NOWAMAGBE AUSTIN OMOIGUI, M.D., MPH, FACC
This is obtained from a colonial anthropological survey of Edo
speaking peoples performed by Northcote Thomas around 1910.
An average Edo adult male was 5ft 5in in height. Those from villages
in the hilly areas (Edo north) were of stronger strength.
Malnutrition was rare among Edos, although food was sometimes scarce,
particularly in Ora areas, due to 'laziness'. Tribal marks were
already going out of fashion, but some were prominent, such as the
raised scar on the forehead of the urhobos and the crow's foot at the
outer angle of the eye among ishans.
Physical deformities were rare but the most common physical deformity
was the umbilical hernia 'due to wrong methods at birth'. Lunacy was
also rare. There were occasional deaf and dumb people. Albinism was
common in some localities. Red Hair and supernumerary fingers were
Although some common words were noted, the Edo group of languages were
very different from surrounding Nigerian languages like Ijaw, Yoruba
and Igbo proper but unusually similar to Ewe (in Togo and Ghana). But
with Yoruba, common words include oke (hill) and okuta (stone). This
was thought to be so for two reasons - first because of the cross-over
of the Bini and Ife ruling classes and second because the rarity of
hills and stones in Edo land necessitated adoption of terms from
immigrant groups. With Ibo, common words include unu (mouth).
Certain words like Ekuiye (spoon) were adopted from portuguese.
SOME EDO NUMBERS
Edo language was considered difficult to learn by Europeans because
sentences or phrases tended to coalesce into single words with the
vowels elided or euphonic letters inserted, making it difficult to
determine the precise words which are the component parts of such a
phrase. Secondly Edo is a toned language such that the meaning of
monosyllables, dissyllables and even longer words changes by simply
changing the intonation with which they are pronounced. Eha can mean
"six" or "three" depending on stress and accent. Ide can mean "I
come", "I am not coming", "I buy", "I fall" or even "I tie".
As I observed in an earlier posting, the village was the basic unit
of political authority.
WE have previously noted the tripartite division of males into Idion
(elders), Igele, and Ologai. Idion was the village council and dealt
with minor legal cases. More serious problems were referred to Benin
Igele were responsible for jobs like roofing. They were also
carriers. Ologai were responsible for carrying wood and water and
cleaning roads. A boy would typically join Ologai when strong enough.
To graduate from Igele to Idion usually required a payment of some
Villages were under various forms of leadership - Ogie (Igie), chiefs,
stewards or other village heads (odionweres). Igie were royal
descendants of former Kings. Every village was represented in Edo by
a chief or King's steward. Communications with (and tributes to) the
King were made through these representatives. Interestingly, the
representatives typically retained a fraction of tributes made to the
Among the Ora and Kukuruku adult males who were not chiefs were
organized in companies called "Otu". An Otu was typically
inaugurated every three years in a lavish ceremony that involved
dancing around town. Junior Otus cleaned roads. On average the
oldest Otu (about 65 years) was about 40 years older than the junior
Otu (about 15 years). Among Ishan the organization was a replica of
Bini organization, but there were variants. In Irrua for example,
they had two Otu, the senior of which was only liable for work when
there was plenty to do. Above that grade came the Igele and Idion.
Among other Ishans only Idion and Igele grades were found. Above
this were the chiefs. Among Urhobos, there were several variants,
some Bini-like while others were more rudimentary. However, a
semblance of stratification into old men, adults and small boys could
still be observed. Among Urhobos women chiefs also existed.
In the Edo Kingdom core, chiefs could be hereditary or non-hereditary.
Positions could, however, be sold by the King to the highest bidder.
Among Kukuruku (Edo North), chieftaincies were often purchased.
But Agbede had a fairly formal system.
In general, chieftaincy was prestigious and typically meant one could
not be arrested or attacked in war.
Women and Men were of nearly equal numbers in general although there
were exceptions. Average death rate in Edoland (using Utekon as an
example) was about 400 per Thousand, predominantly infants! Among
children the death rate was 500/1000. Average number of living wives
of a husband was 1.5. If one included deceased wives and those who
had eloped it was more like 1.7. Two-thirds of men were married.
