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Colours, Flavours and Sights

Author: nick on 24-08-2013, 23:00, views: 7 547


Obong N. J. Ekpo in front of the atang eko fence in his compound at Owok Ayakuk, EsseneObong N. J. Ekpo in front of the atang eko fence in his compound at Owok Ayakuk, Essene

Traditional Symbolism

Ekpe efre ntak, ntak otoho / If the origin is forgotten, the originator gets angry.
(Seeing things as they really are, not as they seem to be)
Ibibio proverb

Traditional symbolism in Nigeria is not as spectacular as the walls of Great Zimbabwe or as massive as the granite Egyptian pyramids; words like akwa, ibom, eka, signifying great, grand and ancient, often refer to inconspicuous but culturally important symbols, which arrest the respect and attention of any black African and evoke an awed, though they might arouse just a patronising sneer from a casual observer.

A small shrub with an upturned old pot underneath has a deep spiritual meaning, having been planted on that very spot at the ancient village square, years and years ago, by the founding fathers of that particular community as an altar for the worship of their ancestors and gods. The old cracked pot was once carefully tended by the traditional shrine keeper, who had the responsibility of maintaining the communication link with the ancestors. They, in turn, protected and guided the existence of their kindred and interceded with the deities on their behalf. The break of that link meant an unimaginable collapse of the well-established order of things, the loss of spiritual guardianship, chaos and calamity, lashed out by angry spirits, and these were to be avoided at all costs.

Communal social life was centred in the vicinity of such small shrines, located on judicial and coronation grounds and surrounded and protected by living compounds. In the past, witnesses say, huge trees of thick, dark foliage and tough, durable fibre, refuge of wild animals - leopards, pythons and eagles (legendary guardians by land, water and air) -enclosed and protected the sacred groves of the most powerful traditional societies (Ekpo, Ekong, Ebre).

Eyobren shrine on the village square of Owok Ayakuk, Essene, sheltered by the community hallEyobren shrine on the village square of Owok Ayakuk, Essene, sheltered by the community hallNow, small clumps of leafy trees with low-bending overgrown branches, draped in overhanging climbers (in sharp contrast to the cleared, open under-spaces of the other compound trees), are the last remains of the thick forests, hiding the sacred meeting places, playgrounds and shrines. No person, other than a society member, dares penetrate there, and even though the forests have disappeared, the groves are still jealously guarded, as an oil-prospecting team discovered recently while trying to force its way in. When the Ekpo drum boomed out heavy, alarming beats, summoning all its members, and able-bodied Ete men, armed with matchets, rushed in from all directions, the arrogant intruders found out, at their own expense (for a heavy fine had to be paid for the trespass), how dear tradition still holds, and how drastically its potency could suddenly change the peaceful and seemingly lonely countryside.

Sacred spots, marked by thick overgrowth, or by eyei (the symbolic palm frond) and hung up with plaited mats, abound around every settlement and are shrouded in secrecy, ancient rituals and awesome tales. The eyei marks important sites or routes to ceremonial gatherings, disputed land, burial or public processions, and notifies passers-by of an unusual happening (Ekandem, 1995).

Grotesque and fearful Ekpo masks represented the vengeful ancestral spirits, who came out on their annual visit among their kindred to dispense justice, punish offenders and purify the farmlands for a prolific new harvest.

The sacred Ekpo grove at EteThe sacred Ekpo grove at EteThe Ekpo Nyoho masquerades, daubed with purifying white ndom (kaolin) and spiritual yellow nsei (ochre or camwood powder), and blackened from head to toe as indication of leir other-world affinity, performed ancient law-enforcement functions, ensuring a total compliance with the societal laws and codes of behaviour, as laid down by the ancestors d approved by the deities.

In traditional culture death is viewed as a continuation of life and the spirits of the dead itinued to participate actively in the daily affairs of their kinsmen. Both the living, the . ad, and the yet unborn, in whom the ancestral spirits were to be reincarnated, were . garded as members of the human community and a chain in the universal unity of Man -Nature - God, which was to be preserved and protected in the interest of the continued rvival of the universe.

Beautiful masks connoted to youth, fertility and joyfulness.

The Meaning behind the Mask

The carver believes that within the tree dwells a spirit. He selects the tree with potent life force and undergoes the proscribed purification and sacrificial ceremonies before cutting it down and leaving it to dry, allowing its spirit time to find a new home. In his skilful hands, away from people's interrupting influence, the wood takes the form commissioned by the owner or community. The maker is guided by his religious inspiration, reverence for his mission and sense of social responsibility.

The finished mask undergoes a consecration ritual and becomes the abode of the supernatural spirit, to whom it is donated. Impassive or terrifying, distorted and abstract, the mask powerfully demonstrates the awesomeness of the dead and the attendant spirits, and the concept of life after death. Worn on the head of a suitably anointed ritual cult member and complemented by suitably coloured fibre costume, it transforms the wearer into a living impersonation of the supernatural being - vengeful, powerful and authoritative, surging forward on its periodic visitation of the human community, dispensing blessings, purification and justice.

