Study Guide

Arrow of God Competition

By Chinua Achebe

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The long uproar that followed was largely of approbation. Nwaka had totally destroyed Ezeulu's speech. The last glancing blow which killed it was the hint that the Chief Priest's mother had been a daughter of Okperi. The assembly broke up into numerous little groups of people talking to those who sat nearest to them. One man said that Ezeulu had forgotten whether it was his father or his mother who told him about the farmland. Speaker after speaker rose and spoke to the assembly until it was clear that all the six villages stood behind Nwaka. Ezeulu was not the only man of Umuaro whose mother had come from Okperi. But none of the others dared go to his support. (2.19)

For the first time, we see the animosity between Nwaka and Ezeulu as they compete for the people's loyalty. Nwaka appears to have won the first round as the people consider going to war against Okperi.

"But what have we seen here today? We have seen people speak because they are afraid to be called cowards. Others have spoken the way they spoke because they are hungry for war. Let us leave all that aside. If in truth the farmland is ours, Ulu will fight on our side. But if it is not we shall know soon enough." (1.27)

The men of Umuaro want to go to war with a neighboring village, Okperi, over a piece of land in dispute. Ezeulu cautions the men not to seek war unless they know it is righteous and just. Ulu, their deity, will only fight on their side if theirs is a just cause. Otherwise, he will let them fall.

In the five years since the white man broke the guns of Umuaro the enmity between Ezeulu and Nwaka of Umunneora grew and grew until they were at the point which Umuaro people called kill and take the head. As was to be expected this enmity spread through their two villages and before long there were several stories of poisoning. From then on few people from the one village would touch palm wine or kolanut which had passed through the hands of a man from the other.

Nwaka was known for speaking his mind; he never paused to bite his words. But many people trembled for him that night in his compound when he had all but threatened Ulu by reminding him of the fate of another deity that failed his people. It was true that the people of Aninta burnt one of their deity and drove away his priest. But it did not follow that Ulu would also allow himself to be bullied and disgraced. Perhaps Nwaka counted on the protection of the personal god of his village.

Nwaka's drummer and praise-singer was none other than the priest of Idemili, the personal deity of Umunneora. This man, Ezidemili, was Nwaka's great friend and mentor. It was he who fortified Nwaka and sent him forward. For a long time no one knew this. There were few things happening in Umuaro which Ezeulu did not know. He knew that the priest of Idemili and Ogwugwu and Eru and Udo had never been happy with their secondary role since the villages got together and made Ulu and put him over the older deities. But he would not have thought that one of them would go so far as to set someone to challenge Ulu. (4.1-2; 13)

The animosity between two men escalates to enmity between the two villages and, finally, to a competition between the high god, Ulu, and the lesser deities of the villages. In particular, there seems to be a showdown between Ulu and the lesser god, Idemili.

"Has anybody ever asked why the head of the priest of Ulu is removed from the body at death and hung up in the shrine?" asked Ezidemili rather abruptly.


"Idemili means Pillar of Water. As the pillar of this house holds the roof so does Idemili hold up the Raincloud in the sky so that it does not fall down. Idemili belongs to the sky and that is why I, his priest, cannot sit on bare earth." Nwaka nodded his head…..Every boy in Umuaro knew that Ezidemili did not sit on bare earth.

"And that is why when I die I am not buried in the earth, because the earth and the sky are two different things. But why is the priest of Ulu buried in the same way? Ulu has no quarrel with earth; when our fathers made it they did not say that his priest should not touch the earth. But the first Ezeulu was an envious man like the present one; it was he himself who asked his people to bury him with the ancient and awesome ritual accorded to the priest of Idemili. Another day when the present priest begins to talk about things he does not know, ask him about this." (4.17; 23-25)

We see here that there is not only the competition between the men, but also among the many ways that traditions can be twisted for personal advantage. Ezidemili uses the tradition for burying the high priest of Idemili as a way to criticize his enemy, Ezeulu, who is the High Priest of a deity greater than Idemili.

"But what worries me is that my father makes Nwafo think he will be chosen. If tomorrow as you say Ulu chooses another person there will be strife in the family. My father will not be there then and it will all rattle around my own head."


The old man and his friend's son talked for a long time. When Edogo finally rose to go…Akuebue promised to talk to Ezeulu. He felt pity and a little contempt for the young man. Why could he not open his mouth like a man and say that he wanted to be priest instead of hiding behind Oduche and Obika? That was why Ezeulu never counted him among people.