More than 40% of married men had two wives while 20% had three wives.
Average number of live children per husband was 2.7. Average number
of total children (alive and dead) was 2.7 per wife and 4.5 per
There was less polygamy among Urhobos and an average of 3.5 children
per marriage - although statistics were more unreliable.
The staple food of Edos was Yam. Yam production varied with
individuals and villages. They were stacked in ropes (Uga) of 22-23.
Ten (10) ropes made an Ekbo or stack. On average an adult male
typically produced about two Ekbo (450 yams) per season. Yam stacks
were kept on the farm in Bini area but in other areas they were kept
in the bush at a locality typically known only to an inhabitant of
the place. Yams were brought into the village on a daily basis in
quantities sufficient for consumption. Other items of food included
corn, beans, and cocoyams. Corn was organized in pyramidal stacks
with a pole in the center. More corn was produced in the hilly areas
of Edo North. Among Urhobos, cassava was the staple food. A family
unit typically had 200 square feet of land per adult for cassava
Banana and Plaintain were also found in Edoland. Dried fish was
popular with Urhobos and people of Owan area. But strangely, meat
was not often eaten, while eggs and milk were basically unknown as
sources of nutrition.
As regards booze, the only form was palm wine, made either from oil
palm or raphia vinifera. One could either cut below the crown or
simply fell the tree.
Pito was made from guinea corn.
We have always had a calendar. In the kingdom, there were two kinds
of years - Male and Female - one a month longer than the other.
The year was divided into moons. Their names did not have bearing to
lunar months but instead to ceremonies conducted in proximity to the
said moon (month). From time to time months were longer than lunar
months. But at one point in Edo north 20-day months were used,
yielding a nine-month year.
However, the 4-day week was more universal. The principle behind
this was that this was the typical interval between two markets at a
given location. But in Idah area 8-day markets were sometimes found.
On the rest day, men would typically stop at home although farm work
was not totally prohibited. But women would go to market as usual.
The overwhelming majority of items on sale in village markets were
foodstuff. Edo markets began at daybreak and reached peak around
Noon. But there were variants. In Agbede for example, markets were
held in the afternoon. Peak trading occurred at about 3 p.m.
Among Edos market trading was an exclusively female occupation. When
men were seen they were usually Hausa or Yoruba traders.
Outside the formal market, 'silent trade' could be observed along
waysides and footpaths. Typically one could observe plantains or
other foodstuff with palm kernels lying next to them. The number of
palm kernels indicated the price in cowries.
Before the British came, in order to trade in markets within the
gates of Benin-City (Edo) one had to pay a toll of 5 cowries per
person (or 5% of the value of the market load).
The location of markets varied. It was sometimes located within
village territory. At other times (by mutual arrangement) it was
located midway between two villages or along their boundary. In the
olden days, it was forbidden to seize pawns in the market place or on
the way to market.
Whether or not a market held was dependent on food supply. In times
of scarcity, just before new yams became available, the market may
not be held at all. In a few hilly areas of Edo north a smaller
daily market took the place of the usual four-day market cycle.
ARTS AND CRAFTS
Second only to food, the most important industry was palm oil production.
Every village had troughs for washing nuts. First they were cut from
trees, then boiled before being placed into the troughs. The troughs
were filled with water before the nuts were trampled by women until
the oil floats to the surface. The husk was then separated from the
kernel, the oil skimmed off and placed into a pot. Once again the
husks are rinsed with water and oil skimmed off again. After the
third rinsing and skimming, the husks are put aside for use in
lighting while the kernels were saved for cracking at a later date.
The oil is then boiled and separated with the inferior part being
reserved for lighting purposes.
Edo land grew good quality cotton with strong thread. The limiting
factor in production was the tendency to mix cotton plantation with
After removing the cotton fiber from the plant it was rolled on a
block with an iron bar in order to remove the seed. Then it was
cleaned with a bow. In order to spin it, it was wound round the left
arm or on a short stick held in the left hand. The end was then
fastened to a spindle consisting of a wooden rod passed through a
disc made from a broken calabash. The women then twist the spindle
as they draw a portion of the cotton out. After drawing about one
yard of thread, it is wound on the spindle and secured by a hitch
before a new length is made. When full the thread is either wound on
to another spindle or wound upon a stretcher with movable pegs.
