by Nze Izo Omenigbo
“Uzu amaro akpu ogene, ya nee egbe anya n’odu” (A blacksmith who does not know how to fashion a twin gong—should observe the kite’s tail) —Igbo Proverb
A Primal Birth
Quite plainly, Ahobinagu or Obinagu is identifiable as the Igbo Alusi (Deity) that is spiritually inherent in the flora, fauna and extensive wildlife of the forest. A brief etymological assessment of the word itself reveals Obinagu as an essentially aggregated Deity. In other words, it is a spirit-guild of the countless, highly diversified essences immanent in the ecosystem of forest life. However, this definition should not–by any means–be seen as a cementing point of the obviously far more complex nature of this Deity. Perhaps, a very convenient way to comprehend the nature of this unique Alusi is to picture a host of spirits, each embodying a specifically assigned purpose in its nature, but all sharing one great cognitive head. Also, the somewhat similar image of an octopus might come to mind. But surely, an octopus is no contestable match for Obinagu, any day.
Okpo Masquerade from Calabar, Nigeria
For a credible theogonical account (Deific Birth) of this Alusi, it is only right to refer to one of the two well-known and comprehensive cosmogonies of the Igbo world. In one of these ancient creation stories (or unified field theories as they’re branded today), both the known and unperceivable dimensions of the universe (Uwa) were considered to be in a unified state of rest at one time. A state simply referred to as “the primal house” in this cosmogony. In this immensely unifying house—once existed the “secret project” of Chi-Ukwu, the colossal God. However, given the very curios nature of Chi-Ukwu’s wife—Komosu, this “secret project” was consequently made known when she bravely ventured to peep into Chi-Ukwu’s coveted Obi or sacred enclave, which was located right in the middle of the larger “primal house”.
Subsequently, beautiful Komosu was martyred by the impact of the immense primal energy that escaped from this private enclave, and thus—the known world was born! In other words, it is essentially in this great outburst of dynamic manifestation that the basic building blocks of life were seeded or brought into being. However, as the Divine being that she is, Komosu consequently reincarnated back on Earth, as Ala, the Igbo Earth Goddess.
The Big Bang
So, following a brief analysis, it becomes rather logical that the very earliest “seeds” to have possibly emerged from Komosu’s initial mischance should be the immanent spirits/essences, incarnated in the infinity of created life across the universe, especially as is observable here on Earth. In this sense, the Alusi known as Obinagu is principally one of such primal incarnations. Moreover, as an indispensible ally of Ala, it is only proper that Obinagu should share one of the Earth Goddess’s imperative attributes, namely, an eco-system.
Gwarama Masquerade from Burkina Faso
Given the discovery of what must’ve seemed an incredible bond, the ancient Igbos most likely proceeded to place Obinagu in the readily acknowledged position which it continues to inhabit today in the larger Igbo Cosmo-theological system. In a more summative analysis of this multifaceted Deity—then, one can briefly consider Obinagu as partly serving as a well-realized “Spiritual Locus” of the Earth Deity within the intricate natural network of the forest. Hence, the dual meaning of the name: Obi-n’agu (I) That which lives in the forest (II) The heart of the forest.
Atam Masquerader from Alok Village, Nigeria
An Inherent Operative Synchronicity
In the many Igbo traditions where this Deity is highly revered, such as in Udi—Enugwu State, there are many associated activities that are considered sacred to it. One of such is the Egwu Obinagu, which literally means, Obinagu music. This sacred music is also known as Igede Obinagu, in other parts of Udi. It is essentially flute music (Egwu Oja). But the accompaniment of other wooden Igbo musical instruments is not entirely forbidden. However, the use of metallic musical instruments such as Ogene (twin gong) appears to be excluded from that opportunity.
Various Igbo Ogene
Indeed, if one would only stop to consider the profound and unrelenting reverence that ancient Igbos had for nature, then the much deeper mysteries behind the resource-specific instrumental selection of Egwu Obinagu will become evident. An important remark is the fact that the Oja (flute) is an instrument that is totally carved out of wood. And wood itself being a resource that can only be naturally acquired from the forest—strikes a note of great importance, in relation to the forest Deity itself. Hence, the reason for excluding the Ogene and other metal-honed musical instruments in the accepted implements for making the Obinagu sacred music.
It is also important to point out that the primal resident spirits that inhabit the various streams and springs that course through forests—are not left out in this intricate synchronicity of spiritual forces, which in turn aggregates into Obinagu. This becomes further obvious, following a recognition of the indispensible union between water and the boundless, naturally-laid network of trees, herbs and shrubs—all layered out in profound harmony, with the rest organic/inorganic presences in Earth’s ecosystem.
