Study Guide

Arrow of God Religion

By Chinua Achebe

Religion

"There is no cause to be afraid, my son. You have seen Eru, the Magnificent, the One that gives wealth to those who find favour with him. People sometimes see him at that place in this kind of weather. Perhaps he was returning home from a visit to Idemili or the other deities. Eru only harms those who swear falsely before his shrine." Ezeulu was carried away by his praise of the god of wealth. The way he spoke one would have thought that he was the proud priest of Eru rather than Ulu who stood above Eru and all the other deities. (1.85)

Here we learn that Ulu is the highest god in all of Umuaro. There are other gods, but are lesser gods and are subservient to Ulu. Further, they all offer each other respect; we see Eru, the god of Wealth, paying respect to the deity Idemili.

In the very distant past, when lizards were still few and far between, the six villages – Umuachala, Umunneora, Umuagu, Umuezeani, Umuogwugwu and Umuisiuzo – lived as different peoples, and each worshipped its own deity. Then the hired soldiers of Abame used to strike in the dead of night, set fire to the houses and carry men, women and children into slavery. Things were so bad for the six villages that their leaders came together to save themselves. They hired a strong team of medicine-men to install a common deity for them. This deity which the fathers of the six villages made was called Ulu. Half of the medicine was buried at the place which became Nkwo market and the other half thrown into the stream which became Mili Ulu. The six villages then took the name of Umuaro, and the priest of Ulu became their Chief Priest. From that day they were never again beaten by an enemy. (2.2)

Umuaro was founded on a common religion. This traditional religion is what ties all people in the villages together and makes them brothers. But what is interesting about this story is also the fact that the villages made their deity in the past, using strong medicine. They needed protection and the gods of old were insufficient.

"Men of Umuaro, why do you think our fathers told us this story? They told it because they wanted to teach us that no matter how strong or great man was he should never challenge his chi. This is what our kinsman did – he challenged his chi."

[…]

"But let the slave who sees another cast into a shallow grave know that he will be buried in the same way when his day comes. Umuaro is today challenging its chi. Is there any man or woman in Umuaro who does not know Ulu, the deity that destroys a man when his life is sweetest to him? Some people are still talking of carrying war to Okperi. Do they think that Ulu will fight in blame? Today the world is spoilt and there is no longer head or tail in anything that is done. But Ulu is not spoilt with it. If you go to war to avenge a man who passed s*** on the head of his mother's father, Ulu will not follow you to be soiled in the corruption. Umuaro, I salute you." (2.96-97)

One of the most important principles in Igbo religion is that you will never win a contest against your chi, your personal god. By going to Okperi and breaking another man's strength (his ikenga) in two, Akukalia tried to challenge his chi. By starting a war with Okperi, Umuaro is also challenging its chi. According to Ezeulu, Umuaro can never win this battle against itself.

"We shall fight for our farmland and for the contempt Okperi has poured on us. Let us not listen to anyone trying to frighten us with eh name of Ulu. If a man says yes his chi also says yes. And we have all heard how the people of Aninta dealt with their deity when he failed them. Did they not carry him to the boundary between them and their neighbours and set fire on him? I salute you." (2.101)

Though Igbos always say that you should not challenge your chi, the competing, paradoxical principle in Igbo religion is articulated here by Nwaka: if you say yes, your chi will also say yes. Western culture has a similar saying – "God helps those who help themselves."

"But if it is the sickness of the Spirits, as you say, there is no medicine for it – except camwood and fire."

"That is so," said Akuebue, "but we cannot put our hands between our laps and watch a sick man for twelve days. We must grope about until what must happen does happen." (11.45-46).

In Igbo religious thought, some sicknesses can be healed. But if the spirits have decided it's your time to die, there is no effective healing ceremony. This suggests a certain fatalism and acceptance of death within Igbo traditional religion. Yet Akuebue points out that even if you know the man is going to die, you must do something for him to help alleviate his suffering.

