Shango and Oya of the Yoruba
Many more myths and sacred stories from the continent of Africa and its many different cultures and myth-systems could be explored in addition to those featured in Volume One of the Star Myths of the World series.
One of the myth-cycles that could be explored would be the myths and traditions surrounding two important Yoruba deities or Orisha: Shango and Oya.
Shango is a powerful Orisha of fire and of thunder and lightning.
In his 1980 study of Yoruba oral tradition and divination entitled Sixteen Cowries, William Bascom writes of Shango (sometimes also spelled Xango):
Shango is a God of Thunder. Living in the sky he hurls thunderstones to earth, killing those who offend him or setting their houses afire. His thunderbolts are prehistoric stone celts which farmers sometimes find while hoeing their fields; they are taken to Shango's priests, who keep them at his shrine in a plate supported by an inverted mortar, which also serves as a stool when the heads of initiates are shaved (cf. Bascom 1972: 6). The stones in Shango's sacrifices may be an allusion to his thunderbolts, and in one verse Shango kills a leopard by putting an inverted mortar over it. [ . . . ]
He was noted for his magical powers and was feared because when he spoke, fire came out of his mouth. One verse has Shango lighting a fire in his mouth with itufu, oil-soaked fibers from the pericarp of the oil palm, which is used in making torches and starting fires. In a state of possession it is said that a Shango worshiper may eat fire, possibly using itufu, carry a pot of live coals on his head, or put his hand into live coals without apparent harm. 44.
Shango is a formidable deity or Orisha -- but so is his favorite consort, the goddess Oya. William Bascom describes her thusly:
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:
The details of the stories may have already tipped you off to this conclusion, if you have worked your way through previous Star Myth examinations presented on this blog or in the "Myths" section of the Star Myth World website, as well as some of the "Videos" on the same website, and especially if you have worked your way through any of the volumes of the Star Myths of the World series of books.
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.
It is possible that the great weapon held menacingly aloft by the constellation Hercules in the sky, which in some myths becomes a club or a sword, can also be seen as an enormous double-axe shape, especially if the "blade-shaped" outline of Lyra the Lyre nearby is also envisioned as being part of the same weapon (see star-chart above).
There are other details in the myths which give added certainty to the identification of Shango with the constellation Hercules, which we will examine in a moment. First, however, let's look at the identity of the goddess Oya, who is so powerful that Shango cannot fight without her, and who is described as going ahead of Shango in everything.
I am convinced that Oya is associated with the constellation Virgo: can you see how this arrangement gives rise to the tradition that Oya always precedes Shango? The motion of the stars each night is from east to west (just like the motion of the sun each day -- both are caused by the rotation of the earth towards the east on its daily rotation). In the star chart above, which looks towards the south, east is on the left and west is on the right, and the constellations move from left-to-right in the diagrams.
The definitive clue that Oya is associated with Virgo is the fact that she is sometimes called the "Mother of Nine" (Iyansan, or 'Yansan) in Yoruba tradition (Bascom, 45). The constellation Virgo, as we have seen in many myths from around the world, is often envisioned as a mother about to give birth, due to her posture in the sky, lying on her back with feet elevated.
Virgo is sometimes envisioned as giving birth to the multi-headed figure of Scorpio, which follows Virgo in the sky. Scorpio, as seen in many of the discussions in the Star Myths of the World books, is sometimes envisioned as having nine heads. The fact that Oya is called "Mother of Nine" pretty much seals her association with the constellation Virgo in the heavens.
You can also see the "buffalo horns" which Oya gave to Shango, almost certainly identified with the beautiful arc of stars known as the Northern Crown (or Corona Borealis), very close to Shango-Hercules in the sky and included in the diagram above.
What about the details of the story in which Shango breathes fire out of his mouth? The star chart below shows that the "lower arm" of the constellation Hercules (the arm not holding a club or weapon) can be envisioned as proceeding out of the mouth of the constellation. I believe this is very likely the source of the association of "breathing fire" with this particular Orisha.
There is also a "torch" in the sky not far from Hercules and Virgo, in the form of the constellation Coma Berenices, which actually plays the role of a torch in many other Star Myths (some of them discussed in the Star Myths of the World books). This may be the itufa torch that appears in the myths of Shango:
The aspect of the myth in which Shango is described as killing a leopard by crushing it beneath "an inverted mortar" no doubt have to do with the constellation Ophiucus, directly beneath the constellation Hercules. The body of Ophiucus has a distinctive oblong shape with triangle at top (as outlined by the ingenious outlining system proposed by H. A. Rey). This almost certainly represents the inverted mortar (a mortar and pestle are tools for crushing up grains and spices: the mortar usually a stone bowl with a depression or hole in the center, and this shape also gives its name to the later weapon known as a mortar, which shoots shells out of a tube -- Ophiucus could be envisioned as a tall mortar, turned upside down so that its conical base is at the top).
Note that the head and tail of the unfortunate leopard can be seen protruding from either side of the upturned mortar of Ophiucus!
Note also that Shango is sometimes described as defeating his enemies with a cudgel, which is another weapon very closely associated with the outline of the constellation Hercules (and Hercules-figures throughout the world will often carry a club or cudgel as their favorite weapon). William Bascom cites Yoruba verses in which Shango uses a cudgel in the verse labeled "L1" in Sixteen Cowries, and he mentions this fact on page 44 as well. This cudgel is yet another clue that Shango corresponds to the constellation Hercules -- in addition to all the other clues, I believe we can be quite confident in associating Shango with Hercules, and Oya with Virgo.
