Study Guide

Arrow of God Tradition and Customs

By Chinua Achebe

Tradition and Customs

"I am one of those they have chosen to go to Okperi tomorrow and bring the loads of our new teacher."

"Oduche!"

"Father!"

"Listen to what I shall say no. When a handshake goes beyond the elbow we know it has turned to another thing. It was I who sent you to join those people because of my friendship to the white man, Wintabota. He asked me to send one of my children to learn the ways of his people and I agreed to send you. I did not send you so that you might leave your duty in my household. Do you hear me? Go and tell the people who chose you to go to Okperi that I said no. Tell them that tomorrow I the day on which my sons and my wives and my son's wife work for me. Your people should know the custom of his land; if they don't you must tell them. Do you hear me?" (1.128-131).

Though Ezeulu has sent his son Oduche to learn the ways of the white man, he asserts the superiority of Igbo customs and traditions, as well as his right to tell his son what to do.

"I have not yet heard of a message that could not wait. Or have you brought us news that Chukwu, the high god, is about to remove the foot that holds the world? If not then you must know that Eke Okperi does not break up because three men have come to town. If you listen carefully even now you can hear its voice; and it is not even half full yet. When it is full you can hear it from Umuda. Do you think a market like that will stop to hear your message?" he sat down for a while; nobody else spoke.

"You can see now, Son of our Daughter, that we cannot get our elders together before tomorrow," said Otikpo.

"If war came suddenly to your town how do you call your men together, Father of my Mother? Do you wait till tomorrow? Do you not beat your ikolo?"

Ebo and Otikpo burst into laughter. The three men from Umuaro exchanged glances. Akukalia's face began to look dangerous. Uduezue sat as he had done since they first came in, his chin in his left hand.

"Different people have different customs," said Otikpo after his laugh, "In Okperi it is not our custom to welcome strangers to our market with the ikolo." (2.68-72)

Otikpo's reference to common customs is condescending and provokes Akukalia's anger. Otikpo is reminding Akukalia that he is unimportant, and that his message is unimportant, no matter what it is about. Even if it is a message of war.

"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 wit 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 not only the competition between men, but also competition between the various ways in which 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.

"If we are Christians, we must be ready to die for the faith," he said. "You must be ready to kill the python as the people of the rivers killed the iguana. You address the python as Father. It is nothing but a snake, the snake that deceived our first mother, Eve. If you are afraid to kill it do not count yourself a Christian."

The first Umuaro man to kill and eat a python was Josiah Madu of Umuago. (4.66-67).

The catechist at the Christian church sets the stage for the contest between Christianity and the traditional gods of Umuaro by challenging his congregation to defy the old traditions. In particular, he incites the people of Umuaro to kill and eat the sacred royal python. Such an act would be an abomination according to Ibo culture.

Unachukwu was a carpenter, the only one in all those parts. He had learnt the trade under the white missionaries who built the Onitsha Industrial Mission. In his youth he had been conscripted to carry the loads of the soldiers who were sent to destroy Abame as a reprisal for the killing of a white man. What Unachukwu saw during that punitive expedition taught him that the white man was not a thing of fun. And so after his release he did not return to Umuaro but made his way to Onitsha, where he became house-boy to the carpenter-missionary, J.P. Hargreaves. After over ten years' sojourn in a strange land, Unachukwu returned to Umuaro with the group of missionaries who succeeded after two previous failures in planting the new faith among his people….

Now he was not only a lay reader but a pastor's warden although Umuaro did not have a pastor as yet, only a catechist. But it showed the great esteem in which Moses Unachukwu was held in the young church. The last catechist, Mr. Molokwu, consulted him in whatever he did. Mr. Goodcountry, on the other hand, attempted from the very first to ignore him. But Moses was not a man to be ignored lightly.

Mr. Goodcountry's teaching about the sacred python gave Moses the first opportunity to challenge him openly. To do this he used not only the Bible but, strangely enough for a convert, the myths of Umuaro. He spoke with great power for, coming as he did from the village which carried the priest hood of Idemili, he knew perhaps more than others what the python was. On the other side, his great knowledge of the Bible and his sojourn in Onitsha which was the source of the new religion gave him confidence. He told the new teacher quite bluntly that neither the Bible nor the catechism asked converts to kill the python, a beast full o fill omen. (4.68-70)

Moses Unachukwu is a Christian convert, and educated in the ways of the white man. Such a background give him power in Umuaro, a power that he is not willing to give up. Knowledge of the white man's culture and his ability to speak English are his weapons for securing his position among his people. His weapon of choice in challenging the catechist is, conversely, his intimate knowledge of Umuaro's culture and customs.

"One day six brothers of Umuama killed the python and asked one of their number, Iweka, to cook yam pottage with it. Each of them brought a piece of yam and a bowl of water to Iweka. When he finished cooking the yam pottage the men came one by one and took their pieces of yam. Then they began to fill their bowls to the mark with the yam stew. But this time only four of them took their measure before the stew got finished."

Moses Unachukwu's listeners smiled, except Mr. Goodcountry who sat like a rock. Oduche smiled because he had heard the story as a little boy and forgotten it until now.

