The Meaning of Chi in the Igbo Cosmolo - Chinua Achebe

There are two clearly distinct meanings of the word chi in Igbo. The first is often translated as god, guardian angel, personal spirit, soul, spirit-double etc. the second meaning is day or daylight but it most commonly used for those transitional periods between day and night or night and day. Thus we speak of chi ofufomeaning daybreak and chi ojiji, nightfall. We also have the word mgbachi for that most potent hour of noon that splits the day in two, a time favoured in folklore by itinerant spirits and feared by children.

I am chiefly concerned here with the first meaning of chi, a concept so central in Igbo psychology and yet so elusive and enigmatic. The great variety of words and phrases which has been put forward at different times by different people as translations of this concept attests to its great complexity and lends additional force to the famous plea of Dr. J. B. Danquah that we pay one another’s gods the compliment of calling them by their proper name.

In a general way we may visualize a person’s chi as his other identity in spiritland – his spirit being complementing his terrestrial human being; for nothing can stand alone, there must always be another thing standing beside it.

Without an understanding of the nature of chione could not begin to make sense of the Igbo world-view; and yet no study of it exists that could even be called preliminary. What I am attempting here is not to fill that gap but to draw attention to it in a manner appropriate to one whose primary love is literature and not religion, philosophy or linguistics. I will not even touch upon such tantalizing speculations as what happens to a person’s chi when the person dies, and its shrine is destroyed. Does it retreat completely back to it old home? And finally what happens at the man’s reincarnation?

But before we embark on a consideration of the nature and implication of this concept which is so powerful in Igbo religion and thought let us examine briefly what connection there may be between it and the other meaning of chi. For a long time I was convinced that there couldn’t possibly be any relationship between chi (spirit being) and chi (daylight) except as two words that just happened to sound alike. But one day I stumbled on the very important information that among the Igbo of Akwa a man who arrived at the point in his life when he needs to set up a shrine to his chi will invite a priest to perform a ritual of bringing down the spirit from the face of the sun at daybreak. Thereafter it is represented physically in the man’s compound until the day of his death when the shrine must be destroyed.

The implication of this is that a person’s chinormally resides with the sun, bringer of daylight, or at least passes through it to visit the world. Which itself may have an even profounder implication for it is well known in Igbo cosmology that the Supreme Deity, Chukwu Himself, is in close communion with the sun. But more on that later. Since Igbo people did not construct a rigid and closely argued system of thought to explain the universe and the place of man in it, preferring the metaphor of myth and poetry, anyone seeking an insight into their world must seek it along their own way. Some of these ways are folks-tales, proverbs, proper names, rituals and festivals. There is of course the ‘scientific’ way as well – the tape-recorded interview with old people. Unfortunately it is often more impressive than useful. The old people who have the information we seek will not often bare their hearts to any passer-by. They will give answers, and true answers too. But there is truth and there is truth. To get to the inner truth will often require more time than the recording interviewer can give – it may require a whole lifetime. In any case no one talks naturally into a strange box of tricks!

It is important to stress what I said earlier: the central place in Igbo thought of the notion of duality. Wherever Something stands, Something Else will stand beside it. Nothing is absolute. I am the truth, the way and the life would be called blasphemous or simply absurd for is it not well known that a man may worship Ogwugwu to perfection and yet be killed by Udo? The world in which we live has its double and counterpart in the realm of spirits. A man lives here and his chi there. Indeed the human being is only one half (and the weaker half at that) of a person. There is a complementary spirit being, chi. (The word spirit though useful does create serious problems of its own, however, for it is used to describe many different orders to non-human being.) Thus the abode of chi may be confused with ani mmo where the dead who encounter no obstacles in their passage go to live. But ani mmo is thought to be not above like the realm of chi, but below, inside the earth. Considerable confusion and obscurity darken the picture at this point because there is a sense in which the two supernatural worlds are both seen as parallel to the land of the living. In an early anthropogical study of the Igbo Major A. G. Leonard at the opening of this century reported the following account from one of his Igbo informants:

We Ibo look forward to the next world as being much the same as this… We picture life there to be exactly as it is in this world. The ground there is just the same as it is here, the earth is similar. There are forests and hills and valleys with rivers flowing and roads leading from one town to another . . . People in spiritland have their ordinary occupations, the farmer his farm.

