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24 Jan

Anxiety and Identity in the use of Supernatural through Myths in the Trilogy of Chinua Achebe- Nilanjan Chakraborty

“A fool alone will contest the precedence of ancestors and gods”: Anxiety and Identity in the use of Supernatural through Myths in the Trilogy of Chinua Achebe

Nilanjan Chakraborty

(Assistant Professor, Department of English, Panchla Mahavidyalaya, Howrah)

Nilanjan Chakraborty graduated from St. Xavier's College Kolkata and then went onto complete his M.A in English from the University of Calcutta. He is on the verge of submitting his PhD thesis on myth formation in the works of Chinua Achebe and Amitav Ghosh to the Dept of English, Kalyani University. He has presented papers in many international and national seminars and has many publications to his credit. His interest mainly lies in postcolonial and postmodern literature and critical theory.

 “From old-and indeed- from extremely ancient- times there has been handed down to our later age intimations of a mythical character to the effect that the stars are gods and that the divine embraces the whole of nature. The further details were subsequently added in the manner of myth. Their purpose was the persuasion of the masses and general legislative and political expediency.” (Aristotle)

Supernaturalism has had a dual identity and existence in European literary and cultural history. Whereas the ‘rationalists’ of ancient Greece have argued that myths are nothing but social appropriations of fictional accounts, simultaneously a large body of myths have operated at the social and artistic level with ancient tragedians like Sophocles and Aeschylus using myths freely for their artistic creations. Aristotle considered myths as being anti-logos, or opposed to the human capacity for argument and ‘reasoned discourse’ as the above extract shows that he looked at myths from the perspective of critical cynicism and as tools of social institutions to function in a given set hierarchy of power relation. Post Renaissance, myths have generally circulated within the matrix of Judaeo-Christian narratives in Europe and those myths have been used to further the cause of ‘Christianising’ the culture. It is ironic that when the Empire engaged with a coercive politics with the colonised cultures, they marginalized the very signifiers of those cultures that were also present in the European cultural matrix in a different form. As a result the Oriental myths were stereotyped as being “savage”, “uncultured” and “pre-historic”, when Europe has had a rich history of myth narratives, even after Christianity became the dominant religion. When Chinua Achebe is using myths in his novels Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, he is doing with a specific political and aesthetic agenda on mind. He uses native myths from his Igbo community for purposes of resistance. He appropriates myths from his cultural space and integrates them in his novels in order to make a statement that African culture in general and Igbo culture in particular is not the ‘uncivilised’ thing that the colonizers have portrayed. Achebe’s politics is that of re-imaging Africa as a flourishing civilisation that has its own history, heritage and its own vision of modernity. Myths are used by Achebe to achieve this end; to de-binarise the myth of Africa being the “dark continent”.  

Traditional criticism has undertaken mythology to be the sensational stories of the gods and goddesses, though this branch of idea has long been challenged, especially after the body of works produced by Levi Straus. Achebe’s fiction has the quality of combining different approaches to myths in his fictional narrative, may it be on gender, the heroic cult of the Igbo society, the inter-clan politics or negotiating history in terms of conflict and reorientation. Myth has always been a defining component for culture for the African audience. Myths, as often perceived, are not just fantastic tales of gods descending upon the stage to rescue man from his pitiable state. Myths contain a whole range of complex strands of significance, starting from delineating the social reality to psychic thought processes at the level of culture. Talking about myth being used as a narrative strategy in the fictional mode, Isidore Okpewho writes:                   

It is therefore important to establish that when the narrator counterbalances the ‘pastness’ of his tale by giving it a contemporary stamp, he is not merely dragging it from one extreme to the other but seeking a balance which frees the tale from any kind of commitment to determinable time… But the ideal of the mythmaking effort remains one in which the narrator manages not to overstrain our sense either of the pastness or of the presentness of the tale. (105)

