Who are the igbos?

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The puzzle about Igbo origin has been attributed to lack of interest in Igbo studies either from our own people or from outsiders. This problem was compounded by the fact that some Igbo people did not accept others as being ‘lgbo,’ for instance, Mbieri people did not regard the Onitsha people as ‘Igbo’ (Green, 1964:7; Isichei, 1976:19)

Similarly, some groups in Onitsha who traced their root to Benin kingdom used the expression ‘nwa onye Igbo’ (an Igbo person) in a spiteful manner to refer to other Igbo people (Onunwa, 1990:2). Most scholars are agreed that there was no real sense of pan-lgbo identity in the pre-colonial period, that the village groups felt a strong sense of local patriotism (Isichei, 1976:19; Talbot, 1926:404). The Igbo studies by C. K. Meeks (1937) and M.M. Green (1964) only helped to perpetuate the bad press the Igbo already had as a lawless and ungovernable people.

We do not intend to go into the old speculative arguments about the theories of Igbo origin and expansion. The people we intend to focus on in this work are found in the South-eastern part of Nigeria and are presently comprised of the people of Abia, Anambra, Ebonyi, Enugu, Imo and parts of Delta, Rivers, Cross River and Akwa-Ibom States. The Igbo have common boundaries with the Igala and Idoma on the north, the Ijaw and the Ogoni on the South, the Yako and the Ibibio on the Eastern boundary and the Bini and Warri on the West. The Igbo geographical area are what scholars call a culture area, rural or urban, manifesting distinctive characteristics or traits. Ọnwụejeọgwụ (1975) in his Article “the Igbo Culture Area” identified six basic traits which include: the linguistic, social, political, economic, ritual, and cultural traits.

There are five identifiable sub- culture areas within the Igbo culture area made up of:

(1) Eastern or Cross River Igbo (2) Southern or Owerri Igbo, (3) northern or Onitsha Igbo (4) Western Igbo and (5) North-Eastern Igbo (Forde and Jones, 1950:10) Inspite of the obvious sub cultural differences, the Igbo see themselves as one people and at the same time outsiders see them as a homogeneous entity. They are a unique people. While the Yoruba could find their kins in Burkina Faso and the Hausa could find their kins in Chad and Niger, historians are yet to tell us where- the Igbo could be found other than in the South- eastern part of Nigeria.

In recent times, our scholars have engaged in an exciting and fruitful research into Igbo origin. Their efforts are highly commendable. Professor A.E. Afigbo has ably articulated the scholarly views on Igbo origin in his books Ropes of Sand (1981) and more recent monograph – Igbo Genesis (2000). The weight of scholarly opinion rests mightily on situating Igbo origin within the Negro race generally but particularly in West Africa because of the Kwa language family in which the Yoruba, Edo, Igbo, Igala, Ijo, and Idoma fell. It may sound funny but historians should not snub the Igbo Nri myth which claimed that man’s origin started from Igboland when God created Eri and sent him down. The Nri creation myth says that Chukwu the Igbo high God sent down the Igbo ancestor Eri and his wife Nnamaku somewhere in Aguleri. From these two human beings originated the Umueri and Umunri clans of the Igbo. Though the myth did not assert that the rest of Igbo people originated from Eri, many Igbo scholars have come to believe and treat Nri town as the heart of Igbo nationality. Similar myths of creation are found among the Bini and Yoruba. The importance of the Nri myth is not only historical but also religious. The Igbo acknowledged their divine origin and not that they came into existence by chance. It is a figurative expression that has tremendous historical import. In Time Magazine of July; 22, 2002 pages 50-55 and also the Guardian Newspaper of Thursday, September 19, 2002, we find the recent archeological findings of the earliest ancestor of modern homo sapiens named ‘Toumai’ (hope of life), with the scientific name sahelanthropus tchadensis (Sahel hominid from Chad) dated about 7 million years old in the Lake Chad region. That man first settled in Africa is no longer an archeological statement, but a historical fact. It has also further disproved the theory of Charles Darwin that man originated from the apes.

In fact conventional wisdom ostensibly based on earlier discoveries had placed the origin of man around the Great Rift valley of East Africa, the new Lake Chad findings by Professor Michael Brunet, a paleontologist from the University of Poitiers in France has challenged the current thinking on human origins and also “the migratory patterns of the world. One fact is obvious; the myth of Igbo origin may be taken more serious. This is because the current findings have shifted attention from East Africa to the Lake Chad region which is closer to Nigeria. In the past three decades nobody thought about this, perhaps a little patience may lead to another finding East of the Niger.

