The Mystery of Number, “Three.” in the Igbo Cosmology.
From: Aspects of the Ancient African Metaphysics;
Chapter: Seven;
Topic: Igbo Geometries and the Metaphysics of Numbers.
Author: Onyeji Nnaji.

As I have noted earlier in this chapter, the figure four holds a great significance in
the mythical imperative of the Igbo people. First, it stands for the four market days
of the Igbo settlement. Four market days: Oye, Afor, Nkwọ and Eke mark the completion of the Igbo market week called Izu. The same forms the Igbo pillar of
existence with empirical concept drawn from the creation myths. It embodies the
concept of life and existence in the Igbo cosmology. Wikipedia has the following
record about this view,

 Igbo cosmology presents a balance between the feminine and masculine, perhaps, with a preponderance of female representation in Igbo lore. In Igbo cosmology, the world was divided into four corners by the high god corresponding to èké órìè àfọ̀ ǹkwọ́ which are the days of the week in the Igbo regarded as market days. The universe is regarded as a composite of bounded spaces in an overlapping hemispherical structure; the total spaces are referred to as élú nà àlà. The community of visible interacting beings and the cosmos is referred to as ụ̀ wà, which includes all living things íhẹ́ ndi dị́ ńdụ̀, including animals and vegetation and their mineral elements which posses a vital force and are regarded as counterparts to invisible forces in the spirit world. These living things and geomorphological features of the world therefore possess a guardian deity.

From the research conducted around Nkanu area of northern Igbo land, Morton (1956) remarks that Chukwu, after creation, sees that the sun travels across the world in the day time and then cuts into two in order for the moon to pass on a perpendicular route, and so the world is divided into four parts and four days. The quarterly division of the earth and the days makes the number four sacred (ńsọ́) to the Igbo. The élú nà àlà space is defined by two boundaries: élú ígwé, “sky's limit” composed of heavenly bodies under the main forces of the masculine sun and feminine moon, and élú àlà, earth or lands limit consisting of the four material elements of fire and air (masculine), and earth and shallow water (feminine).

From my grandmother symbolic marks, there was a geometry that looked like a quadrangle. From her, though, scrupulous drawing, the shape looked like a square; but it was not a perfect square. At the centre, there was a carefully dotted point. This point held two perpendicular lines together; each line running from one endpoint-angle to another in the opposite direction respectively. To her, the quadrangle represents an overall concept which houses the entirety of creation; the heavens, the land, humanity (or living things) and spirits. The central point indicates this consolidated point of a pillar that binds everything creatable to himself. The point did not refer to the gods, human, the cosmos or the land. These instead formed the connecting relations which she explained as being parallel to one another. This is the idea she buried in the bisector angles: as heaven is connected to the earth, human beings also share a parallel relationship with spirits.

Therefore, the dot represents Chukwuoke (the creator God) for everything began with him and by him gains sustenance. All the benevolence shown to her when she did not make any request from any of the gods mentionable was associated to this creator, God. According to my grandmother, she derived the idea of the quadrangle from four cotyledoneous kolanut. In Nkalaha, the kolanut used for marriage discussions are usually four cotyledoneous kolanut. The same is the kolanut used for various traditional rites, including those used for sacrifices.

The principle of life affirmation as constituting the essence of the kola is also supported by the Igbo myth surrounding the emergence of the four Igbo market days. It is said that four enigmatic people once visited a place. They would neither eat nor talk. But by mere coincidence, someone gave them a piece of kolanut to eat. To the surprise of all assembled, the people suddenly were given to speech in which they revealed their names as Orie (Oye), Eke, Nkwọ and Afọ. By this singular act, the kola is said to have gained significance not only as the food of the spirits, but also something that gives life. This is because somebody who can neither talk nor eat anything is as good as dead. It is only something that can give life that worked the wonder of giving back life even to the spirits. This is the basis of the Igbo saying: Onye wetara ọjị wetara ndụ.

Apart from being an affirmation of life, it is also a symbol of continuity, of the entire life process as a continuum. Kolanut ritual is always a feature of the Igbo society, in social functions and ceremonies, which has resisted westernization and Christianity. According to the documentary of Sidney Davis (2012), the figure four represents four deities in the Igbo cosmology.

