Sacred Authority in Igbo Society / L  Autorité sacrée dans la société Igbo - article ; n°1 ; vol.68, pg 113-123
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Sacred Authority in Igbo Society / L' Autorité sacrée dans la société Igbo - article ; n°1 ; vol.68, pg 113-123

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Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1989 - Volume 68 - Numéro 1 - Pages 113-123
11 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Publié par
Publié le 01 janvier 1989
Nombre de lectures 69
Langue Français


John N. Oriji
Sacred Authority in Igbo Society / L' Autorité sacrée dans la
société Igbo
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 68/1, 1989. pp. 113-123.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Oriji John N. Sacred Authority in Igbo Society / L' Autorité sacrée dans la société Igbo. In: Archives des sciences sociales des
religions. N. 68/1, 1989. pp. 113-123.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1989.1400 Sc soc des Rel. 1989 68 Juillet-septembre) 113-123
partir de exemple Igbo cet article tente expliquer les origines de
autorité sacrée au sein des sociétés traditionnelles du Nigeria Après
avoir donné un aper de la cosmologie Igbo auteur avance
hypothèse selon laquelle les détenteurs de autorité sacrée étaient
responsables du gouvernement de ces communautés avant avène
ment du colonialisme Il soutient également que introduction du
colonialisme caractérisé notamment par la sécularisation de auto
rité eut pour conséquence intensification des conflits qui persistent
depuis lors en terre Igbo Enfin auteur avance des propositions de
résolution de ces conflits pour parvenir une stabilité nationale
Much has been written about Igbo religion Anthropologists and missionaries
like C.K Meek and G.T Basden who pioneered the study of Igbo religion
discussed the Igbo pantheon and the functions of the gods in society There
has however been shift of emphasis in recent times from functional study of
the gods to some other specialised themes Thus for example while Arinze has
examined the role of sacrifice in Igbo religion Ekechi and others have shown how
colonialism especially Christianity and western education undermined the tradi
tional religious roots of Igbo society 2)
Although its focus is different this paper hopes to examine the role sacred
authority holders played in the governance of Igbo society It will also discuss how
the secularisation of authority intensified the crises in society during the colonial
period The concluding part of the paper will concern itself with the relevance of
sacred authority to the current search for new political order in Nigeria
Sacred Authority in Nigerian Societies
It is important to point out that Igbo are not the only people who evolved the
institution of sacred authority In fact the institution is known to have existed in
varying forms in every traditional Nigerian society that has so far been studied
Thus as an illustration P.Lloyd and M.Young have respectively noted that
political authority in the Yoruba and Jukun kingdoms was centred on their sacred
or divine rulers Similarly Arabic sources reveal that as early as the Xth century
the king of Kaném lived in ritual seclusion from his subjects surrounded
by much mystery and taboos Although much is not known about the pre-
islamic religious traditions of the Hausa states Smith has pointed out that the
Dala hill which was an important religious centre and the abode of the Ishoki
spirit contributed to the emergence of Kano state 5)
As we move from the highly stratified societies to the so-called stateless
systems we also notice the dominant role their sacred authority holders played in
the governance of their communities Thus recent research by Netting has
shown that the Tiv and Kofyar of Jos who are often labelled as acephalous
peoples evolved centralised political systems under the aegis of their religious
authorities 6)
Origins of sacred Authority in Igboland
Recent synchronie studies which emphasize the republican traits of the
modem Igbo have tended to obscure the key role sacred authority holders played
in their politico-religious affairs Giving background of how the authority
holders acquired political legitimacy in society Jones noted that
In this part of West Africa. the elders in lbo Ndiche or Ndioke). who can
be identified as the heads of lineages are represented as having the right to rule
as they have behind them the authority of the lineage ancestors They are. the
living embodiment of the men who founded the lineages of their successors in this
particular role 7)
Expressing similar opinion C.K Meek argued that
The real rulers of Igbo villages always were spirits and ancestors. Accor
dingly he who controlled the most powerful spiritual forces was likely to be the
person with most practical influence among the people 8)
Even though the works of the pioneer anthropologists confirm the antiquity
of sacred authority in Igboland its origins have been source of debate among
researchers Netting for example has used ecological and demographic factors to
explain its origins According to him sacred authority arose from the need for
polity with circumscribed resources to expand its moral community in response
to population pressure and the attendant social dislocations 9)
Admittedly postulations are plausible but Balandier has added
new dimension which is important for understanding the Igbo case
every society links its own order to an order beyond itself and in the case
of traditional societies to the cosmos Power is sacrality because every society
affirms its desire to be eternal and fears return to chaos as the realization of its
own death 10)
Besides the ecological and demographic factors we must then examine the
cosmology of the Igbo to explain the evolution of sacred authority among them
Igbo Cosmology
Igbo cosmology distinguishes between three dimensions of space There is as
Kalu has pointed out the sky Igwe the abode of Chukwu the great God or
Chineke the Creator Also found in the sky are àëè the god of rain thunder
and lightning and other major divinities The next space comprised the human
world uwa or ala the earth It was centred on man who lived there with
subordinate deities of Chukwu like the earth goddess nature spirits divinities
as well as evil spirits Muo Lastly there is the spirit world ala muo inhabited by
ancestral spirits personal god chi and demons sketch 11)
Supreme being Chukwu
god of rain lightning and thunder The Sky Elu-Igwe
Major divinities
Human world uwa Earth goddess
Nature spirits or
Minor divinities Earth Ala
Evil spirits etc
World of spirits Ancestors
personal god chi or
World Beneath demons
Sketch diagramatic representation of Igbo cosmology
The three dimensions of space are however linked Although Chukwu lives
in the sky he is the head of the Igbo pantheon Sacrifices are therefore offered to
him through the other gods and spirits which serve as his intermediary 12
Chukwu is also believed to be perfect being who created the human world in his
own image This ideal conception of the human world during its genesis is
expressed in an Igbo proverb which claims that Ala di nma mgbe ochie Kama
obu madu mebiri ya lit the human world was good in ancient times but it is
man who spoilt it)
The Igbo then distinguished between the good world and the spoilt
world They believed that the good world which was lost due to human frailities
could be restored if people respected their ancestral taboos But once the taboos
were violated the world would be spoilt and threatened by various calamities
The quest for good world is therefore largely responsible for the emphasis
which the Igbo and other African peoples placed on
Moral uprightness peace with the gods and peace with men Purity was
essential in blocking the anger of gods or the ruin of evil spirits Hence seasonal
festivals included purification rites and the onslaught of epidemics bad harvest
or incest were countered with divination and special purification rights 13)
The Igbo evolved hierarchy of gods that would help in restoring the good
world on earth As will be shown the which represented the three dimensions
of space possessed two major characteristics Firstly they were the only deities
whose priests wielded institutionalised authority in society Secondly the
were associated with agriculture Their laws were therefore greatly feared and
respected in the agricultural environment of the early Igbo
out-house ovu
Houses of Houses of Njoku
Ala ezi Kinsmen Kinsmen
Sketch Location of the principal deities of compound
Cultural Religious Centre and house Ala Shrine containing
Sketch Location of the gods of village in its Religious
Cultural and Commercial Centre gods are symbolised by trees
The Religious Basis of Theocratic Society from Kinship to territorial Levels
The hierarchy of the gods as personified by their human agents found its
greatest elaboration at two levels oflgbo political community The first one is the
kinship community streching from the compound to the lineage The second level
comprises the village or territorial political community

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