Exploring the signs and processes of signification associated with sacredness in the indigenous Igbo society is particularly urgent at a time that Christian Pentecostalism has almost succeeded in its campaign against indigenous igbo religious systems. Radical Christian Pentecostalism encourages Christian converts to destroy cultural objects, especially those that are associated with traditional religion, or those that are held sacred in Igbo culture. These converts are told that these objects are abodes of evil forces, and that keeping them means habouring Satan and allowing him to operate in their lives. In the name of breaking ancient covenants with Satan, Igbo Christians are asked to destroy their Ofo (that ancient symbol of authority and presence of the ancestors), burn their Ikenga, wipe out shrines with all the objects in them, kill animals regarded as totems of the supernatural in their local communities. With this, shrines have been raided and sacked, prolonged conflicts have erupted in families and communities over the keeping of objects traditionally considered sacred; in fact, the destruction has become so extensive that scholars working on Igbo culture and religion would now find it difficult to access cultural objects and sites in Igbo communities that are related to their investigations. The present essay is intended to provoke serious reflection on the idea of the sacred space in Igbo thought, particularly the signifying practices that go with it.
The allocation, preservation, representation, and reading of spaces are very significant cultural practices. These various dimensions, in many cases, are interwoven, As spaces are allocated or claimed, they are also represented and preserved. One could, indeed, argue that it is the very act of representation that ensures the differentiation of spaces, as well as facilitates their preservation. Thus, a semiotic function is already involved in the creation and preservation of a space. Further, one finds that there is an ideological basis for the creation, representation, and preservation of spaces. The representation of a space as sacred, which, working with a given set of values, presupposes the non-sacredness of other spaces outside that particular space, invites a cognitive use of signs. And the signs, in this case, may not be universal in outlook; they may be just typical of the particular context of culture, which means that outsiders are in danger of violating a sacred space if they lack knowledge of the local cultural interpretations of those signs.
A sign that marks a space as sacred could be read as:
(1) A warning – against intrusion and violation,
(2) A reminder – about the existence of that space in that location
A signification of the sacredness of space is always an interpellation that calls the viewer to order. There is no need for a written signpost announcing, “Beware, you are approaching a sacred space!” In fact, written (or even spoken) language is grossly inappropriate in conveying the awe required in representing the sacred space. Silent visual communication such as the marking of the given space carries enormous impact, in spite of the fact that the meaning of the sign may be elusive to outsiders of the culture, or may be different in their own culture.
The Igbo equivalent of the English word "sacred" is "nso," which also refers means "holy." Well, one could say that this convergence in the Igbo semiotic space is not really very problematic because, conceptually, what is represented as sacred is also considered holy, even though both words do not mean exactly the same thing in English. Objects considered sacred in Igbo thought entail restrictions such as who could handle them, how they could be handled, and when they could be handled. They don't have to be holy or unholy.
There is however a meeting point between holiness and sacredness in Igbo thought. The custodians of sacred objects and spaces have to be holy people in the culture, and for them to remain holy, they must abstain from certain things. An unholy person is not allowed handle or keep sacred things, for such handling would amount to imeru ihe or violating the sacredness of something. It is along this line of thinking that custodians of powerful charms, sacred objects like the Ofo and Ikenga, aa well as shrines are expected to continually purify themselves before touching those sacred objects, or for them to remain worthy of keeping them. It is believed that touching them in a state of uncleanliness or unholiness would not just amount to violating their sacredness but also incurring supernatural wrath.
Sacred space in Igbo thought is referred to as ebe di nso in some Igbo communities and is usually symbolized with the omu nkwu, tender palm fronds, tied around to demarcate such space. There is an assumption that every member of the culture understands the language of the omu nkwu and would therefore respect the space as sacred. In other words, its use recalls a cultural semiotic competence which members of the culture are required to possess. Cultural outsiders may be excused for their ignorance of what the omu nkwu signifies, but not insiders.
