Edo - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. In the traditional Edo view, the universe is divided into two planes of existence: the visible, tangible world of everyday life ( agbon ) and the invisible spirit world ( erinmwin ) created by Osanobua and inhabited by him, other deities, ancestors, spirits, and supernatural powers. These are two parallel, coexisting realms; their boundaries, however, are not inviolable, as gods and spirits daily intervene in the lives of humans, and particularly powerful humans draw upon the forces of the spirit world to transform daily experience. The creator god, Osanobua, is rather remote; worship is more frequently directed toward the other deities, who are his children. The most important of these—according to Benin notions of seniority—is Olokun, his oldest son. Olokun, the ruler of the global waters and the provider of wealth and fertility, is the most widely venerated deity in Benin, especially among women who join local congregations to pray and sacrifice for children. Ogun, the god of iron, is the concern of all who deal with metal, including taxi drivers and mechanics. Other deities include Osun, the power inherent in leaves and herbs, the special concern of herbalists; Ogiuwu, the god of death; and Obienmwen, the goddess of safe delivery. Yoruba deities such as Eshu, the trickster; Shango, the god of thunder; and Orunmila, the deity of divination, have been incorporated into Edo religion. Congregations of worshipers and shrines dedicated to these deities are found in both the villages and the city, although Osanobua, Osun, and Ogiuwu had central shrines and chief priests in Benin City only.

An urban-rural dichotomy of religious worship was maintained through the exclusion of certain cults from the capital city. Such cults were dedicated to culture heroes—once-famous warriors, magicians, and court figures who came into conflict with the king. Fleeing from the capital, they sought refuge in their home villages and were transformed into natural phenomenona, mainly rivers. The villagers worship these culture heroes as protective deities who are concerned with fertility and health.

Aspects of the human body are endowed with spiritual power and often have shrines where they are propitiated. Important among these are the head—the locus of a person's intelligence, will, and ability to organize his life and that of his dependents—and the hand—source of the individual's ability to succeed in life in the material sense.

When the Portuguese arrived in Benin, they tried to introduce Christianity. In 1516 they built a church in the capital city and taught the king's senior son and two important chiefs how to read. Their efforts to spread the Christian faith were not successful. Missionary efforts increased substantially with colonialism, and today there are churches of every conceivable denomination in Benin City, including Hare Krishna, and some missionary outposts in villages. Church participation frequently occurs side by side with indigenous ancestral and herbal practices.

Religious Practitioners. There are two main categories of religious specialists: priest ( ohen ) and diviner/herbalist ( obo ) . A priest, who can be either male or female, undergoes a long series of initiation rites before specializing in performing a wide variety of ceremonies and communicating directly, often through trance, with his or her patron deity. Such priests can be found presiding over congregations in cities and villages, as well as in the countryside. The diviner/healer, usually male, specializes in some branch of magical activity such as curing, divining, handling witches, or administering ordeals.

Ceremonies. In precolonial times there was a royal ritual cycle of ceremonies, one for each of the thirteen lunar months. Some were of a private nature, such as the sacrifices the king made to his head or his hand; others were public. Oba Eweka II curtailed many of the private ceremonies in the palace, and his son, Akenzua II, reduced and limited the public ceremonies to the Christmas vacation in order to facilitate attendance. The most important of these are Ugie Erha Oba, which honors the king's ancestors, and Igue, which strengthens his mystical powers. Domestic ceremonies mark the life cycle and the private worship of various deities and ancestors.

Arts. The Benin Kingdom is well known for its brass and ivory sculpture, which is found in museums throughout the world. These objects were produced for the king and the nobility by members of craft guilds in Benin City. Among the most famous Benin works of art are the brass (often mislabeled "bronze") commemorative heads topped by elaboratly carved ivory tusks that are placed on the royal ancestral altars and the rectangular brass plaques depicting court ceremonies and war exploits that used to decorate the pillars of the palace. In the villages, devotees of local deified culture heroes perform rituals employing a variety of different kinds of masks some of wood, others of cloth or red parrot feathers, to honor these deities and appeal for health and well-being.

Medicine. The Edo distinguish between common and serious illnesses. The former can be treated at home or by Western-trained doctors; the latter must be treated by specialists in traditional medicine, whether priests or diviner/healers. Serious illnesses (childhood convulsions, smallpox, etc.) are believed to be caused by witches or by deities angered over the violation of a taboo. Traditional medical practice centers around belief in osun , the power inherent in leaves and herbs that grow in the bush. Most adults have a basic knowledge of herbalism, which helps them to care for their immediate families, but there are also specialists, both priests and diviner/herbalists, who treat a variety of illnesses. Edo today distinguish between "White man's medicine," for the treatment of diseases such as measles, and "Edo medicine," which is still used for problems such as barrenness or illness created by witches.

Death and Afterlife. Death is seen by the Edo as part of a cycle in which an individual moves between the spirit world and the everyday world in a series of fourteen reincarnations. Each cycle begins with an appearance before the Creator God, at which time a person announces his or her destiny or life plan. The person's spiritual counterpart (ehi) is present and thereafter monitors the person's adherence to the announced plan. After death, the person and his or her ehi must give an account to the Creator God. If the account is acceptable, the person joins the ancestors in the spirit world until the time has come to be born again.

In the spirit world, the ancestors live in villages and quarters similar to those in the world of everyday life. From there, they watch over the behavior of their relations in the everyday world, punishing transgressions such as incest. Their descendants perform weekly and annual rituals to placate and implore the ancestors to bring benefits of health and fertility.


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