The "Word" In Traditional Igbo-African Metaphysics

Egbeke Aja


  1. Introduction
  2. Forms of the Word
  3. The Power of the Word
  1. Procreation
  2. The Word in Igbo Arts
  3. The Word in Traditional Agriculture
  4. The Word in Igbo Medicine
  1. Conclusion
  2. Notes
  3. Academic Tools
  1. Introduction

The Igbo are a people principally located in southeastern Nigeria, West Africa. They also extend to parts of the Midwestern and delta areas of Nigeria. The Igboland covers the present Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Imo, the eastern part of the delta States, and the northern part of the Rivers State of Nigeria. Covering an area of about sixteen thousand square miles, Igboland has borders on the east with the Ibibio people and on the west with the Bini and Warri people. The Igbo share their northern boundary with the Idomas (of the former Benue State) and their Southern boundary with the Ijaws and the Ogoni of the Rivers State of Nigeria. Linguistically, the Igbo belong to the Kwa group. The Igbo population is estimated at about fourteen million.

Igbo accounts of reality represent a two-world theory: the sensible world on the one hand, and the invisible or spirit-world on other. Whatever exists in the world of our senses, contends the traditional Igbo, has a dual existence. That is to say, the reality of an individual existent is in two posited worlds. As E.M.P. Edeh puts it: “Whatever obtains here has its replica in the world of unseen”1.

Although the Igbo offer a dualistic theory of reality, the radical distinction between mind and body that dominated the positivistic stance of Western philosophy and modern scientific culture does not obtain in traditional Igbo metaphysics and science. According to Igbo metaphysics, the two worlds dovetail, and they are inhabited by beings on force-objects and non-objects that stand in an ontological order one after another in accordance with their vital ranks. Above all forces is God, the creator or Chukwu Okike; then follow the spiritualized beings and the dead of a clan. In the world of our senses, humankind is seen and thought of by the Igbo as the center of all created forces. Humans are more or less “the measure of all things”. All other forces are inferior and subordinate to the human. Human superiority stems from the fact that the human individual is a force, unlike other inferior forces, that possesses intelligence. With intelligence, humans are “the master of things”. Stated simply, each is capable of harnessing the benefits derivable from intimate ontological relationships with both the interior and superior forces in the universe. Jahnheinz Jahn is explicit on this point when he states: “things stand at the disposal of muntu or ‘at hand’ for him. The only exceptions are certain trees which are ‘the street’ of the loas”2

This paper is an attempt to show that man performs this singular role because he is a force that has control over a spiritual life force-the Word, “Nommo” or “Okwu”. Consequently, the inferior forces exist by the will of “Chukwu” only to increase or reinforce the vital force of men on earth. At length, both the superior and inferior forces are seen and thought of in Igbo ontology in relation to man. Equipped with the Word or “Okwu”, man is sovereign over all other forces on earth. However, the magnitude of an individual man’s sovereignty is a function of that individual’s ontological vital rank.

In this paper, I use the Igbo people as a reference point. As a philosophic treatise, my findings are generalized to apply to other cultures in Africa, and, hence, the title: “The power of the ‘Word’ in Traditional African (Igbo) Metaphysics …. “ However, all the beliefs herein espoused are not shared by all Africans. Such a consensus, I think, is not needed to make a belief system or philosophical disposition “Africa”.

  1. Forms of the Word

St. John’s gospel informs us that, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. According to this Christian biblical account, all things were made by the Word, and without the Word nothing was. Since according to this account, the Word was God, it therefore, remains with God. This is the logos that became flesh through Jesus Christ.

In Igbo metaphysics, the logos of St. John’s gospel resembles “Okwu”. For the Igbo people, the Word or “Okwu” is “the physical-spiritual life force which awakens all sleeping forces and gives physical and spiritual life.”3 In Igbo thought, therefore, the Word becomes flesh everywhere in the form of human beings, it goes on unceasingly creating and procreating even gods. Quoting again the Christian Bible, the God of Israel said, “Let there be light”, and there was light. In Igbo metaphysics, a human being is capable of such an utterance with a similar effect. “Every Muntu, even the least of them”, contends the traditional Igbo, “is by the force of his Word Lord over everything, over animal and plant, stone, hammer, moon and stars.”4 The traditional Igbo thinks and believes that if someone commands the sun to fall from the sky, it falls, unless a more powerful force has already by the same word-force has commanded the contrary. By implication, the Word-force of human differs in degrees of effectiveness in consonance with the principles of hierarchy of forces.

