ONYEKPEZE AND IKA
CULTURAL MATTERS

In Ika community, the word priest, oheren-iyi (priests, iheren iyi) is popularly used for an official servant of a god, and he normally ministers at a temple or a shrine. A few of such priests, ihieren-iye, are found in the quarters where there are shrines where offerings are made. Examples of such priest in Ika are Oheren-iyi of Olokun, Umu, Onicha, Odele, Aki, etc.

In the cults of these deities, there are priests who are highly trained for their work. The priests are either set aside from birth or they can be called to the services of the divinities by being possessed by spirits. Some will then retire from their families and public life and submit to the training of older priests. The training normally lasts for a fairly long period during which time the priest in training has to subject himself to learn all the secrets of consulting and serving the god.

The training of a priest is an arduous one. The priest in-training has to observe chastity and strict taboos of food and actions. He frequently has to sleep in the shrine hut and fast for days. He is regarded as ‘married to the god’, though later, he may take a wife if he has not married. He seeks by self-discipline to train himself to hear the voice of his god. He learns the rituals and appropriate dance steps of the deity, receives instructions in the laws and taboos of magical medicines.

Priests in Ika community are often recognizable by their dresses. White is a favourable colour, and is sacred. Blue and red are also favorite colours.

Some priests often have their eyes smeared with lines of white or red chalk. Their hair may be shaved in various patterns. They may wear symbolical ornaments, achalu, or a great variety of charms and amulets, egba. Some of them dress very simply while some carry special fans, ezuzu, which according to their belief, ward off the harms of the enemies.

In the ancestral cults, the chief person to offer sacrifice is normally the oldest in the village or town, or the chief, as the senior living representative of the ancestors. Such elders acting as priests are not full-time, or highly trained in the way in which priests of gods are trained.

The oldest man in the quarters or village is a priest of his people. He is considered sacred for attaining that ripe age, and charged with invoking the ancestors on behalf of his people. He is the natural link between the living and the powerful spirits of dead chiefs and elders. But the oldest man may have some specialists to help him in his work or propitiation, who will instruct him in the ritual and medicines to be used.

IHEREN (‘Mediums or Devotees’) (Priests and priestesses of Olokun and other gods)

Closely connected with the priests, iheren-iyi, are the iheren. They could be classified as mediums or devotees who are possessed by the spirit of a god. Such people, most of them women, may be attached to any shrine where people come to consult them.

There are two classes of iheren in Ika. Those who have chosen and pulled the ‘Olokun spear of life’, nde-hue usun. The spear is said to be given by Olokun as symbol of office. The second class are those who have mysterious beads neatly tied at the back of their head, nde-gbe ugbon or nde-gbe-ihagha. These are said to have been crowned by Olokun with a sort of banded head-gear decoration of fine cowry-shells behind their heads, ugbon.

The spirit is thought to enter the head or heart of a medium which empowers her to make her prophesies. While sick, a medium would one day break open her suppressed speech, and would be heard to answer a call from a silent voice. Her automatic answer would be e-yo, e-yo, eyo-o, meaning ‘yes, here I am’. She would proceed unguarded and to the Olokun shrine. Interrogated by a priest or diviner, she gives the name and type of the possessing spirit. She undergoes a ‘hard training’. The automatic answer to the silent voice would make the devotee to bolt away suddenly to the Olokun shrine where she stays for a period of three native months before returning home.

Throughout this period, and dressed in white cloth tied on her waist reaching a little below her knees, the older members keep beating the priests’ special dance to the music of which they and the new priest dance in turns. After the initial possession which may come upon the new priest spontaneously, she exerts great efforts and endures privations in attempt to induce the return of spirit possession. Throughout the period of the priest’s training, she is bathed with ground white chalk powder.

Sometimes, priests have a number of mediums under their control and they regulate their possession. The mediums may make some prophesies such as warning on the abundance of witches, predicting famine or drought, or demanding more sacrifices to the ancestors. They give messages from the dead demanding often times, giving attention to dead relations. They may also declare who has been responsible for some deaths, etc.

When they are fully dispossessed, the mediums pay regular homage, and attend to the calls and demands of Olokun or other gods they serve and their chief priest.

The mediums are more involved than any other religious group in Ika society in offering sacrifices. The items of their sacrifices include fowls, tortoise, plantain and yams, at times rubbed with palm oil, or native chalk, coconuts, cocoyam, images (amaze), kola nuts, mashed yam and cocoyam both mixed or not mixed with oil (ewuwu), coins and cowry-shells. The mediums, mostly women, are seen staggering with trays filled with ground white chalk (nzun) on their hands, and blowing the powder in all directions to ward off evil spirits, especially when sacrifices are being offered.

Another sacrifice which is common with them is that of atonement, igbu imaren. When they observe or suspect that they have gone against any rule of Olokun or other gods they serve, they may on their own, or on the instruction of the diviner, make the sacrifice, to repent and make for their negligence. This sacrifice is also offered by anybody in Ika community who goes against the rules of the gods or oracles which she or he worships. The items of sacrifice of igbu imaren are one goat, kola nuts and native chalk.

The mediums are easily identified in Ika society by the distinctive beads, achalu, which they always wear around their necks and ankles. Those of them who have banded head-gear behind their heads do not carry loads on their heads but on their shoulders. They always smear their eyes, foreheads and toes, with white or red chalk. Some put parrot feathers in their fore-hair.

To be continued.

Chief (Dr) Onyekpeze .F.A. (JP)

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