Speculations about Igbo ancestry whether it was Eri as in Nri myth Digbo as contained in Nwosu’s Ndi Ichie Akwa Mytholody and Folklore Origins of the Igbo (1983) cannot be historically confirmed. However, both Igbo myth of origin and archeological discoveries show that Igbo history and culture go far back into human history.

 Origin of Igbo Traditional Religion

  View on theories of origin of Religions

As far as we know, all human societies have possessed beliefs and practices which have come to be grouped and known under the name ‘religion.’ Religion is thus a universal phenomenon. Speculation about which religion would be superior has never been of scholarly interest but rather why religion is found at all in all societies.

The quest for the origins of religion has centered on four main views. The first refers to the psychological theories, which cover a variety of postulations, which 1ocate the origin, of religion in primitive people’s concept of ghosts, the soul and even in the deification of natural phenomena. One of the most enduring strands was that the origin of religions is in fetishism – worship of the animate and inanimate things, which the early Portuguese observed in West Africa. Edward Tylor credited as having constructed the first theory of religion assumed that belief in the existence of the soul stemmed from speculation about such states as dreams, trances and death (Ember, 1977, 246-250). Thus in Tylor’s view religion may have arisen out of an intellectual curiosity concerning mental states and other things not fully understood. This is the basis of the religious belief which Tylor called ‘animism.’ It was Herbert Spencer who modified Tylor’s view by giving prominence to belief in ghosts rather than in souls as the source of religion. Spencer moved the idea further by linking the belief in ghosts to the belief in gods which he also equated with the ghost of ancestors (Nwanunobi 1992: 166-169). It was Crawley’s Idea of the Soul that primitive man’s fear was posited as the root of religion.

In sum, all psychological theories agreed that whatever the origin or purpose, whatever the belief or rituals, religion served to reduce anxiety, and uncertainly which are common to all people. Second Sociological theories suggest that religion stems from society’s needs. Emile Durkhein recognized that it is the society not the individual which is the society; not the individual which distinguishes between sacred and profane things. He suggested that a sacred object symbolizes the social fact that society considered something sacred. In other words the sociological theories concentrate on religion as significant to social solidarity and the integration of the relevant society within which the feelings, belief and practices are common.

It was argued that societies from ancient times modeled their cosmology after their own experiences. Aristotle in Politics (1.1.7} tersely stated as follows:

As men imagine gods in human form, so also they suppose their manner of life to be like their own.

Aristotle’s view was extended by later scholars who saw a relationship between political sophistication and the nature of a people’s cosmology (Nwanunobi, 1992:168). Thus Fuste1 de Coulanges argued that ancestor worship as the origin of religion since in ancient societies before the larger forms of political organizations: the family was the basis of co-operation and survival.

The third suggestion is the combination of the psychological and sociological approaches. This position argued that religion is a response to strain or deprivation which is caused by events in society. Thus, when the society is stable, its efforts and its energy are employed to maintain its equilibrium. But when the stability is threatened either by internal dissension or by outside force, the society many ‘revitalize’ itself by various means. Perhaps this revita1ization is achieved by a new cult, sect, denomination or religion. Aberle (1971: 528-531) has argued that relative deprivation, whether economic or social, is the cause of the stress which generates new religious movements. Wallace {1966:30) suggested that the threat of societal breakdown forces people to examine new ways to survive. It is the hope they gain from the new ways – not deprivation for people can live for centuries in deprivation-which leads them to revitalize their society.

The last view for the origin of religion which anthropologists and psychologists do not like to mention is that of revelation. Revelation is God’s disclosure of himself to man. The Bible tells us in Hebrews 1:1-2, God has in the last days finally and fully revealed himself to humanity. Christ is the full expression of God’s revelation, better than anything in the Old Testament, and so the author warns his readers to depend on Christ alone. Igbos believe in God’s revelation to their ancient ancestors, including revealing his name as Chukwu. It is with this conviction we now discuss the origin of Igbo traditional religion.

 Igbo Traditional Religion: it’s genesis

 Our Igbo ancestors were philosophers who were inspired by Chiukwu/Chukwu, the Supreme Being. In other words, our Igbo ancestors like other ethnic groups received the revelation of God. Igbo religion is as old as humanity. It is a well-established fact that religion in Africa in general is at the root of African culture. Its is the determining principle of African life. Thus religion is their basic philosophy and philosophy is their religion.

