Sacred Groves and Tree Worship

Urhobo Historical Society

Sacred Groves and Tree Worship among the Urhobo

By Ochuko Tonukari

There has been, of late, enormous interest in the study of nature conservation by traditional societies. The protection of patches of forest as sacred groves and of several tree species as sacred trees belong to the religion-based conservation ethos of ancient people all over the world. Although such practices became extinct in most parts of the world, basically due to changes in religion, and during recent times due to changes in resource use patterns, sacred groves and sacred trees continue to be of much importance in the religion and culture of many parts of the world.

According to a very elderly and learned Urhobo man, “the concept of the sacredness of trees, from the Urhobo historical past enters into every facet of Urhobo traditional religion. It rests on the earliest conceptions of the unity of life in nature, in the sense of communion and fellowship with the divine centre and source of life. The sacred tree is said to be deeply rooted in the primitive religious ideas of earliest Urhobo people. In the history of Urhobo religious evolution, it lies behind the primitive era.”�

In the primitive totemic religion of the Urhobo people of the time past, there existed within a clan’s hunting territory sacred locations identified by distinct landmarks like stones, trees, and rivers where the clans kept their sacred hoards. The essential feature of totemism from Urhobo cultural perspective is the belief in a supernatural connection between a group of people and a group of objects like certain animal species, sometimes plants, or more rarely other objects. Usually there is a taboo on killing or eating an animal totem.

In Urhobo totemism, we find that plant species may be totems just as animal species or rivers are. On the other hand, the protection of plant species or groves or their planting on grounds of sacredness could be considered a more advanced stage in the evolution of Urhobo religion. Such groves and sacred trees are associated more with agricultural societies.

Thus in most parts of Urhoboland, each community had its own sacred grove. Especially worshipped were sanctuaries built among enormous age-old trees which were never to be cut down. The traditional Urhobo people worshipped the spirits of nature, especially of woodlands. They also had their own sacred forests, which were the venue of public offerings and various rituals. When they began uniting, these sites became centres for various sorts of religious worship. For the Urhobos, the sacred groves served the purpose of sanctuaries and temples.

The many landscapes in Urhoboland in the distant past were dotted with hundreds of sacred places. Sacred enclosures formed one of the major categories of land use. These usually contained groves of trees and springs of water; within them the environment was preserved, as a rule, in its natural state. As one Urhobo traditionalist noted, “If you come upon a grove of old trees that have lifted up their crowns above the common height and shut out the light of the sky by the darkness of their interlacing boughs, you feel that there is a spirit in the place, so lofty is the wood, so lone the spot, so wondrous the thick unbroken shade.”

Another elder remarked, “Here stands a silent grove black with the shade of one mighty Okpagha tree and numerous Ogriki; at the sight of it anyone could say, “there is a spirit here!” He also indicated that trees were the first temples of the gods, and “even now simple Urhobo people dedicate a tree of exceptional height to a god. Gods favour wild trees unsown by mortal hands”

One aged woman spoke of certain Igbe devotees gathering regularly to pray under the trees on a little sacred grove fenced all round at Orhoakpor. According to her, this grove was ten miles in circumference. Another grove near Isiokolo stretched all the way down a low mountainside to the river. She traces the beginnings of sacred groves in Urhoboland to the hunting and gathering era of Urhobo historical past (Awharen). Among the Agbon people, she says, “Groves of this tree are sacred. In them no axe may be laid to any tree, no branch broken, no firewood gathered, no grass burnt; and wild animals which have taken refuge there may not be molested. In these sacred groves cocks, sheep and goats are sacrificed and prayers are offered for rain or fine weather or on behalf of sick children”.

The Urhobo people of Agbon extraction, in ancient times had many sacred groves. Such areas ranged from a quarter of a hectare to three hectares; in them tree cutting was taboo. Some of these groves survived up to the 1980s, providing excellent sites for examining the vegetation that had existed a century earlier, as several species of trees were rare or not seen at all elsewhere.

In the past, diverse stories concerned with descent, beliefs and taboos are closely connected to the forest, its animals and land, with conservation as a value inherent in most traditional beliefs and reflected in them. Urhobo people respect certain regions of the forest as the resting places of their deities. Nature has such an overwhelming influence that various clans in Urhoboland refrain from hunting animals like the Orhua, Ogborigbo, and a host of others due to a totemic relationship with these species.

Also there are a lot of trees that are considered sacred among Urhobo people. For instance, the Okpagha is considered sacrosanct. Streams are often found around mature Okpagha trees. Most traditional Urhobos believe that spirits reside in these trees. Those from Avwraka believe that sacred spirits dwell deep within forests. One Igbe woman has a picture that illustrates the Urhobo forest ecosystem in which plants, animals, human beings, spirits and devils live together .