In another set of verses cited by William Bascom, we learn of Shango that: "He drove away the hartebeeste that had been eating the children of the people of Ijagba, and became the deity that all the people of Ijagba worshipped" (45).
A hartebeeste is a large African ungulate, with majestic curving horns. As you can see in the image below, it is very possible that this hartebeest which Shango drives away might be associated with the outline of the horned figure of Taurus the Bull, which can also be said to resemble a hartebeeste:
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
s the constellations Virgo and Hercules rise over the horizon in the east, the constellation Taurus can be seen to be sinking down into the west. This perfectly describes the situation in which Shango (Hercules) "drives away" the hartebeest (Taurus). There are other Star Myths from around the world in which the arrival of a god or goddess associated with Hercules or Virgo signifies the demise of a figure associated with Taurus (for instance, the traditions associated with the goddess Durga -- see here and here).
Below is a star-chart showing Hercules rising in the east, as Taurus sinks down in the west:
Note that in the diagram, the planetarium app distorts the size of constellations along the east and west, in order to simulate the "wraparound" effect you would see outside (the left and right of the image represent turning towards the eastern and western horizons, respectively; looking to the center of the image represents looking towards the southern horizon: the planetarium app from Stellarium.org makes constellations look smaller when they are in the middle of the diagram, and larger when they are near the east or the west to your left and right).
In Yoruba Myths, we read that the goddess Oya was originally an antelope who periodically took off her antelope skin to reveal a beautiful woman:
Oya was an antelope who transformed herself into a woman. Every five days, when she came to the market in town, she took off her skin in the forest and hid it under a shrub.
One day Shango met her in the market, was struck by her beauty, and followed her into the forest. Then he watched, as she donned the skin and turned back into an antelope.
The following day Shango hid himself in the forest, and when Oya had changed into a woman and gone to market he picked up the skin, took it home and hid it in the rafters. 33.
We learn that Shango's other two wives become jealous of Oya, who bears Shango twins, and they tell Oya where to find her skin, hanging in the rafters. She dons the antelope form again and disappears into the forest.
I believe that this story is also based upon the same celestial mechanics shown in the star-chart above. When Virgo takes off her antelope skin and hides it beneath a bush, Taurus is sinking down into the horizon (into the bushes of the horizon, you might say).
The part about hanging the skin up in the rafters resonates with a very common theme in Star Myths around the world -- for instance, in the Maui myths of the Pacific, Maui's grandfather hangs Maui up in the rafters when he is a baby! In that case, the grandfather is undoubtedly Hercules, and Maui the infant is almost certainly Corona Borealis (the Northern Crown). This identification is discussed in greater detail in Star Myths Volume One. The Northern Crown, oddly enough, plays a baby in many other Star Myths.
In the story of Shango and Oya and the hanging of Oya's skin in the rafters, I believe the constellation Coma Berenices fits the identification of the skin better than the nearby Northern Crown. There are other Star Myths we could look at which make this identification the likely answer to the celestial source of this sacred Yoruba story.
When the other wives tell Oya where her skin is hanging (they do this using a chant, in which they sing about its location), she resumes her antelope form and bounds away into the forest so that Shango cannot find her. Again, this detail probably stems from the fact that, when Hercules rises in the east, Taurus sinks down out of sight in the west.
For those who wonder whether Taurus could play the role of the female antelope which is one of the shapes of the goddess Oya, note that in Africa the female of the many species of antelope often has horns, in addition to the horns of the male antelope.
Below is an illustration of the female Hirola, an antelope found in the areas where the Yoruba cultures traditionally have lived for thousands of years:
image: Wikimedia commons (link).
There are still more stories of Oya and Shango which point to a celestial foundation associated with the constellations Virgo and Hercules. One of the stories involves the mother of Shango, the goddess of the River Yemoja (odo Yemoja), which flows through Yoruba lands. In one version of the story, Yemoja was pursued by her husband Okere (who is not the father of Shango) and he knocks her down, causing her to turn into a river which flows out of pots of water she was also carrying (Bascom, 46).
This story may also involve the constellation Virgo, which is located in the sky adjacent to the constellations Crater the Cub and Hydra the Snake (see star-chart above). When Shango's mother Yemoja falls down (and note that Virgo is recumbent), she may become the river which is associated with the flowing form of Hydra, directly beneath Virgo and beneath the water-cup-like outline of the constellation Crater.
Shango and Oya are very important deities in the Yoruba mythology, with many devotees around the world to this day. Their clear celestial parallels provide still more evidence which argues that the system of celestial metaphor which we can see operating in the stories of the Bible and in the other myths of the world, is in fact a common system which somehow provides the underlying bedrock upon which all the world's ancient traditions have their foundation.
Shango is a god of fire. I believe that the world's Star Myths convey powerful truths regarding the Invisible World -- the realm of spirit, the realm of the gods, the Infinite Realm.
One of the lessons that they teach is that, just as the stars themselves can be seen to rotate down to sink into the western horizon, so also we ourselves came down to this incarnate realm from a spirit realm -- and that we all contain a divine spark, an internal divine fire, through which we have immediate access to that Invisible Realm at all times, if we learn how to become re-acquainted with that aspect of our nature.
I am convinced that the ancient myths, scriptures and sacred stories which were entrusted to humanity the world over are here to help show us how to do that.