In many places in Igbo land, the python is regarded as a ‘sacred being’ which no one is expected to kill, harm or maltreat. It is an age-long observance because to most Igbo communities, Eke or python is seen as the symbol of the sea or river goddess. It protects and provides for the people, both in terms of wealth, fertility and long life. To the people, eke is a harmless ‘being’ and it is actually harmless to those who do not kill it. To them, eke symbolizes peace, prosperity and abundance, especially in the waters.
At Umuohi, Okija, in Ihiala local government area of Anambra state, a man called Ukata Nnanna in an interview gave a clearer picture of why the eke has come to be regarded as being so sacred and in some places is worshiped as a goddess.
“The story of eke we have here is sacred and different. But before we go on, it is good to point out that the mystery surrounding eke is greater than most of us can actually understand. Our own case is quite peculiar. In the olden days, our people used to provide shelter for strangers. This was how the issue of eke became a symbol of respect and regards here in our village”, Nnanna said, grinning and shaking his head repeatedly.
“There was one certain aged widow who was said to have been driven away by her husband people. She set out on a journey, a journey she did not know where it would take her. When she got to Umuohi, Okija, she stopped and begged our people to provide a place for her to rest her feet. She was by then too tired to continue on her way.
“Our people did not only give her a place to settle down, she was also asked to remain with us. Without knowing it, our people had given shelter and hope to a woman with plenty of mysterious powers. Before the woman died she made a lot of promises to our people. In the first place she asked that her house be built by the riverside. No one knew why she made that sort of request. But then at her death she decreed that no Umuohi woman should be maltreated by her husband people. And wherever she is married to, on the first night of her arrival, a python would appear to encourage and strengthen her. To date, this situation still exists; that once an Umuohi woman is being threatened at her husband’s place, a python appears, sometimes a very big one that would frighten people out of their wits. For this reason, a lot of people are skeptical about marrying an Umuohi woman.
“The woman did not even die. She turned into eke. She lives inside the Okpu stream or if you like river, which is along Owerri-Onitsha road, Anambra state. There you can see this big python and it comes out once the sun is out to suntan. This is what it does everyday. It is so huge that a lot of people are scared of it,” Nnanna stressed. “But we the Umuohi people are not,” he boasted.
The python which is called eke ogwugwu-mili therefore is said to be the mother of all the pythons that litter the length and breath of Igboland. Today, anyone who kills or maims eke either knowingly or unknowingly is compelled to buy all the necessary materials with which to bury it. These range from white cloth, to coffin, kola nuts, white chalk and so on. The coffin would be placed in a conspicuous place where passers-by are wont to pay condolences and show some sign of remorse. Where one fails to bury the eke in the traditional way, more stringent punishments will be placed on him and members of his family. Sometimes he would be ostracized or banished from the land depending on the circumstances of the death of the python. Some even have small pox sickness placed on them.
It is because of all these that eke does not bite the natives of Okija and other places where these observances are made. If eke bites one by error, all it does is to hiss, and then the bite will have no effect on the person. Even then, Christians also obey the law; they too do not kill eke. Why would anyone kill it when it does not harm him? Some people would often ask. Eke is a common sight in many places in Igboland where they are at liberty to crawl without let or hindrance. There is the eke Idemili (for Idemili, river). There is also eke Ogba which is supposed to be the king of all the pythons. That one lives inside huge forests and so has no contact with human civilization.
Each area gives the eke a name according to what it does for them and the deity it represents. For some, it is Eke Atamili’ or Eke Nkwo Ocha, all in the name of what place it has in their communal lifestyle and existence. Today at Umuohi, Okija, eke still remains their symbol, some kind of rallying point. And you are not expected to treat their daughters with disdain and disrespect.