Ikenga In Traditional Igbo Society
By Rose Okere
The Igbo people are found in the South Eastern region of Nigeria. They share boundaries at the North with Idoma and Igala people, Edo State at the West, Efik and Ibibio at the East and Ijaw at the South and South West.
The Igbo believe in supernatural forces, their belief in ancestral worship has led to the establishment of personal shrine images like the Ikenga, through which they have spiritual contacts with their ancestors.
Ikenga is known as one of the symbols of power and authority in Igbo culture it serves as a link between the dead and the living. This force (Ikenga) mediates in the affairs of men and assist its owners to achieve success in their chosen endeavours.
Ikenga is mostly maintained, kept or owned by men and occasionally by women of high reputation and integrity in the society. However, it is mostly owned by warriors and great men. In some parts of Igboland, custodians of Ikenga must either be great hunters, farmers, traders, or warriors, who have made remarkable achievements in their communities.
Ikenga as an objects, shrine, symbol and idea, that illustrate ancestral powers and authority as well as symbolizes mobility. It is tied to the notion of authority and prestige within the family unit and the entire community. It comprises someone’s personal Chi (small god), his ancestor, cult of the right hand aka Ikenga, power (IKE) as well as spiritual activation through prayer and sacrifice.
An Ikenga may be discarded, buried or split into two at the owner’s death, since the owner is no longer alive to make personal sacrifices to his personal chi (god) or commune with it. Though, often times, the Ikenga of a deceased man could be kept in the family heirloom as a reminder of their former owner. For community Ikenga, it is usually kept by the eldest man in that community and is passed on to the next upon his death.
The Ikenga reverberates throughout much of Igbo life. The images of Ikenga are usually found in the shrines of individuals, diviners, cult, representatives of age grades and communities. Some drums owned by some communities usually depict basic Ikenga images.
Ikenga is specially found among the Northern Igbos of Anambra, Enugu, Delta and some parts of Kogi State, although, some variants of it are found in Ijaw, Ishan, Isoko Urhobo and Edo areas. In these last two areas mentioned, it is regarded as lvri and Ikegobo respectively (Boston 1977, Vogel 1974).
Among the Isoko people, there are three types of personal shrine images, Oma, which represents the “spirit double” that resides in the other world; Obo which symbolizes the right hand and personal endeavor and the lvri which stands for personal determination. Peek 1981; 1986.
The various peoples of Southern Niger have slightly different notions of the components of individual personality, but all agree that these various aspects can only be affected through ritual and personal effort.
Description/Motifs of Ikenga
Ikenga is a wooden carved object which symbolizes ancestral and spiritual powers that is highly revered by the family units and the entire community. It is a spirit that often represents the strength of the right hand. As a carved object, it is best known for its striking formal features most notable is the prominent horn.
It is also carved in natural form, that is in a complete human form. The object is usually seated or stoops with two prominent horns and stretched hands. The right hand holds a knife and the left one carries either a yam, a head or an animal depending on what the owner of that particular Ikenga is known for. Unlike, the Ikegobo of Edo and Ivri of Isoko, Urhobo, the legs of Ikenga are very prominent.
The primary meaning of Ikenga horns to the Igbos is power (Ike) especially masculine power – As an essentially male shrine, these images portray manifold aspect of powers, spiritual, economic, social, military and political, which are also specified by other symbols present, especially the recurrent knife and head.
Ikenga horns are often identified as that of a ram and some look very much like them (G Philip M. Peek 2002). This could be related to an Igbo adage about ram which says “A ram goes to fight with its head” meaning (Ebule ji isi eje ogu). This orderly refers to the aggressive nature of ram when fighting and its sudden perseverance, meaning the repeated and enduring attack on a problem when and if necessary.
The common occurrence of long bladed knife and severed “trophy” head expresses superiority and success in warfare. It shows the extension of the hand and mind as will power and the sharp cut of decisiveness. The knife also signify the instrument that firmly clears part towards one’s goal i.e (Osuofia) and helps the owner achieve success in either farming, trading, blacksmithing and other life endeavours.
In addition to the presence of horn and knife symbols, many other features are found which explain the relevance of an Ikenga to the particular owner. Among these are numerous references to title taking through the depiction of title scar (Uchimark) regalia, elephants tusk, trumpet, stool, staff and anklets. The ones with title attributes are acquired by men only upon elevation to the highest “0zo title” and are consecrated in the presence of senior title holders.