This ‘spiritland’ where dead ancestors recreate a life comparable to their earthly existence is not only parallel to the human world but is also similar and physically contiguous with it for there is constant coming and going between them in the endless traffic of life, death and reincarnation. The masked spirits who often grace human rituals and ceremonies with their presence are representative visitors from this underworld and are said to emerge from their subterranean home through ant-holes. At least that is the story as told to the uninitiated. To those who know, however, the masked ‘spirits’ are only symbolic ancestors. But this knowledge does not in any way diminish their validity or the awesomeness of their presence.

These ancestral spirits which may be personified by man are, however, of a very different order from chi and so is their place of abode. There is a story of how a proud wrestler, having thrown every challenger in the world, decides to go and wrestle in the world of spirits. There he also throws challenger after challenger, including many multiple-headed ones – so great was his prowess. At last there is no one left to fight. But the wrestler refuses to leave. The spirits beg him to go; his companion praise-singer on the flute pleads with him. But it is all in vain. There must be somebody left; surely the famed land of spirits can do better than this,he said. Again everyone begs him to collect his laurels and go but again he refuses. Finally his own chi appears, reluctant, thin as a rope. The wrestler laughs at this miserable-looking contender and moves forward contemptuously to knock him down whereupon the other lifts him clear off the ground with his little finger and smashes him to death.

This cautionary tale is concerned mainly, I think, with setting a limit to man’s aspiration. The limit is not the sky; it is somewhere much closer to earth. A sensible man will turn round at the frontiers of absolutism and head for home again. There is, however, around the story as well a vague intimation that the place where chi inhabits is forbidden to man in a way that ani mmo; the abode of his dead fathers, does not appear to be. For we have, at least, a description of the landscape of ani mmo;nothing comparable exists for the territory of chi.

There is another cautionary tale about chi, this time involving the little bird, nza, who ate and drank somewhat more than was good for him and in a fit of recklessness which inebriation alone would explain taunted his chi to come and get him if he could. Whereupon a hawk swooped down from clear sky and carried him away. Which shows the foolishness of counting on chi’s remoteness, for chi need not come in person or act directly but may use one’s enemy who is close by.

The story of the headstrong wrestler in addition to all the other things it tells us makes also important point that man’s chi does have special hold over him such as no other powers can muster. This is why, for instance, it can dispense with the physical endowments and terrors of the multiple-headed spirits. This special power that chi has over its man (or the man’s special vulnerability to his chi) is further exemplified in a proverb: ‘No matter how many divinities sit together to plot a man’s ruin it will come to nothing unless his chi is there among them.’ Clearly chi has unprecedented veto powers over man’s destiny.

But power so complete, even in the hands of chi, is abhorrent to the Igbo imagination. Therefore the makers of proverb went to work again, as it were, to create others that would set a limit to its exercise. Hence the well-known Onye kwe chie ekwe. If a man agrees his chi agrees. And so the initiative, or some of it at least, is returned to man.

If you want to know how life has treated an Igbo man, a good place to look is the name his children bear. His hopes, his fears, his joys and sorrows; his grievances against his fellows, or complaints about the way he has been used by fortune; even straight historical records, are all there. And because chi is so central to Igbo thought we will also find much about it in proper names – more, I think, than from any other single source.

Chika (chi is supreme); Chibuzo (chi is in front); Nebechi (look to chi) are only a few examples of the large number of names that show the general primacy of chi over mankind. Chinwuba asserts chi’s special responsibility for increase and prosperity; Chinwendu its power over life and Chikadibia over health. A man who suffers from false accusations or calumnies heaped on him by his fellow may call his child Chiebonam (may chi not accuse me) meaning that the moral justification which chi can give is what counts in the end. It is, however, unusual to link chi in this way with moral sanction, a responsibility that belongs normally to Ani, the Earth Goddess and proper source of moral law – a fact recognized in the name Aniebonam which is analogous to Chiebonam.

The Igbo believe that a man receives his gifts or talents, his character – indeed his portion in life generally – before he comes into the world. It seems there is an element of choice available to him at that point; and that his chi presides over bargaining. Hence the saying Obu etu nya na chie si kwu, which we often hear when a man’s misfortune is somehow beyond comprehension and so can only be attributable to an agreement he himself must have entered into, at the beginning, alone with his chi, for there is a fundamental justice in the universe and nothing so terrible can happen to a person for which he is not somehow responsible. A few other names suggest this role of chi as the great dealer out of gifts: Nkechinyelu and Chijioke, for example.

