Home Columnist Esu and his sympathisers: The defence of Bishop Ajayi Crowther

Esu and his sympathisers: The defence of Bishop Ajayi Crowther

 *The Danger of Pseudo- Yoruba Activism and Cultural Nationalism* 

by Church Times

By Moses Oludele Idowu

” What in me is dark illumine, what is low raise and support; that to the Height of this great argument I may assert th’ Eternal providence.
And justify the ways of God to men.”
     – John Milton, Paradise Lost
We must thank God for Social Media and the creation of several social media platforms in our time. This has afforded some of us the opportunity to also air our views and challenge false narratives, misleading concepts, and distortions from various sources, “scholars”, pseudo-cultural nationalists, writers, traditionalists masquerading as scholars, etc.
Gone are the days when only certain narratives are allowed in the public space and even in universities because these groups control the organs and media of public information dissemination. Time has changed. We now also have the media to express our views and be heard. The public can then judge who is telling the truth.
 I will be exploring one of the popular myths, insinuations, distortions, misconceptions, and mischaracterizations around one of the most illustrious Africans and one of the most distinguished Yoruba sons of all time, the very reverend and first bishop of Equatorial Africa, Samuel Ajayi Crowther.

 *Introduction*: *Background to the Essay* 

Some weeks ago I listened to a podcast on Facebook by the very loquacious Reno Omokri, a former spokesman of former president Goodluck Jonathan where in the course of his long rambling about what he called History he lambasted the very memory and work of Ajayi Crowther.
He said Crowther did a great injustice and havoc to Yorubaland “by translating Esu as Satan.” When a person has worked so closely with a ranking Nigerian politician you need to examine carefully everything he says or writes. Because no one can work closely with a politician without some of their traits and manners rubbing off on you and it will be difficult to think straight as a scholar.
And when a man was a spokesman of the most corrupt administration, the most corruptive government that ever presided over a black nation ( until Muhammadu Buhari and his APC gang of looters came) then you need to be careful about the opinion of such a fellow before accepting it as academic opinion or scholarship.
 Unfortunately, more than a hundred thousand youths on Facebook read or heard this diatribe by a so-called pastor against Bishop Crowther and it is for them I am writing this and others who have been so misled.
In the course of this essay, I will show why Omokri’s statement lacks weight, is devoid of logic, and even bereft of scholarship.
Then a few weeks later I saw Remi Oyeyemi’s article ominously titled: ESU: THE REVENGE OF BISHOP CROWTHER.
As usual, he was full of expletives and in his article rather than stopping at Crowther with whom he has a dispute, he decided to also disparage the Bible which he calls the “Euro- Christian holy book”  and “Euro- Christianity”.
It is amazing how very little the men who take it upon themselves to educate the public and speak to the public really know. What is Euro- Christianity or Euro- Christian holy book?
In rude and uncouth language he calls Ajayi Crowther and his other compatriots “a willing tool of colonialists in the denigration of Yoruba culture.” Yet, has anyone invested more in the making of the Yoruba language than Bishop Ajayi Crowther?
Dripping with expletives and other toxic and mutinous language Oyeyemi believes that  Ajayi Crowther short of suffering from “morphological limitations” about the Yoruba language the only reason for Crowther’s action of translating Esu as Satan could only have arisen as a form of revenge. Since he was sold into slavery as a boy by the same Yoruba people Crowther must have nurtured an act of revenge against his fatherland and that was why he deliberately translated Esu as Satan, according to columnist Remi Oyeyemi.
 If this were the logic or thinking of a sophomore it could be forgiven for its pedagogical incompetence but for a columnist of a national newspaper and an opinion moulder, ir makes me afraid about the future of Nigeria.

 Where is the logic here? 

