The Earth Mother, Ala, in an Mbari house in Ebele. 1946

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The Earth Mother, Ala, in an Mbari house dedicated to her in Ebele, near Owerri.
“The Earth Mother, Ala, in an Mbari house dedicated to her in Ebele, near Owerri.” William Fagg, 1946. British Museum

This sculpture, captured by William Fagg on February 28, 1946, and currently housed in the British Museum, depicts Ala, the Earth Mother, in Igbo spirituality. She holds a knife in her right hand and rests her left hand on the head of a smaller female figure, symbolizing her power and nurturing nature.

In the Igbo spiritual world, few figures hold such significance as Ala. Often referred to as the Earth Mother, Ala embodies the very essence of the land, serving as the foundation of Igbo culture, religion, and identity. This deep connection between the Igbo people and Ala is reflected in the concept of Omenala, a way of life that translates to “doing things according to the land.”

Omenala

The term Omenala (also called Odinala with slight variations depending on dialect) is central to understanding the Igbo worldview. It literally translates to “done on Ala” or “exists on Ala,” highlighting the profound link between cultural practices and the Earth Mother. Omenala encompasses a vast array of customs, traditions, and beliefs passed down through generations. It dictates social norms, moral codes, religious practices, and even agricultural practices. In essence, Omenala is a way of life woven from the threads of the land itself.

Aru Ala and Nso Ala

The importance of Ala extends far beyond cultural practices. She serves as the ultimate source of morality within the Igbo belief system. The concept of abomination in Igbo culture is embodied by “aru Ala,” which translates to “doing wrong against Ala.” Similarly, “nso Ala” refers to taboos, actions considered disrespectful or forbidden by the Earth Mother. These concepts emphasize the deep respect and responsibility Igbo people hold towards their land and its divine embodiment. The verbs within these terms reinforce this connection: “ru” in aru means to spoil or trick, while “so” in nso signifies avoidance or abstaining – a way to avoid actions that displease Ala.

One could say that Igbo culture is synonymous with Ala. After all, it is “what is done on the land.” Ala, the deified earth, forms the very foundation of this way of life. The spirit world, known as Ala Mmụọ, translates to “Ala of the spirits.” This realm serves as the destination for ancestors, who are believed to return to Ala and be reborn under her watchful gaze. In many ways, Igbo culture can be viewed as a set of guidelines established by Ala herself. Without her, the very essence of Omenala crumbles.

Ala and the Supreme Being

The concept of a supreme being exists within Igbo cosmology, but its relationship with Ala varies across communities. In some regions, Ala served as a counterpart to this higher power. However, in many others, she occupied the central role in religious practices. This highlights the multifaceted nature of Igbo spirituality, where reverence for the Earth Mother coexists with the belief in a more transcendent being.

Ala’s influence permeates every aspect of Igbo life. From cultural practices to moral codes, she serves as the cornerstone of Igbo identity. But how does this concept resonate with you?

Share your thoughts in the comments below and let’s keep the conversation about Ala and Igbo cosmology alive!

 


Explore Further

For those interested in delving deeper, consider these insightful books available on Amazon:

ODINANI: The Igbo Sacred Tradition – February 5, 2021 by Emmanuel Ojiaku


The Igbo religion contain various elements ranging from the divine sacred things, faith, supernatural beings. Religious practices include rituals, commemoration or veneration (of deities and/or saints), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, prayer, music, art, dance, public service, or other aspects of human culture. The Igbo tribe a beautiful ethnic group found in West Africa, have a rich religious and cultural practice. The Religion Odinani, have sacred histories and narratives.

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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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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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