As we have seen the Igbo believe that when a man says yes his chi will also agree; but not always. Sometimes a man may struggle with all his power and say yes most emphatically and yet nothing he attempts will succeed. Quite simply the Igbo say of such a man: Chie ekwero, his chi does not agree. Now, this could means one of two things: either the man has a particularly intransigent chi or else it is the man himself attempting too late to alter that primordial bargain he had willingly struck with his chi, saying yes now when his first unalterable word had been no, forgetting that ‘the first word gets to Chukwu’s house’.

But of course the idea of an intransigent chi does exist in Igbo: ajo chi, literally ‘bad chi’. We must remember, however, when we hear that a man has a bad chi that we are talking about his fortune rather than his character. A man of impeccable character may yet have a bad chi so that nothing he puts his hand to will work out right. Chi is therefore more concerned with success or failure than with righteousness and wickedness. Which is not to say that it is totally indifferent to morality. For we should know by now that nothing is totally anything in Igbo thinking; everything is a question of measure and degree. We have already seen in the name Chienonam that chi shares a little of the moral concerns of Ani, the earth goddess. But in addition there is a hint of moral attribution of chi in the way the Igbo sometimes explain differences in human character. For maximum dramatization they pick two brothers who are dissimilar in character: one good, the other bad. And they say: ofu nne n’amu, ma ofu chi adeke, a very neat and tight statement which can only be approximately interpreted as: one mother gives birth, different chi create.

This statement apart from reiterating the idea of ‘one man, one chi’ goes further to introduce the fundamental notion of chi as creator which is of the utmost importance: a man does not only have his own chi but is created by it and no two people, not even blood brothers, it seems, are created by the same chi. What we know of chi can thus be summed up as follows: every person has an individual chi who created him, its natural home is somewhere in the region of the sun but it may be induced to visit an earthly shrine; a person’s fortunes in life are controlled more or less completely by chi. (Perhaps this is a good place to point out that there are many minor – and occasionally even major- divergences of perception about chi from different parts of Igbo land so that one can at best only follow what appears to be the dominant and persistent concepts. For example, although communities exist which assert categorically that chi lives with Chukwu, in most places such closeness can only be deducted indirectly.)

There are many names and sayings in Igbo which confirm the creative role of chi. When we name a child Chiekezie we imply that chi has restored a certain balance by that particular creation, or has at last apportioned share equitably. Of a man unattractive or deficient in character we might say: chi ya kegbulu ya ekegbu. Here again there are two possible interpretations to our statement: either the man in question was created badly or else was cheated of his full share of things. Or both interpretations may even be intended; for what else is creation but the imparting of distinguishing characteristics and bestowing of gifts? Certainly the Igbo language by having the same root-word ke for create and share does encourage this notion.

The idea of individualism is sometimes traced to the Christian principle that God created all men and consequently every one of them is presumed worthy in His sight. The Igbo do better than that. They postulate the concept of every man as both a unique creation and the work of a unique creator. Which is as far as individualism and uniqueness can possibly go! And we should naturally expect such a cosmogony to have far-reaching consequences in the psychology and institutions of the people. This is not the place, however, to go into that. But we should at least notice in passing the fierce egalitarianism (less charitable people would have other names for it, of course) which was such a marked feature of Igbo political organization, and may justifiably speculate on its possible derivation from this concept of every man’s original and absolute uniqueness. An American anthropologist who studied the Igbo community of Onitsha in recent years called his book The King in Every Man.

All this might lead one to think that among the Igbo the individual would be supreme, totally free and existentially alone. But the Igbo are unlikely to concede to the individual an absolutism they deny even chi. The obvious curtailment of a man’s power to walk alone and do as he will is provided by another potent force – the will of his community. For wherever something stands, no matter what, something Else will stand beside it. No man however great can win judgment against all people.

We must now turn to the all-important relationship between chi and Chi Ukwu, one of the names by which the Supreme Deity is known in Igbo. The most obvious link is the name itself. Chi Ukwu (or simply, Chukwu) means literally Great Chi. Thus whatever chi may be it does seem to partake of the nature of the Supreme God. Another link is provided by the sun, bringer of daylight. As we saw earlier, among the Igbo of Awka a man’s chi may be invoked to descend from the solar realm. As it happens, the Igbo also see the sun as an agent of Chukwu to whom it is said to bear those rare sacrifices offered as man’s last desperate resort. It would seem then that wherever the abode of Chukwu happens to be in the heavens it cannot be distant from the place of chi.

