Five Things one should know about Ikenga

What is Ikenga?

Ikenga is a ‘ritual object’ (commonly found in Igbo family shrines), which on an individual basis represents ‘masculine strength’ and the ‘ability to achieve one’s goals through one’s efforts’. [1]

Kunin Ikenga

[E1] The Kunin Ikenga – from the collection of Myron Kunin

Types of Ikenga

The Ikenga is in the image of a horned male figure made out of wood.

Ikenga - simple, abstract

[E2] Simple Ikenga form

• In its simplest form, it consists of only a cylindrical block and projecting “horns”. The horn symbolizes the aggressive, assertive, and powerful nature of the male animal.

Traditional Ikenga - AplusAfricanArt

[E3] Traditional Ikenga form

• The more elaborate type of Ikenga is a standing or seated male figure with a fully realized head and limbs which usually holds a machete in the right hand (hence “the cult of the right hand” – typically the hand of strength), and a severed head in the other.

Abstract Ikenga

[E4] Ikenga – Abstract

• The very abstract ikenga represents “characteristic ikenga features, such as a stool for the seat of authority and horns for vitality”. [2]

Understanding Ikenga.

To understand and “map” the eastern Ikenga concept to western thinking I use the following :
• Igbo religion incorporates the concept of an all-powerful creator God, Chikwu. (also called Chineke). [3],[4]
• Chi has been described as a sub-deity functioning as a personal, spiritual guide, (which sounds like a Christian adaptation to the “guardian angel” (mmuo) hypothesis). [3],[4]
• Each person has a chi that represents the personality essence that controls one’s destiny. [5]
• “Ikenga sculpture reflects the traits defined by the ikenga (the spirit element) that is an aspect of a constituent part of the chi”. [5]
• “The ikenga is the force that facilitates personal achievement and propels individuals to success”. [5]

What is the Origin of Ikenga?

Scholars are divided into two groups. The first relate Ikenga to the Egyptian “ram headed” influence as part of Igbo history, while the second and more plausible line believes that “that the Ikenga cult did not diffuse from anywhere into Igboland; at best, it is that part of the Igbo religious culture, epitomized in the spirit force and the powers of the guardian angels exemplified in Chi, and expressed in varied forms, which controlled the individual’s destiny and day-to-day affairs”. [1]

Where is Ikenga Used?

Ikenga is primarily used by the Igbo, however it is also used by the Igala to the north (called Okega), and by the “Benin and Delta groups, bordering western Niger Igbo groups, who call theirs Ikengobo, Ivri etc. The Oji, Orji, Ogilisi, and Okwe trees are special types of trees, believed to have spiritual potency, and appear to be the trees used in carving the Ikenga. However, the Akanta tree, which is a very hard wood and highly revered by carvers and medicine men across Igboland, was also used”. [1]

[1] The Ikenga, as Emblem of Greatness in the Cosmology of the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria, Ihediwa Nkemjika Chimee
[5] A Companion to African Philosophy, (edited by Kwasi Wiredu), p421

[E1] In Pursuit of Beauty, Sotheby’s (NY), 11/11/14
[E2]-[E4] Private Collection (AplusAfricanArt)


2 Responses to Five Things one should know about Ikenga

  1. Nkisi says:

    “…the second and more plausible line believes that…”

    Could you unpaclarify this assertion for me please?

    What makes a Nile Valley connection “implausible”? Is it the fact that negates the “Nri” based origin story of the Igbo people. Anthropologically speaking, we know that all of modern humanity springs from the great Lakes region and spread out from east Africa. Yet, I see many spiritual systems and cultures attempting to distance themselves from Nile valley culture as if it would be problematic to acknowledge that their culture may have Roots elsewhere. I don’t understand it.

  2. This is a nice catch. The phrase should be in quotes (it ties to the two views). I have walked the ‘Avenue of the Sphinxes’ in Luxor and tend to agree with your point. There is also the use of the ram head in Yoruba culture, and of course in the Roman Catholic related references of Christ as ‘lamb of God’ and ‘the blood of the lamb’.
    On the question of acknowledging the roots of religions and culture, I suspect there are no tidy packages which cover the subjects, plus as you indicated “it would be problematic”.

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