The University of Iowa University of Iowa

Art from the Ijo Spirit World

by Martha G. Anderson
Alfred University

Ikiyan aru (“sacrificial canoe”) in a recreation sponsored by Martha G. Anderson. Ikebiri, Olodiama clan. Central Ijo artist, Nigeria, 1979. Photo by Martha G. Anderson.


Ijo living throughout the delta employ sacrificial canoes, or ikiyan aru, to clear away pollution and counter epidemics, troublesome spirits, and other negative forces.  Small warriors equipped with paddles and weapons man some of these 'spiritual war boats'; the raffia that surrounds this one protects its crew from bullets.  These simple vessels also contain offerings to fortify good spirits and ward off bad ones.  Some ikiyan aru are deployed secretly in the dead of night, but elaborate displays, which incorporate drumming, dancing, divination, and possession often accompany larger versions.  Ikiyan aru can be mounted along the riverbank, set in the river to be carried away by the current, or strategically positioned to protect shrines and communities from invisible invaders.  The idea of using canoe effigies to wage war against hostile spirits seems appropriate for the Ijo, given that they learn to retaliate for the slightest insult as children, and have a long history of warfare.