Category Archives: Ancestors

Why there are differences in human skin color

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From “African Spirituality: An Anthology of Igbo Religious Myths” by Udobata R Onunwa

In the distant past, Chukwu wanted to create human beings after he had created all other things in the universe. he created a man and a woman. He asked the man to marry the women and both of them lived as husband and wife. They looked very beautiful and elegant. Chukwu was happy to see them look good and strong. When he spoke to them, they responded and this gladdened Chukwu’s heart. He asked them not the move out too far from the beautiful compound he lived with them. The man had a very long nose. His wife also had a long nose. That day, the Sun was not shining. The weather was cool and Chukwu asked the man and his wife to stay indoors or in a cool shade. Later the Sun came out and saw the beautiful work Chukwu had made. He went close to them and his presence hardened their bodies and darkened them. Their pointed nose became shortened and broadened. The man and his wife became very hard and strong and turned black because of the Sun’s close visit to them.

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Chukwu created another couple the next day since the first batch of man and woman was a good work. He brought out his clay and began the work of molding again. When he had finished putting the shape in order, he placed the figures – male and female – in another shade. The Sun did not see the second beautiful work their master (Chukwu) had produced again. This Sun did not come very close to this new set. They remained in the cool shed for a long time and it took time before they got properly dry. Later when they were brought, they did not see the Sun that had gone away. The pointed nose of this second set of couple remained in tact. Their body remained bright and soft. When Chukwu later asked the Sun why he came out to disturb his first creatures, the Sun apologized and promised that he would from that day take care of the couple by providing them with warmth, light and and making sure that they remain strong and have strong bodies, bones and good hard food. The other couple did not get the same benefits from the Sun like the first couple. Chukwu sent them out to a far place where the Sun scarcely gets to them. They lived in extreme cold, never smiled, and never visited each other.They locked themselves in shed and huts trying to keep warm by whatever covering they could find.

Whenever the first couple came out to work or play outside, they enjoyed the rays of the Sun and its light and warmth which made them smile to one another and exchange greetings with friends and neighbors. They became the ancestors of the Black Race who are friendly, warm, cheerful and strong. The other couple became the ancestors of the White people who are a bit withdrawn, individualistic, locked up, gloomy and shaking with cold every time, soft bones and when they came to the Sun, they go out burnt.

Today, many Blacks have resisted the heat of the Sun while the White skinned people fear excess heat. Even in wet season, the Sun would come out to check whether the Igbo are warm enough. He made the promise to Chukwu that he would look after the Igbo at all times. The Igbo in appreciation of the benevolence of the Sun, established a cult of him and today there are people who worship the Sun as a deity of cheerfulness and bright nature and success. “May your Sun shine for ever” is a blessing people give to those they love. “May your Sun never set” is a wish and pray of long life for people.

Sun Worship

Chukwu Bu Ulidereuwa: Odinala, Igbo Antiquity and the Esoteric Roots of Human Expressions

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by Nze Izo Omenigbo

“Anyanwu rie asaa kwuru,

Ala ejiri Edeuli kwado ya” 

If the Sun consumes seven and survives,

The Earth will back it with Uli expressions”

—Igbo Mystical Axiom

Igbo Uli

The Expression of the Sacred in Igbo Culture

The nature of expression (divine/sacred, mundane, mystical, occult and aesthetic) in Igbo culture is captured in many well-known Igbo proverbs. The following three examples are very key in this particular sense, “Onye n’akwa nka na adu ihu: the artist/craft-adept often appears to wear a frown in the process of their work”, “Edeala mara mma bu umeala onye dere ya: the beauty of Edeala sacred expression lies in the calmness of its scribe” and “Ube nkiti nwa nnunu bere n’ohia bu izu mmuo gbaara Dibia: the most simple expression of a bird is wisdom to the Dibia—coming from the spirit world”.

In all three axioms, it can be observed that a certain trait appears to be deep rooted in the traditional Igbo mind, and this is the act of often equating mundane observations with spiritual/phenomenal origins/qualities. To the contemporary mind, of course, this will seem ridiculous. However, in many provable ways, this pattern of understanding has been recognized as a major intellectual catalyst in some of the world’s earliest artistic/scribal traditions and societies.

