Worlds Without Border: Discourse On The Interface Between The Physical And The Metaphysical Realms In African Literary Arts


Literary artists draw inspiration from their immediate environment. The environment supplies the artistic raw material ranging from the language of literary composition, the thematic thrust and even characterization. However, some realities dwell outside of the visible cosmology. The visible things are not the sum total of things in existence. In medical sciences, for instance, some realities are not visible to the human eyes but become existent when subjected to instruments that can see beyond the ordinary. It, therefore, means that that are realities that exist in realms different from ours. However, there is no clear-cut demarcation between the two realms of existence – the visible and invisible. We cannot tell where the physical ends and where the metaphysical begins. Therefore it becomes sacrosanct to indicate that this is not a study in the philosophy of metaphysics, but rather an investigation into the substance of the reality of the manifestation of the metaphysical in African thought and literary arts and by metaphysical we mean realities that are immaterial, supernatural including objects, phenomenon, conditions that are without material form or substance. It is thus concluded that the immaterial world is also a material for African fiction.


African literature captures the stories, struggles, existential conditions and spirituality of the African people. The spiritual is an aspect of Africa that heavily influenced early African literature. Chinua Achebe heavily captured the spirituality of the pre-colonial Igbo People in his trilogy – Things Fall Apart, Arrow of God and No Longer at Ease. In Things Fall Apart, we see the use of the masquerade as an aspect of characterization and plot structure. The masquerade is not just an embellishment or an afterthought deployed into the plot structure of the story, rather, the masquerade is a part of the historical, existential and spiritual realities of the African world. In Arrow of God, the totem and the deity are integral aspects of the daily existence of the people. The chief priest determines certain festivities. So rituals and festivals are not external supplements to the structure of the plot, rather, they are the manifestations of metaphysical realities in physical existence. We also see the consequences of breaking the metaphysical protocols. The chief priest broke one of the protocols and disaster befell him and his household. Therefore the gods interfere in the daily activities of man in society. Man is thus not an existence of history or of some unexplainable happenings, his life is structured, and he is a dancer to the tune of spiritual drums. And in No Longer at Ease, we also see the intervention of the spiritual in a modern world. Man cannot go far away from his roots. His roots are firmly rooted in the spiritual, no matter how educated he is or how far he has imbibed other cultures, there are taboos that he must eschew. Thus man becomes a slave to the spirit masters.

We must return to Charles Nnolim for us to have a clear picture of the subject matter. Nnolim is an authority in the discourse on African spirituality or metaphysics in African literary arts. In his seminal work, Issues in African Literature, he conducted studies that are relevant to our discourse. In ‘Prolegomena to a Definition of African Aesthetics in Literature,’ Nnolim observes that the oral tradition is the precursor to African modern literature and a discussion of African literature without recourse to the African oral traditions is an effort in futility. In clear terms, you cannot speak of African literature without referring to the oral literature of the African people because it was the oral tradition that birthed the written tradition. Therefore, to him there are ‘certain constants that are decipherable as recognizable features of African literature,’ (86) and these features form the aesthetic aspects of African literature. He went ahead to mention some of them which include: ‘oral literature and the folk tradition,’ ‘cultural nationalism and the negritude movement,’ ‘ancestor worship,’ etc.

Looking at some of the features itemized by Nnolim we discover that the oral tradition is highly spiritual or metaphysical. Some of the paraphernalia of the oral tradition include the masquerade, rituals, festivals, ceremonies, totems, spirit-possessed animals and invocation. In the African Child by Camara Laye, as Tunde John Adeagbo observes in his paper, ‘Literature and Myth: Camara Laye’s Example, ‘there are unseen forces controlling the physical elements’ (6). In the novel, Laye presented the totem as an inalienable aspect of African people in the pre-colonial world. A totem is an emblem consisting of an object such as an animal or plant; serves as the symbol of a family or clan. This animal may be in the form of a snake, snail, lizard, lion, tortoise etc. More so, the ancestors were also a part of the life of the people. Even though they were dead, their spirits still hover over the living and desecrating the memory or the habitation of the ancestors can bring dire consequences upon the living. Therefore, although the ancestors are dead they do not die.

