THE CONCEPT OF AGWU IN IGBO TRADITIONAL RELIGION
Br. Charles Okeke, Ph.D,
Department of Christian Religious Studies,
Nwafor Orizu College of Education, Nsugbe.
In traditional Igbo society there is the belief in the existence of Agwu. Agwu is believed to be a type of spirit that manifests itself in an individual who is possessed. It is a deity which is beyond the knowledge of Igbo people. Certain abnormalities that take place in the life of a person are attributed to Agwu. For instance, one who is fond of not knowing how he or she uses his or her money or one who gets brain-fag without any observable cause, are attributed to Agwu.
When such a thing is noticed constantly in one’s behavior, a way for normalcy is sought. Some inquiries are made; rituals and other ceremonies are performed. Those rituals are observed in the shrine of Agwu. Agwu comes to people in different ways. Sometimes, it comes through liquidation in one’s business, or one falling from a tree or any other dimension. It is believed that a person who is so possessed can be holding a key in his hand and be searching for it in his room. Agwu is believed to be a spirit of giddiness, rascality, confusion and forgetfulness, among others. It brings worries to an individual, in other words, it causes a person an emotional trauma and generally psychological disorder.
It is believed that a person who is possessed by the spirit of Agwu does not make any progress in business unless the spirit is appeased. This presenter has seen a young man, Chukwudi, who was into business in Kano, in 2006, and his business was progressing, after some years the business liquidated. He consulted a dibia afa (medicine man) to find out what was amiss; he was told that his vocation was to be a dibia. Not satisfied, he left the business and became an automobile engineer after two years of apprenticeship. This one also did not move as he expected. Then he decided to take up the vocation as a dibia. Agwu is a special spirit of ndi dibia. Before one becomes a dibia, the ritual of iru Agwu must be performed. And so, after this ritual had been performed in 2008, Chukwudi took up his vocation as dibia, today he is doing well.
Another example that is similar to that of Chukwu is the case of Anthony who excelled in his white collar job after university education in 2003. This young man worked as a manager in a high class hotel in Lagos. In 2005, he was dismissed by the proprietor without any substantial reasons. The same year, he was given an appointment as supervisor of works in a private establishment in Benin City. In 2008, he was disengaged by the management of the company; this time again, no adequate explanation was established as the reason that merited his disengagement from the company. Then he consulted a dibia afa in his home town Ihiala. It was revealed to him by the dibia that the spirit wanted him to work for him. After performing rituals of iru Agwu and took up his vocation as dibia, just like Chukwu, Anthony is today excelling in his new vocation at Enugu, where he is residing since 2010. People of all walks of life consult him for one problem or another. This presenter has also benefited from the quality of his services, hence he has received cure of stubborn typhoid fever and malaria parasite from him.
Again, based on the understanding that Agwu is the spirit of rascality and confusion and so on, some contemporary Igbo have argued in favour of the fact that Agwu can be likened to the spirit of Demon, since the spirit of Demon is similar to that of Agwu; while for some, it is the spirit of God because the spirit of God is, among other things, benevolent, and Agwu is in a way benevolent. These varieties of arguments have led to misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Agwu among the Igbo.
It is based on the above observations that the presenter has made the choice of this topic, that is, The concept of Agwu in Igbo traditional society. The thrust of this paper therefore is to investigate the concept of Agwu in Igbo traditional society. The paper seeks to find out whether the people believe that Agwu exists or not. Then why it exists, and whether it exists just like say whether God exists. And whether Agwu has any relationship with the spirit of God or Demon.
The Concept of Agwu
Mbiti (1975) stated that:
It is sometimes also believed that between God and human beings, there are other beings that populate the universe. These are the spirits. There are many types of spirits. God is their creator first as he is the creator of all human beings. The spirits have a status between God and man, and are not identical with either and some of them may be used to do certain things. (p. 65).
The above submission by Mbiti is true of Agwu. It can be seen as one of the spirits that populate the universe, who act as intermediaries between God and man. It is one of God’s creatures that he uses to do certain things.
Like other deities/forces, the concept of Agwu may defy any definition (or source). It borders on the mysterious. Whether from the point of view of its connotation or denotation, the problem remains the same. This is reflected in scholarly views on the subject. Ogbalu (1981) is of the view that the concept Agwu is an influential force that animates victims for special duties, especially in medical knowledge and divination. He says:
Agwu is the god of medicine and divination. He is worshipped by every person during a person’s Iru Agwu ceremony particularly males, if they are to behave well and have common sense. To him is assigned the responsibility of men who act as if they have no common sense. (p. 54).
