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The people of Ancient Benin Kingdom, known as the Bronze people live on the South East coast of West Africa and cover an area of about 4,000 square miles. There are five main dialects, Ancient Benin Kingdom proper, Ishan, Ivbiesakon, Etsako, and Akoko Edo. Others that emigrated from Ancient Benin Kingdom, often classified as non-Benin are Urhobos, Itsekiri, Ika, Ikwerri Ibos, Ogbas, Udowas, Ga of Ghana, and Onitsha Ibos.
Benin City is surrounded by two moats with high walls. The two moats are amebic in shape and were dug by two different Kings, about 200 years apart. The outer wall, about 28 miles in perimeter, was dug in about 1280 A.D. by King Oguola (the 6th King of the 2nd dynasty), to keep his enemy away. The second, inner wall was dug by King Ewuare (the 13th King of the 2nd dynasty) to prevent the kingdom from being depopulated as a result of the unpopular laws he had enacted, much of which he later repealed.
The first recording of the Kingdom was around 900 A.D. and the first ruler known as Ogiso (God representation on Earth – an expression used to describe his greatness). There were about 31 Ogisos that ruled the Kingdom between 900 and 1200 A.D. Thereafter, a second dynasty of the King was established. The original name of the Kingdom was Igodomigodo, named after the first ruler Igodo.
About mid twelve century, Ancient Benin Kingdom witnessed a traumatic event during the last Ogiso Owodo’s reign, which almost collapsed the kingdom. History stated that Ogiso’s wives could not bear children. Meanwhile, one of his wives whom he married earlier as a prince had an only son called Ikaladeran. After a considerable period on the throne, the other wives began to worry about their bareness and felt Ogiso had brought this condition upon them, and so they resorted to the Oracle, one of the only way Ancient Benin people found solutions to their problems. Upon consulting the seer (Also the medical doctor), Ogiso’s wives were told Ikaladeran was responsible for their infertility and unless he was sacrificed to the god of fertility, they won’t have children. After much pressure on the Ogiso by his wives, instead of having them desert him, yielded and ordered Ikaladeran offered for sacrifice. However, the guards that were instructed to sacrifice Ikaladeran outside Benin City set him free and ordered him to run away and never to return. After much wandering, Ikaladeran finally settled in Ile-Ife (which in Benin means I ran to safety) the birth place of the Yoruba Kingdom. Ikaladeran later founded his Kingdom under assumed name Oduduwa (which in Benin also means I have found road to prosperity).
As fate would have it, the Ogiso’s wives remained childless. Upon the death of Ogiso (Owodo), years later, there was no heir to the throne. The elders who had plotted his escape, revealed what they had done. A search was then mounted to locate Ikaladeran, and they finally caught up with him at Ile-Ife. He was now being worshipped as a King in his new place and when the search team requested him to return with them, he refused citing the Binis nonchalant attitude to his father’s decision to have him killed. After much pressure on him to return and himself knowing Binis might forcibly move him back to Benin City, he ordered his son Oranmiyan to go with them instead. When Oranmiyan arrived Benin City, he did not like his new home and returned back to Ile-Ife, from where later he went to found Oyo empire and became the first Alaffin of Oyo. However, before he left Benin, one of his wives bethrothed to him had a son named Eweka, who continued the second dynasty and became the first King. The current King Erediauwa is the 39th King of the second dynasty that started about 1170 A.D., after 31 previous Kings (Ogisos).
Emuada-The King’s first Line of Defense
The is a special Palace Association formed during the reign of king Ozolua in 1486 A.D. Emuada society is a special elite army unit of young boys used by the king as bodyguards while at war or visiting dangerous places and they are also the king’s first line of defense. This military unit consists of about ten to twenty in number and they are young, energetic, intelligent, and very loyal close to the king in and out of the palace. However, in about 1581 A.D., King Ihengbuda carried out major reforms in Iwebo and iweguae societies. It was King Ihengbuda that places the Emuada into the house of Iwegua where this special unit now belongs. Following this reorganization, the king transformed the role of Emuada into a ceremonial, the scepter-bearers to the king.
Till now an Emuada is usually recruited at a very young age of between eight and sixteen years, but majority are always less than 10 years. Due to the sacredness of the scepter, which is a symbol of power that they are entrusted to carry along with the king, Emuada are expected to be without blemish. Once initiated, he is not allowed to have physical contact with women, not even his own mother as long as he remains a member of Emuada institution.
