Igbo Religion

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IGBO RELIGION . The Igbo are the largest ethnic group of southeastern Nigeria, numbering about fifteen million people in 2000. Until the mid-twentieth century the overwhelming majority of Igbo were farmers, raising yams as their staple crop. Traditionally, the Igbo lived in villages or village-groups surrounded by their farms. The village-group was the primary unit of political authority; there was no sustained tradition of centralized states within Igbo society. Rather, there were strong ties of the village community, the extended family system, age-group associations, and the various religious organizations that were important to community life. The Igbo have been exposed to Christian missionary activity since 1841; in 1857 an Anglican mission was opened at the important town of Onitsha along the Niger River. The Roman Catholics came in 1885. By the mid-twentieth century most Igbo had adopted Christianity, though the tensile strength of Igbo traditional religion sustained millions of devotees.

Igbo religion distinguishes between three types of supernatural beings: God, the spirits, and the ancestors. Ndigbo believe that there is only one supreme being, who is variously known in different parts of Igboland as Chukwu, Chineke, Ezechitoke, Osebuluwa or Obasi di n'elu. Each name privileges certain attributes. He created the world and sustains it from above, and one of his praise names is "the one who is known but never fully known." Igbo parents honor Chukwu by naming their children in praise of his power: Chuk-wudi ("God lives"), Chukwu nyelu ("God gave"), Chuk-wuneke ("God creates"), Chukwuma ("God knows"), Chukwuka ("God is greater"), Ifeanyichukwu ("nothing impossible with God"), Chukwuemeka ("God has been very kind"), Kenechukwu ("thank God"), Ngozichukwu ("blessing of God"), Chukwumailo ("God knows my enemies"), and Chukwujioke ("God is the sharer").

Chukwu is seen as a powerful, munificent God, the one who holds the knife and the yam and provides people with wealth, rain, and children, and who is merciful toward rich and poor, male and female, child and aged. Every morning the father of the family offers prayers to the supreme being. Chukwu does not intervene in the minor details of human existence, however; such matters he leaves to the spirits and ancestors, who are often described as his messengers.

The spirits (alusi) are powerful beings who inhabit the three dimensions of spacesky, earth (land and water), and ancestral world. There are several categories of spirits. Powerful sky deities manifest through thunder, lightning, sun, and moon; nature spirits inhabit rocks, hills, caves, trees, and land or farms. The guardian spirit of the earth is Ani/Ala, the earth mother. There is also a spirit associated with each day of the Igbo four-day week: Eke, Orie, Afor, and Nkwo. Patron spirits serve as guardians of hunters, farmers, fishermen, medicine men, and other professional guilds; the matron spirit is called Nne Miri or Mami Wata. Marine spirits inhabit rivers and streams. Human spirits, called chi, determine each individual's destiny. Spirit forces energize medicine that individuals can conjure and deploy for strength, protection, or to harm enemies. Ancestral spirits are the living dead who inhabit the spirit world but are involved in the lives of progenies in the human world. During festivals, they visit the human world as guests in form of masquerades. Evil spirits live in both human and spirit worlds. Only those who lived honest lives, did not die from inexplicable diseases, and had full burial rites can be ancestors or reincarnate. The spirits of evil people wander as akalogolu who appear on lonely farm roads to frighten people. Among the most dreaded evil spirits are ogbanje spirits who manifest as children, covenanted to return to the marine world after a brief sojourn among human families. Their mission is to participate exuberantly in life events, tantalizing parents with their excessive beauty, friendliness, joy of living, and precocious habits. Near the appointed time of return, they develop unusual illnesses and die very suddenly. Ogbanje spirits tend to possess females. Parents consult dibia afa (divining healers, as opposed to dibia ogwu, who are adept with herbs), make sacrifices to marine spirits, and use facial scarifications on the children to discourage their return to the human world. Body marks at birth may betray an ogbanje child (modern medicine suspects sickle cell anemia).