Also important with regard to the Igbo conception is the idea that human beings are a double-process phenomenon. At biological birth, a physical phenomenon has occurred, but one that is not enough for the production of a “complete” human being. A second process sets in. In this process something spiritual-the Word or “Okwu” – unless with the body (during initiation or naming ceremonies) to make for the final product that is a complete human being. The union of the spiritual something with the physical body makes up the second process.

The word could be either verbal or nonverbal. The nonverbal forms include symbols (such as special leaves, the tender palm front-Omu, facial expressions, medications, libations, gestures and even dancing). Spitting is a specific way or direction is a form of the Word. On the other hand, the verbal or spoken forms of the Word are songs, prayers, incantations, poetry; that is to say, any forms of verbalized expressions. By the Word we mean all forms of “language” spoken or symbolic.

  1. The Power of the Word

Benjamin Whorf grasped the relationship between human language and human thinking, how language indeed can shape our innermost thought and at length our actions and deeds, when he stated:

We are thus introduced to a new principle of relativity, which holds that all observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar, or can in some way be calibrated.5

By this, Whorf is saying that, for instance, the Chinese dissect nature and the universe differently from Western speakers. A still different dissection is made by the Africans, although there could be areas of similarity. The Word, or language, is fundamental to the theory of thinking and in the last analysis to all human activity and science. Every considerable advance in science (or even the humanities), such as quantum theory, involves a crisis of communication. The discoverers have to explain, first to themselves and then to the world what has been found.

From the foregoing, I accept two cardinal hypotheses, and one inference. First, that all higher levels of thinking and acting are dependent on the Word or language. Second, that the structure or nature of the Word or language one habitually uses influences the manner in which one understands or manipulates one’s environment. Consequently, the picture of the universe and the effects of the word shift from tongue to tongue and from symbol to symbol.

If follows, therefore, that the Igbo is not only capable of controlling the other forces, but places them at his or her service because he or she is a force that has control over the Word. For the Igbo, through the Word everything is transformed, including even oneself. The Igbo recognizes the power of the Word when they emphasize the need for exchange of greetings. I agree with Ogotommeli: “the Word is for all in this world, it must be exchanged so that it goes and comes for it is good to give and receive the forces of life”.6 The Word, according to Ogotommeli, is therefore, a source of life force; it is water and heat, which are vital to life. It issues from “mouth” of a living human being and exhibits its great effect on many human activities, specifically the following:

a. Procreation

According to the Igbo world view, conception is not only a biological process. It is not only through the “seed”, contends Igbo metaphysics, that conception is achieved, rather, the influence of the Word must come into play. Quoting Ogotommeli again:

The good Word is as soon as, it is received by the ear, goes directly to the sex organ where it rolls about the uterus just as the copper spiral rolls about the sun. The Word of water brings and maintains the moisture necessary to procreation and by this means, Nommo brings about the penetration of the uterus by a germ of water. It transforms into a germ the water of the Word and gives it the appearance of human person through the essence of Nommo7.

Although the Igbo acknowledge that it is through an initial Word that conception takes place, they appreciate that further use of the Word is necessary to make for a wholesome child – a “complete” human being, a personality. The new born child, to become truly human being, has to be given a name by either the father or the eldest of its line. Before the pronouncement of the name, the little child is just a thing, but, directly, the name is pronounced, a futher use of the powers of the Word, and the human child is transformed from “a thing” to “a he” of “a she”. A sort of spiritual transformation, the naming ceremony, a kind of incarnation, transforms the child and integrates it into the lineage. Hence, the Igbo think and believe that “Aha natu atu,” namely, a name is an indicator of the personality of the bearer. Senghor echoes this when he writes: “the power of the word in Black Africa accounts for change, production and generation.”8

b. The Word in Igbo Arts

The power of the Word is also manifested in traditional Igbo works of art. For any work of art to succeed, the power of the Word must be brought to bear on the entire process by the artisan. The Awka smith, the potter at Isiagu in the process of producing a work, recites incantations, signs, and even dances at the close of the operation. These forms of Word complement one’s efforts to make the product a masterpiece. The incantation is at the same time transformation. “Just as Camara Laye’s father, the goldsmith, transforms the gold into an ornament with the help of Nommo, so in poetry the Word transforms every ‘thing’ – a force that it produces by placing it in a relationship of tension with other forces it has also produced”9 In poetry, the Word creates images and images, and transforms them together with the poet. This is because the poet, being a force, never approaches things that are unchanging and since he is by nature a force among forces he changes with the Word and from the Word, too.10

