Tiv Religion

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TIV RELIGION . The Tiv, who live in the central Benue valley of Nigeria, have a name for God, Aondo (sky), but are not much interested in him because they say that he is not much interested in them. God, in their view, created the earth and everything within itincluding the forces of evil. Then he walked awaythe Tiv do not ask where God went.

The Tiv are concerned with health (and with death, the ultimate manifestation of poor health), with fertility of crops, animals, and themselves, and with social harmony. To be healthy, to have plenty, and to live in harmony are natural states. Although the Tiv have some lore about spirits, no spirits manipulate the forces that interfere with these desirable states; Tiv respect their ancestors, but no ancestors manipulate the forces. Rather, the acts and devices of living human beings activate the forces of evil. Tiv ritual is designed to overcome these forces.

The Tiv say that some people grow a substance called tsav on their hearts that acts much like a physical organ. Tsav is both a sign of and source of special talent or ability, whether musical and artistic, social and political, or the ability to live to old age. One such special talent is to manipulate the forces that repair the society ritually.

Tsav is not present in all people. It becomes enlarged and nefariously powerful in any person who eats human flesh. Tsav itself does not tempt its bearers to eat human fleshbut lust for power may. Cannibalism is a metaphor for antisocial misuse of other people, their property, and substance.

The Tiv postulate that some of those with the special talents of tsav meet at night as an organization to keep the social and cosmic forces working for the benefit of society as a whole. The mbatsav (people with tsav ) perform rituals to repair the land, but they may, through reckless human emotions such as spite, envy, or fear, use their power (as may any individual with tsav, acting alone) for antisocial and deadly purposes that spoil the land. To call the mbatsav witches is not accurate, even though they were labeled as such in some of the early literature.

The postulated activities of the mbatsav, both for the good of the community and for the evil purposes of some individuals, are associated with certain rituals performed with symbols called akombo. This ritual manipulation is called repairing the akombo. Those aspects of the natural and social world about which Tiv are most concerned are parceled out among named akombo, which exist as amulets, figurines, pots, or plants. Each is associated with a disease (although certain diseases are not associated with akombo because the Tiv recognize that some diseases are merely contagious). Each has its own ritual required to activate it or to pacify it. Akombo, however, are not personalized and are not spiritualized; they are certainly not gods. They work by forces akin to what Westerners think of as laws of nature.

When Tiv become ill, they assume that an akombo is the cause. That means either that some person of ill will who grows tsav has ritually manipulated the akombo so that it would seize a victim, or else that the victim or one of his or her close kinsmen has performed an act that was precluded by that akombo at the time of its creation (usually a commonplace and neutral act, although adultery and battery are prohibited by one or more akombo ). To determine just which akombo is involved, Tiv consult diviners who throw chains of snake bones and pods to determine which akombo have been used to cause an illness or create social misfortune.

When the responsible akombo is revealed, the Tiv perform rituals to neutralize it. They must also remove the malice that activated it. The latter is achieved by a modest ritual in which every person concerned takes a little water into his or her mouth and spews it out in a spray, signifying that any grudges are no longer effective. Medicines will work only after the ill will is ritually removed and the akombo repaired. The ritual for each akombo varies, but the climax of all is a prayer that "evil descend and goodness ascend." These rituals are as much group therapy sessions as they are religious acts.

Tiv recognize two major categories of akombo. Small akombo attack individuals and their farms; their repair demands minor sacrificial animals, usually a chicken. A few small akombo require special sacrificial animals such as turtles or valuable ones such as goats or rams. Coins or other forms of wealth can be added to a less valuable sacrificial animal to make it taller and so serve as a more valuable one.

The great akombo, on the other hand, attack social groups; they must be repaired either by the elders of the community acting by day, or by a secret group (the same people) acting as the mbatsav by night.

At the end of any akombo ritual carried out by day, or as the last act of any funeral, the Tiv prepare and break a symbol called swem. Made in a potsherd from hearth ashes and symbolic plants, it is held high, then smashed to earth. The ashes, spreading on the breeze, mean that justice spreads through the land and that swem will punish evildoers.

Most Tiv claim not to know the details of any akombo or its ritual, and all deny knowing that the ritual was carried out at night. But they never postulate that any part of it is a mystery. Somebody knows. Tiv say "God knows" at funerals if they can find no other reason for the death. They mean that they have not yet discovered the human motivation behind the misfortune. But they do not question that the motivation is there and that ultimately it will be detected and either neutralized or punished.


Akiga (Benjamin Akighirga Sai). Akiga's Story: The Tiv Tribe as Seen by One of Its Members. 2d ed. Translated and annotated by Rupert East. London, 1965. First edition (1939) contains less material. This work is valuable for Akiga's texts; East's analyses are outdated.

Bohannan, Laura, and Paul Bohannan. The Tiv of Central Nigeria. Ethnographic Survey of Africa, Western Africa, part 8. London, 1953. See particularly pages 8193. This account is brief, and its analysis varies somewhat from the one given in this article, but it is not contradictory.

Bohannan, Paul, and Laura Bohannan. A Source Notebook on Tiv Religion. 5 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1969. Field notes for a book that was never written, this work contains a vast amount of ethnographic information but is short on analysis.

Downes, Rupert M. Tiv Religion. Ibadan, Nigeria, 1971. Despite its publication date, this study is about Tiv religion as Captain Downes found it in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Downes was a distinguished colonial officer with three months' training in anthropology. His account contains invaluable information, but his analysis is shaky.

New Sources

Ahire, Philip Terdo. The Tiv in Contemporary Nigeria. Samaru Zaria, Nigeria, 1993.

Bohannan, Paul. Justice and Judgment among the Tiv. Prospect Heights, Ill., 1989.

Burfisher, Mary E. Sex Roles in the Nigerian Tiv Farm Household. West Hartford, Conn., 1985.

Jibo, Mvendaga. Chieftaincy and Politics: The Tor Tiv in the Politics and Administration of Tivland. New York, 2001.

Makar, Tesemchi. The History of Political Change among the Tiv in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Enugu, Nigeria, 1994.

Wegh, Shagbaor F. Between Continuity and Change: Tiv Concept of Traditional and Modernity. Lagos, Nigeria, 1998.

Paul Bohannan (1987)

Revised Bibliography