"Gu" (Ogun): The God of Iron

Priest of "Gu" (Ogun). Lome, Togo, West Africa

Over the centuries, the inter-cultural exhanges between the Vodoun cultures of West Africa, and the Yoruba Ifa'Orisha tradition is well documented. While the Yoruba have assimilated West African Vodoun Spirits such as Nana Bu'ku , Babaluaiye, Osumare, and several others, into their Orisha pantheon, the Dahomean and other West African Vodoun cultures have incorporated the Yoruba Orisha of Ogun known as Gu into theirs. Due, more to lack of time, and the abundance of written material already available on the Yoruba tradition, I offer here an excellent article suitable for the uninitiated public, written on Ogun by Awo Fa'lokun Fatunmbi.

If you read the traditional religious literature of Africa closely you will discover that there is a very ancient, wide spread and cross cultural reverence for the Spirit of Iron. In Yoruba, this Spirit is called Ogun, north of Nigeria you will sometimes find the Spirit of Iron called Ogu, and other similar sounding spiritual names. Throughout west Africa there is a tradition of making the profession of blacksmith a sacred vocation. There is some indication that these trade skills represent a cross cultural interaction that stretches between the middle east through Africa and across the ocean to South America. I am refering to interaction that clearly predates the voyage by Columbus.

If we take the Creation Myth of Ifá, Obatala climbs down the chain from Heaven to Earth. In my belief, the chain is symbolic of the double helix which is the form found within genes used to store DNA. The journey from Heaven to Earth is a reference to the emergence of hidden or latent potential into manifest reality. When you are in the womb you would have invisible potential as a child, and after you are born that potential becomes manifest. Ifa is very clear that the womb is the passageway between heaven and earth, it is the doorway that allows for reincarnation or atunwa.

In mythological language, the manifestation of any hidden, or latent potential is described symbolically by Ifá as the journey from Heaven to Earth. More correctly it is the journey from Ikole Orun to Ikole Aiye. "Ikole Orun" means "Greeting the House of the Invisible Realm." "Ikole Aiye" means "Greeting the House of the Earth." When Yorubas are speaking of aiye they are speaking of the crust around the surface of the Earth, not the whole Earth. The word for the entire Earth is "Onile." So aiye becomes the meeting place between the visible and the invisible dimensions.

Be clear that the Ifá concept of Heaven is much closer to what physics calls the fifth dimension. It is something that exists all around us. It is easier to understand as a different vibration of light. The spectrum of light is very long, and as humans we can only see a small band of light in the middle of the total range of frequencies. If you were able to do something that would allow you to see the full spectrum of light, then you would see the invisible dimension.

All the Ifá references to "ala" or "white cloth" are speaking of the full spectrum of light. We are able to see a little bit in the middle. As we become more spiritually illuminated our vision of light increases. Those who are able to see the invisible dimension say that it is a reality that is co-existent with us. When you see it, you can interact with it in a very direct way.

Because of the difficulty in translation, it has not been clear to the anthropologists what is meant by Orun. If you go to Africa and the elders start talking about entering Orun and coming back, you get a sense that they are talking about something very real and very tangible. In some places in Africa there are gateways into the fifth dimension where people walk through the portal and disappear from sight, then reappear through the same opening. I have not experienced this, but it is certainly part of the tradition. There are doorways into different visual dimensions. Western culture tends to be a little myopic about those possibilities.

Back to the Creation myth, Obatala came from Heaven to Earth down the chain with a seashell, a guenia hen, sand and ikin. He poured the sand on the waters, then he dropped the hen on the earth. The chicken started scratching the sand and made the first land mass. This land is called Ile Ife. The words "Ile Ife" means "spreading Earth." It is a reference to the first land mass and it is the name of the sacred city of Ifá which is currently in Osun State in Nigeria.

