Arrow of God

Arrow of God Themes

Igbo Cosmology

The Igbo cosmology, which governs the culture and institutions of Umuaro, structures and penetrates every aspect of the story in Arrow of God. In The Igbo Southeast of Nigeria, historian Victor C. Uchendu explains that “… the Igbo world is a world peopled by the visible and invisible forces, by the living, the dead and those unborn. It is a world in which all these interact, affecting and modifying behavior, a world that is delicately balanced between opposing forces, each motivated by its self-interest, a world whose survival demands some form of cooperation among its members, although that cooperation may be minimal and even hostile in character. It is a world in which others can be manipulated for the sake of the individual status advancement, the goal of Igbo life.” Quoting Achebe, Ikechukwu Sunday Onyibor similarly describes Igbo culture as governed by dualisms that ideally remain balanced and complementary—specifically between materialism, related to the masculine principle, and a spiritual dimension, related to a feminine principle. Part-man and part-god, Ezeulu himself embodies this duality.

Tradition Versus the New

In Arrow of God, we see the calendar, religion, social mores, customary dress, and other facets of Igbo culture imperiled by the religious, cultural, political, and topographical interventions of the British. Some of the book’s central plot points arise when this new reality interferes with old customs to exacerbate preexisting tensions, such as when Oduche attacks the sacred python at the behest of his Christian teachers, and when Winterbottom and Clarke’s detention of Ezeulu causes him to miss the public heralding of two new moons and the eating of the sacred yams. Achebe also hints at the more pedestrian and impersonal ways that colonialism interrupts Igbo society, such as the English goods that flood local markets, or the roads that newly connect different villages. Yet Achebe also defies simplistic colonial stereotypes that see an unchanging indigenous culture transformed by an exogenous colonial force. Arrow of God depicts significant instances of change and dynamism within Ibgo society itself.


Ezeulu is immensely prideful. Though we see hubris among other powerful men in the story such as Ezidemili, Nwaka, and Tony Clarke, it is most tragically articulated in Ezeulu, where it motivates to such an extent that it ultimately brings about his personal demise and that of his people. Ogbuefi Ofoka characterizes the tragic dimension of this pridefulness when he says of Ezeulu toward the end of the book, “when a man as proud as this wants to fight he does not care if his own head rolls as well in the conflict" (213).


Arrow of God depicts a highly patriarchal Igbo society, as embodied in Ezeulu’s compound, in which the huts of wives and sons are arrayed around that of the head of the household, all oriented toward serving Ezeulu’s daily needs. Persistent themes include the sanctity of the father-son relationship and the domestic duties of a man’s multiple wives.

Different Colonial Strategies/Archetypes

In Arrow of God we find the British in the midst an internal debate over colonial policy: specifically, a debate about the efficacy and advisability of “indirect rule”—a system in which the colonial administration appoints local emirs and native chiefs to serve as village puppet rulers and symbolic regional representatives—compared to the more heavy-handed style of French colonialism. Winterbottom is critical of indirect rule, referencing native savagery and the corruption of locally appointed chiefs. Achebe’s handful of colonial officers in Okperi can be seen as metonymically representing different colonial attitudes and archetypes: Winterbottom is the veteran and the pragmatist; Clarke, the assistant district officer, is idealistic; and Wright, a supervisor at the Public Works Department, is overtly sadistic.


Coming from an Igbo proverb or saying, the titular phrase "Arrow of God" refers to a person, thing, or event that functions, wittingly or unwittingly, as an instrument in a divine plan. As Chief Priest—half-man, half-divine—Ezeulu regards himself as such an instrument. Convinced that he is privy to Ulu’s will, and that Ulu has orchestrated events—Oduche’s transgression against the python, his own detention in Okperi—so that he might punish Ezidemili and his people by refraining from calling the time for the New Yam Feast. Toward the end of the novel, Ezeulu speculates that everyone in this story—including even the white man—was merely serving as such an arrow in Ulu’s plans.

Christian Evangelism

In Arrow of God, the British manifest their presence in Igboland as both a bureaucratic colonial administration and as an instrument of Christianity, with its churches, schools, and missionaries aimed at converting the local population. Often, rather than whites, it is black missionary converts who play the most influential role in these institutions. John Goodcountry counsels Igbo natives to destroy their gods, whereas Moses Unachukwu represents a more syncretic approach, believing in the fearsome, unrelenting power of the Christian god, but unwilling to desecrate the Igbo holy symbols. Whether it is Oduche’s actions in Ezeulu’s compound, Goodcountry taking advantage of a religious crisis at the end of the book to obtain more converts, or simply the church bells Ezeulu hears tolling in the distance, in the novel Christianity is a lurking, growing presence in Umuaro and in wider Igboland.


The actions of the African characters in the book represent different strategies for confronting the growing and seemingly irreversible presence of the white man in their native land. Though many feel this presence is an existential threat, they nonetheless feel forced to engage with it tactically, given its strength and entrenchment. For instance, believing that the white man is in Igboland to stay and that it would behoove him to have a member of his compound with intimate knowledge of the white man’s ways, Ezeulu sends his son, Oduche, to the missionary school, and, when asked to work on Wright’s road without pay and subjected to disciplinary violence, the young men of Umuaro opt to deal with the situation delicately. Then there are those such as John Nodikwa who actively try to capitalize on colonialism, seeing the white man’s institutions, roads, and wealth as an opportunity for their own advancement. The reader is left to consider whether such calculations are acts of pragmatism, or whether they amount to making a deal with the devil.