Some Ikenga also depicts genitalis. This makes reference to make procreativity. The status of a man as a father of a particular family unit is determined by having many children who ensure the continuity of a man’s lineage and his proper reception in the land of the ancestors. Some are also carved in a vulture form signifying the cult the owner belongs to.
Consecration of Ikenga
Ikenga as a religious object requires consecration before usage. Normality, an Ikenga is consecrated in the presence of one’s kinsmen or agemates by lineage head. Offerings of things like yam, cock, wine, kolanuts and alligator pepper are sacrificed to Ikenga. Consecrations are often more elaborate and occasionally less depending on the financial strength of the owner. But the point still remains that Ikenga is being treated as a spirit (mmuo) which remains with the owner until his death. If the owner is devoted, he feeds his Ikenga on a daily basis with Kola and wine and periodically, especially before an important undertaking, he offers sacrificial blood of a cock or ram to induce the spirit to help him succeed. Afterward, the owner also offers thanksgiving to his Ikenga for making him to achieve success. Success as believed, solely depends on their personal chi, represented by Ikenga and the support of kinsmen.
Types of Ikenga
There are various types of Ikenga individually, community, diviners Ikenga etc.
An individual Ikenga is the one owned by an individual or privately. It is regarded as individual because to the owner, it is his personal chi (small god) which he may decide to commune with from time to time or as the heed arises. The owner of individual, Ikenga must be a full-fledged man in all its ramifications. He makes personal sacrificial offerings to his Ikenga inform of Kola, wine, alligator pepper and blood offering of cock or ram as the condition demands. This of course helps the owner to get favour of success from his personal chi.
The features of am individual Ikenga depicts what the owner is known for. If the owner is a great warrior, his Ikenga carries a knife and severed “trophy head” signifying the superiority of the owner at warfare or over his opponents.
The size of an individual Ikenga is usually small. It is usually held by the right hand hence the name, cult of the right hand.
It is also pertinent to note that when the owner of an individual Ikenga dies, his Ikenga dies with him. His Ikenga will either be discarded, buried or split into two and thrown away since the owner has ceased to exist and is no longer there to make personal offerings to his god.
Community Ikenga is the type owned by the entire community of a particular clan. It is usually larger in size and is more visible signifying the collective dignity and achievements of the entire community. It is ceremonially paraded through the community and thus helps to foster village solidarity.
During the annual festival, all male born during the previous years are brought before Ikenga and thus are validated as community numbers.
The motifs on the community Ikenga tend to have complex head dress signifying collective ownership. The motifs also depicts what the community is known for, for instance whether they are known as warriors, hunters, traders or predominantly farmers.
This is a miniature (smallest) version of Ikenga. They are not elaborate in design, although, they are mandatory in any diviners kit. It is mostly owned by women. It is a force that represents the spirit of “Agwunshi” (Evil spirit) which has the ability to accomplish things for the diviners and his clients. The diviner consults his Ikenga when need arises. It helps the owner to make prescriptions of some herbal remedies to their clients especially, one’s for the treatment of madness, childbirth, or any serious ailment that has defied solutions.
The significance of Ikenga; are as follows:
• It serves as the owner’s personal chi (god)
• It serves as an intermediary between the owner and
• It offers religious solutions to the owners.
• In times of war, it offers protection to the owner
and assists him to emerge victorious.
• If well appeased, it offers economic assistance to the owner to succeed in his life endeavours.
The belief in the efficacy of Ikenga has dwindled significantly, if not totally in extinct. The advent of new religion brought by the colonial masters, the rural urban migration, urbanization and education as contributed immensely to the state of affairs. People now question the real efficacy of an ordinary carved wood (Ikenga) to help them achieve success in their chosen career.
Despite the prevailing situation Ikenga remains a strong factor in male achievements, success and religion in traditional Igbo society. The relevance of Ikenga is still recognized as seen in the names of some socio-cultural organization that exist as pressure groups. In our modern day society, a good example being the “AKA IKENGA” a youth wing of umbrella organization for all Igbos called “The Ohaneze-Ndi-Igbo”.
• Mrs. Okere discussed this topic with the National Museum Study Group, Port Harcourt, recently