The key phrase used by Okpewho here is ‘determinable time’ since it projects myth as both being slightly different and also complimentary to history. History claims a determined spatiality in terms of the narrative as also the experience contained in the ‘story’, but myth seems to be a part of a different stratum of experience, starting as a historicised narrative, but then shooting off to the metaphysical domain. Okonkwo is the protagonist of Things Fall Apart and he shares a problematic engagement with the myths and rituals of his clan. He has a psycho-pathological need to construct his image as “masculine” and so he often keeps quiet over execution of rituals which essentiates the charge of violence so that his tribe does not accuse him of being weak and partial as being its head. Okonkwo is ever struggling to prove his point of view on the various religious rites and the future-telling of Cheilo, and in that way in more occasions than one he goes against the dictates of the normative communal structures. When Ikemefuna is taken for sacrifice, Okonkwo accompanies the procession, which is not quite acceptable according to the rules of the Igbo community. Obeirika counters Okonkwo and says: “…if the Oracle said that my son should be killed I would neither dispute it nor be the one to do it” (Achebe, Things Fall Apart 67).

In the case of Okonkwo, myths become a tool to further the cause of his political ambition, and he shows tendencies to be selective in his acquiescence or opposition to the various norms of his community, which is determined by the myths and oral history. This is where myth becomes the tool of struggle for Okonkwo to assert his individuality within the highly codified structure of the Igbo society and hence calls for his own destruction because going against the sacred ties is a sacrilege beyond any forgiveness- that is what the concept of ‘chi’ is in the Igbo cosmology. The concept of ‘chi’ is of significant in the Igbo cosmology, because it is the sole governing principle of the Igbo consciousness. Achebe in his essay ‘Chi in Igbo Cosmology’ gives a detailed account about the importance of chi in the Igbo structure of myths and folklores, and one needs to take a very close look at it before analysing the cultural politics at work in Okonkwo’s scheme of things regarding his chi. Achebe states that in Igbo, there are two distinct meanings of chi, one related to gods or supernatural beings, and the other related to the transitional periods between the daytime and night time. So, chi ofufo means daybreak and chi ojiji means nightfall. Chi is essentially a personal god to the extent that every person will have his personal chi in the other world, and no two persons can have the same chi. There is no doubt about the fact that Achebe does not accept the tribal norms of his society unquestioningly, and in more than one occasion, he raises doubts about Okonkwo’s silence in Ikemefuna’s death. The whole series of events that unfolds through the sacrifice of Ikemefuna, constructs a world of Igbo lore and folk culture that creates a complex web of issues, that ensues a conflict between the contradictory nature of personal desires on the part of Okonkwo, related to his communal and personal self, as also it creates a tussle between the expectations of the Igbo elders and Okonkwo’s studied silence on the issue. This is precisely where the myth of sacrifice turns into a social and ideological battlefield, where the individual response of Okonkwo to power is in conflict with the larger power equations of his community. Okonkwo encourages the boys to listen to “…masculine stories of violence and bloodshed” (Achebe, Things Fall Apart 53), but that did not stop Nwoye to be more attracted to the stories of his mother, which according to Okonkwo’s ideals are feminine constructions of the mythical past of Igbo lores. Okonkwo would relate to Ikemefuna and Nwoye how he used to fight the tribal wars with great gusto and how he claimed his first human head. There is a great deal of psychological warfare going on, where Okonkwo as a “true” patriarch of his obi, is handing down his legacy in order to carry forward his cult of manliness and a probable individuality. Individuality is a myth in the case of Okonkwo, because he misinterprets the whole notion of individuality. He understands individuality in the assertion of his will on the tribe, whereas individuality in the Igbo land is constructed as something that must be a validation of the ethos of the tribe. Okonkwo fails precisely in this aspect, and he goes against the Igbo order, first in participating in Ikemefuna’s sacrifice, and then remaining strongly against the Church, when others were more bent on finding a political compromise with the White Man. Okonkwo paints his past in a ritualistic manner in order to construct himself at par with the heroes and gods of the popular mythical anecdotes of his tribe. An interesting myth captures this mood of Okonkwo to place himself above the Igbo rituals, even if it means of not protecting Ikemefuna at the time of crisis to position himself as the ultimate hero for the Igbo cause. Achebe writes in Things Fall Apart:    

In this way the moons and the seasons passed. And then the locusts came. It had not happened for many a long year. The elders said locusts came once in a generation, reappeared every year for seven years and then disappeared for another lifetime. They went back to their caves in a distant land, where they were guarded by a race of stunted men. And then after another lifetime, these men opened the caves again and the locusts came to Umuofia again.(54).