"Do not make me laugh," he said. "If someone came to you and said that Ezeulu sent his son to a strange religion so as to please another man what would you tell him? I say don't make me laugh. Shall I tell you why I sent my son? Then listen. A disease that has never been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs. When we want to make a charm we look for the animal whose blood can match its power; if a chicken cannot do it we look for a goat or a ram; if that is not sufficient we send for a bull. But sometimes even a bull does not suffice, then we must look for a human. Do you think it is the sound of the death-cry gurgling through blood that we want to hear? No, my friend, we do it because we have reached the very end of things and we know that neither a cock nor a goat nor even a bull will do. And our fathers have told us that it may even happen to an unfortunate generation that they are pushed beyond the end of things, and their back is broken and hung over a fire. When this happens they may sacrifice their own blood. This is what our sages meant when they said that a man who has nowhere else to put his hand for support puts it on his own knee. That was why our ancestors when they were pushed beyond the end of things by the warriors of Abam sacrificed not a stranger but one of themselves and made the great medicine which they called Ulu." (12.89)

One of the principles of Igbo religion is the necessity of sacrifice in order to cure illness or protect again illness. In this case, Ezeulu examines what the white man is bringing and he compares it to a disease. But because it is a disease he has never seen before, to cure it, the sacrifice must be great – it must be greater than a goat, or a chicken, or a cow. He has come to the "end of things" and he must sacrifice his own son in order to gain the power he needs to confront this new religion.

There were few priests in the history of Umuaro in whose body priest hood met with medicine and magic as they did in the body of the last Ezeulu. When it happened the man's power was boundless.

Okeke Onenyi always said that the cause of the coolness between him and the present Ezeulu, his half-brother, was the latter's resentment at the splitting of powers between them. "He forgets," says Okeke Onenyi, "that the knowledge of herbs and anwansi is something inscribed in the lines of a man's palm. He thinks that our father deliberately took it from him and gave to me. Has he heard me complaining that the priesthood went to him?" (13.46-47)

In Igbo religion, a chief priest of a deity might not have all the powers at his disposal. In this case, we learn that Ezeulu does not have the power of herbal knowledge or of healing. He appears to resent this; in other passages, he indicates the disdain he holds for medicine men. The contempt he feels for healers might come from the fact that this healing power is closed to him.

"I did not ask you what anybody said. I asked what you were saying. Or do you want me to get up from here before you answer?"

"We were saying: Python, run! There is a Christian here."

"And what does it mean?"

"Akwuba told us that a python runs away as soon as it hears that."

Ezeulu broke into a long, loud laughter. Nwafo's relief beamed all over his grimy face.

"Did it run away when you said it?"

"It ran away fiam like an ordinary snake." (18.30-36)

Ezeulu enjoys hearing that the sacred python is scared of Christians. It suggests that his god, Ulu, is stronger than Idemili, the god of the sacred python. It also suggests that the Christian god is stronger than Idemili. Though Ezeulu doesn't realize it, that won't bode well for Ulu.

Because no one came near enough to him to see his anguish – and if they had seen it they would not have understood – they imagined that he sat in his hut gloating over the distress of Umuaro. But although he would not for any reason now see the present trend reversed he carried more punishment and more suffering than all his fellows. What troubled him most – and he alone seemed to be aware of it at present – was that the punishment was not for now alone but for all time. It would afflict Umuaro like an ogulu-aro disease which counts a year and returns to its victim. Beneath all anger in his mind lay a deeper compassion for Umuaro, the clan which long, long ago when lizards were in ones and twos chose his ancestor to carry their deity and go before them challenging every obstacle and confronting every danger on their behalf. (19.10)

Though Ezeulu is insistent in following what he believes his god is telling him to do, he recognizes that failure to call the Feast of the New Yam probably marks the demise of the god that Umuaro had taken up so long ago because of its need for protection. In short, it also marks the demise of the Umuaro religion.

…Ulu had chosen a dangerous time to uphold that truth for in destroying his priest he had also brought disaster on himself, like the lizard in the fable who ruined his mother's funeral by his own hand. For a deity who chose a moment such as this to chastise his priest or abandon him before his enemies was inciting people to take liberties; and Umuaro was just ripe to do so. The Christian harvest which took place a few days after Obika's death saw more people than even Goodcountry could have dreamed. In his extremity many a man sent his son with a yam or two to offer to the new religion and to bring back the promised immunity. Thereafter any yam harvested in his fields was harvested in the name of the son.

In a moment of desperation, and in a moment when the people see their god turning against its very own priest, the people of Umuaro turn to Christianity. When the Christian protection against Ulu's wrath seems to be effective, the people turn to the new religion in droves. From that day forward, their crops are harvested because the Christian god offered protection for their harvests.