Chinua Achebe | Critical Essay by Anthonia C. Kalu

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Chinua Achebe.
This section contains 4,899 words
(approx. 17 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Anthonia C. Kalu

Critical Essay by Anthonia C. Kalu

SOURCE: "The Priest/Artist Tradition in Achebe's Arrow of God," in Africa Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1994, pp. 51-62.

Kalu is an American educator whose research interests include multiculturalism, women in the African diaspora, African and African-American literary theory construction, and African development issues. In the following essay, Kalu demonstrates how Achebe's use of traditional Igbo religious, political, philosophical, and artistic motifs in Arrow of God combine to illumine the abstract notion of duality.

In his efforts to validate the African literary artist's vision, Chinua Achebe has frequently spoken out against art for art's sake. He insists that

art is, and was always, in the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose (including no doubt, the excitation of wonder and pure delight); they made their sculptures in wood and terra cotta, stone and bronze to serve the needs of their times. Their artists lived and moved and had their beings in society and created their works for the good of that society.1

In this functional view of art, he appears to agree with Ernst Fischer2 that the arts express a higher purpose in man's existence. Achebe considers himself and other African artists teachers and recorders of African history and culture. He feels a need "to look back and try to find out where we went wrong, where the rain began to beat us."3 He uses Igbo society to demonstrate that the arts contribute to man's sensitivity about a "fullness of life of which individuality with all its limitations cheats him."4

He argues in his works that the Igbo art tradition is based on Igbo thought which contemplates an inscrutable order that humanity constantly attempts to reorder and control. In his works, Achebe identifies certain major characters and situations in Igbo life, using these as the people do in their oral art tradition to portray their perception of the harmonizing principles in their lives. Achebe's interpretation of Igbo thought through art reveals a relationship between political and religious institutions. It is in these relationships that the Igbo artist and art traditions are most important. In recreating and revealing these connections, Achebe assumes the venerable role of Igbo priest and artist.

Achebe's initial exploration of this relationship is in Things Fall Apart where Chielo, the priestess, is portrayed in her performance of her duties to Agbala. However, this presentation of Chielo does not allow analysis adequate to the purposes of this work. His demonstration of this link is most fully realized in Arrow of God5 in which he uses Ezeulu, the priest of Ulu, to explore these institutions in an Igbo community. Ezeulu's priestly functions, and his involvement, through Ulu, in making and implementing plans for the security of Umuaro are combined with his attitude toward life and understanding of Igbo thought to give an insight into Igbo society. In the performance of his duties to Ulu and Umuaro, he shows a desire to preserve both for posterity. Ulu, created by the people in a time of stress, is Umuaro's god of protection and symbolizes the Igbo's emphasis on the group. Ezeulu's desire to preserve this concept becomes the core of Achebe's portrayal of duality in Igbo thought. The depiction of this concept in Arrow of God revolves around Ezeulu and his responsibilities as the priest of Ulu, facilitating Achebe's exploration of Igbo traditions and art.

In his work, Achebe participates in group preservation in a way that is normally the responsibility of only priestly elders. The difference is the location of emphasis. In his direct involvement with the traditional society, Ezeulu tries to bring everything together under religion, while Achebe explains the society, including Ezeulu, through art. Achebe's exploration of the many facets of Igbo life in Arrow of God simultaneously delineates the complementary discourses that inform their significance within Igbo thought. The locus of his presentation, the priest/artist tradition, will be used here to show how Igbo traditional religion, politics, philosophy, and art were combined to give meaning to the abstract notion of duality, a concept central to most of Achebe's work and most deliberately explored in Arrow of God.