Obatala tried to get life organized and failed because his tools were too weak. Ogun came from Heaven to Earth with the secret of the mystery of Iron and was able to create cities in the Jungle. But the Ifá myth also says that Ogun's methodology was not fully effective. As a result, Orunmila came to Earth to correct the mistakes made by Ogun. I believe that this means that he gave guidance on issues of ethical behavior and moral conduct.

When you say that Obatala came from Heaven to Earth, you are talking about the manifestation of the potential of the Earth to transform light into matter and form our ecological environment. Then you have the next step of Ogun who represents the development of metal technology. But that is a fairly recent development. For a myth to refer to something so recent is unusual. So we look at the idea of iron from a earlier perspective.

The word Ogun is difficult to translate into English, but we get a big clue from the word oogun. The letter O in Yoruba is used to indicate owner, or one who possess something. The letter O is used to suggest that someone, or some Spiritual Force has mastered a particular form of wisdom. The word "oogun" means "medicine." So in a sense the word for medicine is "owner of ogun." I mean medicine as both physical and spiritual transformation.

It is hard to say if I'm right about this, but we can look at medicine as something that attacks illness, or as something that restores vitality. In a sense you have ogun as the suffix of oogun, meaning "the source of vitality" or "the source of aliveness." In my judgement this gives us an indication that Ogun is a linguistic reference to the will to survive. You could also say survival of that which asserts its own will to make a place for itself in the world. English does not have a single word that expresses this idea. But it is a commonly understood concept in Ifá that is associated with the word Ogun.

There is also an element of competition in the word Ogun. In nature there is competition for the available resources. To become successful in the survival process, vitality and assertiveness are required. If we take that idea and see how it relates to the concept of medicine we can get some sense of the origin of the words in metaphysical principle.

<p align="left">We have in the metaphysical concept of Ogun the idea of survival through assertive and aggressive action that is directed towards maintaining survival. To put that in contemporary language we are talking about male testosterone. That and other things. We have what I would call the dynamic, assertive, aggressive, expansive quality in Nature Itself which is expressed by the Spirit of Ogun. This particular idea predates by many years the association of Ogun with the technology of molding iron.

When we think about Ogun, we think about blacksmiths and tool makers. This is limiting because it suggests that some person figured out how to make use of iron technology and now we are deifying that process. If we do this, we are missing the earlier manifestation of Ogun as a Force in Nature. So I call Ogun the "Spirit of Iron," but even this translation is limited, because Ogun is the Spirit who is honored by the tool makers and not the methodology of tool making itself.

The historical genesis of the human relationship to Ogun may have emerged out of the tradition of men being hunters and women being time keepers. This is a separation of gender that was probably established for practical reasons. Women on their cycle leave a scent that is easily picked up by animals. At the same time the cycle becomes a built in clock. These two social functions became separated by gender as a matter of practical convenience. The point is that there is no indication in this that men are better than women. There is simply an indication of physical resources making certain tasks easier to accomplish.

We get a clue about the genesis of the understanding of Ogun by looking at the survival of the symbolism of Ogun. In Ogun's pot we have an iron cauldron with three legs, wrapped with a chain and spikes inside. There is usually a knife and maybe some tools in the pot. So we look at that and think what does it represent? With the pot, we have the symbolism of the womb. And we also have the idea of three legs. Three is symbolic number of Mother Earth. Ifá says that whenever two Awo meet, three are always present, the third being the Earth Herself. Three symbolizes the relationship to the Earth itself. This gives us the symbol of the womb supported by the symbol for the Earth.

We've got the chain which we have already spoken about as the symbol of the link between Heaven and Earth. At times there is a piece of red cloth around the pot. In addition we have the iron spikes. There is some scientific indication that the rust on the iron deposits at the bottom of the ocean created bacteria which became the source of the first single cell life forms on Earth. This would be the beginning of evolution. It may not have been iron that caused this phenomena, but it was some type of mineral, that is now symbolized by the iron spikes.

