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Living sacrifice among the Igbo

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Shrine representation of the Alusi, one of the deities in Igbo land whom some sacrifes are made to

Shrine representation of the Alusi, one of the deities in Igbo land whom some sacrifes are made to

The Igbo is one of the three major tribes occupying the south-eastern geopolitical zone of Nigeria. They have cultural traditions and customs, which help in maintaining their society. Just like the belief systems of other cultural groups; man has designed various institutions and webs of customs that regulate and order his social life. Hunter and Whitten (1976:294) note that “belief systems deal with everything man can imagine.”

Through belief systems, they observed, human beings give meanings to their experiences. Two kinds of belief systems have been identified: Instrumental (rational, technical); and transcendental. The former is concerned primarily with practical life; day-to-day subsistence activities, travel, nourishment, health etc, providing people with practical guidelines by which they can structure their day-to-day behavioural patterns, such as what to do about a sick relative, what to and what not to eat etc.

Transcendental belief systems, on the other hand, provide the structure through which human beings give meaning and purpose to existence. Among the Igbos, sacrifice is the most ancient and essential part of every ceremony when worship is made to the gods, minor deities or the ancestors. The offering of sacrifice to the gods is a tradition well respected and maintained by the Igbos.

Forms of sacrifice
Sacrifices (Arinze, 1970:30-34) are in two forms: popular or personal sacrifice; as well as ritual sacrifice. The popular or personal sacrifice is made in form of renunciation for a motive of sin committed while the ritual sacrifice is done, either in the shrine or any of the worship place. In other words, sacrifice is any physical or spiritual thing we do to affect our union with God.

For atonement/purification
An Igbo man believes that when he commits sin; he offends the gods and will make some necessary sacrifice for atonement and to purify the land. Sacrifices are made for some abomination and taboos such as incest, stealing of yam from yam farm, a woman becoming pregnant within a year of husband’s death, giving birth to twin etc. It is believed that abominations defile the land and sacrifice purifies the land. It is called (Ipku ala) meaning removing abomination from the land.

To ward off molestation from unknown evil spirit
Sacrifice can ward of malignant spirits. For instance, when a person is sick or feels he is being tormented by unknown powers, a goat is carried by the native doctor seven times from left to right and right to left round the victim, family or group of people concerned and it’s then thrown into the bush or river so that the evil spirits may accept it and leave the people in peace.

For petition
An Igbo man believes that his heart desires can be obtained if he has the proper recourse to the ancestors, the spirits or God in rare cases. The prayer he makes is tied up with a sacrifice for petition.

Funeral sacrifice
In Igbo land, this is done with goat, cow and at times, human beings in the case of a chief. Just like the burial chamber that was excavated in Igbo Ukwu where humans on standing position were seen buried along with a chief, other grave goods were also seen in the chamber. The essence of this sacrifice is to announce the person’s arrival to the ancestral world and for his or her acceptance into the spirit world. It is also for the ancestors to overlook any of his past misdeeds and to show that the deceased still wants happiness in the future. It is also called the rites of separation (Aja ozu).

For thanksgiving
When a petition is granted, you give sacrifice of thanksgiving. For instance, during the new yam festival celebrated among the Igbo. During this festival, sacrifices are made to appreciate the god of ‘ala’ for a good harvest.

Living sacrifice
This is where or when some objects or victims are offered to a deity without being killed. At times, they are left to roam the streets, thrown into the river or in the forest and they will become the property of the spirit.

Objects used as living sacrifice
Objects used as living sacrifice are in form of animals or human beings. Dedicated animals are symbolically sacrificed and left alive as belonging to the spirit. This type of sacrifice was seen in the old testament of the Bible in the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16 verse 21 and 22. This sacrifice was performed without spilling the blood of the animal making it a living sacrifice. Another instance is where the animal is bound hand and leg, and the chest is laid before the shrine or it will be thrown alive into the bush or river with a piece of cloth tied to it or a special mark will be given to the animal for people to know that the animal has been consecrated to a deity.

It could also be one of the ears that will be cut off, or both ears may be splited or one of the animal’s testes will be removed, this is because it is male animals that are usually used for this kind of sacrifice. This ceremony is called (ichu anu na mmuo) which means consecrating an animal to a spirit. Such animal is left to go in liberty but remains the property of the spirit. It is not killed and when it dies, it is buried ceremoniously. The dedicated animal could be offered as a scapegoat for sin, sickness and disease.

However, animals were used to remove evil from the land. At times during pestilence, palm fronds, an animal or a human being will be tied at the entrance of the town with hope that the disease will enter into these objects and spare the inhabitants. To be attacked by such animal is regarded as ill luck and these living sacrifices are not eaten by anyone. In the past, two living beings were buried along side chiefs as servants to serve him in the spirit world. Slaves were usually used for this.

Another form of human living sacrifice is the Osu caste system among the Igbo where a human being is consecrated to a deity or shrine and his generation automatically belong to the deity. This group was set aside, isolated or confined to specific areas in the community. It was a taboo to have any social interaction with an Osu.

Who performs these sacrifices?
These sacrifices are offered to the deity by:
A priest who could be a witch doctor who cures those who have been be-witched.
A herbalist who knows the powers of many roots and herbs.
A diviner who tells fortune, he is consulted before any sacrifice is offered.
The chief priest (Eze mmuo)- He is an official servant of a deity or oracle, who offers sacrifice to the spirits and generally ministers at the shrine.

Religion and living sacrifice
The coming of Islam and Christianity into Africa had much influence on the African traditional religion in its entirety. The coming of Christianity into Igbo land in 1846 altered the act of living sacrifice most especially the human sacrifice. The Christian Missionaries were able to stop the burying of chiefs with living beings and the act of using human beings as scapegoats. Although some people still offer sacrifices but it’s no longer being celebrated as in the past.


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