Nnolim presents this worldview succinctly thus, ‘the living and the dead belong to the same category of beings and are in constant communion with one another,’ (91). Death is thus a form of transmogrification. Life is also seen in this philosophy as a journey to the other side of life. The ancestors are, thus, free to move in-between the world – the physical and the metaphysical. It is not only the gods that have this ability, some humans have the power to mediate or to travel to the land of the spirit and come back with a prophetic message to the living. The world between the dead and the living is thus borderless.

Mythology – the Mukataa of the Metaphysical in African Thought

The incorporation of the mythic in African literature makes mythology an integral aspect of African literature. Early African writers drew copiously from the African mythologies. Mosobalaje, Adebayo in the paper, ‘The Transition from a Mythopoeic to a Populist Aesthetic in Selected Political Plays of Wole Soyinka’ traces the employment of the mythic in Soyinka’s dramaturgy. He observes that ‘the universe of mythopoeia consists of a metaphysical dimension and its impact on themes, characterization, plot and setting. The themes and conflicts are always fantastic, otherworldly and largely mythic’ (72). The mythic is not an imposition upon African literature but an integral constitution of it. It is like the mud in pottery. The constitution of the pot is the mud, however, one cannot alienate the mud from the pot because the mud has transmogrified into the pot. This is also relevant in the discussion of mythology to literature in African literary arts. The artists utilize mythic material making it mythic literature. Therefore, the position of myth in African literature is grounded by the dependence of African writers on oral traditions.

The relationship between the writer and cultural materials is exemplified by the utility of oral material in postcolonial Africa. The writer is a product of his society and uses cultural materials in the construction of his literary edifices. Therefore, the mental and spiritual position of Africans with their spiritual world is captured and anyone who does not understand the purview from which such literary edifices are constructed would write it off as an extension of anthropology. The mythic environment as captured in The Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola is quite distant and removed from the modern world. It was a world where trees could speak and stones could walk. Therefore, presented with such a world one may conclude that the tales do not correlate with reality. However, it is important to note that the reality of the text lies in the ability of the physical to assume metaphysical endowment and configuration. The physical was empowered and powered by spiritual energy given a subliminal demanour. This is in tandem with Mosobalaje’s position, ‘mythopoeia as an artistic production is therefore, a conjoining of the metaphysical and the physical or a conflation of the surreal and the real in such a way that largely suggests a real-life,’ (72).

Myth is not just a recapitulation of concocted tales told about nothing. They are integral aspects of the existence of the African people. They have functions and reasons for existence. Abdullahi Abubakar in a paper, ‘Mythical Essence in Osofisan’s Dramaturgy: A Reading of Twingle-Twangle, A Twying Tayle’ believes that, ‘the need to explain the relationship between the two worlds has led to the creation of many myths of diverse subject matters and in each case, the physical environment constitutes a major influence on the conception, content and sustainability of any version of a myth,’ (57).  From this purview, we see that the material world is also a major determinant of the immaterial world. The cosmology as we see, according to Yoruba cosmogony and metaphysics there is a ‘complex interplay of the mortals and the immortals’ and ‘both the mortals and the immortals could establish dialogue’ (Mosobalaje 73). To this end, myths explain and interpret the metaphysical. It investigates the nature, structure and organization of the immaterial world. In this posture, the world that cannot be seen by the mortal is the coordinating point where human enterprises in the physical are coordinated.