In Yoruba cosmology the Supreme God, Olodumare (one of whose title is, incidentally, Owner of the Sun) sent the god, Obatala, on a mission of creation to make man. The Igbo are not so specific about Chukwu’s role in the creation of man, but may be suggesting a similar delegation of power by Supreme Overlord to a lesser divinity except that in their case every act of creation is the work of a separate and individual agent, chi, a personified and unique manifestation of the creative essence.

Still further west, the Akan of Ghana believe in a Moon Goddess whom they call Ngame, Mother of the World who gives a ‘soul’ to every human being at birth by shooting lunar rays into him. The Igbo, seemingly more reticent about such profound events may yet be hinting at a comparable cosmic relationship between their chi and solar rays. This would explain the invocation of chi from the face of the sun at the consecration of its shrine and account also for the second meaning of the word: daylight. And, of course, the Igbo being patrilineal (as anthropologist tell us) where the Akan are matrilineal a preference by them for the sun over the moon would be completely in character!

The significance of the sun in Igbo religion though subtle and unobtrusive is nonetheless undeniable and may even be called pervasive. If we are to believe the New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology it seems that two-times-two-times-two is everywhere the sun’s mystical figure (just as three-times-three is the moon’s). Certainly the Igbo have a lot of use for fours and eights. The basic unit their calendar is the four-day ‘small’ week and an eight-day ‘great’ week; the circumcision of their male child takes place on the eight day after which it is accounted a human being; they compute largeness in units of four hundred, nnu, etc., etc.

The exact relationship between the Supreme God (Chukwu), the sun and chi in Igbo cosmology will probably never be (and perhaps was intended not to be) unraveled. But if Chukwu means literally Great chi one is almost tempted to borrow the words of Christian dogma and speak of chi as being of the same ‘substance’ as and ‘proceeding’ from Chukwu. Or is chi an infinitesimal manifestation of Chukwu’s infinite essence given to each of us separately and uniquely, a single ray from the sun’s boundless radiance? Or does Chukwu have a separate existence as ruler over a community of chi, countless as the stars and as endless in their disparate identities, holding anarchy at bay with His will?

One last word about Chineke which we have come to interpret as ‘God who creates’ and use as an alternative name for Chukwu. If our interpretation and use were supported by Igbo language and religious tradition the role of Chukwu as the creator would be established and the activity of chi in their multiplicity relegated to the status of mere figures of speech. Unfortunately the early missionaries who appropriated Chineke as the Creator-God of Christianity acted a little hastily, unaware that the Igbo language capable of treachery to hasty users on account of its tonality. (The story of the white preacher who kept saying that God had great buttocks when he meant strength may be apocryphal, but it makes an important point.)

Chineke consists of three words: chi na eke. In assigning a meaning to it the crucial word is nawhich itself has three possible meanings. Let us examine in turn and seen what it does to Chineke:

(a)  Said with high tone na means who or which. Chineke will then mean ‘chi which creates’;

(b)  Said with low tone na can mean the auxiliary verb does, in which case Chineke will mean ‘chi does create’; and finally

(c)   Again said with low tone na can mean the conjunctive and.

Here something fundamental changes because eke is no longer a verb but a noun. Chineke then becomes ‘chi and eke’. The early missionaries by putting the wrong tone on that little word na escorted a two-headed, pagan god into their holy of holies!

Now what are the grounds for making such a terrible assertion? Quite simply I have looked at traditional Igbo usage. But before I give the examples that will make clear let us take a quick look eke, this mysterious second member of the duality. What is it? I do not know for certain, but it does seem to have more or less the same attributes as chi; also it is sometimes called aka.

We have already referred to the common name Chinwuba (chi has increase) earlier on. Another version of this name is Ekejiuba (Eke hold increase). We have also mentioned the name Nebechi (look to chi). Now, there is also Lemeke (Leweke) which would appear to be exactly the same name except that eke occurs instead of chi.It is interesting to note that the chi versions of these name occurs more in the northern and western parts of Igbo  land while eke names tend to occur more in the southern and eastern parts.

Let us turn for a moment from proper names to other sayings in which chi and eke are yoked together. If you want to curse a man in the most thorough fashion you curse his chi and his eke(or aka). That really takes care of him!

