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Chi in Igbo Religion and Thought: The God in Every Man

Author(s): I. Chukwukere
Source: Anthropos, Bd. 78, H. 3./4. (1983), pp. 519-534
Published by: Anthropos Institut
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I. Chukwukere

Chi in Igbo Religionand Thought:

The God in EveryMan

Abstract.- Thispaperattemptsto showthattheconceptof chigivestheIgbo-

speakingpeople of Nigeriaa central,unifying themethatintegrates the variousfields
of theirthoughtTheauthorarguesthatchiis inextricably linkedwitheke,a complemen-
force,and bothare associatedwiththeact of "naturalcreation."Thus,chi
constitutesthefoundationof Igbo intelligence,providing a "satisfactory"explanatory
modelfor the diversitiesof human personalityand the broad categoryof causation.In
the lightof this,theauthorrejectsthe "established"idea thatChinekedenotesGod in
themonotheistic Rather,he suggests
senseoftherevealedreligions. thata viewof chiand
ckc as inseparable fitsin withIgbo wayof "thinking"
dual divinity as a whole.In any
role chiplaysin Igboreligious
case theemphasisis on thecrucialinterpretative thought
andphilosophy. Religion,
[Igbo,Nigeria, WorldView]

The categoriesare . . . pricelessinstruments

of thoughtwhichthe humangroupshave
laboriouslyforgedthrough thecenturies and
where theyhave accumulatedthe best of
capital(Durkheim 1915:32).

1. Introduction

Emile Durkheim's(1915) classicpioneerstudyof religiousanthropol-

ogyoffers notonlya generalsociologicaltheoryofreligionbasedon Australian
"totemism"but also a significant introductionto the sociologyof knowl-
edge. The impactof the theme
latter on anthropologicalstudiesof traditional

I. Chukwukere, B.A. (London), B. Litt. (Oxford),read Social Anthropology at

postgraduate at Edingburgh, Scotland;severalyears of lecturingat in
Ghanaand the USA; nowSeniorLecturerin theDepartment ofSociology /Anthropology
of Nigeria,Nsukka.-Majoranthropological
at University publications are on theFante
Akanof Ghana(Africa1978 and 1982;Journal of Studies
African 1980; CurrentAnthro-
pology1981). Address: and
Dept. of Sociology Anthropology, Univ.of Nsukka,

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520 L Chukwukere 78.1983

Africanreligionsis evidentin the contributionsmade by Evans-Pritchard

(1937, 1956), Nadel (1954), Forde (1954), and later eminentAfricanists
(e.g.,Turner1967 ; Horton1962 and 1967; lienhardt1961). In theiranalyses
of diverseAfricanreligions,pains are takento definethenatureof the com-
plex connectionbetweenthe main categoriesof the religiousbeliefand the
way of "thinking"peculiar to the people in question. Evans-Pritchard's
(1937) celebrateddemonstration of "the logic" behindAzande witchcraft,
beliefs,and ritualsremainsa locus classicusof thisgenreof Africanreligious
and cognitiveanthropology.
In this paper I shall examine one abstractreligiousand cosmological
concept,commonlyknown as chi, among the Igbo-speaking people of Ni-
geria.I wish to show that chi is a dominantfundamentalnotion of Igbo
thoughtand social structureas a whole, a notion thatlies at the rootsof
the Igbo intellectualsystem.I shall argue that (a) the individualistic prin-
ciple of the chi systemof belief and ritualunderliesmany areas of Igbo
behaviour;(b) the representationsof chi are predominantly"religious"
in character,and significantly suggesta "collective" Igbo "mentality";
(c) as far as Igbo ideas and actions associatedwithchi sureconcerned,two
major categories the understanding standout, viz. theoriesof causation
(especially cosmic and certainpuzzlinghuman events)and of the human
personality in itsmanifoldvariety.
The categoryof causalityis of special interestin this essay mainly
because invisibleanthropomorphized beings tend to play a preponderant
role in traditionalor non-scientific "explanation" of the universe,natural
and social (cf. Guthrie1980). Partof thereasonlies in theinherentnatureof
spiritualpowers,whichis commonto all knownreligions,but in the tradi-
tional Africancontext furthercomplicatedby the extrememultiplicity of
thoseproductsof man'sinventive imagination.
I stressthispointherebecause thetermchihas been differently "trans-
lated" as "god," "guardianspirit,""God," and allied theisticconcepts.1In
the sense of God, as in Christianity, some of the exponentsclaim that chi
is synonymouswithChukwuand Chineke,thesetwo presentedas identical
accurateIgbo denotationsforthe "SupremeBeing."But I shallarguebelow
that such a renderingof chi, a centralmetaphysicalconceptionof Igbo