If Crowther was minded on revenge why would he take that revenge on Esu who is just one of the divinities in the Yoruba pantheon and certainly not the preeminent or the supreme being? ESU is not the Supreme Being of the YORUBAS and he is not even the most famous or universally worshiped. He is not even as favoured as Ogun, the god of iron and he is not superior to Olodumare. So why would Crowther single out Esu for revenge?
Oyeyemi claims to have done some research before writing and I can see how hollow and shallow was his research. He has cited only one scholar, Professor Aiyejina, and one paper. Martin Luther warns us about the danger of a “man of one book.” When a man has read only one book or one paper you need to be careful of that one.
 Today for the one paper he has cited I will cite ten and for the one scholar or professor he has cited I will cite 10 other professors, canons, and authorities of Yoruba language, religion, and the Art of translation to show that Crowther was justified.
Not long after this again I saw Professor Wole Soyinka’s comment on Facebook posted by a group named Ashe Foundation. Soyinka was also speaking along this line about the concept of Esu and the “mistranslation” of the word to Satan by missionaries.
However, Soyinka was very careful in his own disagreement with the translation, not once did he condemn Ajayi Crowther or even mention him by name or excoriated him for the ” violence” done to Esu. Yet Soyinka is Yoruba and a cultural icon and nationalist, unlike his uncouth, rude and indecent, less educated, and underachieving “others” who abused Crowther he did not. That is how you know a man of culture.
No true Yoruba son and scholar will speak in a disparaging and abusive manner of Ajayi Crowther. Either he is not a true scholar or he is not Yoruba. Or both.
Then a few days ago an unknown group by the name of Isese Welfare Association with an office in Ibadan released a “Public Announcement” where they warned ( threatened, is a better word) all adherents of ” foreign religions” to stop referring to their revered divinity, Esu Laalu Elegbara as Satan. They particularly took exception to the Christian prayer: “Ki Olorun ba Esu wi.”
It is at this point that I now decided to respond to these comments and some that might have escaped my binoculars with an expository essay.

 *The Case Against and For Ajayi Crowther* 

At the root of all these innuendos against Crowther was the translation of one word. The traditionalists, Yoruba scholars, and ultra-cultural nationalists and activists are contesting the fact that Esu is not Satan and Crowther was wrong to have made Esu, a divinity of the Yoruba Satan in his translation of the Bible. This is the Cruz.
It is true that Esu of the Yoruba religious cosmologies and of the Yoruba religious imagination is not the same person as Satan – especially the character portrayed in the New Testament. That is a fact that all scholars agreed with. Crowther too knew that and must have known that. We must give it to him and accord him with that minimal respect.
Why then did Crowther translate Satan as Esu in the Yoruba Bible? Is it a mistranslation? Or, as Remi Oyeyemi in a perversion of logic asserts, an act of revenge against his own people who sold him to slavery?
Most of our scholars, cultural nationalists, and traditionalists who are excoriating Crowther are doing great injustice to themselves without knowing and without realizing it.
Tell me, is it logical to insult a man because of the mistranslation of one word in a book of more than 600 pages,- assuming we can even call it a mistranslation?
The King James Version which was the product of the best and greatest scholars of the British Empire and which was the product of several years still has some flaws when you read the Hebrews and Greek Bible in the original language. And this was the product of several scholars and having the works of Tyndale’s and Luther’s German Scripture as guides and samples. In some cases even the Yoruba Bible excelled the King James Version in some areas; and this is the work of largely one man – a Yoruba son.
Is it scholarship and does it stand with logic to condemn a man because of one word in a book of such massive volume, a gargantuan undertaking?
Perhaps many do not know and some of our scholars need to be educated that Crowther’s translation of the Bible to Yoruba and the development of a system of orthography made the Yoruba language. That there is a Yoruba language today that you can write and read is largely due to Crowther and his fellow missionaries that some pseudo-scholars and Yoruba activists are calling “slaves of colonialists.”
How do you know a bastard? One way is that he lacks cultural and historical memory, a robust sense of history, and appreciation of his illustrious forbears.

Martin Luther

The German nation still honours the memory of Martin Luther. The Nazis worshiped his memory. Pilots of even Allied Forces during the World War flew their jets low at the risk of their own lives before throwing bombs so as to see the objects clearly so that they don’t destroy the memory of Martin Luther. That is how white men treasured the memory of their heroes and illustrious sons.
Martin Luther did for Germany what Crowther has done for Yorubaland; his translation of the Bible to German made the German language, a high language that could be used for development. That is what Crowther has done. However, while Luther is revered Crowther is excoriated, insulted, abused, maligned, and ignored by people who claim to be scholars, cultural activists, icons, etc.
Usman Dan Fodio whose major achievement was bringing wars, pogroms, jihads, mindless violence, terror, and bloodshed on the indigenous peoples has a Federal University named after him while Ajayi Crowther who has invested in the translation and development of several Nigerian languages is ignored by our Government at both state and federal, the only university standing to his name today is owned by the Anglican Church denomination.
That is the black man for you. If you want proof that something indeed is wrong with the black man the treatment ( or mistreatment, rather ) of Bishop Ajayi Crowther by both government and the people is the best proof.
Everything I have said so far is preparatory to this. I am building a foundation for my argument. Now I want to begin the argument by organising my thoughts around six major pillars and fundamentals :
1. The Character of Esu in Yoruba Religious Cosmologies
2. Possible Reasons Why Crowther Used Esu as a Symbol of Satan
3. The Witness of Several Leading Scholars and Yoruba Professors
4. The Rule of Translation According to Martin Luther
5. The Vindication of Ajayi Crowther
6. Concluding Remarks