In the pot we have the symbol for sperm in a womb. I don't think I need to explain what that means. Now the interesting thing is that the female component of Ogun is diminished in the West. What we use to consecrate an Ogun pot is irosun. The irosun is red powder from the camwood tree. In Yoruba the word "irosun" is sometimes used to refer to menstrual blood. If you are putting red camwood powder on the Ogun pot you are talking about the primal procreative drive for survival.

Historically this urge led to the development of hunting, and to the development of marking time. The value of marking time was the ability to anticipate the shift in the seasons and to develop adequate protection for winter, and eventually led to the ability to plant crops. We are talking about primal motivational forces in the development of human consciousness.

In the Creation Myth, Ogun's initial effort is saved through the efforts of Orunmila. I believe that this is a historical memory of the fact that unchecked procreative, aggressive behavior is not the optimal principle for social organization. We have the idea of ethical judgements tempering the pure unbridled aggressive nature of Ogun as a Spiritual Force.

What I want to stress, as someone who is a son of Ogun, is that the story about Orunmila's relationship with Ogun does not mean that Ogun is "evil," it doesn't make Ogun "bad," it doesn't make Ogun the "Devil," it doesn't make Ogun a "Blood sucking warrior." It does make Ogun part of a bigger picture, in which the issue of balance becomes important. Every aspect of the wheel must play its part fully.

So where Ogun's power, or ase as we call it, is needed, it needs to be fully expressed in its essence. One of the ways in which this is done in traditional Yoruba communities is to allow the elders of Ogun to make the offerings. In many Yoruba communities there is room for specialization. You can have a ceremony for Oya and when it comes time to make an offering of a goat, a priest of Ogun can be called in to make the cut. After that he might leave the ceremony.

To make this clear, we are speaking about what is commonly called "animal sacrifice." The word "sacrifice" is a Christian term, the word in Yoruba is "ebo. " Sacrifice does not translate to ebo. We do not sacrifice animals, that suggests that we kill them, and toss them. Be real clear that the concept of ebo is to provide a feast for the family or the community. When you live in an environment that depends on domesticated animals for food, the slaughtering of an animal is always a sacred act, just as hunting is always a sacred act.

In traditional Yoruba communities, the Ogun initiates slaughter domestic animals, and hunt those wild animals that are a part of the diet. They sometimes specialize, so not everyone necessarily does both. But both of those responsibilities are associated with the ase or power of Ogun. When you go through a rite of passage, or a personal transformation, it is the Ifá belief that the more people pray on your behalf, the more likely it will be that your prayers will be heard.

Think about it, lets say that you decide to give up drug addiction. If you whisper to your brother late at night that you're going to give it up and that's the only person you told, you could get away with slipping and sliding as long as you stayed away from your brother. But if you got on top of the Oakland City Hall with a bullhorn and said; "Now hear this, residents of Oakland I have given up drug addiction." This would put more pressure on you to live up to that commitment.

In order to get a lot of people to know what you are up to, you feed them. On the day that you announce that you have made the commitment to move from being a child to an adult, you feed the community. After that feast, no one in the community will allow you to get away with childish behavior. Folks will say; "Wait a minute, we've been through this, get it together." We slaughter a goat to announce to the community that this is the day that I commit to a particular type of transformation.

You are providing a feast in a ceremonial way. So why would you provide a feast in a ceremonial way? Related to the idea of reincarnation, when a priest of Ogun cuts off the head of a goat, he proceeds that gesture by saying may the spirit of this goat reincarnate as a goat to feed future generations. You are making an acknowledgement of the interconnected relationship between all things in Nature.

We believe that everyone, animals, trees, humans and rocks come to earth with a destiny that was agreed to before coming to earth. So it is our belief that a goat comes to earth with the destiny to provide food for the feast that marks a particular rite of passage. For this reason I want to thank the goat, I want to ask him to come back again, to celebrate the rites of passage of my children. You speak to animals to put yourself in the scheme of things, to be reminded that its not all about me. It is us as a community, it is us in relationship to the Forces in Nature. There is something at work here that is being made sacred in a special way.