In pre-modern times—contrary to conventional notions—there were at least four existing Igbo scripts, these were Edeala, Uli, Ukara and Nsibiri/Nsibidi. There is no known single origin of the scribal tradition in Igbo culture and most of the available accounts are heavily couched in myths as is the tradition; the better part of which are reserved for the highest initiates. However, some of these mythic narrations (given their heavy roles in the enculturation process of the general society) were often modified by the priests and passed on to the community griots—who later narrated these stories to the young/old of the society.

Court Record written in Nsibidi script

Also, significant of mention is the existence of many other cult symbol scripts, many of which are yet to be written down or even conventionally known. In a nut shell, it’s a well-accepted fact (at least within honest academic circles) that the scribal tradition has its roots in Africa. Yet often than not, there have also been adverse arguments as to whether such preserved/discovered inscriptions are of direct/literal or symbolic orientations; in other words, if they qualify as “writings” as we understand them today. Needless to say, this approach of judgment is highly biased; since strictly speaking, most ancient societies understood human expression—and expression generally—to be symbolic in its primary nature.

Resolvedly, most of the less esoteric cult teachings of the time were expressed through highly complex symbol systems—from which originated some of the mundane writing traditions of the modern world. Therefore any attempt to understand the communicative modes of ancient societies without an initial, dedicated understanding of their worldview—as concisely shown here—is erroneous by default. In the course of this discourse, insights will be drawn from two of such mythic narrations. As well, few snippets will be equally utilized from one of the aforementioned esoteric myths.

 

The Principle of the “First Word” in Igbo Cosmology

The archetypal Igbo society held that words were so potent that one must ensure to count their “teeth with their tongue” before or after any question. It is an advice for one to find out something for oneself, especially when one is indulging in self deceit and is seeking for answers from some other person instead of self-reflection. Usually the person advicing will say “i choro ka m gwa gi ya; were ire gi guo eze gi onu–Do you expect me to tell it to you? Count your teeth with your tongue.” However, in dealing with written expressions, the potency inevitably doubles, since the idea being communicated will now (supposedly) outlive its author. There is also the mystical tradition of “the first word” i.e. okwu izizi. In many ways, this ancient principle encapsulates—in totality—the Igbo cosmic orientation of life in relation to the Divine. The mystery of the first word is well illuminated in the classical Igbo tale about the journey that was undertaken by the Dog (Nkita) and the Tortoise (Mbekwu Nwa Aniga).

Dog and Tortoise

In this tale, it is held that the Dog and the Tortoise were both sent by humans to deliver two important messages to Chukwu; from which will be determined whether human beings will live to achieve immortality or die at a certain age. To the Dog was given the message of immortality, while the Tortoise was given the message of impermanence. As they both set out for Chukwu’s house, the Dog—priding itself with its ability of swiftness—was said to have stopped several times along the way to sleep, scout for bones or even a mating partner, while the persevering Tortoise continued on its path, undistracted. In the end, the classic endurance of the Tortoise led it to Chukwu’s house, long before the Dog—who was outraced during its many short breaks to sleep or explore the road sides.

Hence, Mbekwu Nwa Aniga (the Tortoise) delivered its message of “Death for the Humans” and thus was the mystery of death introduced into human life. Of course, the Dog did arrive later on—totally convinced that it was the first to reach Chukwu’s house, only to be told that “Chukwu and the Spirit World” does not accept second “Words”. Hence originated the Igbo mystical phrase “okwu izizi erugo be Chukwu: the first word has reached God’s house”.

From this particular tale, a great deal of Igbo cosmological principles dealing with expressions—can be illuminated.  Firstly, there is the duality of life as represented by the two choice animals. The principle of duality remains a core aspect of Igbo life and spiritual practices till this very day. And then there is the principle of pre-duality or unified existence. In other words, creation: although dual in nature proceeds from a unified point of One. Hence, the Dog was told that Chukwu and the Spirit World do not accept the second “Word”. The second word here symbolizes physical creation, realized in the sacred number Two.