Igbo cosmology is rooted in the number four. The universal Afa1 language is rooted in the number FOUR as expressed in the cube or the tetrad. FOUR is the basic number of Afa and of the Igbo cosmos. The number four is said to be the number of the earth and mankind. There are four cardinal points on the earth; North – South – East – West. There are four winds. There are four seasons. There are four phases of the moon. The four elements: earth – air – fire – water. There are four basic blood types in man; O, A, B and A B. There are four basic states of matter: solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. There are four numbers of basic chemical units in the DNA structure: adenine a solid figure with four faces is a tetrahedron. The regular tetrahedron is the simplest Platonic solid. A tetrahedron, which can also be called a 3-simplex, has four triangular faces and four vertices. It is the only self-dual regular polyhedron. (A), thymine (T), cytosine (C) and guanine (G) A solid figure with four faces is a tetrahedron. The regular tetrahedron is the simplest Platonic solid. A tetrahedron, which can also be called a 3-simplex, has four triangular faces and four vertices. It is the only self-dual regular polyhedron. The valence of carbon the most common element is 4. There are four basic rules of mathematics: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. There are four basic forces in nature: electromagnetic, weak, strong and gravitational and in Quantum Physics there are four dimensions.

Achebe rightly said that “certainly the Igbo have a lot of use for fours…” The bisectors in grandmother’s geometry formed an “X” shape through her view of the connectivity or parallel relationship; man to the spirit and the cosmos verses the land. But for a reason which no one could actually explain to me, not even my grandmother; this shape dominated the costume of the various Ekpe masquerades in Nkalaha. There are always the shapes of quadrangles whose diagonals are bisected to form “X” shapes. Other shapes prominent in Ekpe masquerades are triangles. Example of these is seen in the picture below. 

This Ekpe is significant, in that it is the first of its kind built in Nkalaha. Therefore as the first, Nkalaha called it Ugbor. Ugbor was completed at the decay part of the nineteenth century; in the 1880s. From the observation of Catherine Acholonu, the “X” shaped geometry “demonstrates the complimentary duality in all things, but is always the tetragram; (a square with sides joined by an X- cross), which is the most common Igbo symbol of the goddess.

From Robert Langdon’s observation, the X (the slanting cross) and the lozenge (the slanting square) represent two opposite forms of the same basic symbol created what is called the Chalice (a V-shape with the open mouth looking up, representing the female gender) and the Blade (an inverted V-shape with the tip pointing upwards, representing the male gender). (Robert Langdon, Symbols of the Sacred Feminine) The Chalice and the Blade joined at the mouth create a lozenge, a quadrangle – the quintessential symbol of the Mother Goddess of order in nature – the cubed, molecular universe. When joined at the base the Vs produce an X shaped cross or a double-mouthed chalice; the symbol of the sacrificial Son of God. In Igbo Ukwu bronse, the X shape represents an equal-armed cross inter-spaced with two such chalices crossing each other at the center. Example is on the floor below. 

This monolith and photograph is Courtesy of National Museum, Lagos, all other
items here are courtesy of Odinani Museum, Nri and Igbo Ukwu Museum, Igbo
Ukwu. This is no coincidence for the cross is the basic geometry of ichi, the scarification mark of the god-men who are retained in the present day Igbo society as Nze na Ozo. Traditionally, equal-armed crosses square crosses, and lozenge symbols are etched on all gate-posts and cult symbols in Igbo land and sometimes
it act as talisman. An ozo traditional seat, shows a classical Igbo example of a perfectly shaped Maltese (or equal-armed) cross. In between the four arms of the cross are four chalices looking outwards and forming a cross at their zero centre. The entire image is surrounded by an outer circle. This is a very potent mystical, Christian symbol, yet as we can see here, its origins are African. The ozo is a cult of men (and originally women too) who have dedicated themselves to the service of God.

