The Concept of God among Igalas

A traditional place of worship in Igala land

By Atayi Babs

Igala is the language group located within the angle formed by the confluence of the rivers Niger and Benue. Igala land is located east of the confluence of these two dominant rivers in Nigeria. In other words, it is situated on the eastern region of Kogi State, North Central region of Nigeria (also known as Middle Belt).

The land is bounded on the west by River Niger and on the east by Enugu State, the south by Anambra State and on the north by Benue State. According to 1992 Population Census, the Igala people are estimated to be the ninth largest ethnic group in Nigeria.

Igala people are evenly distributed all over the land but with Idah, Dekina, Ankpa, Omala, Olamaboro, Ofu, Igalamela/Odolu, Ibaji and Bassa (even parts of Lokoja and Ajaokuta) Local Government Areas more densely populated. There exist residual pockets of identifiable Igala linguistic groups in varying locations. Igala descents reside around the area of Ebu and Oshimili in the present Delta State. They are also in Oko, Anam in Anambra State, Ogurugu and Ibagwa in Enugu State, and Ojigono (illushi) in Edo State.

In a way, the historical ligament of Igala connects with diverse ethnic and cultural entities across the breadth of Northern, Eastern, Central and Western Nigeria. This wide range of spatial and cognitive influence was mainly due to the factors of commerce, military activities, intermarriage, colonial conquest and cultural contacts.

The Igala kingdom reached its apogee developing varying cultural interactions and civilisations. The history of the Igala includes very diverse histories containing vignettes of cultural interactions among and between different groups.

The Igala monarchy reflects a quality of divine kings with the Attah functioning as a Priest-King. The political structure of Igala society incorporates a central government located in Idah, embodied in the Attah of Igala, and his advisory chiefs, as well as representative government at the periphery with relative autonomy of social operations.

According to historical and linguistic sources, the Igala belong to the Kwa linguistic group. The Igala, therefore, are linked to a group of migrants that supposedly came from the Middle East through the Northern geo-spatial location of the present day Nigeria, prior to dispersing into different directions.

These include the Jukun, Yoruba and other similar groups. The Igala are presumed to be a group of an earlier Yoruba wave of migrants that inhabited their present settlement after crossing around the confluence of the Benue and Niger Rivers.

The concept of God among Igalas is one that is interesting just as it is fascinating. The Igala belief in the existence of God comes in two dimensions namely: The Human God and the Spiritual God.

The Igala concept of the Attah as a human God is unique and almost unparalleled in the country. The Igalas see the Attah as a human God who has many taboos about his person. The Igala phrase “i afo” (it is holy or forbidden) is usually heard about him. Politically, socially and religiously, the Igala world is dominated by the Attah who must set the pace in everything and the question, “abu Attah ka?” (what did the Attah say) on any issue must be known before anyone could embark on any venture. He is greeted “Agabaidu”.

This greeting indicates that he is the most powerful human being in the whole world. People around him called out for a chorus greeting from time to time, “Ojo gw’ Attah which literally means “God greets the Attah” but interpreted to mean “God bless Attah”. The refrain is “Gbaadu” and this again is interpreted to mean the strength needed to carry out his duties as the Spiritual God’s deputy on earth (Arone Ojo).

As a human God, the Attah was made free from human wants. He is always surrounded by all necessities of life like food, water and drinks. No man or woman is permitted the rare honour of seeing him when he drinks or eats. His attendants usually cover him whenever he is about to perform any of such functions associated with ordinary beings and if any inquiry is made as to his whereabouts, the Attendants will simply say “ afu aju” (the wind is blowing), Attah ch’udu or i a ch’udu oyikwu (the Attah is performing a rite).

Moreover, he never eats or drinks in the public no matter the urge to. He must stoically resist such urges as a stoic who must never show emotions in public. If he is amused, a big royal fan is immediately used to block the public view of his face. The ordinary is considered too low to view such emotions.

The Attah is not expected to be sick, let alone die. If he falls sick, it is usually said that he is tired and when an Attah dies, it is “odogo m’ubu” (odogo, a 15th century shrine in his palace has glided because it is believed that even in the realm of the Spirits, the Attah continues to be the Attah.

He is regarded as Attah in both worlds (Attah ach’emi ki a che omo). As a Human God, the Attah knew everything. He had “nine ears” with which he hears everything. He must say one thing and stick to it because he is the “Obe agele” (the one-sided knife that must cut with one side) he does not stoop to pick anything from the ground and his person must never be touched. No dirt is tolerated about his person anything meant for the Attah, including gifts, must be without blemish of nay kind.

