Alusi (Spirit Force Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:

Igbo tutelary deities, known as alusi, are spirits that serve as guardians, patrons, or protectors of a particular person, place, lineage, or occupation. These minor deities are often associated with natural elements such as earth, rivers, forests or with days of the week during which markets are held. Igbo people understand alusi to be the children or deputies of the high god Chuku. They are sometimes realised as full-size wooden figures and act as forces that bless or destroy depending on the circumstance.

Deities like to be remembered, thanked, and honoured. Thus, alusi are housed in shrines or elaborate compounds where they are the subjects of weekly and annual rituals. Hierarchically ranked male and female deities, which are considered a married couple, are the largest figures in the shrine with smaller, lesser images representing their children. Most shrines exhibit a family model however, some include slaves, ikenga, and animals in a deity's entourage. Alusi’s placement in these devotive locations is a testament to the attention lavished on them. If treated well by their people, alusi bring peace, prosperity, health, abundant crops, and other blessings. When they are offended, though, alusi bring disease and misfortune. Diviners and priests help interpret the wishes of the alusi and perform ritual sacrifices for them.

In the past, these deities were worshipped once every four days. The priest would offer sacrificial gifts of food and drink in a ceremony attended by village elders and leaders. Offerings included chalk and kola nut. Sometimes fowl, goats, or sheep were sacrificed. The 'chaff', or the bodies of sacrificial animals, served as the feast for these deities as it was said that the blood is the food preferred by the deities themselves. During the annual 'festival of images', women repaint and redress the figures.

In some areas the various figures were dispersed within the community, housed in various lineage shrines yet brought together annually for a festival. As many as twenty or thirty images are gathered for these events, and they would be surrounded by or embellished with title regalia such as staffs, caps, eagle feathers, and jewellery. Devotees lay kola, chalk, and coins at the figures’ feet. Guardian figures are paraded through the town as a sign of respect. At the end of the ceremony, the figures are then returned to their 'homes', or their shrines and compounds.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of iroko wood
  • Carved standing in frontal position
  • Natural human head proportion or slightly larger
    • Ichi scarification marks incised deeply at temples and forehead
  • Elongated neck
  • Arms disposed symmetrically to sides
    • Arms usually cut free of the torso
    • Forearms thrust forward
    • Hands open with palms facing the sky
    • Hands generalised and without detail
  • Mbithu scarification marks run down chest and stomach
  • Legs slightly apart
    • Feet generalised and without detail
    • Feet carved as heavy, non-naturalistic shapes
    • Carved spirals (bracelets and anklets) around legs and wrists
  • Accurate articulation of joints
  • Smoothly rounded surfaces
  • Many figures rubbed with yellow or red pigment (result of camwood rubbing)
    • White chalk rubbed on face
    • Reapplication of chalk and/or camwood sometimes build up over time, forming deep encrustation

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