They live out the divine ideal of holiness and self denial, observing all the virtues
of God, remaining sinless and impeccable in their dealings with their fellow human beings. Various instances of Igbo Ukwu ancient bronze are characterized by this“X” shape to depict the same notion. Igbo cosmology is based on the number four…” Davis also noted thus:

The Igbo concept of time is rooted in the number four. The Igbo week has four days while the great week has eight days. This basic number also represents the four fish-monger deities of Igbo oral tradition who are said to have inaugurate the four market days Eke, Orie, Afo and Nkwo named after each of them. Thus four is seen as the number of deity among the Igbo. Its basic form is the quadrangle represented by the basic geometrical shapes: the pyramid, the lozenge, the slanting square representing a four-pointed star, the X shaped equal armed cross enshrined in the Igbo Ukwu-type Ichi facial scarifications. These forms, when etched on wooden doorposts and shrine objects represent the deity itself, thus four becomes the number of deity. The ichi markings of the lozenge, a quadrangle is the quintessential symbol of the Mother Goddess, of the order of nature represented by the carbon crystal: the most basic form representing the molecular universe. (PP.4&5).

Ike-Ishi (life oath) which forms one of the highest mysteries of the Igbo metaphysical idea also has deeper thought buried in this shape, “X”. As a matter of concern, anyone who wants to take life oath (Ike-Ishi) in the Igbo communities must have learned the principle of power in the Igbo quadrangle. In the same light, in tracing the progenitor of any child (in a case of Ilo-Uwa) among some Igbo communities, the items required are usually in four. This is believed to be achieved through a ritual divinatory calculus called Igba Agu. A rare combination of ritual identification is the Obi umunna (kindred ancestral origin). Four traditional diviners are usually involved. Igba Agu among the Igbo is also the official second naming ceremony after the initial one made at birth time. In this later ceremony, the returning ancestor is identified so as to name the new born child after him or her, and thereafter the child begins to command effective respect derivable from the returning ancestor. The items required for the proceeding rituals include four medium-sized yams tied up with a rope made from palm fronds are kept aside within the arena.

To invite the spirits, abacha and Ighu, dried fish, four cotyledoneous kolanuts, two cocks, palm wine, among others are made available before the chief priest begins with an exorcism of the sacred place. When this is done, the eldest person in the family takes up the Nzu, which is, the symbolic white chalk presented by the biological father of the child to be named. With these he heralds an invitation to ancestors and men to the milieu. After the sacred invitation, follows the prayer of inquiry. This is done in order to determine the returning ancestor. Immediately following the prayers is a broader repetition called Ikpata Agu. Here a person from the family of the child receives from the eldest of the kindred, the votive offerings of ji Agu, kola nut and omumu. With these he also progresses in supplication. The climax of the ceremony is the ancestral litany called Inafu Agu. This involves the two elements of four-fold exorcism – representative of the four native weeks – and chronicling of the names of the ancestors. After the exorcism the officiating priest
begins to call the names of the ancestors one after another.

As he does this, the diviners will simultaneously be casting lots to know on whose name it will fall. If the ancestor is not identified from the paternal side, attention is shifted to the maternal side. As immediate as the lot falls on any of the ancestors, one of the diviners will cut the four smaller Ji Agu and a celebration is launched. From the above details of customary facts, the determination of who comes back is but a calculus based on functional divination, permutations and combinations. In case the ancestor is identified to be from the maternal family of the child, the titled men will move to the open space immediately before the obu to receive or welcome the infant into their family. It is customary to make a resounding herald of the ancestor that came back four good times to which those inside the obu respond with joy. In this way, children possessing the characteristic features and temperaments of their ancestors bear their names. Feasting (eating and drinking) meant to welcome the new chi ends the occasion. If the child is a male, one of the cocks brought for the ritual is killed by the eldest son of the family and the blood poured into a basket called Nkata Ekwensu. Digging deep into the mystery of the number four is simply digging deep into the mystic foundation of the Igbo race. The mystic foundation of Ndigbo is buried in the Igbo language and cultural activities.


  1. My eyes are now opened. What a rich culture sacrificed on the alter of modernity. We must trace our original steps in order to occupy our Chi given space in the universe. I need someone who will teach me all these with the practical. Finally, kudos to the author for a good research communicated in a very simple basic English language. We need people like you in Igboland.

  2. How I wish we, the Igbos can embrace our origin and culture. This generation and forthcoming ones need to be enlightened. I'm happy a lot of youths are opening their eyes to truth.

  3. I guess I am the only one who comes here to share my very own experience guess what? I am using my laptop for almost the post 2 years.
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