Edo Religion

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EDO RELIGION . The Edo-speaking peoples live in a tropical forest region of southern Nigeria. Their language formerly belonged to the Kwa family of Niger-Congo languages and is now classified with the South Central Niger-Congo group (Ruhlen, 1991). The Edo proper, centered in and around Benin City, are of long standing in this region. Oral traditions suggest that by the thirteenth or fourteenth century, the Edo were united into a powerful kingdom that by the fifteenth century had embarked on a course of aggressive military expansion in southern Nigeria. At the end of the fifteenth century, Portuguese explorers made contact with them, recording for the first time the name Benin, which has been used since to refer to the kingdom (the people are sometimes referred to as the Bini ). In the ensuing 500 years following contact with Portugal, the Benin traded with many European nations until, in 1897, Benin fell to British colonial expansion and was incorporated into the wider political framework of Nigeria. Benin City, the capital of the kingdom from medieval times, is today the administrative center and capital of modern Edo State, one of thirty-three states created in late-twentieth-century, postcolonial Nigeria.

Traditional Edo religion divides the world into two realms: a visible world of ordinary human experience, and an invisible world of gods, ancestors, and other supernatural beings. The spirit world is a realm located under the ground or where the sky and earth meet. It has a parallel existence that constantly affects the everyday world. Rituals central to Edo religion, including prayers, offerings, and sacrifices, take place at meeting points between both realms, at shrines inside homes and villages, or at the foot of trees, crossroads, or the banks of rivers.

The two realms were created by the supreme being, Osanobua. He also established the framework of space and time and made the first humans by breathing lifeforce into molded clay images. Osanobua is envisioned as a king living in a palace from which he presides over the spirit world, having delegated responsibility for the everyday world to his children, the other gods of the Edo pantheon. The most important among them is Olokun, his son and ruler of the great waters, who resides in his own palace under the Ethiope River, which the Edo believe is the source of all the world's waters. From there Olokun sends the blessings of wealth and children to his faithful devotees, especially women who desire children. Olokun's wives and chiefs are the gods of the main rivers of the kingdom and are worshiped locally by villagers.

Ogun, another son of Osanobua, is the patron deity of all who work and use metal: the blacksmiths and brass and bronze casters; and the warriors, hunters, farmers, and modern vehicle drivers, for example. Ogun is seen as the god "who opens the way"that is, he makes it possible for other deities and ancestors to be effective. Olokun and Ogun are vital forces in contemporary Edo religious life, but some deities, such as Ogiuwu, god of death, and Obiemwen, the great mother goddess, are no longer worshiped in Benin. Other deities, including Esu, Sango, and Oronmila, have been borrowed from the Yoruba to the west of Benin, especially in border areas where the two ethnic groups have been in close contact. Mammy Water is a cult borrowed from the Igbo area to the east.

Edo men and women alike may keep a shrine or shrines to Olokun, Ogun, or other gods. In addition, families and subdivisions (quarters) of towns and villages also keep communal shrines for the worship of various local deities. A family or ancestral shrine is kept in the house of the eldest son, who inherits all his father's property. Requests for assistance and appeals are addressed to these ancestors as well as to the gods.

Individuals both male and female become religious specialists through apprenticeship, attainment of seniority, or a by a religious "calling" signaled in trance states. There are two main religious roles: priest or priestess and Osun adept, Osun being the god of medicines. Priests and priestesses officiate at ceremonies, perform sacrifices, lead songs and prayers, and convey messages from a deity who "speaks" through them while they are dancing and/or in a trance. Throughout the year priests hold annual festivals to honor their own deity (usually Olokun or Ogun) and others. They also hold an annual festival to honor the deity who "speaks" through them. Although some priests have the knowledge to cure illness, the Osun specialists are the primary medical experts in traditional Edo religion and culture. The adept of Osun, seeking to gain knowledge of the power inherent in leaves and herbs, undergoes an apprenticeship, after which he is able to divine the causes of sickness, prescribe herbal treatments; in the old days, he also administered poison and other ordeals. Witchcraft is widely believed to be the ultimate cause of illness. Witches are identified as persons of evil intent who use their knowledge of herbalism to cause barrenness, disease, and premature death. At night witches are able to transform themselves into predatory birds and fly about. They meet in trees and plot to harm their innocent victims.

Adult men and women who have lived a full lifespan and have children receive a proper burial. The male heads of families join the group's ancestors who reside in the spirit world, but maintain their interest and involvement in the daily lives of their descendants. The ancestral altar located in the home of the senior male of a lineage, or the shrine in a special section of a ward or a village, is the focus of sacrifices and prayers at periodic rituals and in times of crisis, when appeals for help are made.

The ancestors of the king of Benin (who is known as the oba ) are considered the protectors of the nation at large. Their altars are national shrines housed in the royal palace. As the descendant of these divine kings and the possessor of vast supernatural powers, the oba is a central figure in Edo religion. In Edo cosmology, the oba is called "king of dry land," and he is the earthly counterpart of the great deity Olokun, "king of the waters," giver of wealth and children. The king and his court are occupied throughout the year with public and private rituals aimed at preserving the well-being and prosperity of the Edo nation.

In the early sixteenth century the oba permitted Portuguese Catholic missionaries to establish their church in Benin City; it lasted until the late seventeenth century. The church was reestablished in the twentieth century and is known as the oba 's church, with worshipers at three locations in the city. Twentieth-century missionary activity by Protestant denominations and many evangelical groups converted some Edo to Christianity, and some Edo have converted to Islam, but traditional religion, with the oba at its core, continues to flourish.


R. E. Bradbury's The Benin Kingdom and the Edo-Speaking Peoples of South-Western Nigeria (London, 1957) provides a brief overview of Edo religion, and his collected essays, Benin Studies, edited by Peter Morton-Williams (London, 1973), explore specific issues in depth. Paula Ben-Amos has discussed religious iconography in The Art of Benin (London, 1980) and in several articles: "Ekpo Ritual in Avbiama Village," African Arts 2, no. 4 (1969): 813, 79, written jointly with Osarenren Omoregie; "Symbolism in Olokun Mud Art," African Arts 6, no. 4 (1973): 2831, 95; and "Men and Animals in Benin Art," Man n.s. 2, no. 2 (1976): 243252. Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan provides holistic views and context into Benin religion in: "Some Thoughts on Ideology, Beliefs, and Sacred Kingship among the Edo (Benin) People of Nigeria," in African Spirituality: Forms, Meanings, and Expressions, edited by Jacob K. Olupona (New York, 2002); and the roles of the Oba and of sacrifices in Benin religion in greater detail in "Understanding Sacrifice and Sanctity in Benin Indigenous Religion: A Case Study," in Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity, edited by Jacob K. Olupona (London and New York, 2003). African language classification is updated in Merritt Ruhlen's A Guide to the World's Languages, vol. 1: Classification. Stanford, Calif., 1991 (1987). Additional important sources include Ekhaguosa, Aisen, Iwu, the Body Markings of the Edo People (Benin City, Nigeria, 1986); Imoagene, Oshomha, The Edo and their Neighbours (Ibadan, Nigeria, 1990); Momoh, Tony, Edo Culture Group in the Nigerian Polity in Search of Sanity (Lagos, Nigeria, 1996); and Oyakhire, George B. L., An Edo Civilization: Owan Chieftancy Institution (Benin City, Nigeria, 1997).

Paula Ben-Amos (1987)

Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan (2005)