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Igbo religion and spirituality
Odinani (Igbo: ọ̀dị̀nànị̀, O-di-NAH-ni) comprises the traditional religious practices and cultural beliefs of the Igbo people. Odinani is a monotheistic and panentheistic faith, having a God. Although a pantheon of spirits exists, the lesser spirits prevalent in Odinani expressly serve as elements of Chineke (or Chukwu). Chineke is a compound word encompassing the concept of chí the divine masculine force and (nà) ékè the creative and divisive feminine force. The concept of chúkwú, or 'supreme chi' was largely propagated by the Aro-Igbo of Arochukwu in eastern Igboland who wielded much spiritual force over the eastern Niger Delta in the 18th century due to their operating of the Ibini Ukpabi oracle.
Lesser spirits, known as ágbàrà and alusi are below the high god and are parts of the high god chi na ékè divided by gender in his mind. Ágbàrà is a divine force that manifests as separate spirits, a concept of 'the eye of sun or' (ányá ánwụ́) existed as a feminine solar deity that was part of solar veneration among the Nri-Igbo. The lesser spirits are mediated by dibia and other priests who do not contact the high god directly. Under this class of spirits are minor spirits know as mmúọ defined by their perceived malevolent or benign natures. Divination among the Igbo is know as áfà.
The number of people practicing igbo religion had decreased drastically in the 20th century with the influx of Christian missionaries under the auspices of the British colonial government of Nigeria. In some cases Igbo religion syncretised with Christianity, but in many cases indigenous rites were demonised by Christian missionaries who pointed out the practice of human sacrifice and some other cultural practices that were illegal under the colonial government. Earlier missionaries referred to many indigenous religious practices as juju. Igbo religion is most present today in harvest ceremonies such as new yam festival (ị́wá jí) and masquerading traditions such as mmanwu and Ejagham derived Ekpe.
Remnants of Igbo relgious rites spread among African descendats in the Caribbean and North America in era of the Atlantic slave trade. Igbo ọ́bị̀à was transferred to the British Caribbean and Guyana as obeah and aspects of Igbo masquerading traditions can be found among the festivals of the Garifuna people and jonkonnu of the British Caribbean and North Carolina.
Odinani in northern Igbo dialects is the compound of the words ọ̀ dị̀ ('located') + n (nà, 'within') + ànị̀ (land or Ala earth goddess). Other variants include omenala, omenana, and omenani in primarily in the southern Igbo dialects. The word odinani and all its variations is also associated with the culture and customary laws of the Igbo people. Many of the laws and culture were counterparts with religion such as taboos and laws concerning sacred spaces like a deities sacred forest. Since customary law is recognised in Nigeria, many in Igbo society find themselves syncretising these beliefs with other beliefs and religions.
Odinala is a panentheistic faith with a strong central spiritual force at its head which all things are believed to spring from. Chukwu is the central deity. Chukwu as the creator of everything (visible and invisible) and the source of other deities is referred to as Chineke. Chukwu is genderless possessing the supreme power in the cosmos control. Chukwu is reached through various spiritual forces mainly under the spirit class of Alusi which are incarnations of the high god. If an Arushi is assigned to an individual, it becomes a chi, a personal guardian god. The chi manifests as mmuo, spirits, a persons earth bound spirit chooses sex, type, and lifespan before incarnation in the human world.
Ofo and ogu is a law of retributive justice. Ofo and ogu vindicates people wrongly accused of crimes and can call its name in prayer. Those who are guilty are expected face the wrath of Amadioha. Kola nut is used in ceremonies honour Chukwu, chi, Arushi and ancestors and is used as a method of professing innocence when coupled with libations. The Igbo often make clay altars and shrines of their deities which are sometimes anthropomorphic, the most popular example being the wooden statues of Ikenga. Typically, only men are allowed to make representational figures of supernatural forces.
