Deities of the Igbo Religion
Deities of the Igbo Religion
Roots. The origins of the Igbo , like those of many other ethnic groups in West Africa, are shrouded in myth. The best historical evidence produces two conflicting interpretations. One group of scholars, including Elizabeth Isichei, claims that the Igbo are original to the place where the majority of them still live, southeastern Nigeria. A second group, however, asserts that the Igbo , along with some ethnic groups in Zimbabwe, are descended from the Jews, using linguistic and even genetic analysis to bolster their claims. J. B. Danquah and Jacob U. Egharevba point to similarities in Igbo and Hebrew customs and religious rituals, such as the circumcision of the male child eight days after birth, systems of marriage and inheritance, and ideas about ritual purity and impurity.
Chukwu. Transcending the multiplicity of gods in Igbo religion is a high god called Chukwu (or Chi Ukwu), whose name may be translated as “The Great Spirit.” The Igbo religionist thinks of Chukwu as an all-powerful, allknowing divinity, the maker of the cosmos as well as all the minor gods that make up the Igbo pantheon. Chukwu is not believed to have human attributes, but is often referred to as “He.” Chukwu is believed to inhabit the sky and is often associated with the Sun, which is believed to be God’s “eye” on the Earth. The central relationship between Chukwu and the Sun is evident in the people’s cosmology and traditional prayers. According to Chinua Achebe, “Among the Igbo of Awka a man who arrives at a point in his life when he needs to set up a shrine to his chi [personal god] will invite a priest to perform a ritual of bringing down the spirit from the face of the Sun at daybreak. Thereafter, it is represented physically in the man’s compound until the day of his death when the shrine must be destroyed.” In various prayers the Sun is called “The Face of God,” “The Great Carrier of Sacrifice to the Almighty,” and “The Single Eye of God,” as in the following prayer in Achebes Anthills of the Savannah (1987):
Wide-eyed, insomniac, you go out at cock-crow spitting malediction at a beaten, recumbent world. Your crimson touches fire the furnaces of heaven and the roaring holocaust of your vengeance fills the skies.
Undying Eye of God! You will not relent, we know it, from compassion for us. Relent then for your own sake; for that building eye of madness that may be blinded by soaring motes of an incinerated world. Single Eye of God, will you put yourself out merely that men may stumble in your darkness. Remember: Single Eye, one-wall-neighbor-to-Blindness, remember! …
Great Messenger of the Creator! Take care that the ashes of the world rising daily from this pyre may not prove enough when they descend again to silt up the canals of birth in the season of renewal.
Chukwu is also often referred to as Chineke—a shorter version of “Chi-na-eke,” the God who creates—suggesting that Chukwu is the creator of Nature, in its spiritual and physical aspects.
Ala. Parallel to the idea of Chukwu as a masculine deity associated with the Sun is the idea that the Moon is feminine and closely associated with the goddess Ala—Earth. While Chukwu is in charge of creation, Ala is in charge of conserving that which is created. While Chukwu is the giver of the moral law, Ala is the enforcer of the law. Ala is also the “womb” that holds and nurtures and renews when necessary. The Igbo , an agrarian people, regard her as the “mother” of all crops. Before planting and harvest, they hold days of ritual ceremonies to appease Ala so she will facilitate the growth of healthy crops or to thank her for making possible the abundant harvest soon to begin. In a year of drought or other agricultural misfortunes, the people undertake ritual processes meant to examine how they may have angered Ala and caused her to withhold her blessings. After they look for wrongdoing on the part of humans, they seek scientific explanations for crop failures. When religious and natural explanations conflict, mythical narratives are used to overcome contradictions.
Duality. Chukwu and Ala are meant to represent the differences and complementarity between the sexes in Igbo culture. This principle of duality extends to minor gods as well. Some of these deities are “male” gods associated with masculine rituals such as circumcision or with male-dominated professions such as iron smithing and carving. Others are “female” deities, such as those associated with protecting vegetable traders and cloth weavers—who in the Igbo traditional world tended to be dominated by women.
Agbala. Agbala is the priestess of Ala. In addition to leading the community’s ritual sacrifices to Ala, she is in charge of executing punishments against individuals who commit acts the community considers immoral (such as
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murder, witchcraft, and perjury). These and similar crimes are believed to be transgressions against the earth goddess.
Chi. After Chukwu and Ala, the most important divinity in the Igbo religious worldview is Chi, the spirit believed to inhabit each individual. Chi is said to be the fractal representation of Chukwu that resides in each person. In fact, Chukwu may be translated as “The Great Chi” as well as “The Great Spirit.” Because every person’s Chi descends directly from the Great God, all humans share in the divine character. This participation in the divine is symbolized in the Ikenga, a statue that every adult may enshrine in his or her compound as a reminder that in everyday thought and action, one’s spirit must constantly be elevated toward God. Some call Chi the “soul” of the person, but it is equally possible that the correct translation is “mind,” because another word, obi, best approximates the English meaning of “soul.”
Mmo. Spirits known as mmo do not necessarily belong to anyone in particular, but rather are believed to roam around either to protect people or to cause mischief to individuals. Often the wandering spirits are attributed to dead relatives whose funeral may not have been properly performed or altogether neglected. Unable to “cross over” to ani mmo, land of the dead or land of the spirits, the mmo have no choice but to hover around in limbo between this world and the next, unable to find rest. Depending on their characters when they were inhabiting human bodies, these homeless spirits are either benevolent or malevolent, but they are always unhappy because of their wandering state. It is believed that Chukwu may also send unwelcome spirits to rebuke or torment individuals who have committed evil acts or to protect the innocent. A spirit may also find a “home” by possessing or occupying a nonhuman entity such as a tree, snake, or river. This belief has led some scholars to characterize the Igbo traditional religion as animistic.
