1. Hand a’ bowl, knife a’ throat

  2. our sacrifice dispatched

  4. 2

  5. Iron in the blood feeds
  6. your red-hot energy; fires
  7. your metallurgy in the
  8. cauldron or smelter,
  9. transmits your power
  10. to the forge, transmutes
  11. carbon into diamonds,
  12. expresses oil from rocky
  13. strate, bends the centre
  14. of gravity to your sword.

  15. For the kill, you arm
  16. battalions, beat
  17. ploughshare into gun,
  18. unleash atomic energy,
  19. distil power from the sun
  20. to shape our potential
  21. for death or - if you
  22. choose - life, for power
  23. is your calling and
  24. manifest its ways

  25. You forge our
  26. connections, you fashion
  27. our handshakes, our
  28. friendships you seal,
  29. bind out oaths sworn
  30. in blood; for the life
  31. of the spirit is fuelled
  32. by fire engendered where
  33. our heartbeats
  34. spark into life.

  35. Yet, heavenly transformer
  36. of our weak impulses,
  37. you allow our fevers,
  38. the fire in our loins,
  39. our burning desires
  40. to consume us
  41. while, knife in hand,
  42. iron-hearted warrior,
  43. you coolly
  44. stalk alone.

Annotations to the Poem

(prepared by Olive Senior)

OGUN: Warrior god of iron and war. He controls much of the material in the earth and represents primitive force and energy. He is known as Oggún in Cuba and Ogun Feraille in Haiti (“ferraille” means “iron”). The worship of Ogun may be traced back to Iron Age civilizations in Nigeria and adjacent countries.


Written by Robin Brooks, University of Pittsburgh, with Hyacinth Simpson, Ryerson University

“Ogun: God of Iron” is one of twelve poems in “Mystery: African Gods in the New World,” the final movement of Gardening in the Tropics. In this movement, each poem is named for and features a god or goddess from the pantheon of African diasporic religions practiced in the Americas. The poems are literary representations or manifestations of the gods, who are also known as orishas, spirits, or lwa. In many West African and African diasporic religions, Ogun and the other spirits are messengers of the Supreme Being (or God) and they act as intermediaries between humans and the Supreme Being1 while often displaying human characteristics and personalities. In these religions, gods and goddesses are associated with and represent one or more aspects of the human and/or natural world. Senior draws on these associations in her poetic reimagining of the African spirits. As a result, the “Mystery” poems extend Senior’s exploration of the nature theme which she explores from a variety of angles throughout the collection.

Iron is an abundant element in nature and in West African and African diaspora religions Ogun (who is also known as Oggún, Ogoun, Ogum, Gu, or Ogou) is the god of iron, metal, and metal work. In his various manifestations, he is also a warrior and is associated with war, truth, and justice. The red clothing his devotees in Haitian vodun wear is a representation of his fire energy, which is borne out in his aggressive personality. Fire also signals his transformative and creative as well as his destructive powers.


Part 1 of the poem enacts an invocation as Ogun is called on by his devotees to appear among them. The italicized line describes an act of animal sacrifice, which is a traditional way in which the spirits are invoked. The ritual is performed in a systematic manner and the sacrifice is not considered animal cruelty. Rather, it is a crucial means of gaining the attention of the spirit; and the capitalized words, “OGUN EATS FIRST” (line 3), indicate that the summoned spirit is shown deference in the feast that initiates the god’s appearance. In a ceremonial setting, once fed, the spirit appears among and communicates with the worshippers—sometimes via taking over the voice and body of one of the devotees in what is known as spirit possession. While present, the spirit provides insight into the matter for which s/he was summoned.2

