|Urhobo Historical Society|
Aziza: King of the Urhobo Forest
By Ochuko J. Tonukari
The Urhobo pantheon features a fascinating and diverse array of divinities. The pantheon is dazzling in its breadth, encompassing voluptuous river spirits, maternal nurturers, exalted wisdom figures, compassionate healers, powerful protectors, cosmic mothers of liberation, and varying forms of female goddesses. In Urhoboland, deities preside over childbirth, agriculture, prosperity, longevity, art, music, love magic, and occult practices. There are deities who offer protection from epidemics, snakebite, demons, curses, untimely death, and every mortal danger. There are also gods who support practitioners in their pursuit of knowledge, mental purification, a higher rebirth, and full spiritual awakening.
Deities occupy every echelon of the divine hierarchy, from nature spirits embedded in the landscape to cosmic figures representing the highest truths and attainments of Urhobo tradition. Variously beatific and wrathful, tender and fearsome, serene and ecstatic, they represent the energies, powers, and beings that surround and suffuse human life. They also reflect the inner depths of the human spirit, embodying qualities that may be awakened through spiritual practice. Thus, they are envisioned at once as supernatural beings who minister to those enmeshed in worldly existence, as potent forces that may be invoked through ritual and as models of human aspiration.
These gods are not marginal to Urhobo people’s thought and practice but play an integral and often prominent role in their varied religious settings. Despite their tremendous importance to Urhobo people and their pervasive presence in Urhobo culture, relatively little scholarly attention has been devoted to the deities of the tradition. The 21st Century has, however, witnessed a dramatic upsurge of interest in the topic and the appearance of numerous substantive articles like Professor Peter Ekeh’s Akpobrisi. This rapidly expanding field of inquiry makes evident the need for a comprehensive survey of individual deities of Urhobo origin.
The present paper provides a portrait of Aziza, one of Urhobo’s numerous gods, and identifies broader thematic and historical trends. I present a comprehensive overview of this god, range of epiphanies, the types of practices in which he figures, and original and evolving ideas of his nature and religious roles.
The Urhobo pantheon has, in a famous example of hyperbole, over 1,260 deities. In a sense Urhobo traditional society is God-intoxicated; there is god everywhere, in all things: within/without, above/below, in the six degrees of separation and in the three planes of existence.
There are gods for vegetation, gods for weather, gods for nature, gods for geographical areas, gods in the aerial planes, gods for villages, gods for the house, gods in the temples, gods in running water, gods in deepest forest and in mountain heights. In an archetypical Urhobo traditional setting, there is no situation, environment and place that the Urhobo does not have a god for. Gods inspire, gods infuse art and creativity and gods provoke destruction too. Gods in heaven are many, for the heavens also are many with contending a claim as to which is the supreme heaven. Even hell in Urhobo worldview has a God presiding, the god of justice and death, in a pretty astute psychological characterization about the typical fears of the afterlife.
However, it would be simplistic to think this is just sheer chaos. There is indeed an order and structure behind this apparent endless profusion of divinity, far more than any reasonable mind would require. In the distant past, different gods hurtle through the cosmos in a dizzying effervescence of joy. They are the Lords of Speed, “the swift movers, the falcons of light, the cause of extraordinary perplexity in Urhobo forest, agile and brilliant” as an elder once put it.
According to the Advanced Learners’ Dictionary, (6th edition), gods are beings or spirits that are believed to have power over a particular aspect of nature. All gods have different degrees of temperament; some are admired and respected for their benevolence, while others are feared for their ability to inflict untold sufferings on human beings. Others still, are in between; most times, they don’t intend to wreak havoc but they do so when they are provoked. Among one of such gods that shares this characteristic in Urhoboland is Aziza – a god known to unleash its anger and fury on anybody who arouses its ire or who dares to call its bluff.
The Ways of Aziza in Urhobo Forests
The story of Aziza is one of the most puzzling aspects of Urhobo religious evolution, for a god who had bid fair for supreme status, and seemed poised to achieve it, suddenly fell in the regard of men and has almost no worshippers today. He has not suffered oblivion like the other gods in Urhoboland who were his contemporaries. He has just shrunk into insignificance, the god who was once great and is now living on past glories.