Furthermore, in traditional Igbo dances and music, the ecstatic patterns of accents are listened to and danced to in response to the Word. The drums talk to the dancers, who respond accordingly. The Ekpe festival11 chants in Ohafia are good illustrations. Through the chants, the singers inform the age grade that is performing the Igba Ekpe festival what the community expects from it. To indicate the importance of gunshots in the festival, chant goes as follows:

Nje le ndi nwe egbe

Eyegheha, eyeghaha, eyeghakeha

Akahunwa nwe egbe.

(Lets go and see those who have guns

Eyegheha, eyeghaha, eyeghakeha

Akahunwa (the name of the age grade) have guns.)

The chant activities the group. The canons will then be let loose to impress the community. To make the Ekpe masquerade perform as expected based on the performances of late and living performers, the singers call on the spirits of age grade’s, choice of the masquerader:

Okorie biahu buru ekpe,

Ukata biahu buru ekpe.

Ukpai Ole biahu buru ekpe,

Olaka-oburu biahu buru ekpe,

(Okorie come and carry the ekpe,

Ukata come and carry the ekpe,

Ukpai cine and carry the ekpe,

Olaku-oburu come and carry the ekpe.)

By this chant, the performance of the ekpe masquerade has often been seen to improve. Even the quality of the drummers also effects the performance of the masquerade.12 The rhythm of the Ekpe music dictates the spirits of both the dancers and the spectators. Rhythm is therefore no more an end itself than the image of poetry or carving. Through rhythm, image after image is piled-up for dancers to follow: statements after statements are hammered into ears of the masquerade.

In sum, any Igbo work of art, music, poetry, sculpture, or carving is incomplete when not accompanied with the appropriate Word. For instance, a carver after producing an object names it “Ikenga” and there from that object, which was hitherto a mere “toy” is transformed into a revered object-Ikenga. Should be the Ikenga fail in performing what is expected of it, through the same Word-force, its “Ikenganess” is denied it by the carver throwing it about as one of his ordinary carvings. That is to say, according to Igbo metaphysics, whenever a work of art loses its functional efficacy, it becomes valueless because the productivity Word is lacking.13

c. The Word in Traditional Agriculture

Although a large percentage of the traditional Igbo population depends on the land for sustenance, not all farmers are referred to as “Ogbu ji.” Because of a low level of modernized farming methods brought about by lack of agricultural inputs, most traditional Igbo farmers still depend on family labour. Not all farmers are referred to as “Ogbu ji”, successful farmers because for the Igbo it is not only manual labour that puts the fruits of the field at one’s disposal. Sowing and reaping are necessary but not sufficient parts of human activity, involved in agriculture. For agriculture to succeed, contents the traditional Igbo, the farmer has to do more than just sow and reap. The seeds planted have no activity if left on their own: without the influence of the farmer, they would not grow but would remain lying on the ground. The farmer gives the seeds the needed help through Word-force, the spiritual life force that produces all life and that influences all “things “ in its shape. Hence, during any farming operation a farmer and a team sing, chant, and even whistle in praise of both the land and the seeds to be planted. The Word-force during such occasions provides the complementary energy necessary for the seeds not only to germinate but, more importantly, for them to yield abundantly.

After harvest, the farmer makes sure that the products are displayed where they will receive words of praise, such as Ole ala ka ji ndia si puta? (From which land are these yams harvested?) Ndia bu ife akporo ji, (These are really yams,) Okwu ekwughi! (They are wonderful!) and so on. These favourable comments are made because the Igbo thinks and believes that “Eto omea, Ome karia” (If you give words of encouragement to a performer, he or she improves upon the performance). Through such words of praise, the land and the seeds are “made” to perform even better the next planting and harvesting season.

Just as in farm work, even in communal labor the power of the Word is tapped. Chants, songs, and even drumming accompany all communal labor that needs large amounts of human energy. However, these must be of a desired rhythm. As Senghor rightly points out:

Rhythm is the architecture being, the inner dynamic that gives it form, the pure expression of the life force. Rhythm is the vibratory shock, the force which through our sense, grip us at the root of our being…. It is expressed movements in dance. But doing this, rhythm turns all these concrete things towards the light of spirit.14

Rhythm according to the Igbo is, as stated by Senghor, an indispensable ingredient of Word-force, it activates the powers of the Word and thus gives it the desired effectiveness.

This explains why, when a traditional Igbo society is engaged in a task such as “Ikwu ogwe” (moving heavy logs from one place to another) or “ichu nta” (hunting) for sacrificial purposes, the services of professional drummers and singers are copiously used. In recognition of the power of the Word, any log in the onerous task of “ikwu ogwe” or failure to capture the desired game in the case of “ichu nta” is attributed to the inability of either the drummer or the singer to provide the appropriate rhythm or the song-the appropriate force. Not only theoretically but in practice, the drummer or the singer determine the tempo at which they want the task to be accomplished. In consonance with the words of Senghor, if they want to proceed faster, this they effect through the type of song or chant they “raise” with its accompanying rhythm. This “remote control” of the efforts of the workers is achieved not only through being at grips with the psychology of the team on the part of the artists, but more importantly through the “magic” power of the Word. Consequently, sluggishness on the part of the working group is often, among the traditional Igbo, attributed to the adjudged poor performance of either the singer or the drummer, or even both. One or both may have failed to energize the group with the requisite Word-force as and when due.

d. The Word in Igbo Medicine

One of the main objectives to traditional Igbo medicine is that the cures offered have in most cases no apparent connection with the illness that is being treated. As Jahn explains, people with this frame of mind have often argued:

A “medicine man” who treated an asthmatic with incantations and “prescribed” for him a secret extract of herbs which the patient was perhaps to carry under his arm in the hollow tooth of a beast was, they said, deceiving the patient and dispensing hocus pocus in place of medicine.15

For those with such attitudes against traditional African medicine, there is no relationship between traditional medicament and the diseases being treated. The incantations, divinations and verbal rapport with the patient have no meaning and bearing. As such, cities of traditional medicine maintain that a real medicine must be for a specific malady and that the effect of the medicine should not only be predictable with certainty but should also be reproducible with similar results given similar conditions.

Nevertheless, for the traditional Igbo, no medicine, not even poisons, are effective without the Word. A good many orthodox medicinal practitioners and physicians themselves are inclined to doubt the purely objective nature of science. They suggest that no one can get at nature except through human terms, tools and concepts.16

The incantations, dances, songs, and all that accompany traditional medicine are not only important but are indispensable ingredients. Traditional Igbo medicine is centered on humanism. On its positive side, this point of view means the twisting of medical practices toward people as its center. On the negative side (which is often the focus of the critics of traditional medicine), it implies a kind of skepticism towards the older ideal of a detached knowledge of the physical world. Igbo traditional medicine focuses on the humanistic aspects of medicine. It focuses on the physical, spiritual, social, and psychological aspects of humans; that is, its concern is not only limited to the material elements of physiology. Rather, efforts are made to seek for a holistic approach to the diagnosis and prognosis of disease.

I witnessed an amazing occasion in which a traditional medicine-man was able to detect a culprit from a group. A group of four men were sharing a flat; one of them lost his wallet. The wallet contained N600.00 and was allegedly left in the owner’s wardrobe. All efforts to get the fellow who stole it to return it surreptitiously failed. No one accepted responsibility for taking the wallet from the wardrobe.

The rightful owner of the wallet on a appointed date took the flat mates to a traditional medicine-man to find our who took the wallet. The medicine-man warned the team that before he started doing whatever he wanted to do with regard to the lost amount, the culprit should report himself for committing the offense. No one came out.

The medicine-man brought out a basin of clean water and placed it before his clients. He uttered a few words in the form of incantation. Then he dropped seven seeds of alligator pepper into the basin of water. He then uttered similar words. He flung round the basin a special “instrument”. The clients were lined up and then ordered to repeat after the medicine-man: “If I am the person who took away the wallet containing Mr. X’s N600.00, let the seven seeds of alligator pepper enter into my eyes”. Each said the words and looked into the basin of water for some time. This ritual was done one after the other till one of the clients appeared before the basin of water. He repeated the instructions given by the medicine-man. Before he could end, he was in tears. Progressively, he was in pain. He began to shout for help. There and then he accepted having stolen the wallet. After performing counter rituals directed by the medicine-man, he regained his sight quite “magically”. The stolen money was paid back to the rightful owner.

Through the Word, the effects of herbs are conjured by the medicine-man or else they would be of no use themselves. Conversely, causes of illness are traced to the Word. As a result, the medicine-man’s responsibility in treating any illness is to trace to where the debilitating Word-force that produced the malady originated and, subsequently, by his training, to determine the counterword that must be stronger and can prevent or cure the evil illness.

Our example shows that practices of traditional Igbo medicine rest on the practices of the effective use of the Word or Nommo. Without the Word, medicines for the Igbo are placebos; they are powerless and ineffective in themselves. They are powerful and effective only when accompanied with the genuine power of the Word. Consequently, the stronger the Word-force of a medicine-man, the more powerful and effective will be the medicine. Medicine-man often, on giving a patient medicine, receive such response as this: “I was once given this by Mr. X, and it had little or no effect.” But a seasoned medicine-man, with a stronger Word-force, invokes the stronger Word-force by commanding the patient to try his, for “my father says that I heal your type of illness with what I have offered you.” Surprisingly, such similar medicaments have been seen to prove efficacious. Furthermore, under the spell of the stronger Word-force, similar medicaments produce different desired effects on patients. On the other hand, should a patient fail to satisfy his or her own share of the contract in the treatment process, the cure hitherto effected can be reversed. The ability of a traditional medicine-man to use one herb for more than one illness and the ability to reverse a cure already effected are the roots of the “magic” in traditional Igbo medicine. In all cases, every medicine is used in connection with the appropriate Words.

The power of the Word can also be illustrated with the service of rain-makers in traditional Igbo societies. Through the Word in the form of incantations and symbols, rain is prevented or diverted. Observably, as the rain-maker burns certain leaves and sprinkles water using sacred objects, especially rain-stones, Words are uttered that go to effect the desired result, namely, rainfall.

  1. Conclusion

According to Igbo metaphysics, human beings through Word-force are the masters and controllers of all forces. With the Word, everything is possible, although everything must be in consonance with the principle of ontological balance that is the pivot of Igbo metaphysics. For instance, the traditional Igbo medical system has more faith in the powers of the Word than in the herbs or substances that accompany the Word. Through Words, everything can be changed and everything can be made to work. Herein lies the so-called “magic” in traditional Igbo medicine. To command things with the Word is in no way to practice magic, but rather it is the practice of evoking certain men forces in both human and nonhuman agents such that the agents are aided in their performance of certain practical activities such as farming, the arts, medicine, and even procreation.


  1. E.M.P. Edeh, Towards an Igbo Metaphysics (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1985), p. 77
  2. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture (New York: Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 101. Such trees in Igboland include: Oji, akwu or apu (iroko and cotton trees), and others.
  3. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, p. 105
  4. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, p. 133
  5. In John B. Caroll, ed. Language, Thought and Reality Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf (Cambridge M.I.T. Press, 1971), p. v.
  6. Placide Tempels, Bantu Philosophy (Paris Presence Africaine, 1969), p. 124.
  7. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, p. 125
  8. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, p. 125
  9. Camara Laye, The Dark Child (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1971), cited in Jahn, p. 137
  10. Amos Tutuola offers an eloquent testimony of this in The Palm wine Drinkard.
  11. Ekpe is a dance for rites of passage, new yam festival, or burial rites of illustrious Ohafia sons.
  12. Egbeke Aja, “Igba Ekpe Festival Chants in Ohafia” (a paper presented for Lit. 240, Univ. of Nigeria, Nsukka, 1978/79), pp. 1-14.
  13. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, pp. 156-184
  14. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, p. 164
  15. Jahnheinz Jahn, Muntu: The New African Culture, p. 127
  16. G.H. Sabine and Thoman L. Thorson, A History of Political Theory, 4th ed. (Chicago: Dryden Press, 1973), p. 39

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