Identification. "Edo" is the name that the people of the Benin Kingdom give to themselves, their language, and their capital city and kingdom. Renowned for their art of brass and ivory and for their complex political organization, the Edo Kingdom of Benin is one of the best known of the precolonial kingdoms on the Guinea Coast of West Africa. From at least the fifteenth century, the Benin Empire held varying degrees of authority over neighboring peoples, including the western Igbo, northeastern Yoruba, and various related Edo-speaking groups. In 1897 British-colonial forces conquered the kingdom and made it part of the Niger Protectorate. Today it is incorporated into the modern state of Nigeria.
Location. The core Edo area, about 10,400 square kilometers, is located on a rolling coastal plain crossed by rivers, in an area of tropical rain forest. About 40 percent of the region is forest reserves. Benin City, the capital, is located at 6°26′ N and 5°41′ E. The annual rainfall can be as much as 175 to 200 centimeters. The average daily temperature is about 27° C. There is seasonal variation, with a wet season from July to September and a dry one from December to February.
Demography. Accurate population figures are difficult to obtain for this area, particularly outside the capital city. In 1963 a Nigerian census indicated that Benin City had a population of 100,694. The urban population was estimated at 201,000 in 1972, and by 1976 at 314,219, indicating a growth rate of 8.5 percent for that period, on the basis of which Ikhuoria (1984, 177) estimated the city's 1980 population—of which the Edo comprised the largest number—at 425,000. Migration to Benin City continues to increase its population, which doubles in size every decade, as young people from the rural areas, as well as from different ethnic groups, come to seek employment.
Linguistic Affiliation. Edo belongs to the Edoid cluster of languages that is part of the Kwa Language Family and the Niger-Kordofanian Superfamily. Edo-speaking peoples include not only the Edo proper but also the Ishan, the Etsako, the Ivbiosakon, the Akoko Edo, the Ineme, the Urhobo, and the Isoko. Many contemporary Edo speakers speak English as well as languages of neighboring Nigerian groups.
History and Cultural Relations
The Edo have undoubtedly lived in the same area for many centuries. Connah's archaeological investigation (1975) at a site in what is today Benin City suggests that a large population with a degree of political organization may have existed as early as the end of the late eleventh century but was certainly in place by the end of the fifteenth. (Connah's radiocarbon dates from this site are 1180±100 to 1310±100). Oral traditions include references to an early dynasty of kings called ogiso (a term that can apply to the dynasty as a whole or to individual rulers within that dynasty), which ruled, it is suggested, until the twelfth or thirteenth century, when Oranmiyan dynasty, of Yoruba origin, took over. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were an age of conquest and cultural flowering. Many of the sculptures for which Benin is famous were created for the monarchs Ewuare, Ozolua, Esigie, Orhogbua, and Ehengbuda. Under the rule of these kings, the empire imposed varying degrees of domination over neighboring Yoruba-, Igbo-, and Edo-speaking populations and even extended its influence to Badagry and Ouidah (now in the Republic of Benin, which was called Dahomey until 1976). This expansion was in process when Portuguese explorers arrived in the third quarter of the fifteenth century. They were interested in spreading Christianity and developing commerce. Trade with the Netherlands, France, and England followed. Oral traditions and European records indicate that the power of the kingdom fluctuated over the centuries. A dynastic crisis in the seventeenth century led to a civil war lasting from about 1690 to 1720, which disrupted the political and economic life of the kingdom, but peace was restored by kings Akenzua I and Eresoyen in the mid-eighteenth century. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Benin came into conflict with the British, who viewed the kingdom as an obstacle to their economic and political expansion in the area. In 1897 a British consular official insisted on visiting the city in spite of requests by the king to delay until the completion of important religious ceremonies. The consul and his party were ambushed, and most of them were killed. The British immediately assembled the "Punitive Expedition," a retaliatory force, which attacked and captured Benin City in February of 1897, setting fires throughout the urban area and taking as war booty thousands of brass and ivory sculptures. The reigning king, Ovonramwen, was sent into exile, where he died, and the Benin Kingdom was incorporated into the Southern Province of the Nigerian Protectorate. In 1914 the British amalgamated the Southern and Northern protectorates into the new country of Nigeria. In the same year, they restored the monarchy in Benin, allowing Ovonramwen's son, Eweka II, to assume the throne. They instituted a system of Native Administration (a form of indirect rule), introduced a uniform monetary system and direct taxation, established government schools, and built a communications network of roads and railways. Early in the twentieth century, the Church Missionary Society and the Society of African Missions arrived in Benin, but they had less success there than in other parts of Nigeria. Nigeria gained independence in 1960, and at that time the kingdom became part of the Western Region. Over the years, the modern political boundaries of the territory and its names have changed several times. In 1963 it was separated from the Western Region and called the Midwest Region, and then, in 1976, it was renamed Bendel State. In 1993 Bendel State was split in two, and today the Benin Kingdom is part of Edo State.