However, in most parts of Urhoboland till date, endless tales of terror are woven about this powerful god. In one quarter, it was believed that Aziza is a one handed and a one legged god, Ukrobogbowovo or ebere-ohwo, somewhat a goblin, who cannot be seen with the physical eyes except it decides to appear in corporeal form before anybody. He was that rarest of hero, a kind of wizardry intellectual who could act decisively and swiftly. It was described as “effectual in action, the powers of movement, fierce-moving in its paths.” The Aziza was the embodiment of the Urhobo dictum, “To think and to act are one and the same.” It is interesting that it was the power of movement itself, so speedy and firm was it perceived to be. It used its great knowledge to help not only himself but also to alleviate the sufferings of humanity.
Those who have seen Aziza were said to be those whom he wants to take as its children. Aziza could decide to take anyone he chooses especially when that person is born with ‘Ogberagha’ (a long twisted hair). It could happen that the person Aziza has so decided upon was walking in the midst of other people. Once it decides on anybody, the next thing is to pass an idea into his mind. Such a person will now fabricate an excuse by saying that he wants to ease himself. When he has gone to do so at where nobody is seeing him, abruptly a kind of strange, blustery feeling overwhelms him as if he is falling into a trance. Before his very eyes, he discovers that everything has changed preternaturally into a whole new world – it was Aziza’s abode.
There and then, Aziza brings its wisdom and tactics to play. He will ask its prey the kind of food he prefers most, thus giving him various alternatives to choose from. Whatever he chooses is what he is going to eat for seven days and seven nights of trial. In fairness to Aziza’s tradition, among those assorted dishes he presents to his victim comprises the inclusion of a native chalk, orhe. Aziza detests greedy people passionately and so, if its new catch tends to choose from the array of palatable menu set before him and forgo the native chalk, Aziza will dance around in jubilation. In its victim’s mind, he will feel that Aziza’s jubilant state was due to the fact that he has shown him immense love and trust by eating its food. He was mistaken, a kind of proper miscalculation. In Aziza’s heart of hearts, he believes that its prey was a greedy person. In no time, it chops one of his legs and hands off with a cutlass-like object and he suddenly becomes a member of Aziza’s household. The leg and hand he chopped off were what he uses to prepare the first few meals with which to entertain its new child.
On the other hand, if the victim abandons the foods set before him and decides to eat from the native chalk, he will sense that Aziza is not at all in a happy mood. This is so because, all his positive expectations and plans of keeping him to himself forever have all been shattered. The victim is no longer suitable for its intended purpose, that is the purpose of becoming Aziza’s child. The mere fact that after seven days its victim will depart for good saddens its heart. Throughout his stay, Aziza will daze for days.
According to one elder, “Aziza does not give you something and ask for it in return just like most gods do. And so, the native chalk he gives is such as can provide for its victim anything he wants.” In his words, “we are a speck in the hands of Aziza. This is because, Aziza usually carries along with him a sleight of hand mirror which is capable of drawing our shadow near to him irrespective of the distance. At such a stance, he looks into our hearts to see whether the people inside his territory have evil intentions or not. If any of them has devilish plans, Aziza therefore pushes his walking stick onto the ground once, and it takes him to where the person is. In fact, he goes from forest to forest doing this. He does what is good and what is bad. He does badly to bad people and good to good people. If you are always cutting the tree where it dwells, it causes one of the woods to fall on you.”
In a recent research, it was found out that Aziza is a sensuous god, with wives and children. Aziza is the herald of dawn, lord of the fleetingly transient state between night and dawn, again an attribute of its great speed. It was also thus firmly placed as threshold deity, guardian of the sacred and rare times when higher levels of consciousness may be accessed by crossing over the boundaries that limit. This peculiar aspect of its potent power is acknowledged in Urhobo folklores where Aziza is addressed as the “king of the forest as well as of the earth.”
In some Urhobo folklores, Aziza is believed to be a black god who takes everything that is associated with black and loathe anything in red. This explains why no hunter of Urhobo stock will ever take a black dog along for hunting. If they do, Aziza who is also regarded as a swift and agile hunter will steal it with the speed of flash. In that way, he had taken that which belongs to him. During evenings and at dawn, Aziza’s voice is heard in the distance, hunting with his stolen dogs. A lot of hunters still narrate Aziza’s hunting adventures and exploits till today. Others claim that, Aziza, during its early morning hunting expedition, takes away animals caught by their traps before ever anybody could get there. However, some group of hunters also reported that, when they are confronted with Aziza in the forest, they cover the entire place with cabald or snuff which is enough to drive Aziza far away from its abode.
