The primary religion in the old igbo society was the worship of Ala or mother Earth, thus every good igbo strove to respect and keep the natural laws and taboos that guarded the sacredness of the earth, that is the origin of the phrase imeru ala or aru (to soil the earth)
This sacredness of earth and cult of mother Earth is the origin of Odinani amongst the Northern and Western Igbo and Amaala (secret knowledge of the earth) amongst the Southern Igbo groups.
the custodians of the earth and her sacredness had the Nze na Ozo at it’s helm.
Nze comes from the root Nzerem, it means one who dodges or abstains, that is to say one who abstains from evil deeds or deeds that soil the Earth, because the earth is hallowed Alinso)
The word Nze goes hand in hand with Nso which is something that is avoided or hallowed.
Contrary to popular belief Nze title is not an institution that came from Nri, it is a vocation that is as old as Igbo culture just as much as Eze is, thus one becomes an Nze firstly by recognition as a powerful and upright man by the people and elevation or investiture by the Eze. Thus Nze does not have the same meaning with Ozo.
The Nze primarily functioned as adjudicators and protectors of the shrines and keepers of the religious affairs in the community, as such they functioned as minor priests while the Ezes where the chief Priest, the living deity itself. One cannot become an Nze without the Eze’s recognition.
To understand more about Ozo, one has to first understand about an Igbo practice known as Igbu ichi.
Igbu ichi is an ancient practice of ritual scarification done primarily on the forehead to the temples or from forehead to chin.
It represents the rays of the sun and by extension divinity.
In the ancient igbo cosmology the Sun “anyanwu” as it’s name implies the “eye of rays” was a window through which the divine rays of Chi hits the earth, the rays represents the energy or spirit force from Chi, that is why daylight is also known as Chi and daytime is Ubochi, while night time is Ujichi,
To embark on this ritual scarification is the first process in the divinization of the title seeker, divinization is the process of taking on the qualities, spirituality and purity of Chi, in which the living being becomes a spirit amongst men, that is the origin of the term i-chi, and why we use ichi echichi to refer to title taking, although now obsolete, ichi scarification was the first step in every title taking process in igbo land, it was a test of endurance, a path of pain to emerge later as a walking spirit.
THE OZO SYSTEM:
Title taking was not a deep rooted institution amongst the Southern Igbo groups, Eze and Nze were just natural vocations assumed by men qualified for the post and it did not involve elaborate rituals and ranks, amongst the Northern and Western Igbo groups, owing to their elaborate systems the Eze Nri organized title holders who were Nze into a guild known as Ozo.
The Ozo system were a guild of Nze and Eze title holders, they were at the top cadre of Odinani and spirituality in the Northern Igbo communities.
It was formed by the Eze Nri hence it spread to all the areas of Nri influence including Western Igbo where it is known as Ichi Mmuo.
Ozo is from the root word meaning to struggle or to contend, a root word from which Ozo or savior is derived, thus this combative description means that the Ozo are the shields or protectors of their community, adjudicators and custodians of the worship of Ani.
Since the propagation of the guild from Nri/Nshi the guild has developed variations in rituals of initiations, but the central structure remains the same.
In areas where the society is elaborate and well developed, there are 6 levels, divided into two the Nnukwu Ozo and the Obele Ozo
The Obele Ozo is divided into Eyisi, Ezuzo and Okpala.
The Nnukwu Ozo is divided into Dunu, Dim and Ezeana, Ozo society may also further be divided into Ozo efifie, Ozo Alo and Ozo Owulu, with Ozo Owulu being those at the height.
At the top cadre of the Ozo system are the Ezes the most prominent of which is the Ezeana/Ezeani
The Eze occupies the highest level or rank in the Igbo spirituality above the Nze, the Ezes are the Chief priests.
The procedure is begun by informing the head of the Ozo system of ones intention to join their ranks, he is then examined, if he is upright in character, of great achievements and no mediocre human being he is accepted, he the proceeds to olulu ani and uke which are the processes of informing his family first and then his kindred and entire clan and holding a feast for them, all this is known as ibu ego Ozo.
Then come the inyedo Mmuo, which is the rituals done to ani and to the ancestors,
Then the aspirant enters into a period of occultation(hiding) for a number of days, in which his body is first covered in dirt or uhie significant of his past position of impurity and then ima nzu signifying the new purity that he now attains as an Ozo.
Then comes the Ozo conferment proper, the isekpulu ani, where one declares fealty to mother Earth, to walk in the path of purity, abstain from stealing, murder, adultery and most especially from lies.
And the offering and appeasement of ancestors.
It also involves the mmacha Ozo and ina Obibi where the initiate has to enter the sacred groove or forest at midnight.
In the old days, these rites were mediated by a priest from Nri known as nwa Nshi(the original name of Nri)
After the Ozo rituals has been concluded, the initiate undergoes a period of rest, after which he emerges in the afia Ozo ceremony,
Amongst the Ozo’s regalia are the
2. Nza or horsetail whip
3. Okwachi – five wooden sticks tied together representing his chi
4. Okposi- six egbi sticks tied together representing his ancestors
5. Azuzu – leather fan
Ikenga – his symbol of strength
Owu Ozo – the Ozo would wear a brass anklet and ropes on his two ankles
Osisi afulu – which is broken and buried with him upon death
Osisi ona – which bears brass rings and can be passed onto his son upon his death
The Ozo is given and Oche mgbo or okwukwu which is the three legged stool, and iron staff known as alo and a head gear known as ege, the ege represents the royal python which is a symbol of mother Earth. It is accompanied by two or three fishing eagle feathers (aba ugo) the number depending on the rank attained.
After the adoption of the okpu mmei by the igbo, it is now accompanied by the ege entwined around it.
It is customary for Ozo members to don white symbolizing purity although it’s not a must.
As the name implies, the Nze na Ozo are guided by a series of social taboos or dos and don’ts, abstinence is their code of conduct,
An Nze does eat only pounded yam, he does not eat akpu or garri which are not native foods.
He doesn’t eat food prepared by a menstruating woman, he doesn’t touch a corpse, he doesn’t shed blood of a fellow human being.
He must remain upright and honest in all his conduct, he must not commit adultery but can marry as many wives as he pleases.
To reach the highest level of the Ozo system is referred to as Ichizu mmuo, in which one becomes a walking divinized entity, a spirit, they are the ones known as Ndi ichie, ichie isn’t something any common chief or elder carries, it’s a purely spiritual term, the ichie are at the top of the government in traditional igbo society, to become ichie is to become one with Chi-ukwu, to become Mmuo, that is why our ancestors are primarily referred to as Ndiichie because it is believed they have achieved that divinization, and for the living to chieve such nd become a living ancestor he had to gbuola ichi and culminate in ichizu mmuo.
Becoming an Ozo was not cheap but a very expensive venture, this one not only has to be upright in conduct but also very hardworking and enterprising, those who were known to get their wealth via unscrupulous means we’re denied..
That was at least then, when we still had integrity. When a good me was better than riches.