Masks, depicting ancestral spirits, typically have a serene look, while masks representing non-human spirits are often bizarre in appearance. A high-domed forehead depicts wisdom and deep spirituality. Protruding eyes or a frozen facial expression indicates a state of spirit possession. White pigmentation suggests an 'otherworld' quality; black - the ancestral world. Masks depicting horned animals, buffalo, antelope, relate to ceremonies of spirit transmigration.

Collected enthusiastically throughout the world, masks loose their religious usage and social meaning and are judged by their function and artistic qualities only; their significance, often lost to both the original and the new owners.
(after Watch Tower, 1995).

Eggs were regarded as symbols of fertility and unity in the universe and were used mainly in rituals and on the prescription of the traditional priests, abia Idiong, who interpreted the signs, wishes and answers of the ancestors (ekpo), deities (ndem), and God Almighty (Abasi Ibom). They also saw to the fulfilment of all proscribed rituals and traditions and the upkeep of a network of sacred shrines and altars.

Serine objects: 1. waisted brass bells; 2. Idiong gong, ekere; 3. metal spear headSerine objects: 1. waisted brass bells; 2. Idiong gong, ekere; 3. metal spear headEach family head (obong ekpuk) had the responsibility of personally attending to the ancestral shrine (iso ekpo), where, on a raised clay platform, stood the representations of the deified ancestors - specially carved wooden staffs, ending in a carving of the ancestral head (in the distant past, each bore the skull of that particular ancestor). To this altar were daily supplications made, family problems and news brought, and new family members - brides, babies or sworn allies introduced. Here, as at many other shrines, dedicated to various deities, inspiration, protection and advice were sought, propitiation for transgressions made and prayers for favour, guardianship and prosperity offered, accompanied by appropriate offerings of a libation drink and a special sacrifice (a human one, in the distant past, and an animal, nowadays). Brass bells and ancient manilla of different sizes and shapes, native pigments and pieces of colourful cloth, a small clay bowl of water (usan mmoong), symbol of the earth deity (ndem isong), metal blades, and, at times, beautiful ancient figurines cast in brass - each item having its special meaning and purpose, were among the shrine paraphernalia. Every new item, which gained an importance in the life of the people (metal, mirrors, tobacco, gin, coins, plastics, etc.), usually found its way to the shrine collection, to be replaced by a new one of equal importance, as times and requirements changed.


Symbolism of Objects
Objects Significance
Small round pot with water Symbol of the earth deity, ndem isong
Round pot or calabash Symbol of femininity
Round pebbles and eggs Symbol of fertility
Wooden staffs, posts or conical stones Representations of the ancestors
Head-ring, okpono Knowledge of the universe, Idiong priesthood
Animals Significance
Python (snake), leopard and bird (fish eagle)

Power and protection by water, land, air; knowledge of hidden and distant things

Tortoise or tortoise shell, staked to the ground Symbol of wisdom and the earth deity
Animals skulls and bones and gin bottles Symbol of sacrificial offerings, the feeding of the spirits
Shells, snail shells (ikpok ekwong) Symbols of the water spirits, sign of determination
Bird feathers, animal horns and bones Symbols of life in motion
Vulture, utere Symbols of the ancestors, messenger of the dead
Plants Significance
Palm fronds, eyei, ekpin (segiquinensis) Warning and prohibition, restricted entry, notice of event
- on baskets, shrines, anklets and wrists Symbol of peace and goodwill, sign of spiritual joy and thanksgiving
Split half leaf, staked upright Notice of sickness and death
Plaited leaf mat with fringe, Representation of the rain and rainbow, ofong isin ekpo, on shrines and groves the dry and wet seasons in the cultural calendar
Seeds and parts of trees Symbols of the power of procreation
Ukpa tree Symbol of industry
Еtо ube tree Symbol of integrity and longevity
Okono and itumo trees Markers of boundaries and sacred places
akwa sticks or tree Symbol of the ancestors and religious protection
Short broomstick staff, ayang Symbol of unity and leadership
Ginger lily, mbritem (costus afer) Prohibited entry, injunction, cease-fire
mkpatat (selaginella) fern Sacredness, divinity; symbol of abundance; sign against evil
Nnyan ekpo, fern Spiritual protection
Parts of the human body Significance
Skull Representation of the spirit, knowledge and intellect
Eye, enyen Index to a person's character
Hand, ubok Symbol of power, skill and ability
Hair, idet Crown of beauty, symbol of status and intelligence
(Source: Ekandem, 1955; Jeffreys, 1931; Talbot, 1923:5-13,1926, etc.)
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Category: Ikot Abasi

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