Over a century ago there were many sacred groves in Yorubaland, Nigeria – every town had one. Most of these groves have now been abandoned or have shrunk to quite small areas. Osun-Osgobo – located in the heart of Osogbo, the capital of Osun state, which was founded some 400 years ago in south-west Nigeria – is the largest sacred grove to have survived and one that is revered to date.
Sacred groves used to be found near every Yoruba settlement, but their disappearance overtime has made Osun-Osogbo an important reference point for Yoruba identity and the Yoruba diaspora. Osun-Osogbo sacred grove is a large dedicated cultural landscape of undistributed forests dedicated to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess of fertility, love, water, beauty and love. The Osun River meanders through the protected area, with sanctuaries and shrines created along its course. In the twentieth century, the development of the movement of new scared art invigorated efforts to protect the grove.
Set within the forest sanctuary are forty shrines, sculptures and art works erected in honour of Oshun and other Yoruba deities, many created in the past forty years – two palaces, five sacred places and nine river banks with designated priests and priestesses. At present, there is new art installed in the grove by artists, which differentiates it from other groves: Osogbo is now unique in having a large component of twentieth century sculpture created to reinforce the links between people and the Yoruba pantheon, and the way in which Yoruba towns linked their establishment and growth to the spirits of the forest.
“People come here looking for their roots,” shared Ms. Faniyi, who is a high priestess of Oshun. “In the past, most Yoruba settlements had sanctuaries like the Osun-Osogbo scared grove in the forest, but now there is no other place like it left in the cultural region of Yoruba land. This is why in 2005 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared it one of two world heritage sites in Nigeria. Today it is the only one that can be visited safely, since the other is in the north-east, in an area still under threat from the extremist group Boko Haram.”
According to Faniyi the grove contains over forty shrines and is often visited by Oshun worshippers, traditional healers – who gather medicinal plants that grow there, as well as tourists from all over the world. It is also a venue for religious and/or cultural festivities. Hunting, fishing and farming are prohibited in the area, and during a walk through the woods, visitors might catch a glimpse of troops of white-throated monkeys, which are categorized as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
The grove is an active religious site where daily, weekly and monthly worship takes place. In addition, an annual processional festival to re-establish the mystic bonds between the goddess and the people of the town occurs every year, over twelve days in July and August. In this way sustaining the living cultural traditions of the Yoruba people. The transitional worshippers and devotees maintain the intangible heritage through spiritualism, worship and symbolism. There is a management committee made up of various stakeholders, that implements policies, actions and activities for the sustainable development site.
Osun-Osogbo sacred grove is also part of the National Tourism development Masterplan that was established with World Tourism Organization (WTO) and United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The grove continues to serve as a model of African heritage that preserves the tangible and intangible values of Osogbo people in particular, but also the Yoruba people at large.