Honoring the Ancestors with Rites of Passage in Indigenous Cultures

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Okeke sums up his categorization by pointing out the fact that man is at the lowest level of the hierarchical structure. As a result of that, for man to survive, he must do everything possible not to annoy any of spirits. In a situation whereby any of them is offended by man, he must appease the particular divinity he has offended through sacrifice.

Ononwa (2005: 35) places the relationship between God, man, spirits and other forces in a triangular form with man at the center while God, Chukwu ‘the Supreme Being’ is at the apex; divinities and spiritual forces occupy other two sides of the isosceles triangle, and the ancestors at the base.

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Some scholars including Arazu (1982) and Nwoga (1984) argue that Chukwu as the Supreme God, is a relatively newcomer in Igbo religion. Echeruo (1979: 20) states emphatically that “there is no capital letter God among the Igbo outside Ala, and that ‘God’ among the Igbo is certainly nothing like the God of the Christians”. This claim is in line with Thomas’ (1913: 26) discovery through his interview with some Igbo elders, that “they knew nothing of Chukwu before the coming of the white man”. But scholars like Onwuejeogwu (1972, 1983), Ejizu (1984) and Azuonye (1987) are of contrary view. These scholars are of the view that the concept of Chukwu is an indigenous creation of Igbo theologians which was later adopted and adapted by the Christian missionaries and ultimately fed back into the Igbo oral tradition. Ejizu (1984) stresses strongly that the fact that the Supreme Being is believed in but not worshipped in greater part of West Africa is not a reason to say that the concept of a Supreme Being is a later introduction into the religion of the Igbo.

On the other hand, the concept of Chukwu from the perception of some scholars seems to be a complex one. There seems not to be a consensus on what the concept actually stands for in Igbo society. For instance, Nwachukwu-Agbada (1991: 26), in his discussion of the concept of Chukwu in Igbo folktale; explains that in (Tale 1) the Tortoise is Mbe; but that it is not very clear whether Chukwu, in the same tale refers to the supreme God, as people have always interpreted it, or whether it refers to Arochukwu, the seat of the notorious Igbo oracle, Ibini Ukpabi, destroyed in 1902 by the British military. Nwachukwu-Agbada goes further to explains that the diagram in Mbedịọgụ, the book of Igbo tortoise folktales in which the story appears, shows the tortoise and the bust of a being who is supposed to be the Almighty God. ‘There are two instances in the ‘Mbe na Chukwu’ folktale that Mbe referred to Chukwu as ‘Chukwu Ukpabi’, suggesting some connection with Ibini Ukpabi” Nwachukwu-Agbada (1991: 26)

According to Azuonye (1987: 43) “… the Igbo idea of Chukwu is not a single monolithic idea but a complex of different, even divergent ideas, which have emerged over the centuries in response to different socio-cultural, political and economic situations”. To buttress the above claim, Azuonye discovers in his analysis of Igbo folktales that there are eight distinct phases in the evolution of the idea Chukwu as the Supreme God of Igbo religion.

According to Azuonye, the first phase is the phase of recognition of several supreme nature deities in various domains. The second phase is the phase of the undisputed Supremacy of Ala ‘the Earth goddess’ as a Supreme deity. The third phase is the phase of the rivalry over Supremacy between Earth and Sky. Azuonye goes further to say that the idea of Chukwu as the Supreme Deity was formally established by the Nri and Aro respectively in the fourth and fifth phases. He explains that the sixth phase is the phase at which the exploitativeness of the Aro power seems to have resulted in the debasement of the idea of Chukwu as the Supreme God in the minds of the Igbo, hence the satiric and rejectionist images of the anthropomorphic Supreme God in various folktales. The seventh phase saw the selection, adoption and adaptation of some of the numerous ideas of Supreme God found in the idiom of the people by the Christian missionaries in their efforts to propagate Christianity. In the words of Azuonye(1987: 43) “in the still ongoing eighth phase, some of the ideas of the Supreme God adopted and adapted by Christianity from Igbo traditional sources seem to have been fed back into the Igbo tradition in a syncretic form combining Igbo and Hebraic Christian Concepts”. If Azuonye’s claim is anything to go by it then implies that the concept of Chukwu existed in the lexicon of Igbo traditional religion prior to the arrival ofWestern religion as is the view of most scholars. Nwoga (1984: 43) calls for caution in making reference to supreme God in Igbo folktales by saying that “there is every reason to suggest that the Chukwu in question may in fact be referring to Arochukwu, the town that popularized the worship of the Chukwu deity”.