Community Sanction

The traditional Igbo priest bridges the real and supernatural worlds, striving to maintain harmony between them. He is able to do this because he has a special relationship with the people and is perceived by them as having special powers. The priest and his functions must be sanctioned by the community. The man who becomes a priest has to demonstrate that he is in harmony with his environment. He must exhibit an understanding of Igbo thought. The priest of Ala, the earth goddess, for instance, must manifest Agwu, divination force, in his life. In an article in which the Ala priesthood is discussed, M. S. O. Olisa says that

one of the initial signs that a man is "called" to assume Ala Priesthood is the manifestation of "Agwu" in his life, a mild display by him of mental abnormality in which he sees visions and has supernatural communications with all sorts of spiritual forces. After undergoing this experience the Igbo often initiate and confer on him the title of Ezeani.6

Community sanction of such manifestations involves the people in the relationship that this individual now has with the supernatural world. When Boi Adagbom, a chief priest in Ika, was asked about his calling to the priesthood, he replied, "… if you were chosen, you would just know. Certain violent changes occur in you and you would 'answer the spirit's voice'."7 The changes enable the individual to act as a link between the two worlds. He is then able to perform rituals and sacrifices to the god who has called him. He becomes an instrument of mediation between the community and its god. Like Wole Soyinka's singer of Yoruba tragic music, he becomes

a mouthpiece of the chthonic forces of the matrix and his somnambulist "improvisations"—a simultaneity of musical and poetic forms—which are not representations of the ancestor, recognitions of the living or unborn, but of the no man's land of transition between and around these temporal definitions of experience.8

At moments when he communes with the gods, during sacrifices and divinations, he becomes like spirits, unknown. Then he dresses and acts the part, becoming the concrete interpretation and evidence of the people's relationship with the gods and each other. He interprets and balances and briefly becomes the major, visible part of the abstract principle governing these relationships. At all other times, he is an ordinary man, though this does not detract from his importance in the community. As a result of his special powers, the priest plays an important role in the making and execution of laws, becoming the direct connection between the gods and the elders. He guides the elders in their efforts to communicate with the gods in the maintenance of a harmonious society. Additionally, the rest of the community uses him to seek the god's will through sacrifices and divinations. This is not to say that Igbo society is theocratic, however, "… gods and the supernatural do play dominant roles in its political life."9

Role of Traditional Institutions and Rituals

In traditional society, the functions and attributes of the priest are taken for granted because of the assumption of shared beliefs and experiences. This is most evident in the art tradition. In Igbo oral narrative performance, for instance, the performer does not need to explain any images from the people's traditions when they occur in the story. The narratives become coded carriers of such information. In the contemporary and literate society, writers of Igbo fiction make assumptions similar to those that govern oral narrative performance traditions. Some of these assumptions are based on Igbo aesthetics, others are part of the norms and values of Igbo life. Consequently, the intersection of orality and literacy in Igbo life remains a location for interrogation of the conflict between Igbo and Western thought.

Frequently, Igbo writers during the early part of the colonial period rejected or ignored the significance of Igbo thought in their works. For instance, J. U. T. Nzeako10 and Leopold Bell-Gam,11 who have written of some aspects of Igbo traditions, often reflect a Westernized and Christian point of view, portraying traditional customs as backward and pagan. In Omenuko12 and Elelea Na Ihe O Mere,13 the functions of traditional priests are portrayed but unexplained. Achebe, in his first novel, Things Fall Apart, also presupposes the reader's familiarity with such information. He only briefly mentions the priestess Chielo's authority in relation to the Oracle of the Hills and Caves. Her brief appearance during Ezinma's illness provides scant insight regarding the existence and significance of the Oracle or its role in the lives of the people of Umuofia. When Ikemefuna's death is announced, one learns from Ezeudu that,

Yes, Umuofia has decided to kill him. The Oracle of the Hills and Caves has pronounced it. They will take him outside Umuofia as is the custom and kill him there….14

The reader has to know more about Igbo traditional religion, religious beliefs and political systems to fully understand Chielo, her Agbala and Ezeudu's announcement.

It is in Arrow of God that Achebe offers interpretations and explanations for the existence of such institutions, merging their complexities in Ezeulu. In his office as the priest of Ulu, he is portrayed as half-man, half-spirit. Achebe invests him with special powers, rights and privileges which give him a strong voice among the elders of Umuaro. His thoughts and actions strongly affect the rest of the community.

