Pagan Babalawo; father in things spiritual and material, divining for two clients in Ile-Ife, 1937
Pagan Babalawo; father in things spiritual and material, divining for two clients in Ile-Ife, 1937. Photo: NNP

Paganism in different world societies, has been a reserved term for unsanctioned religious practices, used for undeveloped tribal forms of spiritual devotion. The religion of the Yoruba before the advent of Europeans was animistic although the animism curiously features many monotheistic elements, such as the belief in one Supreme Being, Olodumare, who is above all other gods. Though taken as the owner of heaven, Olodumare is seldom worshiped directly. Several minor deities called “Orisha” occur with different tribes of the Yoruba laying claim to each as specially their own. In Ile-Ife, there are quite a number. Had the Ooni made good his ‘threat’ to declare Awolowo a god of his kingdom, he would have made the 202nd.

In the worship of pagan gods certain contemptible practices may not be scarce. In Ondo community for example, human sacrifice was a major feature of the Oremafe festival and they showed great reluctance to put an end to the practice when the Saro head of Ondo Mission, Charles Phillips, counseled against it. Not until the bloody Imagbon War in 1892 did the proud Ijebu pagans consider the proposal to end the practice with seriousness. The killing of humans to pacify supernatural powers, a pervasive practice in the history of many pagan societies, may have been ubiquitous also in the West of Nigeria as suggested in the 1893 Egba treaty with the English crown in which the Awujale also promised to abolish the practice. Although human sacrifice was not the original practice in Haaba, an oracle of the Ibo Aguinyi village group, the vice became rampant for the cheer pleasure of giving the best to the gods. In Asaba, the chief, Eze, sacrificed men at his ascension with instructions thesame be done for him when he dies. In Benin, an itinerant prophet, Orimolade achieved a major victory over the inhumane  practice with his strong condemnation. Moved by his sermon, many native worshipers willingly gave up their emblems, images and charms for burning.

Pagan gods given up to Samuel Ajayi Crowther in Benin, 1878.  
Heathen gods given up to Samuel Ajayi Crowther in Benin, 1878.  Source: Ross Archive of African Images; Yale University Library.

Though he was to occupy the ancestral stool of the Yoruba king-priest, the conversion of Aderemi Olusoji’s mother to Christianity marked the beginning of the total alienation of paganism from the center of Yoruba spiritual home, Ile Ife. Although Aderemi, an educated and well travelled man, deliberately paid attention to, and observed customary rituals, he soon realized how futile his efforts were. More people were beginning to spend their hours of worship in mosques and churches. Ultimately, Aderemi joined the trail, as did other tradition-conscious Yoruba kings. His successor, Olubuse threaded similar path, as he began with moderate enthusiasm for traditional cults and rituals, but increasingly removed himself especially from the dramas of those festivals. By 2002, his renunciation of pagan doctrines had become official. Today, even in the center of Yoruba pagan activities, festivals like those in honor of Obatala, Oduduwa, and Pokulere continue to be held by cult adepts but are so limited that they often go unnoticed.

The decline of paganism was foretold for the eastern part of Nigeria when Ewenihi of Aguinyi, a mid 19th Century prophet spoke of the coming revolution of religious belief and practice, and decline of the old gods. When the white man, which he saw “reflecting in the wilderness,” comes, he said, “the gods will be left to starve to death, and those that survived would have hot oil thrown in their eyes.”

Tope Apoola
Profession: Writer