He [Unoka] died of the swelling which was an abomination to the earth goddess. When a man was afflicted with swelling in the stomach and the limbs he was not allowed to die in the house. He was carried to the Evil Forest and left there to die. There was the story of a very stubborn man who staggered back to his house and had to be carried again to the forest and tied to a tree. The sickness was an abomination to the earth, and so the victim could not be buried in her bowels. He died and rotted away above the earth, and was not given the first of the second burial. Such was Unoka’s fate. (3.8)
The lazy Unoka dies of some kind of abominable illness. His death seems to be a sort of divine justice, paying him back for sinning against his family by not providing for them.
[Ezeani]: “We live in peace with our fellows to honor our great goddess of the earth without whose blessing our crops would not grow. You have committed a great evil [….] Your wife was at fault, but even if you came into your obi and found her lover on top of her, you would still have committed a great evil to beat her…The evil you have done can ruin the whole clan. The earth goddess whom you have insulted may refuse to give us her increase, and we shall all perish.” His tone now changed from anger to command. “You will bring to the shrine of Ani tomorrow one she-goat, one hen, a length of cloth and a hundred cowries.” (4.22)
Ezeani pronounces Okonkwo’s beating of his wife a sin against the goddess and warns that his sin could have drastic consequences, ones that affect the whole clan. He sets Okonkwo’s punishment at an animal sacrifice and payment. The punishment seems strangely small in comparison to the possible consequences of the crime. Overall, it seems that gods require sinners to acknowledge their wrongs.
[Ezeani]: “Take away your kola nut. I shall not eat in the house of a man who has no respect for our gods and ancestors. (4.20)
The priest of the earth goddess, Ezeani, doesn’t just condemn Okonkwo because it was uncool of Okonkwo to sin against the earth goddess (by beating his wife during Peace Week). The people of Umuofia believe that when one man commits a sin against the goddess, she will punish the entire village, not just the offender, unless the sin is atoned for. Thus the people of Umuofia live an interdependent lifestyle with each man’s behavior having consequences on the rest of the clan.
He walked back to his obi to await Ojiugo’s return. And when she returned he beat her very heavily. In his anger he had forgotten that it was the Week of Peace. His first two wives ran out in great alarm pleading with him that it was the sacred week. But Okonkwo was not the man to stop beating somebody half-way through, not even for fear of a goddess. (4.17)
Okonkwo commits a sin against the earth goddess by beating his wife during the Week of Peace. This is an example of a sin that seems pretty arbitrary. We think it’s bad to beat your wife at all, but apparently the earth goddess thinks domestic abuse is OK long as it isn’t during Peace Week. Regardless, what seems worse than inadvertently committing violence during a period of peace is that Okonkwo deliberately continues to sin even when he realizes his transgression. He seems to lack fear and respect for the goddess.
[Obierika]: “And let me tell you one thing, my friend. If I were you I would have stayed home. What you have done will not please the Earth. It is the kind of action for which the goddess wipes out whole families.” (8.26)
Killing family members and killing clansmen are both considered sins against the earth goddess. However, Ikemefuna was neither Okonkwo’s son by blood nor was he a member of the Umuofia clan. As a result, the community doesn’t force punishment on Okonkwo. However, Obierika, who tends to be wise, thinks that Ikemefuna was Okonkwo’s son – Okonkwo treated the boy like a son, and Ikemefuna though of Okonkwo as his father. Obierika believes that the earth goddess will agree. Is Okonkwo’s subsequently poor luck all because of he doesn’t atone for the sin of killing Ikemefuna?
The medicine man then ordered that there should be no mourning for the dead child. He brought out a sharp razor from the goatskin bag slung from his left shoulder and began to mutilate the child. Then he took it away to bury in the Evil Forest, holding it by the ankle and dragging it on the ground behind him. After such treatment it would think twice before coming again, unless it was one of the stubborn ones who returned, carrying the stamp of their mutilation – a missing finger or perhaps a dark line where the medicine man’s razor had cut them. (9.23)
Unlike in normal circumstances, here it is a sin for a child to be born because that child is a demonic spirit posing as an innocent human baby. Thus, what seems like a sinful ritual – mutilating the corpses of babies – is actually used to prevent further sins in the rebirth of evil.
[In Ekwefi’s story] “The birds gathered round to eat what was left and to peck at the bones he had thrown all about the floor. Some of them were too angry to eat. They chose to fly home on an empty stomach. But before they left each took back the feather he had lent to Tortoise. And there he stood in his hard shell full of food and wine but without any wings to fly home. He asked the birds to take a message for his wife, but they all refused. In the end Parrot, who had felt more angry than the others; suddenly changed his mind and agreed to take the message.
‘Tell my wife,’ said Tortoise, ‘to bring out all the soft things in my house and cover and compound with them so that I can jump down from the sky without very great danger.’
Parrot promised to deliver the message, and then flew away. But when he reached Tortoise’s house he told his wife to bring out all the hard things in the house. And so she brought out her husband’s hoes, machetes, spears, guns and even his cannon. Tortoise looked down from the sky and saw his wife bringing things out, but it was too far to see what they were. When all seemed ready he let himself go. He fell and fell and fell until he began to fear that he would never stop falling. And then like the sound of his cannon he crashed on the compound.”
“Did he die?” asked Ezinma.
“No,” replied Ekwefi. “His shell broke into pieces. But there was a great medicine man in the neighborhood. Tortoise’s wife sent for him and he gathered all the bits of shell and stuck them together. That is why Tortoise’s shell is not smooth.” (11.20-24)
The laws of the earth goddess are illustrated even in folktales. Here, Tortoise has sinned by not allowing his fellow creatures to partake of the food that the earth offered for all her children. As punishment, one of his brothers turns against him and the earth herself breaks his shell.
