Titanic’s crash and anger of Olokun, the Sea goddes

Festus Adedayo

The world is in a mourning mood. After a fruitless five-day search for a missing deep-sea submersible vessel with five passengers on board, its wreckage was eventually found last Thursday. The five occupants on board were killed in the process. The search had been spearheaded by a robotic diving vehicle deployed from a Canadian ship. The five were on a voyage to see the century-old wreckage of the famous Titanic by the time this catastrophic implosion occurred. The robotic vehicle had found the debris of the submersible Titan on the seabed, “some 1,600 feet (488 meters) from the bow of the Titanic,” reported Reuters. Named the Titan and operated by OceanGate Expeditions, a U.S.-based company, its passengers included the company’s founder and chief executive officer, Stockton Rush who also doubled as pilot of the Titan; British billionaire and explorer, Hamish Harding; Pakistani-born businessman, Shahzada Dawood and his 19-year-old son, Suleman, as well as French oceanographer and famous Titanic expert, Paul-Henri Nargeolet. They had gone on the adventurous undersea expedition at the cost of $250,000 to each of the passengers.

The original British passenger liner named the Titanic, which its moulders claimed was unsinkable, had sunk on April 15, 1912, 111 years ago. It had collided with an iceberg. After several unsuccessful years of efforts to discover the wreckage, 73 years after, in 1985, a joint French-American expedition eventually found it out. Salvage operations to recover items in the Titanic which is said to lie in the ocean at a depth of about 12,500 feet on the coast of Newfoundland, have resulted in thousands of items found and now conserved by being put on public display. The bodies of the passengers could however not be recovered. A total of 2,208 passengers had sailed in the early morning of that day, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City. Out of them, 1,503 died.

The crash of the deep-sea submersible vessel has provoked some interests and comments. One of such was a piece entitled The Titan disaster shows the effect of human hubris in the deep sea written by Karen Attiah, a columnist with The Washington Post. In it, she drew an inference of a probable anger of the Yoruba goddess of the ocean, Olokun as cause of the disaster. This connect was further reinforced when renowned Hollywood director and Titanic researcher, James Cameron, told the BBC in an interview that there was a definite link between the tragic crash of the two Titans as well as similarities in the crashes’ circumstances. Cameron, a submersible designer, had directed the Oscar-winning blockbuster Titanic. He had said: “I’m struck by the similarity of the Titanic disaster itself, where the captain was repeatedly warned about ice ahead of his ship, and yet, he steamed up full speed into an ice field on a moonless night. And many people died as a result and for us very similar tragedy where warnings went unheeded to take place at the same exact site.”

Samuel Johnson, the iconic Yoruba historian, in telling the story of the dreaded Bashorun Gaa of the Old Oyo Empire, unknowingly explained the Atlantic economy of centuries ago among the Yoruba. In his narration, Johnson drew a link between the river goddess, Olokun and ancient Yoruba cowries, the only legal tender of transaction that began in the 16th century. As Prime Minister of Old Oyo from 1754–1774 circa, Gaa, according to Johnson, once requested his babalawo to make charms that would enable him acquire “plenty of cowries.” He had complained to them that, in spite of his enormous powers and wealth, he had little cowries to flaunt as symbol of his political power. In reality, this was a manifestation of the competition Gaa faced from other power wielders in the empire, that they might use their financial capacity to undermine his political base. Gaa’s cash crisis was also said to have been worsened by his incorrigible children, who, like the biblical sons of Eli – Hophni and Phinehas – lorded “it all over the country (Old Oyo provinces) (and which) deprived him of the revenues which might have come to him.”

Anyway, these medicine men then gave the Prime Minister ose dudu, a medicinal soap, with which he was to take his bath. They thumped their chests as they asserted that, before sunset, humongous wealth would flood his palace. Unconfirmed reports claimed that the babalawo had secured the soap from the bowel of the Atlantic, specifically from the hands of Olokun. After the bath with the soap, a mysterious fire suddenly engulfed the Gaa compound which burnt virtually all his belongings to the hilt. However, due to the awe and dread of the Prime Minister’s powers, virtually all sectors of the Empire, from the capital to all the innumerable provinces, upon hearing of this destruction, rose in his support. Gaa’s venomous powers were such that, he could incinerate provinces that failed to contribute to the rebuilding of his lost assets and compound. Not only did they rebuild the compound, but the gifts Gaa also received in cash and materials were overwhelming. Ultimately, the Prime Minister emerged, like the mythical Phoenix, from the ashes of the disaster richer than he once was. Astounded by the link between his Olokun-given wealth and the disaster, Gaa had asked his babalawo for an explanation. According to Johnson, he had asked, “Is this the way you promised to get me cowries?” and their reply was, “Yes … by what other means could you have amassed such an abundance in so short a time?”

