ÈṢÙ: Understanding ESU in Yoruba Theory of Knowledge
By Remo Oyeyemi
“If it is not right do not do it; if it is not true do not say it.” – Marcus Aurelius
Initially, I was going to write on the mistake of Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1806-1891) in giving a bad name to Esu in his titanic task of translating the Euro-Christian holy book – The Bible, into Yoruba Language for his converts. This had been triggered by some Christian friends who kept blaming Esu for everything that has gone wrong in their lives as well as Nigeria as a nation.
In the course of writing, I had to do a little research to be able to explain the role and character of Esu in Yoruba cosmology and how he has been unfairly slandered by overzealous Christians and their sympathizers. I found out that what I had thought to be a “mistake” on the part of Bishop Crowther, was not actually a mistake but an act of vengeance against his own Yoruba people whom he felt had sold him into slavery.
Esu, in Yoruba cosmology is not the Devil or Satan as has been and is being portrayed by Euro-Christian religious school of thought. Esu, in the authentic Yoruba concept, is the enforcer of the Will of Olodumare and not the equivalent of the Euro-Christian Devil/Satan who is out to undermine the work of the Almighty God. According to Ayodele Ogundipe as quoted by Professor Funso Aiyejina in his work “Esu Elegbara: A Source of an Alter/Native Theory of African Literature and Criticism,” the following is the brief concept of Èṣù in Yoruba Philosophy:
“In Yoruba philosophy, Èṣù emerges as a divine trickster, a disguise- artist, a mischief-maker, a rebel, a challenger of orthodoxy, a shape-shifter, and an enforcer deity.
Èṣù is the keeper of the divine “Àṣẹ” with which Olódùmarè created the universe; a neutral force who controls both the benevolent and the malevolent supernatural powers; he is the guardian of Ọ̀rúnmìlà’s oracular utterances. Without Èṣù to open the portals to the past and the future, Ọ̀rúnmìlà, the divination deity would be blind. As a neutral force, he straddles all realms and acts as an essential factor in any attempt to resolve the conflicts between contrasting but coterminous forces in the world.….
He supports only those who perform prescribed sacrifices and act in conformity with the moral laws of the universe as laid down by Elédùmarè….. Without his intervention, the Yorùbá people believe, no sacrifice, no matter how sumptuous, will be efficacious. Philosophically speaking, Èṣù is the deity of choice and free will.”
To simplify the above concept for objective readers, the following are the differences between the Èṣù in Yoruba cosmology or Ìṣẹ̀ṣe (Yorùbá Indigenous Religion) and the “New Èṣù” created by Bishop Crowther and his overzealous, vengeance-seeking and indoctrinated past and present followers of Euro-Christianity:
· Èṣù in Yorùbá religio-philosophy seeks at all times to fulfill the Will of Elédùmarè while the New Èṣù of Ajayi Crowther seeks to undermine and destroy Elédùmarè’s work at all times and at every opportunity.
· Èṣù in Yorùbá concept intervenes on behalf of the afflicted as long as the afflicted is willing to obey the laws of Elédùmarè’s while the New Èṣù seeks to further afflict the afflicted and draw such further away from Elédùmarè.
· Èṣù in Yoruba belief is a “straddler,” “a neutral force,” and a factor “in any attempt to resolve conflicts between contrasting but coterminous forces in the world;” while the New Èṣù is NOT neutral, seeks total devotion to himself and his ways and creates rather than resolves conflicts.
· Èṣù in Yorùbá philosophy is an “enforcer” – “keeper of the divine ÀṢẸ” with which Elédùmarè created and runs the world. The New Èṣù has no such responsibility or authority.
It should be clear that except it could be established that Ajayi Crowther suffered from serious morphological limitations as far as Yorùbá Language is concerned, it is difficult to overlook his disingenuous machination to bastardize and demonize a revered deity of the Yorùbá people. The seminal brilliance demonstrated by Bishop Crowther to translate the Bible to Yoruba Language is more than enough evidence that this equation of Èṣù, a Yorùbá deity, to Devil/Satan was a deliberate act of vengeance rather than an unbiased intellectual exercise.
As Professor Aiyejina contended, how come the translators of the Bible who “saw nothing wrong with equating Satan with Èsù did not find a near equivalent Yorùbá deity for Jesus Christ, instead of Yorubanising his name into Jésù Kristi?” Further asserting, he said: “If Satan translates into Èsù because of perceived incidental similarities between the two, how come Jesus does not translate into Ọ̀rúnmìlà, given the fact that Orunmila is a proverbial, wise, calm, peaceful and forbearing as Jesus? How come he does not translate to Ẹ̀là, the divinity of regeneration?”
I share the conclusion of the Professor that such a logical approach would have suggested “a cultural equity” between the West and Africa that Europe was not willing to concede. I agree that the overzealous, newly converted Ajayi Crowthers of this world seemed to be willing tools in the hands of their masters because of their anger towards their kinsmen who sold them into slavery. It is my contention that if the Ajayi Crowthers of this world were not willing tools of their colonialist and imperialist white masters, how come their anger was one way directed? If someone was willing to sell, it meant that someone on the other end was willing to buy. Rather than engage in intellectual corruption and seek to destroy and undermine the belief(s) of a people, how come they were not broadminded enough to examine their situation and use it to teach positive lessons through objective acts of intellectual enquiry?
Samuel Ajayi Crowther and his ilk “acting as priests, interpreters, translators, policemen, postmasters, and school teachers were key players in the process of the religious, psychological and mental enslavement of African peoples.” Professor Aiyejina further clarified the situation as follows:
“….. in their psychological disdain for, and rejection of, African culture, which was, in part, a response to the African involvement in their enslavement, they became a new generation of middle-men and –women who functioned as arrowheads for the denigration of African cultures.”
The negative connotation given to the concept of Èṣù is essentially the handiwork of Bishop Ajayi Crowther,the forerunner of Christianity in Africa, Nigeria and Yorubaland. Considering all the circumstantial evidences and the Historical context of his life and times, it is evident that Bishop Crowther was out to take vengeance and in the course of doing so, he employed all tools at his disposal. His deliberate falsification of the Èṣù concept remains a stain on his brilliance and his legacy. He provided a tool for those who never had any understanding of Yorùbá beliefs to continue to demonize, denigrate and defame such.
Bishop Crowther’s disparaging definition of Èṣù has been persistent in popular imagination having been proselytized for more than hundred years. This, in part, is as a result of the Yorùbá belief that does not practice or encourage proselytism as opposed to other faiths. It is a matter of historical regret that Africans, in their relationship with the Europeans, were too trusting. They ought to have been more cynical and suspicious.
©️ Rẹ̀mí Oyèyẹmí