Read also: Ajayi Crowther translated Bible to Igbo for the first time: https://churchtimesnigeria.net/ajayi-crowther-translated-the-bible-igbo/

1. *Esu in Yoruba Cosmology*

Yoruba cultural activists who are up in arms against Crowther insist that it was an act of damage to view Esu as Satan of the Bible and that Crowther must be held responsible for this mischaracterization. They insist that Esu is not an evil being like Satan but “an enforcer of discipline and will of Olodumare” and the custodian of Ase ( vital force). Even Professor Wole Soyinka himself made allusion to this one-sided proposition about Esu.
In this affirmation, by our Yoruba activists, they forget and violate one of the cardinal defining characteristics of Esu: indeterminacy. If they have probed further deeper into Yoruba religious culture, language and metaphors, and Metaphysics they should have known that Esu is not one-sided but many-sided, double-faced, trickster, unpredictable, etc. He can be both good and evil, a spoiler and a tempter.
Let me quote Professor Bolaji Idowu:
“It is strongly believed among the Yorubas and the beliefs affect their religious attitude that… Esu is capable of promoting good or evil with what appears to be unrestrained licence…” ( OLODUMARE: GOD IN YORUBA BELIEF, Longman,1962:45)
Esu is considered to be feared and dreaded among the Yoruba that even other divinities feared him. As an ” “inspector general” he inspects and checks the works of men for necessary sanctions like a police.
Of course, he is not Satan of the Judeo- Christian characterization in the ultimate sense of the word but this does not explain the issue. He is the nearest approximation of Satan both in his character, manners, traits and disposition, and actions and this is what our modern sympathizers are ignoring. No other divinity of the Yoruba pantheon embodies most of the wily, cunning, and evil characteristics of Satan as revealed in the Bible like Esu Elegbara of Yoruba Religious Cosmology.

Bolaji Idowu admitted this but also noted the similarities:

” He is certainly not the Devil of our New Testament acquaintance who is an out-and-out evil power in opposition to the plan of God’s salvation of men. On the whole, it would be near the truth to parallel him with Satan in the Book of Job, where Satan is one of the ministers of God and has the office of trying men’s sincerity and putting their religion to the proof.” ( pp.78-79)
It is essential to know that Idowu ascribed certain traits and similarities to Esu of Satan. In the story of Job where one of Satan’s offices as the tempter came to the fore Job a righteous man was tried and nearly destroyed by this evil being “who walks to and fro in the earth and up and down in it.” Esu of Yoruba religion is exactly like this and of this designation. He is ubiquitous and always about his business of inspection just like Satan who is also busy walking up and down on the earth to steal and kill and destroy.
Esu too has the power to kill, the power of death which is symbolised by one of his objects of worship, the Esu’s club ( p 79)
Esu also possesses several complex and complicated characteristics. He is malicious, mischief- maker, spoiler, etc. Again I quote Professor Bolaji Idowu whose work was based on Yoruba Oral Tradition and Sources:
“He is feared also because incidentally, he is in addition to being malicious, a mischief-maker quite capable of causing confusion, bringing about complicated situations, or promoting malice among people. By his guile, he would make enemies of very close friends, cause husband and wife to quarrel, and make antagonists of father and children.” ( p.80)
Every other scholar and researcher agrees essentially with the characterisation given by Bolaji Idowu above.

Here is what Professor Omosade Awolalu another researcher says about Esu:

“In his actions, he is ambivalent as he is ambidextrous. What is intriguing about Esu is that he does not discriminate in carrying out errands – good as well as evil – he can be used as an instrument of retaliation; he can create enmity between father and children or between husband and wife as he can do between two good friends… he can cause a person to misbehave or to act abnormally as he can force a debtor to pay up a debt owed to a creditor ( if the latter seeks his help) …” [ See Yoruba Beliefs And Sacrificial Rites, Longman Press, 1979 p. 29]
Virtually all other scholars from Geoffrey Parrinder to Pierre Verger,  Williams Bascom, J.O Lucas, and R E Dennet all maintained similar positions to the two illustrious scholars quoted above.