In a journal article written for the Boston University African Studies Centre by Akinwumi Ogundiran, entitled Of small things remembered: Beads, cowries and cultural translations of the Atlantic experience (The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2/3 (2002), pp. 427-457) the author told the story of how Benin oral traditional history also speaks to the intervention of the Olokun in the prosperity recorded during the reign of Oba Eresoyen. He ruled from 1735 to 1737. By the way, Olokun, in Yoruba-Edo belief, was not only revered as the deity of the ocean, she was also known as goddess of wealth. Eresoyen’s cowry boom was said to have occurred when he made a peace pact with the Olokun. Palace remembrancers speak of how Oba Eresoyen initially engaged in an unending tiff with Olokun by using his spiritual powers to close tributaries in his kingdom which denied Olokun access to her waters. A palm wine tapper then mediated between Eresoyen and the Olokun which resulted in the restoration of water to the goddess. In appreciation, Olokun made a pact with Eresoyen that she would requite his restoration of access to her waters with massive wealth. She then heaped mounds of cowries, which were within her territorial grip, in the sky for Eresoyen which his palace courtiers shouldered into the palace in massive quantity.

I gave the two anecdotes above to highlight, not only the fertile beliefs, imaginations and rumours that thrived centuries ago, especially in the Atlantic commerce of the time, but also the dominant perception of the powers of the Atlantic Ocean called Okun and the lord of the ocean.
Attiah had delved into what she called “the Yoruba religious tradition” where “divine spirits known as Orishas (sic) rule over various cosmic forces and elements of nature. There is Shango (sic) the king orisha of thunder and fire; Yemaya (sic) the orisha of the ocean; and Oshun (sic) who rules rivers and lakes” and what she called “a lesser-known orisha, Olokun, who is androgynous and rules the deepest parts of the ocean where light does not penetrate.” Attiah further wrote that “the Olokun is an extremely fearsome and vengeful orisha, upset with humans for not showing proper reverence… (and) chained to the bottom of the ocean so as to restrain (her) from destroying humanity. The pressure of the deep ocean represents the origins of life and threatens gruesome, instant death for humans. It is for all these reasons Olokun is rarely challenged or disturbed, even by the other orishas.” She concluded in this piece that the submersible’s disaster is a reminder to the world that in spite of humanity’s inventions, it cannot dominate the deep, deep sea.

How true is Attiah’s linkage of Olokun to the submersible’s disaster and how dissimilar or similar is this tragedy from centuries-old mythic perception of traditional Africa? This debate about the existence of gods, goddesses and attempts to spiritize disasters like the Titanic of 1912 and last week’s have provoked philosophical debates about the existence of spirits and metaphysical objects. Are spirits real? Are there evil spirits? Is the physical the only real thing? If it isn’t, what then makes Attiah’s explanation for the crash of the Titanic unreal, mythic and fabulous, while we concentrate on what we are only able to cognize?

While the particular configuration of the Olokun is unknown, the Yemoja, another goddess of the river or water deity, is widely iterated in Yoruba folklores. Many claimed to have encountered this fish goddess who also, like the Olokun, resides in the heart of the waters. Indeed, the Yemoja, taken from Yeye Omo Eja – mother of fishes – has devotees who honour her as a source of life, fertility and abundance and built temples for her. Some people even claimed to have encountered her in the depths of rivers with dual features of a fish, complete with fins but with human shoulders and head. She is carved out as the Mother with weeping breasts and venerated for her kindness. Yemoja is also the Queen Mother who lives in the depth of the water – the Ayaba ti ngbe ibu omi. Yemoja shares her maternity renown with three other water goddesses, Osun, Oba and Oya water deities.

