Ogun: God of iron

Material Information

Ogun: God of iron
Series Title:
Olive Senior's Gardening in the Tropics, Curated Edited Collection Online
Senior, Olive ( author )
Place of Publication:
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Hyacinth M. Simpson
Ryerson University
Publication Date:
Physical Description:
1 online resource : color illustrations


Subjects / Keywords:
Poetry, Modern ( fast )
Caribbean Area ( fast )
Manners and customs ( fast )
1900-1999 ( fast )
poetry ( aat )
Digital Scholarship Site/Resource
digital humanities ( aat )
Spatial Coverage:
Caribbean Area


General Note:
Poem text, annotations, and commentary.
Poem is from Gardening in the Tropics by Olive Senior, published in Toronto by Insomniac Press in 2005.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
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Full Text


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Ogun : AA0006186 0 Ogun , text of the poem, annotations, and commentary are on (or to be added) the following pages and online: 60 A udio: forthcoming


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Ogun : AA0006186 0 OGUN: GOD OF IRON 1 1. Hand a bowl, knife a throat 2. our sacrifice dispatched 3. OGUN EATS FIRST 2 4. Iron in the blood feeds 5. your red hot energy; fires 6. your metallurgy in the 7. cauldron or smelter, 8. transmits your power 9. to the forge, transmutes 10. carbon into diamonds, 11. expresses oil from rocky 12. strate, bends the centre 13. of gravity to your sword. 14. For the kill, you arm 15. battalions, beat 16. ploughshare into gun, 17. unleash atomic energy, 18. distil power from the sun 19. to shape our potential 20. for death or if you 21. choose life, for power 22. is your calling and 23. manifest its ways 24. You forge our 25. connections, you fashion 26. our handshakes, our 27. friendships you seal, 28. bind out oaths sworn 29. in blood; for the life 30. of the spirit is fuelled 31. by fire engendered where 32. our heartbeats 33. spark into life.


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Ogun : AA0006186 0 34. Yet, heavenly transformer 35. of our weak impulses, 36. you allow our fevers, 37. the fire in our loins, 38. our burning desires 39. to consume us 40. while, knife in hand, 41. iron hearted warrior, 42. you coolly 43. stalk a lone. Annotations to the Poem (prepared by Olive Senior) OGUN: Warrior god of iron and war. He controls much of the material in the earth and represents primitive force and energy. He is known as Oggn in Cuba and Ogun Feraille in Haiti (ferraille means iron). The worship of Ogun may be traced back to Iron Age civilizations in Nigeria and adjacent countries. Commentary Written by Robin Brooks, University of Pittsburgh, with Hyacinth Simpson, Ryerson University Ogun: God of Iron is one of twelve poems in Mystery: African Gods in the New World, the final movement of Gardening in the Tropics. In this movement, each poem is named for and features a god or goddess from the pantheon of African diasporic religions practiced in the Americas. The poem s are literary representations or manifestations of the gods, who are also known as orishas, spirits, or lwa. In many West African and African diasporic religions, Ogun and the other spirits are messengers of the Supreme Being (or God) and they act as inte rmediaries between humans and the Supreme Being1 while often displaying human characteristics and personalities. In these religions, gods and goddesses are associated with and represent one or more aspects of the human and/or natural world. Senior draws on these associations in her poetic reimagining of the African spirits. As a result, the Mystery poems extend Seniors exploration of the nature theme which she explores from a variety of angles throughout the collection. Iron is an abundant element in nature and in West African and African diaspora religions Ogun (who is also known as Oggn, Ogoun, Ogum, Gu, or Ogou) is the god of iron, metal, and metal work. In his various manifestations, he is also a warrior and is associated with war, truth, and justic e. The red clothing his devotees in Haitian vodun wear is a representation of his fire energy, which is borne out in his aggressive personality. Fire also signals his transformative and creative as well as his destructive powers. Part 1 of the poem enacts an invocation as Ogun is called on by his devotees to appear among them. The italicized line describes an act of animal sacrifice, which is a traditional way in which the spirits are invoked. The ritual is performed in a systematic manner and the sacrific e is not considered animal cruelty. Rather, it is a crucial means of gaining the attention of the spirit; and the capitalized words, OGUN EATS FIRST (line 3), indicate that the summoned spirit is shown deference in the feast that initiates the gods appe arance. In a ceremonial setting, once fed, the