The Emuada wear bronze rings around their ankles and the head of their society is called Odionwere (group leader); The Odionwere or group leader wears only one ring; the second in command, wears two rings; and so on according to their seniority. The sequence continues until the last to be initiated. The order of seniority is not according to age, but the time of initiation into the Iweguae society.
The sceptre known as called Ada is made of bronze. It is shaped like a sword (called Umozo) and in the past it was used at the war front by the Kings. The old sword was reconfigured by Oba Ihengbuda in about 1580 A.D. to its modern day look and it is believed that the Scepter was empowered by means of spiritual Devine. The Sceptre is very sacred and therefore remains the power of authority of the King. In honor of King Esigie and IOrhogbua’s father faith in God, and as the first ordained Catholic Priest in about 1540 A.D., a cross is crafted in almost all of the Sceptres which are mostly use now for prayer and blessing graduated Emuada and other honored and merited Benin citizens.
After a successful service by an Omuada (singular for Emuada), he is honorably and ceremoniously discharged. The Omuada is betrothed a beautiful Bride which may be a Princess and can now start a new life outside the Palace. In addition, a discharged Omuada may also be honored with a gift and the right to wear a Coral bead. The graduation is also to higher level of Ukor N’Eweguae (Another special unit of Iwegua), a step away from being a Chief. The discharge ceremony last seven day and it is always very glamorous.
Agriculture in Ancient Benin Kingdom varies. Yam is the main crop of the Benin people and it is planted in April and harvested in early September. Thee three main types of yams grown are white yam (called Emowe or Arebu), water yam (called Igiorua); and red yam (called Ikpen). The later yam is preferable, because it is hardier and stays on the ground for a longer period.
Other crops grown are corn, cassava (introduced in early 20 century, which most conservative Benin do not eat), plantains, coco-yams, and rice. Edible vegetables grown include Okro, Melons, Peppers, Groundnuts, Beans, Garden Eggs, etc. In the past, eating utensils were made out of pottery and gourds (from which spoons, plates, cups were produced).
Some of the foods include:
Emieki – Ripe plantain cake
Esikolor – Cake produced from grounded water yam
Ekusu – Corn cake
Akassan – Corn ceareal (like hard puddy)
Eka – Fried grounded blackeye pea
Edudu – Fried yam in meat aroma or edible oil
Ikpekere/dodo – Fried unripe and ripen plantains
Evbokho – Made from special fruit found in Ancient Benin Kingdom forest
Uloka – Cake produced from peanuts and corn meal
and various types of Vegetable stews
Crafts & Skills
Ancient Benin Kingdom main craft is bronze casting, ivory ( a famous 16 century ivory of queen Idia, is now the symbol of the black unity), leather works, wood carving. Benin City is divided into several quarters and wards and each has a specific craft. Igun quarter is responsible for all bronze works; Igbesamwan quarter for woods and ivory carving; Owinna quarter for carpentry; pottery produced at Use and Utekon (suburbs of Benin city); mats, baskets, and cloth weaving produced at different villages around Benin city.
Some of the important festivals performed in Ancient Benin Kingdom are summarized below:
Ugie-Oro:- The celebration of the “bird of prophecy” initiated by King Esigie in 1506 A.D. after his victory over the Igala.
Olokun:- The celebration of fertility and believed to be responsible for bringing healthy children.
Osun:- God of medicine which to ensure the effective use of medicine. Ewaise ward performs the annual festival in honor of Osun.
Ague:- A ceremony during which offerings of new yam are made at all the altars in the palace.
Eghute:- Rites designed to protect pregnant women and to ensure successful birth for the whole nation.
Isiuhe:- A rite to ensure fertility of the land performed by Ogiefa (one of the earliest inhabitant of Benin City).
Ugie-Ewere:- A festivity in which all evil spirit are chased away with fire before dawn and the “leave of joy (Ebe-Ewere)” are returned. This event takes place as part of the New Year celebration. It was initiated by King Eware in the 1400 A.D.
There are four principal age group classifications;
Evbirhoba-Evbo:- These are children between 6 – 13 years. This group is exempted from any public physical activities as they are not strong enough.
Eroghae:- These are teenagers and young adults between 14 – 27 years or more. The group constitutes the work force of the society and is regarded as warriors.
