Published September 20, 2012
Along the quiet corridors of UB’s Department of Anthropology labors a man who, unknown to his colleagues, has been a hero to the Igbomina Yoruba town of Esie (ess-ee-YEH) in southwest Nigeria for nearly five decades.
Phillips Stevens Jr., associate professor, will be honored in Esie on Dec. 1 when the traditional ruler of the town, HRM Oba Yakubu Babalola, bestows upon him the Yoruba chieftaincy title “The Erewumi of Esie Kingdom.”
“Erewumi” means “I get along well with the images” and it recognizes and honors Stevens’ work to preserve and celebrate the stone images of Esie, Africa’s largest and most mysterious collection of stone statuary. His efforts put Esie on the map and provoked an economic boon for the town that continues to this day.
“Now, if I was Nigerian,” says Stevens, “this chieftaincy could be very lucrative, as chiefs are very important figures, much honored, and have considerable political and economic influence in the region.”
Stevens’ relationship with Esie began almost 50 years ago after a 1963-64 teaching stint in the Peace Corps. During that period, he worked part time for Nigeria’s Department of Antiquities, now the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which later offered him a full-time job.
In 1965, he switched assignments to work full time for the Department of Antiquities, and was sent to Esie to document, catalogue, help repair a collection of 1,000 fragile, carved soapstone figures that were falling to ruin and build a new museum in which to house them. He lived and worked there until May 1966, when he returned to enter the graduate program in anthropology at Northwestern University.
In his 1978 book, “The Stone Images of Esie, Nigeria” (Ibadan University Press/Federal Department of Antiquities; NY: Holmes & Meier/Africana), Stevens writes that the images “are of unknown origin and purpose, and continue to be regarded as one of the continent’s great mysteries. They represent men, women, children and animals, and range in height from about 5 inches to nearly 4 feet.”
He points out in the book that the Esie tradition holds that the images are the petrified remains of visitors from afar. The natives maintain that they themselves did not make them.
“Whatever their origins and purpose,” he says, “the figures have occupied a central place in local cosmology since the ancestors of the Esie people came to that place in the mid-19th century and, until recently, were revered by a cult with an established priesthood.
“Some of the figures appear to be reveling, laughing, playing musical instruments,” he writes, “but most are stern, and many are armed as if for war. Their designs represent a wide variety of cultural influences, and all are presided over by a ‘king’ whose body is darkened by the caked blood of countless sacrifices.”
Stevens says that in the 1930s, the British colonial government heard about a large collection of mysterious soapstone statues in a sacred grove outside the sleepy town, and in 1945 collected them and housed them in a shelter. By the time Stevens arrived in 1965, the shelter was collapsing and many of the frangible statues were broken or otherwise damaged, some apparently deliberately.
He immediately began his documentary and preservation work, and supervised the construction of a new museum complex—the National Museum of Esie, still standing—in which to house the collection.
In 1974, he returned to the town to further document and photograph the statues for his book, which is the only complete catalogue of the collection and includes the history and meaning of the images and a report of Stevens’ research into their possible origins. It was published in conjunction with the Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture held in Nigeria in 1977.
Stevens’ relationship with the town of Esie continued. In 1994, he returned for a visit and met the new chief, Alhaji Yakubu Babalola, the Elesie or “Master” of Esie, who had been installed in 1987. This November, the Elesie will celebrate his 25th year on the throne and as part of the festivities will confer the honorary chieftaincy upon Stevens.
Stevens’ installation will involve a new suit of ceremonial robes (now in preparation), which will include billowy pants, a loose shirt, heavily embroidered robe and a cap, all topped by a garland of sacred leaves.
There will be much revelry and a few days in Esie’s best hotel, and he will again tour the museum he built, visit the statues he helped save and receive the enthusiastic accolades of the people of Esie for a job well done.
Stevens’ research, teaching and writing focuses on religion and cultural change, and the anthropology of West Africa and the Caribbean.
He has published papers on such topics as demonology, spirit possession, sorcery and witchcraft in lore and practice; rites of passage; liminality in ritual and cults; sexuality and culture; and the anthropology of sacrifice. In 2011, Routledge published his edited four-volume work on the anthropology of religion.
His articles “Sexuality and Culture,” “Mystical Genital Power” and “Sexual Pollution” will be published next year in the “Encyclopedia of Sexuality,” edited by Patricia Whelehan and Anne Bolin (Wiley-Blackwell). He also is preparing a major work on the anthropology of magic and witchcraft.