It was equally held that, Aziza is a god of trouble and jealousy, who doesn’t want people to go to farm during festival periods and market days. On such days, it sees the entire farmland as belonging to him. Sometimes when it sees anybody in the evening or in the night, it does something to scare him away. At other times, it simply reminds them that it is high time they go home. Some of those who tapped rubber in the past usually tell an intriguing story of how Aziza formed the habit of mimicking the sound that accompanies their rubber tapping. If the tapper refuses to question the source or cause of that sound, he is excused from being enmeshed in Aziza’s impending trap. It therefore means that the person acknowledges him as the king of the forest. Aziza is happy.
For those who questioned the producer of that sound or curses it, like a terrible lightening, Aziza descends on them in a spiral staccato of heavy slaps. For one, he hates to do that. But once he has decided to go that mile, it stands to follow that such a person has been made deaf or hard of hearing all his life. Back at home, he cannot explain what had happened. It is only from his gestures that his people can now get to know what had occurred to him. After a day or two, the people set out for the forest – the domain of Aziza. As a rule, they usually take along with them certain miscellaneous items like bananas, powder, garri, eggs, snacks, sweets, perfumes, candles, matches and other things needed to appease Aziza. Once at home the person regains his hearing instantly. From thence, whoever dares to take what was offered to Aziza as sacrifice is in grave danger. In the words of an elderly woman, those who take what was given to Aziza must be associated with him or else, he will visit the person to ask for his things sooner or later. To this end, it must be stated that some people worship Aziza as their god.
Sometime ago, it was established that, Aziza’s dwelling place was at the top of a mighty tree called Owe (bush mango). It was here he takes its preys to when he caught them. In such cases, those who bother to look for such a person will do so without result. It was a kind of exercise in futility.
At other times, Aziza dwells at a huge oil-bean tree called Okpagha. Children and even adults usually go looking for Ogba, oil bean, or Owe, bush mango under their respective trees. As soon as they start picking Ogba or Owe, Aziza greets them with his peculiar perfume. In most times, he is at the top of the tree, throwing bush mangoes or oil-beans in heavy torrents. Once Aziza decides to catch one of those trespassing its abode, it stuck his leg to the ground while drawing closer to him in such a magical way that all the people present under the Ogba or Owe tree could see it. At such circumstances, another person is expected to give him a sweeping kick or else, Aziza held him prisoner.
Others too believed that, Aziza walks or travels in a cluster of lights. As soon as Aziza sensed or noticed that somebody is walking in its territory at night, it appears and re-appears ominously in sparkles of multi-coloured light, dangling at any direction the person decides to turn to or run to. It was not his intention to kill or hurt the person but it derives immense pleasure from frightening those who dare to tread on its territory at night. It thought this was the only way it could put a stop to any nocturnal intruder who tries to disturb the serenity and tranquility that pervades its milieu. To Aziza, such an act was a form of challenge.
The Urhobo people of Agbon extraction hold tenaciously that Aziza has a walking stick which he carries along to anywhere. This stick is one of his power-house and most valuable property. Another area of its power lies in his long plaited, thread-like hair which many claimed could be used for many wonderful things. This hair has three notable features; it can suspend in the air when thrown up, it doesn’t deep when in water and it can walk by itself.
According to one elderly man, he said,
“I have never seen Aziza in spite of the fact that I tread the forest at awkward moments, but I have felt its awe and presence on several occasions. The first time was when he hit one of the huge trees beside me terrifyingly as I was tapping the evening rubber away; the second was when it passed through the bushy part of my compound. It was from that time I realized that its mere passage of a place can spoil so many plantation trees. What made it to pass on that fateful day of October 22nd 1976, I still could not know. The third time was when I went for a hunting expedition in the wee hours of the night. Little did I know that I was hunting in its territory. So, as I began to hunt, it also started hunting. It was then I knew exactly what was happening. The voice he used sounded ‘chay chay’ and it reminded me of the many tales I have heard about it. In no time, he put out my light. It was in that day I discovered that, if he is hunting and another hunter is hunting, the hunter will not kill.”
