Tortoises, tigers, crocodiles, monkeys and snakes…to any other person, these are just animals you find in the zoo or sometimes in the wild but in several communities in the Southeast these creatures are regarded as sacred or totems. There are some ancient beliefs that one cannot place the origins of, this is one of them. OKECHUKWU OBETA, Awka, MATTHIAS NWOGU, Umuahia and STANLEY UZOARU, Owerri and NKIRU OKPALA, Abuja write more on this.
The relationship between animals and human beings is as amazing as the biblical story of how the serpent deceived Eve into eating the forbidden fruit and the resultant death for humanity for that single disobedience.
Many communities in Igbo land have one relationship or the other with specific animals which they hold sacred, worship as well as forbid anybody from harming and going to the extreme of killing such animals. A totem can be seen as a being, object or symbol representing an animal or plant that serves as an emblem of a group of people such as a family, clan, group, lineage or tribe reminding them of their ancestry (or mythic past). In kinship and descent, if the apical ancestor of a clan is nonhuman, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totemic myth.
In modern times, some single individuals or group of individuals, not otherwise involved in the practice of a tribal religion, have chosen to adopt a personal animal helper which has special meaning to them, and may refer to this as a totem. This is more prevalent in different communities in Igbo land.
But the question today is “does this idea still exist in our different communities, especially as many of our youths and some adults who were born and bred outside their immediate communities find it strange that such a thing exists?”
Different communities in the eastern part of the country have their totems which they regard as sacred animals, and as such they don’t kill them. This does not have anything to do with religious belief but seen as oral tradition handed down from the ancient generation to the next one.
Don’t make the mistake of deliberately killing an animal regarded as sacred otherwise you will have to accord the animal a burial befitting of a citizen of that community to appease the gods. The belief is that failure to do this will bring calamity upon the person, his family and possibly the entire community.
For instance, in Awka, Anambra state’s capital city, the natives regard monkeys and tortoises as sacred creatures, whereas pythons are treated as special by the natives of all the communities in both Idemili Northt and South local government areas of the state.
The python is also regarded as a hallowed creature in Uga and Aguluezechukwu communities in Aguata local government area; Nri in Anaocha local government area; Isseke, Okija, Uli communities in Ihiala local government area; Ozublu, Ihembosi communities in Ekwusigo local government area; Ukpor and Uzubulu communities in Nnewi-South local government.
Sir Vincent Ujummadu, Vanguard Newspapers Correspondent in Awka, a native of Okija and his Nigerian Pilot Newspaper counterpart, Mr. Tony Oraeki, an indigene of Nri, said that in respective towns, if a python enters the house of anybody; climbs on top of his bed, the owner of the house will simply collect the creature and drop it somewhere outside the compound without harming it.
If a stranger deliberately kills a python in Okija, the natives according to Ujummadu would advise such a person to give a befitting burial to the creature, and if the person refuses, he or she stands the risk of dying mysteriously within one year.
Also, in Agulu community, Anaocha local government area, the country home of the incumbent Governor Peter Obi, tortoises and crocodiles are treated as sacred by the natives of most communities in the riverine Ogbaru local government area including Obeagwe, the country home of the deputy chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Media and Public Affairs, Sir Victor.
Afam Ogene, and Atani, the home town of late music maestro, Stephen Osadebay, an alligator is treated as sacred while in Ossamala people treat snails in the same manner.
A royal princess in one of the communities in Oguta who pleaded anonymity reliably told LEADERSHIP Weekend that “the alligator or python usually visits any woman who just put to bed. When they come, the woman may either apply baby powder on them or give them kola nuts after which they leave without harming anyone.” Scary as it sounds, this is still practiced.
In Umuokahia, a community in Obi Ngwa local government area of Abia state, a particular python is held sacred. The Python known as “Okporo Okahia” lives in the community shrine (Ihuala), and is believed to be as old as the community itself.
The origin of the relationship between the community lost in history as the only available information today, is that the python guards the community and resides in the shrine.
According to Elder Onyebuenyi Nwogu, Okporo Okahia, the python is revered in the community from time immemorial with no record of anybody attempting to kill it as it is generally known as the guardian of the village.
In performing its duty as the guardian of the community, it goes round the community making itself seen by some people possibly to assure them that it is doing its duty. People who had seen it were said to have fled in fright because of its awesome look.
The python has peculiar features which include a crown on its head which is similar to that of a cock. What almost everybody in the community appears to have seen is the large trail that is left on the road any time it crawls inside the shrine.
Elder Nwogu whose compound is situated along the road leading to the village shrine recounts his encounter with the python recently.
He said: “It was between 11am and 12noon when I was going to the town, suddenly I saw the awful python at the centre of the road crawling from the opposite bush to the shrine. I believe that it saw me first and raised its head like a cobra about to strike at me.
“Naturally gripped with fear, I appealed to the python in our dialect to go on its business and that I have no plans to hurt or harm it.
“To my greatest surprise and relief, it lowered its head and crawled gracefully into the shrine”.
This is not an isolated case. Some other persons in the community also gave testimony about their encounter with the python.
Curiousity further took LEADERSHIP Weekend down to Imo State to enquire about this. In Amaigbo, a community in Imo State, they don’t kill or eat bush fowl because it is sacred.
For the people of Umuanya Nwoko kindred of Itungwa , Obingwa local government area of Abia state, the ram is regarded as a sacred animal which every member of the community, male or female is forbidden from eating.
According to Rev. Fortunate Anyanwu, a pastor of one of the Pentecostal churches, no living person from the area could say why they do not eat ram. He said that though they can raise them, eat the sheep and sell the ram knowingly or unknowingly, any member of the community who eats ram meat will automatically fall sick, and the sickness may lead to death.
He recalled a particular instance where some young men from the area attended a party where unknown to them they were served with ram meat, and on coming back home, they all developed swollen mouths. He said it took some sacrifices for those who consumed the ram meat to regain their health.
While currently there is no shrine for the ram in their kindred, it is not the same for Umuevula ukwu where the ram is held more sacred with a priest attached to it. The image or symbol of the ram is also displayed in most of their cultural festivals of Umuevula Ukwu.
The tiger, known as ‘Agu’ in Igbo, is a totem in many communities in Igbo land, and some communities such as ‘Umuagu’ are named after it.
In Umulelu also in Obingwa, the tiger is a sacred animal which is neither eaten nor killed. According to a member of the community who spoke on condition of anonymity, the animal constitutes almost a cult.
He said that in the past, some members of the community transformed themselves into live tigers and executed some assignments as a tiger and came back to the community as human beings. He gave an instance where a man quarreled with his wife and when the woman packed her baggage to go back to her maternal home, he made no attempt to stop her.
But no sooner had she left his house than the man transformed into a tiger and pounced on her along the road; and inflicted some minor injuries on her, and in the process the woman came back to her husband’s house without anybody prompting her to do so.
When the woman recounted her ordeal in the hands of a tiger, the husband who had by now transmuted into a human being, reportedly laughed at her with scorn for her inability to either resist the tiger or escape unhurt.
He also said that since the elders knew that human beings could transform into tigers, it became a taboo to shoot at tigers seen in the bush because, after all, the tiger may be a human being.