William Fagg writing about the present figure (Christie's London, 17 June 1980, lot 236) states: "This is one of about six or seven pieces in the same Ijebu style which are thought to have been cast in the eighteenth century and to have been housed in the ile awo, or 'holy of holies', of the Ogboni House (iledi) at the big town of Owu in northern Ijebu, which was razed to the ground by the Ibadan army in about 1835, and no longer exists as an inhabited site. The Ogboni elders were able to remove the sacred statues, called the onile, 'owners of the earth', before the sack and distributed them for safe keeping to the Ogboni houses in several other towns, among them Apomu (where the story was collected by Kenneth Murray), Iperu and Ede. The figures from Apomu (see Eyo, 1977, p.189; Willett, 1967, p.1950 and Iperu (see Fagg, 1970, p.29) are in the Nigerian Museum, Lagos; others are in the New Orleans Museum of Art and in a Californian collection.
The word onile is variously interpreted by scholars as an individual god or goddess and as a pair of deities, male and female (or presumably as a pair of aspects of a single deity). However, William Fagg recorded a positive statement in 1959 by the chief brasscaster to the Oshugbo (i.e. Ogboni) in the Idomowo quarter of Ijebu-Ode, Salami Akinsanya, that the onile are made in pairs, male and female, and that the word is plural; he was able to buy a pair (about ten inches high), just made, which were unconsecrated and therefore able to be seen and handled by others than the senior Ogboni chiefs. The (presumed) Owu fugures so far known seem to be all female, but there is a large male figure in the Nigerian Museum, somewhat later in style and possibly made in Abeokuta in the mid nineteenth century, which could well be an onile (illustrated in L'art nègre, 1966, p.79).