|Fig.1: If you squint, the Kingdom of Nri looks...just as puny.
|Fig.2: Believe it or
is the giraffe.
Unlike other kingdoms around this time, the job of the eze was not just to lounge around in a huge palace, boss people around, and eat giant turkey legs. His main job was to protect the spiritual welfare of his people, which sounds much more difficult than the wife-carousel that Henry VIII was on. The eze possessed a special connection with the heavens that his people relied on for their continuous welfare. He would spend most of his time secluded in a temple praying for bountiful harvests and peace among his people, while his advisers would do the actual work making sure those things really happened (just like any other boss). The Nri would often present yams to the eze in return for his blessings, though I have found that children are not as grateful when presented with yams on Halloween. The need for spiritual protection was so paramount that whenever a new eze was chosen, he had to be taken down to the Anambra River so that his magical powers could be tested...by seeing if he could collect rocks from under the water. Seriously, that was the test. My little cousin who picks his nose and eats it could have been considered a mythical African king!
Now, the thing that makes the Kingdom of Nri so unique in history is that it really didn't have a military force to speak of. They believed that it was a grave sin for the blood of humans to spill upon the land, which is why they were always very careful when they got a nasty papercut. As such, Nri was never at war with their neighbors and declined to conquer additional lands, explaining why its territory was basically the size and shape of a dog biscuit. But how did the eze keep the peace and prevent revolting revolts within his own borders without big burly guys standing around with their arms crossed? Again we turn to his role as the mouthpiece to the gods: whenever a certain group was getting out of hand, he would simply cut off spiritual protection to those people. Soon enough, they would freak out that hunger, pestilence, or death would soon be upon them unless they made up with the eze (which means that it had to have happened at least once for folks to be scared about it). They have also been stories that the eze deliberately sent a pox upon an invading force, causing them to itch all the way back home. Such techniques were much more effective than a regular old army (I know I hate being itchy!).
|Fig.3: Watch where you're pointing that thing!
Unlike other peoples in Subsaharan Africa, the Kingdom of Nri did not use slave labor to do all their menial tasks for them. Religious doctrine declared that slavery was taboo, never to be practiced or even discussed, especially not when people are eating. Nri was even considered a safe haven for slaves from other lands; once a person held in bondage crossed into Nri territory, it was as if his shackles disappeared into thin air. Runaway slaves further validated the authority of the eze, since, as the old saying goes, they would not bite the hand that feeds them (or the religious figure that gives them freedom and immunity from the pox). The same was true for individuals who were otherwise outcasts in most African cultures, such as dwarves, albinos, and people who snore. As far as Nri's participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, historians are rather split: some optimists believe that Nri continued its anti-slavery stance, while other Debbie Downers claim that they gave into its economic benefits by the 17th or 18th century, if only to get rid of the snorers (a culture can only take so much).
The Igbo people are renowned for their artistic abilities, and the people of Nri were no exception. Bronze sculptures have been found dating back to at least the 9th century, making them older than the traditional founding of Nri, as well as other West African kingdoms who were still nothing more than honorable mentions. While the bronze works of neighboring Benin hog many archaeologists' short attention spans, the Igbo had their own unique take on masks, staff heads, pots, and drinking vessels (fig.4). They would even create sculptures for pests like flies, grasshoppers, and beetles who threatened their crops, answering the question if the people of Nri would really welcome everybody (what's next, a bronze casting of the potato blight?).
|Fig.4: This drinking vessel was created with the sole purpose of freaking out
girls who are afraid of lizards.
Glad I got that out of my system. Stay tuned next week, when I will write a history on a war over something completely stupid. That's what history's all about!