Urhobo Historical Society



Akpọbrisi and the Herbalists:

A Folk Tale of a Vengeful but Just Deity of the Urhobo People

 

By Peter Ekeh, Ph.D.

 

The Urhobo people know many living deities. They reside in water, in trees, and in the aerial plane. They are of many degrees of temperament. None of the Urhobo deities has a reputation greater than that of Akpọbrisi for inflicting harsh punishment on those who mess around with his possessions. He is dreaded for wreaking vengeance on those who dare him in his sacred abode.

 

But Akpobrisi has another reputation: he is admired among the Urhobo for being just in dealing with mortals. Unlike the awful tales of the ogres of northern Uganda, who strike at children and devour innocent people at will, without provocation, Akpobrisi enjoys a well-deserved reputation for being scrupulous in avoiding the possibility of oppressing unoffending individuals among mortals who come his way. Thus, among Urhobo deities, Akpobrisi stands out conspicuously for being vengeful but also for being just.

 

Who is Akpobrisi? Akpobrisi is a deity who resides in a special majestic tall tree. To local humans who live at some distance from it, this awesome tree is simply described as Akpobrisi’s house, because it is believed that he lives there. But this majestic tree is not the only possession that Akpobrisi owns. The principal tree of his abode is surrounded by a ring of other trees, smaller in stature than Akpobrisi's principal arboreal habitation. These trees form a ring around the main habitation for Akpobrisi. Together, the principal tree and the surrounding subordinate trees define what local humans regard as Akpobrisi’s compound. No one will ordinarily or casually dare to venture thither, even to pick up a fallen leaf from his compound, because it is well known that Akpobrisi is a vengeful god. He will not tolerate anyone coming to his compound, for whatever reason. Unlike other Urhobo deities, Akpobrisi does not seek to be worshipped. All he wants is peace, away from molestation from noisy and troublesome humans.

 

The problem is, not all humans have agreed to let Akpobrisi live alone in peace and quiet in his sacred abode, as he so clearly desires. This is because Akpobrisi has a precious possession which Urhobo herbalists crave. The bark of the principal tree in which Akpobrisi inhabits has such tremendous medicinal value as will cure major ailments for which there would otherwise be no viable treatment. These ailments include male sexual failures. Appropriately mixed with other herbs, the bark of Akpobrisi’s principal tree is claimed by many herbalists to have rendered cures for otherwise hopeless cases of men’s sexual dysfunctions. Leading herbalists have claimed to have rescued many a man’s libido from an undesirable state of impotency by including in their medicinal package just a bit from the tissue of the bark of Akpobrisi’s principal tree.

 

Herbalists are fully aware of the danger that anyone faces who seeks to harvest the precious bark of Akpobrisi’s tree: the consequence could be instant death from Akpobrisi’s massive retaliation. No greater challenge faces the ingenuity of Urhobo herbalists than the art of harvesting the bark of Akpobrisi’s tree. So great is the apprehension associated with efforts to obtain the bark of Akpobrisi’s arboreal habitation that there has emerged in Urhobo culture a body of discussions of this danger-soaked art of harvesting Akpobrisi’s priceless possession.

 

It appears from Urhobo folk history that many approaches and styles have been developed at various points of Urhobo cultural experiences in efforts aimed at obtaining Akpobrisi’s valued possession without paying the ultimate price of his lethal retaliation. Some such efforts appeared to have resulted in tragic and deadly consequences, either during the harvesting of Akpobrisi’s tree’s bark or days afterwards. Groups of expert herbalists have, over the centuries, discussed the cleverest ways of gaining access to Akpobrisi’s compound and of obtaining a small quantity of the invaluable bark of Akpobrisi’s habitation. In the course of Urhobo folk history, these expert herbalists have settled on one major method of outwitting the dreaded Akpobrisi. They do so by exploiting Akpobrisi’s passion for justice and fair play.

 

An expedition to Akpobrisi’s compound is a major undertaking for which there is need for careful physical and spiritual preparation. Herbalists planning to embark on this hazardous venture would undergo a purifying period of sexual abstinence as well as avoidance of tabooed food, such as snails. Herbalists also seek spiritual boost from their personal deities by asking for their help in avoiding direct encounter with Akpobrisi. Harvesting Akpobrisi’s tree is not for the weak in courage. The somber ambience of Akpobrisi’s environment is intimidating and can kill the weak-hearted, even without direct encounter with Akpobrisi.