Ighele:- These are full grown adults between 28 – 45 years. They are regarded as mature warriors and help keep sanity in the society
Edion:- Adults older than 45 years are regarded as Edion and they make the decision that govern and guard the society. They worship the ancestral shrines on behalf of the community.
Graduation to any of this levels is celebrated and only by initiation.
Birth & Naming Ceremony
When a child is born, the child is washed with sand and palm oil, and then rinsed off with water to ensure he/she does not smell when grown. When the umbilical cord falls off from the child, the father plants it in the ground with the seed of a kola nut or coconut tree in hope that the child with grow like the tree. The placenta is then buried outside the house in the yard. This ensures that the child will go through life smoothly and the woman’s womb will be healthy.
Izomo, (child naming ceremony) takes place on the seventh day after the birth of the child and the father performs the ceremony. This ceremony is an indication that the child is his. In the morning, the child is presented to its ancestors by lowering the child several times over the altar of the ancestors. The father then “counts” the child into the mother’s hand, charging her to take care of the child. The first name of the child is giving by the father only or by the grandfather. Other middle names may be giving to the child.
In the past, potential suitors give his “service” known as “Ugamwen” to his prospective parents-in-law, helping them in farm work. Today, it is in terms of presentation of gifts such as yearly contribution of goats, turkey for the New Year/ Christmas celebration.
On the day of the marriage contract is finalized, the suitor brings wines, kola nuts and coconuts as offerings to the ancestors of the girl. This is to notify the ancestors that the marriage of their daughter is about to take place and to ask their help to make it a fruitful and prosperous one. The marriage contract is then sealed with the payment of a token fee. Part of the kola nut is given to the groom as a present to his own ancestors.
On the wedding day, this is the day of escorting the bride to her husband, the relatives and friends of the bride gather at her parent’s house to help carry her belongings to her husband’s house. Her father or mother does not participate in this escort. The husband sister or any female relative brings in a bowl of water in which coins or cowries (money used for transaction by the Ancient Benin Kingdom’s in the past) have been placed and wash the bride’s hand. This rite symbolizes the acceptance of her into the household and the money expresses the hope that the marriage will be a fruitful one. She is then led away to be bathed and she then eats a meal in solace. While this is going on, the husband entertains the bridal party.
Burial rites take seven (7) days for the ordinary people and fourteen (14) days for the king or for important chiefs. Just after death, the body is washed and laid on the bed inside the house. While the corpse is being prepared, the grave is dug. Ordinary persons are buried in the general cemetery, and the corpse is escorted there by the children. As the body is lowered in the grave, prayers to the effect that in the next incarnation the deceased may not meet the misfortunes that troubled him in the last are said.
In chronological fashion:
1st day:- Iwa-orimwin - “laying out of the corpse and embalmment”.
2nd day:- The male descendants and son-in-law of the deceased offer goats and foods to provide meal for the participants at the burial. Burial songs are sang throughout the nights till morning.
3rd day:- Izakhue – Eldest son of the decease slaughters a cow or goat to appease the Edion (departed elders) spirit of the family and the meat is consumed.
4th day:- The fourth day is used in preparation for the next day event, which is elaborate and time consuming.
5th day:- Isoton – This is a procession of the deceased children through the town. Each grown up male son organizes it. In this procession, Okun (a box), decorated with a red cloth and brass ornaments which represents the prosperity of the deceased. If the procession is in Benin City, each group visits the statue of Emotan (a woman that lived in the fifteen Century honored by King Ewuare for her generosity) to pay respect. The gifts offered at this statue are collected by Akairo-mwon (the royal jester), who is the caretaker.
6th day:- Okpovbie (wake keeping) takes place on the evening of the 6th day. During this evening, the children of the deceased entertain all the attendants. A person is usually chosen by divination and dressed up in fine clothes to represent the deceased. He is known as “Eno-derhayi” or the “deceased representative”. According to belief, on noaccount should he sleep during the night. If he does, it is believed that he will dream of the deceased and he will shortly die. People gather around him to keep him occupied till dawn.
7th day:- Isuerhanfua “Casting away” - At dawn, the decease representative lead the procession to a nearby bush, where a framework of stick covered with cloth is erected. The decease representative pretends to sit on these, and then the other mourners do likewise. Finally, the structure collapses and its components are thrown away. A few hours later, Ukhure “staffs representing the deceased” is placed upright on the altars of the deceased. A goat is then slaughtered for the offering.
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