It is not about the blood. The blood is the seal to that covenant. But there is a mistaken notion in this country that the more blood you use, the more the power. Wrong. In Africa they put the blood into the earth, or they might put it in a bowl. When the blood is placed in the earth it has regenerative value, like fertilizer. Then they take a feather and dip the feather into the blood and touch the blood to that which you are feeding. Now there are variations on this. But the point is that the notion that is common in this country that if you sacrifice one goat, two is better. That misses the point. The issue is feeding the community. The act of making a covenant with the Orisa only requires a small amount of blood. It is the sincerity of the ritual act that carries the power and not the quantity of blood. Sometimes blood is used as a form of medicine. Sometimes blood is placed on the body for medicinal purposes.

There is another aspect of offering an animal that I want to discuss. Based on the belief in reincarnation, animals pass into the realm of the ancestors. We pray directly to the animals so that our prayers may be taken by the animals into Orun. We believe that everything in the World has consciousness and that Spirit can communicate with all things.

We also have the idea of psychometry. If I touch your shoes I can tell where you have been during the day. Your prayer against the head of the animal transfers that message to Spirit.

When you make the offering you are dealing with the power of Ajala. This is the Yoruba word for "warrior." We have Ogun in his warrior manifestation, which I have not spoken about yet. The hunters in traditional Yoruba culture are also the warriors. They are called Ajala which literally translates as "Dog of White Cloth." The dog in Ifá is a messenger to Spirit like the Nimbus in Egyptian culture. It is not a derogatory reference. When you say that you are a dog of white light, you are saying that you are a messenger of ethical conduct. In the act of making ebo you become Ajala. You become the vehicle in which ethical conduct is incarnated.

White cloth is a reference to white light which is the principle that is at the foundation of the idea that everything is connected. Once you experience light in its primal manifestation you have a mystical experience that allows you to feel your connection with all things. Those who have experienced this state of being, tend to behave differently after the experience. It is no longer just a noble idea, it becomes a source of inspiration.

Ala is a reference to this mystical vision. When you are making the cut, you don't want to get off on the idea. That is the wrong approach. You don't want to be overly sympathetic towards the fate of the animal because that doesn't work either. If you try to communicate with that animal, if you understand that it is the destiny of that animal to feed you and your family, there is no reason for undue sympathy or fear. When done properly the process of making ebo is emotionless.

The mystery of Ogun becomes finding the place that will open the portal for that truth. You must bring the divine nature of Ogun to the ritual process of making ebo. In Ajala there is an important connection to the idea of color symbolism. In Africa Ogun's color is pure red. Then we have Sango whose colors are red and white. The color for Obatala is white. We can see a pattern emerging here. Red represents virility, vitality, ggression. Red and white represents balance between aggression and compassion. White represents the incarnation of mystical unity.

Should any of you be plagued with notions that these three Orisa are enemies, or that they don't get along, know this is a common misconception. These Orisa represent a continuation of one cycle.

The difference between Ogun, Sango and Obatala is like the difference between rain water, fresh water and salt water. They are different at some point, but they bleed into each other. In some places in Nigeria Ogun and Sango are seen as loving brothers not enemies. You can see why. Sango is fire. What is fire in relationship to iron? Fire tempers iron and makes it stronger. That is not a hostile relationship. It is a symbiotic mutually beneficial relationship. As a Force in Nature it represents an important fusion of energy with no hostile implication.

Awo Fa'lokun Fatunmbi is a popular author of several excellent books which can be found at a bookstore near you or by contacting Original Publications. A great babalawo and willing teacher, He is also founder of the Awo Study Center in Oakland, CA. His works have done much to bring a greater depth of understanding to both curious novices and seasoned Orisa priests alike.

Return to main menu