Igbo Art in Social Context

by Herbert M. Cole
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Barbara

Okoroshiojo masker called Nama ("Bull") with his male attendants, Mgbala Agwa, 1982. Photo by Herbert M. Cole.


Dark Okoroshi appear each season in great numbers--as many as a hundred from a single village, and they range along a hierarchy from numerous relatively benign characters (with names such as seed, darkness, vulture, rat, basket, jealousy, noisy) danced by young men to fewer more powerful spirits (called slow poison, killer, wild elephant) embodied by older men. The former are chasers and disrupters, but seldom do very much real harm; they dominate the masking season, and mostly harass women and children. As in this image, the latter, which come out toward the season's end, often have club carrying attendants who pound through the community chanting heavy dirges and seeking confrontations with other powerful maskers from neighboring villages. Their meetings used to erupt into real fights. These relatively few strong dark spirits formerly had significant roles in social regulation and adjudication, levying fines or seizing property of miscreants, for example. Many dark masks harass women and the uninitiated; they come out rain or shine, and travel anywhere, day or night.