungeon deep in the bowels of the earth.
“Here, you will be confined for a thousand years,” said Olokun to his prisoner as Shigidi glared at him with his evil eyes and gnashed his teeth.
But after some years, Olorun, the father of all the gods, spirits, and men, took pity on Shigidi. He released him on the condition that he would only be allowed to stay within the confines of the Evil Forest and the forest paths that led in and out of it.
Excerpt from GODS AND HEROES, Book 1, ‘Itan – Legends of the golden age,’ copyright Oladele Olusanya 2018. May be copied or shared with permission of the author.