Pre-colonial Igboland: Marriage to a Goddess

In Nwando Achebe’s recount of Ahebi Ugbabe’s life, she looks into the practice of marrying women to Goddesses as a sort of human sacrifice and slavery system.

With the abolition of the international slave trade in 1805, some Igbo people created new deities and mystical forces that were to help them fight the internal slavery that continued on after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, as well as to protect those who were left behind. These primarily female deities functioned to defend societies, they served as both mothers and protectors. The deities shielded communities from slave raiders and they repopulated the communities by using the bodies of women and the sperm of “anonymous human male sperm donors”. This institution was called igo mma ogo and allowed female deities to marry women so as to repopulate society. The children born from such unions were said to be children of the Goddess and her human wife, they bore names of their deity parents.

The women who were chosen to marry Goddesses were usually demanded as retribution for crimes that someone in their family had committed. Such crimes included murder, manslaughter and theft. Although the women married to Goddesses were not allowed to marry any freeborn men, they were allowed to have sexual relationships with freeborn men, those are the male sperm donors mentioned above. These men played their part in helping the female deities become female fathers.

One example of a powerful female medicine that went on to become a deity is Adoro of Alor-Uno, a northern Igbo town. As with most other towns in northern Igboland where the most popular and powerful deities were female, Adoro was a Goddess. She started out as a “medicine”, a spiritual force, to protect Alor-Uno during wars with other towns, and to save them from the slaving activities of the Aro and Nike who were renowned as aggressive slave-traders. Adoro grew to become a Goddess who meted our justice in events in the community, she also maintained social harmony and was apparently one of the most powerful expressions of female religious and political power in Nsukka.

Adoro was a mother, a nurturer and a fertility Goddess tasked with the responsibility of repopulating a society that had been ravished by the slave trade. She was a powerful war deity and as a legal instrument, she was called upon to judge cases that were thought to be too difficult for human justice. Adoro also maintained moral conducted, she detected criminal behaviour (for example those who were thought to have committed a crime would be called to swear upon Adoro, if they were innocent they were free but if they were not, they would be punished by her). Adoro punished though were stole, told lies, bore false witness, committed murder or adultery.

Criminal offenders would present their children in marriage to appease the wrathful Goddess with the support of her priests. Sometimes the family of the criminal would cast lots so as to figure out who would offered to Adoro while at other times, Adoro would instruct the wrongdoer to marry one of her daughters (that is the daughters of one of her wives). The women who found themselves dedicated to Adoro were both freeborn and enslaved, while they served to help Adoro repopulate society, they also helped build a relationship between Adoro and their families as she offered her protection to them as they had a Goddess for an in-law.

The wives of Adoro led strictly regulated lives. Initially it was forbidden for women betrothed to Adoro to marry freeborn men, they had sexual relations with Adoro’s priests (attamas) who would impregnate them. Daughters born of these relations were forbidden from having relationships with either Adoro priests or freemen, but only with men of similar status. As the number of Adoro wives increased, freeborn men were encouraged to have sexual relationships with them. None of Adoro’s wives could return to their natal village, even if they wanted to.

With the full coming of colonialism, the British missionaries became obsessed with Nsukka religion. They had heard of the system of igo mma ogo and convinced that it was a native form of slavery and human sacrifice, the missionaries sought to destroy the institution. They were somewhat successful, and it may be worth mentioning that several of the women married to Adoro ended up becoming Christians or using Christianity to combat a system which they found oppressive.

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Igo mma ogo seems to be a unique institution, Achebe only uses examples like Adoro and another Goddess Ohe. However, I find it interesting that she seem to overlook that in many societies, including pre-colonial Igbo ones, priest, priestesses or devotees of both Gods and Goddesses were often referred to as their “wives”. Institutions similar to igo mma ogo can be seen among the Akan of Ghana were priestesses would be married to a God or Goddess and thus be exempt from marrying human men although they were not barred from sexual activity. I would like to, in the upcoming paragraphs, examine another aspect of women marrying goddesses using Mami Wata, the beautiful and seductive Goddess who is thought to make people rich and powerful through sexual encounters with her or her agents.

Igbo Mami Wata devotees and worshippers were considered to be married to her, they gave up living as human wives for the mysticism, water worship and marriage to the Goddess. And when they were married to humans, Igbo Mami Wata worshippers would set aside one day of the four-day Igbo market week to meet marital obligations to their “Goddess husband”. The wives of Mami Wata were not tasked with having children to bring up population numbers as with Adoro or Ohe. Nonetheless, my fascination stems from Mami Wata being a seductive goddess, all my life I have heard of Mami Wata encountering people men sexually. I am yet to hear of a woman who encountered Mami Wata sexually and therefore couldn’t have sex with any human being ever again.

Mami Wata is a Goddess that is considered to be active in the social, economic and sexual lives of ordinary people. Mami Wata demands exclusivity, people who have sex with her or her agents may never have sex with other humans or risk insanity. Though she is popularly imagined as female, Mami Wata does not have a familiar sexual orientation and claims human spouses indiscriminately regardless of gender. So why would she only be having sexual encounters with her human male spouses or are Mami Wata’s human female spouses really good at keeping secrets?

Perhaps this is a topic for another post, either way I found it an interesting addition to this one since it fits in the theme of women marrying Goddesses. I also believe this is a perfect way to round this post up and open the next post which will be on the “controversial” topic of woman-to-woman marriage (it is only “controversial” because people are still arguing about whether the female husbands had sexual relations with their wives).

What I read.
Achebe Nwando (2003), “IGO MMA OGO: The Adoro Goddess, Her Wives, and Challengers— Influences on the Reconstruction of Alor-Uno, Northern Igboland, 1890–1994″, Indiana University Press, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Winter)

Achebe Nwando (2011), Ahebi Ugbabe: The Female Colonial King of Nigeria

Izugbara O. Chimaraoke, “Sexuality and the supernatural in Africa”, pp. 533-558, in African Sexualities: A Reader, ed. Sylvia Tamale

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