BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Along the quiet corridors of the University at
Buffalo 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., PhD, associate professor of anthropology
at UB, will be honored in Esie on Dec. 1 when the traditional ruler
of the town, HRM Oba Yakubu Babalola, will bestow 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
collections of stone statuary. His efforts put Esie on the map and
provoked an economic boon for the town that continues to this
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, which sent him to Esie to document,
catalogue and 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
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," Stevens 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
"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 this 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 a collapsing structure and many of the
frangible statues were broken or otherwise damaged, some apparently
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
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. In November, the Elesie will celebrate Babalola's 25th year
on the throne.
As part of the festivities he 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.
"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
In his case, however, there will be no political clout but much
revelry, a few days in Esie's best hotel and Stevens 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
Stevens' research, teaching and writing focuses on religion and
cultural change and the anthropology of West Africa and the
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 Steven's
edited four-volume work in 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), and he is preparing a major work on the
anthropology of magic and witchcraft.