It is for this reason that one comes to the conviction that the Igbo people are born religious. In Igbo world, time and space, objects and persons are made sacred. People born into the Igbo world approximate to the spiritual. Thus people are born with their personal ‘Chi’ or personal god or protective spirit.

The question here is what is the origin of this religious sentiment in the Igbo? In other words what is the origin of Igbo traditional religion? This question has not been a scholarly focus. Many renowned Igbo scholars have written on many aspects of Igbo traditional religion but that question has never attracted their conscious attention.

Professor A. E. Afigbo (1981:9) in his Ropes of Sand first muted the idea of the origin Igbo Traditional religion, and I share his insight on the subject.

The istory of the origin of Igbo traditional religion must be sought within Igbo history of origin. Igbo lived a hazardous wandering life of the hunter and gatherer of wild edible plants. The tradition of Nri disclosed how the Igbo entered a settled 1ife which brought him further development of skills.

The Nri Myth has it that the father of all Nri was Eri. When Eri was sent by Chukwu from the Sky to the earth, he sat on an anti-hill because he saw watery marshy earth. When Eri complained to God Chukwu, sent an Awka blacksmith with his fiery bellow and charcoal to dry the earth. After the assignment, the Awka blacksmith was given ọfọ as a mark of authority for his smithing profession. While Eri lived, Chukwu fed him and his people with azu-igwe! But this special food ceased after the death of Eri. Nri his first son complained to Chukwu for food. Chukwu ordered Nri to sacrifice his first son and daughter and bury them in separate graves. Nri complied with it. Later after three-Igbo-weeks (Izu atọ = 12 days) yam grew from the grave of the son and cocoyam from that of the daughter. When Nri and his people ate these, they slept for the first time; later still Nri killed a male and female slaves burying them separately. Again, after Izu Ato, an oil palm grew from the grave of the male slave, and a bread fruit tree (ukwa) from that of the female-slave (Afigbo, 1981:41-42). With this new food supply, Nri and his people ate and prospered. Chukwu asked him to distribute the new food items to all people but Nri refused because he bought them at the cost of sacrificing his own children and slave. Nri and; Chukwu made an agreement. According to M. D. W. Jeffreys (1956:123) a tradition has it that:

As a reward for distributing food to the other towns Nri would have the right of cleansing every town of an abomination (nso) or breach, of crowning the eze at Aguleri, and of tying the Ngulu (ankle cords) when a man takes the title of ozo. Also he and his successor’s would have the privilege of making the Oguji, or yam medicine, each year for ensuring a plentiful supply of yams in all surrounding towns, or in all towns that subjected themselves to the Eze Nri. For this medicine all the surrounding towns would come in and pay tribute and Umunmdri people then could travel unarmed through the world and no one would attack or harm them.

Another tradition claims that because Nri would not sell yam to his neighbours, he then demanded seven fowls, chalk, a pot and goats, with these he made medicine Ifejiọkụ, the yam spirit, which he gave to the applicants. They took this home with the new crops and sacrificed to it. This tradition has some variation but basic facts still remains (Isichei, 1977:22-23; Thomas, 1913:50).

The discovery of yam cultivation formed not only the economic base of Igbo civilization but it also carried tremendous religious import. It was of such great importance that it was given ritual and symbolic expressions in many areas of Igbo life — (Sacrifice at Nfijoku/ Ifejiọkụ during Yam festival/Iriji). The Nri myth suggested how agriculture and iron technology brought tremendous changes in the life of the Igbo. These changes Afigbo rightly indicated includes (1) the more effective mastery of the land, (2) the growth of population, (3) the elaboration of the archetypal Igbo social institutions (4) the evolution of a cosmological system in which the Earth (Ala, Ani, Ali) then became deified and occupied the central place as the ordainer and guardian of morality, the source of law and customs.

It is significant to note here the emergence of Igbo cosmology from the Nri myth in which Ala {Earth goddess) became the arch-divinity in Igboland. Thus from the myth the Earth (Ala, Ani, Ali) was so important to the Igbo that it became the most vital function of Eze Nri to preside over its worship.

This development accords with the otiose character of Chukwu – the Supreme Being – in Igbo cosmology and the domination of the lgbo world by the Earth goddess. This is not only peculiar to the Igbo; it is a common perception of the Supreme Being as Deus Otiosus in primal religions.