The above statement shows that Ogbalu portrays Agwu as a deity or spirit, which has the power over the behavior of an individual. And it means that Agwu has the power of influencing human behavior in which case the solution is iru Agwu. On his part, Ilogu (1974) sees Agwu as “god of divination and herbal medicine that belongs to one of the innumerable minor deities which are sometimes personifications of the fact and feature of nature and of daily life” (p. 74).
Agwu has certain control over human beings including the medicine men, and is involved in the act of divination and herbal medicine; hence, according to Arinze (1970) “Ndi na-eme Agwu ka Agwu na-akpa (it is only those who minister to Agwu that are possessed by Agwu’” (p. 65). Agwu is a spirit of divination. It is he who calls one to this office, and equally guides one in the act as Metuh (1985) says, “Agwu is the patron spirit of divination and diviners” (p. 160). One who is possessed by the spirit of Agwu has no option than to perform the rite of Iru Agwu or Ikpu Agwu. According to Metuh (1985)
This rite should not only bring the victim to normality, but should harness the power of Agwu in him for the practice of divination or healing with herbs if he is a medicine man. It is only after this rite that the candidate begins his training. (p. 160).
Every medicine man has his own Agwu. This was confirmed by Ogbalu (1981) as he says, “Every medicine man or a diviner has his own Agwu usually represented in carved wooden form to which he offers anything presented before taking or tasting it” (p. 54). On priestly vocation, Ogbalu (1981) submitted that
Agwu chooses his own priest, prophets and all those who become afa men or medicine men (ndi afa na ndi dibia). These men (and women in few places) receive their power from him. They foretell the future through him and he reveals herbs and roots and medicines to the men he has chosen. (p. 55).
A person who is possessed by Agwu is a sign that he is called to be a priest or a dibia. Corroborating this, Arinze (2008) stated that “the clearest and indispensable sign of a vocation to be a dibia is possession by the spirit of Agwu, who is the special spirit of ndi dibia” (p. 123). More on this, Uchendu (1965) noted that
Agwu is a most proselytizing spirit always in need of servitors. It is very envious of people’s wealth, which paradoxically, it claims to bring. To serve Agwu is to enter the long rites of ordination which may eventually make one a dibia. Not many people have the wealth and patience to attain this height. Some stop after the initial rites or at any stage of the ordination process. Where they feel they can confidently challenge Agwu ’s call to its service is to face a long trial and temptation involving loss of property, loss of children, barrenness, and in many cases are caused Agwu-psychomatic syndromes. The effective weapon with which to combat “ara Agwu” is “igoo aja" rites of priestly ordination. (p. 65).
Thus the person so possessed (onye Agwu walu) at once consults a fortune-teller who explains to him that Agwu takes no refusal (Arinze 1970). Hence, Agwu causes psychomatic disorder to a person who refuses to accept his calling. With respect to the person’s character who is possessed by Agwu, Arinze (2008) describes it well. According to him
Agwu (who) is the special spirit of ndi dibia, the spirit of giddiness, rascality, discomposure, confusion and forgetfulness (mmuo nkpasa uche). It is believed that a person possessed by Agwu can be holding a key in his hand and yet be searching for it frantically in his room. Talking during sleep or when alone is also believed to be symptom of his presence. Agwu scatters the brain; hence he is also called Mmuo eli eli, eke eke, Mmuo ntunye nku, or Akaose (spirit of confusion). He can also send the possessed man many worries, a chain of misfortunes, deterioration of crops, financial breakdown, etc. (p. 123).
In line with the above, Obienyem (1979) makes it clear that “Agwu poses some abnormal or mischievous character to one he possesses such as misplacement of acquired materials especially money, madness, etc” (p. 13). In support of the above, Okonkwo (1974) stated that “Agwu is god of mischief and ingenuity” (p. 143). In the same vein, Onwuejeogwu (1982) sated that “Agwu are ambivalent in their character. They reveal the secrets of the invisible and visible world to traditional medicine men called dibia, in the mystical code of divination called afa and are also responsible for mental illness” (p. 34). Agwu is such a mysterious spirit that Arinze (1970) says that “Agwu is one of the spirits whose intentions are so doubtful that it is better judged for women and children to keep away” (p. 64).
Ndupu (1972) observes that “Agwu is to pagans what the guardian angels are to the Christians” (p. 12). He further observes that “Agwu is supposed to be owned by both male and female person alike. In fact, it is the first god which people worship when they are born into this world” (p. 12).