Also, there is the principle of Uncontrolled Motion/Chaos and Controlled Motion/Order. Both principles were symbolized in the specific choice of animals used in the narration; where the Dog’s undisciplined swiftness stood for chaotic motion and the disciplined fortitude of the Tortoise stood for ordered motion. Both principles were further made potent in their meanings by the messages that both animals were meant to deliver. In the case of the Dog (embodied chaos) the message was immortality (unending spiritual enlightenment), while for the Tortoise (embodied order) the message was impermanence (interrupted spiritual enlightenment).

Chaos Star

The Spiritual and Aesthetic Potency of Human Expressions

As the Dog was late to reach Chukwu’s house, it then resulted that human life (as a mortal opportunity for spiritual learning) will be eternally teased with the mystical potency of Ndu Ebi-Ebi (Everlasting Life/Immortality). Just as the delivered message of the Tortoise meant that human beings (indeed all creations) will be forever bound to the physical responsibility of observing/maintaining Divine order.

This dual expression most likely gave rise to such classical Igbo thoughts as “okirikiri k’eji ari ukwu ose: the pepper tree is only climbed by means of cautious encirclement” and “nwayo-nwayo k’eji aracha ofe di oku: a hot soup can only be consumed gently”. Furthermore, the Dog symbolism is equally characteristic of the archetypal Ego (the precarious pride that originated with the Dog’s knowledge of its swift abilities). While the Tortoise in this sense, symbolizes the Super Ego (the self-regulating aspect of us that strives for perfection and orderliness). Although, this last feature is essentially interpretational, the instructional nature of the original tale however supports its validity.

In a sense then, it can be observed that the Igbo worldview fundamentally perceives human expressions/expressions generally as a holistic exercise. Indeed, the greater implication of this conviction is that no expression of creation/life is devoid of meaning and no human expression is devoid of sense; regardless of how “senseless” that expression might seem. This notion is well established by another ancient Igbo principle (stemming from another mythic account) which holds that Chukwu created the world using two words, Ọm and Om.

“Om” written in Devanāgari

These two Divine expressions, according to ancient Igbo mystics, became “The Two Sacred Words” i.e. Okwu abuo Chukwu ji were ke uwa”. Again, the basic notion here is duality—but specifically this time; duality dealing with the two Igbo mystical principles of Akwu na Obi (Stillness and Motion). It is remarkable to note that these two principles unified, remains one of the most utilized and infinitely explored of all Igbo mystery teachings. The “Two Sacred Words” as explored in another Igbo mystery cult is also held as the “Two Primordial Sounds”. In this respect, it expresses one of the most esoterically studied of all Divine expressions i.e. sound. In Igbo mystery circles, the naturally produced human-sound (phonetically molded continuously from birth, eventually condensed into a specific lingual form as the child matures) is held to be a mystery of its own. Hence, the ancients explored it in a separate, dedicated cult where its latent creative powers were synthesized for use in invocations, spiritual chants and several forms of oracular practices.

It can therefore be noted that the mystical/occult potencies of human expressions (in a very broad and in-depth sense) have always occupied a place of great significance in Igbo mystery traditions as well as, Igbo culture proper. In this sense, ancient Igbo mystics, after much in-depth observations, were able to ascertain that our voiced expressions do not merely stem from some innate human tendencies to communicate archetypal emotions, as is conventionally held today. But rather, every word we utter and each syllabic expression thereof is actually a released potency. The same goes for aesthetic/artistic expressions; as all forms of human articulations are essentially generated from one point of activity in the mind and charged forth with spiritual potency—at the point of release, whether consciously meant or otherwise.

It is for this great reason that another ancient Igbo axiom maintains that “okwu Igbo/uke bu n’ilu n’ilu: the Igbo language/cult communication is expressed through aphorisms”. Suffice it to say that the ancients well-considered the potency of their expressions/language (indeed the Igbo language in this case) apparently too heavy for any mere direct conveyance of ideas; given the possibility of unanticipated manifestations resulting from careless utterances. Hence, their language/voiced expressions had to be communicated by means of proverbs and indirect insinuations, colored once in a while by plain riddles and chants. Remarkably, this pattern of communication is still observed by the Afa, Mmonwu, Ekpe and Agwu cults (some other Igbo cults inclusive) till today.

