The Osu Caste System in Igboland

In the Southeast of present day Nigeria lives a tribe. A unique tribe whose language is only spoken within this enclave and nowhere else. This tribe is Igbo. Historians and archeologists have not discovered how or when the Igbos settled here. Even folklore was silent on the origen of the Igbos. In some quatres, there had been a romanticism of a Jewish connection, but this theory exist only in the realm of conjecture. And making matters more difficult was the fact that the Igbos never did advance a centralised system of governance to chronicle their history. Rather they evolved a complex social structure.

The family which comprises of the man and his many wives and children was the first unit. The second unit was the extended family which involved grandparents, uncles, aunts, nephews, cousins and nieces. Then the kinship. This involved descendants of one man who over years had gotten many enough as to become a village. After the village comes the community. In the past, this was the apex of society. It was made up of villages bonded together by history, kinship or security. But this community was stateless. There were thousands of these communities bonded by language and custom and together they constitute the Igbo nation. Each of these societies was egalitarian. Such saying as”Igbo enwe eze” or ”Igbo ama eze”, that is ”The Igbos have no kings” or ”The Igbos knew no kings” were proud reference to their egalitarian nature.

The Igbos are people rich in customs and traditions. The centerpiece of their tradition was their religion.This involved the worship of Deities and ancestors. It took care of their daily lives from rising to sunset. It served as checks and balances in their interactive society. It dictates the times and the seasons. It embued moral concepts both to the young and the old. And it strictly punished offenders.

There were also the village square and the community square. Both played the same roles for the village and the community respectively. This was where the business of governance took place. Was there dispute between two people or villages, was there a message from the Gods, was there traditional ceremony like the New Yam festival or wrestling match, was there security issues like war or disaster, any matter that affects the whole village or community, the square took care of them. Once the herald goes round the village or community with his gong and message, every male that had reached the age of tying the lioncloth; that is, twelve to fifteen years of age was expected at the village square. Here everybody had a right to an opinion and the best opinion carried the day.

Among this crowd was another group. The elders. These were people inducted into the inner workings of the community because of their age, wisdom and individual achievements. These elders delibrate on the practicality of decisions reached at the square. They also sit as judges in important cases. Their meetings were often held in secret and in consultation with the Chief Priest. And their decisions were final.

Religion was so central to the psyche of Igbo traditional society. Once a man reaches marriage age, his relatives help him build his homestead. And a priest was invited to inaugurate the homestead god. This god; Ikenga as it was locally known takes position at a choice place in the homestead. Each morning and at every ceremony, sacrifices were made to it. When a village or community was formed, priests from powerful Deities were invited to inaugurate the village or community Deity. After rigorous rituals and ceremony, the Deity takes position. There were Deities for almost every facet of Igbo existence. As in contemporaneous cultures. After inauguration the Deity choses its priest. At the death of each priest, the Deity choses the succesor from the children of the dead priest or any other person in the village or community. The priest of the grandest village or community Deity serves as the Chief Priest. He possessed great power and influence. He was the mouthpiece of the Deity and it was terribly unwise to oppose his advice.

There were also the Osu. This was the priestly caste. This was a man consecrated to a Deity at its inauguration. In pristine Igbo society, aside from the shrine; he was the living symbol of the Deity. His duties were simillar to that of the Chief Priest. The only difference was, he was deity personified. He was greatly respected and revered. His person was sacred. Anybody who harmed him was swiftly punished by the Deity he represents. After his consecration, if he was yet without a homestead; the village or community as the case may be built one for him. They got him a wife and help him in his farm. Some even go the length of weeding his compound. The caste virtually lived like a king without the title. As time moved on, people who were persecuted would join this caste by consecrating themselves to Deities. Once consecrated, no one in his right mind would ever harm them. The last vestiges of this custom could still be seen in some parts of Igboland. Some communities still consider the python as sacred to their Deities. In these communities, the python is revered. No one harms it. And if you accidentally kill it, you will bury it as you would a man. And will also perform expensive rituals to cleanse yourself and the land.

In pristine Igboland, the Osu possessed a lot of influence. And out of affinity, Osu names were used by all and sundry. Many Osu name still used presently include Osuala; that is, priest of Ala, the earth goddess; Osuigwe:-priest of Igwekala, the god of the skies; Osuagwu:-priest of Agwu, the god of madness; Osueke:-priest of Eke, the god of eke market day; Osuorie:-priest of Orie, the god of orie market day; Osuafo and Osunkwo:-priest of Afo and Nkwo, the gods of afo and nkwo market days respectively; Osuchukwu:-priest of Chukwu, the Supreme Deity; Nwosu, son of Osu the priest; etc etc.

