Slavery and the Evolution of Totems and Taboos: The Theory of Social Violence

The Establishment of the Aro Trade Network: The Aro Oracle, Ekpe/Okonko Society and Abam Warriors


More than any institution in Igbo history, slavery provides the clearest evidence of the linkages between violence and the origins of totems and taboos.

To better understand the genesis of new totems and taboos during slavery, it is necessary to divide this section of the study into two parts. The first part deals with the Aro oracle (Chukwu), showing how it contributed to changing Igbo cosmology, while the second part discusses Abam raids and the evolution of new totems and taboos in various communities.

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In some communities, the priests of Chukwu were Aro, but in others, the Aro charged fees to individ (…)

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The symbiotic relationships that existed between the Aro, the dominant slave traders of the hinterland, and their Abam warriors need not concern us here since many researchers have already studied them (Uka 1972; Oriji 1986). Nonetheless, it is necessary to point out that the establishment of the Aro trade network contributed to immense changes in Igbo cosmology. Chuku, the high God of the Igbo pantheon, is believed to live in heaven and was worshipped through the intermediary of other gods. In fact, before slavery, it is likely that many Igbo communities did not have any shrines of the high God. But when the Aro began to expand their trade network in the hinterland, they claimed to be agents of Chukwu, and helped to establish his shrines (Ihu Chukwu) in many communities.


The Aro increased their popularity through these claims, since Chukwu was said to be the author of all blessings including fertility, good health and prosperity. Individuals who could not afford to travel to Arochukwu to consult the oracle would be obliged to offer sacrifices to Chukwu in their local shrines. In addition to the local priests of Chuku, the Aro propagated the Ekpe/Okonko society in Southern Igboland, using its leading members and multi-title holders as an arm of their trade network. Local Okonko members provided hospitality, slaves and other commodities to itinerant Aro traders in exchange for foreign goods like cloth, tobacco, and gin. As the title men of Ekpe/Okonko became increasingly influential and powerful, they began, in the words of J. G. C. Allen, “to take over many duties which hitherto had been regarded as the prerogative of the [Ezeala] and Amala” (Allen 1933: 41), using their dreaded organization of masked men to ruthlessly enforce customary laws. R. Stevenson (1968: 227) rightly argued that “the very process of Aro domination involved a divide and rule policy which kept local units fragmented”. On one hand were the Aro and their local devotees and multi-title holders of Ekpe/Okonko, and on the other hand were the Ezeala and Amala who resisted the new centers of power that were undermining their authority.


Elizabeth Isichei (1976: 105) arrived at similar conclusions in her study of Northern Igbo communities regarding the towering role that the Ogaranya and titled men who were associated with the Aro trade network played in the political and judicial affairs of their community. For example, they made laws, arbitrated disputes, and took decisions that affected their community. Due to the threat they posed to traditional authority holders, Isichei concluded that the 19th century was: “A time of changing political forms when the rule of elders was undermined by the rule of the wealthy and powerful”.


Traditional Nwokedi said that many Igbo Communities are not allowed to kill or eat many animals, like the Hindus. Arochukwu did a lot of Damages both in Religion and Tradition by killing Our sacred Animals in the name of sacrifice to gods.

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