Last & Least
What fall apart, actually?
Dr Binoy Barman
It is interesting to read Chinua Achebe's novel “Things Fall Apart”. In it, the writer's main focus has been the clash of civilizations. He masterly delineates the conflict between African culture and that of Europe. He shows how the Igbo culture disintegrates with the arrival of the Europeans. The blacks are subjugated by the white men. The spirituality of Africa is undermined by the European codes of belief. The African gods are defeated by the powerful Christian ethos.
Africa has a rich religious culture, as opposed to the widespread idea that the people of Africa are savage. The 'savage notion' of Africa was propagated by the Europeans who with their imperial powers conquered the so-called 'dark subcontinent' and had a profitable business with their natural resources and human labours. Here we will be acquainted with some gods of Igbo people in Africa, as met in Things Fall Apart, along with their similarities and dissimilarities with the deities of other cultures.
The principal god of the Igbo tribe is Chukwu. He is the creator of everything including other gods and humans. Myth says He first created a man called Eze Nri and his wife. That was the first human family on earth. All human beings are the descendents of that family. Chukwu can be compared with the Hindu supreme deity 'Brahma' or 'Ishwar'. As the Creator, He also bears similarity with the monotheistic God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Eze Nri qualifies to be Adam in the religions of Abrahamic tradition. In Hindu mythology, the first man is called 'manu' from which we got the Bangla word 'manush', meaning 'man'. Notice the striking sound similarity between the Bangla and English words, which points to their common origin. Also note that the word 'Nri' in Bangla, as Sanskrit-originated, means 'man'. In modern Bangla it has two gender forms -- 'nor' (man) and 'nari' (woman).
The Igbo has an evil god called Ekwensu. His main job is to lead people astray. He has several accomplices to help him to carry out his evil designs. One of them is Death. Ekwensu may be compared with Satan or Devil of the monotheistic religious scriptures, in which Death is not however given any status of god. In Hinduism there is no single figure like Ekwensu but there are many monster-like figures who come to jeopardise the kingdoms of gods and humans. In Hindu mythology, Death is recognised as a god named 'Jom'. In Greek mythology the god of death is Hades who has got his kingdom in the underworld (which we call 'patal' in Bangla).
The Igbo people discover the forms of gods in different layers of nature. They have the deities of earth, fire, thunder, lightning, river, rain, hill, iron and farm. The goddess of earth is Ani. She is the source of all fertility. She would shelter every good person in her bosom after they die but not any bad one. The body of the latter types would be thrown in the evil forest or the bad bush. Fire god is Oku and the thunder god Amadioha/Akpala. Monotheistic religions have no such gods but the Hindus have. In Hinduism, earth is seen as a Mother (Basumoti) -- mother of all mothers -- whom they worship. The god of fire is called Agni and the goddess of river Ganga. Here the god of thunder is Indra, the king of heaven, who uses it as a weapon. In Greek mythology, Mother Earth is goddess Gaia, the god of fertility and farm is Demeter and the god of fire and iron is Hephaestus. The Igbo have the provision of home god. It is represented by a symbol of any consecrated object called Ikenga. It is a sacred symbol to whom they pray regularly. For example, a piece of carved wood is primarily a simple object. But when made Ikenga, it is no more any inanimate object; it is an idol now inhabited by a spirit whom the members of family try to communicate with and satisfy. An Igbo person has also his/her personal god called Chi, who accompanies him/her all the time. It may be benevolent or malevolent. In the former case the person is fortunate and in the latter unfortunate. Chi may be compared with an angel in other religious faiths.
The Igbo have Egwugwu, who are spirits of the dead ancestors. They descend on the living people and counsel on matters of dispute. They are wise and good souls. A naughty soul is Ogbanje, who enters the womb of a mother to cause premature death of a child. As the child dies immediately after birth or later, it again enters the same womb. The case of birth and premature death recurs under the influence of Ogbanje. Sacrifices or other occult measures are necessary to break the wicked cycle.
Like the ancient Greeks, the Igbo have the Oracle (Agbala), who would prophesy. The caretaker of the Oracle is usually a priestess. In Achebe's novel the Oracle of the Hills and Caves is taken care of by priestess Chielo. The Oracle has the miraculous power to reveal facts and suggest remedies. From this, one thing is clear that Greece and Igboland share the same tradition of religious custom. Either the Greeks borrowed it from the Africans or the vice versa. I suppose Egypt had a mediating role in transferring this special piece of custom as the land of Pharaohs is situated geographically between them.
The Igbo have therefore rich pantheon of gods. But all the gods failed, miserably. They could not rival the European God, who appeared more powerful by virtue of His followers' weaponry. The African gods could not resist the aggression of the European one. The black skin was dissected by the white hand and turned bloody. The Christian God became triumphant. Seen from another perspective, polytheism was defeated by monotheism, as it happened all over the world in different phases of history. The African gods acknowledge their own defeat: “He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.” The inhabitants of Umuofia hear the cry of defeated gods. They lament: “All our gods are weeping.” The heart of antiquity is thus pierced by the lethal arrow of civilisation.
(The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, Department of English, Daffodil International University.)