1 Precise correspondentIgbo words for the English synonymousnotional terms

"god"/"God" and "spirit" hardly exist. Chi is probably the nearestgenericequivalent
for "god" while muo (agbara in some dialects), roughlytranslated"spirit," is a much
more inclusive term than "spirit." For example, the "gods" of village-groupsand con-
stituentvillages,ancestors,and extremelypowerfuloracles where the divineris believed
to be the "spirit" itselfratherthan regardedas a medium (e.g., Chukwu of the Aro and
Igwekala of Umunneoha,near Owerri)all come underthe categoryof muo. Chi cannotbe
said to be muo in the same way that one would say in English: " 'God' (i.e., Supreme) is a

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Chi in Igbo Religionand Thought 521

cosmologyand generalphilosophyof life, cannot pass the simple test of

systematic reasoning,whichshouldspringfromwell-founded
empiricevidenceon chiratherthana preconceivedidea of Igbo monotheism,
by which chi is reducedto the status of the particleof Chukwu("God")
whichHe donatesto everyman.

2. The Igbo LanguageProblemin chi Ethnography

The issues outlined above are centralto any sound anthropological

we tackle them,
analysisof chi in Igbo religionand cosmology.But before
the followingbrief digressionis necessarymainlybecause my analytical
connectionthe main
approach in this paper is broadlylinguistic.In this
deficienciesI have observed previousethnographicaccounts of the chi
phenomenonare of a "linguistic"nature. First,the ethnographers*
equate understanding of Igbo languagepatternsof thoughtand expression,
which even to the "educated" nativespeakerof Igbo can be quite slippery
and, at times,frustrating. Secondly,the authors'generallack of a certain
degree of sophisticationand sensitivity concerningthe semanticsof cate-
goriesin cross-cultural comparison-in this contextthe translationof Igbo
religiouscategoriesinto Englishand vice-versa.
I may add at thisjuncturethat social anthropologists themselves(cf.
Evans-Pritchard 1956: v; Fortes 1970: 164; Bohannan quoted by Winter
1966: 156) unequivocallyadmit that religiousinstitutionshave proved
"more complex and baffling"than the other socio-culturalinstitutions
which they have been analysingwith greatsuccesssince the emergenceof
modern fieldworkin the firstdecades of this century.Evans-Pritchard
(1965: 7) more or less expressesthe consensusof anthropological opinion,
that the difficultylies as much in the inherentnatureof religiousbeliefs-
"what neitherEuropean nor nativecan directlyobserve,. . . conceptions,
of a people's
images,words"-as in thebasic factthat"a thoroughknowledge
non for these beliefs.And in this
language"is a sine qua "understanding"
sense,he adds, "fluency"in the language, which manygood field anthro-
for it."
pologistsclaimtheyattain,should not be mistaken "understanding
Let us thereforelook at a few broadly sociologicalwritingson Igbo
in orderto illustrate
thoughtin generaland the conceptof chi in particular
the dangerforcomparativesociologicalanalysis if the ethnographer's under-
in sense. Our
standingof his or her informants'languageis imperfect any
firstexampleis taken froma prolificAmericanwriteron Igbo religionand
his criticalarticletitled"The
philosophy,ProfessorAustinShelton2, who in

2 ProfessorA.J. Shelton was a lecturerin Englishat Nsukka (northernIgboland),

forme to inferfrom
in which area he claims to have done his "fieldwork."It is not easy
his writingsthe extentof his formaltraining,if any, in the sociological disciplines.

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522 I. Chukwukere 78.1983

OffendedChi in Achebe's Novels" affirmsthat his interpretation of the

tragedy of Achebe's heroes is "based upon [his] personalstudiesof Igbo
Weltanschauungen/* and that chi means "God Within,not 'personalgod' as
Achebe blasphemouslyrefersto chi'9 (Shelton 1964: 36). Later, in an
essay on Igbo proverbs,most of which could be usefullyanalysedas vig-
nettesof Igbo cosmologyand thoughtin general,Shelton (1971: 47) ex-
hibitsa sad superficial
graspof the Igbo language:

enwe si na o foduru nwa ritinti,ma iku amo ya mma. "Monkey says that he
would have remained a littlechild but [his] eyebrowsproduced his beauty [adult