Even the actions of the members of his household, because they are close to him, become important to the people; this is the case when Oduche is sent to the new church and when he tries to suffocate the sacred python. Both incidents become major issues for discussion and action in the community because of Ezeulu's status. In Arrow of God Achebe interprets most aspects of Igbo traditional priesthood through Ezeulu. He discusses the rivalry between Ezeulu's sons over succession to the priesthood, and also Ezeulu's eldest son's apprehension about becoming a priest at his father's death. However, it is Nwafo, Ezeulu's youngest son, whom Achebe uses to show how one may be called to the priesthood. Nwafo's closeness to Ezeulu and his interest in the rituals mark him as a possible choice, among Ezeulu's sons, as successor to his father.

His youngest son Nwafo now came into the Obi, saluted Ezeulu by name and took his favorite position on the mud-bed at the far end, close to the shorter threshold. Although he was still only a child it looked as though the deity had already marked him out as his future Chief Priest. Even before he had learnt to speak more than a few words he had been strongly drawn to the god's ritual.15

Nwafo is strongly attracted to the service of the god, Ulu. When Ezeulu is detained at Okperi, it is Nwafo who wonders what should be done about announcing the new moon.

However as dusk came down Nwafo took his position where his father always sat. He did not wait very long before he saw the young thin moon. It looked very thin and reluctant. Nwafo reached for the ogene and made to beat it but fear stopped his hand.16

Although he takes "his position where his father always sat," he is old enough to know that his father's successor has to be appointed by Ulu and endorsed by the people of Umuaro.

During the festival of the First Pumpkin Leaves, Ezeulu reenacts the first coming of Ulu, showing how the people's support made it possible for him to lead them through his priestly office.

"At that time," he said, "when lizards were still in ones and twos, the whole people assembled and chose me to carry their new deity. I said to them: 'Who am I to carry this fire on my bare head? A man who knows that his anus is small does not swallow an Udala seed.' They said to me: 'Fear not. The man who sends a child to catch a shrew will also give him water to wash his hand.' I said: 'So be it.'"17

As Ezeulu continues with the retelling of the legend of the first coming of Ulu, the duties that go with his priesthood become apparent. He is expected not only to stand between the people and the things that threaten them, but also to eliminate the sources of these threats. He derives strength and confidence from the knowledge that the people support him at all times. Also, Ezeulu's role as buffer between his people and their god is comparable to that of the priests/medicine men in Omenuko and Elelea Na the O Mere who cleanse the land and the people of abominations. However, Ezeulu's office differs from theirs in that he is also involved in decision-making in Umuaro. The nature of Ulu makes it necessary for him to be concerned with Umuaro's safety and to play an important philosophical role in the sociopolitical welfare of the people.

Ezeulu demonstrates his awareness of the possible results of the changing times when he tries to secure Umuaro's future by sending Oduche to the new religion. Conscious of the Igbo's concern for preservation of the community, he sees the need to be in control of the present as well as anticipate events of the future. In the past, this consciousness in the people's worldview led to the amalgamation of the villages that make up Umuaro. Ezeulu therefore makes Oduche his ambassador to the new religion, Christianity: "I want one of my sons to join these people and be my eye there. If there is nothing in it you will come back. But if there is something there you will bring home my share."18 Some analysts of this novel have tended to agree with Ugoye, Oduche's mother, in her assertion that Oduche was sacrificed to the white man's religion.19 This is true only to the extent that Oduche is the first person from his family to get involved with the new religion. From Ezeulu's point of view, as the keeper of the people's god of protection, he is using Oduche to maintain a balance in their lives. Achebe points this out in Ezeulu's reply to Ugoye,

… Do you not know that in a great man's household there must be people who follow all kinds of strange ways? There must be good people and bad people, honest workers and thieves, peace-makers and destroyers; that is the mark of a great Obi. In such a place, whatever music you beat on your drum there is somebody who can dance to it.26

