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Ugo in Igbo names - A feather in one's cap

Published: at 12:00 AM

In Igbo names you find animal references like Agụ (leopard), Ịnyịnya (Horse), Enyi, Ugo or plant references like Ji (yam), Ọjị (Iroko). We have previously treated Enyi. The names must be understood in context of the cultural significance of things refered.

The Eagle holds a significant place in the Igbo social and religious activities. In his work on Igbo ontology, Emmanuel P. Edeh notes that the Eagle represents excellence. As no one would carry live eagles about to make the point, Eagle feathers symbolically feature prominently in Igbo social and religious activities.

On the religious role of the Ugo (Eagle), Basden records that the Osu who served at the court of the Agbara Awka was generously adorned with eagle feathers- (Editors note: symbolic of spiritual excellence).

He further reports that, in a case brought to the court, when the accused’s honor was vindicated, he was issued an eagle feather as a badge of his innocence. Furthermore, the now innocent emerged from the court of the Agbara shouting “Agbara nyelum ugo!”- this phrase is a variant of the Igbo names “Nna-nyelu-ugo” and “Chi-nyelu-ugo” [the latter also rephrased as Ugochinyelu. Short form Ugochi, Ugochukwu]

This expression and its related phrases suggests that the Agbara (in the original account) or the spiritual entity referenced has honoured (or restored the honour of) the subject (an act made apparent by the issuance of the eagle feather) and does not suggest that it is the literal eagle that is being offered.

Hence, “Agbara nyelu’m Ugo” does not, in essence, mean that “Agbara has given [me] an eagle”; Ugonnaya does not mean “His father’s eagle” and “Ugochukwu” does not mean “Chukwu’s eagle”

In social activities like title taking, we note that titled Igbo men, of the Ozo cadre affix the eagle feather to their red caps. This is symbolic of the feat achieved (the steps leading to the Ozo title are demanding and could easily drain the unprepared) and also a reminder on the kind of lives they are to live- a life of moral and spiritual excellence.

This brings us to the concept of itu-ugo which is tied to the title taking activity in Igbo groups. It is the affixing of the eagle feather to the cap as symbolic representation of having achieved an honourable feat. From the concept comes the Igbo name “Turugo” which means “excel” or “be honored”

Again, Basden wrote:

Warriors of renown are respected and honoured, and happy is the man entitled to don the eagle’s plumes and the red tail-feathers of the parrot, in token of his prowess in battle. In life he enjoys special privileges, and in death is granted the dignity of a warrior’s funeral.

We may find that this use of the eagle feather as a mark of honour or great achievement is not peculiar to the Igbo. The eagle hold similar significance in other cultures of the world; hence, the English expression “to add another feather to one’s cap”.

Follow the link below for Ugo names. Did you find yours?

The Afamefuna Project