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Ogun : AA0006186 0 spirit appears among and communicates with the worshippers sometimes via taking over the voice and body of one of the devotees in what is known as spirit possession. While present, the spirit provides insight into the matter for which s/he was summoned.2 Upon being summoned, Ogun is able to manifest in a myriad of ways, and the structure of the poem enables the readers comprehension of the forms those manifestations can take. Part 2 consists of four stanzas, each dedicated to one of Oguns special characteristics or associations. The first stanza addresses Oguns dominion over iron, metal ores, and metallurgy and highlights his power as a creator. More specifically, the stanza describes the process of creating useful and valuable products from materials that make up the earths core. For instance, the creative process of extracting metal from ore is apparent in lines 5 7 where Oguns signature iron fires / [his] metallurgy in the / cauldron or smelter. In metallurgical processes, when high heat is applied to metal ores in a cauldron or smelter, the metal can then be extracted from its ore. Just as metal can be extracted from ore, under high pressure and temperature carbon is transmuted into diamond while heat aids the extraction of oil from rocks (lines 9 12). The phrase red hot energy (line 5) has dual signification as it refers to Oguns ability to transform matter with fire as well as his explosive and fiery nature [which is] oftentimes ritually symbolize d by the ignition of gunpowder (Mason 361). Ogun is god of all those who work with iron elements, including blacksmiths who are grateful that he transmits [his] power to the forge (lines 8 9), the blacksmiths workshop. The final lines of the stanza bends the centre / of gravity to your sword (lines 12 13) emphasize that materials at the core of the earth are subject to being creatively transformed by Ogun who is represented by one of his weapons: a sword. Known as the god of iron and associated w ith iron making in Africa for over two thousand years (Barnes 5), Ogun is also strongly identified with war. The second stanza, which is filled with war imagery, calls attention to Oguns role as a warrior god. Oguns energy facilitates the production of w eapons, usually made of iron and other metals, for use in battle. In keeping with the first stanzas presentation of Oguns ability to fashion new products out of various materials, lines 15 16 beat/ ploughshare into gun reference the popular wartime activity of transforming agricultural tools into military weapons. Here, Senior alludes to and plays on the common saying swords to ploughshares, which is used to encourage the transition from war to peace and engagement in peacetime activities. It refers to reconstituting weapons of destruction (such as a sword or gun) into creative and useful tools (such as the agricultural ploughshare)3that are beneficial to civilian life. The juxtaposition of gun and plowshare highlights Oguns inherent duality as b oth creator and destroyer. As Wole Soyinka puts it, Ogun is [the] embodiment of Will, and the Will is the paradoxical truth of destructiveness and creativeness in acting man (150). In short, not only can Oguns force create and bring forth life (line 2 1) or new products but it can also be used to destroy and bring forth death (line 20), which is signified in him being ready for the kill (line 14)4. His propensity for destruction is further demonstrated in the fact that he can be called on to unleas h atomic energy (line 17) by manipulating the atom and harnessing its potential for mass devastation. Or, on the productive side, his energy can facilitate the utilization of solar energy that can be used to sustain the various activities of modern life. It is not surprising that Senior foregrounds both creation and destruction, life and death, in her presentation of Ogun. Elsewhere in Gardening in the Tropics, she addresses these twinned and intertwined opposites as essential to both understanding human e xistence and making sense of the often traumatic histories of Caribbean communities and other cultures in the Americas. There is, for example, a purposeful symmetry in Seniors choice to describe the gourd of the collections opening poem as both womb an d tomb (lines 13 14) and then return to the life/death duality in Ogun in the closing movement of Gardening in the Tropics. The message conveyed in the