It may be true that historically such a decision may not have been made by a man of Ezeulu's social status, but the point here is that this type of thinking made it possible for the Igbo to tolerate their own people who joined the new group. Since they could neither chase away nor kill the strangers without harming or even losing their own people, the best approach was to fit the phenomenon into a known and existing world view. Achebe points this out several times in Arrow of God. When Obika is whipped by Mr. Wright, for instance, instead of confronting Mr. Wright or doing anything else that might make him angrier, the young men quickly reactivate an already existing quarrel, and Achebe comments: "It was much easier to deal with an old quarrel than with a new and unprecedented incident."21 The meeting ends with Nweke Ukpaka's speech, which begins, "What a man does not know is greater than he…."22 Nweke Ukpaka advises his age-mates to let Unachukwu, the carpenter who interprets for Mr. Wright, stay during their deliberations because he is their only link with the white man. Unachukwu is allowed to stay for the same reason that Ezeulu sends Oduche to the new church—both are a way of controlling, from a distance, an unprecedented threat to their well being:

Transitions and the New Dispensation

Ezeulu's use of Oduche as his "eye" in the new culture parallels the people's authorization of his own priestly responsibilities to Ulu. He can be seen as the people's "eye" in the supernatural world of spirits and gods which is beyond their human vision. The most obvious physical demonstration of this is evidenced in Ezeulu's function as watchman for the new moon. Apart from this visible calendar-keeping function of his watch, there is also the symbolic but unemphasized function of the priest as the person who keeps the people alert to changes in nature. He keeps an eye on nature, and as a result the people are kept aware of the passing of the seasons. This duty is so ritualized that even his house is built in a special way, emphasizing his distinctness in this regard.

His obi was built differently from other men's huts. There was the usual long threshold in front but also a shorter one on the right as you entered. The eaves on this additional entrance were cut back so that sitting on the floor, Ezeulu could watch that part of the sky where the moon had its door.23

Achebe here describes a physical relationship based on an abstract principle: Ezeulu, the priest, watches for the moon through the cutting in the eaves of his house. In Ezeulu's words to Oduche when the latter is sent to join the new religion, the priest is the "eye" of Umuaro. The cutting in the eaves of his house constitutes another eye, linking Ezeulu to the universe which is symbolized in the moon. The people see the approach of the seasons through the moon. This arrangement constitutes one aspect of Ezeulu's bridging function between the people and their world. He becomes one of the tools which Umuaro uses in its attempt to live harmoniously with nature. It is an important manifestation of his priestly responsibility.

Ezeulu, more than anybody else, realizes the symbolic nature of this arrangement and of his duties to Umuaro through Ulu. However, he becomes politically involved in Umuaro's affairs beyond the requirements of his priestly office. He wants Ulu to become a nature god like Idemili or Udo, with his priest in complete command of choosing and naming the days of all Umuaro's feasts. Achebe uses Ezeulu's interests in politics to explore the priest's human attributes, the other aspect of his duality. He pushes him into a position where even though Ezeulu recognizes his duties to the people, he is forced to choose between them and their god. He chooses to listen to the voice of Ulu, knowing that the people are no longer behind him. Caught between gods and men, he lets his human side assert itself, and forgets that the gods came into being to serve men. He disregards his favorite proverb: "When an adult is in the house, the she-goat is not left to bear its young from the tether." Ezeulu, the adult in the Umuaro household, allows his people to suffer, and like the man who brings home ant-infested faggots, he should have expected the visit of lizards.

However, Achebe strikes a balance between Ezeulu, the priest, and Ezeulu, the man. The priest in Ezeulu remains conscious of his duties toward Ulu and Umuaro's safety. He sees clearly the limits of the authority of his office. As the priest of Ulu, conscious of the people's voice supporting him, he warns against the dangers of fighting a "war of blame" against Okperi. His vision in this regard remains clear in spite of opposition from Nwaka and his group.

Duality, Politics, and Igbo Art

It is, however, at the peak of the performance of his priestly duties that Ezeulu's duality and that of the people's worldview are best expressed. This is portrayed during the festival of the First Pumpkin Leaves. Ezeulu, in his full regalia as Ulu's priest, comes into the village square.

