A God of Male Power and Sexuality?

On September 1, 2016 by Josh Vandiver

"African God of Fire, Lightning, and Thunder Represents Male Power and Sexuality"Shango – Xango – Chango takes many forms in indigenous West Africa and in the African diaspora, many of them highly masculinized. My concern is primarily with popular representations of the god-king Shango – especially with respect to men’s bodies, masculinity, and virility – to which we will return in a moment. Analyses, and indeed disputes, about Shango in terms of sex and gender are certainly occurring among religious practitioners and scholars, however. A good example is the work of Olóyè Àìná Ọlọmọ, a Yorùbá priestess and teacher of Yoruba religious studies at UT-Austin, who is concerned with Shango’s “divine nature” and “cosmic consciousness” in contrast to Shango the “social icon” (311):

As a divine consciousness, the divinity of thunder and lightning has been bogged down by the historical antics of men of power on both sides of the sea. In the societies of Yorùbá-based traditions Ṣàngó is narrowly considered to be the driving force behind men who are womanizers, cruel leaders, and unscrupulous scoundrels. The energy of this òrìṣà is primarily understood as being demonstrated within the context and experience of society’s masculine roles. These predominantly male actions and activities are assigned to and expected of a person not because of the individual’s spiritual development, but because of the individual’s biology. This gendered distinction is also true of men and women who are consecrated to Ṣàngó. Men are often encouraged to be highly visible, promiscuous, aggressive, and domineering. In contrast, women who are consecrated to the god-king Ṣàngó are encouraged not to be leaders, not to speak out, and to develop a demure demeanor in the company of men. (311-12)

Ọlọmọ goes on to describe Shango as a “force of nature” – manifested in forms of “thunder, lightning, fire, electricity, and sound” interacting with “elements of nature that are fluid, receptive, and consequently characterized as female divinities” like wind, water, and sea – while strongly challenging common representations of the god-king depicting a “charismatic deity as the human warlord and the womanizer of Yorùbá spiritual mythology” (312). For our present purposes, not Ọlọmọ’s revaluation of Shango as a force of nature but the more widespread, popular, sexual, and political depiction of Shango – which she is challenging – are most relevant:

Ṣàngó as a divinity of most Yorùbá-based traditions has been primarily mythologized through stories and artistic representations of masculine power and leadership. Ṣàngó of the Old World and Ṣàngó of the so-called New World are regarded as male forces that dominate and take advantage of the people under his care or within his domain. Is this divinity a character driven by the need to expand his domain, and by his unquenchable urge to acquire territory? (312)

In these two passages, Ọlọmọ challenges the popular mythology linking Shango’s masculine qualities to the male sex, specifically, and to certain visible, promiscuous, aggressive, and expansionist forms of sexual and political activity. It is in this context that I point to the following two popular representations, both of which worthy of being analyzed at length.


Shango and Masculinity

Xango–Shango–Chango: "African God of Fire, Lightning, and Thunder Represents Male Power and Sexuality"First, a highly masculinized representation of Shango can be seen in this depiction, one of the most popular in image searches of the god-king. It is one of a series of similar images depicting the Orishas, originally produced by Noire3000, which appear on a number of sites. The text accompanying the image reads:

African God of Fire, Lightning, and Thunder
Represents Male Power and Sexuality

The image of Shango presented here is of a young black man in three poses, one frontal and two in mirrored profile. The man may be unclothed, save for a visible headdress, but his body is visible only from the navel up. Below the navel, flames and lightning block the viewer’s gaze. What the viewer does see of the man’s body is highly muscular with flawless skin save for what appears to be ritual scarification or adornment. The man’s body displays particular definition in his abdominals, the vascularity of his biceps, and the tendons of his neck. To the Western eye, this image of Shango also suggests sexual desire and virility, insofar as youthfulness, healthfulness, and states of undress are associated with desire and sexual activity. And then there is the fact that the flames and lightning appear to emanate from the man’s loins, with the flames on the right and left positioned similar to erections sported by the figures in profile.

Another highly masculinized and sexualized Shango appears in the following description of Chango in Santeria:

Chango is the quintessential masculine life force. He is the positive charge of the universe, the first bolt of lightening as the storm arrives, the luck of the business deal, the lord of drumming beats. He is male sexuality embodied, the original Don Juan. Chango is a fierce warrior, yet at the same time, a highly charming man who can woo any woman he wants and smooth talk himself out of most any difficult situation.

If you have met a man who is the life of the party, is boastful but can somehow get away with his ego, and is always finding a date, chances are he is under the protection of Chango. A true king of men, he has his bouts of anger and faults as well as any of us, so he can be sympathetic to the human condition. Chango is essential to any man’s sexual health, virility, and luck.


Works Cited

Olóyè Àìná Ọlọmọ, “Ṣàngó beyond Male and Female,” in Ṣàngó in Africa and the African Diaspora, Joel E. Tishken et al., eds. (Indiana University Press, 2009), 311-322

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Josh Vandiver, a graduate of Harvard College and Princeton University, is an American political scientist and intellectual historian. Based in Manhattan, he was the Lord Harlech Fellow at New College, Oxford, and has taught at the University of Chicago and Williams College.