theology and religion

Sopona – Giver of Smallpox

Shhh! You do not want to wake this one up! Sopona, the Yorùbá god of smallpox and infectious disease originated in northern Nigeria in the 17th century, possibly by the Nupa, Tapa or Hausa people. Also known as Sakpata in voodoo, Sopona migrated to the new world with the slave trade. He became known as Sakpata in Brazil, Shakpana in Trinidad, and Babalú Ayé in Cuban Santeria where he was disguised as St Lazarus, the saint that was so ill he died three days before being healed by Jesus. 

Carving of Sopona Credit: Sostoli via Wikimedia CC4.0

Sopona and the Gods

One day, the gods were having a party. Already a bit drunk, Sopona didn’t want to dance, given his wooden leg he probably lacked the confidence to get up and boogie. So when the other gods went to the dance floor, Sopona sat in the corner and continued drinking. Some of the gods didn’t feel comfortable with Sopona sitting in the corner, drinking alone, watching them. When they convinced him to get up and dance, Sopona got up, stumbled onto the dance floor, and fell over; the gods found this absolutely hilarious! Enraged, Sopona started smacking his friends with his cane and cursing them to go home and die. With suddenly high fevers and spots appearing all over their bodies, the gods realised they had smallpox. Sopona was banished to the forest, where he comes out in the dry season to find new victims. 

Powers of Sopona

What Sopona can give, he can also take away. Sopona also has the power to cure, so it is easy to see how he could have such a devout following in a region struggling with disease, and why the Cubans disguised him as St Lazarus, the patron saint of the sick. In one story, he found a child on the side of the road, suffering from smallpox. Sopona cured him and the locals of the area made him their new king. 

Summoning Sopona

Ideally, you don’t want to a visit from Sopona, but if you did want a debilitating disease, there are several ways to get his attention. Firstly, you can say his name nice and loud so he can hear you; burning corn cobs and palm oil will also attract him; or you can sweep your house with a specific kind of broom. Sopona is also like the debt collector of the gods; if a god has done you a favour, you need to keep up to date with your sacrifices. If Sopona visits your house, you better have your sacrifice ready for him. 

Smallpox variola virus Credit: CDC via Wikimedia Public Domain

Sopona Cults

The ugliest part of Sopona is not the disease or how the victims looked or felt after being infected. What is truly ugly is how priests used the disease to knowingly infect followers. Priests from cult-like societies would use the power of Sopona to blackmail people into paying money; those who didn’t pay, got smallpox. These priests literally harnessed the power of their god and so the disease spread much faster in the region than nature intended. If Sopona gave you the disease, he can cure you of it, but if a priest gave you the disease, it was permanent. 

Oguntola Sapara, a Yorùbá doctor joined a Sopona-cult to study and eventually eliminate small pox extortion in Nigeria. He worked with lawmakers to ban the practice, trained nurses and midwives, introduced culturally-acceptable vaccination techniques and offered free medical care for Nigeria’s poorest communities. In the fight against smallpox, he opened the Massey Street Dispensary on Lagos Island, which is now a children’s hospital. You can now visit his portrait in the National Gallery of Modern Art in Lagos. 

Figurine of Sopona Credit: CDC via Wikimedia Public Domain

Experience Sopona

Probably the best way to experience Sopona (without getting sick) in Yorùbá culture is by visiting El Ricon in Cuba for the festival of St Lazarus. The festival is on 17 December and it attended by tens of thousands of followers of Sopona/Babalú Ayé. There is also the Church of the Lukumi Babalú Ayé in Florida, an active Santeria church honouring the spirit. For the more intrepid travelers, you can find temples doted throughout West Africa, particularly Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria. 

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Further Reading:

Cure or Capitalism: An Examination of a 1960s Yorùbá Sapona Figure 
The Contribution of Dr. Oguntola Odunbaku Sapara Williams to Colonial Medical Service in Lagos 
The World of the Orishas by Arisel Arce Burguera & Armando Ferrer Castro 

Header image: Taken at a traditional medicine market, Kara, Togo

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