“The last time was when my wife and I went for rubber tapping. It was somewhere around 1988. The time was about 11.00 pm. As we tapped on, the whole place suddenly became breezy. This was not a normal breeze per se. True to what (my wife and I) hear everyday, it started mimicking whatever noise or sound we made through our tapping. Neither my wife nor I replied to that charade of a sound. At a point, it started hitting a nearby tree. This was followed by his usual hunting songs and shooting of his gun, which seemed to have a “gboooom” sound. After that, we felt that it has already surrounded us. It was at this point that my wife fell in a swoon. The kind of fear that gripped me on that fateful day can hardly be described by words.”
In the view of another elder, he said that despite the fact that Aziza is one-legged, he has an attitude of causing all the ground to quake and tremble whenever he is passing through a village situated close to a forest. If there is any palm tree or huge tree around, Aziza tears its branches down in one giant stride. This it does to alert the residents of that house (if there are any), that the king of the forest is passing by. Its mere passage of a place causes many coconuts (both young and old) to fall from their trees.
All through the years, others too have tended to describe Aziza as a towering, manly figure, attired in immaculate white garment. It is this formidable height that it possessed coupled with the usual white garment that he puts on that enables night walkers to sight it conspicuously from a distance. At such times, they run away for dear life. This group of people never dares to light fire in the night for fear that Aziza could come around it to warm itself after walking atop water for a long time.
In my interviews with one elder, he told me that Aziza has great respect for women which makes it never to contemplate harming them. In his words,
“It was when my wife was farming somewhere close to the abode of Aziza that I made this discovery. Before then, I had always had personal encounters with him (Aziza). It has always frightened me. But in 1972, my wife and our little baby went to this particular farm. After working for about 30 minutes, she found out that she was surrounded and about to be killed by two evil-looking men carrying a long cutlass. What could she do, she thought deeply to herself. All of a sudden, Aziza came out from his abode, and killed these two men. My wife said, she saw him do this before her very eyes. It was almost unbelievable. Because of this benevolent act, my wife and I decided to worship Aziza from that period of 1972 – 1992. Although, we are now Christians.”
The above point was corroborated by another elder. In his view, there are police Aziza, there are wicked Aziza. But one thing is certain, Aziza in all its escapades has never been reported to having vented his spleen on any woman; it has always been men. Needless to say, Aziza cannot be said to be a god of blessing nor a god of destruction. Its only goodwill is that, he has never hurt women.
At this juncture, it must be said that Aziza is not easily seen nowadays. According to a veteran hunter, in their time, Aziza and other gods hovers around everywhere especially at night. That was when the whole place was thickly forested. However, they have hid away from the eyes of men or perhaps, they have traveled to distant places as a result of increase in the number of roads, houses, people and so on.
In some circles today, Aziza is viewed as a god or deity that is associated with the winds. Little wonder then some have referred to it as a whirlwind god. Interestingly, this view of Aziza appears to be the most acceptable among Urhobo people. For Aziza to show the signs of its eerie presence to anybody, it sets all the trees in wild gyration accompanied by cracking sounds. Many people have trodden ignorantly on Aziza’s domain even when it is demonstrating this informative, signal tactics in a most palpable way. Anyway, Aziza does not harm anyone on the basis of his ignorance; rather, he displays its wrath on those who dare to challenge its supremacy as the King of the forest. What a proud god!
- Interview with elder Ejegedivo Udi, a local historian, aged 88 years at Isiokolo. 18th June, 2005.
- Interview with Elder Ekuke, aged 80 years at Isiokolo. 20 May, 2003.
- Interview with Okoro Ete, a local historian, aged 82 years, at Isiokolo. 18th July, 2005.
- Interview with Odivwri Oboh, aged 78 years, at Isiokolo. 10th March, 2003.
- Interview with Pa Ovedje, a hunter, aged 80 years at Isiokolo. 12th January, 2006.
- Interview with Anthony Ujaw, a herbalist, aged 87 years at Erhon Abraka. 14th April, 2000.
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