Íhú Chí (1916) and the Duality of Chi and Eke

HomeArtÍhú Chí (1916) and the Duality of Chi and Eke

Íhú chí. This small, decorated pot is believed to hold the chi, the personal spirit, of someone who has given birth.1916, Ekpeye. Pitt Rivers Museum
Íhú chí. This small, decorated pot is believed to hold the chi, the personal spirit, of someone who has given birth. 1916, Ekpeye. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

In Igbo cosmology, Chineke is often referred to as the supreme creator God. However, the concept of Chineke is more complex and multifaceted than a single definition. Let’s look into Igbo creation stories and explore the true meaning of Chineke, the relationship between Chi and Eke, and the impact of missionary influence on Igbo cosmology.

The Duality of Chineke

According to Igbo creation stories, Chineke molded the world, and Eke divided it. Eke emerged from Chi, making them the same mother. This apparent contradiction sparks debate:

  • Is Chineke a single God with dualistic origins?
  • or does it represent the merging of Chi (personal spirit) and Eke (creative force)?

The cult priest of Afo at Umuoye Etche shares a creation story that reveals the true nature of Chi and Eke: “Chineke molded the world; then Eke divided the world. Eke came out of the hands of Chi, so they became the same.” (Herbert M. Cole, 1982).

Chi and Eke: Two Inseparable Deities

Igbo people refer to Chi na (and) Eke, which connotes two complementary deities rather than a single overriding God. Chi creates, while Eke is the unknown force that created the universe. Chineke means the God that creates and continues to create. If Eke is an entity and a force, it’s not just a verb; it’s another entity that, together with Chi, makes the supreme being. Writers like Chinua Achebe acknowledge this, saying, “Here something fundamental changes because eke is no longer a verb but a noun. Chineke then becomes ‘chi and eke’.” (Chinua Achebe, Chi in Igbo Cosmology).

This excerpt, from Achebe's seminal work "Chi in Igbo Cosmology," sheds light on the potential interpretation of "na" within the concept of Chineke.
This excerpt, from Achebe’s seminal work “Chi in Igbo Cosmology,” sheds light on the potential interpretation of “na” within the concept of Chineke.

The Ékè Cult in Igbo Philosophy

Further complicating the concept of Chineke is the existence of the Ékè cult, documented by Herbert M. Cole in “MBARI: Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo” (1982). This cult worshipped Eke as a separate entity with its own priests, altars, and rituals. Eke surnames are still prevalent in the region where this cult flourished, highlighting its historical significance.

The Concept of Chi Ukwu (Chukwu)

Everyone has a Chi, and Chi Ukwu is the great Chi. Chukwu is one of many names for the supreme being, including Ezechitoke, Obasi di n’elu, Olisa, Osebuluwa, Chi Okike, and more. Ékè is the companion to Chi, and people also have an Eke, comparable to an assigner, while Chi is the ‘compass.’ Understanding Chi Ukwu helps us appreciate the complexity of Igbo cosmology.

The Impact of Missionary Influence

Early Christian missionaries applied indigenous folklore concepts to biblical translations, causing confusion. For example, Ekwensu, a small spirit, was misinterpreted as Satan. Similarly, Esu in Yoruba cosmology was misconceived as Satan. However, these concepts existed before Christianity and represent distinct entities. Missionaries also introduced the concept of a single, paternal creator God, conflicting with the Igbo understanding of Chi and Eke. This led to the misconception that Chineke is equivalent to the Christian God.

This excerpt, from Herbert M. Cole's "MBARI" (1982), captures this intriguing duality within the concept of Chineke
This excerpt, from Herbert M. Cole’s “MBARI” (1982), captures this intriguing duality within the concept of Chineke

It’s essential to preserve Igbo cultural heritage and understand the true nature of Chi and Eke. By exploring Igbo creation stories and the duality of Chi and Eke, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the richness of Igbo cosmology. Share your thoughts:

  • What do you think about the relationship between Chi and Eke?
  • How do you understand the concept of Chi Ukwu?

References:

  • Cole, H. M. (1982). MBARI: Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo. Indiana University Press.
    Mbari: Art and the Life Among the Owerri Igbo (Traditional Arts of Africa)

    One of the most fascinating artistic phenomena in tropical Africa, mbari houses are little known outside Igboland. Art historian Herbert M. Cole has drawn from his extensive research in eastern Nigeria to produce the first book-length study of this unusual art form. Cole describes the building of a mbari mud house to honor the gods, a process rich in tradition and ritual, marked by body painting, drumming, dancing, singing, and chanting. The ecology, socio-cultural systems, and religion of the Owerri area are examined as a backdrop to the elaborate stage of the building process, which may take up to two years to complete.

    Illustrated with rare field photographs and superb line drawings, this volume describes and interprets mbari houses not as isolated works of art but as monuments growing out of, and expressive of, the values and beliefs of Owerri Igbo culture.

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  • Chukwukere, I. (1983). Chi in Igbo Religion and Thought: The God in Every Man.
  • Achebe, C. (n.d.). Chi in Igbo Cosmology.

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Onyeka Nwokike
Onyeka Nwokike

Onyeka Nwokike, a graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and a writer at Igbo Archives, is working to challenge common misconceptions and broaden understanding. He has curated a collection of historical photographs and artifacts for Igbo Archives, which helps to fill the educational gaps left by mainstream media and school curricula. His commitment to the celebration and conservation of Igbo heritage has made Igbo Archives an essential resource, cultivating a strong sense of pride and cultural identity within the Igbo community.

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