These scholarly assertions on Agwu are true in Igbo cosmology. The Igbo believe that Agwu is the one who calls the dibia to his profession. However, this does not contradict the fact that the office of divination is largely hereditary. In the act of divination and preparation of medicine, it is the belief of the traditional Igbo that Agwu reveals the secrets to the diviners and the medicine men, so that when an Igbo is tormented by evil spirits the diviner is consulted who prescribes the appropriate sacrifices or rituals.
From the above discussion, it could be inferred that Agwu is a spirit or a deity that influences human action. It has a control over people’s affairs or human behavior. Though Agwu inflicts the absconder with infirmities, it is equally benevolent when the vocation is adhered to. Agwu possesses people in different ways. Sometimes it is by way of liquidating one’s business or inflicting the person with abnormality and so on. This abnormality is curbed by the process of Iru Agwu. The call by Agwu to office or vocation of a dibia is never refused. It is always followed by psychiatric behavior when the demand is not met with.
Agwu as a messenger of God
The Igbo believe that Agwu is the spirit that has a control over people’s behaviors and may be benevolent or malevolent to people. The Igbo usually say: “o bu agwu na-akpa gi” especially when a person starts to behave abnormally. According to Ogbalu (1981) “Agwu is the god of medicine and divination who has responsibility for the behaviours of men who act as if they have no common sense” (p. 54). Okonkwo (1979) sees Agwu as the “god of mischief and ingenuity” (p. 143).
U. Onwuezobe (personal communication, July 9, 2010) sees Agwu as “the spirit that deprives a person of the ability to get money or of progressing in life.” On relationship with God, he submitted inter alia “Agwu, being a divinity is one of the messengers of God; hence divinities or deities are created by God to act as his messengers.” Agwu, therefore, assists God in his government of the universe.
The above is the belief of traditional Igbo. But the questions are: how does Agwu assist God as a messenger since it inflicts an individual with calamities? Does it mean that God is a malevolent spirit? To answer the above questions, the traditional Igbo believe that anyone who does evil is visited with punishment. God uses the lesser beings to afflict the evil doer. But in the case of an innocent person who is afflicted or possessed by Agwu, what can be said? M. Odonu (personal communication, July 15, 2010) reasons that “Agwu is among the apostate angels of God, of whom Satan, the prince of Demons is the head”. She is of the opinion that God is not malevolent, however, he allows Agwu to inhabit man including an innocent person just as the demons do and this is by possession. Furthermore, she says, “when Agwu possesses a person, it puts the person in the state of disequilibrium until Agwu is placated in the iru Agwu rituals.”
However, no matter how plausible this opinion sounds, Odionu forgets that demon or devil with which she groups Agwu never in anyway does anything good to its victims. All about demon is destruction, whereas Agwu sometimes brings fortune to the possessed especially when the person adheres to its calling, by recognizing and serving it.
Furthermore, can Agwu be understood as a kind of spirit that descended on the Apostles on the day of Pentecost? Or can it be understood as a kind of spirit that possesses an individual during prayer or anointing? Here C. Nweze (personal communication, August 20, 2010) answered in the affirmative. He equated Agwu with the spirit of God. In the opinion of this presenter, it is dangerous to hold this view because God’s spirit is characterized by variety of good acts, whereas the spirit of Agwu as the Igbo believe is a manifestation of giddiness. Arinze (2008) explains it well. According to him, “Agwu (who) is the special spirit of ndi dibia, the spirit of giddiness, rascality, discomposure, confusion and forgetfulness (Mmuo nkpasa uche)” (p. 122).
On emotional disposition of the person, Arinze (2008) maintains that:’ “Agwu scatters the brain; hence he is also called Mmuo eli eli, eke eke, mmuo ntunye nku, or Akaose. He can also send the possessed man many worries, a chain of misfortunes, deterioration of crops, financial breakdown, etc”. (p. 123).
Now, if the above are characteristics of Agwu, how can it be likened to the spirit of God, whereas the Scriptures noted clearly that “God is a God not of disorder but of peace?” (1Cor 14:33). And in Gal. 5:22, Paul specified the characteristics or the fruits of God’s spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, truthfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Nevertheless, Agwu can be understood as a forgotten spirit of mediation between God and man who then struggles for recognition, by inflicting a person with calamities so that it would be appeased.