He wore smoked raffia which descended from his waist to the knee. The left half of his body—from forehead to toe—was painted with white chalk. Around his head was a leather band from which an eagle feather pointed backwards. On his right hand he carried Nne ofo, the mother of all staff of authority in Umuaro….24

The figure of the priest embodies in artistic form the people's perception of their world. His painted body symbolizes his ability to bridge the gap between reality and the supernatural, reaffirming for them the harmonious existence of the two. It is also a concrete, visible way of bringing together the people's view of duality as it makes that which is intangible visible. In Ezeulu's hand is the staff of authority, which orders their lives, and on his head is the eagle feather, a symbol of affluence.25 Artistically, this image brings together the apparently unrelated institutions of politics and religion. The harmonious merging results in plenitude, a mark of social and economic stability. It is significant that this symbol is manifested during the Festival of the First Pumpkin Leaves, the first food-related item to be harvested in the year. The harmonious society works together to produce life-giving food. The abundant green leaves, carried by the women, symbolize life and good health. Continuity of the group is reaffirmed and assured.

Another important aspect of this image involves Ezeulu as a work of art. In full priestly regalia, he visually refers to such ritual art objects as the ofo, the ancestral staff of authority and justice, and the okposi, carved representations of renowned departed ancestors. Like Ezeulu in priestly regalia, these are fashioned by the people to aid them in their communication with their gods and ancestors. As the priest moves in the circle made by the people, the women throw pumpkin leaves at him. He becomes the scapegoat which must carry away and bury their sins of the past year. The only difference between him and other ritual art objects is that he is living. Consequently, he becomes both intermediary and representation; a combination of reality and art. However, as with other ritual situations, the emphasis is on the priest as representation rather than on the priest as an individual, reflecting the people's concern for the expression of community will over that of the individual. This concern in Igbo thought led to their intolerance of recalcitrant individuals, priests or even gods. Achebe refers to this aspect of Igbo thought when he portrays Ezeulu's attempts to attach too much importance to himself and his god. This individualistic tendency in Ezeulu allows Achebe's in-depth exploration of dualism within the society's systems and in the person of the priest in Arrow of God.

Achebe: The Artist/Priest

His use of Ezeulu to illustrate such aspects of Igbo thought parallels the traditional narrators' use of characters who are not allowed to win in confrontations between themselves and either their chi or the community. Such characters are usually portrayed as achievers who are discouraged from indulging in excesses but are encouraged to work towards the good of their families and communities. This theme has also been explored in more or less depth in early written Igbo literature.26 Its importance in Igbo thought is evidenced by its continued expression even in works like Leopold Bell-Gam's Ije Odumodu Jere which is not primarily concerned with the celebration of Igbo world view or art tradition. Achebe's Arrow of God is possibly his most deliberate attempt at the celebration of Igbo traditions. Most Igbo authors working within the novel or short story forms portray characters which, because of shared beliefs and experiences, become reaffirmations of aspects of Igbo thought. Oral traditional genres range from the oral tale to the reenactment of myth during festivals in which many different art forms are employed. Contemporary and written Igbo literature uses most of the oral narrative techniques but has yet to achieve the unity of festival drama. Achebe tries to achieve this unity through explanations of the people's worldview, descriptive images of customs and traditions, transliteration of the Igbo language into English, and a combination of Igbo oral narrative techniques with those of the Western novel.

In Arrow of God, for instance, he demonstrates the various uses of proverbs in Igbo language and culture. They serve as points of reference and linguistic signposts which in the novel serve the artistic objective of unifying the story line. Proverbs are repositories of the wisdom of the ancestors. However, they, like any other aspect of Igbo thought, are open to manipulation. As Achebe demonstrates, one can explicate issues using proverbs, or they can become a starting point, a premise to an argument. Since their meanings are dynamic, they can work backwards or forwards, for, or against, a given argument. Hence, the assumption among the Igbo of their applicability in rhetoric. In using the proverb, "When an adult is in the house the she-goat is not left to suffer the pain of parturition on its tether,"27 for instance, Achebe is able to show Ezeulu as protecting the people's interest in the Okperi land case but he also gets angry enough to hurt them when they refuse to act like adults during his confrontation with the British. The alternate interpretation makes him out as the goat; thus, he reacts by inverting the situation (with Ulu's help?) and making the elders suffer. This proverb works in an oblique way with the other frequently quoted proverb in the novel: "a man who brings home ant-infested faggots should expect the visit of lizards."28 When Ezeulu and the elders refuse to act like knowledgeable adults, that is, like wise statesmen whose titles bequeath elegance in manner, the best behavior and the responsibility to rational action, they become subject to the balancing natural principles of which they are supposed to be guardians.

