Category Archives: Proverbs

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.

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The Ecotheology of Ahobinagu: An Igbo Deity of Wildlife and Forestry

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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.

Oja (flute)

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.

Igbo Dibia

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

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Including excerpted sections from “Sacred Earth: The Divinities of Odinala”

(A work in the making)

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The Transmission of Odinani & Omenala in Pre-Colonial and Modern Society (Part 1)

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by Omenka Egwuatu Nwa-Ikenga

A good portion of the people of the world today attribute their beliefs and practices from one or more texts that they consider to be sacred. These “holy books”, as they are called, contain the cosmogony, proverbs, traditions, mythology, laws, customs, and other characteristics of a group of people, and are often considered to be either the “Word of God(s)” or the words of men that were “divinely inspired.”

“Holy” Book

Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) on the other hand, did not limit the transmission of their Odinani and Omenala on scriptures written by men. The reason for it is simple. When a group of people is able to see the Divine in everything, they do not place limits on how they transmit their points of view (the fundamental definition of a cosmogony is how a people see the world). While the transmission of Odinani and Omenala are found in every walk of Igbo life, this series of articles will only focus on some of the main avenues, which include: aha (names), ilu (proverbs), egwu (music), ukabuilu (parables), ifuru (mythology), okwa nka(art), and kentoaja(rituals)/mmemme (festivals). Modern additions such as literature, movies, poetry, and comic books/graphic novels will also be discussed.

(Aha) Names

Alot of information could be gathered from an Igbo name, as each one carries some significance and meaning. From an Igbo name, one could gather information such as the market day someone was born (Okafor means a male born on Afor day), their clan (Nwaneri means a descendant of Eri), the profession of their father (Ezeana means the descendant of a priest of Ani), as well as the circumstances around their birth (Ijeagha refers to a child born during war). Besides these things, alot of Igbo philosophy is apparent in many names. Take for example, the meanings of these names:

Afulukwe: “Seeing is believing”

Akobundu: “Wisdom is Life”

Azikiwe: “To turn one’s back is better than getting angry”

Chibueze: “God is King”

Ezinne: “Good Mother”

Jideofor: “Hold on to righteousness”

Nneka: “Mother is Supreme”

Nkeiruka: “The future is greater”

Nwachukwu: “Child of God”

Onyemobi: Who knows the heart?

Onwuasoanya: “Death respects no one”

Tabansi: “Have the patience (of a vulture)”

A more extensive list of Igbo names and their meanings can be found at this site as well as this one.

People were not the only things that were given special names, the Igbo Alusi (spiritual forces) were also given names that revealed alot about them and their functions in the society:

Chukwu: “The Big God” (the sum total of everything)

Amadioha: “Freewill of the people”

Anyanwu: “Eye of the Sun”

Idemilli: “Pillar of water”

Ikenga: “Place of strength”

More time will be spent in future posts explaining the meaning of the names of the Alusi as well as their attributes.

Ilu (Proverbs)

An Igbo proverb about proverbs states: “Ilu bu mmanu e ji eri okwu” (Proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten). There are not many things that can teach you alot about a group in such a concise manner as a proverb, and Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) are amongst the most prolific in the world at producing them. In fact, I would go as far as to say that its probably impossible to have a full conversation with an elder Igbo person without hearing at least one. It makes you wonder whether ancient Igbos spoke in nothing but proverbs like Yoda.  Here are a couple that  give a taste of Igbo philosophy:

Eze mbe si na nsogbu bu nke ya, ya jiri kworo ya n’azu” (The tortoise said that trouble is its own; that’s why it carries trouble on its back)

Explanation:  One should try and shoulder one’s own burden

Nwaanyi muta ite ofe mmiri mmiri, di ya amuta ipi utara aka were suru ofe” (If a woman decides to make the soup watery, the husband will learn to dent the fufu before dipping it into the soup)
Explanation: One should learn to change tactics to suit a situation.