Upon being summoned, Ogun is able to manifest in a myriad of ways, and the structure of the poem enables the reader’s comprehension of the forms those manifestations can take. Part 2 consists of four stanzas, each dedicated to one of Ogun’s special characteristics or associations. The first stanza addresses Ogun’s dominion over iron, metal ores, and metallurgy and highlights his power as a creator. More specifically, the stanza describes the process of creating useful and valuable products from materials that make up the earth’s core. For instance, the creative process of extracting metal from ore is apparent in lines 5-7 where Ogun’s signature iron “fires / [his] metallurgy in the / cauldron or smelter.” In metallurgical processes, when high heat is applied to metal ores in a cauldron or smelter, the metal can then be extracted from its ore. Just as metal can be extracted from ore, under high pressure and temperature carbon is transmuted into diamond while heat aids the extraction of oil from rocks (lines 9-12). The phrase “red-hot energy” (line 5) has dual signification as it refers to Ogun’s ability to transform matter with fire as well as his “explosive and fiery nature [which is] oftentimes ritually symbolized by the ignition of gunpowder” (Mason 361). Ogun is god of all those who work with iron elements, including blacksmiths who are grateful that he “transmits [his] power to the forge” (lines 8-9), the blacksmith’s workshop. The final lines of the stanza — “bends the centre / of gravity to your sword” (lines 12-13) — emphasize that materials at the core of the earth are subject to being creatively transformed by Ogun who is represented by one of his weapons: a sword.

Known as the god of iron and associated with iron-making in Africa for over two thousand years (Barnes 5), Ogun is also strongly identified with war. The second stanza, which is filled with war imagery, calls attention to Ogun’s role as a warrior god. Ogun’s energy facilitates the production of weapons, usually made of iron and other metals, for use in battle. In keeping with the first stanza’s presentation of Ogun’s ability to fashion new products out of various materials, lines 15-16 — “beat/ ploughshare into gun” — reference the popular wartime activity of transforming agricultural tools into military weapons. Here, Senior alludes to and plays on the common saying “swords to ploughshares,” which is used to encourage the transition from war to peace and engagement in peacetime activities. It refers to reconstituting weapons of destruction (such as a sword or gun) into creative and useful tools (such as the agricultural ploughshare)3 that are beneficial to civilian life.

The juxtaposition of gun and plowshare highlights Ogun’s inherent duality as both creator and destroyer. As Wole Soyinka puts it, “Ogun is [the] embodiment of Will, and the Will is the paradoxical truth of destructiveness and creativeness in acting man” (150). In short, not only can Ogun’s force create and bring forth “life” (line 21) or new products but it can also be used to destroy and bring forth “death” (line 20), which is signified in him being ready “for the kill” (line 14)4. His propensity for destruction is further demonstrated in the fact that he can be called on to “unleash atomic energy” (line 17) by manipulating the atom and harnessing its potential for mass devastation. Or, on the productive side, his energy can facilitate the utilization of solar energy that can be used to sustain the various activities of modern life. It is not surprising that Senior foregrounds both creation and destruction, life and death, in her presentation of Ogun. Elsewhere in Gardening in the Tropics, she addresses these twinned and intertwined opposites as essential to both understanding human existence and making sense of the often traumatic histories of Caribbean communities and other cultures in the Americas. There is, for example, a purposeful symmetry in Senior’s choice to describe the gourd of the collection’s opening poem as both “womb” and “tomb” (lines 13-14) and then return to the life/death duality in “Ogun” in the closing movement of Gardening in the Tropics. The message conveyed in the creation/destruction theme in “Ogun” and the collection as a whole is the importance of maintaining balance in every area of life, and also the inevitability of the cycle of creation and destruction.

Ogun’s association with fair dealing and his role as guardian of truth and justice find expression in the third stanza in Part Two. Sandra T. Barnes describes one of the many faces of Ogun as that of a leader “who nurtures, protects, and relentlessly pursues truth, equity, and justice” (2). In this light, lines 25-29:

...you fashion
our handshakes, our
friendships you seal,
bind our oaths sworn in blood; . . .