And then from the center of the delirious fury came a cry of agony and shouts of horror. It was as if a spell had been cast. All was silent. In the center of the crowd a boy lay in a pool of blood. It was the dead man’s sixteen-year-old-son, who with his brothers and half-brothers had been dancing the traditional farewell to their father. Okonkwo’s gun had exploded and a piece of iron had pierced the boy’s heart.
The confusion that followed was without parallel in the tradition of Umuofia. Violent deaths were frequent, but nothing like this had ever happened.
The only course open to Okonkwo was to flee from the clan. It was a crime against the earth goddess to kill a clansman, and a man who committed it must flee from the land. The crime was of two kinds, male and female. Okonkwo had committed the female, because it had been inadvertent. He could return to the clan after seven years…
As soon as the day broke, a large crowd of men from Ezedu’s quarter stormed Okonkwo’s compound, dressed in garbs of war. They set fire to his houses, demolished his red walls, killed his animals and destroyed his barn. It was the justice of the earth goddess, and they were merely her messengers. They had no hatred in their hearts against Okonkwo. His greatest friend, Obierika, was among them. They were merely cleansing the land which Okonkwo had polluted with the blood of a clansman. (13.12-15)
It is a sin against the earth to kill a clansman, a member of one’s extended family. Thus, Okonkwo must atone for his sin, or bring the wrath of the goddess down on the entire clan. The danger is so great to the whole village, and many of the village men band together to join in cleansing the earth and appeasing the goddess.
[Obierika on Okonkwo’s exile]: Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife’s twin children, whom he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. (13.16)
Obierika is torn about the consequences of so-called sins. He wonders why intention is never taken into account. Punishment seems to come whether or not a forbidden act was premeditated. Do you think that Okonkwo should be punished for accidentally killing the boy at the funeral? Is this just karmic payback for sinning by killing Ikemefuna?
[Uchendu]: “A man belongs to his fatherland when things are good and life is sweet. But when there is sorrow and bitterness he finds refuge in his motherland. Your mother is there to protect you. She is buried there. And that is why we say that mother is supreme. Is it right that you, Okonkwo, should bring to your mother a heavy face and refuse to be comforted? Be careful or you may displease the dead. Your duty is to comfort your wives and children and take them back to your fatherland after seven years. But if you allow sorrow to weigh you down and kill you, they will all die in exile.” (14.32)
In Okonkwo’s culture, disrespecting your family is a sin. According to Uchendu, Okonkwo is committing a sin by despairing while in exile here in his motherland. Not only is he is dishonoring his mother who raised and nurtured him, but he disrespects his wives and children by not setting a positive example for them in exile. If he doesn’t shape up, he’s not the only one who will suffer the consequences, his family will too. Again we see that sin is a community affair and not just the private business of a single individual.
Now that he had time to think of it, his son’s crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one’s father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye’s steps and abandon their ancestors. Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. (17.25)
Okonkwo considers his son’s betrayal as evil and a sin. Is Nwoye’s behavior a sin, though, or is it another way that the goddess or karma is punishing Okonkwo for killing Ikemefuna?
It was in fact one of them [a former osu] who in his zeal brought the church into serious conflict with the clan a year later by killing the sacred python, the emanation of the god of water.
The royal python was the most revered animal in Mbanta and all the surrounding clans. It was addressed as “Our Father,” and was allowed to go wherever it chose, even into people’s beds. It ate rats in the house and sometimes swallowed hens’ eggs. If a clansman killed a royal python accidentally, he made sacrifices of atonement and performed an expensive burial ceremony such as was done for a great man. No punishment was prescribed for a man who killed the python knowingly. Nobody thought that such a thing could ever happen. (18.16-17)
The killing of the sacred python is obviously a sin since that particular snake is the physical manifestation of a god. However, the very thought of killing it intentionally is so unthinkable that the Mbanta are reluctant to admit it might have happened.
One of the greatest crimes a man could commit was to unmask an egwugwu in public, or to say or do anything which might reduce its immortal prestige in the eyes of the uninitiated. And this was what Enoch did.
The annual worship of the earth goddess fell on a Sunday, and the masked spirits were abroad. The Christian women who had been to church could not therefore go home. Some of their men had gone out to beg the egwugwu to retire for a short while for the women to pass. They agreed and were already retiring, when Enoch boasted aloud that they would not dare to touch a Christian. Whereupon they all came back and one of them gave Enoch a good stroke of the cane, which was always carried. Enoch fell on him and tore off his mask. The other egwugwu immediately surrounded their desecrated companion, to shield him from the profane gaze of women and children, and led them away. Enoch had killed an ancestral spirit, and Umuofia was thrown into confusion. (22.9-10)
By unmasking the egwugwu, Enoch has committed a sin, especially since he baited the egwugwu into striking him. The action of unmasking is, in effect, killing the spirit because once revealed as a human body, he is made mortal. Many of the sins in Umuofia relate to killing family members. Here, Enoch, in a sense, has killed a family member because the egwugwu are ancestral spirits.
[Obierika on Okonkwo’s corpse]: “It is an abomination for a man to take his own life. It is an offense against the Earth, and a man who commits it will not be buried by his clansmen. His body is evil, and only strangers may touch it. That is why we ask your people to bring him down, because you are strangers.” (25.15)
Suicide can be seen as a crime against the earth because the goddess provides people with life, therefore spilling your own blood is disrespecting the gift of life that the earth goddess granted.