 

Experienced herbalists are also known to believe that there are some days of the Urhobo four-day week on which it is least dangerous to enter into Akpobrisi’s compound. Akpobrisi is believed to be less watchful over his possessions on those days or at least that in past experiences intruders into Akpobrisi’s sacred abode have been able to avoid injury and death on those special days.

 

After all preparation, it is left to an individual herbalist to do the harvesting. It is strongly recommended that only one well-prepared herbalist should undertake the journey to Akpobrisi’s domain and then do the harvesting. His dress should be in the form of a good cloth that he can quickly wrap around his waist. He carries a sharp axe. That is all he needs.

 

Once he arrives at the perimeter fence, outside the ring of trees that demarcate Akpobrisi’s compound, the bark-harvester should move with deliberate speed. He should be well rehearsed in his movements and should not be confused nor should he hesitate in what he does. His first task is to remove his clothes. He becomes stark naked while outside Akpobrisi’s compound. He should leave his clothes at a spot outside the deity’s compound where he can pick them up quickly on his return.

 

The bark-harvesting herbalist then enters Akpobrisi’s compound and without hesitation he approaches Akpobrisi’s mighty tree. He chops at it in bold and sharp strokes. It is urged that this should be no more than three strokes, enough to yield a small amount of the precious bark that he can hide in his wrapping clothes. Once a good amount of the bark has been yielded, he throws down his axe and the herbalist snatches the loose bark. He should then move out of Akpobrisi’s compound immediately. But he should make sure he does not fall down. That is why he is urged not to run or be panicked. If he falls down inside Akpobrisi’s compound, he may not rise again!

 

Once outside Akpobrisi’s compound, the harvesting herbalist should immediately recover his clothes and retie his wrapping clothe around his waste, hiding the bark in its loop. He should then calmly walk away, looking as much as possible as an innocent man. He must not look backward or behave in any way to suggest that he had done something wrong with Akpobrisi’s possessions.

 

Meanwhile, Akpobrisi is roused up. In full rage, he ascends aloft into the sky to complain to the Mighty One, to the Supreme Deity. He is granted immediate audience in the presence of Ọghẹnẹ, the God who owns the sky and sees what goes on with the gods and mortals in our Akpọ, our Earth, and even has power over the mysterious subterranean world of Erivwin, where departed ancestors and others reside. It is to the presence of the Almighty Ọghẹnẹ, Who always has the last word and from Whom there can be no appeal, it is to His powerful presence that Akpobrisi is now ushered.

 

Akpobrisi roars in anger:

 

Osonobrughwẹ, justice is your domain. I have come to you for justice. I was in my house minding my own business. Some mortal came and attacked my residence. I now seek permission to avenge this wrong.

 

The Mighty One answers:

 

Akpobrisi, you have been wronged. You have my permission to avenge this wrong on the person who attacked your residence.

 

Akpobrisi then says:

 

Osonobrughwẹ, justice is yours indeed. I promise you that I will seek out the man who came to my residence to attack my domain. I will destroy him.

 

And Akpobrisi hurries back to earth, to his compound. He immediately circles round his compound to assure himself that there are no more intruders. He then goes outside his compound, a rare event, to inspect the premises. The intruder is no longer there.

 

Akpobrisi springs into hot pursuit. It does not take long before he sights a man. He rushes in his direction. Akpobrisi is ready to strike, with deadly force.

 

On closer inspection, Akpobrisi hesitates. The man who came to his compound was naked and was carrying an axe. This man is well clothed. He does not carry an axe. Akpobrisi worries that he might kill an innocent man.

 

Akpobrisi looks all around for some other human presence. There is none. Is it possible that the clothed man is the same person who intruded into his compound? Akpobrisi is not sure. But it would be unjust to destroy a man who might well be innocent.

 

Akpobrisi calls off his search, saying it is unjust to destroy anyone unless it is proved that he is the guilty one. He says, “There will be another day when I will catch the real intruder. I will kill him.”

 

And so the harvesting herbalist escapes. And the Urhobo acknowledge Akpobrisi as their deity because he is just, even if he is a little foolish. He is certainly better than the ogres of northern Uganda who would not have hesitated to annihilate the harvesting herbalist. Let us hope that the herbalist will be able to cure some maladies, thanks to the grace of a just deity.

 

 

Peter Ekeh, Ph.D.

State University of New York at Buffalo

 

July 4, 2006

 

 

©Peter P. Ekeh 2006




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