Janet Langlois, of the Folklore Institute, Indiana University, citing ethnographer Ellis A. B, retold the Yemoja story that had often been told as folklore in Yorubaland. Ellis had narrated the legend in his 1894-written The Yoruba-speaking Peop1e of the Slave Coast of West Africa. It goes thus: “Oduduwa, the Earth, given birth to by Obatala, who was the Heavens, also gave birth to a son and daughter. The son was named Aganju and he represented dry and barren land. He then married the daughter, Yemoja, who was life-giving water. They both jointly had a son named Orungan, who was the sky between heaven and earth. One sad day when Aganju was far from home, Orungan ravished his mother, Yemoja. She sprang from him and ran quickly, blindly away. He pursued her and was overtaking her and about to touch her when she slipped and fell, striking her head against a stone. The impact sent jets of water gushing up from her huge breasts. These waters joined to form a sweet lagoon. Her huge belly burst open and many Orisas sprang from her.”

Among the Yoruba, water has a powerful force. Waters are sacred sites with presiding spirits which act as intercessors with the ultimate divine. This provides the reason for the worship of the Yemoja in Osun as the river goddess of fertility. She is referred to as the Ajeje, a mother who has herbs in the river with which she takes care of her children and gives them longevity. Devotees say they revere the waters of Osun just as Christianity reveres rivers in its baptism phenomenon and River Jordan in particular for its spirituality. In Africa, many groups don’t go to the rivers on certain days, believing that those were the days the water spirits come out.

From their manifestations, Olokun and Yemoja are different. The differences are in their temperaments and habitation. While Olokun resides in the Atlantic, Yemoja lives in rivers. Yemoja is benign while Olokun, though is mythically perceived as the god of wealth, could also be a jealous woman who can be deadly. In spite of scientific explanations of the Bermuda Triangle, otherwise known as the Devil’s Triangle, traditionalists believe the calamities wrecked by it in the mid-20th century were caused by the Olokun who, in her anger, and in mysterious circumstances, brought about the disappearances of some aircraft and ships. Some meteorological studies have however referred to Olokun and the Bermuda as an urban legend, ascribing the calamities to “diffraction heat patterns (which) give rise to corresponding weather and ocean patterns which, to a large extent, account for the mysteries already noted in the Bermuda region.” The Bermuda is located in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean.

So, could Attiah have been right about the anger of the Olokun as cause of the crash of the two Titanics? Should we be bothered and seek extra-scientific answers to these tragedies so as to guard against them in the future? Attiah buttressed her claim with allusions to what she called the social value of certain perilous journeys. On the social media, many have wondered why such potentially perilous elite fancy should detain the rest of humanity. The world had literally been frozen due to the deaths of these voyagers while thousands of immigrants have perished in the Mediterranean without as much as a whimper from the same world. These were, in the words of Attiah, “migrants who are arguably much braver but have far fewer resources… demonized and left to die, despite the fact that all they want is the opportunity to work, to contribute value, to live.” In the same vein, the west has literally shut its ears from cries of reparations for sunken slave ships which Attiah calls “the true symbols of Europe’s ability to enslave people and exploit nature in faraway lands.”

Brandon Presser, an Op-ed writer with the Post, had joined in affirming the reckless audacity of man in going behind its province to seek to dominate the aquatic province of fishes. “Water is our birthright but also a force of great destruction, holding a record of everything it claims. To visit the depths of the ocean is not an act of arrogance, then, but something quite the opposite: an acknowledgment of our obsolescence. It’s fitting that the desire to blindly careen toward the ocean floor goes hand in hand with our curious obsession with the Titanic. The felled ship, once touted as the world’s greatest, has remained a parable for nature’s power over the mightiest efforts of humankind to assert its dominance over the planet,” he had written.

While the world is shedding tears about the recent Titanic disaster, Attiah has given us thoughts to ponder on. Why is the world obsessed with technological dominance like the Titanic, which “allow(ed) Europe to explore and pillage other countries, wipe out entire peoples and enrich itself by exploiting the Earth’s resources”? The Titanic, she said, “might be a reminder that the deep ocean is the only resource-rich realm on Earth with the power to keep White men from exploiting it.” Is Olokun then that power?

So, is Olokun angry that man is going beyond their earthly borders? Or, in the words of Attiah, “are (there indeed) some realms on Earth that are meant to be mysteries — not to be mastered”? Is humanity suffering from what the Yoruba call agbere, arrogant audacity? Or, is this absolute nonsense, in the words of Austrian philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who saw anything metaphysical like the link being drawn between the Titanic and an angry sea goddess, as such?

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