Madu bu chi ibe ya” (Man is God to his fellow Man)
Explanation: God works through human beings

Onye ahala nwanne ya” (Never leave your brothers and sisters behind)
Self explanatory

Aku m diri Ubani” (My wealth lies in the good in my community and what I do to bring it forth)
Self explanatory

Ebuno jị ibi éjé ogụ” (The ram goes into a fight head first)
Explanation: One must plunge into a venture in order to succeed.

E gbuo dike n’ogu uno, e ruo n’ogu agu e lote ya” (Kill a warrior during skirmishes at home, and you will remember him when fighting enemies)
Explanation: Don’t destroy your leaders.

Ugo chara  acha adi(ghi) echu echu” (A mature eagle feather will ever remain pure)
Explanation: One well trained will stand the test of time.

Ome nta ome imo, ya gwuo-nu ala lia onwe ya!” (A man who believes that he can do everything, let him dig a grave and bury himself!)
Explanation: Its not wise to believe that one is without limitations

Amara akagh ngburu oke madu.  Akaa anugh ngburu onye ogbede” (Knowing (the truth) but not telling it is what kills old men.  Hearing (the truth) but not heeding it is what kills young men.)
Self explanatory

Egbe belu-Ugo belu. Nke si ibe ya ebena, nku tije ya” (Let the kite (type of bird) perch and the hawk perch, and if one rejects the perching of the other, may his wings be broken)
Explanation: Live your life and let others life their lives

More Igbo proverbs can be found here and here.

Egwu (Music)

Ndi Igbo, much like other African peoples, had a soundtrack for every occasion in their life. They had songs for children being born, songs for marriage, and for when people were being laid to rest. They had songs for work and for play. They had songs to prepare for war, songs to celebrate or call for peace, and songs to show discontent.

One such way of showing discontent through song was demonstrated through the act of “sitting on a man”, which Igbo women used to protest a man who they had felt that wronged them. “Sitting on a man” or a woman, boycotts and strikes were the women’s main weapons. To “sit on” or “make war on” a man involved gathering at his compound, sometimes late at night, dancing, singing scurrilous songs which detailed the women’s grievances against him and often called his manhood into question, banging on his hut with the pestles women used for pounding yams, and perhaps demolishing his hut or plastering it with mud and roughing him up a bit. A man might be sanctioned in this way for mistreating his wife, for violating the women’s market rules, or for letting his cows eat the women’s crops. The women would stay at his hut throughout the day, and late into the night, if necessary, until he repented and promised to mend his ways.Although this could hardly have been a pleasant experience for the offending man, it was considered legitimate and no man would consider intervening. (van Allen, Judith. “Sitting on a Man”: Colonialism and the Lost Political Institutions of Igbo Women. Canadian Journal of African Studies / Revue Canadienne des Études Africaines, Vol. 6)

Songs dedicated to the birth of children were a bit more positive than the ones that dealt with “sitting on a man.” These songs, which were referred to as omumu nwa songs are sung by groups of women after a successful childbirth. It is also usually accompanied by a dance. Below are two contrasting examples:

Uha (Lies)

Ye-ye-ye-yeo mumuo ma (Ye-ye-ye-ye good childbirth)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

Omumu otuotuo oluilu (Childbirth sweet and bitter)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

Omumuo ririu darao cha (Childbirth eater of ripened udara fruit)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

Aha we uha ekwu we r’ezi (Whether they are lying or telling the truth)

Uha-a aha we uha, uha. (Lies, they are telling lies, lies)

According to the article, “The Birth Song as a Medium for Communicating Woman’s Maternal Destiny in the Traditional Community” by Grace Okere: “This song is an expression of joyful disbelief by the mother of a woman who has successfully and safely delivered her child. They must be telling lies, she sings, although she wishes and knows that they are telling the truth. Apart from the rhythmic effect of the repetitive refrain, “uha-a aha we uha, uha” (“lies, they are telling lies, lies”), the song exploits the literary devices of paradox and imagery to effectively communicate meaning. Childbirth is paradoxically said to be “sweet and bitter.” This is so because it can bring boundless joy to the household into which a pregnant woman safely bears a child. On the other hand, it is “bitter” if the woman dies in childbirth. Then, there would be no songs of joy but sorrow and tears. Childbirth is also personified as “eater of ripened udara fruit.” This is an apt image used to communicate the fact that childbirth can kill a woman in her prime. This euphemistically expresses the sorrowful side of childbirth, when a woman dies in the process. The song brings out the antithetical qualities of childbirth- it is sweet but can be bitter, good but can send a young woman to an early grave” (Okereke, Grace Eche. “The Birth Song as a Medium for Communicating Woman’s Maternal Destiny in the Traditional Community” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Women as Oral Artists (Autumn, 1994), pp. 19-32)