There could be many reasons why the groves vanished from Urhoboland. A kind of multiple uses was allowed in groves. Although they were strictly protected in most places, religious use of their resources was allowed. As much wood might be taken as was necessary for sacrifices. Animals, such as goats, might be captured and offered to the deity. Trees in the grove could be used in building a temple inside it or even away from it. Wood from the sacred trees was believed to keep its magical powers when fashioned into other objects and was used for making a variety of objects like statues of gods, staffs, sceptres, etc. Wood was even supplied to private persons at a fixed price for sacrifices.

It seems the groves also suffered from the pressures of urbanization, as baths, roads, hospitals, churches, stadia, gymnasiums, schools, etc., were established. At times they also had to cater to the timber needs of the ever-increasing population.

What caused the final downfall of the groves in Urhoboland?

The groves lasted as places of religious importance down through the Christianization of the Urhobo country. As centres of pagan worship, they became the objects of Christian zeal. Some over-zealous pastors issued that the groves be cut down unless they had already been appropriated for some purpose compatible with Christianity.

No doubt, due mainly to the rise of dogmatic religions like Christianity which advocated faith in one God and was explicitly for the eradication of ‘pagan practices, the tradition of maintaining sacred groves and sacred trees vanished from most areas in Urhoboland. Urhobo tradition itself has grown out of the amalgamation of scores of local cults which are often nature-based. Therefore the worship of plants, groves, animals and natural objects like rivers, mounts, ant-hills and rocks continues to have some place in it. Outdoor sanctuaries were the first temples of the gods. A sacred place demarcated for a deity was called Ogua.

Urhobo has rich folk traditions that centers on the veneration of the “ecosystem people.” The protection of whole communities as sacred ponds and groves is a remarkable feature of Urhobo landscapes. One of the most widespread of the traditions in Urhobo is the protection given to certain trees, which dot the countryside and are often the only large trees in the midst of towns and villages.  

The sacred groves of Urhobo are “sacred places where trees and plants were allowed to grow undisturbed and where reptiles, birds and animals could have free living without fear of poaching or interference by man”. These sacred groves are of two kinds. Some are in the midst of human habitation and in most cases attached to households or not far away from them. These sacred groves used to have Edjo of various categories as deities; but of late these distinctions got blurred due to different beings worshipped in the same sacred groves. The other types of sacred grove, the Eghwarode, on the other hand, exist in the ranges engulfed in forests.

Sacred trees like Ogriki, Okpagha, remnants of sacred groves, or intact groves with rare plants and sacred ponds, are associated with the Mother Goddess temples. Behind the facade of certain villages, the colourful cultural festivals of the beautiful temple complexes, with their caparisoned elephants, men masked as demons or deities, sword-wielding oracles dressed in red and dripping blood, the exhilarating Omiovwor the music from seven instruments, with the drum in the lead are the rapidly fading folklore about entangled groves and their mysterious deities.

Most times, sacred trees and small groves encompass larger sacred forests in Urhoboland. Such groves and forests are often the only remains of the original vegetation, whose presence in the landscape is dramatically observable on large deforested and terraced slopes.

Not only did sacred groves exist in more favourable climatic conditions, but their presence is noticed even in compounds of certain Urhobo traditionalists, herbalists and some Igbe devotees.

The Okpagha and Ogriki trees have had a conspicuous position in the cultural landscape of Urhobo people’s collective memory for more than 500 years. It was alleged that Aziza himself found enlightenment under Okpagha and Owe trees. In fact, a lot of Urhobo women in the past, who experienced difficulties in child deliveries were reported to have put to bed in sacred groves.

The destruction of forests with their wild animals amounted to weakening the power base of sacred groves. Also the burning of bushes during harmattan seasons was said to have desecrated a lot of sacred groves. Although adequate ritual measures were carried out to appease the gods, but they seem far too offended, too defiled to uphold their usual, assumed efficacy

Okpagha tree, for instance, was highly venerated by traditional Urhobo people. This huge tree is a sacred tree of Urhobo and grows in the shade of humid tropical evergreen forests. The writer has seen other trees growing in many locales in Urhoboland which are sacred to the people. Somewhere around Agbon Primary School, there is one area that is untouchable till date. Its woodland is nothing other than primeval, uncleared forests which was believed to be haunted by ancestral spirits and woodland spirits just as most sacred groves are the abodes of spiritual deities in other parts of the world even till today.

