The Interesting Reason Why The Yorubas Named River Niger After Oya, One Of The Most Powerful Goddesses In Africa
One of the most powerful deities in the Yoruba traditional religions is the fiery goddess Oya. This goddess was so revered that the Yorubas named one of the greatest rivers in the world, the River Niger, after her.
WHO IS OYA?
A most unpredictable deity, Oya Akanbi (that is her full name) is the Yoruba goddess of wind and storms. A perusal of history and myth reveals that Oya was an indigene of Ira, a small town that is located near Offa in Kwara State. Yes, one of the most powerful deities in Yorubaland is from Kwara State. Oya is known for having probably the most unstable temper of the deities. One moment she is as quiet as a graveyard and the next minute, she is exploding and destroying everything in sight with the rage of a hurricane. Little wonder Oya is also considered to be the goddess of wind-related natural disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, gales and thunderstorms.
It is believed that Oya got inherited her massive powers of the occult from her maternal family in Nupeland across the River Niger (Nupes are also found in northern Kwara (that explains why Oya is sometimes called Omo Tapa Elempe). Her powers were reportedly so mighty that she had the ability to also fight using thunderbolts like her lover, Sango, the god of thunder and lightning.
Oya hated lies, stealing and other nefarious habits with the greatest passion and was seen as the custodian of morality in the community. On the flip side, she was also seen as the great bestower of blessings like children, protection, wealth and success to all her adherents. Such adherents are known to name their children after the great goddess with names like Oyafunke (Oya Has Given This Unto Me), Oyafemi (Oya Loves Me) and Oyawale (Oya Has Returned Home).
Some narrations have it that Oya was so powerful that she was actually the one who gifted Sango with all his powers, such as the ability to summon storms. Oya was one of the three deified wives (some consider her as a concubine) of Sango with the other two being Osun and Oba. Today, Oya is worshipped across the world in various parts of West Africa, Latin, Central and North America.
THE GREAT RIVER NIGER
River Niger is no tiny body of water, at over 4,000 kilometres, it is the third largest river in Africa, running all the way from the Futa Djalon Mountains of Mali all the way to the Gulf of Guinea in Nigeria where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
Long before Mungo Park carried out his expeditions on the River Niger, this great body of water was already recognized and toured by the Yorubas. For them, it formed a natural border and everything to the north of the river was called Oke Oya meaning ‘to the north of River Oya’. This referred to the northern part of Nigeria not only geographically but also in the sociocultural sense of it. Beyond the Niger to the north, the Yorubas envisaged a world of the ‘other’, of the Nupes, Kanuris, Hausas, Fulanis and other tribes.
In Yoruba cosmology, this river is the domain of Oya goddess. But why? Well, at this point, it is also important to state that the Nupe and Hausa name for River Niger is Kwara. The Nupe people form the maternal line of Oya and their proximity to the river is also one of the factors that are always considered when trying to ascertain why the river was named for her.
INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT OYA
- Oya is still being worshipped till date with her adherents paying homage to the mighty River Niger.
- Some scholars have linked Oya and Sango to Virgo and Hercules constellations,
William Bascom described her thus:
Oya is the favorite wife of Shango, the only wife who remained true to him until the end, leaving Oyo with him and becoming a deity when he did. She is Goddess of the Niger River, which is called the River Oya (odo Oya), but she anifests herself as the strong wind that precedes a thunderstorm. When Shango wishes to fight with lightning, he sends his wife ahead of him to fight with wind. She blows roofs off houses, knocks down large trees, and fans the fires set by Shango’s thunderbolts into a high blaze. When Oya comes, people know that Shango is not far behind, and it is said that without her, Shango cannot fight. The verses tell that Oya is the wife of Shango, “The wife who is fiercer than the husband.” Her town is Ira, which is said to be near Ofa. 45.
Bascom also notes that Oya is associated with buffalo’s horns, and that a set of buffalo horns will be rubbed with cam wood to make them red and placed on Oya’s shrine. In another book discussing the mythology of the Yoruba, Yoruba Myths by Ulli and Georgina Beier (1980), we learn that one time, when Shango and Oya were having a fight, she charged him with mighty horns. But Shango appeased her by placing a big dish of akara (bean cakes) in front of her. Pleased by the offering of her favourite food, Oya made peace with Shango and gave him her two horns. When he was in need, he only had to beat these horns one against the other and she would come to his aid. 32 – 33.
Based on these details from the different sacred traditions involving Shango and Oya, I believe we can very confidently identify Shango and Oya with the constellations Hercules and Virgo. Below is a star-chart showing some of the features of these constellations which correspond to aspects of the mythology of Shango and Oya:
In nearly every ancient myth-system, the powerful figure who wields a thunderbolt weapon will be associated with the figure of Hercules in the sky, whether that thunderbolt weapons is wielded by a god in the Maya account contained in the Popol Vuh, or by a god in the myths of ancient Greece and Rome, or in the myths of the Norse.
Images of Shango and symbolic scepters sacred to Shango usually feature a double-axe motif, a potent symbol which is also found around the world. The carved wooden image of Shango shown at top features a wide double-axe above the figure’s head, as well as two more smaller double-axes placed in front of the image in the carving.
SO WHY DID THE YORUBAS NAME THE RIVER OYA?
Oya literally means ‘She Tore’ and Oya is also called ‘Oya Iyansan’ meaning the Mother of Nine. The traditional belief among the Yorubas in the past was that Oya was the river that tore into nine parts (as they believed the River Niger or Odo Oya had nine tributaries). Another myth also said she vanished and became the river after Sango also vanished. However, modern geography has shown that River Niger has at least 13 tributaries and they are as follows: Alibori River, Mekrou River, Sirba River, Tinkisso River, Milo River, Niandan River, Sankarani River, Bani River, Sokoto River, Kaduna River, Benue River, Forcados River and Nun River. At least they tried, they counted nine. Our ancestors did not know Oya was going to give birth to more children.
THANKS FOR YOUR TIME.
- Shrine of Oya http://www.kwarastate.gov.ng/oyun/shrineofoya.php
- African Myths And Folktale: The Story of the Yoruba Goddess of River – Obba http://www.africapublic.com/african-myths-and-folktale-the-story-of-the-yoruba-goddess-of-river-obba/
- Oya https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oya
- Oya, Lady of Storms http://www.orderwhitemoon.org/goddess/oya-storms/Oya.html
- Oya http://arabaifatemple.org/orisa/oya/
- The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology by Roger S Gottlieb
- Two Years and Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Months by Salman Rushdie
- Studies in Southern Nigerian History: A Festschrift for Joseph Christopher by Boniface Obichere
- Niger River http://www.worldhistory.biz/modern-history/84542-niger-river.html
- Shango and Oya of the Yoruba http://www.starmythworld.com/mathisencorollary/2016/12/4/shango-and-oya-of-the-yoruba
- Minor Gods http://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/yor/yor04.htm