Benevolent spirits have shrines, priests, and religious festivals as part of their worship. The wicked spirits receive no regular cultic activity except the occasional offering made with the left hand as the supplicant asks to be left alone. Major ancestors have statues, which recall their spiritual power, located at a family shrine. Before drinking palm wine, the Igbo pour out a few drops in honor of the ancestors. The ancestors are believed to help the living reap a good harvest, have many children, and protect the family from misfortunes. Ancestors may also be reincarnated among the children of their descendants.

Acts of religious worship permeate daily life and are often conducted on behalf of family or village groups. A father's morning prayer to Chukwu is offered on behalf of his entire family. Individuals invoke the name of a spirit or even that of Chukwu when they sense danger, have cause to rejoice, when they sneeze, or when they approach a spirit's shrine. Prayers also accompany ritual sacrifice. They are offered to God, the spirits, and the ancestors, and can be prayers of petition, praise, or thanksgiving. The Igbo perceive time as cyclical, from birth to death and reincarnation. Rites of passage are celebrated: naming ceremonies, puberty rites, marriage rites, membership in secret and open societies, adult roles in communal governance, and funerary rites. Both the poor, ogbenye, and the rich, ogalanya, are judged after this life by their honest commitment to communal values.

Sacrifice is central in Igbo religious life. Sacrifices are offered for the expiation of sins, for protection from misfortune, to petition for assistance, and to offer thanks. Most are offered to spirits and ancestors, but in certain cases sacrifices of white chickens are offered directly to Chukwu. Sacrifices at family shrines are performed by the senior man of the family. Each spirit has its own priests who perform sacrifices at the shrine. Offerings include eggs, chickens, fruits, goats, cows, and (in a few rare cases of community sacrifices) human beings. Sometimes the victimanimal or humanis offered to a spirit and a little of its blood is shed as a sign of an offering, but the victim is allowed to live as a devotee who is consecrated to the spirit. Human sacrifices are sometimes connected with adjudication of disputes at oracular shrines. Oracles are graded according to purview. The three with the widest geographical patronage that extended beyond Igboland were Ogbunorie, Igwe-ka-Ala, and Ibin Ukpabi. The last acquired notoriety because the Arochukwu, who served as middlemen in the transatlantic slave trade manipulated the oracle by soaking the stream near the ravine that housed the oracle with red ochre wood and declaring that Ibin Ukpabi had eaten the guilty party in the arbitration. Meanwhile, they sneaked the hapless victim through the forest to a waiting slave boat. The colonial government conducted a raid on the Arochukwu community between 1901 and 1902, but could not wipe out the oracle. They followed this with four other four raids between 1912 and 1925 against the oracle, still to no avail.

Healing is central to Igbo religion. Ndi dibia ogwu (herbalists) employ a variety of techniques to discern the spiritual cause of a particular malady or misfortune: a violation of taboos/prohibitions, moral failure, an offense against a spirit, or a bad personal fate (chi). A spirit, agwu, possesses the herbalist after he recites incantations, and it identifies the herb and the location in the forest for the cure.

Social control models include socialization into acceptable values (omenali), restriction through satires and peer joking relationships, punishment for those who flout the salient values, and reward for those who uphold them. Each control is legitimized with religion. For instance, theft from a farm threatens the food security of the community, so the elders invoke the spirits of Ahiajioku (the god of the yam who also guards farms), Ani/Ala (the earth mother), or ancestors to detect and punish the thief. The earth spirit and ancestors serve as guardians of morality. The most serious crimes are abominations committed against the earth spirit, such as patricide, suicide, incest, theft of crops or livestock, giving birth to twins, and killing sacred animals. Itinerant priests from Nri conduct the expiation of such abominations. Ndigbo employ covenants with the gods of their fathers to preserve social order, enhance the well-being of individuals and communities, and preserve the highest values, nka na nzere long life and prosperity. They sacralize the whole of life.

See Also

God, article on African Supreme Beings.


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Ogbuene, Chigekwu. The Concept of Man in Igbo Myths. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, and New York, 1999.

Francis A. Arinze (1987)

Ogbu Kalu (2005)