Unlike the office of the Chief Priest, the Osu caste was hereditary. So when they started increasing, there were need for more spaces. This was the time they started exercising some of the priviledges of their office. An Osu could take a parcel of land that belongs to you and you can’t do anything about it. It was like the gods have taken it. This tradition known as ‘Igbaiti’ was a system of possesion where the caste assumed ownership of any property of his choice by simply circling the property with palm-fronds and declaring ownership. If you go to the village or community or to the gods for arbitration, they will simply tell you to forget it. And it could cost you your life if you insist. That was when the animosity started building up. A bottled up animosity that was let loose when Colonialism and Christianity broke down the old order. This animosity still exist today in some parts of Igboland. Moreover many descendants of Osu were highly skilled in the art of traditional medicine. Many of them ended up as native doctors. This job coupled with their status added more dread to their persons.

All these became extant when western culture and religion seeped through Igboland. The hitherto above the law caste suddenly found himself under a new social order. One that striped him of the priviledges he had known. It was the colonialist and early missionaries ability to confront the hitherto unchallengable that swiftly converted the Igbo race to Christianity. The early missionaries labelled everything traditional as pagan and therefore evil. Even traditional music wasn’t spared. It wasn’t until later that educated Igbo men and women began to question some of the extreme views the missionaries had concerning many aspects of their culture.

Most historians, writers and commentators who have written or spoken about the Osu caste system have always presented it as one of the uncanny aspects of Igbo culture, just like the killing of twins. For many in this group, there are claims that the Osus were slaves, sub-human or sacrificial offering to Deities, accursed, outcasts and were prohibited from becoming a Chief or taking traditional titles. This confusion stems from the fact that these historians, writers and commentators were only addressing the Osu issue with a post colonial mentality. Moreover, they were outside the system and the long held prejudice against the Osu prevented them from conducting authentic research into what the tradition originally was.

The Osu caste system is as old as Igboland itself. No one knew when or why it came about. There was nothing uncanny about it. It was a custom that gave the Gods an opening to exist in human form. It also gave the people an opportunity to express their feelings to a personification of the Deity they only saw its lifeless sculpture at the shrine.

Neither was Osu a slave. In Igboland, the concept of slavery, that is; ‘Ohu’ as it was practised in other cultures did not exist. There were no slave(s) or slave culture. The only idea of slavery the Igbos had was a situation when a man bequeath himself or his offspring to you to offset a debt he cannot pay. He would pay this debt by working for you. And once it was paid, the contract finished. Even when the atlantic slave trade started, it was solely a trade between the Igbos and middle-men from the coast. The Igbos don’t own or keep slaves. There were no room for it in the social culture. And aside from the Osu, Ume or Okpuaja(conotations of this priestly caste) who the post colonial mentality tried to classify as slaves, there is nobody or group of people in Igboland today who could be described as being descended from slaves.

Another claim is that the Osu were sub-humans or sacrificial offerings to Deities. On the contrary, Osu was neither sub- human or a sacificial offering. The Igbo social structure has two parts, the Osu; the priestly caste or those descended from him and the Diala; those born outside of or free from it. In the past, they complimented each other though trouble came in down the line owing to the unbounded priviledges of the Osu. Once consecrated or after seeking refuge, no one could raise a finger against the Osu. When human sacrifice was needed, the caste was off limits. If there was a war with another community or head hunters looking for heads to bury an important person with, the caste walks the land without fear of molestation. The christian priesthood is an exact semblance to what the office of the Osu looked like in pristine Igboland. Infact every priest could rightly claim to be an Osuchukwu, that is; priest of the Supreme Deity.

Another claim is that they were accursed. The missionaries and the early converts perspective of Igbo custom was that everything traditional was accursed. When some christians refer to the Osu as accursed, they are merely mirrowing the view of these missionaries. But this view have to separate the past from the present. Since almost every Igbo person today could claim that they are christian, describing those who were descended from the priestly caste with any demeaning language or gesture not only negates the christian concept of salvation, it also ridicules the Christian religion itself since in theology, the christian is simply an Osu to Christ. Just as the people of Antioch labelled the early disciples of Jesus, Christians, the ancient Igboman might as well call christians, Ndi Osu Kristi.

And was the Osu accursed in the traditional society? The answer was no. Osu was a vital part of the Igbo social and religious structure. Were they accursed, it was the Gods who would pronounce the sentence. But they were sacred to this Deities and enjoy heavy protection from them. The accursed assertion was in direct contrast to what the Osu actually was in pristine Igbo culture. It is like the congregation telling the priest ”You are accursed” simply because he is their priest.

