Shango—the Yoruba god of thunder, giver of children, and "patron saint" of twins—once lived among men as a brilliant but capricious military general who became the fourth king (alafin) of the ancient Oyo Yoruba empire. He had a volatile temper, and when he ranted, fire issued from his mouth. Fascinated by magic, Shango created lightning and practically burned down the capital, inadvertently killing numerous subjects, his own children, and most of his wives. Shango subsequently committed suicide. Shortly after his death, Oyo experienced horrific thunderstorms that were believed to be a sign of Shango's wrath and vengeance. Consequently, Shango was deified as an orisha and a priesthood was established to worship him.
Among the objects used to honor Shango is the oshe Shango, or dance wand. It is carried by Shango priests and devotees during public worship activities and enshrined on the deity's altar. The basic form of the oshe Shango is a shaft with a double club or axe projecting underneath or from the head of the sole or central figure in the composition. The axe blades are shaped like thunderstones or Neolithic celts, which Shango's devotees believe are thunderbolts Shango hurls toward those that offend or displease him. This ritual object was originally carved from the àyàn tree on which Shango committed suicide.(13) Oshe Shango range from nonfigurative sculptures with shafts ending in undecorated double axes to complex figurative configurations with unique interpretations of the double axe. The stylistic diversity found in the designs of oshe Shango can be attributed to the wide dispersion of Shango worship, unlimited iconography (the only restriction is that the deity may not be portrayed), and the creative prerogative of the artist or patron.
The priestesses or female supplicants often depicted on oshe Shango represent Shango's benevolence as he bestows the blessing of children upon his faithful worshippers and protects children, especially twins (ibeji). The supplicant depicted on this oshe Shango is pregnant. Posed in a conventional kneeling position, she holds her protruding abdomen with both hands. Her openwork hairstyle with four braids meeting at the top recalls the shape of an ile ori or "house of the head" (see p. 62). She is further adorned with vertical scarification marks on her cheeks and jaws and a labret in her lower lip. Her oblong, pendant breasts echo the shape of her thighs.
While the figure's pose is conventional, the placement of the double axe at the bottom of the shaft is rare. Only two other wands with this configuration have been published: the Museum Rietberg in Zurich has an oshe Shango that was collected in the Igbomina area and brought to Switzerland by the Basel Mission before 1820,(14) and the other resides in a private collection in London.(15) In contrast to conventional oshe Shango that are held at the shaft, the heads of these wands serve as the handles, resulting in their flattened facial features and smooth surfaces.
The exquisite Dallas oshe Shango is attributed to the Master of the Owu Shrine by Deborah Stokes Hammer, who with Jeffrey Hammer studied thousands of Yoruba sculptures in the British Museum and the National Museum in Lagos, and more than two thousand photographs in the Kenneth C. Murray Archives at the museum in Lagos.(16) They named him the Master of the Owu Shrine after an unusual oshe Shango that had been documented in situ in the Igbomina town of Owu. Several objects, including twin figures and bowl carriers, share similar or identical traits with the Dallas oshe Shango. They include: an elongated head with a swollen cranium that joins a conical shape extending below the eyes; a head set at an angle on the neck; prominent elongated ears that extend the jawline; rounded elongated shoulders that flow into bent arms cut away from the torso; hands that have splayed fingers; buttocks that are flattened underneath and jut out sharply above the soles of the feet; and the lower body conceived as a triangle that is cut deeply to separate the thighs from the legs. William Fagg (1914-1992), the curator of African art at the British Museum and a noted authority on Yoruba art, speculated that the Master of the Owu Shrine lived from about 1850 to about1925.(17)
The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art, cat. 29, pp. 110-111.
14. Abiodun, Rowland, Henry John Drewal, and John Pemberton III. Yoruba: Art and Aesthetics. Edited by Lorenz Homberger. Zurich: Rietberg Museum; New York: Center for African Art, 1991. p. 88, fig. 101.
16. Deborah Stokes, personal communication, August, 29, 2006.
Hammer, Deborah Stokes, and Jeffrey S. Hammer. “The Master of the Owu Shrine.” African Arts 19, no. 2 (February 1986): 70–73, 92. p. 70.
17. Hammer and Hammer, 1986. p. 70.