In the association of gods with particular plant species we have a parallelism with ancient Urhobo people. Okpagha or Owe tree was said to belong to Aziza, Ogriki to Edjo Ughere, Omiovwor tree to the goddess Omiovwor, Akpobrisi tree (though nobody dare near it) for the Akpobrisi god, and so on. However, inside the grove the deity was not identified with any special plant species.

An elder stated that, most Urhobo deities that are worshipped under sacred groves could be found in the forest, in a place surrounded by water, rivers, meeting places under trees, new-grown groves, etc. The Akpobrisi tree is likened to Akpobrisi himself. Some aspects of Urhobo tradition hold that he is the owner of all the forest land that surrounds its abode. Aziza is essentially considered by the Urhobos as a deity of the woods, whose province is to guard the fields, crops and herds of the peasantry and to drive away their enemies.

Most gods and goddesses whom the indigenous population of Urhobo worshipped were not accustomed to dwell in the secluded atmosphere of temples; they loved the open air. Even today, for the Edjo Orerhe (village deities) there are no temples in many villages. The deity may be in the shadow of a big tree. Generally they are lodged in small shrines. In a good number of villages no object is placed to represent the deity and the tree itself is regarded as the embodiment of the deity.

Bountiful rainfall and relatively low population promoted the growth of luxuriant forests which, though subjected to heavy commercial pressures during the last 10 years or so, still cover nearly 70 per cent of Urhoboland’s surface. It is a meeting place of several ecosystems, namely marine, estuarine, riverine and a variety of land-based ones. The forests belong to the tropical evergreen, semi-evergreen, moist deciduous and dry deciduous types.

The waters support rich fisheries and cultivation is confined to 73 per cent of its land surface; there is a bewildering variety of cultivated crops which include cassava, plantain, okra, palm tree, cocoyam, yam, and fruits like mango, coconut, banana, pineapple, pawpaw, cashew, guava, and so on. Small patches of sugarcane, pepper, tomatoes and vegetable are found all over the neighborhood.

Since population was thin and forest patches cleared for cultivation small, the forests must have recovered in most places except in lands maintained as savannas through periodic burning. Therefore the vegetation of sacred groves, the relics of which remain to this day, disputes the theory of climatic change as the reason for forest decline and spread of savannas in Urhoboland.

Burnt ash enriches the soil with nutrients and has a neutralizing effect on soil acidity. Unlike the fire-sensitive and tall primary forest trees of evergreens, the secondary vegetation which sprouted on the cultivation fallows would provide more usable biomass like easily harvestable leaf manure and coppice shoots and hardwoods and bamboo for a variety of purposes. At the same time, the loss of evergreen forest would result in a decrease in scores of useful plant species. Streams and springs are adversely affected and fire-proneness increases in the ecosystem. The Urhobo village communities would therefore learn to set aside substantial area of forest close to their settlements as safety forests. Before the arrival of organized religions, when paganism, with deities in the groves or mountain cliffs or water sources would be more common, the safety forests would naturally turn into sacred places as well. Tree cutting here would be taboo, which is true to this day in many parts of the Urhoboland.

In the past the Urhobo forests are patches of often climax evergreen forest protected by shifting cultivators primarily on religious grounds. A lot of trees in Urhoboland are rich in biological diversity, and are also places of worship for Urhobo peasant societies. All along the places, shifting cultivation was a very important form of land use which involved the clearing of primary forests, at least initially. However, there is growing evidence to suggest that the shifting cultivators followed certain ethics while dealing with the forest ecosystems. The most important aspect is the retention of often sizeable patches of forests from few hectares to a few hundred hectares as inviolable sacred groves.

According to one elder, the forests are the property of the gods of the villages in which they are situated, and the trees ought not to be cut without having leave from the Osedjo of the village, whose office is hereditary, and who here also is priest  to the temple of the village god. The idol receives nothing for granting this permission; but the neglect of the ceremony of asking his leave brings his vengeance on the guilty person. The taboo on cutting trees in the sacred groves continues to this day in certain parts of Urhobland.

Another elder’s statement referring to village gods is relevant here:

Each Urhobo village has a different god, some male, some female, but by the Urhobos they are called Edjo as requiring bloody sacrifices to appease their wrath.

From this statement, we may infer that the forests were virtually under the control of village communities with well-defined territories. Thus the common property resources of a village, like forests, were used by a small number of people under a well-regulated social system without the need for policing. The sacred groves, with their deities requiring bloody sacrifices, were evidently under the control of Urhobo peasant societies.

The groves undoubtedly were and still continue to function as temples of worship all along the tracts of Urhoboland. In spite of the Christianization process that has swept through most parts of Urhoboland, the interior villages continue to be the centres of primitive cults, where religion in its early form is still in vogue.