Myths therefore problematised the very way Achebe deals with the issue of postcolonial identity- his angst directed both against the European politics of stereopyfication as also against internal processes of colonization and hegemony. Reinterpretation of myth and history does not happen overnight surely, and things cannot fall apart in an instant. But the white man strikes at the very core of the Igbo belief system in order to diffuse the new order into the old and then appropriate it:          

“If we leave our gods and follow your god” asked another man [from the clan], “who will protect us from the anger of our neglected gods and ancestors?”

 “Your gods are not alive and cannot do you any harm,” replied the white man. “They are pieces of wood and stone.” (TFA, 146)

Okonkwo at the end becomes a figure of absolute disfiguration and the myths, at the level of belief, ensure that Okonkwo is silenced and forgotten because he was not one among the Igbos- a dreadful rejection of an ambitious man.   

After Things Fall Apart in 1956 came its sequel No Longer At Ease in 1960, which dealt with the ambivalent structures of a postcolonial society, where things have already fallen apart and the protagonist, Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the senior Okonkwo in the previous magnum opus, finds it increasingly difficult to assimilate into himself any cultural spatiality. In No Longer At Ease, there is a subtle interplay of ideology that happens, that is, between the oral culture of the past and the culture of the Eurocentric modernity that seeks to base culture on causality and empirical scientific thought processes, and the two by the virtue of their nature, becomes antithetical. "Unlike Islam and Christianity, traditional African religion has no scriptures," anthropologist Barbara Srozenski points out. "What does exist is a tradition rich in myth and folklore – an oral tradition" (Srozenski). Srozenski is of the point of view that Western myths have been put into written manuscripts to a large extent, but the African mythology till date is more oral than written, thereby still conforming to the tradition of oral performance. In a post-independent neo-colonial Nigeria, myths and oral traditions are still relevant to the older generation, but the younger lot, represented through Obi is increasingly sceptical about them, though they cannot reject the dogma of the past. When power politics beckons him, Obi will have to use the past in order to create the jingoism of the glories of the past to create his own political space. The myth versus the individual aspiration, which is coloured by the imagination of the new order of Western education, gets culminated when the Umuofian society directs Obi to not marry to Clara, because she is an osu. In the first place, the very notion of a love-knot being tied without paying the appropriate bride price is demeaning enough, and then to marry an osu is an absolute sacrilege that can never be accepted. Now the question arises as to who an osu is? In order to understand the term and to realise its social significance, we need to look in the essay by Regina Grace Muscarello, who gives a graphic account of who an osu is. Muscarello points out that the meaning of the term osu is outcast, and the outcast was a result of a social practice in ancient Nigeria, which caused many a person to be dislocated from society. The communal structure is kept intact even outside the space of the bush, which itself is a commentary on the simultaneous presence of myths, rituals and ancient practices in a metropolitan city as Lagos. Obi is expected to attend such meetings and he is expected to strictly adhere to the convener’s directions, because after all it was them who had funded the British education for Obi, and the communal ethos of the Igbos taught him to act as a part of the clan and not as an individual who is significant enough to take his own decisions. The ritual of taking oath and invoking the gods for the well-being of the community is kept intact by the Umuofian society:

Umuofia kwenu!” shouted one old man. (Let Umuofians be obedient).
“Ya!” replied everyone in unison.
Umuofia kwenu!”
Ife awolu Ogoliazuan’ afia,” he said. (Achebe, No Longer 62)