In Igbo cosmology, the world was divided into four corners by the high god corresponding to èké órìè (or óyè) àfọ̀ ǹkwọ́ which are the days of the week in the Igbo calendar regarded as market days. In one Igbo cosmological theory reported by W.R.G. Morton in the 1950s from an elder in Ibagwa Nike in northern Igboland, Chukwu sees that the sun travels across the world in the day time which cuts into two in order for the moon to pass on a perpendicular route, so the world is divided into four parts and four days. The quarterly division of the earth and the days makes the number four sacred (ńsọ́) to the Igbo. The pattern of two and four reoccur in Chukwu's creations. The days correspond to the four cardinal points and are its names in Igbo, èké east, órìè west àfọ̀ north, ǹkwọ́ south. The Nri-Igbo claim the market days to have been introduced to the Igbo by their divine progenitor and king Eri in the 9th century after encountering them as deities. These alusi are venerated as the primary or as a major deity under Chineke in parts of Igboland. In terms of hierarchy, some communities recognising èké as the head of these alusi, while others prioritise órìè and ǹkwọ́ first after the high god. Market days may have local deities representing the spirits in some places, in many southern Igbo towns Agwu is the patron of Eke, Ogwugwu the patron of Orie, Amadioha the patron of Afo and Ala for Nkwo. These days and spirits are the names of the caridnal position
Kola nut (ọ́jị̀, O-ji, or ọ́jị̀ Ìgbò) offerings and prayers (ị́gọ́ ọ́jị̀, I-go O-ji, 'kola nut blessing', ị́wá ọ́jị̀, 'kola nut breaking') can be performed personally between one and his spirit or in a group in a form of a prayer or chant. The saluter addresses their personal god or chi as well as alusi and their ancestors. These kola nuts are held in a special round bowl called ọ́kwá with a compartment at the centre of the bowl for condiments for the kola nut such as alligator pepper and ground peanuts. The bowl and kola nut rite is used to welcome visitors into a household. After the prayer, the ceremony ends with the saluter sharing pieces of the kola with the group, known as ị́ké ọ́jị̀. The kola is supposed to cut by hand, but more recently knives have become acceptable. When the cola has three cotyledons, or parts, it is considered an ọ́jị̀ ìkéǹgà in some northen communities (going by other names in communities Ikenga doesn't operate) and is considered a sign of great luck, bravery and nobility. O wetalu oji wetalu ndu — 'one who brings kola brings life' is a popularise saying that points to the auspiciousness of the kola rite.
Chi is the personal spiritual guardian of a person and determines destiny, conceived as ḿmúọ́, a spirit. The overall chi indirectly in charge of everything (visible and invisible) is Chukwu, the supreme being, compounding the words chí + úkwú ('great in size, supreme'). Chi is believed to be a spiritual connection between an individual and the high god and the dictates aspects of a persons spiritual journey on Earth. The high god, Chukwu, is believed to assign chi before and at the time of an individuals birth. It is a guardian spirit providing care, guardianship, and providence, in this respect, the concept of chi is analogous to the concept of a guardian angel in Christianity, the daemon in ancient Greek religion, and the genius in ancient Roman religion. Unlike Chukwu who is genderless, chi can be either feminine or masculine. A dibia can identify a person’s chi through divination (áfà) and advices adherents of ways to placate it.
Chukwu's incarnations in the world (Igbo: ụ̀wà) are the Alusi, supernatural forces that regulate human life. In southern Igbo dialects especially, ágbàrà is the term for these forces. The alusi, who are also known as arushi, anusi, or arusi in differing dialects all spring from Ala the earth spirit who embodies the workings of the world. There are lesser alusi in Odinani, each of whom are responsible for a specific aspect of nature or abstract concept. According to Igbo belief, these lesser alusi, as elements of Chukwu, have their own specific purpose. Alusi manifest in natural elements and their shrines are usually found in forests in which they are based around specific trees. At shrines, íhú mmúọ́, an object such as a hung piece of cloth or a group of statues are placed at an alusi's group of trees to focus worship. Many of these shrines are by the roadside in rural areas. Tender palm fronds symbolise spiritual power and an are objects of sacralisation, shrines are cordoned off with omu to caution the public of the deities presence. Larger clay modelings in honour of an alusi also exist around forests and rivers. Other alusi figures may be found in and around peoples homes and the shrines of dibia, much of these are related to personal chi, cults, and ancestral worship.
