Sacred Trees in Igbo cultures and their values

Obinwannem News Sacred Trees in Igbo cultures and their values

Igbo culture extends signification to trees. Dating back to ancient times, the idea of some things representing or standing for other things has reigned in public life.

Along this line, something representing another thing is based on the hope that communication obstacles would be surmounted and that the other person would finally understand what we mean. Lucky enough, we have bodies and organs saddled with the task of articulating representations of the representation.

Maybe if we were from another lifeworld and do not need the so-called speech organs, we would order our representations of representation differently. Maybe we would just see other entities and use other means to figure out their intentions and respond appropriately, as shown in some science fiction movies and writings. So, that some trees in Igbo culture are assigned representation roles is not strange at all.

Nevertheless, it reveals our limitation in our world and an attempt to deal with such limitations in communication.

There are some ancient cultures where trees feature in representing the mystic, something the Eurocentric would quickly dismiss as being animistic. The point is that ancient people might have known keys to what would appear to us as “mysteries” about trees that could “talk” and how, about trees that could give longevity, and about trees that could serve as traveling portals (what in some Christian Nollywood movies is featured as a demonic manifestation!)!

The trees one would like to focus on are interestingly perennial in nature (that is, the ability to survive adverse conditions and to live for a very long time!). I will reflect on this later and try to make the necessary connections. But let us for now name and reflect on the trees.

  1. Ngwu

Ngwu is considered a sacred tree in Igbo culture, to the extent that it is not to be cut down and used for fuelwood at all. In fact, in the folklore, a song points to the sacredness of Ngwu and warns that it must not be cut down:

Anyuike egbule Ngwu
Na o bu oke osisi
(The axe must not cut down Ngwu
Because it is a great tree)

Interestingly, this particular song and saying in Uri is from the mouth of the masked spirit whose words are highly revered and taken entirely as “the truth.” The actual referent in the song is not the tree, but something that is seen as standing in symbolic relation with Ngwu! Maybe the masked spirit itself! In that case, it is simply as way of cautioning: “Don’t try to test the powers of the masked spirit or try to destroy it! It is risky, very!”

Another Igbo chant would say:

Anyuike gburu Ngwu -o
Isi adighi ya mma
Gburu Ngwu
Isi adighi ya mma!

(That axe that cuts down Ngwu tree
It is mentally unwell
Cuts down Ngwu
It is mentally unwell)

 It was observed in Black Orpheus of 21st April 167 as follows: “The Ngwu tree sacred and mystic; it  is a symbol of magic and super natural power

A poem to denote its relevance opined

“Living near the Ngwu tree” is total security. Which axe that is mentally unwell will come there to cut carelessly? One near the Ngwu tree has a protector, a shield of shields. That resident has no worries, for Ngwu is safety,  not just that it guarantees it!

Ngwu, in real social life, as indicated above, is also revered. it is used in marking off land boundaries, partly because it is perennial as a plant. It is also used in other serious rituals, but not viewed as a common tree. In other words, it has been selected by the culture to become a special tree and to feature in ritual functions!

The human being is also metaphorised as Ngwu or seen as being linked to Ngwu sacredness, as such names as:

Okongwu (okoro Ngwu, or a man that is or belongs to Ngwu).
Nwangwu (Offspring of Ngwu)
Ngwu (as a praise-name)

That the attributes of sacred Ngwu are copied to somebody means that the person needs to be treated just as Ngwu in the culture. Naturally, the ancient Igbo revere human life, and so would treat the human as containing or representing more than flesh and blood. The human is more than flesh and blood!

  1. Anunuebe

Apart from Ngwu, another important tree which also features in the signification of the masked spirit is Anunuebe (Nnunuebe). Literally, Anunuebe means that “No bird perches on it” or “No bird has the courage to sit on it to rest.” This is obviously frightening. If no bird has the courage to perch on it, it means that it has tremendous magical powers — and it does! it means that Anunuebe is not just  an ordinary tree: it is a tree that is not just a tree. It is a tree that can transform and cause to transform. It is a tree that can do things. It is, therefore, special; in fact, sacred.

Why is Anunuebe a favorite among local herbalists and performers of the masked spirit? Is it just because of the attributed sacredness? There is something dark and frightening here: the mere mention of Anunuebe is scary: so, even birds are afraid to perch on the tree?

That tree that is avoided by birds must be terribly potent and evil! Is that not enough warning? Thus, Anunuebe is descriptively named to warn and frighten, indirectly. The warning is analogical: if birds avoid it, which other warning (about danger) do you need? A naghi agwa ochinti n’ahia esula (No one informs a person hard of hearing that the marketplace is in some turmoil). That fellow just has to look and see!

  1. Ogirisi

Ogirisi is also a very prominent ritual tree in Igbo culture. Perennial and used to indicate land boundaries, headsides of graves, and to handle ritual cleansing like washing of hands after handling corpses, digging of graves, and burial of corpses, Ogirisi is perhaps the most visit sacred tree in Igbo culture.

The graves of those men die outside marriage (i.e. as bachelors) are traditionally symbolized with the Ogirisi “holding” the kitchen knife for them (Ogirisi ikpara ha mmaekwu). The knife in question (representing lack of fulfillment) is placed on the Ogirisi on the grave to mark the absence of a wife (to hold it, to mourn him!).

  1. Oji

Am I forgetting Oji the kolanut tree? This tree is also special in Igbo culture, partly because the nut is used in so many ritual ceremonies. Is it in welcoming visitors, to commence ceremonies, to sue people, etc? Oji the kolanut is highly revered and so its tree.

A tree accorded so much honour, maybe for being the goose that lays the golden eggs (that produces the symbolic and revered nut), it attracts the following treatment, among others:

(i) One person is not understood as the owner of Oji, although one person can plant it. It is always communally owned, making many share in its wealth. It, therefore, stands as their bond, just like the nut is used for traditional communion.

(ii) The branches of the tree are not normally cut for fuelwood, even if the tree could be pruned;
(iii) The tree is valued above all other trees around and used for cash cropping.

Thus the tree of the kolanut is a great narrative, just as its nut through its symbolic mathematics could tell something about a ceremony. It is as if it narrates space and time as phenomena of our lives and nodes of inheritance. The tree is not the only tree around, but is seen as symbolizing the connection of the past of the ancestors and the present of their survivors. It is the present that inherits the past, that continues the past and its narratives.

The presence of kolanut tree in that homestead is the presence of the womb of life, the continuity of the narratives introduced in the distant past.

The main worry one has about these trees is that there are many Igbo people are beginning to forget what the trees represent in their culture, especially when some such people have lost touch with their roots mainly due to wrong attention to Western modernity and education.

Lolo Ijeoma Njoku Obinwannem News Writer / Dec 5, 2021

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