The Paraphernalia of the Metaphysical

In a paper, ‘Modern African Poetry and the Postcolonial Conundrums: A Socio-Historical Reading of Obu Udeozo’s Excursions’ Akwu Sunday Victor observes that African literature has its roots deeply in oral aesthetics and the oral tradition ‘derives its credibility from the culture that produces it’ (67). The culture of the African people is the melting pot and the breeding ground of traditional ethos as manifested in African writing. In as much as societies evolve and move away from cultural practices that are barbaric and incapable of sustenance in an advancing world, we must not forget that language itself does not change as radically as people change. For instance, there are words in English that are written and pronounced the same way they were in the days of Williams Shakespeare. Some cultural practices cannot be dated in societies of the world. For instance, ancestor worship or veneration is not only an African experience as we see in the poem, ‘In Memoriam’, by Leopold Sedar Senghor. We see people on Sunday going to the cemetery to celebrate the memory of the dead with flowers. All Saints Day is a day set aside by Europeans to celebrate the dead.

Characterization is the construction or creation of human-like entities to carry out fixed assignments in literature. Just like in the natural world, when you stepped out of your house, you will see human beings carrying out different fixed roles – a taxi driver, a wheelbarrow pusher, a pregnant woman herding uncooperative kids to school, a beggar taking his place of begging, a man hawking groundnut etc. These roles were assigned by unseen forces in society. In literature, we have a similar situation. We have literary texts where the characters assigned to play roles are not human beings but animals. We called this kind of literary text a fable. However, when deities interfere in human activities or when spiritual institutions or representatives actively play pivotal roles in human affairs these spiritual entities must be studied and their roles defined. We must not be quick to conclude that they serve as cultural embellishment. They have a prominent role in society in which they perform and once they are transmogrified into literary texts, we must consider their functions and define them. Some paraphernalia of the metaphysical realm includes the masquerade, oracles, and totems.

The mythic world is a spiritual one. However, there are earthly symbols, objects or items that are of metaphysical importance and relevance. In this paper, emphasis is placed on three: the totem, masked spirits and the divinities. The divinities, for instance, have earthly representations which are seen as sacred. The physical object in itself is earthly but something otherworldly domiciles in it and that is what makes it supernatural. The objects worshipped in form of statues, sculptures and other moulded effigies are symbolic of the power that inhabits them. Therefore, a cursory look into the metaphysical paraphernalia becomes imperative because the immaterial finds expression in the material world through material objects.

The Masquerade as Spirit and Character

The African worldview is steeped in the spirit world. You cannot disconnect the African mind from spirituality. The spirit realm it must be understood is not a world that is far and distant. It is intertwined with the manifest world. The African culture presents to the African writer materials that are ageless. Spirituality itself is ageless, it is as old as man. The spiritual therefore gives ample textual, actual and factual substances that are woven into the tapestry of African literary arts. Many African writers, therefore, draw heavily from the myths of their immediate environments. Yoruba writers like Wole Soyinka and Femi Osofisan draw from the corpus of Yoruba mythologies in constructing characters and also in Chinua Achebe’s literary outputs, masquerades play vital roles. Charles Nnolim captures the vital roles played by the mask spirits in ‘Achebe’s Masked Spirits:  Culture’s Hum and Buzz of Social Implications’ he observes succinctly that the masquerade operated beyond symbolic levels. The masquerades are not mere costumes, they are characters of mythic relevance as well as spirits.

To Nnolim, one of the major contributions of Chinua Achebe to the corpus of modern African fiction is the ‘ancestor worship.’ He contends that

‘the centre of that worship must be located in his portrayal of the importance of the masked spirit…his portrayal of the importance of the masked spirits becomes the technique which compels him to discover, to develop, to define to seriously attend to his subject matter which is the portrayal of all that is important, dignified, and sacred in Igbo culture  (138-39)

The masquerade does not function as a mere embellishment but it serves as paraphernalia of the metaphysical which is consecrated and dedicated to the service of higher forces. It is the physical manifestation of metaphysical reality. This is exemplified in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. From the onset, we must state it clearly that not all masquerades have metaphysical significance in Africa. There are masquerades for mere entertainment those are not the focus of this discourse. The masquerades that are occult, are interwoven into the history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, religion and culture of the people. These are masked spirits that are aspects of the legal life of the people. They are lawmakers and also law enforcement agents. The whole of chapter ten of Things Fall Apart portrays the masked spirits as judicial arbiters, intervening in the affairs of men.