And yet Akuebue felt sorry for Edogo. He knew how a man's first son must feel to be pushed back so that the younger ones might come forward to receive favour. No doubt that was why in the first days of Umuaro, Ulu chose to give only one son to his Chief Priests, for seven generations. (12.37, 40-41)

For seven generations, the priest of Ulu had only one son, and thus the mantle of priesthood passed to that one son. Finally, there is a generation with several sons, so the question of who will get the priesthood becomes a real question and a source of conflict. Though Edogo claims he doesn't want to become the next priest of Ulu, Akuebue believes otherwise. They both wonder if Ezeulu is angling things so that his favorite son, Nwafo, will be the automatic choice of the deity. But if Ulu chooses somebody else – Ulu is the deity after all, and has the final say – the strife in the family will be unendurable.

Ezeulu walked as unhurriedly as he could into the outer compound and asked what all the noise was about. Matefi wailed louder.

"Shut your mouth," Ezeulu commanded.

"You tell me to shut my mouth," screamed Matefi, "when Oduche takes my daughter to the stream and beats her to death. How can I shut my mouth when they bring back a corpse to me. Go and look at her face; the fellow's five fingers…" Her voice had risen till it reverberated in the brain.

"I say shut your mouth! Are you mad?"

Matefi stopped her screaming. She moaned resignedly: "I have shut my mouth. Why should I not shut my mouth? After all Oduche is Ugoye's son. Yes, Matefi must shut her mouth."

"Let nobody call my name there!" shouted the other wife as she came out from her hut where she had sat as though all the noise in the compound came from a distant clan. "I say let nobody mention my name at all." (12.57-62)

This brief passage demonstrates the strife that can dominate in a polygamous compound. Though Ojiugo and Oduche had fought in a way that is typical between a half-brother and half-sister, this conflict becomes Matefi's personal complaint against her co-wife Ugoye. It doesn't help matters that there is already a significant amount of competition among Matefi and her co-wife for Ezeulu's affection and time.

Now Mr. Goodcountry saw in the present crisis over the New Yam Feast an opportunity for fruitful intervention. He had planned his church's harvest service for the second Sunday in November the proceeds from which would go into the fund for building a place of worship more worthy of God and of Umuaro. His plan was quite simple. The New Yam Festival was the attempt of the misguided heathen to show gratitude to God, the giver of all good things. This was God's hour to save them from their error which was now threatening to ruin them. They must be told that if they made their thank-offering to God they could harvest their crops without fear of Ulu…

So the news spread that anyone who did not want to wait and see all his harvest ruined could take his offering to the god of the Christians who claimed to have power of protection from the anger of Ulu. Such a story at other times might have been treated with laughter. But there was no more laughter left in the people. (18.120; 127)

The catechist at the Methodist church mission recognizes an opportunity for the church in the competition between Ezeulu and Umuaro. He decides to enter the fray. Though up until now the people of Umuaro have been suspicious of the church's presence – few people have seen the church as a viable alternative to their own religion – they face famine, and are more persuadable to other influences. The famine and death make them desperate enough now to see Christianity as a possible solution to the problem.

[Akuebue] was the only man among Ezeulu's friends and kinsmen who still came now and again to see him. But when he came he sat in silence or spoke about unimportant things. Today, however, he could not but touch on a new development in the crisis which troubled him. Perhaps Akuebue was the only man in Umuaro who knew that Ezeulu was not deliberately punishing the six villages. He knew that the Chief Priest was helpless; that a thing greater than nte had been caught in nte's trap. So whenever he came to visit Ezeulu he kept clear of the things nearest to their thoughts because they were past talking. But today he could not keep silence over the present move of the Christians to reap the harvest of Umuaro.

"It troubles me," he said, "because it looks like the saying of our ancestors that when brothers fight to death a stranger inherits their father's estate." (19.17)

Akuebue tries gently to point out that although Ezeulu might think his fight against his own people is just, it is the white man who will win in the end.

Some people expected Ezidemili to be jubilant. Such people did not know him. He was not that kind of man and besides he knew too well the danger of such exultation. All he was heard to say quietly was: This should teach him how far he could dare next time." (19.82)

Ezeulu's insistence that his god is stronger has proven false. Ezidemili may have beaten Ezeulu this time, but Ezidemili knows that Ezeulu's pride is what made him fall.

So in the end only Umuaro and its leaders saw the final outcome. To them the issue was simple. Their god had taken sides with them against his headstrong and ambitious priest and thus upheld the wisdom of their ancestors – that no man however great was greater than his people; that no one ever won judgement against his clan. (19.88)

Though Ezeulu thought his god Ulu would protect him and keep him from harm, it turned out that he was no match for the entire clan, who had joined forces against him. The deity has chosen sides.

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