CHAPTER TWO: SOME ASPECTS OF WEST AFRICAN RELIGIOUS SYSTEMS
Religion is in part a system of general ordering conceptions that place man in his physical, organic, psychological, social, and cultural universe. Such systems of conceptions vary widely but not, it may be presumed, infinitely. The Ibo world-view may be classed in broadest terms as a “monistic”, personalized one (Bellah 1964:364) and as such it is a species of a very distinctive type, found quite generally in pre-colonial Sub-Saharan West African. Since we take these fundamental ordering conceptions as an important aspect of religion, it will be useful to begin from the fairly broad base of a discussion of West African religion in general. In the first section of this chapter, several recurrent themes in West African religion will be examined. When the many similarities and variations obtaining throughout the West African area have been considered, it becomes possible to see from a comparatively informed perspective how Onitsha religion relates both to social structural problems and historical and cultural factors. In the second section, an overview of some of the main features of the belief system of Onitsha Ibo religion will then be provided.
2.1. Some Prevalent West African Religious Themes
2.1.1. Major Categories of Spiritual Forces
In West African belief there are a variety of spiritual forces which relate man to the world order, both natural and moral. The broadest among these and the one which serves as a Final Cause is the concept of High God. However, the moral force is upheld not so much by the High God as by spirits of natural forces, sometimes referred to, when personified, as demi-gods, and by the dead, notably the legitimized and formally recognized ancestors. Both the spirits of natural forces and the ancestors are much more particularized and localized than is the High God. Medicines are yet another category of spiritual forces and can be viewed not only as magical means of manipulating the universe, but also as devices for communicating with the gods. Finally, beliefs in predestination and reincarnation are also prevalent, involving both the High God and the ancestors.
2. 1.2. The High God
The role of the High God in West African religion can be better understood if it is contrasted with His role in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In the latter, there is an omnipotent God who not only created the world, but is the driving force guiding its destinies and maintaining His sacred principles. “Man is merely a tool in the hands of God and he therefore should be constantly aware that his actions are among the means by which God accomplishes his designs” (Bendix 1960:213). In West Africa the world order derives ultimately from God, who is responsible for creation of the natural order and the setting of the proper moral codes. However, the on-going moral order is watched over by other forces, those of natural objects and those of the dead.
The High God, often identified with the sky, is usually personified as male1. Unlike the Judeo-Christian God, He is rarely directly worshiped. Only in Ashanti are there temples and priests to Him and even there the ceremonies to Him are outshown by rites to lesser gods (Parrinder 1961:15). Throughout the area, however, people acknowledge a High God, offer prayers to Him, refer to Him in proverbs and give small sacrifices.
Various theories have been presented to explain the remote position of the High God in West Africa and His neglect in ritual.
O’Connell has contended that not only is it easier to have a god withdrawn because of one major sin than to have one preoccupied with human shortcomings, but also it would be dangerous to have an omnipotent being involved in one’s daily life (1962:68). Lesser gods are more approachable because they do not possess the purity and guilt-arousing powers of the High God. While the High God gives meaning to the lesser ones, the latter give concrete features and a means of approach to an otherwise abstract principle (1962:69). Horton criticizes O’Connell’s anxiety-reduction model and suggests that man could just as easily make his High God less demanding and define His attributes more clearly rather than create lesser gods for these purposes. Unlike O’Connell, he sees the physical withdrawal of God as due to “an image of cosmic growth and differentiation” (1962b:138). He also views the roles of the High and lesser gods somewhat differently.
Constant features of the concept of High God in Africa are its use in explaining the origin and life courses of people, the uniformities such as birth and death, and also the differences. Lesser gods explain more limited and localized range of phenomena such as events in a particular village, but all activities of these beings are regarded as manifestations of the power of the High God who thus provides unity in diversity (1962b:138).
Horton suggests there are correlations between active worship of a High God, participation in extra-town activities, and contacts with a wider world which necessitate thinking of the town in relation to a larger universe, that is, explaining the microcosm in terms of the macrocosm (1962b:139). Further, he hypothesizes that where ascriptive criteria are primary guides of an individual’s life, one’s fate will be closely identified with the small-scale, self-contained community and consequently with its gods, as in Tallensi. Where there are state systems and more achievement-emphasis, the individual has some autonomy from the community and will tend to relate more to a High God, as in Ashanti and Benin. This would hold true for non-state systems such as the Nuer, where individuals move easily from one village to another and need to relate God to the wider order (ibid:139).
Of these two viewpoints concerning the High God, Horton’s is much more suggestive for further research and it also utilizes the available data with more precision.
2.1.3. Spirits of Natural Features
Although the High God may be viewed in some cases as a personification of nature, i.e. the sky, in others, the sky god is viewed as separate from the High God and worshiped in a variety of ways, e.g. from the cults of Dahomey, Togo, and Ashanti, to the less formalized, individual group sacrifices to the spirit of the sun among some Ibo groups (Parrinder 1961:27). Spirits of other natural features have more localized powers than that of the sky god and tend to be less closely associated with the High God. Most important among these spirits are Thunder, Water, and Earth.
Gods of thunder may be considered aspects of the sky or sun god as in Ashanti and certain Ibo areas, or may be clearly differentiated and the object of elaborate cults, as among the Yoruba, Ga, and “Dahomeans” (Parrinder 1961:30; Talbot 1926:47-48). Not only may they be associated with rain and agricultural fertility, but they may also be connected with iron and blacksmiths2. Among the Oyo Yoruba, the priests of the centralized cult of Shango, the thunder god, were used by the Alafin as administrative agents since they were feared for their reputed powers to direct lightning and could “make demands upon vassal kings with impunity” (Morton-Williams 1964:255). Wescott and Morton-Williams, who have studied the symbolism associated with Shango, regard the god as “self-assertive and masculine striving”, seemingly capricious in his use of his power, yet showing by his forceful acts the interrelations of gods and men (1962:32). Gods of thunder are frequently depicted as carrying axes which they cast to earth in the form of a thunder bolt. This is true as well among the Onitsha Ibo where there is no priestly order to serve the spirit. Walking on the road to Onitsha Waterside, the missionary Taylor observed:
On the right was a round wooden bowl, mounted on a small pedestal containing three white pebbles; the center was a curious stone, said to be a ‘thunder bolt’ or ‘axe’, and the third was also a very curious stone, decorated with gems, with which nature had adorned it. The meaning of the symbol is, ‘ The person who had previously stolen one of his neighbour’s fowls – if the stolen fowl be not speedily returned, so let the thunder-bolt dart upon the person, or persons, and remove him or them from the face of the earth’ (Crowther and Taylor 1859:288-289).
These observations clearly show the role of thunder in upholding the moral code in Onitsha. Spirits of various bodies of water: rivers, lakes and the sea are associated with fertility but do not necessarily emphasize sanctions on collective morality. Frequently water spirits are thought to be female, but this is not so consistent a pattern as with earth spirits. For the Kalabari, Horton regards water spirits as not only lacking identification with particular human groups, but as primarily concerned with the furthering of “extra-social” activities, i.e. they are held responsible for non-normative acts involving creativity or self-aggrandizement (1962a:201-202).