The correctliteralEnglishtranslationof theproverb,however,is: "The

monkeysays that his eyebrowsnearly ruined his beauty,"i.e., thathiseye-
browsare theonlyjjartof hisbody thatcome close to beingimperfect.
Shelton's errorstems fromtreatinga singlebut compoundIgbo word
nwantinti("near-miss")as two separatewordsnwa ("child," or,to be more
exact, the offspring or descendantof any animal,includingman of course)
and ntinti(dubiouslytranslatedas "little" by Shelton,but its
isolation,except perhapsas shortenedcolloquial formfor nwantinti, I do
not reallyknow). Whatis worse,on the basis of thissterile
breakdownof nwantinti,Shelton proceeds to equate his two formswith
theirapparentlycorresponding "literal"Englishmeaningswithoutdue cog-
nizance of the contextuallimitationsof the sentence.Hence the ludicrous
idea that "monkey. . . would have remaineda littlechild," and the arrant
contradictionthat the monkey's negativeeyebrowscontributedto "his
If Shelton's gravemistakeis a resultof poor
knowledgeof Igbo lan-
guage-the indispensablevehicleof the Weltanschauungen he claimsexpert
knowledgeof-Revs. Iwuagwu(n.d.) and Ilogu (1965), well-educated native
speakersof Igbo, committhe "cardinalsin" of uncriticalassimilation of Igbo
religiouscategoriesinto theirprobablymore familiarEuro-Christian belief
and practice(Beattie1964: 203).
Iwuagwuclaimsthat "Igbo religionbeginswiththe beliefin, and wor-
ship of, Chi-ukwuthe 'GreatChi' or the 'GreatGod' . . . Chi is Chukwu's
essence in man conceivedeitheras man's double or his
short,Chukwu,admittedlymorphologically a
speaking weldingof chi and
ukwu ("big"), is the universalIgbo termfor
(Supreme)God. Thatis to say,
Iwuagwu derivesthe meaningof the compound word chukwufromthe
separate meanings(assumed in the case of chi) of its two components,
chi and ukwu, and goes furtherto generalizethat since
everyIgbo man
theoreticallyspeakinghas a chi the "great" chi or Chukwumustbe a single
universalIgbo deity.Thisis, of course,speculationguided
by preconceptions
of Igbo religionmodelledon Christian

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Chiin IgboReligionandThought 523

Hogu (1965) similarlydrawsa close analogybetweenthe Euro-Christian

idea of God and Igbo conceptschi, Chineke,and Chukwu.These,he says,
mean respectively:"spirit," "belief in a supremebénéficientsource of
creation,"and "beliefin a SupremeSpiritor WorldOver-Soul."Such facile
postulationof semanticparallelsbetweenkey religiousand philosophical
cultureswould obfuscatetheveryterms-
conceptsof two basicallydifferent
here chi, Chineke,and Chukwu-that need clarification, which is what I
in of
aimat providing therest thisessay.

3. Chi and AlliedConcepts:Descriptionand Explanation

a) EarlyStudies

In the immensebut widely scatteredliteratureon chi9 confusionstill

lingersover the exact "meaning"and full religiousand sociologicalsignif-
icance of the word. The mainreasonbehindthisunhappysituationcan be
tracedback to the apparentlystronglegacyleftby earlyChristianmissionary
scholars and amateur pioneer ethnographers(e.g., Basden 1921; Talbot
1926; Thomas 1913), fromwhich"modern"studentsof Igbo religionand
epistemologyoughtto breakaway. Characteristic of theseearlierwritingsis
the concentration on Chukwu(taken to be with
interchangeable Chineke) as
the SupremeGod while chi is seen as basicallya sortof sparkof Him dis-
pensed to everyIgbo person,qua individual.And althoughthis as a pre-
liminarydefinitionof chi is neithertotallyfalsenor altogetherinvalid,yet
it remainsonly a tinyportionof the truthor "reality"underlying the social

b) ScopeoftheAnalysis
In the lightof the above criticisms, muchof thispaper in a way con-
stitutesthe outlinesof a sociologicalanalysisof chi,based on theprimaryre-
cognitionof its cardinalexplanatoryrole in Igbo beliefsystemand world
view. Chi thus represents the central,unifyingthemethatincorporatesthe
differentfacetsof Igbo social thoughtand usages,especiallythose aspects
concerning man'srelationship withtheinscrutablerealmof the supernatural.
As a generalguideto the discussionlet us employa set of threemajor
propositions.First,fundamental commonIgbo ideas and beliefsabout chi:
what is chi;how is chi conceptualizedby Igbo people; whatare itsindividual
and social manifestations in the language,religion,politics,ritualactivities,
art, system personalnames,etc. of the Igbo-speaking
of people? Secondly,
in traditionalIgbo classificationof the universe3 , what position does chi