There were two kinds of Cotton Loom: 'Man' and 'Woman'. Women's
looms created a short broad piece of cloth while a Man's Loom created
a long and narrow fabric. Among Edos, men's looms were exceedingly
rare. The market competitor to Edo women's Looms were European
According to Thomas, The woman's loom is upright and consists of two
pillars with crossbars, round which the woof threads, the shed is
formed by a heddle rod wound with cotton for each piece of cloth; the
warp thread is put through with a shuttle, and beaten down with a
loom sword. The time taken to make a piece of cloth five feet long
seems to be about three days. Coloured threads are employed to
produce the patterns, for all of which native names exist. In some
cases, the dye stuffs are produced locally, from bark, seeds, or
roots, in other cases they are purchased from Hausa or Yoruba traders.
In general, clothing among Edos was made from cotton threads, but in
hilly areas of Edo north the inner bark of trees was occasionally
used for the woof threads.
Male looms were based on a different kind of technology. Heddle
frames, worked with foot loops, produce the sheds, and much
facilitate the making of the cloth. The warp thread is beaten home
with a batten, and the cloth as it is finished is wound upon a
revolving bar. The woof threads pass over a cross piece behind the
heddles, and are made fast, some distance away, to a stone or other
weight, by which the necessary tension is kept up.
Clay was purchased in the market. It was then watered and worked
with feet until it had the right consistency. Sausage like rolls
were then prepared. The potter then sat either on the ground or on a
piece of wood almost the size of a door.
To make the base of a new pot, the neck of an old one was used; using
lumps of clay thinned with the fingers, the new pot was then
gradually made. [For more technical details see an article published
in the journal 'Man', dated July 1910.]
When completed, the pot was smoothed and after drying, decorated with
ornamental marks and baked for 30 minutes in a fire made from bark
and plantain stalks. Pots varied in size. The smallest pots cost three pence at that time.
Baskets were used for carrying food, for storage, for fish traps and
also for drying tobacco. A wide variety were made in Edoland
sometimes as tall as 4 feet high.
These were also made in many varieties and were extremely durable.
Sophisticated brasswork was almost exclusive to Edo (Benin-City).
But bracelets and broad brass collars were seen from time to time
Blacksmiths were universal all over Edo land. In the Edo area of
Ibillo extending into Kabba province, there were even smelting
furnaces. But in other areas, iron was of European origin.
The most commonly produced objects were farming Hoes which sold for 9
Blacksmith's forges were also used for the repair of cutlasses and
knives. Lamps and magical instruments were also produced.
RELIGION AND MAGIC
Religion was (and remains) a key part of the life and thought of the
Edo speaking people.
Every house had a shrine for Ebo worship as well as Ancestral worship.
Every village or each quarter had seasonal celebrations all of
which were subordinate to the supreme deity called OSA or OSALOBUA -
the creator of the world.
OSA was (and is) deeply embedded in our folk tales. Almost every
village had an emblem consisting of a long pole with white cloth on
Two types of Osa were known (good and evil) - OSANOWA (God of the
house) and OSANOHA (God of the bush). Osanowa created Man while
Osanoha created animals as well as a house of sickness in which all
diseases were kept.
Two versions of how Man and Animal became enemies were accepted:
In the first version, men and women on their way from heaven to earth
sought refuge from rain in the house of disease - which is how
disease came to earth. Since Osanoha was also the creator of animals
men and animals became enemies and Man, therefore, killed animals on
earth. In the second version, Osanowa and Osanoha met to reckon
their relative wealth. Since Osanowa had more children, Osanoha
Edos believed that Osa (as well as lesser Gods) resided in Elimi
(heaven) which was where all dead people went. Elimi was also where
sacrifices were offered toward.
Under Osa several Ebo like Ake, Ochwaie, Olokun, Ogun, and others
existed - numbering 201. The tradition was that these deities were
previously followers of King Ewuare. They had apparently died in a
fire after many years of service to the King. Some of the Ebo were
derived from Yoruba sources.