This is a climactic moment in Obi’s life and it heightens his tremendous tussle with his own clan, something that his grandfather had to face in a different context, and now he has to fight it out in a different context. The whole community talks in one voice in their opposition to Clara, because she is an osu and perhaps for the first time, Obi understands what it means to work under the pressures of the community, especially when Obi is as culturally dislocated as he is, not knowing how to tackle such propositions from the very people who had sent him for an education abroad to reconstitute the power equations with the British vis-à-vis the Igbos. In Things Fall Apart, the world of myths and legends was interfered with first by Okonkwo’s reluctance to act in accordance to the sacred tie that existed between him and Ikemefuna, and later by the colonial power that begins to move in the second half of the text. In No Longer at Ease, the myths and legends are perforated by the cultural appropriation of Obi by the Christian order, even though he is well aware of the loopholes that exist in Western domination.

            Laurence Coupe states, “…all myths presuppose a previous narrative, and in turn form the model for future narratives. Strictly speaking, the pattern of promise and fulfillment need never end; no sooner has one narrative promise been fulfilled than the fulfillment becomes in turn the promise of further myth-making. Thus myths remake other myths, and there is no reason why they should not continue to do so, the mythopoeic urge being infinite.” (Coupe 108). In Arrow of God, Achebe negotiates a problematic moment in colonial history when Ezeulu, the head priest has to keep the Christian colonial masters happy because they threat with the extermination of a whole cultural past, and yet has to keep the native myths and rituals going. Ezeulu is forced to send his son to the white man’s school, otherwise his own position within the clan seems to be jeopardised by the threat of ousting by the British. The new moon that shines over Ezeulu’s obi is described as thin, resembling a boy who is maltreated by his foster-mother. The rupture at the social level that occurs due to the British imperialism is anticipated by the moon which is described by Ugoye as “an evil moon” (Achebe,Arrow of God 2). The sighting of the new moon is absolutely crucial for the declaration of the yam festival, and then it can be inferred that the moon itself becomes a part of the fertility cult when the ‘Mother Nature’ is worshipped as the provider and nurturer of existence in the physical life form. Then, it follows that if the fertility cult itself is anticipated as an evil presence, the residents have enough reasons to worry that something dreadful is imminent. Igbos are yet to be colonised by the agnostic philosophy of the west and hence the moon, with all its awkward appearance, seems to announce a future that does not seem too promising. And they will be proven right. Obiageli hence sings the song of an uncertain future:

The moon kills little boys                       
The moon kills ant-hill nose
The moon kills little boys
… (Achebe, Arrow of God 3).

While talking about the sacred ties in mythology, Eliade notes, “The sacred is qualitatively different from the profane, yet it may manifest itself no matter how or where in the profane world because of its power of turning any natural object into a paradox by means of a hierophany [i.e. manifestation of the sacred]” (Eliade 30).

So, myth formation is rooted in this concept of a phenomenological formula that puts entire emphasis on the particular events that are to take place, whether natural or metaphysical. The cultural dislocation in the Igbo cosmology is brought about by the colonial mission and through that, even the concept of time is re-invented in order to express the fear psychosis that rips across the Igbo land, from which even Ezeulu cannot escape. When Oduche refuses to join the church, Ezeulu points out that man has learnt to shoot birds with perfect accuracy and hence the bird Eneke-nti-oba has learnt to fly without perching. Ezeulu says his position is like that of the bird, and “the world is changing… I do not like it” (Achebe, Arrow of God 46). Time scale therefore traces the changing reality in the Igbo land with the British coming in, and the arrival of the British is itself a phenomenon that is included in the calendar of Igbos which creates the rupture in the tribe at all possible levels. Time is a very significant factor in this novel, as there is a clear demarcation made between the pre-colonial and the colonial life in Umuaro, and the rupture at the socio-cultural level that is brought about by the British colonialism calls forth an unnamed fear psychosis among the Igbo people because the clash of two cultures is sacrilegious from the perspective of the Igbos; in fact the very presence of the White man in their ‘sacred’ territory is abominable. The devastating influence of the British comes to the forefront initially with the python episode. Snake, especially the python is revered by the Igbos as one of the principle deities of their cosmology, and the Christians of course consider it as the Original Tempter, the very symbol of anti-Christian terror. The church use it as a bait to strike at the very belief of the Igbos for religious appropriation, and Oduche is forced to imprison a python within a box. Later when the whole episode is discovered, the entire village is shocked to see an abomination of this extent being caused:

“May the Great Deity forbid,” said Anosi.
“An abomination has happened,” said Akueke.
Matefi said: “If this is medicine, may it lose its potency” (Achebe, Arrow of God 45).

The royal python is not the deity of Umuaro, actually it belonged to the village Ezidemili, whose deity Idemili owns the royal python. As a result of this incident, there is an implosion in Ezeulu himself, who begins to realise that the British have come with deep political intentions, and not just as tourists. As a result he also understands that his religious pedigree within his own tribe is loosening, as everybody knows the role of Ezeulu in sending Oduche to the church. Ezeulu is in anguish, but he is even more depressed by his helplessness as he cannot announce the new yam festival until four new moons pass as the stipulated time for the festival had already passed. Ezeulu, in the capacity of being the head priest, and the fact that half of him belongs to Ulu, cannot disobey the sacred cult of the festival and be arbitrary, even when people in the clan are dying. He remembers the time when lizards walked in one or two and chose his ancestors to bear the deity, but that mythical past which constructs the core identity of the Igbos is now at the brink of total collapse. The mythical order of the tribe faces implosion and the pain of the head priest lies at the point that he cannot protect the tradition of the unified sensibility of his ancestors that is represented by the mythical base of the society. At this crucial juncture, when Ezeulu is facing a personal and a collective crisis, his son Oduche fails to give him any comfort. Ezeulu had sent Oduche to be his representative in the centre of the colonial power structure, but unfortunately, Oduche allows himself to get appropriated by the Christian fathers and his silence in front of his father relates to the larger silence of Igbo land. Achebe writes for his protagonist a fitting judgement: “Their god had taken sides with them against his headstrong and ambitious priest and thus upheld the wisdom of their ancestors- that no man however great was greater than his people; that no one ever won judgement against his clan” (Achebe, Arrow of God 230).

The final outcome shows that even though Ezeulu was following the rituals of the sacred order, somewhere down the line he lacked the practical wisdom which is expected from a ruler. Maybe, in strictly adhering to the rules, the myths, his sub-conscious pride was expressed as he wanted to show that no man in Igbo land is more devoted to the cause of preserving the traditions. However like the poet who becomes spontaneous in his recital of oral literature, freely changing it at his own will to meet the demands of the audience, Ezeulu may have shown some flexibility to re-orient the myths in accordance to the situation. He failed in this regard, leading Igbos to spiral towards a collapse, and like the lizard that destroyed his mother’s funeral with his own hands (Achebe, Arrow of God 230), Ezeulu was also responsible for his destruction, as also that of his tribe.

Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. No Longer at Ease. New Delhi: Penguin, 2010. Print.

---. The Arrow of God. New York: Anchor, 1974. Print.

---. Things Fall Apart. New Delhi: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Aristotle. Metaphysics. Trans. Hugh Lawson. London: Tancred,1998. Web. 26 July 2015 .

Coupe, Laurence.Myth. Oxon: Routledge, 2007. Print.

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. Sheed and Ward, London: 1958. Print.

Muscarello, Regina Grace. “Social Order”.No Longer at Ease Research Reports, Spring 2006. Web 10 March 2013.

Okpewho, Isidore. Myth in Africa. Cambridge: CUP,1983. Print.

Srozenski, Barbara. No Longer at Ease: Research Reports, Spring 2006.Web.  24 August 2012. 

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