The Igbo are a profoundly religious people who believe in a benevolent creator, usually known as Chukwu, who created the visible universe (uwa). Opposing this force for good is agbara, meaning spirit or supernatural being. In some situations people are referred to as agbara in describing an almost impossible feat performed by them. In a common phrase the igbo people will say Bekee wu agbara. This means the white man is spirit. This is usually in amazement at the scientific inventions of the white man.
Apart from the natural level of the universe, they also believe that it exists on another level, that of the spiritual forces, the alusi. The alusi are minor deities, and are forces for blessing or destruction, depending on circumstances. They punish social offences and those who unwittingly infringe their privileges. The role of the diviner is to interpret the wishes of the alusi, and the role of the priest is to placate them with sacrifices. Either a priest is chosen through hereditary lineage or he is chosen by a particular god for his service, usually after passing through a number of mystical experiences. Each person also has a personalised providence, which comes from Chukwu, and returns to him at the time of death, a chi. This chi may be good or bad.
There is a strong Igbo belief that the spirits of one's ancestors keep a constant watch over you. The living show appreciation for the dead and pray to them for future well being. It is against tribal law to speak badly of a spirit. Those ancestors who lived well, died in socially approved ways, and were given correct burial rites, live in one of the worlds of the dead, which mirror the worlds of the living. They are periodically reincarnated among the living and are given the name ndichie – the returners. Those who died bad deaths and lack correct burial rites cannot return to the world of the living, or enter that of the dead. They wander homeless, expressing their grief by causing harm among the living.
The funeral ceremonies and burials of the Igbo people are extremely complex, the most elaborate of all being the funeral of a chief. However, there are several kinds of deaths that are considered shameful, and in these circumstances no burial is provided at all. Women who die in labour, children who die before they have no teeth, those who commit suicide and those who die in the sacred month – for these people their funeral ceremony consists of being thrown into a bush. Their religious beliefs also led the Igbo to kill those that might be considered shameful to the tribe. Single births were regarded as typically human, multiple births as typical of the animal world. So twins were regarded as less than humans and put to death (as were animals produced at single births). Children who were born with teeth (or whose upper teeth came first), babies born feet first, boys with only one testicle, and lepers, were all killed and their bodies thrown away in secrecy.
Religion was regarded with great seriousness, and this can be seen in their attitudes to sacrifices, which were not of the token kind. Religious taboos, especially those surrounding priests and titled men, involved a great deal of asceticism. The Igbo expected in their prayers and sacrifices, blessings such as long, healthy, and prosperous lives, and especially children, who were considered the greatest blessing of all. The desire to offer the most precious sacrifice of all led to human sacrifice – slaves were often sacrificed at funerals in order to provide a retinue for the dead man in life to come. There was no shrine to Chukwu, nor were sacrifices made directly to him, but he was conceived as the ultimate receiver of all sacrifices made to the minor deities.
These minor deities claimed an enormous part of the daily lives of the people. The belief was that these gods could be manipulated in order to protect them and serve their interests. If the gods performed these duties, they were rewarded with the continuing faith of the tribe. Different regions of Igboland have varying versions of these minor deities. Below are some of the most common:
Ala – the earth-goddess, the spirit of fertility (of man and the productivity of the land).
Igwe – the sky-god. This god was not appealed to for rain however, that was the full-time profession of the rain-makers, Igbo tribesmen who were thought to be able to call and dismiss rain.
Imo miri – the spirit of the river. The Igbo believe that a big river has a spiritual aspect; it is forbidden to fish in such deified rivers.
Mbatuku– the spirit of wealth.
Agwo – a spirit envious of other’s wealth, always in need of servitors.
Aha njuku or Ifejioku – the yam spirit.
Ikoro – the drum spirit.
Ekwu – the hearth spirit, which is woman’s domestic spirit.
With the arrival of missionaries the Igbo became Christians, quite fast. Today, most
Igbos are Catholics but also Protestants and members of several Free Churchs.
It is said that about 3 to 5 million Igbos are Jews. It is said that they might be the lost tribe of Dan.