"The brothers began to quarrel violently, and then to fight. Very soon the fighting spread throughout Umuama, and so fierce was it that the village was almost wiped out. The few survivors fled their village, across the great river of the land of Olu where they are scattered today. The remaining six villages seeing what happened to Umuama went to a seer to know the reason, and he told them that the royal python was sacred to Idemili; it was this deity which had punished Umuama. From that day the six villages decreed that henceforth anyone who killed the python would be regarded as having killed his kinsmen." (4.72-74).

Moses Unachukwu recounts one of the foundational myths of Igbo religion and life, explaining why they must honor the sacred python. Ironically, the story he tells foreshadows exactly what happens in Umuaro when Oduche decides to challenge the sacred python by locking him in a box. The ensuing animosity between Ezeulu and Ezidemili results in Ezeulu's decision to seek his revenge on the village for disrespecting him. Unfortunately, Ezeulu's god, Ulu, is the loser in the contest.

Although Ezeulu did not want anybody to think that he was troubled or to make him appear like an object of pity, he did not ignore the religious implications of Oduche's act. He thought about it seriously on the night of the incident. The custom of Umuaro was well known and he did not require the priest of Idemili to instruct him. Every Umuaro child knows that if a man kills the python inadvertently he must placate Idemili by arranging a funeral for the snake almost as elaborate as a man's funeral. But there was nothing in the custom of Umuaro for the man who puts the snake into a box. Ezeulu was not saying that it was not an offence, but it was not serious enough for the priest of Idemili to send him an insulting message. It was the kind of offence which a man put right between himself and his personal god. And what was more the Festival of the New Pumpkin Leaves would take place in a few days. It was he, Ezeulu, who would then cleanse the six villages of this and countless other sins, before the planting season. (6.13)

Because there is no precedent for what Oduche has done, Ezeulu isn't sure how to respond to it. Still, Ezeulu is pretty sure that Ezidemili is asking for something that is unnecessary. Besides, it is the custom for him, Ezeulu, to cleanse the villages of all their sins at the Festival of the New Pumpkin Leaves. So Ezeulu tries to ignore the potentially serious ramifications of Oduche's actions.

Ibe and his people made some vague, apologetic noises.

"What I want to know," said Ezeulu, "is how you will pay me for taking care of your wife for one year."

"In-law, I understand you very well," said Onwuzuligobo. "Leave everything to us. You know that a man's debt to his father-in-law can never be fully discharged. When we buy a goat or a cow we pay for it and it becomes our own. But when we marry a wife we must go on paying until we die. We do not dispute that we owe you. Our debt is ever grater than you say. What about all the years from her birth to the day we took her from you? Indeed we owe you a great debt, but we ask you to give us time."

[…]

Onwuzuligbo promised on behalf of his kinsman that Akueke would not be beaten in future. Then Ezeulu sent for her to find out whether she wanted to return to her husband. She hesitated and then said she would go if her father was satisfied. (6.42-44; 48)

This short passage demonstrates several traditions and customs among the Igbo people. First of all, a man must be repaid for the care he has given his daughter throughout her lifetime. The husband's family reaps the benefits in the many children she brings to his household, and her father must be compensated for this in some way. Second, when there is a serious disagreement, and the wife returns to her father's compound, the husband's family must again make up for the food she ate. Third, there must be some assurance that a similar disagreement will not take place again – the consequences could be very serious. Last, it shows how women are not masters of their own destiny. Though Akueke is asked if she wishes to return, the decision is ultimately up to her father.

A stranger to this year's festival might go away thinking that Umuaro had never been more united in all its history. In the atmosphere of the present gathering the great hostility between Umunneora and Umuachala seemed, momentarily, to lack significance. Yesterday if two men from the two villages had met they would have watched each other's movement with caution and suspicion; tomorrow they would do so again. But today they drank palm wine freely together because no man in his right mind would carry poison to a ceremony of purification; he might as well go out into the rain carrying potent, destructive medicines on his person. (7.2)

All the animosity between the two villages is temporarily forgotten because of the great tradition of purifying the region. Nobody would consider bringing evil upon themselves by behaving with dishonor during the important ceremony, the Festival of the New Pumpkin Leaves.

"Father, is it the custom for the diviner to take home the hen brought for the sacrifice?" asked Obika.

"No, my son. Did Aniegboka do so?"

"He did. I wanted to speak to him but my mother made a sign to me not to talk."

"It is not the custom. You must know that there are more people with greedy, long throats in the pursuit of medicine than anywhere else." He noticed the look of concern on Obika's face. "Take your wife home and do not allow this to trouble you. If a diviner wants to eat the entrails of sacrifice like a vulture the matter lies between him and his chi. You have done your part by providing the animal."

When they left him Ezeulu felt his heart warm with pleasure as it had not done for many days. Was Obika already a changed person? It was not like him to come to his father and ask questions with so much care on his face. (11.119-123)

The medicine man was not entirely accurate in fulfilling his duties. In performing the sacrifice as it was done traditionally, Obika has finally learned a more important custom, that of honoring his father.