Ndịichie ‘Ancestors’

Some of the animal tales under study actually reflect the Igbo belief in ancestors. In Anya Iwe (1963: 58-68), Mbe’s utterance in the tale, Agụ na Umu Anumanu ‘Leopard and the Animals’ (Tale 27), goes a long way to symbolize the Igbo belief in ancestry.In Mbe’s words, Nke ọzọ bụrụ na anyị enweghịnụ ike ime ihe ọbụla ma anyị ebughị ụzọ tụọrọ nna nna anyị ha ire ọjị‘Second, we cannot do anything except we first of all drop a lobe of kola nut for our ancestors.

This singular utterance reveals the Igbo belief in the existence of ancestors, and symbolizes the honour and respect accorded to them, so that they in return will play their own role to them. This is also to say that, they believe that these ancestors, though dead are always with them.Mbe’s action apart from depicting belief in ancestors gives hint about their worship of ancestors. Hence several Igbo communities, kindred, and families install shrines for the ancestral spirits. The shrines are variously called ihu-Ndịichie and Mgwu. Ancestral shrines normally appear in form of a mud pyramid with clay pot on top of it, with a small building to shelter it. Each family normally has its Mgwu shrine, which is supervised by the oldest member of the family. It is in the shrine that prayers are offered, sacrifices performed and food offered to the ancestors. Even when they are offended, the living does not waste time in appeasing them so that things will go on well with them.

In the tale, Ihe Mere Nkịta Jiri Bụrụ Anụụlọ ‘Why Dog is a Domestic Animal’ Nnabuihe (2005: 63) (Tale 28) narrates that after Edi ‘African Civet’ goes to the spirit world to enquire the reason for the incessant deaths among their young men, he comes back with the report that their dead ancestors are not happy with them. The animals resolve to offer sacrifice to appease them. This tale symbolizes the power or ability of the ancestors to get involved in the day to day activities of the people. It also portrays the fact that the ancestors are in constant relationship with their living family members, and that the living members do all that is within their powers to make sure that they do not offend them.

The ancestors are those that must have lived a good moral life according to the reckoning of the people. They died and were given befitting burial rites. They live in the world of the dead, which mirror the worldof the living. According to Idowu (1962: 123),

Ancestors are the deceased who are truly members of the families on earth; but they are no longer of the same fleshy order with those who are still in the flesh on earth. They are closely related to this world; but are no longer ordinary mortals, because they have crossed the borderland between this world and the supersensible.

These ancestors are regarded as the elder members of the family. As spirits, they have enhanced power, which they are believed to use mainly to protect the interest of their families, or clans. The Igbo believe in life after death. In Igbo tradition, it is believed that death is not the end of life; rather it is a transition to another world. The Igbo believe that those who lived a good life while on earth, died good death and were accorded a befitting burial, are qualified to be Ndịichie.

Okeke (2012: 89) on his own part, see ancestors as “the Igbo traditional saints who are not really deified; they are rather honoured owing to the position they occupy among the Igbo families. They are the Igbo sons who have lived to a mature age before they died”. Okeke also added that the ancestors must have been survived by at least one son. Okafor et al (2008: 13) explain an ancestor as … not somebody dead and gone, but one whose soul is living and who is interested and has a stake in what is happening here on earth to his own offspring, to those left behind”. Arinze (1970: 19) calls them ndịichie‘our forefathers’ while Okafor et al (2008: 13) call them ndị-ihu, ndị-bụ-nze, ndị-gboo, ndị nna-nna(sic), ndị ichie and ndị ochie. In Mbaise, Imo state, the ancestors are referred to as Ndị-nwe-ala.