The masquerade, it must be mentioned, has dual functionality – the spiritual and social. This makes the masquerade both spirit and man. A man wears the mask but the mask is a metaphor for the spirit of the ancestors. Therefore the mask is a perfect example of the communion between man and spirit; that is, man as spirit and spirit dwelling with and in man. The voice speaking through the mask is the voice of man, but once a man is in the mask, higher energy takes over him and he can legislate on behalf of the spirit world. That is why Nnolim says

The major function of the masquerade…masked spirits formed the highest judicial body in Things Fall Apart …they also combined in their social functions the duty of the police to maintain order, and the force of any army both to coerce and enforce the law in that instance… to the masquerades, more than to the elders or any age group, belonged the unquestioned and incontrovertible authority for administering justice and enforcing the law (143)

The administration of justice by the mask spirits is demonstrated in Things Fall Apart. The masked spirits settled the contention between a husband, his wife and his in-laws. The egwugwu (the collective name of the ancestral spirits), came out of their sanctum and filed out, each taking his position. The masquerades are not distant or removed from society. They are products of society and serve in the preservation of cosmic and societal order, harmony and continuum. The mask spirits are custodians of the laws, ethos and morals of the society. However, in as much as they are spirits, they manifest through the human medium. In this case, Okonkwo is one of the bearers of the mask. The living may identify the occupant of the mask but is forbidden from associating with it from a human standpoint. That is why Okonkwo’s wives and children, identified Okonkwo’s ‘springy walk.’ They also noticed that Okonkwo who is one of the chief men of the clan was not seated amongst the elders. However, they kept this knowledge ‘within themselves.’ (85).

The dichotomy between the living and the living dead is x-rayed by the salutation of the masked spirits. The living cannot know all that needs to be known about cosmology and judicial issues of life. The living dead must intervene, giving direction and justice. Therefore the living can attain perfection only when he is outside of the limitation of the ‘body.’ That is why humans are seen by the masked spirits as ‘bodies.’ Evil Forest who is the head of all the masked spirits greets Uzowulu as ‘Uzowulu’s body’… Spirits always addressed humans as ‘bodies,’ (86). The body is the entrapment of the spirit, but once the spirit exits the body, it returns to commune with ‘bodies’ in the form of masked spirits. This ontology gives the masked spirits unalloyed access to human jurisprudence. Human jurisprudence, therefore, has its roots in the spiritual. Spiritual institutions are thus legislative, executive and judicial in nature and oppressive. Moral laws are given by the masked spirits and also executed by them. In the light of the above, human dependency on the spiritual is strictly emphasized via the instrumentality of the institution of the masked spirits. We must finally emphasize that masquerades are not mere artistic troupes in African fictional arts but an integral component of its aesthetics.

Totems – Spirit Possessed Animals

An object cannot be evil if evil does not dwell in it. This position is what shall be espoused here. Evil is subjective. That which was declared evil by African religious institutions became a breeding ground for European religious institutions. The evil forest, for instance, was declared the burial place of social and religious outcasts. Okonkwo, for instance, when he hanged himself, he was thrown into the evil forest as punishment for taking his own life. Life is sacred in African cosmology and one has no legal right to take one’s life or another’s. Spirit’s possession is a reality in African spirituality. Spirits need human bodies, animals, trees, rocks water etc for them to find expression. Spirits are divided into two good and evil. Arrow of God by Chinua Achebe explores the core spirituality of the African world. We see the manifestations of evil and good spirits at different levels of operation. Ezeulu, the protagonist, depends on the ancestral spirits and the deities of the land for him to function. During the pumpkin festival, even though he is old, the spirits of the land possessed him and he began to dance tirelessly. The things he couldn’t do in his human capacity, he begins to do effortlessly.