In none of the known works of fiction by writers of Igbo origin has the Igbo art tradition and worldview been as exhaustively treated as in Arrow of God. The portrayal of Ezeulu shows Achebe's understanding of Igbo society and thought, paralleling him to the traditional elders of the land. His interpretations of Igbo life place him among the artists and philosophers of Igbo tradition. Achebe has claimed to be an ancestor worshipper29 and insists that the African novelist is a teacher.30 He contends that

the writer cannot expect to be excused from the task of re-education and regeneration that must be done. In fact he should march right in front. For he is after all—as Ezekiel Mphahlele says in his African Image—the sensitive point of his community.31

This assertion makes his role similar to Ezeulu's, the priest of Umuaro's god of protection, whose charge is to march in front of the people leading and confronting all threats to the community. Like Ezeulu, the writer has to be able to find ways of maintaining balance in the community. However, Achebe the artist emphasizes the Igbo art tradition more than the religion. This does not mean that Igbo religion is absent in his works; rather, he uses descriptions of aspects of the people's religion to delineate the role and significance of traditional religious objects as art objects. His explanation of Igbo worldview emphasizes the need for those familiar with the background, setting and characters to begin to see the utility and application of traditional wisdom and its possibilities in the reassessment of current experiences and problems. As with the priest/artist's religious objects, Achebe's works demonstrate the artist/priest's commitment to the well being of the society.


1. Chinua Achebe, Morning Yet On Creation Day (New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975), p. 29.

2. Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Anna Bostock trans., (New York: Penguin Books, 1963).

3. Achebe, op. cit., p. 70.

4. Fischer, op. cit., p. 8.

5. Chinua Achebe, Arrow of God (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1969).

6. M.S.O. Olisa, "Political Culture and Stability in Igbo Society," Conch, vol. 3, no. 2 (Sept. 1971), p. 20.

7. Elizabeth Islchei, Igbo Worlds (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1978), p. 20.

8. Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 148.

9. M. S. O. Olisa, op. cit., p. 22.

10. J. U. T. Nzeako, Okuko Agbasaa Okpesi (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd., 1964).

11. Leopold Bell-Gam, Ije Odumodu Jere (Lagos: Longmans, 1963).

12. Pita Nwanna, Omenuko (London: Longmans, 1933).

13. D. N. Achara, Elelea Na Ihe O Mere (London: Longmans, 1953).

14. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (London: Heinemann, 1958), p. 40.

15. Achebe, Arrow of God, op. cit., p. 4.

16. Ibid. p. 187.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid. p. 51.

19. See Bernth Lindfors, "The Palm Oil with which Achebe's Words are Eaten," in C. L. Innes and Bernth Lindfors, eds., Critical Perspectives on Chinua Achebe (Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press, 1978), p. 58; Emmanuel Obiechina, "The Human Dimension of History in Arrow of God," in Innes and Lindfors, eds., p. 176.

20. Achebe, Arrow of God, op. cit., p. 51.

21. Ibid. p. 94.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid. p. 1.

24. Ibid. p. 80.

25. Donatus J. Nwoga, "The Igbo World of Achebe's Arrow of God," Research in African Literatures, vol 12, no. 1 (Spring, 1981), p. 26.

26. See D. N. Achara, Ala Bingo (London: Longmans, 1954); Pita Nwanna, Omenuko, op. cit., D. N. Achara, Elelea Na Ihe O Mere, op. cit.

27. Achebe, Arrow of God, op. cit., p. 20.

28. Ibid. p. 148.

29. C. O. D. Ekwensi, "African Literature," Nigeria Magazine, no. 83 (Dec. 1964), p. 286.

30. See Achebe, Morning Yet on Creation Day, op. cit., pp. 67-73; Achebe, "The Uses of African Literature," Okike, no. 15, (Aug. 1979), pp. 8-17.

31. Achebe, Morning Yet On Creation Day, op. cit., p. 72.

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