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Enyi: The Elephant and its significance in igbo names

Published: at 12:00 AM

If language is the engine for transfer of culture; songs, folklores are the vehicles. Whether it be the Ọjadịlị epics or the many folkloric tales about creation and animal characters, children love a good story. Perhaps nothing sparks the mind of a child as a story no matter how improbable and most of these stories we were told, on the surface, were improbable yet beneath it were lessons and the foundations of a people’s value system.

In a song ‘Ka esi lee onye isi-oche’ from the album ‘Akụkọ n’egwu’, Gentleman Mike Ejeagha, sings about the story of Mbe (Tortoise) and Ényí (Elephant) [not to be confused with Ényì- “friend”] which I would attempt to summarize:

The princess had stated that the suitability of a suitor rests on if he rides in on an Elephant. Upon hearing this, the Tortoise approached the Elephant, his friend, with news that he had been made the chairman of an event at the king’s palace. The Elephant without confirming and being one who craves the spotlight accepted. They set out on the day and at some point, the tortoise, being a slow walker, straddled behind, the Elephant impatiently asks the tortoise to hurry up as they must be at the venue in good time. The Tortoise pleads that his feet are sore and noting that he is a much slower walker, that the elephant could bear him on his back. The Elephant said; “no problem”. Now riding the elephant, the tortoise took out a rope and in the same pleading manner asked the elephant to tie it around his neck so he could have something to hold on to and not fall over; the elephant said; “no problem”. And so, the tortoise rode on an elephant, married the princess, and got the elephant killed.

Now substitute the Tortoise and Elephant with these respective attributes- intelligence/shrewdness and physical strength.

Which took the day?

There are a number of lessons from this story but this story, also, is a sequel to the eternal contention that has appeared in other cultures on which is mightier- intellect/cunning or physical strength?

There are many songs by Igbos in praise of strength but it remains always the case that wherever tortoise appears it is always in praise of intelligence/shrewdness and it has always outwitted the elephant (physical strength).

In Igbo folklore, the tortoise has always personified shrewdness and the elephant, a personification of strength which really extends from their ontological significance in Igbo culture.

Just as in many of these stories, in Igbo names, these representation of animal characters are not in the literal sense. A man is named Ịnyịnya (Horse), Enyi (Elephant), not because the community has exhausted other names but because of the significance that these names hold in the community.

While it is nearly impossible to find Mbe (Tortoise) in Igbo names, ‘Enyi’ names are ubiquitous.

What Ényí (Elephant) theme names do you know? Igwenyi? Nnabuenyi? Enyimba?

You may find and add more on Igbo Names Website