A Yorùbá Oríkì (praise-poem) from Nigeria. Ògún is the god of iron and metallurgy. He is pictured as a blacksmith, but presides over every activity in which iron is used — hoes for cultivating, cutlasses for reaping, guns for hunting, cars for travelling, and so on. He therefore becomes a god of creativity and of harvesting, of hunting and of warfare, of invention and exploration and destruction.
He is a terrible but necessary god, presiding over the whole cycle of birth and death. This is why, in the praise-poem, he is described in a series of apparent contradictions. He kills indiscriminately (Lines 1–7), yet gives all his clothes to the beggars (Line 9). He is ‘the chief of robbers’ (Line 18) yet ‘will never allow his child to be punished’ (Line 35). If he is ‘a mad God’ (Line 29), this is only because life itself is mad. The only suitable prayer, then, is ‘Ogun, do not reject me’ (Line 36).
Ogun kills on the right and destroys on the right.
Ogun kills on the left and destroys on the left.
Ogun kills suddenly in the house and suddenly in the field.
Ogun kills the child with the iron with which it plays.
Ogun kills in silence.
Ogun kills the thief and the owner of stolen goods.
Ogun kills the owner of the house,
and paints the hearth with his blood.
Ogun is the forest god.
He gives all his clothes to the beggars.
He gives one to the woodcock — who dyes it in indigo.
He gives one to the coucal — who dyes it in camwood.
He gives one to the cattle egret — who leaves it white.
Ogun’s laughter is no joke.
His enemies scatter in all directions.
The butterflies do not have to see the leopard -
As soon as they smell his shit
They scatter in all directions!
Master of iron, chief of robbers,
You have water, but you bathe in blood.
The light shining in your face
Is not easy to behold:
Ogun, with the bloody cap,
Let me see the red of your eye.
Ogun is not like pounded yam:
Do you think you can knead him in your hand
And eat of him until you are satisfied?
Do you think Ogun is something you can throw into your cap
And walk away with it?
Ogun is a mad god
Who will ask questions after seven hundred and eighty years.
Ogun have pity on me:
Whether I can reply or whether I cannot reply:
Ogun don’t ask me anything!
The lion never allows anybody to play with his cub.
Ogun will never allow his child to be punished.
Ogun, do not reject me!
Does the woman who spins ever reject a spindle?
Does the woman who dyes ever reject a cloth?
Does the eye that sees ever reject a sight?
Ogun, do not reject me.
from Yoruba Poetry (1970),
ed. Professor Ulli Beier