What is the importance of the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves in "Things Fall Apart"?
In Umuofia, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves is also revered for her clairvoyance or supernatural insight into the future. She is a kind of prophet, foretelling what Umuofia's future will hold.
In the novel, Chielo is the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves; she is also the priestess of Agbala. In ordinary life, she is a widow with two children, extremely friendly with Ekwefi (Okonkwo's second wife), and immensely fond of Ezinma (Ekwefi's only daughter). It is said that when the spirit of Agbala descends upon Chielo, she becomes a formidable prophet.
As Umuofia's revered prophet, Chielo plays an important role in guiding the tribe and deciding the fate of villagers. When the spirit of Agbala falls upon her one night, she demands the right to take Ezinma to the sacred shrine of Agbala in the caves. Ezinma's parents, however, are disturbed by Chielo's demands. Ezinma herself is reported to be dying, and Chielo's sudden, imperious order unsettles them. Yet, despite Okonkwo and Ekwefi's discomfort, Chielo is not to be denied; acting independently under the sole authority of Agbala, she retrieves Ezinma from her mother's hut. With Ezinma on her back, Chielo makes the rounds of the nine villages before coming to the caves. On the way to the caves, Chielo proclaims a special blessing upon Ezinma: "Life to you, my daughter."
In the sacred caves, Chielo greets her god in a variety of names: "the owner of the future, the messenger of earth, the god who cut a man down when his life was sweetest to him." Here, it can be seen that, as the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves, Chielo is the intermediary between the people of Umuofia and the gods. There is a strong suggestion that she takes Ezinma into temporary custody to heal her. Within the informal ecclesiastical construct of Umuofian religion, Chielo is the sole earthly authority. Even Okonkwo has to obey her.
In the story, Chielo's prophetic abilities are definitely central to Umuofian life. When a band of fugitives from Abame flee to Umuofia and their Oracle prophecies the eventual dissolution of the Abame tribe, Chielo concurs. Like the Abame Oracle, Chielo sees how the white missionaries will fracture existing socio-religious ties among the tribes. So, she characterizes the new converts of the white man's religion as "the excrement of the clan" and the new faith as a "mad dog that had come to eat it up." As the prophet of Umuofia, Chielo sees the threat of colonialism long before the other villagers do.
So, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves serves as the religious authority of Umuofia; her word must be obeyed because she is the representative of the gods. Additionally, she is the prophet and healer the people depend on.
In Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves plays an essential role within the social structure of the Umuofian clan. The Oracle ultimately determines important decisions for the village because the priestess acts as a medium for the gods. It is especially interesting that the Oracle holds such a revered position within a patriarchal society that values masculinity; she carries unparalleled power and her decrees are not questioned by respected elders. One of the most striking instances which reveals the true extent of the Oracle's influence occurs early in the novel. Indeed, the Umuofian clan cannot go to war unless the decision is accepted by the Oracle:
"And in fairness to Umuofia it should be recorded that it never went to war unless its case was clear and just and was accepted as such by the Oracle-- the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. And there were indeed occasions when the Oracle had forbidden Umuofia to wage a war. If the clan had disobeyed the Oracle, they would surely have been beaten, because their dreaded afadi-nwayi would never fight what the Ibo call a fight of blame" (12).
The Oracle has such power that her refusal can prevent Umuofia from engaging in a war. She is deeply revered and respected by the elders of Umuofia, and plays an important role in the society.