3 It wouldbe fruitful to adopta three-fold oftheIgbo"social"universe:

muo(as definedabove),andmmadu(humanbeingsalive).
China eke (dualdivinity),

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524 L Chukwukcrc 78.1983

occupy, and who are its closestrelativesin thiscosmologicalscheme?The

answerto thisquestionentailsa close examinationof the relationof chi to
eke, ikenga,çfo, and ogu (see below). Thirdly,chi is best explainedin the
broad contextof Igbo social structureand collectivetemperament; thusits
valueas thehub of the Igbo cognitivesystemis clearlybroughtout.
Withregardto thelast assertion,myinterestis focusedon the following
more prominentcharacteristics of Igbo social behaviour: (a) elementof
"fragmentation"of social systemcoupled with individualistic conception
of humanpersonality;(b) bias towardsthe principleof dualismin thought
and expression,an extensionof which is the tendencyto conceptualize
human relationswith preternatural beings and powers in relativeterms;
(c) strongbut vaguely formulatedbelief in reincarnation;(d) essentially
fatalisticattitudetowardthe material"success" or "failure"and misfortune
of individualsand elementarysocial groups(e.g., family,
lineage);^) practice
of divinationas the key to knowledgeabout social and cosmicphenomena
beyondIgbo "technical"explanation.

c) Chi Definition
The belief in chi is as universalto the overten millionIgbo-speaking
people of Nigeriaas thebeliefand practiceof ofo (Igbo symbolof authority
and retributive justice), yet it is not easy to get fromvariousinformants a
straightforward, unambiguous "definition" of the former.What is absolutely
dear, however,is that chi and ofo are invariably pairedwithtwo otherIgbo
metaphysicalideas, eke and ogu respectively. This impliesa complementary
dualisticrelationship,which makes the sociologicalexplicationof any of
theseconceptsin isolationratherdifficult.
Basden (1938: 46) identifiestwo dimensionsto chi. He definesit first
as "a sort of guardiandeity,deputisingforChi-Ukwu"and secondlyas "al-
most a genericword for God," i.e., SupremeBeing (Chukwu or Chineke,
in his and manyotherauthors'usage).
Grapplingwith the semanticelusivenessof the termchi, one of the
firstmodern field anthropologists in Igboland, Green (1947: 52), seems
to despair:

As for Ci, the spiritwho creates people and whose name, as in Cineke, has been
taken by the Christiansto denote the Creator,it is difficultto know what the
real Ibo significanceof the word is. Ci and Eke togethercreate an individual,but
each person is thoughtof as having his own Ci and whetherover and above this
thereis any conception of a universalCi seems doubtful.

Green,however,usefullyunderscoresfirstthe fundamental complemen-

tary dualism of chi and eke and secondly the most distinctiveuniversal
attributeofchi inIgbothought-individuality
. Lastly,Greenposesa significant
question on the commonlyexpressed view that the conceptof Chukwuis a

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Chiin IgboReligionandThought 525

simple union, logical in the context of an assumeduniversalIgbo social

development,of chi and ukwu ("big" or "great"),whichimpliesthatChuk-
wu denotesGod. I shallreturnto thisissuelater.
Meanwhile,our preliminary definitionof the termchi derivesfromits
intrinsicindividuality: a spiritualbeingor force,which,theoretically speak-
ing, everyIgbo person (adult or child) "possesses." Thus, chi's essencelies
firstand foremostin its commonestIgbo modes of practicalexpressionin
everydaylife,which are mainlylingualand, to some extent,visualforms.
Consideredthus,chi is highlighted in (a) possessivesingularadjectivalusage:
chim (my chi), chigi(your chi), chiya (his or her chi; (b) a thousand-and-
one propernames which exist (some with markeddialectal variations)all
over Igboland, e.g., Chima, Kelechi, Chidi, Onyewuchi,Anamelechi,etc.;
(c) a common Igbo interjectionfor wonder and surprise:Chi n'eke hi
("chi and eke"!); (d) a commoncurseused oftenby childrenand adolescents:
Chi n'eke kpo gi oku ("May chi and eke burnyou out"!).

d) ChiSymbols
The concreterepresentations of chi cannotbe summedup in a sentence
or two. One reasonforthe complexityis, althoughin theoryeveryIgbo in-
dividualhas his or herchi,in practiceonlyadults,especiallymaleswho have
marriedand femaleswhohavebornechildren,establishtheirown chi symbol.
Secondly,thereare diversities amongthe variousIgbo sub-groups about the
exact formthe symboltakes.
In some it is a special tree (e.g., ogbu, ogilisi,oha) planted in one's
own compound;some use "stonesset in a depressionat theback of the com-
pound" (Horton 1956: 20); some otherserecta kind of mini-altar:a small
clay pot filledwithsand,withthreestickscut froma special plant(ububa
among the OwerreIgbo) stuckin threeequal heads into the sand, odo and
waterused to plasterthe whole edifice.At this "shrine,"whichis placed in
a specificposition (head of the bed, right-hand cornerof the livingroom,
etc.) in the owner's house,periodic sacrificesand prayersare offered.An im-
portantsociologicalpoint to note is thatonce the chi shrineis establishedit
servesas the "protector"and altar for all minorsand protégésunder the
particularadult owner. In this sense the chi of a newlywed brideremains
herhusband'suntilshe getsherfirstchild.
Needless to repeat,differences exist amongthe manyIgbo sub-groups
regardingthe details of the above-mentionedbeliefs and rituals.But a
fundamental similarityunderlying of thoughtand actionis
all the diversities
that chi is individualto everyIgbo person. At his or her death the shrine
is destroyed.Thus, many writerson the subject have giventhe primary
meaningof chi as "personal god" or "guardianspirit."Thus also one may
talk of chi as the "divinitythatshapes" everyman. For seen in perspective,
the individualistic strainin Igbo notionof chi best illuminatesits tripartite
relationwith eke (another"creative"force,complementary to chi), ikenga
(thecultof strength in
and success),and Igbo belief iyo uwa (reincarnation).