It is also interesting to note that even the non-human naming tradition also followed this principle in the past. So that animals, trees, mountains, rivers and other forms of creation were not merely named through direct articulations of their perceivable essences. Rather, it was through a metaphorical intellection of their place in the greater scale of life that their names were articulated. For instance, the Chameleon (in Igbo culture) didn’t get its name from its immediate perceivable characteristic of rapid coloration. Instead, its name “Ogwumagana” literally translates as “If it sinks, I shall not step”. Hence, the name metaphorically denotes the ancient belief among the Igbo that the Chameleon was created at a time when the Earth was still wet. Thus it literally had to enquire from Ala (The Earth Goddess) before making each step, lest it sinks.

Also interesting is the fact that the Chameleon is sacred to Ogwugwu, an Igbo fertility Goddess. The name “Ogwugwu” also denotes a hole or the act of digging. Remarkably, conventional science has been able to determine that matter is basically a hole dug by sub-atomic propellants in space (ether). Therefore, the obvious connection between the Chameleon and this Goddess—as was long established by ancient Igbo mystics—not only preceded modern scientific thought, but unlike the latter, was more clearly expressed and aptly symbolized; so much so that even a youngster could grasp the concept. This tradition, so obeyed, extended even into the designation/articulation of numerical principles, planetary bodies and highly abstract undertakings such as astronomical calibrations.

Furthermore, the aesthetic principle of expression in Igbo culture is also embodied in the aforementioned Uli body-painting/inscribing tradition. The Edeuli or Uli, for short, is a sacred, linear-oriented body-inscribing aesthetic employed by women in pre-contemporary Igbo society. It’s highly attractive and intricately executed expressions were regarded deeply by women and young girls—even beyond the Igbo cultural area. Among other things, it is also a key feature of the Ala (Earth Goddess) cult.

Uli mystical writing (from “Afterr God is Dibia”)

Conclusively, as the name of this discuss states, “Chukwu bu Ulidereuwa: God embodies the Divine Script through which all creation was expressed”. In other words, the expressive nature of Chukwu as the primal aesthetist, as the most accomplished author that will ever be, as the first and original artist of all creative forms that ever was, is and will ever exist—is here underscored. From the ongoing, it is not only made clear that the tradition of expression in Igbo culture is apparently complex in both scope and depth, but also, the inexhaustible nature of indigenous knowledge preserved in Igbo culture is equally made evident here.

Nkele Egede: In Praise of the First Ones

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Nkele Egede

(Igbo Translation)

Lekwe anyanwu biara uwa,

Ihe ebi-ebi ka o Jiri choo ya mma.

Mmadu Jizi maka nke-a hu ya na-anya.

Aja-Ala, Nne mbu buru anyi n’afo izizi,

Anyi echeta gi.

Igwe na mmiri,

Ndi mbu lere anyi omugwo,

Ndi mbu biara abia na ogodo uwa.

Anyi echeta unu.

Ikuku na Okpoko, ndi mbu fere efe,

Ndi obu-akika-na-enwu-oku n’isi,

Ndi mbu lara agu n’asaa na mmiri n’asaa,

Were nu nke ru-ru unu.

Debe nu Chim na Chi uwam.

Uwam biara, lekwem.

 
 

In Praise of the First Ones

 (English Translation)

Now behold the Magnificent Sun,

The One who came forth and blessed the world with eternal light.

Oh—how endless our adoration.

Behold too, the motherly Earth,

From whose primal womb we’ve all emerged and continue to emerge,

How endless our appreciation.

Behold now, the very ancient Sky and primal Waters.

The most graceful ones who first suckled and guided us,

The manifest ones who first embraced the visible world.

How endless our adoration.

Behold the sacred Spirit that is Breath and its chosen bird, Okpoko.

