Awuru Odo Festival

Awuru Odo Festival

Type of Holiday: Religious (Igbo)
Date of Observation: Biennially in April
Where Celebrated: Nigeria
Symbols and Customs: Odo Play

ORIGINS

About fifteen million Igbo people live in Nigeria. The supreme god of the Igbo religion is Chukwu (also known as Chineke), who created the world and presides over people as well as spirits called alusi, who inhabit all of nature and may intervene in human affairs. Igbo religious practices include sacrifices of offerings such as food and animals, prayers, and healing rituals.

Among the Igbo people, the Odo are the spirits of the dead, who return to the earth to visit their families every two years. They arrive, in the form of costumed men wearing masks, sometime between September and November and depart in April. Before they leave, there is a big theatrical performance (see ODO PLAY ) reenacting the story of their visit and the agony of their departure. The musical accompaniment featuring xylophones, drums, and rattles is known as obilenu music, meaning "that which lies above."

Preparations to receive the Odo are quite elaborate. Men prepare the shrines, surrounded by fences, where the returning spirits of the dead will worship. They also refurbish the masks that the Odo will wear or create new ones. All of these preparations must be conducted in secret, because women and non-initiates are not allowed to see what goes on. The women are primarily responsible for seeing that there is enough food to serve the Odo and any visitors who may come to watch the performance.

Although each family holds a welcoming ceremony for its particular Odo group, the big celebration in April features all of the Odo groups from all of the families. Immediately after the performance is over, the Odo climb the Ukehe hills and make their way back to the land of the dead. With them they take the prayers of the living, who appeal to them for abundant crops and for many children. Women who have recently given birth often bring gifts of thanks.

SYMBOLS AND CUSTOMS

Odo Play

The Odo play, also known as the Awuru Odo performance, takes place in the Nwankwo market square in Ukehe, where the Odo shrine and the ritual stage are located. The performers include the Odo characters themselves and the people who accompany them. The characters are mostly concealed by masks, but sometimes their legs are visible. The elderly Odo are accompanied by middle-aged men who blow elephant tusks and horns, while the youthful Odo are accompanied by young men and the Odo children are either alone or in groups. The evil Odo, who were criminals when they were alive, wear black costumes and cover their bodies with thorns. The other performers wear costumes traditionally made from plant fiber, leaves, beads, and feathers, although more durable cloth costumes are becoming more common in contemporary Odo plays. The villagers serve as a chorus, with the women dressed in their most expensive clothing and jewelry and the men carrying long sticks, guns, and machetes.

The Odo play itself reenacts the end of the Odo's stay on earth. The story begins with their arrival, dramatizes their stay with the living, and finally portrays their agonizing journey away from their loved ones and back to the land of the dead. The spirits who await them there are anxious for their return and place many obstacles in their path to make them fall and be ashamed. But the Odo are very careful not to fall, knowing that it will bring bad luck to the living. When they have circled the marketplace successfully, there is great celebration and dancing.

FURTHER READING

Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Awuru Odo Festival

Biannually in April
Among the Igbo people of Nigeria, the Odo are the spirits of the dead, who return to the earth to visit their families every two years. They arrive sometime between September and November ( see Odo Festival) and depart in April. Before they leave, there is a big theatrical performance known as the Awuru Odo in which masked players, representing the Odo spirits, reenact the story of their visit to the living and the agony of their departure. The performance takes place on a ritual stage in the market square.
Because the Odo festival occurs only once every two years, elaborate preparations are made to welcome the returning spirits. The masks used in the performance are refurbished or new ones are made. Fences are put up around the shrines where the Odo will worship. Many of these preparations are carried out in secrecy by the men, while the women, who are totally excluded from and can have no knowledge of the activities, are responsible for providing enough food for the celebration.
SOURCES:
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 262