Ala (meaning 'earth' in Igbo, also àjáànà) is the feminine earth spirit who is also responsible for morality and fertility and the dead ancestors who are stored in the underworld in her womb. Ala is at the head of the Igbo pantheon, maintaining order and and carrying out justice against wrongdoers. She is the most prominent and worshipped alusi. Ala is believed to be involved in all aspects of human affairs including festivals and at offerings. She is the ground itself, and for this reason taboos and crimes are known as nsọ ala ("desecration of Ala"). When an individual dies what is considered a 'bad death' in the society, such as from the effects of divine retributive justice or breaking a taboo, they are not buried in the earth, but are discarded in a forrest so as not to offend Ala. As in cases of most alusi, Ala has the ability to be malevolent if perceived to be offended and can cause harm against those who offend her.
|Mabri: Art as Process in Igboland by Herbert M. Cole, a description of mbari|
Among a small area of the Urata-Igbo cultural area, near Owerri, there is a tradition of building votive monument houses called ḿbàrí primarily dedicated to the ágbàrà Àlà specific to the community and sometimes other community deities. The name joins the word ḿbà ('nation, town, society') + rí ('eat') in reference to the 'festival of life' held after its completion. These votive shrines are typically designed with four columns and a central volt, around the columns are modelled deities, spirits, and depictions of human life, the entire building built out of clay from termite mounds symbolically named jí ('yam') by the initiated spirit workers called ńdí m̀gbè. Ndi mgbe are secluded from the community for a couple of months during the rites of building the mbari to a deity. Mbari are requested by a deity who the diviner tells the community feels neglected and cannot feel pride in the face of other deities in the spirit world. A string of unusual and unfortunate events befalling the community is linked to the aggrieved deity. An mbari is commissioned and artists are chosen. After the completion of the mbari the spirit workers are reincorporated into the community and a feast is held for the opening of the mbari house where elders and the community come to exhibit the critique the expensive mbari. The mbari house is not a source of worship and is left to dilapidate, being reabsorbed by nature.
Amadioha (from ámádí + ọ̀hà, 'free will of the people' in Igbo) is the Alusi of justice, thunder, lightning and the sky and is referred to as Amadioha in southern Igboland, Kamalu, Kamanu, Kalu among the Aro and other Cross River Igbo people, Igwe among the Isuama Igbo and in northwestern Igboland, and Ofufe in certain parts of Igboland. His governing planet is the Sun. His color is red, and his symbol is a white ram. Metaphysically, Amadioha represents the collective will of the people and he is often associated with Anyanwu. He the expression of divine justice and wrath against taboos and crimes, he is sworn by and strikes down those who swear falsely with thunder and lightening. Amadioha shrines exist around Igboland, his main shrine is located at Ozuzu in the riverine Igbo region in northern Rivers State. While Anyanwu is more prominent in northern Igboland, Amadioha is more prominent in the south. His day is Afo, which is the second market day.
Ikenga (literally meaning "place of strength") is an alusi and a cult figure of the right hand and success found among the northern Igbo people. He is an icon of meditation exclusive to men and onwers of the sculpture refer to it as their 'right hand'. Ikenga is a source of encoded knowledge unraveled through psychological principles. Ikenga figures are common cultural artefacts ranging for six inches to 6 feet high and can be humanistic or highly stylised. There are anthropomorphic, architectonic, and abstract cylindrical Ikenga sculptures. Ikenga is a symbol of success and personal achievement. Ikenga is mostly maintained, kept or owned by men and occasionally by women of high reputation and integrity in the society. It comprises someone's chi (personal god), his ndichie (ancestors), aka Ikenga (right hand), ike (power) as well as spiritual activation through prayer and sacrifice. Igbo cultures value of resourcefulness and individualism in society utilises the concept of Ikenga to regulate the relationship between individuality and family relations and obligations, as well as free will and industriousness balanced with destiny decided persons chi. Ikenga acts as a physical medium to the consciousness and emphasises individual initiative through reflection and meditation. Success validates the Ikenga and the sculptures act as visual representation of a persons inner success, people give offerings in thanks to the Ikenga after providing energy to overcome any unwanted pre-life choices. These choices are at the hands of the persons earth bound spirit, mmuo, who chooses sex, type, and lifespan before incarnation. The successful Ikenga influenced the saying of well being 'íkéǹgàm kwụ̀ ọ̀tọ́ ta ta' meaning that 'my Ikenga stands upright today'. During festivals of Ogbalido or olili Ikenga ('feast of Ikenga') sculptures of him may be paraded around a village or displayed at the village centre if too monumental to transport. When a person does not become successful with hard work the Ikenga has 'fallen' and is seen as a sign of danger, if meditation and cajoling the Ikenga fails, the sculpture is 'thrown down' and broken which spiritually kills the Ikenga; a new one is carved to replace it. At burials, a mans Ikenga is broken into two with one piece buried with him and the other destroyed.
