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Igbo Shrine Figure

Igbo (Ibo) Shrine Figure
Nigeria
Carved wood, very old
46 inches tall and 10 1/2 inches wide


The National African Museum has an IGBO or IBO shrine figure similar to this one. The IBO are one of the largest ethnic groups in southeastern Nigeria. Shrine figures like this are called alusi or edjo and represent tutelary deities and ancestors. The triple line/box design down the chest of this figure tells us the ancestor being worshipped was a high-ranking military male or warrior.

Death and afterlife play a large role in the customs & traditions of the Ibo. They believe all living things have two souls (the eternal ego or “maw” ) and the life force that dies with the body ( Nkpuruk-obi ), both entities are karma. Both souls leave with the last breath, the “maw” takes on the form of a ghost, shadow or reflection, therefore no one wants to walk on a shadow. Some Ibo carry mirrors so that evil spirits will strike it and not their bodies. After death, a ferryman ghost ( Asasabu ) brings good souls across the river of death to be reincarnated into trees, animals and other living things.

Because they believe in and respect the worship of spirits, funeral ceremonies can take years with feasts, music, plays and pilgrimages. The Ibo believe their ancestors always watch them, and in order to pray to them and have them respond well, they throw food on the ground to feed and appease them. The “Fene Bene” or chief sets out drink and food for ancestors every eight days. It is against tribal law to speak ill of ancestors ( Nduen Forbara).

The Ibo were receptive to Christianity and education under British colonization and missionary influence. They played a major role in securing Nigerian independence from Britain in 1960, but many Ibo fled to the east, seceded from Nigeria in 1967 and called their government the Republic of Biafra. In 1970, civil war defeated Biafra.

See : Herbert M.Cole, Igbo Art: Community and Cosmos, UCLA, 1984