Between Agu and Odum: What Is Lion or Leopard Called in Igbo?

Between Agu and Odum: What Is Lion or Leopard Called in Igbo?

By Azuka Onwuka

A lion dealing with a leopard
A lion dealing with a leopard

It is not debatable that the tiger is the biggest of the cats. However tiger is not an African animal but a Eurasian animal, just as the bear is not an African animal and has no original Igbo name. Igbos did not know or see a tiger, and so really did not have an original name for it.

Lion is the king of the jungle because it hunts in groups and can kill even some elephants and giraffes. Tiger hunts alone, but one on one a tiger will most likely defeat a lion. Please check this up on the Internet.

Leopard is smaller and has spots. But it is also strong and agile. It can climb trees with an antelope in its mouth.

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Lion is odum while leopard is agu. Igbos say odum na-egbu agu (the lion that kills the leopard).

Wall gecko is called agu-ulo) because it has spots like leopard.

Crocodile is called agu-iyi because it has patches that look like the spots of a leopard.

The body of a lion is brown with no spots or lines.

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In the Bible, Daniel was put in the lions’ den. The Igbo Bible calls it “olulu odum.” The lion of the tribe of Judah is interpreted in the Igbo Bible as “odum nke ebo Juda.”  When the Bible asks if the leopard can ever change its spots, the Igbo Bible interpreted it as agu (Jeremiah 13:23)Please look for an Igbo Bible and confirm this.

Chinua Achebe published Chike and the River in 1966. What killed Chike’s father was a leopard, not a lion. Chukwuemeka Ike published The Leopard’s Claw in 1950 and The Bottled Leopard in 1985. The generation of Achebe and Chukwuemeka Ike had no confusion over agu and odum.

It was rare to find any old Igbo novelist writing about the lion. It was always the leopard that was written about. The reason is simple: The leopard was more common among the Igbos than the lion. It may seem small to us today because we watch animal documentaries, but in the days of our forefathers, the leopard evoked fear in the villages. It killed people. Once it was sighted, an alarm would be sounded. Women and children would not go to the stream or farm alone. Strong men would go out in search of it to kill it. The community would not be at rest until it had been killed or there was news that it had left the community. Anybody who killed a leopard was honoured as an ogbuagu.

Yet the Igbos admired the leopard because of its beauty, strength and agility. And many people took the name or sobriquet of agu because of this admiration. That could have contributed to the choice of two leopards as part of the coat of arms of the Republic of Biafra in 1967.

Those who say that leopard is edi or ediabali should remember that when someone sleeps a lot, the person is called an edi. The leopard is not a sleepy animal and so cannot be the so-called edi. Some friends have drawn my attention to the point that based on its nocturnal, sleepy and smelly nature, edi or ediabali should be the African civet. And they sound correct. Edi or ediabali has some negative connotations which the leopard does not have among the Igbos. The leopard is admired, while edi is not.

African civet
African civet (It also has spots like the leopard)

Growing up, there was no confusion about which animal was agu or odum. There was a masked spirit (mmonwu) that was called agu. It had spots and was designed like the leopard. It snarled, crouched and attempted to pounce at people, but was always pulled back by the man who held the leash. And we fled each time it came near us during a festival like a funeral or New Yam Festival. But we would quickly return to watch its performance. That masked spirit was used to re-enact the strength and beauty of the leopard and its place in the Igbo cosmology.

My part of town is called Umudim because our progenitor killed a leopard and took the title Dim Agu. There are still photos of our great men with the leopard skin to show that they killed the leopard and became “ogbuagu”. I never heard of anyone called ogbu odum (lion killer), neither did I ever see any of our great men of yore in a photograph with the skin of a lion or a tiger.

Igwe Orizu II in a picture with the leopard'a skin called akpukpo agu. He died in 1963
Igwe Orizu II in a picture with the leopard’a skin called akpukpo agu. He died in 1963

This mixup about lion and leopard is a new development and we must not pass it on to our children.

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About the big cats

The biggest, strongest and fiercest of the big cats is the tiger. Among the tigers the Siberian tiger is the biggest, weighing up to 300kg.

The second in terms of size and strength is the lion. Its male can weigh up to 240kg.

The leopard is smaller. Its male can weigh up to 80kg. But it is agile.

Note that the leopard is about 3 times smaller than the lion and does not stand a chance when faced with a lion, unless it escapes by climbing a tree.

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So when Igbos say odum na-egbu agu, they mean the lion that kills the leopard. The lion cannot kill the tiger of the same size. But then the tiger never lived in Africa or Igboland and so never met the lion. The Igbos could not have created that saying if they did not witness the lion killing the leopard.

Those who want to disagree with this article should not just continue to say “agu is lion” or “agu is tiger”. Please let them add some value to the discussion by giving us concrete evidence from authorities. Or let them explain to us which animal is odum or agu in the expression “odum na-egbu agu.”

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18 Comments

  1. Chinedu April 4, 2017 Reply
  2. Chijiòkè April 5, 2017 Reply
    • Azuka Onwuka April 5, 2017 Reply
  3. Uche Akaogu June 17, 2017 Reply
  4. Chi July 13, 2017 Reply
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  6. Richard February 19, 2018 Reply
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