THE UKHURE ANCESTRAL STAFF IN ESAN.
The ukhure or ancestral staff is the essential and most important feature of the Ishan ancestral altar. In its simplest form, the ukhure is a peeled, straight, wooden rod about two to three feet in length, decorated with strings of cowrie shells wound around the middle or one end.
More commonly, however, the ukhure has a carved head or figure at the top, and sometimes a second figure is carved below the first. Each ukhure represents a single paternal ancestor, and it is usual for three such staffs, representing the previous three generations, to be kept in the ancestral shrine belonging to the family head or omi~iioabe. Upon completing the burial ceremonies (itolimhin) for his deceased father, the senior son is obliged to carve or commission an ukhure to represent him.
While doing so, he may destroy the eroded staff of a more distant ancestor and reuse the cowries which formerly adorned it. The ukhure staff serves multiple functions within the family. It represents the paternal ancestor, and is the focus of prayers and sacrifices to him.
Tapped on the ground to initiate and punctuate services, the ukhure calls the attention of the ancestor to his descendants’ offerings and requests. The ukhure also serves as a device for pulverizing white chalk to be mixed with water for annointing and blessing the participants during ancestral observations. It is used for swearing oaths which the ancestors witness and it has the power to kill those who swear falsely.
The ukhure is also used to witness the settlement of family disputes, and is the focus of propitiatory sacrifices in cases of family crimes such as incest or adultery. Finally, it is a mark of the status of the omiiioabe or family head, the heir to his father’s property and the rightful officiator at ancestral rituals.
The ukhure staff is a sign of status and official position, however, on other than the family level of Ishan society. For example, in some villages, the oldest man or Odionwele holds an ukhure which represents his authority and has judicial significance for the entire community. Similarly, the
descendant of the deified founder of a quarter or village, holds an ukhure which identifies him as the “owner of the land” (isikuoto) and is the focus of veneration for all its inhabitants.
The ukhure is also an important symbol of the power of certain supematurals and the status of their priests or priestesses. For a hereditary chief, the ukhure is an item of
regalia which signifies that he is the legitimate heir to
his father’s title. Royal ukhure may have chiefly caretakers with titles such as Qsukhurf or Ojiukhure, who are also priests of the royal ancestors and court historians.
At the state level, the royal ukhure symbolizes the
legitimate rulership of the Ojie. As we have seen, the ukhure is depicted in housepost figures and doors, where it alludes to the continuity of hereditary leadership and the protective power of the royal dead.
Source – Carol Lorenz 1995.