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526 L Chukwukere 78.1983

e) Chi and Igbo Theoryof Personality

The fundamental individualnatureof chi is evidentin Igbo beliefthat
dead men and womenreincarnateamongtheirlivingkin. The re-birth does
not follow the strictrule of unilinealdescentof Igbo social organization.
Lineal and collateralrelativeson both sides of Ego's parentsparticipate
freelyin this processof reincarnation.The most importantaspect of the
phenomenonfor our purposehereis thatthe Igbo believethatat the time
that one's "creation" is initiated(could be even beforethe death of the
person about to be reborn)the "creator"establishesa dialogue,somewhat
like that of political negotiation,with the unbornchild's chi (equivalent
hereto eke) about the child'sdestinyon earth.Stressis laid on abstractideas
like "luck," "success," "fortune,""wealth," "illness," "fertility,"etc.; as
such no basic connectionis claimed between the separate chis of, say,
siblings,let alone remoteblood relations.(I have in factcome to thinkthat
the dialogue is best conceivedof as held betweenchi and eke, inseparable
deities,ratherthanbetweena singleoverriding creator-actorand thechild's
chi. ThisI amplifybelow.)
Anyway,one who getsa good chi is thoughtof as usually"lucky"and
"successful";he or she is not prone to seriousirreversibly damagingmis-
takes, accidents,and misfortunes. The oppositegoes fora bad chi. And in
this sense it is believedthat one's chi and ikengawork togetherto make
successon eartha reality.
But in characterwith generalIgbo thoughton relationshipbetween
man and supernatural beings,good or bad chi is not an absolutegift.A bad
one can be prayedto and propitiatedin orderto reversetheill handsof fate;
in the same way a good chi has to be regularlysacrifiedto and placatedin
orderto keep up its benevolence.Consideredthus,Igbo ambivalenceabout
the nature of chi- a theme that has receivedeloquent literarytreatment
of sociological interestin Achebe's portrayalof the ups and downs of
Okonkwo, the tragic hero of his classical novel (1958)- 4s made more
intelligible.Okonkwo's eventfulattainmentof highsocial statusand subse-
quent adversityare "explained" in termsof hisstandingwithhis chi (Chuk-
wukere1971: 113-114).

f) Chi and Its Close Relatives

We turnnow to the intricateand perplexingly
betweenchi and eke on one hand, chi and Chukwu and Chinekeon the
other. In this,the historicaldestinyof the Igbo people (whichtheyshare
withotherAfricanpeoples) mustbe takeninto fullaccountbeforeone can
expect to resolve the problem. By "historicaldestiny" I mean here the
advent of evangelicalChristianity in the second half of the 19th century,
long before the spread of literacyand documentaryhistoryconsciousness
among the Igbo people. The implicationsof the event for Igbo religious
beliefand practicein particularand Igbo culturein generaldeservedetailed
and systematic discussionelsewhere.

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Chi in Igbo Religionand Thought 527

Nevertheless,it must be noted that the firstreligiousquestion to

generateconflictwas findingequivalentIgbo denotations(then in spoken
Igbo formonly) forkey Christianreligiousconcepts,4especially(Supreme)
God, with its overtonesof monotheism.Againstsuch backgroundearly
missionaryscholars assertedthat Chukwuor Chineke (the latterbeing,I
postulate,theirmistakennotationforchi-na-eke)meansGod; furtherthey
opined that chi- a termthey heard theirIgbo informants use more often
but unfortunately with less "precision'*than Chukwuor Chineke-was the
root, both morphologicallyand semantically,for the latter two terms.
Plausible argumentthis is but not circumspectat least with respect to
Chtneke(most probablythreeseparate,if interwoven,words: Chi na eke,
in theoriginally Igbo usage,as I willcontendbelow).
Chi and Chukwu
It is reasonableto postulatethat Chukwuderivesits basic meaningas
well as primaryIgbo conceptualizationof it froma simpleamalgamationof
chi and ukwu( "big," "great"). However,the sociologicalimplicationsof
acceptingthislineof reasoningare:
First,Chukwuis a grandaggregateof all the chis of the individualsof
any social group,fromnuclear familythroughlineagesto villages,village-
groups,and, by extension,all Igbo and perhapshumanityas a whole. The
ethnographic evidencegoes againstsuch a viewof Chukwu,fortheidea of a
group chi in any fundamental sense (e.g., familyor lineage)is not typically
Igbo. The few documented exceptions5of Igbo subgroupsto thisgeneral
rule open the questionas to whethera groupchiwas not a lateraccretionto
Secondly, why is Chukwu not generallyrepresentedin observable
imagesor symbols?That is, if the Igbo conceivedof a singlecollectivechi
one, logical dynamicsof the thoughtwould be a materialrepresentation
of it on the same lines as, if on a much biggerscale than, the chi of the
Thirdly,as alreadyindicated,the evidencefromthe earliestrecorded
accounts of Igbo religiousbelief and practice seems to confirmthat chi
was the dominantand commonestIgbo corresponding termforthe general