underscore that he is linked to expressions of honesty and integrity in human relations. Whereas “forge” was used earlier in line 9 as a noun, it becomes an action word in line 24 and links Ogun’s creative power over metals to these other characteristics. In fact, these are such significant traits of Ogun that iron is used in many oath-taking ceremonies. As Henry John Drewal notes, “[I]n the courts of contemporary Nigeria, orisha worshippers swear their oath of truthfulness by putting their lips to a piece of iron and invoking Ogun’s name” (236). It is also worth noting that the sword — one of Ogun’s weapons — is a universal symbol for Justice. The sword of Justice is double-edged. It cuts both ways and can be wielded for or against any party, which mirrors Ogun’s duality. The closing lines of this stanza make it clear that although Ogun is a god, he does not act unilaterally. Rather, his force manifests when it is channeled by human agents. Lines 29-33 link Ogun’s fire/fieriness and heat to the electrical signals originating in the tissues of the heart. These electrical sparks trigger contraction and expansion of the heart’s muscles, allowing it to pump blood and oxygen that fuel life in the human body. The idea conveyed is that in each and every moment that the beating of the heart signals the continuation of human life, the potential exists for the individual to tap into Ogun’s force.

Whether that force is used for good or ill is left up to the individual. Ogun remains neutral about who he influences, or to what end his energy is used. For those with “weak impulses,” Ogun allows “our fevers, / the fire in our loins, / our burning desires/ to consume us” (lines 36-39). His destructive energies are released because of the motivations of those who call on him and not by Ogun himself; and so Ogun cannot bear the blame — or even claim the credit — for anything bad or good done in his name. Oral lore, as Adeboye Babalola indicates, casts Ogun as a “solitary figure who . . . lives and travels alone” (149). The poem’s final lines recall that lore and draws on the image of an aloof and distant god (the “iron-hearted warrior” of line 41) to underscore that humans are fully responsible for whether destruction or creation happens on earth.

Altogether, Senior’s poem pays homage to not only Ogun but also to African and African diaspora cultures. The tone of the poem is exalted, fit for a god, and the multiple uses of the words “you” and “your” suit the formality with which gods are addressed. Like the other poems in “Mystery,” “Ogun” draws on African and African diaspora spiritual beliefs, cultural practices, and storytelling traditions; and it does so in a way that demonstrates these stories and traditions are very much alive in and relevant to our understanding of contemporary societies in the Caribbean and the Americas.


1 As a result of the transatlantic slave trade and forced migrations, gods of West Africa are revered across the Caribbean as well as South and North American cultural spaces. They are a part of many African diasporic religious traditions, including Vodou in Haiti, Santería in Cuba, Obeah in Jamaica, and Shango in Trinidad. Ogun is one of the more recognizable gods from West African religious traditions, including that of the Yoruba and the Fon who refer to the Supreme Being as Olodumare or Olorun.

2 Ogun has close associations with Eshu/Legba, the god of the crossroads who opens the path. Also, like Ochosi (also known as Ososi and Osoosi), Ogun is associated with hunting. Such close associations between spirits are not unusual and reveal the interconnectedness of the orishas and various aspects of the natural and human world. In some places, Ogun, Legba, and Ochosi form a trio of warrior orishas, as Robert Farris Thompson discusses in “The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun, and Osoosi.”

3 “Swords to ploughshares” is also a biblical reference. The phrase is from the Book of Isaiah: “And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).

4 The interconnectedness of life and death is reminiscent of Eshu/Legba, the god of the crossroads who mediates between the living and dead. In Gardening in the Tropics, Senior highlights Guédé as the god of the crossroads in Haiti. Eshu/Legba and Guédé are closely associated.

Works Cited

Babalola, Adeboye. “A Portrait of Ogun as Reflected in Ijala Chants.” Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New. Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 147-72. Print.

Barnes, Sandra T. “Introduction: The Many Faces of Ogun.” Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New.Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 1-26. Print.

Drewel, Henry John. “Art or Accident: Yoruba Body Artists and Their Deity Ogun.” Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New.Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 235-262. Print.

Mason, John. “Ogun: Builder of the Lukumi’s House.” Africa’s Ogun: Old World and New.Ed. Sandra T. Barnes. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997. 353-368. Print.

Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. 1976. Cambridge: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Print.

Thompson, Robert Farris. “The Three Warriors: Atlantic Altars of Esu, Ogun, and Osoosi.” The Yoruba Artist: New Theoretical Perspectives on African Arts. Eds. Rowland Abiodun, et al. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994. 225-39. Print