Mbari. Closely associated with Ala is Mbari, the divine guardian of a ritual form of art central to the Igbo religious existence. The character of the deity Mbari, who is considered a close associate, if not a divine messenger or personal aspect, of Ala, is best explained by describing the artistic ritual that also bears her name. Mbari art is considered a feminine endeavor—unlike other religious rituals that are, for example, associated with war or hunting. Mbari is a ritual of peace and art and an expression of the love of play, including the satiric and comic, and the love of the beautiful. Only adult Igbo can participate in Mbari, which involves several months of seclusion, during which the participants devote all their time to creating artworks. These works may be made with materials such as wood, cloth, and ink, but rarely clay. The results are sculptures that represent the full range of the experience and imagination of each artist: daily objects such as tables and chairs and people from various professions. In fact, the goal of Mbari artists seems to be re-creation of the everyday experience of an average person in the wider community. Thus, a Mbari house might contain an assembly of objects arranged to look like a miniature imaginary Igbo society. The purpose of Mbari is primarily to show off the talents of artists: their capacity for observation and reflection and their aesthetic appreciation of the beautiful. At the end of the months of seclusion, the Mbari house is opened to the public for view. Like visitors to a museum, people are supposed to feel a sense of recognition in the artistic—sometimes caricatured—rendition of their everyday communal lives. In return the visitors shower the artists with gifts, parties, and recognition. Unlike museums, however, Mbari houses are destroyed—or left to deteriorate unattended—at the end of each season. The Earth goddess Ala, who is also the god of fertility, is regarded as the divine patron of Mbari. Mbari artists must return to the beginning and renew creativity each year because—as in the cycle of nature—they regard art as highly creative but also improvisational. Thus, it seems that the Igbo valued the spontaneity of the artist and the technical processes of creativity more than the objects created. Some of the Mbari art objects, especially masks, have been rescued from destruction and are used in rituals from one year to the other.
Amadioha. Similar to the god Shango in the Yoruba religion, Amadioha is the Igbo god of thunder and lightning. He is therefore considered “Owner of the Sky.” Whenever lightning kills a person or strikes an object, the event is often considered a sign or “message” from Amadioha. Dibia, or priests, are therefore asked to determine what wrong has been committed by the victim or the owner of the object. Sometimes a god warring with Amadioha is believed to have “entered” the person or the object. Amadioha himself, however, is presumed to be a gentle deity who gets violent only when provoked. Amadioha’s favorite color is white, so a white ram is the preferred sacrifice to him.
Agwu. Also known as Agwusi, Agwu is the Igbo trickster god, similar to the Akan god Ananse and the Yoruba god Esu. It is not known whether any of these deities is male or female. Rather, the trickster is considered capable of being either sex at anytime, even both at once, or neither sex at all. Respected and feared, Agwu is capable of sowing confusion in the mind of even the clearest reasoner. Agwu, however, can also clarify confusion, even when it is caused by human ignorance, the finite capacity of the human mind, or the evil actions of other persons or gods. If it pleases Agwu to protect or “work with” a thinker, unparalleled lucidity may be attained. But if it pleases the god to sow confusion in someone’s mind, there is nothing anyone can do about it—except work with Agwu to lift the curse or devise a technique of information gathering that overcomes the external confusion wrought by Agwu. Agwu is most dreaded by Dibia, whose success as diviners depends on clarity of mind. Dibia are therefore taught ritual sacrifices that they must make to Agwu at the beginning of every divination session. Agwu is thus the patron deity of diviners.
Ekwensu. Feared as much as Chukwu is respected, Ekwensu is the Igbo Evil Spirit, much like that of the Devil in other religions. Possession by Ekwensu can lead a person to commit acts of great evil against Chukwu or against humanity. Whenever an unfathomable act of evil is committed by someone considered incapable of such a crime, possession by Ekwensu is a common explanation. Without excusing the person’s conduct, this attribution of the origins of such criminal depravity to a superhuman power allows the Igbo to acknowledge that there are some levels of inhumanity humans cannot reach on their own—a polar opposite to acts of good so astonishing that they are considered “miraculous.”
Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (London: Heinemann, 1987).
Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day: Essays (London: Heinemann, 1975).
Ulli Beier, ed., The Origin of Life and Death:African Creation Myths (London: Heinemann, 1966).
Herbert M. Cole, Mbari: Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).
J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, second edition (London: Cass, 1968).
Jacob U. Egharevba, The City of Benin, Benin Law and Custom, Some Stories of Ancient Benin, [and] Some Tribal Gods of Southern Nigeria (Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus Reprints, 1971).
Emmanuel Eze, ed., African Philosophy: An Anthology (Malden, Mass. & Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, Le Mythe Cosmogonique (Paris: Institut d’Ethnologie, 1965).
Edmund Ilogu, Christianity and Igbo Culture (Leiden: Brill, 1974).
Elizabeth Isichei, A History of African Societies to 1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Isichei, A History of the Igbo People (London: Macmillan, 1976).
John Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion (London: Heinemann, 1975).
Rems Nna Umeasiegbu, The Way We Lived: Ibo Customs and Stories (London: Heinemann, 1969).