All over Biniland there were Egwaibo (temples) dedicated to various
deities. Annual sacrifices were offered and people came from far and
wide to partake in these festivities. In some cases, the road was
stopped and passers-by expected to make contributions.
Separate from Ebo various religious objects were in use called Uxumu
(medicine). They were used to protect people and property and while
they were not considered personal deities, sacrifices were
nonetheless offered to them.
The further away one went from Benin-City the fewer Ebo were
worshipped - although Osa was a consistent feature. Some Ebo became
depersonalized. More emphasis was placed on _medicine_ and less on
_personal Ebo_. Even Osa took on a slightly different significance.
On the fringes of Edo North , for example, Osa was described as a
cloud - a skygod. And while Osa was represented by a tree with white
cloth around it, Esu (the deity of mischief) was found outside houses
- clearly a feature of yoruba influence. In some other parts of
Edoland, Osa was represented by a pot.
It was fairly frequent to see pots and calabashes suspended from
rooftops or perched on trees. These were regarded as medicine whose
purpose was to keep people alive and well. Dilapidated buildings
here and there were evidence of previous cults that had been
abandoned with time.
Attitudes to Ebo varied. Some thought ebo was embedded in stones at
the foot of shrines. Others felt it was part of an image. But those
who were in the know claimed that ebo used images as well as stones
as his tools and would typically descend from elimi to take part in
In folk tales Osa was granted a body like that of man; as was Ogiuwu.
Personal spirit (Ehi) had substance attributed to it. Many believed
that ebo was invisible except to priests and that dead people could
only be seen by those who washed their faces with special medicine.
Witches were also thought to be invisible.
From the viewpoint of European observers, Edo traditional religion
was not purely animist. It was viewed as a cross between animism and
Among ordinary Edo people, there was a certain comfort level in
dealing with household ebo. However, there was much fear to enter
serious shrines like the Egwaibo to Oxwaie - unless a priest was
present. Interestingly the Europeans noticed that such reluctance
was not shared by non-natives who were not weighed down by basic Edo
One curious detail relates to gender roles in Ebo. Women were
generally not allowed to hear or see anything of men_s rituals. For
example when the sweepings of Egwaibo were brought out, women might
be warned away by musical notes from the Oko instrument. But on the
other hand women were expected to clean some shrines. The Ovia house
for example was rubbed by women even though they were typically
excluded from Ovia ceremonies. During Ovia ceremonies men were also
expected to seclude themselves for one month and refrain from sex.
Similar seclusion was seen in other parts of Edo land. In Edo North
(Otua) during the eliminya celebration initiates had to sleep away
from home for one night. In Fugar (Vice Admiral Akhigbe_s village)
seclusion was also practised at birth. A similar custom was observed
in one Urhobo clan. [If living in her husband_s house, menstruating
women were also expected to stay away from their husbands in certain
parts of Edoland. This applied even if she was staying in her own
room in the oderie (harem quarters)]
Certain deities commanded great fear. One example was the Obazu juju
covered with a type of cloth, which if lifted, was believed to cause
death. In other situations like the hunting of dangerous animals or
on the last day of certain funerals, awesome rituals were sometimes
imposed on participants.
Sacrifice typically consisted of food and drink considered required
by the bodily needs of the recipient. It was widely believed that the
dead carried their funeral offerings along with them to heaven
[elimi] and shared it with the family. In some areas (like Otua in
Owan), sacrifice was regarded as a payment for work. Alligator
pepper was used as a stimulant to facilitate the recipient. Among
the Etsako there was a custom of lighting fire under medicine to make
it strong against sickness.
When sacrificial meat had to be consumed by the whole village,
adequate preparations were made. Usually the animal victims were
held in a manner that prevented them from uttering any cries while
they were being slaughtered.
THE CULT OF AKE AT IDUMOWINA
The Egwaibo to the cult of Ake at Idumowina was about 50 years old at
the time of Northcote Thomas's investigation. It was decorated with
many images of deities like Osa, Olokun, Ogun and others along with
The local practice was to worship Ake annually for a 14-day period in
April. There were also some smaller shrines at which sacrifices were
The procedure was as follows:
Prior to the actual ceremony, the priest would dance around the
shrines asking for a blessing. On the day after, women would clean
the lesser shrines while men would clean and decorate the Egwaibo.