2. *Possible Reasons Why Crowther Used Esu as Symbol of Satan* 

There is another higher witness than even the scholars: Yoruba folklore, pithy sayings, and proverbs. In the common language and expression of the Yoruba, how is Esu seen and typified? As a being of good or evil?
Again I shall mention three common expressions in the Yoruba language and idioms about beliefs on Esu.
* Ko se iduro de, ko si se isa fun”  ( “One neither flees from nor waits for him “)
What kind of being bears this kind of characteristics other than Satan, except a being of malignant evil? Someone you must not wait for and you must not run away from him lest you offend him! And this is what our native people and forefathers who were closer to the Source believed about Esu.
* Again when a person behaves abnormally or brings harm to himself or to others Yorubas would say, “Esu lo’ tii si” ( meaning, Esu has stirred him into it)
* Again the wicked, headstrong, and malevolent characters are called in Yoruba language, “Omo Esu” ( sons of Esu). If a man acts wickedly and malevolently it is said that he is being driven by Esu ( Esu l’o’ n se e’).

What do all these sum up to?

Even our forefathers who were closer to our ancestors than us and who heard firsthand about these characters from the undiluted Oral Source associated evil with Esu among all other divinities and dreaded him.
So Bishop Crowther who was closer to the Source and knew more of Yoruba language than all our professors put together merely followed the very beliefs and characterisation of Esu as a being possessing guiles, wiles, and trickery just like Satan, the Old Serpent of the Bible who was a master of deception, cunning and wiles. He did not create Esu as evil, YORUBAS already believed he is evil. Crowther only codified and canonised it.
Is there much difference between these traits above and the Satan of the Bible?
Sure, Esu is not a being of wholly evil disposition because the kind of dualism and mind-matter antithesis or polarity so dominant in the Greek religious-philosophical system does not exist in Yoruba Cosmology. Even granted, Esu still harbour enough characteristics to be linked with Satan of the Bible even if he is not directly so. If Esu is not Satan of the Bible then he must be one of his top and closest lieutenants and agents.
So Crowther was not wrong in appropriating the name of Esu as Satan in his work of translation. To be sure he was not totally right to say Esu is Satan, especially in the New Testament understanding of that term but neither was he wrong to use him for no one among the divinities known to the Yoruba Imagination embodies, reveals, or manifests, and epitomizes most of the evil traits of Satan as tempter, seducer, spoiler, destroyer, killer, trickster, ( the old serpent) liar, perjurer like Esu Elegbara of Yoruba Religion.
All the Yoruba cultural activists who are mouthing plenty of nonsense and ignorance in the name of scholarship are only revealing their ignorance. Should Crowther have used a figure unknown to the native people in their local language? Is that the rule of translation?

3. *The Witness of Several Leading Scholars and Writers* 

The argument that Crowther was trying to revenge his slavery on the Yoruba fails on many grounds. Because the witness of D O  Fagunwa is against it.
D.O. Fagunwa, the most illustrious author of Yoruba land whom Odia Ofeimum, poet and essayist believes is the greatest writer ever to emerge from Yorubaland also follows in the footsteps of Crowther above.
How did he describe and categorize Esu in his celebrated works? In his *Irinkerindo Ninu Igbo Elegbeje*, Fagunwa portrays Esu Elegbara as a being of a “malevolent spirit who menaces the pilgrims early on their journey and drives Irinkerindo into the river.” Again when the pilgrims visited Hell it was Esu again that became their tour guide. [ See Akin Adesokan et al(eds) Celebrating D.O. Fagunwa, Bookcraft, 2017 p.120]
So even the greatest writer of Yoruba extraction did not depart from the beliefs that Esu is associated with evil.
So are we saying that Fagunwa too was biased against Yoruba and Yoruba culture and language? If Crowther was acting based on vengeance what motives was Fagunwa acting from?
Can any of our professors today, past or present stand near D O. Fagunwa on the use and deployment of Yoruba language, idioms, culture, and philosophy? Has anyone invested more in the development and growth of the Yoruba language as a medium of discourse, communication, expression, and power as Daniel Fagunwa? But he also followed the tradition of Crowther.
Samuel Johnson in his magisterial *History of the YORUBAS* also followed a similar direction. He describes Esu as the “evil one, the author of all evil” who has to be specially propitiated to avert evil. ( See p.34)
Professor Roland Hallgren in his excellent book THE VITAL FORCE: A Study of Ase in the Traditional and Neo-traditional Culture of the Yoruba, Lund, 1995 has this to say about Esu:
” He is a nervous deity who wants to stir up trouble between both deities and humans…he gives sanctions to both quarrels and tranquility” ( p. 91)
Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted that a major characteristic of Esu is his complexity and defiance of categorization. In his book THE SIGNIFYING MONKEY he listed some of his “qualities” to include among others – ” individuality, satire, parody, irony, magic, indeterminacy, open- endedness, ambiguity, sexuality, chance, uncertainty, disruption and reconciliation, betrayal and loyalty, closure, and disclosure, encasement, and rupture.” ( 1988:6)
Professor Jacob Campbell in his “Power And Paradox in the Trickster Figure” noted Esu’s hypersexuality and Prof. Ogundipe notes his genderless characteristics as he is able to manifest as male and also show feminine characteristics. Exactly the kind of traits you should expect in a trickster demon bent on ensnaring mankind.
  I should stop here.