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Ogun : AA0006186 0 creation/destruction theme in Ogun and the collection as a whole is the importance of maintaining balance in every area of life, and also the inevitability of the cycle of creation and destruction. Oguns association with fair dealing and his role as guardian of truth and justice find expression in the third stanza in Part Two. Sandra T. Barnes descri bes one of the many faces of Ogun as that of a leader who nurtures, protects, and relentlessly pursues truth, equity, and justice (2). In this light, lines 25 29: fashion our handshakes, our friendships you seal, bind our oaths sworn in blood; . underscore that he is linked to expressions of honesty and integrity in human relations. Whereas forge was used earlier in line 9 as a noun, it becomes an action word in line 24 and links Oguns creative power over metals to these other characteristics. In fact, these are such significant traits of Ogun that iron is used in many oath taking ceremonies. As Henry John Drewal notes, [I]n the courts of contemporary Nigeria, orisha worshippers swear their oath of truthfulness by putting their lips to a piece of iron and invoking Oguns name (236). It is also worth noting that the sword one of Oguns weapons is a universal symbol for Justice. The sword of Justice is double edged. It cuts both ways and can be wielded for or against any party, which mi rrors Oguns duality. The closing lines of this stanza make it clear that although Ogun is a god, he does not act unilaterally. Rather, his force manifests when it is channeled by human agents. Lines 29 33 link Oguns fire/fieriness and heat to the electri cal signals originating in the tissues of the heart. These electrical sparks trigger contraction and expansion of the hearts muscles, allowing it to pump blood and oxygen that fuel life in the human body. The idea conveyed is that in each and every moment that the beating of the heart signals the continuation of human life, the potential exists for the individual to tap into Oguns force. Whether that force is used for good or ill is left up to the individual. Ogun remains neutral about who he influences, or to what end his energy is used. For those with weak impulses, Ogun allows our fevers, / the fire in our loins, / our burning desires/ to consume us (lines 36 39). His destructive energies are released because of the motivations of those who call on him and not by Ogun himself; and so Ogun cannot bear the blame or even claim the credit for anything bad or good done in his name. Oral lore, as Adeboye Babalola indicates, casts Ogun as a solitary figure who . lives and travels alone (149). The poems final lines recall that lore and draws on the image of an aloof and distant god (the ironhearted warrior of line 41) to underscore that humans are fully responsible for whether destruction or creation happens on earth. Altogether, Seniors poem pays homage to not only Ogun but also to African and African diaspora cultures. The tone of the poem is exalted, fit for a god, and the multiple uses of the words you and your suit the formality with which gods are addressed. Like the other poems in Mystery, Ogun draws on African and African diaspora spiritual beliefs, cultural practices, and storytelling traditions; and it does so in a way that demonstrates these stories and traditions are very much alive in and relevant to our understanding of co ntemporary societies in the Caribbean and the Americas.


Poems f r om Olive Seniors Gardening in the Tropics, Ogun : AA0006186 0 Notes 1 As a result of the transatlantic slave trade and forced migrations, gods of West Africa are revered across the Caribbean as well as South and North American cultural spaces. They are a part of many African diasporic religious traditions, including Vodou in Haiti, Santera in Cuba, Obeah in Jamaica, and Shango in Trinidad. Ogun is one of the more recognizable gods from West African religious traditions, including that of the Yoruba and the Fon who refer to the Supreme Being as Olodumare or Olorun. 2 Ogun has close associations with Eshu/Legba, the god of the crossroads who opens the path. Also, like Ochosi (also known as Ososi and Osoosi), Ogun is associated with hunting. Such close association s between spirits are not unusual and reveal the interconnectedness of the orishas and various aspects of the natural and human world. In some places, Ogun, Legba, and Ochosi form a trio of warrior orishas, as Robert Farris Thompson discusses in The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun, and Osoosi. 3 Swords to ploughshares is also a biblical reference. The phrase is from the Book of Isaiah: And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:4). 4 The interconnectedness of life and death is reminiscent of Eshu/Legba, the god of the crossroads who med iates between the living and dead. In Gardening in the Tropics, Senior highlights Gud as the god of the crossroads in Haiti. Eshu/Legba and Gud are closely associated. Works Cited Babalola, Adeboye. A Portrait of Ogun as Reflected in Ijala Chants. A fricas Ogun: Old World and New Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 147 72. Print. Barnes, Sandra T. Introduction: The Many Faces of Ogun. Africas Ogun: Old World and New .Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, 1997. 1 26. Print. Drewel, Henry John. Art or Accident: Yoruba Body Artists and Their Deity Ogun. Africas Ogun: Old World and New. Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 235 262. Print. Mason, John. Ogun: Builder of the Lukumis House. Africas Ogun: Old World and New .Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 353 368. Print. Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World 1976. Cambridge: New Yor k: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print. Thompson, Robert Farris. The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun, and Osoosi. The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts Eds. Rowland Abiodun, et al. Washington: Smithsonian Inst itution Press, 1994. 225 39. Print