When thrash was being carried out of the Egwaibo, women were warned to
keep away. After these preparations were complete, the Egwaibo was
opened after which both men and women danced, offerings of kola made
and images of deities painted.
Later that evening a sacrifice was offered at the shrine of the
ancestors of the village (ogwedion). Then some more dancing was done
at the Egwaibo.
During the following evening sacrifices were offered including, for
example, the killing of a goat to Osa. When the goat arrived it would
be held by the priest using a rope. He then rang a bell and offered
prayers as those present chorused "Ise", meaning `Amen'. Then a bowl
of chalk was brought forward, from which the priest would choose a
piece to use in marking the front of the shrine. During this break a
little boy would hold the goat.
Then Kola would be offered to Osa and his wife, after which the goat's
legs would be held apart as the rope is removed from its neck. The
goat's mouth was tightly held so it could not make sounds while a
small cut was made behind its ear. From this cut blood was poured out
into a bowl as those present shouted "gale".
Then the throat would be completely slit and blood smeared on the back
of the priest following which the goat's head is then totally severed.
Blood from the head was then rubbed on the shrine while the head was
laid down. Then the blood containing bowl was emptied onto the shrine
after which the head of the goat is removed.
Next, a piece of goat skin was cut from the left hand side of the
neck, a prayer offered and then it was fixed to the beam above the
In conclusion, the priest would stand in front of the shrine with the
knife and make three strokes vertically each time calling "Osalobwa"
After this the priest would offer sacrifices to Ogun, Olokun, Ake and
his Idion (elders and ancestors) before retiring to a shrine of Ake in
a private home for further sacrifices. After this the whole
procession would go to the shrine of Akenilo about half a mile away.
After the fall of Benin, one of the ceremonial rites banned by the
colonial government was called "Aiabobewimi" - which was a method of
discovering stolen goods by asking the Ebo (juju): "Who took my
To do this one would need a dish into which a small bowl was placed
with cowries and other emblems of Ake. The dish was placed on the
head of a girl while the loser of the property followed her with a
bell ringing it and singing: "The one who took my fowl, if he does
not bring it back, may the Ebo kill him."
Olokun is a sea or river Goddess worshipped by women in many Bini and
Urhobo communities. Just as men would go to the camp of Ovia, women
would go to the camp of Olokun. Its emblems included pots containing
water, chalk, peeled rods and white cloth.
The image of the God of mischief (Esu) was often seen all over Edoland
in the form of a mud figure or thorny piece of wood. This image is
said to have come from beyond Ilorin. Esu was thought to be the
doorkeeper of Elimi. The image of Esu was typically set up in the
gate of houses to keep Esu out of the house. The fear was that if Esu
was allowed in domestic squabbles between man and wife would result
and fire might even break out.
This Ebo was very important. It was particularly revered at Eviakoi
and Ulola among Binis and Ishans. The rites were similar to those of
Ake. However, whenever Oxwaie came out no-one was permitted to go to
Enyai market - expressed by the phrase "ugbodeniai" meaning `shutting
the road of Enyai'.
This Ebo was peculiar to native doctors as a protective deity,
typically found on village gates. His emblem was `osunematon' - a
piece of iron planted in the ground with associated symbols. Osun was
also found as a subsidiary shrine linked to Ake, Ochwaie and other
This was the God of blacksmiths represented by an iron knife or image
of Iron. Although usually worshipped by men, (mainly blacksmiths),
women could sacrifice to him if there was no male child in the family.
This deity was worshipped whenever a person fell ill without cause.
It involved drawing a small circle in front of one's house with kola,
chalk etc.. in it. Aluere means "others".
OTHER FEMALE DEITIES
In addition to Olokun there were other women specific deities. They
included Obiame (mother of all mankind) and Omeiho (which was
represented by a pile of small anthills beneath a tree outside the
OTHER DOMESTIC SHRINES
These included Akobie - a child's deity represented by a human figure
on the wall, and others like the shrine of the hand, shrine of the
mother, shrine of the father etc.. illustrative of ancestral worship.