When a person dies, the Igbo believe that such a person becomes a spirit. Among the spirits are the wicked and the benevolent ones. The wicked spirits are the spirits of the wicked dead people. They are believed to appear among the living in the visible world to torment and cause havoc as they are not received by the ancestors in the spirit world. According to Igbo belief, where one ends up after death is dependent on the type of life such a person lived while here on earth. This is why everyone strives to live a good life.

The Igbo believe that after a successful career on earth, one happily gathers with his forefathers in the land of the living-dead and continues the interminable cycle of life. If all the proper burial rites are not carried out on the deceased, it means that such a deceased member would be ostracized by the community in the world of the living-dead. Such a deceased member will then begin to roam the space as a malevolent spirit.

Metuh (1985: 119) gave explanations on the type of burial to be accorded a would be ancestor by saying that “when a person dies everything must be made possible to ensure that he reaches home, for a person who has died a good death. This is only possible when all appropriate funeral rites have been completed”. What Metuh is saying is that beyond living a good life; for one to qualify as an ancestor in Igbo society, the person must be given a befitting burial, based on what obtains in a particular locality. Okafor (1996: 12)is in agreement with Metuh on the type of burial that should be accorded a would-be ancestor by saying that “it is funeral rite that enables the spirit of the dead to reach the spirit land. Without funeral ceremonies, the deceased wander the earth restlessly and cause havoc on those responsible.”

Without the rites of passage performed during a ceremony called Ịkwa ozu, ‘Celebrating the dead’, the dead will be forbidden from taking his/her rightful place among the ancestors. The condolence visits and the booming of guns during burial are believed to escort the spirit of the dead to the spirit world to be received by the forefathers. The Igbo believe that it is only after a successful second funeral that the deceased passes from the time of Ịta Ọkazị ‘a period of torment’ into a state of peace and contentment for those that lived good lives while on earth. The Igbo traditional burial rites involve two funerals whose aim is to safely escort the deceased from the realm of the living to the spirit world. Mbiti (1969) identified some of the roles of the ancestors as:

  1. Unifying families and people, caring for each other, empowering, blessing and inspiring.
  2. Protecting families and clans from diseases, evil, enemies, even war
  3. Meditating between people and divinity
  4. Enforcing discipline in case of the breaking social values
  5. Facilitating holistic healing.

Abanuka, (2004: 44-45) in his discussion on Igbo perception of ancestors distinguishes three classes of ancestors: The first class of ancestors are those who died in grand old age and lived a good life while alive. The second group are all those who died young, but had carried out an extra ordinary assignment like those who won stunning victories in war, or did great exploits that increased the community’s self-esteem. The third group are those Abanuka refers to as the anonymous ancestors. This group,according to him, are those that did not make any distinguishing mark on the community but had not caused any great harm either.

In various parts of Igbo land, some feasts and festivals are celebrated in honour of the ancestors and other deities. In a place like Nnewi in Anambra state for instance, Mgwu Okuku festival is held around September and October annually in honour of the ancestors. The same festival also holds in Awka of Anambra state. In Mbaise in Imo state, the ancestors are referred to as Nninweala‘owners of land’.

FollowingAniago (2015: 25) “the Igbo believe that their departed ancestors still live in spirit. They maintain that the spirits of departed members of the extended family are never far away and that they are ready to take in all matters pertaining to the welfare of the family or community”. The dead ancestors enter into communion with other spirits and divinities with the hope of helping and protecting their living kinsfolk. They intervene by mediating between man and spirit by calming the anger of the gods against the living and giving protection to humans and providing them with the necessities of life. These ancestors maintain a beneficent relationship with the living members in the society. The dead ancestors are benignant on their living family members like in the area of multiplication of births, rains for planting, good health, material wealth and good harvest. The ancestors act as intermediaries between the living members of the family and the deities. They intervene on behalf of the living descendants to ensure that no harm comes to them. That is why in case of any eventuality, you hear such expressions as ndị nnanna anyị ha ekwekwala‘May our ancestors not allow such to happen’ from an Igbo person. 

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