4 Rev. Fr. Ezckwugo documents early (1857-1912) missionaryeffortsto trans-

late English religiousconcepts into ltfbo.According to him, the terms Ci (Chi), Cuku
(Chukwu), and Cineke (Chineke) were at firstused, almost interchangeably;later,the
first,Chi, was dropped, and still later, Chukwu became the established form for the
notion "God." The ambiguitythat surroundsthe concept chi was made more complex
by its close association with individuals,which went against the ideal of Igbo mono-
theismthe missionarieswere keen to advance.
5 A notable one
by Afigbo (1972: 18) refersto the Umuchieze group in Okigwe
Division. In an oral discussion with the author, however, I learnt that Colonial Intel-
ligence Reports, which stressed the "bonds of unity" in Umuchieze "clan," were his

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528 L Chukwukere 78.1983

European notion of "deity." Igbo informants at timesgave (and stillgive

today) Chukwu as a synonym,but many time explicitlyqualified as
Chukwu Oke Abiame, the all-powerfuloracle and "god" of the Aro- the
mostwidespreadand influential Igbo sub-groupin livingmemory.
My line of thought leads me to hypothesizethat Chukwuwas not
originally, except in a morphologicsense,a simplefusionof chi and ukwu.
That is to say, it is not semanticallyspeakingthe Igbo name forSupreme
God, of whom none seemsto existin the Christiansenseof "one and only"
Supreme.6Chukwu ratherappears to be the Aro people's name for their
"town" deity,which the Aro may well have conceivedas a kind of their
collectiveor "national"chi,at firstpeculiarto themselves andlater"adopted"
by other Igbo people, which is understandable in the context of collective
Aro achievementin Igbo history.7This idea is best examinedagainstthe
backgroundof generalIgbo social organization.
Every village-group-the largestautonomous political entityof Igbo
society-has its own deity,which is generallythoughtof as a "child" of
ala, the supremedeityof earthlymorality.The village-group god is further
thought of as the progenitorof the deitiesof the constituent villages,each
deitywith its own distinctivename. The spheresof activityand influence
of each god are so vaguelydemarcatedthat some overlappingoccurs.Ala
and amadioha (the god of thunderand "supremedeity"ofnegativesanctions
for a class of heinousoffences)are the universalconstantsat each level of
the social organization, verymuchlike the dovetailedrelationship between
Nuersocial orderand religiousthought(Evans-Pritchard 1956).
But having thus speculated that Chukwu has intimateconnection
with the Aro, one wonders about the pervasivenessof its metaphysical
dimensionin general Igbo thoughtand usages. Could it be adequately
explainedin sheerdiffusionist termsof manifestAro diaspora(all overIgbo-
land) and "cleverness"? What seems to be indisputablytrue,however,is
that the prevalenceof Chukwu proper names among the Igbo has close
linkswiththe divinatorypower and influencewhichthe famousAro oracle,
Chukwu Oke Abiame, exercisedeven beyond Igboland fromaround the
18th centuryto the beginningof the 20th century.8Traditionally, the Igbo

Henotheism or a vertical conception of "Supreme" divinitywould be more

appropriate for traditional Igbo theology. That is, there is more than one "supreme
god," each god supremein its own sphere of authority,e.g., amadioha (god of thunder)
and ala (earthgoddess).
Authoritativesocio-historicalassessmentof well-knownAro "contributions"in
Igbo historyis still fragmentary and not accessible to a large audience (see Ekejiuba and
Dike 1976; Ekejiuba 1972). Ottenberg(1958: 299) was rightto say, "The historyof the
rise of the Aro to a position of influenceis uncertain."
Ekejiuba (1972: 13) claims that "the Aro society was constituted"about mid-
17th century. I have not as yet come across any date regardingthe settingup of the
Chukwu oracle, but its shrine was definitelydestroyedby the Britishcolonial "con-
querors" in 1902.