There are several hundred villages dispersed throughout the Edo territory, varying in size from 30 inhabitants to more than 4,000. Larger villages are divided into quarters. Houses are generally constructed of mud and roofed with corrugated-iron sheets. Formerly, residences were scattered, but, with the construction of roads that started in the early part of the twentieth century, and especially with the establishment of Benin City as the state capital in 1963, villages have become increasingly aligned along the main roads. The farms are located away from the settlements.
Benin City, the capital of the traditional kingdom as well as of modern Edo State, is a large urban complex with a long history. Archaeological evidence indicates that there could have been a population concentration in that area as early as the end of the eleventh century. European visitors, beginning in the fifteenth century, found a vast palatial compound with countless courtyards, altars, halls, and passageways, all richly decorated with brass, ivory, and wooden sculpture. The king's section of the town, Ogbe—where the palace and the residences of palace chiefs, minor officials, and retainers were located—was divided by a broad street from Ore n'Okhua, where town chiefs and their retinues, minor title holders, and members of forty or fifty guilds resided, each in their own quarter. At the time of the British conquest in 1897, fires destroyed much of the traditional architecture. The city was subsequently rebuilt—to an extent along former lines. The new palace, however, is significantly smaller than the earlier one. In the area around the palace, houses are constructed of the traditional wattle and daub, but modern-style houses are favored in the other parts of the city. Migration is changing the balance between rural and urban populations. In precolonial times and through the early 1960s, most Edo lived in rural areas. Indeed, after the British conquest, Benin City suffered something of a decline. This situation changed when it became the capital of the newly created Midwest State in 1963. As a result, government establishments, urban residential areas, and commerce and industry started to develop. The military governments of 1967 to 1975 improved social services, established inter- and intracity transportation, and fostered education and health by constructing a university with a teaching hospital. The development of roads and markets throughout the region, as well as ports to the southeast of Benin City, made the capital an important node for trade. New residential and commercial areas have developed around the traditional core, some incorporating villages that used to be on the periphery of the city.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The basis of the economy is farming, with the main food crops being yams, cassava, plantains, and cocoyams, as well as beans, rice, okra, peppers, and gourds. Oil palms are cultivated for wine production and kola trees for nuts for hospitality rites. Farming is not an exclusively rural occupation, as many city dwellers own farms on the outskirts of the capital and commute regularly to work on them. Domestic animals include cattle, goats, sheep, dogs, and chickens. Most villages have markets, and there are also several large regional markets supplying Benin City and the other towns. In the precolonial period trade was in foodstuffs and locally manufactured products, but in the colonial period cash crops were introduced; by World War I Benin had begun to prosper from the commercial growing of timber and rubber trees. Whereas shifting cultivation used to prevail, with the introduction of cash crops it has begun to disappear in favor of crop rotation. Today all farmers grow food crops for their own consumption as well as cash crops. Rubber processing and the preparation of tropical hardwoods are major industries in the state. As Makinwa notes (1981, 31), Benin City's unique position as the state capital, coupled with the discovery of oil and a tremendous increase in its production in the late 1960s and early 1970s, drew financial resources and industries to Benin.
The urban economy is dominated by government in the formal sector and trade in the informal one. Because Benin is the capital of Edo State, the government and its agencies are the main employers for the wage-earning portion of the population. At least half of the urban work force is in clerical and, especially, sales-and-service professions. Men are typically involved in tailoring, carpentry, or electrical and mechanical repairs, and women tend to be hairdressers, dressmakers, and petty traders. Women dominate in the street and local markets in the city. Youth unemployment has become a growing problem as the influx of migrants from the villages and other parts of Nigeria steadily increases.
Industrial Arts. According to oral traditions, craft guilds have existed since the ogiso period. Members of these guilds (carpenters, carvers, brass casters, leatherworkers, blacksmiths, and weavers) live in special wards of Benin City and produce ritual, prestige, and household objects for the king and court. In the villages, there were also smiths, carvers, potters, weavers, and basket makers who created ritual paraphernalia like masks, cloth, and utensils. In the twentieth century local production of cloth, baskets, and other useful items has almost died out because of competition with European products. The changing social and economic situation has adversely affected the patronage of many of the traditional crafts, although some guild members, especially the carvers and casters, have made a successful transition to production for tourists and the Nigerian elite.