More so, his manly son, Obika encounters a spirit when he was returning home late at night. Ezeulu deciphers the nature of the spirit and concludes that it was a spirit of wealth and prosperity. The Python is an animal that plays a prominent role in the Arrow of God. It is an animal that is honoured, revered and it is believed that killing the animal attracts dire consequences. In fact, when one kills the animal, one must bury it as if it were a human being. Whatever occupies such a prominent place in society and the narrative is worthy of close attention. Many critics have given close attention to the central figure of the novel, Ezeulu but little attention is given to the non-human actor, the python.

The novel captures the intersection between modernity and tradition. It captures, more so the intersection between pre-colonial Africa and colonial forces. However, there are mores, taboos and other socio-spiritual dictates that govern law and order in human society and breaking any of these laws could attract unimaginable social and spiritual consequences. In this case, the masked spirits are not the enforcers of punishment but men, especially the young men in society. The python has a history that must be explored.  The python is one of the largest species of snakes in Africa. It has a constricting power and in many African societies, pythons are seen differently. The Luo people of Kenya see it as evil and believe sorcerers deploy the snake for the execution of diabolic assignments.

In some Igbo societies, the python is seen as the progenitor of the race. John Oriji investigates the origin of taboos and totems in Igbo societies in a paper titled ‘Transformation in Igbo Cosmology during Slavery: A Study of the Genesis of Place-Name, Totem and Taboos,’ and he observes that totems and taboos have no specific date of origin but have been internal aspects of different societies in African and other parts of the world. Taken could be animals, plants or sea creatures and these totemic items are revered by all members of a given society; violating the codes regulating the totems can bring untold disaster upon a person, a family or a group of persons. Concerning the python, he observes that different communities trace their origin and survival to pythons in the anthropological past. He further maintains that ‘pythons are deeply revered in the community, and they move freely. Nobody molests or kills them, and their appearance is often regarded as ominous. They may, for example, communicate important messages from the ancestors to individuals and save them from calamities’ (959). The relevance of pythons in African cosmology was investigated by Achebe in Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. In Things Fall Apart, a zealot who was converted to Christianity at an epoch of intense conflict between African and European cultures killed a sacred python and that singular action attracted unimaginable reprimand from the people. Enoch was ostracized and the church he built was razed to the ground.

Ezeulu who is the custodian of the religious ethos of the land sent his son to the missionary school. Oduche who was taught by the missionaries that pythons are to be killed and not worshipped or associated with spirituality attempts the life of one of the serpents. The son takes one of the royal pythons and locks it up to suffocate but the python was eventually rescued from death. This singular act contravenes the unwritten laws of taboo and totem. The people gathered to see what Ezeulu will do. However, since there is no spoken law that itemizes what to be done to one who locks up a python, Ezeulu escapes with the sacrilegious act of his son. Nevertheless, the python is seen as an important spiritual being. It is a reincarnation of the ancestors, a messenger of the gods and their appearances harbinger good or bad tidings.

The divinities are closely associated with possessed animals or totems. In some regions, totemic animals are worshipped and seen as messengers of ancestral altars. Ulu for instance in Arrow of God is seen as a deity that supersedes other deities of the villages that formed Umuaro. There is grievous contention between the divinities and their priests. However, each of the divinities has totems that are connected to it. Some are water like Idemili. Ezedimili is the chief priest of the Idemili deity. Deities also assume different forms and sizes. There are often sculptured representations of spirits. Divinities are often associated with totems.