We in Urhoboland have always felt the magic of the trees. They represented natural enigmas where many things happened as constituent of an overall cosmic order and under which lay the source of enlightenment. Hence we never felt the need for much enclosure, comfortable with the idea of a simple parasol that could shield us from heat and rain whilst allowing the breeze to flow over our bodies. The most profound social images such as those of worship and education were not that of a closed building, but a place under the spreading boughs of a tree confirming our affinity to the natural, and our propensity to an open-to-sky place. So in traditional Urhobo society where the forest was as ubiquitous as the breeze, it was natural that wood rather than stone or earth was the secular and sacred building material.

According to one erudite Isiokolo leader, the abundance of trees on Urhoboland coupled with the philosophical and religious notions of the culture engendered a unique receptivity towards timber. There was a saying in traditional Urhobo society – trees and plants always have something to say – confirming the Urhobo traditional belief that trees had a soul and were the abodes of spirits. It is said that Urhobo traditional religion partly was founded on this belief of the divinity of trees. The tree was Idjere Akpor ve Odjuvwu, the road by which heaven and earth meet; and thus old trees struck by lightening were often revered objects, considered evidence that the Gods had indeed landed. Almost every building type, be it a house, shrine, temple or palace used wood as its major structural material bearing the extremes of climatic conditions. It was amidst these arduous and sensitive rhythms that evolved Urhobo’s culture of wood.

What thus remains most noticeable in this dialogue is the ever-dwindling voice of Urhobo culture with regard to the worship of trees, not because there is no single culprit this culture can point to and accuse, but because the culture itself is dying. For is it not a post-industrial inevitability that one no longer hears the hammers joining timber beams; and only natural that the electric drill dominates a steel-driven urban frequency? With every rare and remnant traditional townhouse razed to the ground, does not Urhobo express a helplessness, an involuntary desperation to keep alive its modernity, at the cost of renouncing its past? The sacred grove and the worship of tree is nostalgia, a slice frozen in Urhobo myth. The culture of wood is dead!

But in observing today’s Urhobo towns, it occurs that buildings are designed in the expectation not that they will stand the test of time, but that they will be torn down sooner rather than later and replaced by something more appropriate to the economic and technological demands of the future. The annual degree of change within the densely built urban zones is about 30%, encompassing facade improvements to entire new structures. In Warri more than a 6 square feet of building is demolished every day, more than six times that number constructed on a daily basis. On its scarce and notoriously expensive land the list is long of the many small and large structures – obscure and prominent, dilapidated and fresh – that challenge any simple understanding about the normal course of aging, necessitating a substantial reinterpretation of the meaning of durability and ephemerality in architecture. This peculiar outlook to apprehending the city as a series of fleeting events rather than an object of substance echoes the age-old profundity of transience, change and renewal. In Warri, which so constantly seems under construction – urban skylines crowded with forests of cranes – the ghost of its ancient culture of wood still possesses the ‘brand new city’ built everyday.

And so like the ‘Angelus Novus’ in Paul Klee’s painting, Urhobo seems like the angel of its own history looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. His face is turned towards the past where he sees a deep-rooted culture. He perceives a chain of events, a single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, keep alive what is being wrecked. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has caught in his wings with such violence that he can no longer close them. It irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is Urhobo’s progress.


Interview with Madam Eunice Ekperhie, an Igbe member, age 66 years at Sapele. 15th August, 2001. Interview with Madam Obakorhe Ogunah, an Igbe member, age 70 years at Sapele. 16 November 2001. Interview with Madam Ikebe Ahwinahwi, a former Igbe member, age 61 years at Sapele. 11 January, 2oo1. Interview with Mr. Johnson Agiri, a former Igbe member, age 61 years at Sapele. 16 January 2002. Interview with elder Agumu Isiokperhe, an Igbe member, age 79 years at Abraka P.O. 9 March, 2004. Interview with Madam Ochuko Ogoro, an Igbe priestess, age 64 years at Effurun-warri. 12th May, 2004. Interview with elder Onoriode Apiloko, an Urhobo traditionalist, age 88 years at Isiokolo. 2nd  July, 2005. Interview with Miss Comfort odjuvwu, an Igbe devotee, age 31 years at Sapele. 13 July 2006. Interview with Madam Janet Ibitoye (nee Udi), a former Igbe member, age 55 years at Isiokolo.8th September, 2006 . Interview with Mr. Jude Oguejor, a local historian, age 73 years at Orhoakpor. 10th  February, 2007. Interview with Aforhe Ukon, a Juju priest, age 71 years at Ukwokori 22nd February, 2007.


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