Throughout West Africa, the Earth is believed to have associated with it a spirit or divinity which is concerned with maintenance of the moral order. This is true in the highly organized state systems of the Ashanti, Dahomey, and Yoruba as well as in segmentary systems such as Tallensi and many Ibo groups. What Morton Williams has said of the earth in relation to the Yoruba ogboni society could also be said of the role of the earth in Ibo and Tallensi societies: “Earth is the mother to whom the dead return. Earth and the ancestors…are the sources of the moral law” (1960:364). It is a law of ogboni as of the Tallensi tendanna cult that blood must not be shed because its spillage defiles the land: underlying this injunction is the desire for the maintenance of order.
In many societies, earth is associated with the ancestors whose souls dwell therein, and probably a strong basis for belief in the earth’s concern with maintenance of social order and custom derives from the fact that it in fact contains the collective ancestors. Earth is thought of as a female spirit or goddess, closely associated with crop fertility, who receives sacrifices at critical points in the agricultural cycle and at harvest (Parrinder 1961:37-41). There is here an interpenetration of ideas: these sacrifices and libations to the earth may be seen not only as representing a supplication to an earth spirit per se, but also to the ancestors who tilled the land before.
Among the Yoruba, Ewe, and Dahomeans, the god of smallpox is closely associated with the earth. Those stricken with the disease are not publicly mourned, and their bodies are buried outside the town. Such deaths are regarded as exceptional and thought to be caused by a “calling from the king or the anger of the earth” (Parrinder 1961:42). Similarly, among the Onitsha Ibo, smallpox is often seen as a punishment for an “abomination” against the earth.
The relationship of the spirits of natural features to the maintenance of the moral code will be seen more clearly in the latter part of this chapter when we examine in detail the religious beliefs of the Onitsha Ibo. At this point it should be noted that one of the major reasons why belief in spirits- associated-with-natural-elements is so widespread in West Africa is the fact that they do not have the “restricted social relevance” of the ancestors, who are seen to be concerned only with their own dependents (Horton 1960:217). Given the prevalence of trade and communication within the area, a large number of spirit-models are available for religious adaptation, but only those which are not too locally specialized will be attractive to neighboring peoples (Horton 1960:218).
It is often difficult to separate the category of medicines from that of spirits. Although some medicines such as herbal concoctions are believed to act directly on people and are prized for their intrinsic properties in a magical cause-effect sense (for example, when the slippery food eaten by a pregnant woman is believed to make childbirth easier), medicines tend also to have connotations of spiritual connections. As Field has pointed out for Ga medicines, each medicine is believed to contain a power, or breath of life, and may be the abode of a spiritual being, a minor god, or an impersonal force (1937:111). Though many gods are believed to be able to relate to humans without the use of tangible objects, for some, and for lesser spirits these medicinal objects are viewed as means of communication between gods, spirits, and men.
2.1.5. Ghosts of the Dead
Unlike the High God who is thought of as timeless, and the nature spirits who were created in the distant past, the dead who actively affect one’s life are viewed in genealogical series, thus anchoring them to more recent times. The relationship of spirits or gods to deceased mortals has been hypothesized in some cases to be a direct one. Although generally such a matter must be left unsubstantiated, several authors have strongly asserted such relationships. Horton, for example, suggests that innovative men, often referred to as incarnations of the water people, in time have been promoted to “hero” status when their inventions have become part of the wider culture3.
In another case, Bascom notes that orishas are believed to have been beings who lived at an early stage of creation and either disappeared or “turned to stone”, after which they were worshiped by their descendants (1944:21). Also, the Yoruba god Shango is regarded as a deified Alafin (Morton-Williams 1964:255). The tendency of powerful medicines to become, long after their owner’s death, associated with natural features and regarded as “nature spirit” will be explored in the second section of this chapter.
Without denying the connection between ancestors and deities and without overemphasizing differences between deity and ancestor worship, the specific problem occurs of the relations of the ghosts of the dead to living people in West Africa. The major distinction to be made when dealing with the spirits of the dead is between those that have been incorporated and those that have not. This distinction has been nicely delineated by Bradbury in his study of mortuary rites among the Edo: “incorporated” dead are regarded as acting with proper authority and capable of conferring benefits, while the “unincorporated” act solely out of resentment (1966:131). Thus it is recognized “that death is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of ancestorhood” (Fortes 1965:125).
Incorporation occurs only as a result of specific ceremonies performed to re-establish the deceased in his family and lineage (1965:129). In the social anthropological studies of African ancestor worship, there has been a strong tendency to define the term “ancestor” with regard only to the primary social structural model of the society. Fortes presents, for example, a definition which regards an “ancestor” as a social reflection of his descendant’s structural position, and gives little room for independent variability in cultural beliefs regarding incorporated ancestors. An ancestor is “a named, dead forbear who has living descendants of a designated genealogical class representing his continued structural relevance” (1965:132). He therefore designates shrines to mothers as being outside his conception of ancestral cults, belonging rather to the domestic domain of maternal filiation (1965:132).
This is a clear case of forcing the belief system to fit a social structural mold. Maternal shrines in patrilineal systems will here be considered as ancestral, and the more general definition of ancestor as referring “to situations where relations between worshipers and worshiped are genealogically determined” will be used (Bradbury 1966:132). Among the Onitsha Ibo, both men and women worship shrines not only to their own immediate mothers, but also to more distant ones. Even more perplexing in terms of immediate “structural relevance” is the worship of certain “Daughters” of the patrilineage to whom relationship can be traced, but not through the standard means of a patrilineal society. To dismiss the Tallensi worship of maternal shrines as Fortes does, because they are not part of the lineage juro-political authority structure, is to ignore the fact that such shrines may have permanent structural relevance without involving primary political jural roles. Within the domestic unit, the maternal role and its enshrinement have long-term juro-political implications, i.e. two groups thus connected among the Onitsha Ibo and numerous other societies, cannot marry unless this tie is ceremonially severed.
Fortes further generalizes from his Tallensi model to maintain that women “in such patrilineal systems as that of the Tallensi, have no right to officiate or even to take any autonomous action in the worship of either their own ancestors or those of their husbands…” (1965:132). This is definitely untrue for the Onitsha Ibo in regard to certain of a woman’s own ancestors. Reasons for this difference and some hypotheses regarding situations where women actively worship certain ancestors in patrilineal systems will be presented later.
There has also been a tendency to equate social structure with culture and to relegate belief systems to secondary importance. Fortes, for example, contrasts the elaboration of cults to ancestors in West Africa with the paucity of beliefs concerning ancestral activities in the spirit world. He suggests that the primary purpose of ancestral funerary activity is not to help the deceased in the afterlife, but to “disincorporate” him from the social structure (1965:128). When he is re-incoporated into the ancestral shrines, it is as a regulative force in the social structure that he then becomes important. His former character is not believed to affect ancestral judgments (1965:135).
Although the importance of ancestral cults in the social structure should not be minimized, such a devaluation of the belief system ignores the importance of religious ceremonies, especially funereal ones in giving meaning to experience, making suffering bearable, and providing an image of cosmic order which makes paradoxes comprehensible (Geertz 1966:19). Fortes himself provides evidence for the importance of cultural factors when he acknowledges that rites which transform the senior son into the holder of the deceased’s office serve to stress to the son that he is not replacing the father, but merely taking up an office which is dependent on the grace of the ancestors. Thus these rites give him an explanatory model for future and past events – i.e., that they are the will of the ancestors. (Fortes 1961:185).
