The aesthetics and cultural relevance of the Ier ritual festival among the Tiv of central Nigeria.

Author:Justin, Awuawuer Tijime


A social anthropologist and structuralist, Victor Turner pioneered the study of ritual as performance or theatre in the 1960s and 1970s following from Arnold van Gennep's work on rites of passage. Turner's Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (1969) is still considered a seminal work in the fields of religious studies, theatre and performance studies, anthropology, and sociology. In 1966, Turner delivered the Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures at the University of Rochester, a significant portion of which became Ritual Process. In this performance, he laid out his thesis on ritual suggested by the title as a process, a thesis still in vogue in emerging fields like ritual, theatre, and performance studies by figures such as Richard Schechner. For Richard Schechner (2002) Rituals are collective memories encoded into actions. Rituals also help people deal with difficult transitions, ambivalent relationships, hierarchies, and desires that trouble, exceed, or violate the norms of daily life.

Victor Turner (1981 xii) in a Forward to Schechner's book, Between Theatre and Anthropology (1985) states that:

Schechner opened up for my study a new world of performative techniques. Anthropologists, by their training, are not qualified to investigate the training of actors in ritual, ritualized theatre, and more secular types of cultural performance--how they prepare for the public events, how they transmit performative knowledge, how they dress, mask, and apply cosmetics, their personal "shtick," that is, attention-getting devices unique to each performer. Anthropologists are more concerned with stasis than with dynamis, with texts, institutions, types, protocols, "wiring," custom, and so on than with the how of performance, the shifting, evanescent, yet sometimes utterly memorable relationships that develop unpredictably among actors, audience.... Ritual performance thus is an important aspect of Tiv worldview within the socio-religious context and a veritable channel for the interpretation of Tiv culture and symbolic meanings. This is probably because ritual symbolism in Tiv society like most societies involves beliefs, customs, traditions, norms, attitudes and material objects associated with them to give an authentic meaning to cultural traits. Some of these culture traits include arts, cultural symbolism, body decoration, facial scarification, festivals, dances, and initiation and funeral rites (Ushe 2011, 32). Holding strongly based on the ritual interpretation, any semiotics of performance must start from, and always stand unsteadily on, these unstable slippery bases, made even more uncertain by the continually shifting receptions of various audiences regarding social orientations.

Because performances are usually subjunctive, liminal, dangerous, and duplicitous, they are often hedged in with conventions and frames: ways of making the places, the participants, and the events somewhat safe. In these relatively safe make-believe precincts, actions can be carried to extremes, even for fun (Richard Schechner 1977).

Thus, the motivation for this paper is to locate its thesis within the ambiance of aesthetic form and content of the Ier ritual performance which is a manifestation of the Tiv worldview within the realm of morality in relation to Akombo, a magico--religious observance that is bountifully celebrateted through a procession ritual carnival. Godwin Yina (2012) concludes that understanding a discourse of this nature is a pragmatic way of understanding the harmonious link between the sacred and the profane; the divine and the mundane; the supernatural and the material worlds in Tiv cosmology.

The interpretation here is that the uniqueness of the Tiv world must be constantly kept in mind in order to grasp the bases for their daily interactive behavior, philosophy, psychology, and mind set. Indeed, the peculiarities of Tiv religion, their judicial principles and justice, their egalitarian social structure, their courageous disposition and independence of mind, their collective sensibilities are all entrenched in the quality of their daily interactive discourses, which match the attitudinal patterns.

To Rupert East (2003. 199-200) to the vast majority of the Tiv people, these practices are nothing but an empty formula, of which true meaning has been forgotten. Before the influence of western civilization and some patterns of external interactions started to creep into the society clear-cut practices of marriage and burial customs among the Tiv were well known in their society. Specific roles, rights, expectations, obligations and even sanctions were prescribed and strictly maintained. Hence, theatre was and is used as a potent career of the traditional values and norms in Tiv society.

Contextualizing Ier Ritual Festival

Ier is a special and an important fertility ritual performance found amongst the Masev sub-genealogy of the Tiv nation. The origin of Ier has remained essentially speculative with no part in Tiv or Masev laying claim of its origin. What one can boast of concerning the origin of Ier is that Ier is connected to the group of fertility rites among the Masev people in Tivland, that their origin is undoubtedly directed towards aquiring the goodwill of the ancestors, and their favourable co-operation in the affair of the living (Ordugh Gbe, oral interview). From various oral interviews conducted, Ier ritual came to being when the Masev people sought to ceremoniously purge their daughters when they were pregnant expressing their wealth and dignity, but when and how it started is not traceable.

According to Alfred Akawe Torkula ( the MasevIharev-Nongov on the other hand had a more elaborate arrangement called ikyar nyoron. Under this arrangement, each woman was required to attach herself to a man within the endogamic circle in a quasi-marriage arrangement in which sexual activity was allowed--until she finally got married outside her endogamic circle. Her partner prior to full marriage was called her ikyar and took full responsibility for her upkeep and "training" prior to full marriage. On conception in her new home (after full marriage) she returned with her husband to her parents...

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