HRM Attah Idakwo Ameh Oboni blessing Nollywood actors in his palace

The Attah must not see uncleanliness in any form. That is why he must not see an unclean woman or a dead body, including that of a relation. If by any circumstance the Attah unwittingly saw any of these, he is promptly purified by the “Ora-Attah” (the cleansing Chief). Such was his holiness that only virgins prepare his food!

All Attahs were believed to be human Gods and there was no doubt about it. Writing about this in the late 30s, Miles Clifford said “the Attah of Igala actually believed that after him, no other higher person except God Almighty existed”.

The Attah told him “Over you is the resident, who may correct you if you go wrong. Over the Resident is the Lt. Governor is the Governor at Lagos and over him is the white man’s King. But over me, the Attah, there is none except Ojo ‘chamachaala (the Almighty God)” the point is clear, only God Almighty could correct the Attah Igala.

In addition to the belief in the existence of a human God called Attah among Igalas is the belief and worship of a spiritual God that is called Ojo ‘chamachaala (God Almighty). The generality of Igalas believe that above the Attah, is Ojo ‘chamachaala who is a God in the spirit realm, that created everything on earth and that has the ultimate power over life and death.

The worship of Ojo ‘chamachaala is basically the same all over Igala land with little variations that border on dialectal and communal differences. The Igalas believe that to worship this God, which is spirit and cannot be touched or felt, one needs to go through the instrumentality of the departed ancestors who, it is believed, have died and gone to join this God in His heavenly realms and have been transformed into lesser gods.

Thus the Igalas use bottles, trees, woodcarvings with half of the body buried in the ground or the grave sites of departed ancestors as veritable physical links to Ojo ‘chamachaala. These instruments or sites which are usually decorated with red, black and white flags (agaliga), are set apart either in front yard (atakpa) or in the backyard (anuku) of the compound.

The Igalas pour libation in form of food and drinks to these gods with the full belief that they (gods) intercede on their behalf. They also seek protection and good harvests from Ojo ‘chamachaala through prayerful incantations to these ancestors who in turn speaks to them in muffled esoteric tones which only a few, especially the eldest in the family understands.

With the advent of Christianity and Islam in Igala land in the 19th century, a new concept of Ojo ‘chamachaala has been introduced with Jesus Christ being preached and worshiped as the only way to Ojo ‘chamachaala by the Igala Christian converts while the Igala Muslim converts worship Allah as their own Ojo ‘chamachaala.

Notwithstanding the intrusions by these two religions, an appreciable percentage of Igalas still hold on to the worship of the gods as a medium to Ojo ‘chamachaala. This practice is now referred to as “ichebo” (paganism) by these latter-day converts of the two Abrahamic religions. Suffice it to say that some of the Igala followers of these two religions still participate actively in practice of “ichebo” in addition to their recently professed faiths.

The process of pacifying or making the gods not to be angry which is referred to as appeasement is an essential aspect of the igala worship of gods. This takes place when an offense is committed against the gods, an abomination is committed against the land, or a negligence of duty on the part of the worshipers is recorded.

The appeasement is usually carried through the sacrifice of animals such as bulls, goats, sheep, tortoise, cow, hen or reptiles as the gods may require. The appeasement, which is usually done amidst fanfare, requires other traditional materials such as kola nuts, palm wine/raffia palm, food, and “uloko” (red feather).

Some gods and goddesses in Igala land can only be appeased by dancing round a particular spot for a specified number of times or the dipping of the feet in the river for a specified number of times. In any of the aforementioned, the appeasement, when successfully carried out in accordance with the prescribed guidelines, goes a long way in drawing the appeaser closer to the gods thereby effectively positioning him/her to benefit from the many blessings from the gods.

Just as there is punishment for breaking of any man-made laws, there are also laid down terms of punishment for those whose conduct or disposition falls below the expectation of the gods in Igala land. Some of the punishments for disobedience or defaulting in the appeasement of gods are instant madness, incurable sickness, death, ostracisation from communal life, excommunication, banishment and untold dreadful tragedies.

The above is very true of whoever brings him/herself under the lordship the gods as their powers can only effect punishments on those who are under their subjection.

One major weakness of this belief is the fact that the very symbols they worship as gods are lifeless, immobile and defenseless against external pressure. The gods cannot move, walk or act on their own without the help of their worshipers whose duty it is to carry them, clean them and protect them from fire, rain and human elements. The very concept of God is antithetical, diametrically opposed to the idea of helplessness or being at the mercy of its worshipers.

Another major weakness of this belief is the undeniable fact that these gods are creatures and not creators of themselves. There is no disputing the fact that a creature can never be greater than its creator. Thus for one to abandon the creator for the sake of the creature may be akin to fetching water with a basket – a colossal exercise in futility!

Yusuf Etuh
Rev. Fr Anthony Agbali
Miles Clifford


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