Further, Fortes has stated a basic characteristic of ancestor worship: “the experience of filial dependence as recognized and interpreted by the culture, provides the material for the code of symbolism and ritual by means of which reverence for authority can be regularly affirmed and enacted” (1965:139). Thus acts of worship that reinforce sacred symbols not only give a model of the religious ideal, but also a reason for believing in it (Geertz 1966:28-29). Also, wherever there is a belief in the powers of the incorporated dead, these powers are viewed as upholders of an ideal moral code, one of the major tents of which is the proper maintenance of the bond between deceased parents and their living children. Although ancestral cults are widespread in West Africa, they do not approach universal distribution, as an examination of the Ga and Yako will show (Forde 1962:199; Fortes 1965:125).
Correlations are evident between strong pantheons of deities and weak ancestral cults as evidenced by the Yoruba and Ewe cases (Parrinder 1961:116). Also, in some societies, such as Benin and Dahomey, there are cults devoted to the generalized unnamed dead or to the spirits of abnormal children (Parrinder 1961:119; Bradbury 1957:54).
2.1.6. Masquerades as Representations of Spirits
Relationships between living and dead are elaborated throughout much of West Africa by means of representing the dead through masquerades. In a number of societies, there is the belief that the masquerades represent ancestors. This is particularly true of the Ibo and Ibibio. Northern Ibo masquerades can definitely be said to represent the dead, and those which are most feared and most powerful are often incarnations of the most powerful men of the community. Strong magic is believed to be associated with the masquerades of adult men. Boston has shown that through all masquerades represent the dead, in many Northern Ibo communities they are not regarded as specifically deceased individuals as they are occasionally in Onitsha and in the Udi area (1960b:56). Ibo masquerade societies are patrilineage- and age-set-based and membership is obligatory for all males. It is forbidden to reveal the mysteries of the society to women and children.
According to Forde and Jones, the Ibibio masquerade, ekpo, also represents the ancestors (1950:78). Here, however, membership criteria appear to include wealth, and honor goes to those who can afford to belong to the highest grade of the society.
Of the four of five types of egungun masquerade among the Yoruba, only a few are clearly associated with the dead; for example, in Ife, only the agba egungun may be called upon to imitate a deceased person at his final funeral (Bascom 1944:54). Others, however, perform in an annual ceremony to the dead (Forde and Jones:18). Unlike the lineage-based Ibo masquerade societies, men join the egungun because they inherit membership from their families, or because they have been told to join by a diviner or have been pledged, as children, to worship the egungun by their mothers (Bascom 1944:51).
There is also some question as to whether the Yoruba Oro society has any but the most generalized connection with the ancestors. Parrinder has asserted that it does, while Bascom has denied it, at least for Ife and Igana (Parrinder 1961:131; Bascom 1944:62-63). Thus it must be recognized that not all masked figures in West Africa represent ancestors or even the generalized dead. Bascom has described certain Yoruba gods (orishas) as having masks associated with them (Bascom 1944:68). Although Nadel translates the name of the Nupe ndako gboya society as “Grandfather or Ancestor” he adds that this expression “in this connection [has] no ancestral connotation but merely indicates a show of respect” (1954:190). Also the cult masquerades could not represent the ancestors of those among whom the society operates since, “the officiants of the cult are strangers in the village where they perform” (1954:189). Some believe them to represent not the “Dead” but a “mystical force” (1954:191).
The question of whether non-ancestral masquerade cults now representing the generalized dead were at any time associated with ancestors cannot be adequately answered. However, it is quite conceivable that ancestral-masquerade cults are taken up by neighboring groups because of the immediate utility of their functions (e.g. witch hunting) while their particularized, lineage-based ideology is left behind. Such a relationship may certainly be suspected where the “non-ancestral” masquerade is addressed as “father” yet where worship cross-cuts descent lines.
The activities of masquerades, ancestral and non-ancestral, are frequently quite similar. They are involved in the initiations of youths and their education to manhood, in maintaining women in their proper place, and in executing witches. Frequently they appear at funerals to represent either the long dead or the newly deceased. In some societies, masquerade groups are also used as the administrative arm of an executive group4. Thus their appearances serve to reinforce those value standards which both the incorporated dead and certain categories of spirits represent.
2.1.7. Destiny and Reincarnation in West Africa
A critical part of any religion is the relationship between the spiritual system and the individual self of the worshiper. The animating force in the individual is linked to the wider cosmic scene through the concept of the soul. One of the characteristics of West African religions, in contrast with East or South African ones, is their concern with the idea of a destiny or fate intrinsic to the self or soul.
Among the Tallensi, Yoruba, Edo, Kalabari and Ibo there is the idea that prior to birth a child chooses his destiny, i.e. his physical and mental potential and the use to which this potential will be put in terms of his future performances in life. He decides not only what he will do in life but when he will die. Success or failure is thus regarded as in a sense predetermined. In Dahomey, a similar idea of predestination occurs, but it is not so clearly linked to the individual’s own choice. Exactly what a good or bad destiny consists of varies to some degree among different cultures which idealize different kinds of selves. While in some societies the virtues of aggressive behavior are not stressed, in others, such as the Kalabari, where aggression and competition are emphasized, an individual’s “evil destiny” consists in his being passive and compliant (Horton 1961:114).
The most widespread indicators of a good destiny are the propagation of male children, the possession of wealth, a long life, and a death event free of physical signs of the deceased’s evil acts.
Although in many cases a man’s ultimate fate is felt to be unalterable, in some West African societies it is possible to modify one’s bad destiny through the assistance of a diviner. In all cases, however, the idea of predestination can be used to explain such events as early death, constant failure, and neurotic or psychotic personality traits. Horton has maintained that parallels to Freudian thought are present in this belief system, in that therapy is brought about when the patient brings to conscious thought and deals rationally with previously “unconscious processes” which have been caused by early traumatic experiences (1961:113).
Whatever the validity of this view, beliefs in predestination clearly conceptualize dimensions of the individual self viewed as possessing a directionaly-oriented course. The belief in reincarnation, i.e. that ancestors can be reborn in their descendants, is often associated with the idea of destiny. In some societies, burial practices encourage the deceased man who has shown himself to have a good destiny to reincarnate, while strongly discouraging those regarded as having evil destinies.
Determination of which ancestor has reincarnated may be left to physical or personalty resemblances but it may also be arrived at through dreams or divination (Bascom 1960:404). Even when a given ancestor is identified, no one can predict that the child’s life will be the same as his predecessor’s since the child has chosen or received his own personal destiny prior to birth. Some examples of how the idea of reincarnation can be handled in nearby societies will help to clarify the matter. Among the Nupe, the “personal soul” (kuci) represents a reincarnated ancestor, and the individual who bears such a soul will resemble this ancestor in character an appearance (Nadel:1954:23). Other aspects of the self such as “the life principle”, “the shadow”, and the body only come into harmony with the kuci when a diviner has revealed the reincarnated ancestor and the child has been named after him (1954:23).
