ONYEKPEZE AND IKA CULTURAL MATTERS
HERBALISTS (NDI AGWO OGUN) IN IKA CULTURE
The discussion here is on herbalists and not on herbalism which is discussed under traditional medicines. This is because the roles of the herbalists affect mystical elements, which can never be completely excluded from magic and religion.
A nonagenarian respondent said that many herbalists claim to have received their secrets from fairies and forest spirits who have befriended them; and these may have made ‘a pact of exchange of blood’ with the hunters. There is an overlapping between herbalists and diviners, who may both be medicine-men in Ika community culture. But the ‘man of the trees’ often has the widest knowledge of the curative properties of herbal plants, barks and roots. Many herbalists are hunters, whose long experience of the forest life has introduced them to little known and rare plants. Their secrets may be handed down from other hunters and experts.
The medicines which herbalists in Ika prepare are many and varied. They include different types of medicines like ‘baked insects and dried reptiles’, the dung of some animals in powders and fat of some snakes in bottles, skins and bones of every conceivable animals, and hundreds of barks, roots, barriers, and leaves, choice selected innumerable and wonderful. The preparations are medicinal, magical, useful, harmful and inert. The methods of preparation of the herbal medicines vary from one village or quarter to another; and in some cases, variations can occur even with a single individual.
It is not easy to find out why certain remedies are used. They may have been prescribed by the herbalist’s own master. Many of the most popular medicines are purgative and emetic, ogun eria nwan. Other methods of treatment include poultices, ointments, rubbing powders, sweating baths, scratching baths, iwuchu emu, and bloodletting, oki. Specialists abound for particular types of sickness. Some of the religious cults also cure specific diseases. For example, there are small-pox gods whose priests isolate the sufferers and treat them for the disease. If death ensued, then, all the belongings of the diseased would be destroyed by the priests. There are the rain makers and many others.
A centenarian respondent revealed that Ika, from time beyond human remembrance, had very many renowned herbalists who passed their knowledge of herbs to their faithful children, friends, sons-in-law or relations. He explained that the parts of plants that are often used as herbal medicines are roots, tree barks, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. This is why he said that plant materials are subjected to various treatments like grinding, pounding, squeezing and heating to break the cellulose cell walls and liberate the chemical materials. Nearly all the plants in the forests stand for one medicine or the other. Their differences, however, depend on who is the medicine-man, on the methods of application, the support of the original founder of the medicines, our forefathers, and above all, on the will of the Supreme Being, who is the ultimate healer in all circumstances, the 102 years old respondent added.
Ika community believes in oracles, mmo, as spiritual forces of nature. Oracles are found in many parts of Ikaland. For example, there are Alobu, Aki, Odele, Ajan. Onicha, Mpitime, Odu-uku etc.
Some are kept in their shrines within the dwelling areas, while others are kept in lonely environments where the oracles are only know to the initiates. They may be given exotic names in order to infuse fear into the minds of non-members of the cult. The curious irony of worshipping such oracles is that only their priests worship on them, on others’ behalf; or accompany those who desire to offer some sacrifices to their forested dreadful abode for the sacrifices. In almost all cases, shrines comprised of huts which are usually crudely built of thatch and mud, the side walls being very low, only 90 centimetres high, the roof sloping right down to them and the front sometimes entirely open.
In some cases, the principal objects of veneration are earthen block cones over which small huts are erected. At times also, a pole surmounting a little mound of stones and pots serve as shrine. There are also shrine buildings or stockade of poles bounded together with strong ropes, and the entrances of which there may be two, are so narrow that a man can only just squeeze himself through sideways.
Oracles in Ika have different types of priests. The hereditary lineage priests such as the head of the lineage, Onyenchen ebon, and priests who are chosen by particular oracles for their services after passing through series of ascetic and mystical experiences.
The oracles are forces for blessing or destruction depending on circumstances. They punish social offenders and those who unwittingly infringe on their privileges. The key role of the diviner is to interpret the oracles, while the priest placates them with sacrifices.
When they are about to be worshipped, they are decorated, in some cases, with neatly made fine garland of young and tender palm leaves, omu, tied on sticks or the walls or gates of the oracles. The items of sacrifice of oracles may vary depending on the instructions of the diviners. But generally, kola nuts, drinks, food, coconuts, native chalk, fowls, goats, mashed yam and cocoyam mixed with oil, and other materials are used.
Oracles are convenient instruments for the maintenance of social discipline in Ika community culture, especially in the olden days.
To be continued…
Chief (Dr) Onyekpeze .F.A. (JP)