This song offers a very different perspective:

Ah Nwa (The War of Childbirth)
Aha nwas u r’abalii si, osur ‘ogorowu (If the war of childbirth happens  in the night, it happens in the afternoon)
Niyi aso egwu, oha era (Do not be afraid owners of breast )
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Ejem eje, ala m ala (I will go, I will return)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Ma m’eje aha nwa (If I don’t fight the war of childbirth)
Mbia ji agbu enyi nkwu? (Shall I use rope to climb palm tree?)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Ma m’eje aha nwa (If I don’t fight the war of childbirth)
Mbia ji egbe eje ogu e-e? (Shall I use gun to fight e-e?)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je (The war of childbirth we must go)
Aha nwa bu ogu egbe ndi iyom (The war of childbirth  is the gunfight of women)
Aha nwaa yie jebekwae je. (The war of childbirth we must go.)

Regarding this song, Okereke states that: “a stylistic analysis of the song reveals a rich exploitation of literary devices like metaphor and imagery, rhetorical questions and reversal of word order. All these combine to generate a solemn effect on the audience, especially the women themselves. The epithet “oha era,” literally meaning “owners of breast,”is a synecdochic expression used to praise women and challenge them to action in matters of grave importance affecting them or the entire community. By aptly using the image of war to describe childbirth, the song brings out the physical  strength and valor required of women in parturition . It also brings out the suffering and danger of losing one’s life during childbirth as in war.The women’s courage, confidence, and determination to achieve victory in this “war” are brought out in the repetitive emphasis  of and resolve in the words” I will go, I will return.” This determination and certain victory derive from the fact that most women throughout history have fought the war of childbirth and have returned victorious-alive with their babies. This positive mental attitude can go a long way in aiding a woman’s safe delivery.

The reversal of the word order in the refrain,”ahan wa ayi ejebekwa eje” (“the war of childbirth we must go”) gives the song a militant rhythm, which raises it to the status of a war song. This befits the war situation of childbirth….The rhetorical questions “If I don’t fight the war of childbirth/ShalI l use rope to climb palm tree?/ …/ Shall I use gun to fight e -e?,” not only spur woman to victory, but further reinforce woman’s view of her relevance in the traditional community as being anchored on childbearing. The double metaphor in the expression ” the war of childbirth is the gunfight of women” shows how highly women value this duty, and how they see it as their “crowning glory,” as the greatest of all their achievements. Like men in war, childbirth is the arena in which women prove their worth and valor; it is the achievement that will etch a notch on a woman’s bow of honor, just as the number of human heads a man brought home from battle determined the number of notches in his bow in the old days o f inter-ethnic wars. (Okereke, Grace Eche. “The Birth Song as a Medium for Communicating Woman’s Maternal Destiny in the Traditional Community” Research in African Literatures, Vol. 25, No. 3, Women as Oral Artists (Autumn, 1994), pp. 19-32)

Igbo musicians

It is my opinion that music is the most effective and efficient way of transmitting a culture. From this single tool, you can transmit a language, history, proverbs, mythology, dances, rituals and much much more. Music is perhaps the one thing that people of African descent have not regressed on, in fact, its the one area that I believe we have even outdone our ancestors in. Despite the abominable state that we have found ourselves in worldwide , nobody can say that we are not the best in the world at making music. If we are to create the new systems that can meet the needs of our people and elevate us to a higher level, music must play a critical role in their development and implementation.