There is also the well-known little anecdote about the hen. Someone once asked her why it was that from daybreak to sunset she was always scratching the ground for food; was she never satisfied? To which she replied: ‘You see, my dear fellow, when I wake up in the morning I begin to look for food for my chi. When I am through with that I must then find some for my eke. By the time I finish with that too it is already sunset and I haven’t catered for myself!’

From the foregoing it would appear that chi and eke are very closely related deities, perhaps the same god in a twofold manifestation, such as male or female; or the duality may have come into being for the purpose of bringing two dialectical tributaries of Igbo into liturgical union. This last is particularly attractive because there exists a small number of similar ‘double-headed’ phrases each comprising two words and the conjunctive, both words being of identical meaning but drawn from two basic dialectical areas. Used in this conjunction the words immediately introduce the element of totality into their ordinary meaning. Thus ikwu na ibe stands for the entire community of kinsmen and women; ogbo na uke for the militant and aggressive band of spirit adversaries; okwu na uka for endless wrangling; nta na imo for odds and ends, etc. If indeed chi na eke should turn out to belong to this group of phrases the idea of using it to curse a man absolutely would then make a lot of sense! Which might be bad news indeed for the Christian Church in Igbo land. But it may surely draw consolation from the fact that the book of the Old Testament itself, in all its glory and dignity, ends ‘with a curse’!

Far be it from me, however, to suggest that Chineke should be dropped at this late hour as an alternative name for Chukwu. That would be futile pedantry; for whatever doubts we may entertain about its antecedents it has certainly served generations of Christians and non-Christians in Igbo land in contemplating the nature of the all-distant Supreme Deity, whose role in the world is shrouded in mystery and metaphor. The attraction of Chineke for the early evangelists must have been its seeming lack of ambiguity on the all-important question of creation. They needed a ‘God who creates’ and Chineke stood ready at hand. But Igbo traditional thought in its own way and style did recognize Chukwu as the Supreme Creator speculating only on the modalities, on how He accomplished the work and through what agencies and intermediaries. As we have seen He appears to work through chi to create man. Similarly there are numerous suggestion in Igbo lore of Him working with man to make the world – or rather to enhance its habitability, for the work of creation was not ended in one monumental effort but goes on still, Chukwu and man talking things over at critical moments, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not. Two examples will suffice:

When Death first came into the world men sent a messenger to Chukwu to beg him to remove the terrible scourge. Although He was disposed to consider the matter the first request that actually got through to Him from mankind was the wrong one and once He had granted it there was no way it could be altered.

In a study of Igbo people published in 1913 Northcote Thomas recorded the following story about Ezenri, that fascinating priest/king whose spiritual pre-eminence was acknowledge over considerable parts of Igbo land:

Ezenri and Ezadama came from heaven and rested on an ant heap; all was water Cuku (Chukwu) asked who was sitting there and they answered ‘We are the kings of Nri and Adama’, thereupon Cuku and the kings talked. After some conversation Cuku gave them each a piece of yam; yams were at that time unknown to man, for human beings walked in the bush like animals. . . .

Later Chukwu tells Ezenri how to plant and tend the yam but Ezenri complains that the ground is too wet; and Chukwu advises him to send Awka people – workers in iron – to blow on the earth with their bellows and make it dry.

There is a very strong suggestion here and also in the story about the coming of death that at crucial cosmological moments Chukwu will discuss His universe with man. The moment of man’s first awareness of implications of death was such a time; but so also was the great turning point when man ceased wandering in the bush and became a settled agriculturist calling upon craft of the blacksmith to effect this momentous transition.

And finally, at the root of it all lies that very belief we have already seen: a belief in the fundamental worth and independence of every man and of his right to speak on matters of concern to him and, flowing from it, a rejection of any form absolutism which might endanger those values. It is not surprising that the Igbo held discussion and consensus as the highest ideals of the political process. This made them ‘argumentative’ and difficult to rule. But how could they suspend for the convenience of a ruler limitations which they impose even on their gods. For as we have seen a man may talk and bargain even with his chi at the moment of his creation. And what was more, Chukwu Himself in all His power and glory did not make the world by fiat. He held conservation with mankind; he held conversation with mankind; he talked with those archetypal men of Nri and Adama and even enlisted their good offices to make the earth firm and productive.

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