Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Two Sacred Fans for the Yoruba Goddess Ọ̀ṣun

Catalog Number: D010


Unknown Nigerian Yoruba artist


Smaller fan: 9.75" x 4.60"

Larger fan: 11.90" x 5.6"

Religion and Denomination: Yoruba indigenous religion (Yoruba)
Transatlantic Family of Religion: Orisha
Country of Origin: Nigeria
Ethnographic Origin: Yoruba
Materials: Glass
Usage: Ritual (used)
Detailed Description of Significance:

This is a pair of fans (abẹ̀bẹ̀) carried in ritual processions for the diety Ọ̀ṣun. Ọ̀ṣun is the goddess of the River Ọ̀ṣun in Nigeria.  She is associated with rivers generally (especially winding rivers), brass, honey, peacocks, and motherhood.

Such fans embody the goddess’s cooling powers–that is, to heal the sick, to induce calm, and to reduce social conflict.

These fans for Ọ̀ṣun are covered in a variety of glass beads, predominantly in the theme of yellow, which is the goddess’s foremost emblematic color.  Beads in general are regarded as a gift from the oriṣa gods, specifically from Olokun, the god of the sea.  The accumulation of diverse types and large quantities of imported beads, which these fans signal, is a testment to the wealth, translocal social connections, and the local social status of the owner. The omnipresence and copiousness of distantly sourced African and European beads, like that of cowry shells, in Yoruba sacred and royal iconography hints at the importance of translocal and trans-oceanic trade in the history of Yoruba divine kingship. The older the beads are, the more valuable they are, because they have gained àṣẹ, or ritual potency, from the number of rituals they have undergone, as well as through the number and depth of social relationships manifest in that their exchange and possession.

According to Iya Oṣun Oṣogbo Talabi Adedoyin Faniyi, the red, black and white designs on the larger fan and Stars of David on the smaller fan all represent flowers, which, with visual economy, reflect Oṣun’s love of nature, the forest and plants.  The red, black and white colors of the flowers on the larger fan allude to the three most symbolically important substances in Yoruba ritual–indigo (wájì), kaolin (ẹfun), and camwood powder (osùn),

The Stars of David on the smaller fan also seem to replicate a motif in British West African colonial coinage, emphasizing the association of this and other Yoruba gods with monetary wealth.  

When the larger fan is carried in sacred processions, According to Talabi Adedoyin Faniyi, the chief priestess of Ọ̀ṣun in the city of Òṣogbo, the two round mirrors stitched into its beadwork are the eyes of Ọ̀ṣun, which are expected to watch over the worshipers and threaten the adversaries of her worshipers.  The eyes are suupposed to intimidate an onlooker as looking into the eyes of a tiger might. The intimidation is desired based on the belief that there is something ominous behind the mirror, and thus should be avoided altogether.   Under these circumstances, they are like the “eyes of the tiger,” says Ms. Faniyi, or Iya Oṣun.  The mirrors also reflect light in a manner suggesting epiphany and hint at the visual self-appreciation of the goddess.  Like the inclusion of red beads, which signal danger and advise caution, this eyes-of-the-leopard/tiger motif reveals the ambivalent character of the this goddess and of divinities in general: they are both caregivers and castigators. Their power to defend is also their power to attack.  Their power to protect their worshipers depends on their power to attack the enemies of their worshipers, but the gods can use that same power to correct, punish and harm devotees when they stray or err.  Iya Oṣun adds that Oṣun does not fight enemies directly like Ogun and Eshu but indirectly (abìjàlẹ́rọ).

Catalogued by Annabelle Yang:

The name for the fans themselves, abẹ̀bẹ̀, is a pun of the Yoruba verb bẹ̀, meaning to beg or beseech. When Ọ̀ṣun is angered, her priestesses fan her altar to calm her anger. Just as her worshippers appeal to her with cooling fans, Ọ̀ṣun herself is revered for being able to heal by “cooling” the hot sources of disease. Oriṣa of pestilence, such as Ọbaluaye/Ṣọ̀npọ̀nnọ́n, are hot and are associated with dry, hot weather, in contrast to which Ọ̀ṣun is associated the coolness, the shade, and the mysterious shadows of her tree-lined river. Notably, Ọ̀ṣun’s healing also extends beyond the physical, because heat is associated with not only pestilence but also social disorder and war. Ọ̀ṣun’s fans cool all to bring àláfíà, or peace and prosperity. Iya Ọ̀ṣun, a high priestess of Ọ̀ṣun in the Nigerian city of Òṣogbo, notes that people come to her for everything – headaches and physical ailments, but also when they are in conflict others.