The Nri myth which contains Igbo cosmology also has in it an important dimension of historical truth not yet hitherto recognized, namely, the origin or evolution of Igbo traditional religion (Afigbo, 1981:9). We wish to suggest and maintain based on Nri myth that Igbo traditional religion is going through a three-stage development. The first stage is what we may call the Eri period. This period agrees with Professor Afigbo’s periodization in 1983 which he labeled the a-horizon. This first stage is the earliest period of human existence, the probable dynamic age of Chukwu, when God created and dominated the earth, including the Igbo world. The age of pure intuition marked by the over powering awareness of the presence and nearness of Chukwu the creator. The God fed Eri and his people and Eri had intimate contact with Chukwu and worshipped him alone. This was the age of innocence and what existed at period was pure religion. This was because man had not come to need intermediaries between him and his creator. Igbo myths and folklores lend validity to this claim (New; 1985:15-32 Iwuagwu).

‘The second stage is the hunting and gathering stage of existence when the Igbo had not fully come to a full appreciation of the value of the land. This I call the Nri period, when with the coming of agriculture and iron technology the Igbo attention shifted from the sky above to the earth below, with Ala, Ani, Ali displacing ‘Chukwu’ into a supposedly remote inactivity. This is the supposed period in primal societies including Igbo when ‘Chukwu’ came to be perceived as the Deus Otiosus the withdrawn God, the absentee landlord. This period marked the dominance of the Earth goddess in Igbo traditional life and the origin of Igbo traditional religion. Based on Nri myth, it became the chief function of Eze Nri to preside over the worship, veneration and purification of the Earth through rituals and sacrifices. Professor Afigbo calls this period the b-horizon marked by recession of pure intuition, the fall of man, the withdrawal of the creator and the domination of man’s daily existence by a hose of gods and spirits. At this time the Igbo adopted divinities which appear to work in controlling their world.

The dominance of the Earth goddess in Igbo land at this period is well acknowledged. On this Professor Anene (1966:12-13) stated:

Among the Igbo law and custom were believed to have been handed down from the spirit world from time immemorial from ancestor to ancestor. The spirit world comprised a hierarchy of gods: the most important perhaps was the god of the land-the unseen president of the small localized community. No community is complete without the shrine of the god of the land.

The god of the land in context refers to the Earth goddess whose influence is very great in a society whose economy is primarily agricultural. It is at this stage that the Igbo abandoned the worship of Chineke God to the worship of the created things. The acknowledgement of the High God, the Creator, at the same time as he is dealt with as remote or withdrawn forms the major basis of the concept of deus otiosus or deus remotus or deus absconditus which many writers have given attention to at various times (Pettazzoni, 1954:Horton, 1971 85-108)

Apart from the worship of Ala, other divinities arose in several other communities. Some of the prominent ones included Ibinukpabi of Arọchukwu, Amadiọha (or Kamalụ) also known as the “god of: thunder” whose shrine was at OZUZU (now in Rivers State); the Ogbunworie of Ezumọha, Mbano; Igwekaala of Umunọha (South-Igbo sub-culture area); Agbala of Awka and Ọha Mmiri of Oguta to name a few.

The organizers of these cults were diviners, priest, medicine men, traders and other ritual experts as well as men of note in the community who considered their life, political and economic interests threatened. Quite often people go to these divinities to take oath. Their origin in most of those communities is unknown, they do not have documentary history but they were believed to have been brought by their respective ancestors many of whom were unknown to them. Some of them are said to have taken their origin from outside Igbo territory and especially from Igbo neighbours such as Efik, Ibibio Yako and Ekoi. (Onunwa, 1990:11, 21, 31).

Two of the prominent Oracular divinities – Ibinukpabi of Arọchukwu and Ogbunworie of Ezumuọha were destroyed by the British in 1901/02 and 1910 respectively, but their influence still linger. At the moment there are severa1 millions of deities and divinities in Igbo land.

In this second stage, however, it is obvious that something definitely went wrong. It is the stage that Igbo ancestors abandoned the worship of God the Creator to the worship of the created things – Ala and other divinities. At this point, the created being becomes so powerful that it took the place of ‘Chukwu’ in Igbo traditional life. Ikeji or Iri ji (yam festival) which Ndi Igbo celebrate with fanfare is part of the ritual that goes with the worship of the yam spirit (Ifejiọkụ; Ahiajọkụ). Many rituals and sacrifices accompany this celebration even in our time. Loss of contact with ‘chukwu’ generated insecurity and fear which necessitated the development of seeking help from powerful deities for protection and for doing evil.