Similarly, the Yoruba hold that there are three separate souls, one corresponding to the breath, one to the shadow, and one to the “ancestral guardian” which resides in the head and is associated with the individual’s destiny and with the Yoruba belief in reincarnation (Bascom 1960:401-405). Unlike the Tallensi, these “ancestral guardians” are not merely ancestors who have elected to guide the life of the individual but are reincarnated beings (Bascom 1960:405; Fortes 1959:46). Among the Asaba and Nri-Awka Ibo, an individual will determine either in childhood or later, through a diviner, what ancestor has made a pact with his personal god to determine his destiny. When the individual is a child, his chi, the deity which represents his destiny, will not be represented by a ritual object, but will share in the sacrifices that his parents make to their destinies (as in Tallensi society, Fortes 1959:22).
Only occasionally does the belief in reincarnation lead to important social consequences, as among the Obamkpa Ibo where a man may not marry into the patrilineage of a woman who has been divined to be his chi (Thomas 1914:26). The belief in reincarnation does not have a universal distribution in West Africa, nor is it always associated with the concept of destiny. It does not appear to be present among the Tallensi, and Jack Goody states that the LoDagaa do not believe that the souls of ancestors enter into the living (1962:363). Nor was evidence of it found among the Mende or Ashanti.
In West Africa, the belief in reincarnation seems to be most closely linked to the Kwa speakers, but the charting of its distribution is beyond the scope of this dissertation. Although beliefs in predestination and in reincarnation are found in conjunction among the Yoruba and Ibo, the former belief (but not the latter) appears to be present in Benin and Kalabari. Interesting similarities in some areas of religious belief can be noted, however, between Yoruba and Benin. The Yoruba, who believe in reincarnation, speak of the “ancestral guardian soul” which is located in the head of an individual and referred to as its owner (Bascom 1960:405). Sacrifices are made to the head, or a representation of it at specific times. Although Bradbury has given no indication that a belief in reincarnation exists in Benin, there is a highly developed cult of the Head which is regarded as both the seat of judgement and closely associated with one’s life fortunes (1957:58).
A hypothesis may be ventured that the absence of a belief in reincarnation in an area where the belief is so prevalent, reflects the fact of the poor development of the lineage system in Benin, in contrast to the Yoruba. Further research, especially among certain southern Yoruba groups where the descent system differs from that of the Northern Yoruba, would be necessary to corroborate or refute this thesis.
Examination of the category of ancestors believed likely to reincarnate yields information about the ideology of the descent system. The Nupe, who have strong bilateral emphasis in their descent system, believe that rebirth can occur in either line of descent (Nadel 1954:23). In Northern Yoruba, where the patrilineal emphasis is strong, rebirth usually occurs within the patri-clan (Bascom 1960:404). Among the patrilineal Onitsha Ibo, the reincarnate spirit can be either from the mother’s or the father’s line. In the above mentioned cases, the soul that is reborn may have a different sex than its former one.
2.1.8. Women’s Relations to Concepts of Destiny
It is proposed here that there is a clear relationship between women’s possession and administration of personal destiny shrines and the relative autonomy accorded women in a given society. A few examples will help to substantiate this hypothesis. Both Tallensi men and women are believed to have prenatal destinies and to be under the wardship of certain ancestors. If a woman is ill or sterile, sacrifices will be performed at her married home by her father’s lineage to erase her evil destiny (Fortes 1959:37). Women, however, do not have “good destiny” (yin) shrines as do married men, for they have, Fortes claims, no religious autonomy (1959:41). Their fortunes are the responsibility of either their fathers or their husbands (1959:42). Similarly, in Dahomey, a shrine to one’s destiny (fa) is generally only worshiped by men, though if women become heads of households, they will acquire one also (Herskovits 1938:222).
In Benin, however, every adult man and woman has a shrine to his destiny (ehi) which is buried with the person at death (Bradbury 1961:134). Also among the Oyo Yoruba each married adult has his or her own shrine to the head (Bascom 1960:407). According to Fadipe, a woman brings to her husband’s house two simples of ori (the head), one for herself and one for her husband. Later she has ones made for her children (1940:805). Here, though a woman has a greater degree of religious autonomy than among the previously cited groups, her destiny is still closely related to that of her husband and her children. Although there is a great deal of variation in the Ibo-speaking area, among the Asaba Ibo, the pattern seems similar to the Yoruba one, with a woman taking a representation of her personal destiny (chi) to her husband’s house at marriage. The close linkage to the husband is shown by the fact that if he dies, she may discard her chi. Only if she remarries will she get another (Thomas 1914:27). To divorce a woman, a man need only hand her back her chi (1914:16).
In several Ibo areas, including Onitsha and Awka, and possibly also Asaba, there are particular festivals during which elderly women place their chi outside their houses and invite their relatives to give them gifts (Basden 1966:47). Basden notes that men had little or no role in these ceremonies, and that once established, a chi could be worshipped whenever one wished (1966:46). The problem of the degree of autonomy which women possess in regard to the worship of ritual objects and its relation to other factors in the society will be examined in detail in later chapters.
In most, if not all West African societies, events are rarely attributed to pure chance, but rather are seen as determined, as is the course of one’s life, by the actions of spirits, both deities and ancestors, and by one’s pre-ordained destiny. The various systems of divination are means by which ignorant humans come into contact with those forces which shape their existence and thereby obtain the necessary techniques or information with which to alter their otherwise inexorable fate. Diviners are individuals who claim to be able to forecast the future and explain past and present events, especially life crises. Although possessors of such arts carefully guard their professional secrets, they generally do not operate outside the community’s religious framework, but rather are an integral part of it, both recommended to laymen by cult priests and bolstered by widely held myths and folktales (Bascom 1941:44-45). Indeed, Park has argued that divination not only aids people in facing difficult decisions, but also that it plays an important “structural role in depersonalizing choices” and making people feel that the gods, not they, are responsible for them (1963:197).
Depersonalization is useful also to the diviner or oracle, whether it occurs through the use of a standardized apparatus which is felt to enable one to speak the words of a god, or by actual or feigned personality dissociation, such as that demonstrated by Azande witch doctors or priests of the Obosom shrines in Ghana (Evans-Pritchard 1937:175; Field 1960:76). Advice from a diviner or other seer will usually be rejected if it falls outside the limits of acceptable alternatives in a given society. Among some Ibo, for example, even though a man dreams that a religious temple (mbari house) should be constructed for a deity, the actual building of such a house depends both on the status of the dreamer and general community consensus.
In most cases, both the types of problems brought to a diviner and the answers given by him reflect the important values of a society. Of the many types of divination practiced throughout West Africa, only those methods involving the casting of shells connected with string will be mentioned here. The ifa divining system of the Yoruba which has been adopted in Dahomey, Togo, and parts of coastal Ghana is the most highly developed of these (Parrinder 1961:145). The actions of ifa are believed to be controlled by the deity from which the divining system takes its name. The method involves the casting of eight shells in such a way as to form two parallel lines. There are two hundred and fifty-six possible combinations (odu) and each has associated with it a verse, which often refers to the fate of a fabled man or creature who listened or did not listen to the advice of the same throw at an earlier time (Bascom 1941:43-44). Each figure gives advice on several life problems and the petitioner waits until he finds a verse appropriate to his problem.
