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

Yoruba or Fon Healer’s Staff (Ọ̀pá Ọ̀sanyìn)

Catalog Number: D153


Probably a Beninese Yoruba, or Anago, artist


6.5" x 5.75" x 23.25"

165.10 mm x 146.05 mm x 590.55 mm

Religion and Denomination: Yoruba indigenous religion (Yoruba)
Transatlantic Family of Religion: Orisha
Country of Origin: Benin Republic
Ethnographic Origin: Nagot (Yoruba, West Africa)
Materials: Cloth
Usage: Ritual (used)
Detailed Description of Significance:

Insignia of an herbalist and priest of the Yorùbá or Ànàgó god Ọ̀sayìn.

Catalogued by Annabelle Yang:

This is a staff that would be carried by a priest of Osanyin, the Yoruba god of healing. The Yoruba recognize Osanyin as the master of the medicinal plants, having learned how to use them to concoct medicines rich in àshe, or power. However, Osanyin also could not heal himself. It is said that in his pride, he once refused to cooperate with the orixá of divination, Ifá. In punishment, the messenger Eshu, who must always be saluted first in any endeavor, caused a house to collapse upon Osanyin. Consequently, despite his immense healing powers, Osanyin is a cripple with only one arm, one eye, and one leg. Furthermore, for failing to fulfill a sacrifice for Ifá properly, Osanyin also lost his voice and speaks squeakily. This tale of Osanyin’s misfortune emphasizes the need for mutual support between the healers and the diviners.

This staff is crowned with a disk and curved crests representing the head and arms of Osanyin. Osaniyn is also closely tied to birds, which are said to live in calabashes – themselves representations of heads – on his altars. Thus, his staffs are often crowned with at least one bird, and this head and arm is an alternative motif.

This staff itself also possesses a number of birds below the head and arms of Osanyin. There appear to be four of them, though each bird could also represent two for a total of eight birds. The number of birds on an Osanyin staff can range from 1 all the way to 16. Robert Farris Thompson writes that the birds convey the skill of a priest of Osanyin, bolstering his authority as a healer. Iya Osun, a high priestess to Ọ̀shun in Òshogo, however, notes that the birds remind us that Osanyin’s healing “energy” comes from the Iyaami, or aje – these are women rich in àshe, whom the Yoruba know as “My Mothers.”

Agogo, or bells, dangle from the tails of the birds – these can be interpreted in one sense as leaves, referencing Osanyin’s medicinal prowess. Two of the birds have 6 agogo hanging from their tails, while the rest have 7. In erindinlogun, the 16 cowry divination, a pattern of 6 cowries represents Osanyin. 7, meanwhile, is a spiritually powerful number. It could also be a reference to 7 as a sacred number of the iron orixá Ogún. This relationship with Ogún is a reciprocal one: among the sacred implements at the alters of Ogún are iron agogo for Osanyin as well. This association with Ogún derives from the role of a blacksmith in crafting the staff: metalworking blacksmiths are naturally priests to Ogún. Notably, Ogún is said to “live in the piercing or slashing action of all iron” – this staff pierces and slashes not human enemies, but disease.

A cloth is tied to the lower portion of the staff. This cloth is a sacrifice for either Osanyin himself, or for the Iyaami. The tying of the cloth around the staff mirrors the tying of a white cloth for Osanyin around an iroko tree. Osanyin can also receive kola nuts, gin, birds, and four-legged animals as sacrifices, and divination rituals could be used to determine the need for a cloth sacrifice.

On 20 November 2020, Iya Osun Osogbo Talabi Adedoyin Faniyi told Prof. Matory:

The form at the top represents the head and the arms of Osayin. This shape is an alternative to the bird figure that normally appears at the top of an Osayin staff.


The birds are normally 16 in number, but the staff might also feature 8 birds (each bird figure representing 2 birds) or 4 birds (each bird representing 4 birds).


These birds refer to the fact that Osayin derives his “energy” to heal from the Iyaa mi, “My Mothers”—that is, the powerful women I told you about. They are also known as aje (the a has a grave accent; the e has an acute accent above it and a dot underneath it).


The white cloth is a sacrifice for Osayin or for the Iyaami. When a white cloth is offered to Osayin, it is tied around the trunk of the staff, just as a sacrificed white cloth may similarly be offered to an iroko tree. The white cloth is tied around its trunk. Other usual offerings for Osayin are kolanut, bitter kola, gin and a bird or a four-legged animal. The need for a white cloth to be sacrificed might be indicated by divination or by the sacrifier’s preference.


In erindinlogun, or 16-cowry divination, Osayin’s influence is identified by the fall of six cowries with the broken back upward. Hence, it might have been intentional that one of the birds has only six bells on it or that two have only six bells. The fact that two birds definitely have 7 bells each is related to the fact that 7 is special number in spiritual affairs. For example, the 7th day after a ritual—that is, the day that falls 6 days after the ritual took place—is very important.