Behold both earliest of all adventurers; inventors of the art of flight.

Behold them, the non-flammable head-bearers of Light—

Primal navigators of the Seven Wilderness and Seven Seas.

Oh—ancient ones of renown, how endless my appreciation.

Guide now, my Chi and the Chi of my Destiny.

Great manifested world, bear me well.

—Nze Omenigbo Izo

(Excerpted from “The Transfiguration of Izo and Other Mystical Feats: Poems”)


Connecting to Your Ancestry

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One of the things that all humans have  in common is that none of us came into this reality all by ourselves. We had people that came before us that literally opened up the doors for us, who we owe our very existence to. The most recent of these would be our parents. For this reason, and many others, reverence for ones parents is a principle that is in virtually every culture on the planet. This reverence also extends to ones grandparents, great-grandparents, and so forth. Due to the impacts of colonization and the transatlantic slave trade, many people of African descent have stopped showing this reverence, and therefore have become disconnected from their roots. This has resulted in a stagnation of culture, broken family structures and very poor self esteem in many people.

It now appears to be a renewed interest in connecting to ones ancestry, and figuring out where one has been. Websites like Ancestry.com have helped a number of people, as well as methods such as DNA testing. To encourage people to help connect to their roots, I have decided to share my experiences, observations, and insights I have received from my own ancestors (both the living and “non-living” ones).

The first thing I would recommend is for people to shift their perception of their ancestry. Many people today like to use terms such as “lineage.” The problem with the term “lineage” is that it generally only counts the males ancestors of ones father as being important. This is patriarchal, linear thinking! The fact is, you get the same amount of chromosomes from your father as you do from your mother. When you look at your ancestors in their totality, what you get looks less like a line and more like a pyramid. And guess who is at the apex? YOU!

Standing at the apex

If you go back just one generation, you have two ancestors. Go back two, and that number becomes six. Skip to ten generations and now you can have up to 2046 ancestors . Mind boggling isn’t it?  You are a combination of millions of years of evolution. You contain traits from every one of your ancestors, starting from the first divine seed that humanity sprang from (Ifenta, which means “small light” was the name of the first human in Igbo cosmogony).

One should not fall into the trap of elevating your ancestors above ones self. Some people use the term “ancestor worship” to describe what a lot of Africans do to those that came beforehand. While I feel that back in the day, it was a misnomer, from my observations, today many people of African descent do tend to put to put their ancestors on a pedistool that they are unable to reach. Rather than elevating them to a high place, think of them as people in a relay race who have passed their torch to you. Your job is to run faster than they did. As long as you are caught up in worshipping them, you can never outdo them.

Passing the baton

With that being said, I would say that the first thing one should do if they wish to connect with their ancestry is to begin with your relatives that are in the flesh. This is a step that TOO many people neglect to do. It troubles me to see folks who yell and scream about their “ancient” ancestors but haven’t made sincere attempts to have a good relationship with their parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents or other living relatives.  The very first time I connected with my “non-living” paternal grandfather, it was a powerful experience. While in meditation, I began to focus on his image and name intensely. In making the connection, he told me very clearly that if I really wished to be able to connect with him on a deeper level, that I would have to connect better with my father, who I have often had a rocky relationship with. But it makes sense doesn’t it? Your parents are the bridge to your grandparents, and if you have a blockage in that relationship, it will extend to any deeper ones. The point that I’m trying to make is that one should do things in the right order.  It would be crazy to try to climb Mount Everest before conquering a small hill, just like it would be crazy to try to connect with some “ancient” ancestors if you don’t even have a good relationship with your recent ones.

I am blessed to still have both of my parents, and I have one grandparent left (on my mothers side). I met my maternal grandfather before he passed, and also my paternal grandmother when I was a baby. If you have any living grandparents, or great-aunts or uncles, you are a lucky person indeed. They are a living gateway to your “non living” ancestors, and you should took full advantage of their presence in the physical. Talk to them as much as you can, and if possible record the conversations using either audio or video. These conversations will prove to be invaluable in the future, both for yourself as well as your descendants, especially after they have made their transition. Don’t hesitate to also record conversations with other relatives including aunts and uncles, as well as your parents.