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Chiin IgboReligionandThought 529

referto divinerswhena womanis pregnant.If the childarrivesin accordance

with the diviner'sverdicta name reflectingthe particulargod or circum-
stancesinvokedat the time,or in recognition of thegenerallyacknowledged
supremeoracle, Chukwu,could be givento the child. Hence Chukwueke,
Chukwukere,Chukwunyere, Nwachukwu,and a host of othertheophorous
properIgbo names.
A case-historyof an old informant (not less than80 years)Nwachukwu
X, which I recorded in the underlines
field, thepoint.His father'sfirstwife's
fivepregnancies,he said, resultedin fivefemalechildren.At the firstpreg-
nancyof the second wife,his own mother,a son was divinedby Chukwuit-
self.(Generallyin cases of child-birtha local or minordivinersuffices,
but a
wealthyperson, as Nwachukwu's fatherwas, mightprefer go straightto
Chukwuoracleitself.)Consequentlythe Chukwu-"gift" namehe bears.
Furtherenquiryinto thisaspect of the matterwould requirea detailed
studyof the Igbo systemof nomenclature, whichis not withinthe scope of
thispaper. Furthermore, real historicaldepthmustbe givento the enquiry;
otherwisethe analysiswould lose much of its sociologicalvalidity.In other
words,it needs to be shownthatthenamespost-datethe establishment and
fame of the celebratedsupremeIgbo oracle located at Arochukwu.9The
Chukwuand Chi firstnamesIgbo childrenbear todaymayhaveonlya little
bearingon the traditionalpractice.In fact,the Chi and Chukwuof manyof
thesenamesare interchangeable, althoughone mustnote theimportantfact
thatexclusiveChi name-forms preponderate in number.

Chi and Chi-na-eke:Dualismin divinity

The relationshipbetweenchi and Chinekeis by farmorecomplexand
enigmatic.Availableearliesthistoricalrecords(referredto above) showthat
chi and chukwuwere the commonIgbo usagesforthe Europeanconceptof
"godhead"; Chinekeas a singleword-form for"God" suggests a laterChristian
missionaryintroduction.Nevertheless, it is definitethat the Igbo people
themselvesuse frequently in everdaylife-in factmoreoftenthanone would
say of "chukwu"-three interwovenwords, chi-na-eke,which is spoken
language, particularlyrapid speech usual with native speakers of any
language,sound like a singleterm "chineke. It would appear that at the
cognitivelevel the Igbo referprimarily to chi na (and) eke, whichconnotes
two inseparableand complementary deitiesratherthanthe singleoverriding

Unfortunatelythe informationI have been able to secure (admittedlyby only
cursoryand unsystematicsearch) throws no light on this. In a recentpersonal conver-
sation with me, Dr. Ekejiuba ratherholds the contraryview that chukwumusthave been
an indigenousIgbo word the Aro (a mixtureof Igbo and Ibibio groups) "adopted" and
later "transformed"to an oracle. This is, of course, rational speculationthat fitsin with
Aro reputationfor astute "adaptation" to situations.The matter,however,restsneither
herenor there.
Anthropos 34

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530 I. Chukwukere 78.1983

God of Christianbelief.The otherpossiblemeaningof Chineke(as a single

word), chi that creates, bears the same metaphysicalallusion to divine
essence but in the sense of exclusiveCreator-Godas in "revealed"religions
(Christianityand Islam specifically),which is apparentlyforeignto Igbo
way of thought.The indigenousIgbo frameof reference,chi and eke, im-
pliesa dualisticdivineprinciplein the act of "natural"creation.
My informants on thisaspect of the subjectare hopelesslybut under-
standably confused. Partof theproblemarisesfromthe discrepancybetween
the writtenand the spoken usagesof a languageon one hand and theform
(morphology)and meaning(semantics)of the conceptsof the languageon
the other hand. The Igbo informantsdo not and need not perceivethe
questionraisedhere.For the greatermajority
existentialand socio-linguistic
of them,especiallybeforethe second half of the 20th century,the wave-
lengthof thoughtand speech lay in the "spoken" word.The visualsymbols
of speech and thought-"written"language-haveonlyrecentlybecomepart
of the generalIgbo people's stockof knowledgeforconceptualizing theuni-
Thus, one of my "old" and "reliable" informants seemsnot to recog-
nize thecontradiction in thesetwo assertionsof his: (a) "ndichie(the elders)
used to referto chinekekereuwa (chinekethatmade theworld)but had no
definiteidea of him"; (b) "chi is what we know as 'god', chinekewas in-
troducedby the whiteman."WhenI questionedhim further concerning the
concept eke alone the cobwebs apparentlybegan to fall.Eke and chi com-
bined,if I may paraphrasehis speech,exerciseauthorityover "creation"in
all its ramifications as a naturalratherthan imaginative or humaninventive
process; thereis no concrete of
representation eke and no sacrificesor prayers
to it either;chi is the one that demandsand gets such ritualattention
because eke is what chi givesto everyperson-thatis, one's "destiny"or
"fate." He added that the personalname "Ekezie" refersto the idea of
"onye yo ziri uwa", i.e., one held to have reincarnatedverywell. My in-
formantconcluded: "eke na chi wo o tu mana eke sirina chi bia." (Eke and
chi are one and the same but eke originatesfromchi.) Paradoxesdo in fact
underlie many aspects of various peoples' religiousthoughton spiritual
In the lightof the above, I derivemy speculativegeneralization that
chi and eke representin Igbo religiousthoughtand philosophyof lifea dual
divinity.I findit refreshing to view the relationbetweenthemin termsof a
famousconceit from17th-century Englishmetaphysicalpoetry(A valedic-
tion: forbiddingmourning,by John Donne), which likens two platonic