In Africa, literature is highly functional. Thomas Onyonyor in a scholarly article, ‘The Novelist as a Moralist and a Social Historian, A Review of May Nwoye’s Fetters and Choices: Another Perspective,’ observes that ‘writers do not just write simply because they have the talent to concoct a story; they write to inform and to conscientize their readers to have them do something about themselves, others and society’ (177). Writers who draw inspiration from anthropology, mythology and culture have intentions and reasons why they depend on cultural materials for literary production. The most important is to educate the next generation about ancestral histories and the mythic creations of the ancestry. The past is never disconnected from the present and the present is never a distant country. The past, the present and the future are interwoven into an organic continuum. Therefore, an important aspect of life that serves as the life-wire holding in place mortality and immortality, the living and the dead is spirituality. The spiritual is the domicile of myth, culture and morality. Man being a spiritual material drives strength, continuum and existence from the spiritual perspective. In this light, the spiritual or the mythic is not a recreation of what is distant and merely fantastical but either a recreation, a reconstruction, an adaptation or a rejuvenation of ageless lore, connected to the very roots of the existence of the people.

The mythic supplies the writer with oral aesthetics such as legend, fable, and archetypes. However, in literary scholarship, emphasis has been given to the criticism of human agents and less to non-human actors such as masquerades, totems and divinities. Therefore, this study focused on the signification and manifestations of the immaterial in the material world as captured in literary arts especially the outputs of Chinua Achebe. The discourse, nevertheless emphasized that in African literature, writers draw heavily from the culturally accessible pool of stories and tales that have cultural, mythic and even political significance. However, the appearance of, for instance, pythons, totems, divinities and masquerades in early African fiction is never a literary accidence. It is deliberate because the artist draws from society from the corpus of materials available in his immediate community. These materials could have spiritual or social importance. However, what is held sacred by the society is often expounded and the sacredness of the sacred is interpreted and emphasized.

Works Cited

Abubakar, Abdullahi. ‘Mythical Essence in Osofisan’s Dramaturgy: A Reading of Twingle-    Twangle, A Twying Tayle’ in A Rainbow Beyond its Colours – Essays in Honour of     Professor Shamsudeen O. O. Amali. ed. Amali, Idris et al (Ibadan: Craft, 2007): 55-71.

Adebayo, Mosobalaje. ‘The Transition from a Mythopoeic to a Populist Aesthetic in Selected     Political Plays of Wole Soyinka’in Landlines in African Literary Studies – Matatu Journal for African Culture and Society, ed. Gordon Collier (Matatu 47; Leiden & Boston MA     Brill/Rodopi, 2015): 71– 95.

Chinua Achebe. Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).

—- Arrow of God (New York: Anchor Books, 1994).

Nnolim, Charles. Issues in African Literature (Lagos: Malthouse Press,2010).

Oriji, John. ‘Transformation in Igbo Cosmology during Slavery: A Study of the Genesis of Place-    Name, Totem and Taboos,’ in Cahiers d’etudes Africaines (7 December, 2009): 943–967

Thomas Onyonyor. ‘The Novelist as a Moralist and a Social Historian, A Review of May Nwoye’s     Fetters and Choices: Another Perspective,’ in May Ifeoma Nwoye: A Literary and     Entrepreneurial Appraisal, ed. Awodiya, Muyiwa and Okwechime, Okey (Ibadan:     Craft,2015): 177 – 187

Tunde John Adeagbo , ‘Literature and Myth: Camara Laye’s Example,’ in Asia Pacific Journal of     Education, Arts and Sciences (19 February, 2015): Vol. 2: 9 – 15.

Victor, S. Akwu. ‘Modern African Poetry and the Postcolonial Conundrums: A Socio-Historical     Reading of Obu Udeozo’s Excursions,’ eds. Akujobi, Remi and Sani, Gambo. Plumes on a Red Cap: Essays on Language and Literature for Obu Udeozo at Sixty (Ibadan: Agunbay     Publishers, 2017): 66 – 89.


Akwu Sunday Victor is a graduate of Kogi State University, department of English & Literary Studies. He has written and published literary works cutting across prose fiction, drama, poetry and short stories. He is a critic as well as a scholar of post-colonialism, literary theory and criticism and ideology. His works have appeared in Matatu, Okike and other critical platforms in Nigeria and abroad.