"Ana Muo" (Land of the Spirits) by Uche Okeke

A very important step that I would implore everyone to do is to take it upon themselves to create a family tree. This one single action can open up doors in ways that many people could not even imagine. By creating a family tree, you put together a puzzle that shows “your ingredients”, start to retrace the footsteps of your ancestors, and you gain the support of elders in your family and appreciation of the younger generations. Plus it will help you to connect to your ancestors more if you know their names,  what they looked like, where they were born, what they did for a living, how they lived, etc. Take note:  African definitions of family differ from the Western definitions as they includes as many people as possible from a particular bloodline, i.e extended family. That means aunts, uncles, cousins, and everyone in between. However, you can go as deep as you see fit.

Creating your family tree will quite literally be like trying to solve a grand mystery. In fact, to do it well, you will have to interview numerous family members of different ages, most likely visit various cities, states or countries, look into public records, etc. It will not be an easy process, but along the way, you will build key relationships, get valuable information, perhaps get hold of  key family artifacts and relics, and maybe even uncover some priceless secrets! One thing for sure, you and your family will not be the same after you start this process.

If you are a person that has a limited knowledge of their ancestry due to the Maafa (African Holocaust),  you might want to go and take a DNA test. These tests can trace your maternal lineage as well as your paternal lineage even down to a specific ethnic group in Africa. I personally would recommend African Ancestry as they are a black owned company and a number of my good friends have gotten excellent results from them.

Creating a family tree will turn you into Sherlock Holmes

As you continue on your ancestral odyssey, once crucial thing I would recommend you to start building would be an ancestral shrine. Although the word “shrine” has negative connotations due to Judeo-Christian propaganda, one definition of a shrine is simply “A site hallowed by association with a revered person or object or with an important event.” Another word for this would be a memorial. Here are some examples of some popular shrines:

Washington Monument

Lincoln Memorial

Stonewall Jackson Shrine

Shrine of the Black Madonna

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

All the time and energy you spent on putting together your family tree will enhance the ancestral shrine that you construct. Keep in mind however, that there is no “right way” to build an ancestral shrine. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that whatever is done on the African continent is more “correct” than what you can come up with. Let your spirit guide you, and you won’t be mislead. I recall a lecture I attended a few years ago from an organization who had a program of helping teach Africans in the Diaspora how to construct ancestral shrines. The women giving the lecture said that when they had an event with some older Black American women from the south, the presenters actually ending up learning more from the older Black women!

I’ve seen simple shrines and I’ve seen complex shrines. Use your imagination! Utilize pictures, personal possessions, candles, historical memorabilia, etc. to create your ancestral shrine. If you want, you can also include an alter where you can place water, plants, seeds, as well as articles of food or alcohol from time to time. Traditional Igbo ancestral altars typically contained sacred objects such as an Ofo stick (passed down from generation to generation) and an Ikenga. Kola nuts were broken at it every morning accompanied by a prayer for good favor.  Below is an example of one:

Igbo Ancestral Shrine

Here are some examples of ancestral shrines and altars from different cultures:

Urhobo Ancestral Shrine

Edo (Benin) Ancestral Shrine & Altar

A Korean jesa altar for ancestors

Mexican Day of the Dead Outdoor Altar

A Vietnamese altar for ancestors

Haitian Voodoo Ancestral Altar

I foresee a future where ancestral alters will resemble the hologram of  his father Jor-El that Superman keeps in his Fortress of Solitude, as seen in many of the Superman films. Its one project that I’m personally working on making a reality.

As you continue your journey, you will start to become aware of your ancestors speaking to you through signs, symbols, dreams, as well as through other people. In time, you will learn the language that they speak, and be able to communicate more effectively with them. If at any time you feel isolated or in need of guidance, become very still and remember that your ancestors live in you, and they will always be there to support you. Your body is a living shrine to them and your positive actions are better than any type of sacrifice you could offer them or libation you could pour. Yagazie (May we prosper) !