Important in this system, but lacking in Dahomey, is the fact that the diviner is not told the nature of the client’s problem before he recites the verse. This tends to limit manipulation of the system in terms of the diviner’s ulterior motives (Bascom 1941:50). The Ibo have a somewhat similar system, afa, in which the diviner casts out four chains of four shells apiece and reads the cast according to certain key patterns (Shelton 1965:1442). This method is said to resemble the Jukun divination rites (Parrinder 1961:148). Though the afa system is not named for a god, it is believed to speak the wishes of the gods or spirits (Shelton 1965:1445). The client states the problem and the diviner’s cast frequently indicates what spirit is causing the trouble and how it may be appeased (Shelton 1965:1446). The “words” that the casts refer to are in a “secret language”, but it is not known if these terms are related to Yoruba or other neighboring languages (1965:1449). When the diviner knows the nature of the problem, he will continue casting until an appropriate pattern appears.
The Nupe have a divination method involving eight cords with four half shells on each, the patterning of the falls symbolizing certain topics. It has not been established whether the Ibo, Nupe, and Jukun systems are directly related to the Yoruba one or even if they derive from a common African source.5
In conclusion, divination serves important functions in a world where the High God has withdrawn and is not open to direct communication. In some societies it is openly stated that He created a particular system of divination to make His will known to His people. Usually, however, it is the the demi-gods and the ancestors, the major moral supports of the community, whose will is ascertained.
The use of divination and of medicines can be viewed as ways of dealing with a deterministic universe where events important to the individual have been pre-arranged, or manipulated by extraordinary powers. Only when the interests of these powers are made known can an individual exercise control over his own destiny.
2.2. An Outline of Onitsha Religious Beliefs
Having surveyed some common themes in West African religion, we now turn to a closer examination of a particular religion, that of the Onitsha Ibo. In this section, we shall be concerned with the major cateogories of religious thought rather than an analysis of particular rites. The latter will be dealt with in chapters Five through Seven when we analyze in detail the role of women in relation to these rites; at this point, we are concentrating on the major premises upon which Onitsha religious behavior is based.
Unlike the neighboring Nri Ibo, Onitsha lacks myths connecting them directly with creation of the earth and the role of the various deities in this process. Rather, Onitsha people emphasize tales of their migration from across the Niger and their relations to the Kingdoms of Benin and Ife. Onitsha people can, however, reconstruct a certain order of creation, especially when it involves medicinal objects which are used in ceremonies, such as wood from the oglisi, the first tree to grow on the land, or the kola nut (oji), from the first tree to bear fruit. Although it must be acknowledged that the vast changes that have occurred in Onitsha since contact with the West may have dimmed knowledge of more elaborate narratives concerning creation, earlier ethnographers found no trace of them, though they were encountered in neighboring areas (Jeffries 1935:346). In Onitsha religion, there is no direct equivalent of the active personal role of many of the Yoruba orisha, nor are there cult groups specifically organized around the worship of any deity. Shrines to supernatural forces are worshiped either on one’s own initiative, if they are rightfully in one’s possession, or at the advice of a diviner. If a man is not the priest of a particular shrine, and he wishes to sacrifice to shrines other than his own personal ones, he must enlist the aid of the patrilineage priest whose family controls the shrine in question.
2.2.1. The Concepts of God and Destiny
When dealing with the primary religious concepts in Onitsha, we must first distinguish those of chi and chukwu. Although chukwu, the “great god” (also called chineke: the creator) has been considered by Talbot and Horton as representing the primary religious concept of the Ibo, it will not be dealt with as such in this chapter, but rather will be viewed as an extension of the root term, chi (individual creator or life force), to creator of the universe (Henderson 1963:88-89)6. As in the rest of West Africa, the concept of the High God is anthropomorphized to the extent of being regarded as the husband of Ani, the earth goddess (Talbot 1926:43). This latter view is not held so clearly in Onitsha; however, chukwu is regarded as the creator of all human beings, natural objects, spirits and medicines. The major ritual involving Him occurs when a man offers prayer with the kola nut, and calls for the great God to take the essence of the nut, while humans and lesser spirits eat the pieces. In the first section of this chapter we have dealt with the spiritual “guardians” who are associated with an individual’s destiny, and discussed their widespread distribution in West Africa. The Onitsha Ibo equivalent of these “guardians”, chi, may be defined as a deity that control’s one’s destiny and as a counterpart of the self which guides one’s life course. On a more abstract level, chi may be regarded as an animating force which has generated and then guides a person. Prior to birth, each man and woman either chooses in accordance with his chi, or receives from the chi, his personal destiny, which is then inscribed on his hand (akalaka) by the chi. Thus chi is also an objectification of prenatal choices as to whether one will be a success or failure, live long or die young, be bold or timid, etc. Although a deceased person (mmuo) may reincarnate many times, each living person has his own chi which gives him his individual identification and accounts for his distinct personality. Onitsha men say, “One belly bears, but one chi does not create” (ofu afo na amu ma ofu chi ad’eke), meaning that even though children come from one womb, they are each controlled by separate chi.
Unlike chukwu, chi is objectified and directly worshiped. Ordinarily, only when a man is married will he set up a shrine to his chi, though he may do so earlier upon the advice of a diviner who may direct him to give his chi some food and tell it his sufferings. A woman will acquire a similar chi shrine when she marries and has her own kitchen or when she has a child. No blood may be put on the chi and only white objects such as white chicken, kola nut, and palm wine will be fed to it when one asks for its favors.
The object representing the chi consists of five sticks from an egbo tree, four of which refer to categories of spirits of the dead (mmuo), which partook in the agreement concerning an individual’s destiny. It is these spirits of the dead who walk to the crossroads and make the pact with the god. These ancestral spirits may derive either from either the father’s or the mother’s side and often from both. The fifth stick, the non-ancestral ogbonuke, represents one’s spirit age mates. Frequently ogbonuke is translated as “age set and trouble”, referring to the fact that there is believed to be a mystical bond between those who were born at the same time since they share some aspects of a common destiny, including an appointed time to die. Those age-mates who have already died are believed to call to the living in dreams, urging them to return to the land of the dead. There appears to be a contradiction here in the belief system, for chi can be seen not only as representing individual distinctiveness, but also as connecting age mates with a common face. This matter must be viewed in light of the value system which minimizes status differences within the age grade, yet encourages the quest for individual prestige and glorification instead of the egalitarian ethic when one moves outside age set activities.
Onitsha people say that it cannot be known whether a man has a good or bad chi until after his death, for his fate may turn at any moment. However, the criteria for defining good or bad chi are constant and revolve primarily around the propagation of living descendants. Even if a man has accumulated great wealth, if he dies leaving no children, he will have had a bad chi. Of course, the more wealth and power he and his children possess, the better his chi is thought to be. However, bad destiny is always evident if all who should bury a man, instead die before him.