The outcast claim stems from the fact that the Osu was not bound by the laws of the community. He was in effect above the law. When problem arose between him and the Diala, the Diala usually backed out for fear of repercussions from vengeful deities.The inability to accost the Osu was the seed of animosity and prejudice that would later befell him. It’s ironic that this prejudice converted symbolic priviledges to symbols of ostracism and customized taboos as tradition.

Some even claim that the Osus were people dedicated to Deities as ransom for guilt, sickness or misfortune and were hated because they reminded the dedicators of their guilt. This is the most bizarre of the stereotypes associated with the Osu tradition. Since this tradition is dead and there is no information when the last Osu was consecrated owning to the tradition’s antiquity and lack of authentic history, it has been easy to make this kind of assumptions. The crux of the matter is that those making this assumption took their cue Not From Tradition but from the JudeoChristian concept of Jesus Christ redeeming death. And they will easily quote the bible to support their claim. Whereas most religion seem intertwined at one point or the other, every religion has its distinct features. The Igbo Traditional Religion is full of the sacred. Sacred people, sacred groove or forest, sacred streams, sacred animals, sacred days and months, sacred festivals, etc. Their sacred nature stems from their close connection to Deities and the confirmation words of the chief priest, and it was usually a huge sacrilege to defile their sacredness. Some of these still retain that sacred aura even to this day. The Osu was a man who bore the marks of Deity among his community. He was neither a ransom, a felon or a slave. He was on most occasion chosen from his community or from a neighbouring community(to keep him in check). And he virtually lived like a king. According to G.T. Basden in his book ‘Among the Niger Ibos’ 1966, the Osu office was a position of ”great respect and honour”. It only deteriorated because of proliferation, tyranny and the advent of western influence.

There were also claims that the Osu were people who committed atrociticies and as punishment were forcefully dedicated to Deities. This assertion borders on the ridiculous. The animosity against the Osu became manifest only when the old order collapsed. The Osu tradition was neither a prison term or a low caste and nobody punishes an offender by elevating him.

There are also claims that the Osu was prohibited by tradition to become a Chief or take traditional titles. This assertion is outright lie. Both presently and in the past, there are so many people descended from the Osus who took traditional titles and who are Chiefs. There is no prohibition whatsoever. The office of the traditional Ruler/Mayor/Eze is the one on spotlight here. The origen of this office is not indigenous. It was a product of the British Colonialist’s Indirect Rule policy and has democratised since then. Anyone can aspire to this office, but he gets it on the vote of the majority. The minority status of the Osu and the attendant prejudice are the only factors that keep them from this office.

There were also claims that the Osus sold the Dialas as slaves during the Transatlantic slave trade. Others claim that the Osus were only those sold as slaves during this period. The former point to what happened at the shrine of Chukwu/Ibinukpabi of Arochukwu where convicts were sold into slavery. The later point to the prevailing prejudice against the Osu. The fact remains that no one could play innocent as during this period fathers who can’t afford to take care of their children sold one or more to slavery to take care of the rest. The business of slavery was widespread and the slave raiders who were mostly former head hunters definitely knew their limits.

One of the realities on ground was that the Osus and the Dialas do not intermarry. One has to assume that the ancient Igbos wanted to preserve the purity of this priestly caste’s bloodline. The other reason for this restriction is enshrouded in myth. There was the myth that if you marry an Osu or get married to an Osu you will die. Such a myth is understandable considering the sacred nature of the Osu and the protective shield that surrounded him. To play safe each group married from their own stock or the person who married an Osu became Osu. Since nobody knew when this tradition started, it is impossible to find out what the real motivation of the ancient Igbos were, when they instituted this restriction. Nonetheless, this myth has been busted several times with intermarriages between both group. This leaves one with the correct impression that intermarriages were forbidden in the past because of pride, fear and later prejudice.

Presently, Osu tradition is a dead culture, though the prejudice still exist in a number of peoples’ minds. No one wants to be seen as or associated with the title ‘Osu’. This is the effect of relentless psychological and social warfare directed against them after the colapse of the old order. The greatest undoing of any people within any given society is their numbers. And the Osu were in the minority. There was unconfirmed report that in 1956, the Eastern Region parliament sitting in Enugwu passed a resolution abolishing the Osu caste system and introducing punishment for anyone or group of people seen castigating anybody descended from the Osu.

Colonialism and Christianity were the two major forces that broke down the Igbo traditional and social structure. While Christianity turned people from their traditional religion and practises, Colonialism destroyed their social structure. The Colonialist had the uneasy task of bringing all these independent and stateless communities under some sort of government. The policy of Indirect Rule couldn’t work since there were no local rulers in place to administer it. So the British colonialist took the option of chosing a man from each community and making him a Chief by warrant. Through these warrant Chiefs, the British were at last able to bring the Igbos under governance.