4. *Luther’s Rule of Translation* 

Martin Luther laid this as a guide that in translation authors should not aim at a word-for-word meaning or translation because this tends to obscure and lose the meaning of what is intended. Instead, Luther counseled that a translator should endeavour to look for similar and correlative terms that capture the meaning of the original language.
Thus in translating Satan or devil Crowther would not be helping his Yoruba listeners by creating a new term foreign to their native understanding. He must use the word or term already clear in their native imagination. He is translating not writing. Sure, Esu is not exactly the Devil or Satan but he is the most like him and closest in character, manners, and ways.
Crowther is therefore vindicated.

5. *The Vindication of Ajayi Crowther* 

This generation and even the one before cannot appreciate fully what Crowther did for the Yoruba Nation. He was a pathfinder. Without his effort, there would not have been a flood of Yoruba literature and writers all over Yoruba land that paved the way for education and learning. If Crowther had not lived there won’t have been a J.F. Odunjo or a D.O. Fagunwa or Lucas or Arobiodu and so forth.
That is not a man you insult or despise or call names because of the translation of one term in the Bible – an excellent work of scholarship and art.
To insult such a man is not scholarship, it is an abuse of authority.
To brand, such a man as a slave of colonialists is an abuse of language and an abuse of knowledge. It is uncouth, indecent, foolish, utter balderdash, and pernicious nonsense. If this is the heresy that is being taught in our universities today in the name of scholarship then it is sad and the future is very bleak. I can’t see the logic here. Only foolishness and plain nonsense.
Bishop Ajayi Crowther is a hero of all time and a benefactor of the Yoruba race. If you cannot see that then you are intellectually unsound. You need to weep for a nation where such men are ignored and – which is worse – abused, excoriated, slandered, and maligned. Perhaps that is why Nigeria is so “blessed.”
I am ready to meet anyone on this debate on any platform at any time. Let the debate begin. Crowther is a hero, not a villain.
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Moses Oludele Idowu is a researcher, writer and author of more than 40 books and several papers; he is a chartered engineer and management consultant.
© Moses Oludele Idowu
      May 13, 2023
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Alfred Rotimi Adeyeri June 23, 2023 - 1:29 pm

In one of the literature works that I read, Esu was eulogized as ‘the confuser of men’. Esu in Yoruba mythology or Devil as described in the Bible is not ‘ugly’ but wonderfully made, handsome and attractive. He is an agent of God that regularly or at when needed or necessary come to the presence of God or Eledumare. He in both culture is an agent of God/Eledumare.
The problem with Esu/Devil is not his person, but his actions/attitude which caused the Biblical God to perceived him not safe to be close him.
It’s like a father that painfully bargained or forced a distance between him and a wayward child that wanted to cause havoc within the family fold. That doesn’t mean that the relationship never existed or that they sometimes don’t have things to do together. But the conditions and terms are now spelt for the purpose of peace.
Just as Eledumare (the maker of heaven, earth and all things) is unarguably synonymous with the Biblical God, Esu is unarguably synonymous with the Biblical Satan.
After all, it often said that the origin of Yoruba culture emanated from middle East/ Arabian peninsula the Biblical culture equally emanated.
Therefore, it can never be off point to describe Devil as Esu or Esu as Satan either in attitudinal attributes or the dominating spirit tendencies.

Omotola Charles Olusanya June 24, 2023 - 4:57 pm

This piece is mind boggling, eye-opening and thought provoking. This is huge And should sure be pushed out there more.
More ink to your pen.

"Ajayi Crowther's short account of his journey into slavery" November 5, 2023 - 9:51 pm

[…] Also read: Esu and his sympathisers: In defense of Ajayi Crowther:https://churchtimesnigeria.net/esu-and-his-sympathisers-the-defence-of-bishop-ajayi-crowther/ […]


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