Nnabo Dance Group from Akpabuyo Village, Cross River, Nigeria,
Indeed, life feels itself and in return, it progresses to express what it feels through nature. However, beyond the overt, mundane and maneuverable aspect of a Deity such as Obinagu, there exists a core spiritual dynamic to nature that has continued to escape contemporary awareness. Yet this simple core can be appreciated once again through the grasp of a very ancient language. This language is no other than the sacred cosmic language, Afa. The amazing thing is that we’re told by the ancients that humanity once spoke in Afa. And even at that time, it was considered a sacred tongue, just as it’s still considered today. In other words, according to Igbo mythic account, if humanity had once regarded the language of Afa a sacred one, then surely, we must’ve—at one time—also viewed ourselves, the speakers of this language—as sacred beings.
We’re also told that among other things, Afa is also fundamentally a language of nature; a language of the gods. However, since nature is also our only viable means of interfacing with the gods—through Afa, then Afa is also a cosmic language, because all the higher Deities are principally cosmic beings. Now one might ask, what then is the basis of such a language and how did it come to be spoken by man? Well, the simple secret is that Afa language was patterned after the brilliant, vibratory harmony that is found in nature. And since it is held to be life’s very first language—spoken by the gods themselves—then it was destined that humanity should inherit this cosmic tongue from the gods, just as it inherited other wonderful gifts of civilization from them.
We don’t know how we came to forget or lose the ability of this divine tongue. But a very mystifying fact about Afa is that it is a language that can only be understood by nature; which means that we once spoke and communicated with nature, much like we do with ourselves today. Interesting isn’t it? Well, actually not all of us have lost this ability. Our Ndi Dibia still retain it and in fact, they still employ a great deal of it in their work. Notice that Afa proves to be an all-encompassing and all-knowing language—as a result of its ability to interface with all of nature, hence interfacing with all of life. At this juncture, the spirituality of nature and the bonding nature of spirituality is made evident, as one makes the connection to the earlier stated harmonic-essence that is fundamental of the Obinagu Deity.
Atiya Traditional Dance
Now whether in Igboland or elsewhere in the world, we might have succeeded in convincing ourselves that there are certain, extant members of creation that are strictly known as plants. However, the truth is that, at one time, man himself was also a plant in the garden of nature! Specifically, we were once “man-plants” or what is known as Akwu. A linguistic variation of this name is still used for the palm-tree in Igboland today. Moreover, the palm-tree is also considered sacred all over Africa, especially in its aspect as the tree of life. So, in contrast to the ‘exceptionist’ perception of most people today—in respect to the place of man in nature, Afa tells us that we once viewed ourselves as merely members of the colossal, cosmic organism known as life, whose outer ornament is the awe-inspiring nature.
Minor Ekpe Masquerade with Mango Leaves from Calabar South, Nigeria,
For the keen-eyed observer, a plethora of clues abound in Igbo life and culture to substantiate the mystic remnants of Igbo antiquity, in respect to nature and how ancient Igbo societies related to nature. One of the most obvious of these is the Igbo word for name: Afa (pronounced differently). Already, one can sense the overt etymological relationship between Afa, the name and Afa, the tongue. Still, it becomes even more obvious when we consider that in Igbo culture (indeed in many African cultures) one’s name is believed to embody their existential lot or destiny in a given life-time—in addition to serving as their natural compass. In other words, one’s Afa (name) essentially becomes a dual conception; especially in the Igbo sense. Firstly, as their sacred individual ‘code’ for assessing nature’s existential allotment for them (destiny) and then, as their divinely-accorded compass for identifying their place amidst nature (distinction). Hence, without even recognizing it, one’s name is essentially their own unique cryptogram; their cosmic code for relating to Chukwu and the gods. And even more, one’s name is their first Afa (divination).
Without diving too deep into the mystical dimensions of this fact, it can be observed that humanity actually has no choice but to recognize its sacredness once again—as part of the divine ornamentation that is nature. Therefore, as privileged and responsible members of this endless festivity of life, our role is precisely that of caretakers and not squanderers. Furthermore, in relation to this inherent role of custodianship, another sublime parallel exists here between man and Obinagu—as the custodian Deity of natural life in the forest. However, in the end, it appears that even more responsibility is expected of man as Mma Ndu, the crown of creation.
Ekong Ikon Ukom Masquerades from Calabar, Nigeria
Igbo Antiquity and Ecotheology
Regarding the sheer, immense reverence that ancient Igbo societies had for their natural environment, the opening axiom of this discourse makes it even clearer with its instructional diction—recommending that humanity should turn to nature for her absolute wisdom. In fact, it is arguably only out of such similar, passionate and overwhelming reverence that the ancient Igbos went as far as condemning the conception of twins, which they innocently considered an undoing of a primal modus in their cosmology of the human reproductive system—in relation to the larger paradigm of nature. All this were done in their honest efforts of preserving the essentialities of what they considered as highly sacred, the Earth.