Conventional Western morality has little to do with the concept of a good or bad chi for a “trickish fellow” may be deemed to have a good chi if he can manipulate the system to his own advantage even if others suffer as a consequence. On the other hand, even a man who is not appropriately aggressive and is unjustly accused of wrongs by others, may be said to have a good chi if his children do well in the world. The limits of the moral order are guarded directly by other sanctions, not chi, which will be discussed below (Talbot 1926:40-43, Horton 1956:23).
Although in a certain sense one’s destiny has been determined by his pact with his chi, it is also believed that he can make some minor improvements on his fate by offering to his chi. Thus, when a man takes ozo title, an important part of the ritual consists in “bathing one’s chi in wealth and purity” (o na-echi ozo) and henceforth the chi is kept in a special bowl (okwa-chi) covered with chalk and surrounded with symbols of wealth. Chalk (or more strictly, white clay, nzu) is a symbol of purity and of the dead, thus “bathing” the chi in chalk indicates an identification of the individual with the status of the ancestors.
When an Onitsha person dies, his chi has the blood of a sacrifice poured on it and thereafter is discarded. When the deceased’s senior son wishes to take ozo title, however, his first act will be to have four okposi sticks (of egbo wood) carved to represent all his deceased ancestors. The ceremony is known as “bringing the spirit [into the house]” (inyedo mmuo) and it may also be performed by junior sons. Until the title is achieved, the lineage priest (okpala) will have to sacrifice to these okposi on behalf of the son, and he will also hold in custody all titled objects of the deceased.
A similar ceremony is initiated by women and conducted by the priest of their lineage, after which they are able to worship okposi representing their fathers. Both men and women may set up shrines to their mothers. This matter will be examined in more detail in Chapter Four. The point to be noted here is that there is a strong resemblance between a man’s own chi and the okposi to which he sacrifices to communicate with his ancestors.
The four ancestral sticks in the chi represent ancestors who made a pact with one’s personal god, while the four okposi sticks represent generalized ancestors from whom one asks blessings. Chi is one of the primary concepts in Onitsha religion which answers the universal problems of bafflement, suffering and inequity. Moreover, it does not deny the misfortune or injustices of life, but fits them into a wider scheme, that of predestination, which makes isolated acts meaningful. To a grieved parent, chi can be used to show that the child brought about his own death; to the person who is a failure, it can offer an excuse. Yet while one lives, his or her future is unknowable and individuals, through sacrifice, can seek to change their destiny.
The Concept of Ikenga and Its Relation to Chi
Ikenga, which can be translated as “let strength proceed or succeed”, has been described as “the personification of a man’s strength of arm, and consequently of his good fortune” (Meek 1937:39). The image, made of iroko wood, is of a man with a ram’s horns sprouting from his head, carrying a knife in his right hand and, frequently, an ivory tusk or a human trophy head symbolizing wealth or achievement in the left. Jeffries, writing of Onitsha, notes: “if a man kills a person he parades in his town with the deceased’s head in his left hand and a hatchet in his right shouting that it was through the power of his Ikenga that he had killed a man and was now numbered with the braves of the town” (1954:30).
Ikenga is a rather difficult conept to classify, since it does not directly refer to deceased ancestors, nor is it exactly the animate personality (alusi) of a natural object.7 It has been referred to as a spirit or deity, but it is also consistently associated with chi, in Onitsha, and is said to “work under chi”. Further, though both the concepts of chi and ikenga have been viewed, at times, as deities, neither of them are highly personified in myth and legend but rather seem to represent abstract forces which have powerful affects on the individual. When ikenga is closely associated with the fifth stick of the chi, ogbonuke, it has reference to the common destiny among age mates. The connection of this aggressive symbol with age set organization (ogbo) may be partially accounted for by the fact that in former times age set organizations were prominent in guarding the town, and, possibly, in warfare.
Although a man judges his success against that of other men his age, within the age set invidious comparisons were not admitted. It is believed, however, that one’s age mates who are dead and those who are living may try to impede one’s progress in life. To appease them, a person not only sacrifices to the deceased ones, but also, upon obtaining an ikenga, invites the living age mates to the ceremony and feasts them, thus encouraging their good will, in a sense their involvement in his aspirations. Although Basden viewed ikenga as “exclusively a man’s god” (1966:45), a number of women in Onitsha have recently reported that they keep them also, and it is probable that they did so traditionally. At the initial ceremony, they invite women of their approximate age whose first son or daughter still lives. Ikenga, like chi, is closely associated with marriage and first pregnancy, and this may explain why women whose first children have died are not invited. Unlike men’s ikenga, women’s are not kept after their owner’s death. For both men and women, after the initial ceremony, ikenga are given sacrifices, primarily along with an individual’s other ritual objects and members of his age set do not need to be present. Some informants state that a man’s father must never be present when he sacrifices to his ikenga―thus emphasizing, again, the non-kin achievement aspect of the rite.
Ikenga, which is kept by most married men, may be said to work for chi, and sacrifices to it may improve one’s destiny and bring good fortune in the hunt, trade, farming, or warfare. Unlike chi, however, if a person is not satisfied with his progress in life, he may threaten not to “feed” his ikenga unless it works harder for him. Eventually he may destroy it and have another carved. While chi represents a relatively fixed (if unknown) destiny, ikenga symbolizes individual, autonomous self-assertion.
2. 2.2. The Ghosts of the Dead (Ndi-mmuo)
The second major complex of beliefs of Onitsha religion revolves about the ghosts of the dead (mmuo) and their ability to reincarnate. The living person also contains within himself an aspect of reincarnated ghost(s) in the form of “seeds of the heart” (nkpulobi). It is this ghost who has made the pact with the chi and then been reborn. When the chi has departed, the reincarnated ghost itself is not sufficient to animate the individual, and death (onwu) occurs. Ghosts can reincarnate many times, but each time they will have a different chi.
Those dead who have lived full lives, had children, and taken title are encouraged to reincarnate by being buried in their own compound, while those who have died “bad deaths” through accident, childbirth, suicide, murder etc. are unfit for proper burial and either buried outside the compound or cast into the bush (ajo ofia) to discourage their reincarnating. The ghosts of those who have died bad deaths wander the earth and are dangerous to humans.
As a child grows, relatives look for some resemblance in physical appearance and behavior traits to an ancestor, often of a three generation time span. Especially dreaded is behavior such as talking or smiling in an empty room, which indicates the child is preferring association with his invisible ghostly playmates and does not wish to stay in this world. Such a child is called ogbanje, a reincarnated creature from another world who has chosen to stay on earth for only a short time.
Ghosts, as we have seen in our discussion of ancestor worship, have the potential for becoming ancestors when they are invoked into a shrine such as the okposi discussed. They are then empowered with legitimate authority, not mere malice. Unlike chi and ikenga, ancestors directly sanction behavior that breaks with the custom of the land odinani). Not only may ancestors cause the deaths of those who have committed “abomination”, but they may also be invoked into a shrins such as the okposi discussed above. They are then empowered with legitimate authority, not mere malice. Unlike chi and ikenga, ancestors directly sanction behavior that breaks with the custom of the land (odinani). Not only may ancestors cause the deaths of those who have committed “abomination”, but they may also be invoked into masquerades which actively police the town.