10 In an originalsocio-literaryessay Achebe (1975: 100) makes the seminalpoint

that "the early missionaries"made the initialmistakeof treatingchi and eke as one God,
Chineke ("Chi thatcreates").

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Chiin IgboReligionandThought 53 1

loversto the two legs of a compass.Chi is the "fixed foot," and eke is the
mobilecomplement.Or, if I may changethe metaphor,chi and eke are like
two stones that must be strucktogetherin orderto produce a spark.Al-
thoughchi and eke can be fruitfully separatedforanalyticalpurposes,how-
ever,in the structureof Igbo belief and social action relatingto spiritual
beingsand forcesin general,the two tend to coalesceratherthanbifurcate.
In thissensethe notionof duality,whichwe said earliercharacterizes
Igbo philosophyof life,is placed in a broadercontext.For not onlychi and
eke,a seriesof otheranalogous"stifftwincompasses9'exist,e.g.,çfç na ogu,
akç na uche,ikwuna ibe, çgu na mgba,okwu na uka, and ntana imo.
I am not herebystatinga generalhypothesisabout complementary
dual categoriesin Igbo religionand structureof thought.Rather,it is note-
worthyand sociologicallysignificantthat the twin concepts chi and eke
takenas a whole.
are not unique in Igbo religiousthoughtor social structure
Their affinitywith anotherpair of key cosmologica!ideas, çfç and ogu,
is underscoredin this traditionalfolk-songof the 'OwerriIgbo' of eastern

Oka n'azuka lamn'ihu Backbiter"bite"in mypresence.So that

Ka marathenga'gwaya n'ihu I mayknowwhatto tellhimin his face.
Onyeg'egbuonye'aritheotnereya If you intendto harmsomeonewho has
A chin'ekeçfç n'oguekwereVeya not offendedyou,maychi and eke,ofo,
and ogu notgo alongwithyou (i.e.,may
theythwart you).

4. Conclusion

My main interestin thispaper is not whetherthe twinnotionschi and

eke or the singlenotionchukwuor chinekeaccuratelydenotesand connotes
SupremeGod. The pointis thatthe Igbo themselves conceptualizechi as the
foundationof their intellectualeffortsto make sense of the bewildering
diversitiesof humanpersonality,experience,and cosmicphenomena.Chi in
this sense offersthe indigenousIgbo philosophera satisfactoryexplanation
formost of the "thingseverywhere aroundus thatare incapableof explana-
tion" (Laye 1954: 58), e.g.,misfortunesthatoccurdespiteall humanendea-
vours (fromthe angel of the victimand close relativesanyway)to make a

11It is not of thesepairs

easyforme to providebriefand directEnglishglossaries
of concepts.Each needs to be dilatedupon (whichis not possiblehere) to bringits
propermeaning out.

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532 L Ghukwukere 78.1983

success of a venture,phenomenal success, and mysteriousescape from

dangers and from prematuredeath, diametricallyopposed qualities of
temperament, and characteramongsiblings.
The belief in chi also providesan adequate explanation or perhaps
rationalization principleof Igbosocialorganiza-
tion. Chi thereforeis a theoryof both causationand humanpersonality in
the propercontextof Igbo people's cosmologyand speculationupon the
divinitythat determinesthe natureof man generallyand severally.In other
words,chi servesas a centraland integrating
conceptualframework in which
the Igboman can reasonablypicture to himselfthe universe,naturaland
social,in whichhe willy-nilly

This is a completelyrewrittenand largelymodifiedversionof a paper firstpresentedat a

"workshop" on "the foundations of Igbo civilization" organized by the Instituteof
AfricanStudies, Universityof Nigeria at Nsukka, in May 1980. The fieldworkon chi
was carried out mainly in the Owerri area of Igboland in 1977/1978 as my Institute
researchproject for 1976/1977 academical year.


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