Moreover, worship or sacrifice is one of the elements of religion found in any religion and this is applicable to Agwu. In the sub-cultural zone of this presenter, that is, in the central sub-cultural zone of Igbo land, the symbol of Agwu is ogilisi or ogbu tree. This is usually planted near the Agwu shrine. Agwu is fed every morning with kola, portion of food and hot wine as the case may be. When Agwu possesses a person, it is placated through the process of iru Agwu. According to U. Onwuezobe (personal communication, July 9, 2010)
When Agwu is to be appeased, the individual will bring a young chicken (adidi okuko), ogilisi tree, and place them near the Agwu shrine (okwu Agwu), then sprinkle the blood of the chicken and plead with Agwu to release the person. Afterward the chicken will be placed on a burning fire till it is done; only the victim of Agwu will consume the whole chicken. The only person that can partake of the chicken is the priest or dibia. At the end of the ceremony an object signifying greatness will be placed on top of the shrine.
Agwu is something that is beyond knowledge of the Igbo. Certain abnormalities are attributed to it. Sometimes it is regarded as devilish in that sometimes when offended, it forces one to act abnormally. This is why when one starts behaving abnormally it is said that Agwu na-akpa ya, then an inquiry is made through igba afa (divination) to find out the cause of the abnormality and having found it out, certain rituals called iru Agwu (welcoming and giving Agwu a place in one’s life and within the person’s homestead) are performed. This is to appease the Agwu to forgive that person.
In some cases, Agwu is not destructive especially when a person complies with its demands. Compliance to the demands of Agwu brings good fortune. That is why any dibia who seeks the protection and guidance of Agwu should first of all comply with its demands. The demands of Agwu of which refusal brings condemnation to people are:
Like every other deity, Agwu has its own shrine. All rituals for this deity must be performed in its shrine. In the village of this presenter, Umunnama in Eziowelle, every kindred has a place called Okwuana. Every okwuana contains what is called okwu alusi (family shrine). The kindred (umunna) of this presenter have their own okwuana in a spot called Iro Ezeigwe near Eke Eziowelle. This okwu alusi is there till date. It is at this shrine that those who belong to the same umunna gather for iru Agwu ritual, although some are located within the family compound but beside a bush.
Certain trees like ogbu, oha, or ogilisi are used for symbols. They represent the Agwu performed for a particular person. Thus Ogbalu (1981) says:
Some plants are used in offering worships to the idols, e.g. ogilisi, ogbu; ogilisi is particularly very important, all okpesi are made from it, many idols including Ikenga are carved from it and pieces of it are placed in front of idols before sacrifices are offered to them. (p. 56).
The plants used for the shrines of Agwu differ according to town. In the locality of this writer, oha, ogilisi and ogbu are mostly used. Okeke (2008) maintains that “these plants are regarded as sacred trees and are not felled or tampered with like any other tree” (p. 1). On his part, Mbiti (1975) explains that these trees “are regarded as holy and sacred where people meet with God” (p. 22).
The Priest of Agwu
In traditional Igbo society all deities have their attendants who are called priests. The word priest suggests one who mediates between God and man, and who serves a particular deity or spirit. According to Parrinder (1974) “The word priest is properly used for an official servant of a god” (p. 100). Metuh (1985) categorizes the Igbo priest into four groups. They are:
okpala (family head) who is the priest of ancestral shrines, Isi
mmuo (head of spirit cults) who takes charge of the shrines, the Eze ala (the chief priest of Ala deity), and Eze Nri or Nri priest (the priest king of Nri town) who is as it were the high priest of cult of Ala for a large part of Igbo land. (pp. 154-159).
On status of the high priest Arinze (1970) says that “the Natives call him eze alusi. He is the official servant of a determined spirit, who offers sacrifice to the spirit and in general ministers at his or her shrine” (p. 63). A priest is a servant of one particular shrine and no other. For instance, there is a priest of Udo, Aro, or Idemili, who ministers to the respective deities. So, there is a priest of one particular shrine of Agwu. The Agwu priest sees to every sacrifice the villagers want to offer to their Agwu or the iru Agwu ritual. It is the responsibility of the Agwu priest to administer the needed sacrifices whenever it is demanded for. On this, Ray (1976) says, “The ritual specialists, priests, prophets, diviners and kings are the servants of the community and their role is to mediate the sacred to the people” (p. 12). M. Anyansi (personal communication, June 12, 2010) explains:
The Agwu personnel are not given a particular training; rather, the Agwu itself teaches the victim in dream how to perform the rituals. But if the person is called to the office of a dibia, it becomes a different thing. However, any male born in the family of Agwu people learns much pertaining to Agwu. This is done whenever Agwu personnel are performing the ritual. Hence, whenever the man begins or goes to perform the ritual, the male in such a family accompanies him so as to observe how it is performed and learn from it.