In order to sacrifice and pray to the ghosts, a man must hold ofo, a piece of wood in the form of a short staff which represents truth and righteousness and which he obtains when he moves into his own home. Until his father dies, however, and the okposi are enshrined, any prayers to the ancestors will have to be conducted through the lineage priest who will stand in place of the deceased’s father.
2.2.3. Spirits of Natural Objects
The third major concept of Onitsha religion to be discussed in this chapter is that of alusi, purposeful spirits created by God which reside in or are intrinsic to certain natural objects. These spirits have knowledge of the good and evil acts of men and may be harful or useful. Spirits are not ancestors, though they draw the ghosts of the wandering dead to them, nor are they highly personified deities, though they may appear to men in dreams in human form. In Onitsha, the emphasis is on the abstract quality of the concept and on its relation to the moral standards of the community.
In this connection, Talbot observes that “Alose” form the main support of laws and customs and serve as both policemen and judge (1926:79). Although many spirits are acknowledged, such as the sun and moon who are messengers to God, and even the days of the week, the two most important in Onitsha are the river Niger and the land. Probably, in former times, there was more elaboration in regard to beliefs about the sun (anyanwu), but today it is only mentioned during the morning prayer, when it is asked to give blessing, or during ceremonies connected with the mock burial of a person who has died far from his natal home.
Bodies of water are believed to have spirits associated with them for various reasons such as their being situated at a place which early settlers regarded as unusual, or their being exceptionally large and turbulent, or being located beside some established shrine or otherwise important spot. The River Niger (orummili) is referred to as the “King” (eze) of the spirits, and has associated with it, near Onitsha, several other spirits which are propitiated during annual ceremonies or at times of epidemics or town-wide misfortunes (see Chapter Five).
The earth (ani) created at the same time as the Niger, is physically more intimately connected to the lives of Onitsha men and consequently more concerned with their ethical behavior. In many Ibo communities, the earth is conceived of as a goddess, although, in Onitsha, the belief is not so clearly personified (Talbot 1926:43). The female quality of the spirit is recognized, however, by the fact that only female animals are given to it as sacrifices. The places on earth that have special effect on the lives of men are those where men’s forefathers have dwelled. For example, the earth shrines which serve each of the Onitsha villages are located at the sites where the founders of the villages are said to have established their household land (ani ezi) by planting egbo trees, to which their spirits, after death, return when requested.
At sacrifices to the earth shrine, all the ancestors associated with the lineage concerned should be invoked to give their blessing or judgment. For unlike ikenga and chi, earth shrines are called upon to separate the innocent from the guilty in the case of certain heinous offences. The parties involved swear an oath; if one dies within a stipulated period, his guilt is accepted by all. Talbot observed:
At Onitsha it is believed that any one who is killed by an Alose for some offense has to go and live with the spirit. The juju is said always to slay a man who seizes someone else’s land and swears falsely that it belongs to him (1926:109).
Acts may be categorized as to the degree of offense they give to spirits, especially the earth. Two basic classifications of the spiritually forbidden are important to us here: first, those acts which are forbidden but which are amenable to action (nso); secondly those acts which may never been undone or cleansed but can only be “covered” with the aid of an Nri man (nso ani or alu). The first category of forbidden acts is more concerned with offenses against status propriety than against spirit and they are, consequently, less immoral. An example of this type of offence might involve a younger man insulting or knocking down an older man of his family, especially his father. In this case, the father or the lineage priest, if the offense concerns men of two related families, will decree that the youth must ceremonially reverse what has been done or said “to make the mouth shut” (ime onumu lulu).
The second category of forbidden acts, abominations, can never be fully remedied, and not only will the shame remain attached to the family involved, but misfortunes may plague it for generations. Certain types of deaths are indications that the deceased committed abominations during his lifetime, but never had the ceremony of “covering abomination” (ikpu-alu) performed. Such corpses will not be given proper burial and their ghosts will be drawn to the offended spirit, frequently an earth shrine (with its attending forest grove), thus adding even more vengeful power to it.
Classified as abominations are such acts as adultery with the wife of a patrikinsman, giving birth to twins, incest, suicide by hanging, fighting with a masquerade, and murdering members of one’s own lineage through medicine, witchcraft, or direct physical means (Basden 1966:60). If the accused does not confess his sins, as for example in the case of presumed incest, he may be either ostracized or permitted to take an oath of innocence on the earth shrine or that of any other prominent spirit. If the sin is confessed and it is not deemed so grave as to demand the culprit’s death, the offender must provide items for sacrifice to the village earth shrine, the ceremony being conducted by an Nri man.
Leonard, writing about Onitsha prior to 1906, noted that if one commits offenses that upset the natural order, “At this juncture the Nri people step into the break as peacemakers to effect reconciliation between the offenders and gods; for misconduct of this nature is always considered to be a crime against the land or a general pollution of the material earth” (1906:283). If the act has been called an abomination after a hearing before the King and chiefs, as in cases involving offense against the laws of ozo title-taking or the masquerade society, the guilty person, accompanied by Nri man, must drag a goat around to all the important shrines of Onitsha.8
Many other types of purification occur in Onitsha when it is believed that a spirit has been offended, and oaths are sworn on spirits other than the earth. Some of the most dreadfully potent oaths (iyi) are taken on objects brought to the accused party from an alusi shrine. If he lies, it is believed that he will surely die, in which case his property may be taken away by the shrine priests. Even such objects as ikenga may be sworn on, not by their owner, but by his wives. This brings up a moot point in our previous classifications; ikenga, though closely associated with the personal chi, also partakes of a certain quality of spirit when it is thought of as embodied in a certain type of wood. However, ikenga lacks the potent sanctioning force of earth and water; it can only bring to its owner success or fail to do so. Unlike the spirits mentioned above, its owner may destroyed if its efforts to obtain success for its owner are not deemed fruitful.
Closely associated with the idea of spirit is that of medicine (ogwu). Some of the intricacies of the relationship will now be examined. It has been shown that a spirit worshiped by a particular man can be maintained by his descendants and eventually, if it appears powerful, by future generations. For example, a man’s own earth shrine or his own ikenga, or any tree or stream that he personally venerates, may over time come to be worshiped by his descendants and eventually by a community of persons. This is also true of objects classified under this fourth category of Onitsha relgion, medicine. Any natural or man-made object, or combination of objects which is felt to have automatic effects, when used properly may in time be venerated as spirit by a man’s children. Thus a combination of “charms” created for its owner by a diviner (dibia) may eventually be regarded by a man’s children in the same light as spirit, and may even be used for oath swearing. This is especially true of medicines which are in contact with universally recognized spirits, such as those buried in the ground or placed near the water.
It becomes evident that the lines between spirit and medicine are not clear-cut. However, there are certain distinct features of the latter: Unlike spirit, medicines tend to lack a moral component, and they are not considered guardians of a town’s moral hearth. Unlike the earth shrines, they would not send small-pox to punish the community for the number of “abominations” being committed. A man who has committed an act regarded as evil by the earth will not be able to receive benefits from the earth unless he clears himself of his crime. However, anyone who possesses medicine can use it as he sees fit, regardless of his character. The few exceptions to this rule will be explained below. A few examples of medicine are the oda, magical protective bundles hung over the entrance-way to a compound to prevent disease (or other bad things) from entering, the types of foods prescribed or taboo to pregnant women because they would make the child resemble the object eaten, and the various “poisons” frequently consisting of body excrement which are believed to kill anyone who comes into contact with them.
Some of the most powerful medicines, indeed, have as one of their components parts of human beings, especially hair, nails, excrement, or genitalia, and are believed to thus gain additional powers (Talbot 1926:168). Other important medicines are closely associated with spirits or ghosts and are frequently used as means of communicating with them. For example, clay from termite hills, out of which the dead are thought to return to earth, is a powerful ingredient in medicine, and the kola nut, from a tree created at the same time as the earth, is used in prayers to affirm truthfulness.
The ofo, a short branch of the tree of that name (Detarium Senegalese), which is both a symbol of righteous power and a means of administering ritual objects in one’s possession, is regarded in Onitsha as a messenger bearing all prayers to the gods, jujus, and ancestors (Talbot 1926:138). Similarly for the Nike Ibo, Horton has reported that the ofo tree is believed to grow in chukwu’s compound, and thus, magically, to relate the owner of the staff with the High God (1956:22) [footnote 14]. It was said above that most medicines impose no moral claims on their users; this, however, is untrue of ofo because it gains its powers from its ability to be in direct contact with God. In any serious dispute, a male who is in charge of his own house and thus sacrifices to his own ritual objects, may swear on his ofo to the truth of his statements. Also, when one is swearing an oath on the earth shrine, ofo will be used. If the oath swearer has been lying, it is widely believed throughout Ibo country that he will die.
Ofo may also be used by its owner to prevent others from doing evil to him or his family. A son may set his deceased father’s ofo alongside the latter’s ikenga and his own okposi. If the father was titled, the staff, limited to members of the titled society, will tend to be kept and the ofo forgotten or mislaid. Women cannot independently obtain ofo, nor do they need one to administer their personal religious objects, but a representative women, designated as Head Daughter (isi ada) will be given one by the lineage priest in order to be able to officiate at annual purificatory ceremonies and at burials and Lamentation rites.
Before leaving this brief discussion of major religious categories in Onitsha, a comparison may be assayed between Onitsha beliefs and anthropological classifications of religion and magic. In Chapter One, magic was referred to as morally neutral, emphasizing the cognitive and instrumental more than the evaluative, although it was recognized that African religion, generally, has a strong instrumental component. In Onitsha the striking conceptual difference between spirit and medicine is, of course, that for the most part the latter is morally neutral and operates automatically if applied properly, while the former punishes offenses against morality. This, therefore, seems initially like a clear-cut distinction between “magic” and “religion” as these terms have been developed here. Ofo is a more difficult concept to classify since the staff can only be of benefit to a righteous man, that is, one who has not committed, or who has rectified, action classified as nso or alu. If a man swears an oath on ofo, he will die if he lies. It has been shown that the moral aspect of ofo derives from its close relation to chukwu, the High God, in which ofo operates as a messenger to God.
A further distinction between and spirit and medicine is that the former is regarded as holy (aso) whereas the latter, in most cases, is not. Some medicines are thought of as poison because of their dangerous powers, while others are harmless and believed to have only curative powers. It appears that aso could be glossed “sacred”, thus refuting, in this one case at least, an argument set forth by Goody in the first chapter that non-European societies do not normally distinguish the mystical from the technological, the “sacred” from the “profane” (1961:151). It can be argued that those objects regarded as “sacred” are believed to be so not only because they are among God’s earliest creations but also, as in the case of the earth, because they concern the evaluative, the moral aspects of life. Magic has more of a cognitive orientation although it is also dealing with the non-empirical, the supernatural.
Although we have been discussing magic and religion as though they are separate categories, the Onitsha case material serves to illustrate a point on the interrelation of the two concepts. Many shrines now thought of as referring to spirit are believed to have been created, originally, by diviners as medicines. In some cases, powerful medicines were buried in the ground, and later the earth around that spot came to be regarded as a special spirit. A distinction drawn by some informants between spirit and medicine, which has heretofore not been mentioned, is that “while alusi were created by God, ogwu is made by man”. Whether or not this is generally believed in Onitsha, there is no doubt that, over time, two processes occur in regard to medicine. One, which has been mentioned earlier, is that medicine becomes identified with nearby natural objects such as trees and earth, and takes on any moral connotations that they may develop, even though it may retain its original symbol, e.g., a pot filled with herbal brew. Secondly, the medicine becomes identified, if it proves potent, with a wider group than the family of its original owner. Ceremony concerning it becomes standardized and a wider “congregation” develops.
In conclusion, two of the important components of Geertz’s definition of religion can be seen to exist in the form of the concepts of chukwu, chi, and alusi. Chi is primarily concerned with the role of the individual in the wider cosmos, his creation and his destiny. Through this belief in a destiny-defining pact with a god, individuals find answers to their uncertainties and sufferings. However, chi is more involved with answering these basic questions than with defining the proper criteria for discriminating good from evil. This function is filled by the belief in spirit, with its wider implication of acts to be abhorred, and also by the belief in the righteous power of the ancestors. Similarly ofo, the messenger of God, which can only be used by those who speak truth and wish no evil to others, serves to define the limits of moral action.
- For exceptions to this, see Parrinder 1961:17 in reference to the female High God at Abomey, and Horton 1962:206 in reference to the female Great Creator among the Kalabari Ijaw. Return ↩
- Gods of Iron, more or less differentiated from those of thunder, have a wide distribution in West Africa: Ewe, Yoruba, Ashanti are mentioned by Parrinder 1969:33-35. In some cases, they were closely associated with warfare. (1961:31). Return ↩
- Village heroes are legendary individuals who come from outside the community, introduce new customs, but leave no descendants. Unlike the ancestors who are concerned with the welfare of their lineages, village heroes are concerned with the welfare of the village as a whole (Horton 1962:200-01). Return ↩
- For the relationship of Oro to Ogboni society, see Bascom 1944:66. For material on the executive functions of the Onitsha masquerades, see Chapter Three of this book. Return ↩
- Editor’s note: see Manfredi, Victor, 2012, “Afa, the Nri-Igbo counterpart of Ifa”, for a brilliant contemporary discussion of these connections. This essay is available online as a .pdf file. Return ↩
- Talbot refers to the Supreme Ibo deity as Chi or Chukwu, Chineke etc., and says that it is hard to differentiated between the Supreme God and his emanations in the form of personal Chi (1926:41). Horton also views Chukwu as he remote creator, one of whose emanations is Ci (1956:17-21). Return ↩
- But see Jeffreys 1934 Ch.4:10. Return ↩
- A human being may have been used for this purpose in the past: “Those who had fallen into gross sins during the past year — such as incendiarisms, thefts, fornications, adulteries, witchcrafts, incests, wars, slanders, etc., were expected to pay in twenty-eightngugus, or £2.0s. 7 1/2 d., as a fine; and this money was taken into the interior, to purchase two sickly persons, to be offered as a sacrifice for all these abominable crimes — one for the land, and one for the river (Crowther and Taylor 1859:345). Return ↩