Ani, the Earth Mother
However, they also came to realize in the end, out of ensuing wisdom that “When something stands, another thing stands beside it”. Curiously, till this very day, this monumental amendment (termination of the twin taboo) along with its many theological and cosmological triumphs—remains one of many such profound turning points in Odinala and Igbo culture in general, that have managed to pass by without any epically recognized or institutionalized celebration of it, for unaccountable reasons.
At this point, it is also highly important to point out that even at the time when this act was still practiced, the twins were not exactly killed—in the literal sense of that word—but were merely taken to the very thickest parts of the forest, where they were plausibly left in the care of Ala and the forest Deity. An observable reason for this decision being that—instead of having to bear the more recognizable karma that comes with conventionally taking a life, one would rather have the fate of such children determined by the Deities themselves.
Yaie Masquerade from Burkina Faso
Still, what is far deeply inherent here is that, in this monumental case of theological defeat, the operative synchronicity of Obinagu and Ala is made even more evident, as one recognizes the explicit irony behind the act of handing over these children to two Deities whom were both considered as Divine Nurturers. At this point, we can imagine the outright perplexity that must’ve overwhelmed the ancients. However, in their infinite wisdom, they would guiltily return back home—only to mourn these same children and offer copious sacrifices to appease Ala for the mind-boggling act that had just transpired.
Carnival in Haiti
Essentially, the very multi-faceted and primal status enjoyed by Obinagu, as a custodian Alusi of the forest is almost unquantifiable. However, one only needs to be reminded of the highly agrarian nature of Igbo society prior this age to make the connection. Hence, given the very predictable preference for well-nurtured wildlife and agricultural yields at the time, there surely couldn’t have been a better role for this Deity.
Ekpo Masquerade from Calabar, Nigeria
The Imperative Need for Re-Consecration
The Deities (in their aspects as Gods and Goddesses) are profoundly influential by nature, and countless in number. However, since the very beginning of time, humanity as Mma-ndu (the crown of creation) have unarguably enjoyed a God-given right to explore, harness and negotiate the potentialities of these various incarnated forces. But just as even the most mundane of life’s activity requires a procedural edict/code of conduct, so does the consecration of these higher forces require a spiritually sound arena to be made very effective.
Obinagu, for instance, cannot be “aligned” or brought into operation in a naturally deprived environment, because it is a Deity that operates simultaneously with nature herself, in the capacity of its custodian. Also, the mere knowledge of the esoteric operatives used in sacred science is not necessarily enough to potentiate a Deity. Just as an actual car will require a competent mechanical engineer to be present from its creation process to the manufacturing process—so as to ensure optimal performance in the finished product—in the same way, a potential Deity requires a competent Dibia Ogwu to be present from its creation (or negotiatory process, depending on the Deific hierarchy) to the erection and final dedication process. More importantly, a very spiritually disciplined mind/population is also imperative for such universal principles to be brought down—in the first place—to earthly dimensions and even more, to make them abide for a very long time. This is the inherent strength and genius of ancient Igbo societies. The discipline of their time should be a strong fascination for any clear minded Igbo person today.
In fact, one of the utmost advantages of deific consecration to man is that, unlike modern scientific results and its technological triumphs that often waiver in their abilities, mystical/spiritual potencies (whether they come in the form of a massive “Esere-Ese/spiritual inscription”, a massive pyramid or even in the form of a simple tree-post) are still essentially non-third dimensional in their potency. Hence, they’re essentially predisposed to influence (positively) or mercilessly interfere with anything below their dimensions of origin; just as one cannot help but experience the inevitable presence of rain and sunshine here on earth, regardless of their personal opinions about these two perceivable forces of nature, whose origins are well beyond the third dimension.
So, in consecrating or aligning these Deities, we automatically implore them to oversee and influence our third dimensional experiences. But in other to be able to operate these higher forces (especially the more manipulative lesser deities), a sacred state of being is imperative. In other words, Igboland has to be re-consecrated once again, because our Deities cannot do much for us collectively at this point, until we jointly reinstitute our traditional ethics and re-consecrate the land for them to be able to co-inhabit it with us.
Fortunately, considerable efforts are been made towards this agenda, at this point in time. But there is no denying the intensity of the task ahead. Nonetheless, it is only common sense that Igbos all over the world should begin to see themselves as returning prodigals, in the most productive sense of that expression. Because eventually, one cannot grow too far from their roots, anyway.
—Nze Izo Omenigbo—
"Gaia's Child" by Esther Johnson
Including excerpted sections from “Sacred Earth: The Divinities of Odinala”
(A work in the making)