Shapona, the Yoruba god of smallpox
Perhaps the most iconic object in the David J. Sencer CDC Museum is Shapona, the Yoruba god of smallpox. It represents the international effort to eradicate smallpox in the 1960s and 1970s.
One of four in the CDC Museum collection, this Shapona is on display. The figure was commissioned along with several others in 1969 from a fetisheur from Abeokuta (near Lagos) shortly before the May Inter-regional Seminar on Smallpox Eradication held in Lagos.
It is a unique carved wooden figure upon which are layered meaningful objects such as monkey skulls, cowrie shells, and fur. Yoruba legend held that the supreme god delegated authority over various kingdoms of the world to his two sons. To his second born son, Shango, he gave control of the sky ; but to his eldest, Shapona, he gave control of the earth, who nourished man by giving him all the grains of the earth, but when he punished, he caused those grains men had eaten to come out on their skins (Challenor 1971, 57-59). Thus, smallpox was an indication of divine displeasure. Formal worship of Shapona was highly controlled by specific priests in charge of shrines to the god. People believed that if angered, the priests were believed capable of causing smallpox outbreaks themselves. Although the British colonial rulers banned the worship of Shapona in 1907 because they suspected the priests of deliberately spreading smallpox, the god continued to be worshipped.
In the 1960s and 1970s, WHO and CDC vaccination teams in Dahomey, Togo, and western Nigeria encountered some cultural resistance from Shapona worshippers who thought they were being asked to make war on one of their own deities. Ultimately, these cultural challenges were met and overcome in this part of Africa as well as other parts of the world. Don Millar, Director of the Smallpox Eradication Program, wrote in a 1969 memo to Smallpox Eradication Program personnel, “Immediately after Christmas, George Lythcott came in for two days of consultation, bearing with him a gift of great import from Rafe and Ilze Henderson – an authentic Soponna [sic] fetish of the Babaligbo cult of Aebokuta, Western Nigeria. Rafe’s comment which accompanied the fetish, ‘In hopes this will soon be a relic of the past’.” Eleven years later, in 1980, the World Health Organization officially declared smallpox eradicated.
Take a closer look:
- View two additional Shapona statues in the CDC Museum collection, each uniquely carved.
- View historic images of a map of Western Africa and Donald Millar holding a Shapona statue.
- Check out historic photographs of the Nigerian Smallpox Vaccination Team in 1967 studying strategies and discussion implementations, along with a glimpse of a Nigerian smallpox laboratory in the 1960s.
- View the Ped-O-Jet in use and a vaccination queue in Benin, which was formerly the country of Dahomey.
- View 1970s captures of Donald Henderson outside the Bangladesh National Smallpox Eradication Program Center and Dr. William Foege on assignment in the Indian State of Bihar.
- Learn more about smallpox and the variola virus, as well as other poxvirus diseases.
- Take a look at a transmission electron microscope image of a tissue section containing variola virus particles and a photomicrograph showing a skin specimen infected with the smallpox variola virus.
Then and now:
- In the 1960s and 1970s, WHO and CDC vaccination teams did not — initially, at least — take into account the impact that the vaccine program would have on local culture and religion. Read about important lessons CDC learned regarding international collaboration during an outbreak and, most importantly, cultural competence.
- Explore the contributions of CDC to smallpox eradication in this CDC and the smallpox crusade
- Take a close look at historic Smallpox Eradication Program reports:
- View a comprehensive timeline of the spread and eradication of smallpoxpdf icon — spanning 3rd Century BCE to the 20th
- Learn more about the history of smallpox and the last known case of smallpox.
- Read about the WHO response to smallpoxexternal icon.
Give it a try:
- Looking to take your smallpox knowledge a step further? Check out CDC’s Yellow Book chapter covering smallpox & other similar infections.
- Explore smallpox with these coloring sheets: