The origin of the Igbo is Ụ́tụ́rụ́, which is the citadel of the Igbo culture. It is now located in Isikwuato in Abia State, by the axis of Okigwe. The caste system in Igbo culture and religion, is not complex. The Igbo culture is full of superstition and its spirituality is staggering. However, not much is known of its caste system as it has been streamlined to only the osu caste. This is what the European thugs have done.
Classism in England is the same as the ejiri mara ndigbo (the culture of the Igbo). Many of the narratives of the system, exist to demonize a normal system, a hierarchy that applies in every social stratum. All men are not equal, caste system says. This is why it is important that someone, more knowledgeable about the caste system explains this to those who do not understand the dynamics of the system.
The caste system in Igbo land has existed for as long as the Igbo people have existed. The Osu caste is actually the third in the caste system. This is different from the caste system in Hindu religion, as we know the lowest of the Igbo caste, ohu, can climb the social ladder, to become more financially stable and wealthier than the diala. Nobody is limited from rising from grass to grace if they work hard. Where the problem majorly lies, is inter-marriages. This is prohibited in Igbo culture for people of different castes to marry into another. It is believed to be a chaotic dilution of blood and caste. In a hierarchy, as it is in other forms of classism, there is the diala, nze na ozo, osu, ume and ohu.
To break it down, let’s take it this way:D
- Diala – The Son of the Soil and the Protector of the Land
The diala are business men and women and known as the descendants of Amadioha (God of Thunder and Lightning), with magical powers, believed to have been created on Nkwo market day in Ụ́tụ́rụ́, by Elu (Heaven) and Ala (Mother Earth), where Igbo creation happened. This is in relation to the creation of:
1. Uhammiri (Goddess of the Lake)
2. Urashi (God of the Lake – who is believed to be a Third Gender and the most handsome of all Gods)
3. Ogwugwu (God of Confusion)
4. Agwu (God of Possession)
5. Anyanwu (God of the Sun)
6. Nwanyianyanwu (Goddess of the Sun)
7. Okeohia (God of the Forest)
8. Chukwuabiama (God of Reconciliation)
9. Ekwensu (God of Mystery)
10. Ugwu (God of Pride)
11. Ikenga (God of War)
12. Onuma (God of Mercy)
13. Ororonjo (God of Ugliness)
14. Nma (Goddess of Beauty and Wealth)
15. Arusi (Karma)
The diala and dibia are the King Makers and the Rain-Makers. In Igbo traditions, rituals are not complete without libations and sacrifices to Ala (Mother Earth) and the performer, looking up to Elu(also known as Chi Ukwu, the Great God or Chineke, the Creator) or Orisa (The Universe), for the sacrifice to be truly accepted and appreciated. There are Creators in the Earth and in the Heavens. There is no One Creator in Igbo cosmology.
This is why every Igbo has his own chi, what he believes in. It is deepened in the Igbo religion, which involves a lot of sacrifices.
It is ironical that no matter how Christian an Igbo is, he goes at night, to revere the Igbo deities, because deep down their hearts of hearts, they strongly believe in these deities, knowing how powerful they are.
All the Gods and Goddesses have different recipes integral to worshipping them. The God of Thunder, Amadioha, loves the sacrifice of a ram to appease Him, as it is symbolic to Him. The Goddess of the Lake loves the sacrifice of a white chicken, as it is also symbolic.
A mirror can be placed under the sun to appease Nwanyianyanwu, the Goddess of the Sun. Each deity plays an important role in the life of the Igbo. Each deity has a shrine and anyone can choose each of them to worship or reverence all. There are no written rules on how they are worshipped and revered. No monolithic form of praise.
- Dibia, Nze na Ozo
The Royal, Political, Cultural and Intellectual Class (i.e, just as the House of Representatives and the Senate – this is because the Igbo people have always been democratic and ran a republic, akin to the European version of it).
They are the custodian of cultures, traditions and religion in the Igbo race. It is among this caste that Kings are made by the King Makers. They serve as the Mouthpieces of the People and deliver messages to the Gods and Goddesses, on behalf of the diala. The diala is the most powerful caste in Igbo land, while the Nze na Ozo are the ceremonial caste, mediating between Man and God, through rituals and sacrifices. It is the most admired caste in Igbo culture, yet, unequivocally so, for the way they dress and assemble and live.
- Osu– Gifts to the Gods
Osu people are social rejects. They are believed to have migrated from unknown places to Nri, where many of their ancestors were captured and kept in shrines of the gods in Arochukwu and the rest of the Igbo land. They were intruders who arrived in the middle of the nights. Some of them, too, were accused of stealing and maiming and invading Igbo lands, hence, getting captured and becoming sacrifices to the Gods. Through generations, they are dreaded as Thieves of Destinies and Harbingers of Misfortune. They are excluded from cultural decisions and are ostracized from each clan and society.
Most osu families build their homes close to shrines or streams or rivers. They live on the edge and fringes of the societies and are never consulted in matters affecting the society. They are isolated and anyone marrying into their families, are considered to have been infected with the spirit of osu. Therefore, it is automatically assumed that one who marries into an osu family, has become an osu.
With them being ostracized, they tend to marry into other tribes and races, carefully exonerating themselves from the fracas and consequences of the Nze na Ozo. It is rare to find the diala intermarrying with the osu. It is rare. Most of the marriages happen between the osu and the ume and the ohu.
- Ume – The Unwanted
A girl who gives birth to a child in her father’s house out of wedlock, without a trace of the child’s father, has inherited the ume curse. If the child, in turn, gives birth to another in that house, out of wedlock, the generation curse remains and so, deepens. In many parts of Igbo land, women have married women.
This concept is welcomed in the Igbo culture, mostly, because it is believed that a woman who is an only child should find a way to keep the legacy of the family, by giving birth to a male child. This way, the child will not be married off and so, the family name is retained. This caste is complicated, as they are lumped together, resulting in them having no say in the clan or tribe, as everyone reminds them of the non-existence of their fathers.
A child who has no known father in Igbo land, is considered as ume. They are believed to be toxic and rude than the osu people, as it is believed they have no fatherly upbringing.
- Ohu –The Slave
The palace guard, the washerman, the carpenter, the scavenger, the cleaner, the servant are all classified under this caste – the slave caste. They are believed to be the descendants of slaves of the Nze
There is a known apprenticeship culture in Igbo culture. Many of the servants and helps of the diala, come from the ohu caste. Ohu people are never told of their caste; they are born into these homes, but many of them understand the dynamics of the caste system and work their way up to the top, without any inhibitions. However, they are not considered as threats by any of the castes.
Most marriages between people of osu caste and other castes, have happened between the osu and the ohu. During the Trans-Atlantic Slave, many of the ohu and ume and osu castes, were forcefully taken away in chains, sold to the Europeans. They were captured and in an organized manner, sold, by the dibia (who knew they were gifts to the gods), Nze na Ozo, at marketplaces and palaces, where the bargains happened and sales made.
Reconstructing the Narrative
The Igbo people never migrated to where they are today from anywhere. Their original existence is traced to Ụ́tụ́rụ́, where the first Igbo (Amadioha, Uhammiri and Urashi), were created by Elu (igwe), the Heavens. These were the first three to be created, before others emerged from the tap roots of an oji tree. Clearly, the evolution of the Igbo, is precise.
What got lost in the narrative, was through the relationship between the osu, ume and ohu and the Europeans. The osu people know their history as those who arrived from unknown places to Nri, where they made home; which is why the Europeans assumed, on interacting with the osu that this is the true history of the Igbo. When the Europeans arrived with a few men from the Benin empire, there was no interaction between them and the diala of Igbo land. Diala simply means Son of the Soil.
The most arrogant set of Igbo people, are the diala. They feel unconquered; reason why they refused to interact with the ‘European ghosts.’ One of these European ghosts was murdered in Mbaise, a town believed to have been occupied mostly by the diala. It was at this point, that the Europeans, through their emissaries, who are the osu and ume and ohu, passed the message to the nze and ozo caste, that there was an impending warfare from the Europeans.
The diala is never scared of what is to befall him. He takes the bull by the horn always.
The diala is a risk-taker and succeeds in his business dealings. That confidence triggered the way they completely rebuked the European ghosts and thugs. They didn’t want to be included in what they had heard had befallen the Oyo and Benin empires. The Igbo-Ukwu (The Great Igbo) empire was protected by the diala. They fought off all forms of invasions; hence, how the osu were captured by them and made sacrifices to the Gods, as offerings, in appreciation for the protection, assumed to have been offered to them by the deities.
It is believed that many of the osu people are actually the gifts of Urashi – the beautiful one. What is obtained today at Urashi shrines, are believed to have been households, reminiscent of generations, gifted to Him. Infact, osu families are gifts to Urashi.
The udara tree is symbolic to Urashi. Most osu and ume families have udara trees planted at the front of their houses, instead of raising obi, which only the nze and ozo could have. An obi is a mini-palace.
There are people who bear surnames like Nwaosu or Nwosu (son of osu) or Nwaume (son of ume), without taking cognizance of the origins of these names. Some, who know of the origins, have fashionable ways of writing their surnames: Ume is now written as Umeh, which clearly does not make sense. Names are extremely important in Igbo culture. One’s surname could be traced to reveal his/her identity and everything unearthed.
My grandmother’s sister was married to an osu family in my village, Ezeoke. My father told me, that she was begged to not marry into the family, but she refused. I met her before she died. She became blind at a point and it was immediately assumed she went blind because she married into an ume family.
On one of the days I visited her with my grandmother, she muttered to herself: “God, do not allow me suffer like my sister. Take me when it is my time.” And there was an udara tree in front of my grandmother’s sister’s house. My grandmother stopped talking one Sunday morning, on the day of Corpus Cristi in 1998. She died in my mother’s arms seven days later, at Federal Medical Centre in Owerri.
My mother returned and told us that she had been taken to Lagos, by her first daughter, who is married to a Yoruba man from Ondo State. And we believed her. But we later found out, because it is believed that it was dangerous to tell children of the death of their grandmother.
The oha tree is symbolic to Ogwugwu. They are usually planted beside yam and goat barns, believing the God of Confusion to protect these yams and goats, by confusing thieves who may want to steal them.
The omapu tree is symbolic to Onuma.
The oji tree is symbol of creation. It is believed to be where the first Igbo were created: the brown-colored bark of the iroko tree.
The Gods and Goddesses of Igbo religion, have natural resources symbolic to their power of existence. The trees, the rivers, fruits and all whatnot. Each comes handy during rituals and sacrifices. Chickens are slaughtered at the root of an oha tree and the blood spilled all over it. This could be done during the consultation of Urashi on reincarnation.
When a child is born in Igbo land, he is taken to a dibia (son of the gods), to find out what he/she has reincarnated as. This consultation takes place during childhood. It could be done between the ages of 2-8, depends on the availability of the dibia. Parents of the child, or even their grandparents, are allowed only to do the finding and this is done secretly and not in the open.
I remember my grandmother taking me to a dibia in Umuota, a town, located across Mmiri Umuanunu, to make this consultation. The dibia’s name is Edi Ahaonu. He was a long-bearded man, feared and respected by all. I was told that I reincarnated as Nwelue, my ancestor. I was told that I had the traits of my ancestor.
Nwelue is not my grandfather. I never met my grandfather, but I have seen a picture of him. I was told by my 98-year-old grand uncle then, that I behaved and acted like Nwelue. It was very soothing to hear that. And my grandmother kept calling me: “Nweluenjariyaghokeohia.” This is simply translated as: when you grow a weed, it turns into a forest.
The dialectical relationship in Igbo land is magnificent. Each clan had its way of speaking. The Mbaise people speak differently from the Mbano people and the Mbaitolu speak differently from the Mbaise. However, these dialects are clearly understood by each and every one.
Article Written By Onyeka Nwelue