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A very dramatic public ceremony is described in detail that involves meting out justice. On the village commons, folks gather, with elders sitting on stools and the rest of the village men behind them. Nine stools are placed for the egwugwu to sit. Egwugwu represent the spirits of their ancestors and are respected members of the community who can dispense justice in trials. Women stand on the edges of the circle, looking in the direction of the egwugwu house. A gong is loudly blasted and the guttural voice of the egwugwu is heard. When he makes his appearance, it is very dramatic as he wears a fearful looking mask and pretends to scare the women. Along with him, nine other masked men emerge. Okonkwo’s wives notice that one of the egwugwu walks with a springy step such as Okonkwo does. They also notice he is absent from where the elders sit.
The leader of the egwugwu called Evil Forest speaks some words, and they sit in order of seniority. The hearing then begins. It involves a man named Uzowulu whose wife was taken away by him by her family. He wishes that either she return or they pay him his bride-price. The women’s brother argues that she has been rescued because she is beaten every day and that she will return on the promise that he never hit her again.
After discussion among the egwugwu, Evil Forest returns with a verdict. He tells Uzowulu to bring wine to his wife’s family and beg his wife to return to him. He also expresses disgust at Uzowulu’s cowardice in beating women and askes him to accept his brother-in-law’s offer. Afterwards, one elders discusses the trivial nature of this case and another says that Uzowulu would accept any decision other than the egugwu. Next a land dispute is discussed.Notes
Despite their formidable and somewhat theatrical presence, the egwugwu and their system of justice are similar to Western society’s notion of a fair public trial. The men who conduct the hearings are the senior members of the society, and have political as well as economic power, but they mask themselves to hide their identity, so that a fair judgment can be given. Here each party is given a chance to state their case and then the egwugwu leave to debate a verdict as well as a punishment or remuneration.
Arbiters of justice have often been traditionally represented as fearful and all-powerful beings. In Greek society, the Furies, wild spirits who inhabited the Earth, sought revenge for those who had been violated. They meted out the same punishment regardless of mitigating circumstances and were depicted as grotesque and blood-thirsty women, representative of the crimes they were seeking retribution for. Eventually, Athena bestowed them with a greater title, that of being arbiters of justice, and their fury was domesticated into what is now seen as the beginnings of justice by trial rather by retribution in the Western world. Similarly the egwugwu although fierce-looking and frightening meted out justice fairly. This combination of drama and jurisprudence can be seen in Western courtrooms today.
The dismissive attitude one of the elders shows for a trial of this kind reveals the lack of power and respect that women had in this society. Not only does the women’s brother speak for her, but she has no say in the verdict handed to her husband. Whether or not she wants to return is overlooked by the larger economic reason for her return. Her husband’s hand is slapped for being so violent but other than that he is not punished for his crime, simply fined.