Sacred spaces in Igbo communities may be specifically designated with the term "ihu," as in ihummuo (shrine, or more appropriately "the presence of the spirits"), ihuarusi (the presence or shrine of a god/goddess), ihu aro (the space for igu aro ritual feast), ihu Atamiri (the presence or shrine of Atamiri), ihu Asaa (the space or presence for mask performance).
In a very special sense, some Igbo market days, which are associated with some spiritual powers, occupy a sacred space, not only in terms of the physical locations where some rituals are performed (for instance, ihu Eke), but in terms of the period or time in the Igbo market calendar. Eke Nta (literally, "Small Eke") and Orie Nta ("Small Orie") are sacred days in my own Uli community. Farm work is forbidden in the community on those days, which are referred to as ubochi nso oru ("sacred/holy days on which work is forbidden"). In other words, a "location" in time is considered a sacred space, an interesting coalescence and Time and Space, i.e. Time as also Space.
An individual or group can also mark off a place that is in dispute as sacred by tying the omu nkwu around it or on some trees in that environment, an symbolic act referred to as ituchi oru or ituchi ala ("closing or cordoning off a piece of land"). By tying the omu nkwu, the individual or group is signifying that the space in dispute has been handed over to the supernatural -- specifically to the gods, goddesses, and ancestors, for custody, and until the dispute is resolved, nobody is allowed to enter that space. It is considered an abomination in the Igbo culture to cut or remove the omu nkwu that is tied around the disputed space or object. In removing the omu nkwu prior to the resolution of the dispute, one is challenging the supernatural custodians to a bout, as well as insulting the tradition of the community. Usually, such an account attracts a heavy punishment, to assuage the anger of the supernatural and restore harmony between the human and the spiritual. Until the offender does what is required for the restoration of this harmony, he or she symbolically remains outside community.
Violating the sacred space amounts to committing an abomination, an alu, which calls for severe penalties. But the main issue however is the performance of certain rituals to restore the sacredness.
I observed earlier that sacred spaces are maintained by individuals who are considered holy, or who are required to maintain holiness. The ezemmuo or high priest oversees the sacred space of the shrine; the ukwu mmuo or okpa dugbedugbe (the guide of the masked spirit) oversees the ukpo mmanwu to make sure that only masked spirits and initiates of the masquerade cult come near it; a sacred space may also be created by an ezemmuo or a dibia outside the location of the shrine, to attend to some spiritual matters.
A sacred space need not be fixed or permanent. It could be temporary or mobile, as for instance when the fireplace where food is being prepared for an ozo-titled man is cordoned off with omu nkwu in ancient Igbo tradition and women who still menstruate are not allowed to go near. Only women in menopause could enter that sacred space and cook the food. This type of cooking in a sacred space is referred to as nri ntubido (ntubido in this case pointing to the act of using omu nkwu to cordon off the fireplace). After preparing the food, the omu nkwu is removed and the fireplace restored to a normal environment where holy and unholy individuals can go.
Nri ntubido brings up gender politics as an important aspect of the semiotics of the sacred space in the Igbo context. The question is: why are menstruating women considered unholy and therefore unqualified to go near the sacred space demarcated for the preparation of food for ozo-titled men? Why are men also not so restrained? The prohibition of menstruating women from going into the sacred space is based on the ancient misconception of menstruation as illness. In this case, "illness" implies some uncleanliness.
The sacred space in the case of nri ntubido is somewhat gendered; it is a space dominated and controlled by the male. The woman, through her biology, is considered a threat to that space, which raises the whole issue about the need for us not to ignore the politics that defines what and who defines a space as sacred. Are sacred spaces neutral to the politics of otherness? Or are such spaces means through the politics of otherness is continued? Quite clearly, gender-based restrictions in nri ntubido are located in the binary logic of differentiation which surfaces in other aspects of culture. Some of those binaries characterize men as rational, courageous, dependable, holy, good, etc and women as irrational, cowardly, unreliable, unholy, evil, etc.