Thus there came a great gap, a lacuna in Igbo spirituality. As the Nri myth would tend to suggest there arose a broken link between chukwu and Igbo ancestors, a broken link that has to be restored.

The development gained impetus in the third stage of development of Igbo traditional religious life. This period Prof.. Afigbo called the c-horizon but which we now refer to as the Arọ Era. The Arọ Era is what Professor Afig designated in his Ropes of Sand as the era of Arọchukwu Ascendancy with its Ibinukpabi Oracle – their famous Long Juju. The era, which we regard as “the most tragic” for the Igbo race because of the evils of slave trade and slavery. A lot has been written about it. It is obvious that Eze Arọ one of the highly recognized kingship stools in Igbo land pre-date the existence of Ibinukpabi Oracle. It is an Oracle, which no Arọ person would like to discuss. However, it is generally believed to have been imported from a small Ibibio shrine (Isichei, 1976:59). The influence of the oracle in Igbo land was like a harmattan fire. It is believed to have conferred so much prestige and authority on the Arọ to such an extent that in 1896 an Arọ person proudly announced to a white man at Aba in “broken English” that he was an ‘Arọ man’ and a ‘God boy’ (Isichei, 1976:59). Scholars agreed that the oracle rested on a deliberate deception. The Arọ civilization of the period was extremely idolatrous, materialistic and dehumanizing. The Arọ civilization generated trade in which the Igbo were commodities of trade. The slave trade bred a disregard for human life. It is reported that in Nsukka ten human slaves sold for a horse and in Uburu in the 1880’s a horse was exchanged for four to six adult human slaves (Isichei, 1978:47). Professor Ọnwụejeọgwụ indicated that Ibinukpabi supported slave trade, which brought into Igboland depopulation due to instigated wars, family disorganization, ritual cannibalism and human sacrifices (1987:56). Thus Arọ at this period combined slave trade and manipulation of the oracle by a highly intelligent group or kinsmen for their religious and economic interests. Thus fear of insecurity, constant wars, headhunting at this period led many Igbo resort to seeking the protection of divinities and deities most of which were imported.

Similarly there emerged highly developed secret societies as a new (p.12) instrument of social control. This is not to say that secret society was absent in Igbo land but it became prominent. The Arọ brought secret societies from Efik-Ibibio areas into Igbo land, such as Ekpe, Okonko, Obong, Akang. The Arọ made great use of them and because of their influence cult houses were erected for them at the village centers of several Igbo communities, for effective control of communities. They also made use of nsibidi sign for communication which made the need for initiation quite attractive. Thus it was common to hear that the need to belong to a secret cult would enable one pass through the road (ka ewere ya ga n’uzo). In effect, this period brought about the multiplication of deities or divinities for security.

In sum, according to Igbo myth Igbo religion in its purest form originated as a direct revelation of ‘Chukwu, ‘Chineke’ to the Igbo earliest ancestor. In course of time, the subsequent earliest Igbo ancestors lost touch with the original revelation, and turned their back on ‘Chukwu’ but focused on the worship of created things — Ala/Anị (the Earth goddess) not as creator but as their sustainer and protector. This leads to the theory of the origin of Igbo traditional religion as a combination of psychological and sociological needs for their protection and survival.

Thus in their various studies Basden, (1938), Meek, (1943), Forde and Jones, (1962), Ilogu (1973), and other numerous researches conducted on Igbo traditional religion in the department of religion, all agree that the idea of ‘Chukwu,’ Chineke,’ is central to Igbo traditional belief and life. We agree with Nwanunobi (1992) that the overwhelming situation is such that even though there is a belief in the Supreme God in Igbo traditional religion, the brand of belief is characterized as polytheistic. It is a type of polytheism in which the High God, ‘Chukwu’ presides over the lesser gods often perceived as intermediaries in the cosmic hierarchy. The Earth goddess was the arch-divinity with omenala as its governing moral code which regulates human relationship with the land according to what obtains in the land or community.

Having therefore examined rather briefly the origin of Igbo man and his traditional religion let us then inquire into how the Igbo man perceived his world, his person, his vision and his mission.

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