This Alusi was adept at bargains and trade, and praying to Ekwensu was said to guarantee victory in negotiations. As a force of change and chaos, Ekwensu also represented the spirit of war among the Igbo, invoked during times of conflict and banished during peacetime to avoid his influences inciting bloodshed in the community.. He was invoked during times of conflict and banished during peacetime to avoid his influences inciting bloodshed in the community. This is based upon the finding of old shrines dedicated to the worship of the spirit as well as the recounting of old oral stories which depict the character of Ekwensu. Among the Christian Igbo Ekwensu is representative of Satan and is seen as a force which places itself opposite to that of Chukwu.
An ogbanje was believed to be an evil spirit that would deliberately plague a family with misfortune. In folklore, the ogbanje upon being born by the mother, under a certain amount of time (usually before puberty), would deliberately die and then come back and repeat the cycle, causing the family grief. Female circumcision was sometimes thought to get rid of the evil spirit, whereas finding the evil spirits Iyi-uwa, which they have dug somewhere secret, would ensure the ogbanje would never plague the family with misfortune again. The Iyi-uwa was the ogbanje's way of coming back to the world and also a way of finding its targeted family.
Dibia are the mystic mediators between the human world and the spirit world and act as healers, scribes, teachers, diviners and advisors of people in the community. They are usually consulted at the shrine of a communities major deity. Dibia is a compound of the words di ('professional, master, husband') + ọ́bị̀à ('doctoring, sciences'). The dibia are believed to be destined for spiritual work. The dibia sees the spiritual world at any time and interprets what messages being sent and sees the spiritual problems of living people. They are given the power by the spirit world to identify any alusi by name and the possible ways of placating and negotiating with the deity. Dibia are thought to be revealed to posses the power over one of three elements namely water (and large bodies of water), fire and vegetation. Dibia whose elements are vegetation can go on to become herbalists by their supposed instinctual knowledge of the health benefits of certain plants they are instinctually drawn to, fire element dibia can handle fire unscathed during their initiation, and water element dibia do not drown. Dibia can partially enter the spirit world and communicate this by rubbing chalk on one half of their face. Dibia and obia practices were transported to the British Caribbean during the slave trade and became known as obeah.
Ndebunze, or Ndichie, are the deceased ancestors who are considered to be in the spirit word, àlà mmúọ́. In Odinani, it is believed that the dead ancestors are invisible members of the community; their role in the community, in conjunction with Ala, is to protect the community from epidemics and strife such as famine and smallpox. Shrines for the ancestors in Igbo society were made in the central house, or òbí or òbú, of the patriarch of a housing compound. The patriarchal head of the household is in charge of venerating the patriarchal ancestors through libations and offerings, through this the living maintain contact with the dead. Only a patriarch whose father is dead, and therefore in the spirit world where they await reincarnation into the community, were able to venerate ancestors. Female ancestors were called upon by matriarchs. At the funeral of a mans father there is a hierarchy in Igbo culture of animals that will be killed and eaten in his honor. Usually this depended on the rarity and price of the animal, so a goat or a sheep were common and reltively cheaper, and therefore carried less prestige, while a cow is considered a great honor, and a horse the most exceptional. Horses cannot be given for women. Horses were more common among the North eastern Igbo due to tsetse fly zone that Igboland is situated in and renders it an unsuitable climate for horses. Horse heads are traditionally decorated and kept in a reliquary and at shrines.
A number of major masking institutions exist around Igboland that honour ancestors and reflect the spirit world in the land of the living. Young women, for example, are incarnated in the society through the àgbọ́ghọ̀ mmúọ́ masking tradition in which mean represent ideal and benevolent spirits of maidens of the spirit world in the form of feminine masks. These masks are performed at festivals at agricultural cycles and at funerals of prominent individuals in the society.
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- The Fundamentals of Odinani
- On Odinani the Igbo Religion
- Religion and the Igbo People
- An insight guide to Igboland's Culture, Religion and Language
- Photographs of Igbo masquerades
- Ohafia Igbo culture