The Igbo, sometimes referred to as Ibo, are one of the largest single ethnic groups in Africa. Pre-colonial Igbo political organization was based on communities, devoid of kings or governing chiefs. The development of a heterarchical society, as opposed to a heterarchical society, marks Igbo development as sharply divergent from political trends. Most Igbo village governments were ruled solely by an assembly of the common people.
Although titleholders were respected because of their accomplishments, they were never revered as kings. Their responsibility in society was to perform special functions given to them by the assemblies, not to make laws or dictate policy. In the absence of judicial authority, the Igbo settled law matters by oath-taking to a god. If that person died in a certain amount of time, he was guilty. If not, he was free to go, but if guilty, that person could face exile or servitude to a deity.
The Igbo followed a calendar in which a week had four days. A month consisted of seven weeks, while thirteen months made a year. In the last month, an extra day was added.
The Igbo are a profoundly religious people who believe in a benevolent creator, usually known as Chukwu, who created the visible universe (uwa), and is especially associated with rain, trees and other plants. According to the traditional religion of the Igbo, there is no concept of a gender type such as ‘man’ or ‘woman’ associated with the supreme deity Chukwu.
The Igbo believe in the concept of Ofo and Ogu, which is a governing law of retributive justice. It is believed that Ofo and Ogu will vindicate anyone that is wrongly accused of a crime as long as ‘his hands are clean.’ It is only the one who is on the side of Ogu-na-Ofo that can call its name in prayer, otherwise such a person will face the wrath of Amadioha (the god of thunder and lightning). Tied to redistributive justice, Igbo believe that each person has their own personal god (‘Chi’, which is credited for an individual’s fortune or misfortune.
Minor deities claimed an enormous part of the daily lives of the people, due to the belief that these gods could be manipulated in order to protect the population and serve their interests. Some of the most common are:
- Ala: the earth-goddess, the spirit of fertility of man as well as the productivity of the land.
- Igwe: the sky-god. This god was not appealed to for rain however, as was the full-time profession of the rain-makers.
- Imo miri: the spirit of the river. The Igbo believe that a big river has a spiritual aspect; it is forbidden to fish in such deified rivers.
- Mbatuku: the spirit of wealth.
- Agwo: a spirit envious of other’s wealth, always in need of servitors.
- Aha njuku or Ifejioku: the yam spirit.
- Ikoro: the drum spirit.
- Ekwu: the hearth spirit, which is woman’s domestic spirit.
There is a strong Igbo belief that the spirits of one’s ancestors keep a constant watch over the living, and must be placated through prayer. Ancestors who had lived well, died in socially approved ways, and were given correct burial rites, were allowed to continue the afterlife in a world of the dead. The world of dead that was filled with honored ancestors mirrored the world of the living, and deceased relatives were periodically reincarnated among the living.
The funeral ceremonies and burials of the Igbo people are extremely complex, the most elaborate of all being the funeral of a chief. However, elaborate funeral ceremonies were not granted to those who died from the several kinds of deaths that are considered shameful, and in these circumstances no burial is provided at all. Women who died during childbirth, children who die before they have teeth, those who commit suicide and those who die in the sacred month – for these people their funeral ceremony consists of being thrown into a bush. Also seen as shameful, multiple births were considered part of the animal world and twins were put to death, as were animals produced at single births. Children who were born with teeth, or whose upper teeth came first, babies born feet first, boys with only one testicle, and lepers, were all killed and their bodies discarded in secrecy.
Religious taboos, especially those surrounding priests and titled men, involved a great deal of asceticism. The Igbo expected in their prayers and sacrifices, blessings such as long, healthy, and prosperous lives, and especially children, who were considered the greatest blessing of all. The desire to offer the most precious sacrifice of all led to human sacrifice; slaves were often sacrificed at funerals in order to provide a retinue for the dead man in life to come. There was no shrine to Chukwu, nor were sacrifices made directly to him, but he was understood to be the ultimate receiver of all sacrifices made to the minor deities.