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2020. Enter the novel coronavirus, followed by lockdowns, social distancing and mounting anxiety in the face of deaths and economic uncertainties. Online, communities formed quickly as people worldwide sought comfort and hope on the platforms that were accessible to them. Enter Amabie, a monster from Japanese mythology believed to keep infectious disease away when its image is displayed and distributed. Amabie, a symbol of resilience, has seen the Japanese through different pandemics – cholera, measles and smallpox – for close to 200 years. With the advent of COVID-19, Amabie was adopted by the Japanese government as a symbol of its COVID-19 campaign across billboards in Japan. Chefs made sushi based on Amabie, and on social media, thousands of images were created and shared with hopeful messages. The success of Amabie draws in a large part from its reimagination, from its initial interpretation in a newspaper in Japan’s Edo period (1603 – 1868) to modern interpretations.

Closer to home, in Yorùbáland, a similar deity exists – Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, the òrìṣà of smallpox and infectious diseases. The question then arises as to why we did not see similar images of Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, ones that are relatable and familiar, used to bring people together to fight a common disease. Rather, we used billboards telling people to wear masks, when there was widespread disbelief about COVID-19 and its effects in the first place.

This has led to more questions about how we see our deities and how we understand mythology. 

In the Information Age, how come there is still so much misinformation about this deity and Yorùbá deities in general? Godchecker.com, a mythology encyclopedia, rates Ṣọ̀pọ̀na as “bad, best avoided”. A search for Ṣọ̀pọ̀na on social media platforms will reveal that the deity is invoked as a curse – “Sopona kill you” being the most popular one. Outside the worshippers of Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, scholars and mythology enthusiasts,  Ṣọ̀pọ̀na still has a bad rap as the god who inflicts smallpox on those who displease him. 

It is interesting to note that Ṣọ̀pọ̀na is also the òrìṣà of healing (as it is scientifically, the disease often holds the secret to its cure) and is revered as Babalú-Aye in Yorùbáland, the Americas and other parts of the world where the worship of òrìṣàs thrive. 

In the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic which falls under the purview of Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, is there a chance that he becomes a source and representation of hope and solace? A lot of Nigerians, despite being monotheists are not averse to animist beliefs – the number of crucifixes, prayer beads and pictures of saints produced, sold and ascribed spiritual powers, testifies to this.

Reimagining Ṣọ̀pọ̀na 

The concept of reimagination is one that is familiar and found in popular culture. One of the most memorable scenes from the Harry Potter movies is the Boggart scene where Remus Lupin teaches the children that to overcome what they fear most, they have to reimagine it. For Neville Longbottom, that meant putting Professor Snape in his grandmother’s dress. The humorous picture created helped remove some of the mystery of the object of Neville’s fear. JK Rowling did a great job of making mysticism and wizardry accessible to young audiences all over the world. 

A Google image search of the òrìṣàs will reveal pictures from a 2014 exhibition by photographer, James C. Lewis. The pictures feature black models, in the artist’s interpretation of the deities’ original forms. Lewis’ photos were shared thousands of times on social media and sparked conversations about the representation of these deities as well as serving as an introduction for the uninformed.

We live in a world that is increasing visual – photographs, videos, memes, emojis. Most digital platforms now make provision for the inclusion of visual content. The power of what is seen can be harnessed in the move to reimagine deities like Ṣọ̀pọ̀na much in the same way Lewis did.  An example of this power in action can be found in the annual Day of the Dead parades in Mexico City, inspired by a scene in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre

Roye Okupe’s YouNeek media and Kugali Media by Fikayo Adeola have sought to provide new representations of deities and historical Nigerian figures using comics and animations. In 2020, the latter announced a first-of-its-kind collaboration with Disney Animation to create an all-new, science fiction series, Iwájú. While these are welcome advancements, there is still work to do; re-education needs to become even more mainstream.

With our awareness of where the world is right now, one thing is clear – a deity that has kept the same reputation and image for hundreds of years, defying the natural process of evolution, cannot be demystified by chance. More than ever, we should be deliberate about reimagining our symbols of hope and healing like the Japanese have with Amabie. It could be Ṣọ̀pọ̀na. It could be other deities; ones that we can unify around in a world whose future grows increasingly uncertain.  

(First published in Sahara Notes e-magazine, October 2021)

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