The ukpo mmanwu, the platform where masked spirits stand in the asaa or masquerade square, and the shrine are examples of permanent spaces in Igbo tradition. They are usually adorned with omu nkwu, to denote their difference from other spaces, a feature that makers of Nollywood movies that focus on indigenous Igbo culture have noted and captured in many of their movies.
Edward T. Hall tells us in The Silent Language that “space speaks.” One might then ask, “what does the sacred space speak or try to say?” Jane Hope tries to answer that question in The Secret Language of the Soul. In a section on “sacred space,” Hope argues that “A sacred place requires a clear spiritual focus and separation from its physical surroundings” and as such, “The architecture of sacred buildings must attempt to capture the divine presence and reveal it to the worshipper, together with the recognition that a transcendent deity is infinitely greater than any physical site” (1997:54). The function of signs in the sacred space thus is not just about marking off such a space and helping to preserve respect for its sacredness. It also extends to creating a sense of awe and feeling about a spiritual presence. Symbolic items placed around or within that physical space are, in line with Jane Hope’s argument media for connecting the worshipper with another a divine force. That is to say then that the physical space designated sacred is merely a signifier of the ideal sacred space of the supernatural existing both at a higher realm and in the inner being of the worshiper. Connecting with these spaces of divine order is fundamental in the ideal communication with the supernatural entity being worshiped, and with the divine space (Heaven, Paradise,Alammuo/Ekemmuo, etc) from which such supernatural force operates.
The fact that human beings are naturally territorial, as observed in reputable works on space and spatiality such as Edward T. Hall’s The Silent Language and The Hidden Dimension, as well as Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative, means that human religious systems spaces would also be reserved for supernatural presences related to such religious systems. Human beings would have to fight to protect such spaces on behalf of the supernatural, as a way of suggesting that they are subjects as well as instruments of the supernatural. For this reason, adherents of traditional Igbo religion fought to protect their shrines from invading Christian armies. Also, adherents of one religion would want to embark on an aggressive campaign to displace other deities from their assigned spaces in another religion. It is particularly amazing that Igbo Christian converts would want to desecrate the ubochi nso oru of their local communities but at the same time hold on to the belief that it is a sin to work on a Sunday, a day which they have been told is the same as the Jewish Sabbath, which Jevohah, according to the Mosaic Law, instituted as a sacred day forbidding manual labour. As I have observed in another essay titled "A Letter from the Man on the Moon", there are even myths created to consolidate the observance of Sunday as a work-free day. God gets angry with a man who has gone to split firewood on a Sunday and causes the axe the man is using to cut his foot. God's anger is not yet assuaged: the Almighty sends the man on an exile to the face of the moon. For the new Igbo Christian convert therefore, the man on the moon signifies God's warning to those who would dare to desecrate the Christian day of worship again! The Jewish Sabbath is thus reinvented and supported with folklore to function more convincingly in the context of an emergent African Christianity. One may even find in some cases that God in one group is made to fight God in another group, under a different onomastic signification.
Just as sacred objects are threatened by Christian Pentecostalism, sacred spaces are also in serious danger in many Igbo communities. Shrines of Igbo traditional religion, right from the early days of Christianity in Igboland, have been seriously threatened with extinction, same for sacred forests. The case of the crisis over Ogwugwu shrines in Okija, Anambra State, Nigeria is noteworthy. Whereas sacred spaces like the Osun Osogbo are preserved and recognized by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites, sacred spaces like those of Ogwugwu are demonized and officially violated by the law enforcement in Nigeria as sites of criminality. Whereas Osun Osogbo has grown into a vibrant tourist site and a consolidation of global visibility for the Yoruba culture, the Ogwugwu of Okija is turned into a pejorative term, which also smears both the local Igbo community and indeed the entire igbo culture as being associated with barbarism and backwardness. One doubts whether igbo people ever consider the cultural politics underlying the wave of media representation of Ogwugwu sacred space in modern times and that what is happening is indeed a culture war in which Igbo people are used in destroying their own ethnic image.