Trade. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of long-distance trade from at least the twelfth century, but the best documentation commences with the arrival of the Portuguese in the second half of the fifteenth century and spans from that time until the present. Throughout the history of European trade, one of the sources of the king's wealth was the monopoly that he held over ivory, pepper, and certain other exports. His control extended to the markets and trade routes, which he could close whenever he wished. High-ranking chiefs of the Iwebo Palace Society administered European trade for the king, and various trading associations controlled the routes to the interior that brought products to Benin for export. These exports varied over time but also included cloth, palm oil, and slaves. In exchange, Benin imported European goods such as cloth, mirrors, coral beads, and brass and other metal objects. Since the colonial period, Benin has been tied in to the Western capitalist system.
Division of Labor. In precolonial and colonial villages, adult men tended the principal crop, yams, clearing and working the land together with male relatives, affines, or friends. Women cared for their households and grew subsidiary crops. Marketing, at least in precolonial times, was entirely in the hands of women. Within the city, the labor was divided in a similar way, that is, male guild members did the craft or ritual work, and women sold some of the products of the guild in the market. Since the colonial period, men and, to a lesser extent, women have been involved in the administrative and economic sectors of what became a regional capital.
Land Tenure. The king is considered "the owner" of all the land in the kingdom. Although this prerogative has mainly symbolic significance, the king could actually revoke rights to land in cases of insurrection or treason. Today he plays a role in the allocation of building sites in Benin City and the use of land and resources by strangers in the Edo region. The actual landholding unit is the village; its elders act as the custodians. Approval must be sought from the elders and chief for the right to use certain plots. Land is abundant, and new settlements are still being founded in the reserves of wooded land. Patterns of land use are changing, however, and, especially in the city, individual purchase is increasingly common.
Descent is reckoned patrilineally in Edo society. Descent groups are called egbee, a term that refers both to the immediate lineage and to the dispersed clan of which it is part. There are about thirty-five clans, which are distinguished by exogamy, the possession of special morning salutations, and the adherence to particular avoidances of foods or activities. Unlike those of the neighboring Yoruba, Edo lineages are not landholding, nor do they have political significance, except for that of the king and a very few hereditary chieftaincy titles. The royal lineage is particularly set apart by virtue of its descent from the Yoruba culture hero Oranmiyan (called "Aranmiyan" in Edo), who founded the second Benin dynasty, which has reigned continuously since about the twelfth or thirteenth century. Kinship terminology is of the Hawaiian type.
Marriage. Polygamy is the preferred form of marriage, although in the twentieth century monogamy has come to be favored by some Christians and the educated. Marriage used to be contracted when the proposed wife was very young. There were betrothal and wedding fees. Formerly, divorce was very rare, granted only under circumstances of infectious disease or impotency, but the establishment of Native Authority courts by the British at the beginning of the twentieth century had the effect of making divorce easier to obtain. Colonialism brought Western education and Christianity, both of which are associated with a preference for monogamy. Residence is virilocal but increasingly neolocal.
Domestic Unit. The basic unit is the household, which varies in size from a single man (least common) to an extended family (most common). This family can consist of a man with his wife or wives and their children and, in some cases, married sons and their wives and children and even younger married brothers. Widowed or divorced mothers, daughters, and sisters can live there as well. If the marriage is polygamous, the wives and their children all live in separate apartments within the larger compound. Women past childbearing age often move to their own houses.
In precolonial times the family groupings in the city were much larger, since the chiefs had more wives and children and numerous slaves and servants. Thus the households of high-ranking chiefs might have included several hundred people. Today in Benin City the average size is seven to ten per household, and the number of nuclear families is increasing (Sada 1984, 119).
Inheritance. The system of primogeniture prevails among the Edo: the eldest son receives the rights to property, hereditary titles, and ritual duties. The eldest son performs the funeral ceremonies for his deceased father and inherits his father's house and lands. Although the bulk of the estate goes to the senior son, the eldest sons by the other wives of his father receive shares as well, in order of their seniority. When no sons are left, the property sometimes passes to the father's brother or sister, or sometimes to a daughter. A woman's property is inherited by her children. Royal traditions indicate that primogeniture may not always have been the rule of succession to the kingship, but it clearly has been in place since the early eighteenth century.
Socialization. In Benin the extended family is the unit of socialization within which the individual learns the necessary social and occupational skills. Babies are cared for by their mothers, grandmothers, and elder sisters. Weaning takes place when they are 2 or 3 years old, unless the mother bears another child in the meantime. Boys and girls play together until the age of 6 or 7, but then they begin to take on gender-related activities: boys accompany their fathers to the farm or, if they are artisans, to the workshop. Girls go with their mothers to the farm and learn how to sell things in the market. Formerly, the circumcision of boys and clitoridectomy of girls took place in infancy or early childhood but, in the latter case, is becoming less common. Since the early part of the twentieth century, but especially after World War II, urban crafts and small industries have adapted Western apprenticeship systems for the training of workers. Western-based education also offers avenues for the acquisition of skills. Since 1955, primary-school education in both the urban and rural areas has been free and compulsory. Secondary schools are primarily in the towns, and only the initial stages are free. Edo State has two institutions of higher education: the University of Benin, in Benin City, and Edo State University, in Ekpoma.