And Arinze (1970) rightly stated “Agwu has no preference for the first born son (okpala) as in the case of a priest. Sometimes the candidate is already known from boyhood when he picks up certain seed called mkpulu afa (seeds for divining)” (p. 65). The most important function of Agwu personnel is to perform ritual or sacrifice to Agwu whenever a person or a group demands for it. The client after consulting the dibia will know whether and where to perform the sacrifice and what should be used for it.
Rites and Rituals of Iru Agwu
The iru Agwu ritual is performed for the victim so that he would be free from the embarrassment of Agwu. When some abnormalities are noticed in a person, his kinsmen would take him to a dibia afa (diviner) to find out the will of the gods for the person. It is then the responsibility of the Agwu personnel (onye isi Agwu) to perform the ritual of iru Agwu. In the locality of this writer, U. Onwuezobe (personal communication, July 9th, 2010) explains that the following are used for iru Agwu: a chicken that has not laid any egg (adidi okuko), ogilisi plant, about eight pieces of yam, eight pieces of coins, round dry fish (mgbokolu azu), salt, bottle of palm oil, and small earthen pot or a plate.
When these are complete and placed in Ukpa in front of the ogilisi tree already planted on the ground, the officiating minister of Agwu would then begin with some incantations, while preparing some concoction which is eventually put inside the small earthen pot and placed at the seat of the Agwu. Having done these, the chicken and other items brought for the ritual would be slaughtered and cooked. The chicken would be placed on the fire until it is done. The sacrificial food would be placed on ogilisi leaves for the children to share among themselves; while the elders would eat the bigger part not placed on the ogilisi leaves.
Another type of iru Agwu ritual is the one performed for a person called to be a dibia. According to Arinze (1970)
The person so possessed (onye Agwu walu) immediately consults a fortune teller who divines and explains to him that Agwu wants him to be a dibia. The possessed therefore has to accept and perform the ritual of iru Agwu before beginning his training and initiation as a dibia. (p. 123).
Arinze (1970) further explains:
Agwu is the common patron of all diviners. Hence each dibia offers prayers to Agwu every morning soon after rising. The dibia strikes the tortoise shell rhythmically and speaks in a technical language, praising Agwu whom he believes will not delay in enriching him. (p. 123).
Having discussed the Agwu shrine, priest of Agwu, and rite and ritual of Agwu under the relationship between Agwu and God, this paper will at this juncture discuss the relationship between Agwu and Demon in order to see if there are similarities and dissimilarities among them.
Agwu and Demon
Demon is understood as either good or bad spirit especially one associated with cosmic forces. When a person is under a demonic possession, he is incapable of voluntary action. This is in contrast to demonic obsession when he can still exercise voluntary action. Moreover, when a person is under the influence of the Demon, he manifests bizarre symptoms such as hysteric behavior, incoherent speech, incontrollable physical movements and extraordinary feats of physical strength. In some cases the patient is destructive to himself, to others or to material objects (Mcbrien 1995).
If one considers the above characteristics of the Demon, one may be tempted to conclude that Agwu is likened to demonic possession; hence, Agwu is a spirit of giddiness and mischievousness, which brings about different kinds of misfortune to people if iru Agwu is not performed or if the person so possessed refuses to accept the call. The misfortunes are not far from psychomatic syndromes as seen in the case of a person who has demonic possession.
In the above case, Agwu cannot be likened to the spirit of God, for the spirit of God is calm, patience, peaceful, and so on. Rather, Agwu can be said to be a creature of God, which inflicts people with calamities so that it can be placated through sacrifice.
From the discussions so far, it could be deduced that the concept of Agwu is very strong in Igbo traditional society. This is so, but the question is whether there is any reality in this concept. Responses to this question should be both positive and negative. It is positive in the sense that traditionalists maintain strongly that the concept of Agwu is real. It could be negative in the Christian and contemporary view. In other words, from Christian point of view, the existence of Agwu is not real. And Agwu could not be said to exist just like say whether God exist, because only God can exist without any other thing causing his existence. His existence is eternal, infinite and indefinite. He is the first and final cause of existence; no other being can share these attributes with him. The existence of every other being is by participation in God’s existence and Agwu does not participate in God’s existence since its existence is not real.
However, whichever way one might approach one’s responses; it could be wise for the Igbo to re-awaken the belief in the existence of Agwu in order to find their feet in this political entity called Nigeria. This indeed, should be re-invigorated immediately if the Igbo should solve the on-going political madness among them. This is because every thing that happens has a cause. Why should a right thinking person allow him/herself to be used as an object of disintegration against his or her people, if not as a result of unresolved possession by Agwu. s
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