Social Organization. The basic organizing principle within both the village and the urban ward is the division of the population into age sets. Every three years, boys who reach the age of puberty are initiated into the iroghae grade, whose main duties within the village include such tasks as sweeping open spaces, clearing brush, and fetching water. After the age of 25 to 30, they pass into the ighele grade, which executes the decisions made by the senior age set, the edion. The elders are exempt from physical labor and constitute the executive and judicial council of the village, led by an elected senior elder (odionwere ).
Precolonial Benin society had a clearly demarcated class structure: a mostly urban elite, comprising the governmental, religious, and educational bureaucracies; a commoner group, consisting of lower-status urbanites, such as artisans; and the peasantry. Formerly, the king and chiefs had slaves, primarily acquired through warfare, who constituted an agricultural workforce for the elite. In contemporary society, factors such as the extent of one's Western education and the nature of one's employment—or lack thereof—play a role in determining one's position in the multidimensional system of social stratification.
Political Organization. At the summit of precolonial society was the king (oba ), who was the focal point of all administrative, religious, commercial, and judicial concerns. He was the last resort in court matters, the recipient of taxes and tribute, the controller of trade, the theoretical owner of all the land in the kingdom, and the chief executive and legislator. As the divine king, he crystallized generalized ancestor worship in the worship of his own ancestors. It is in his office, then, that the various hierarchies met.
The members of the king's family were automatically part of the nobility. His mother was a title holder (iyoba ) in one of the palace societies and maintained her own court near Benin City, and his younger brothers were sent to be hereditary chiefs of villages throughout the kingdom, thus constituting part of a limited, rural-based elite. Besides the king and his family, the political structure consisted of the holders of various chiefly titles, who were organized into three main orders of chiefs: the seven uzama, the palace chiefs, and the town chiefs. These various orders of chiefs formed the administrative bureaucracy of the kingdom, and their main concern was to augment the king's civil and ritual authority. They constituted the state council, which had an important role in creating laws, regulating festivals, raising taxes, declaring war, and conducting rituals. The king controlled the granting of most of these chiefly titles and used this power to consolidate his control over governmental processes. Once granted, a title could not be rescinded unless treason could be proven.
The kingdom was formerly divided into a number of tribute units, which corresponded to local territorial groupings. Each was controlled by a title holder in Benin City, who acted as the intermediary between the villagers and the king and whose main duty was to collect taxes and tribute in the form of money (cowries) and goods (cattle, yams, etc.). The income the king received from these sources enabled him to carry on elaborate state rituals. The king could also call on villagers to supply labor for the upkeep of the royal palace.
Kings varied over time in their ability to control the political situation. At the end of the eighteenth century, for example, senior chiefs rebelled against the king, and a long civil war ensued, which the king finally won. According to oral traditions, several obas were in fact deposed.
In contemporary Nigeria, Edo State officials consult with the Benin king and chiefs. Since 1966, the federal level of government in Nigeria has vacillated between military and civilian rule, with the exact relationship between federal and traditional authority changing under each new circumstance. In 1993 the newly established military government dissolved all existing state bodies and prohibited political activity. Supreme executive and legislative power was vested in a military-based Provisional Ruling Council and an Executive Council, both headed by the commander-in-chief, who is also the head of state. Plans for a return to civilian rule have been announced.
Social Control. The principle of the judicial system was that every head of a compound, quarter, village, or town heard cases within his jurisdiction, but serious issues—murder, treason, or succession disputes—were formerly brought before the king's council in Benin City. Trial by ordeal was used in cases of theft, perjury, and witchcraft (if the offender denied the charge). The British established a bipartite judicial system, with a supreme court administering British law and native courts for maintaining customary law. In 1947 the new Nigerian constitution established a federal system of government with a Supreme Court, a Court of Appeals, and a High Court at the federal level. Edo State, like others in the federation, has its own High Court, as well as a Customary Court of Appeal.
Conflict. In precolonial times warfare was an important component of the state polity. It apparently was the custom for kings to declare war in the third year after their succession to the throne. Ruling princes of the empire who refused to pledge their allegiance at that time were considered rebels, and war was declared against them and their towns. Economic factors were undoubtedly central to Benin's expansion: the Edo were intent on increasing their income from tribute, protecting and developing trade, and augmenting their army with captives and allies. There was a military organization involving specific chiefs who each had a core of warriors attached to his household but also recruited soldiers from their villages. For long campaigns, the soldiers built camps where they lodged and grew food for themselves.
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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PAULA GIRSHICK BEN-AMOS