In some houses could be seen a small mound in the center of the floor
with four sticks round it. Within the mound, the skull of a goat or
other animal was sometimes embedded, surrounded by cowries. This
"medicine" was also for protection.
One interesting form of medicine was the Ohumewele. Prior to greeting
anyone in the morning, the owner would wet his or her finger with
saliva, draw it over the medicine and then down his forehead before
saying "May every man, woman, and child do good to me."
Even for conquering Europeans, it was very difficult to get details
about the practice of magic or the manufacture of "medicine" in
Edoland. These subjects were regarded as trade secrets.
But Northcote was able to get native doctors in Otua and Sabongida
(Akoko-Edo/ Owan area) to divulge some details.
In one type of medicine made from a type of wood, the wood was ground
up, mixed with alligator pepper and other products after which the
native doctor repeated an incantation to the effect that the medicine
was once a tree in the bush but was now "medicine".
Belief in witchcraft was universal. Witchcraft trials were frequent.
Northcote reported that in Fugar (Etsako) `an epidemic (of trials)
broke out....it is estimated that at least eighty people lost their
lives before it was suppressed." In fact, after the Europeans
forbade the use of sass wood (for commercial reasons) the number of
witches reportedly increased considerably throughout the land.
Edos believed (just like European folk did) that witches met at night,
flew through the air invisibly, and could only be seen by a
witchdoctor who could make them fall to the ground using special
rites. Witches had human form but were equipped with a bird's mouth
and feathers on their body. An alternative view held that witches had
birds in their stomachs who emerged at night to fly wherever they
chose. While this was occurring, the body of the witch lay asleep and
unarousable. Further, the body could not be killed, even with a gun.
However, if the bird was caught the witch could be killed.
Witches were felt to possess power from birth, power that was thought
to be qualitatively equivalent to but quantitatively greater than that
of the native doctor - who thus required special preparations to
Belief in witches was so pervasive that along roads and footpaths,
fragments of calabashes with cowries and food were frequently observed
as evidence of offerings to witches. In fact, providing protection
against witches was a huge source of revenue for native doctors.
Sickness was usually regarded as being due to the malevolence of some
fellow human being. When native doctors were consulted they would
usually diagnose the problem as being mediated by witches who (it was
felt) would need an offering (made at night) for appeasement. Since
the native doctor was the only one who could talk to witches safely,
this positioned him to benefit from the transaction. With his face
smeared with a native potion, the doctor goes to the bush and summons
the witches by blowing into an ivory horn after which he begs them to
leave the man alone. If they are not holding the sick person tightly,
they will ask for a goat. One interesting detail was that a relative
(son, brother or father) of the sick person was usually concealed near
where the offerings were made to witches so that he could recognize
the witch. Thus, during the conversation, the witch would typically
ask the doctor if he is alone. Only when they are assured that this
is the case will they emerge to take their sacrifice. The edible
remnant of the offering was usually eventually eaten (or disposed of)
by the native doctor.
Another option open to a sick person who consulted a diviner was to
offer sacrifice to his or her father - but this was much less common
than witch offerings.
Before 1897, human sacrifices were common in Edo (Benin-City) but do
not appear to have been practised elsewhere in Edo country. Such
sacrifices included sacrifices to the sun, the rain and year. [Note
that human sacrifices were also common among Ibo-speaking groups in
Ika as well as east of the Niger, possibly suggesting its origins.]
Human sacrifice victims were crucified on trees within the city. In
addition, once a year a lame man was dragged around the city as far as
Adaneha on Enyai road as part of a ceremony of purification.
Several forms of purification were known:
1. If one felt unwell, one might make circular marks on the ground
either with one's feet or chalk. An eggshell is then spiked with on a
short stick. The performer then stands in each circle each time
turning to point the eggshell to the sun, blowing along the stick and
reciting words to the effect that any evil in this body must leave it.
2. In another method, seven circles of cowries are made. The
remorseful celebrant was then led along the cowries as his or her body
was brushed with leaves or a chicken which was then discarded.
3. General purifications were also performed on a larger scale. In
Gwato for example, diviners often order isusu to be driven out
whereupon all in the village would take their cutlasses and run about
the town. Then a stick was obtained, leaves tied on top of it, after
which roasted corn was tied on, attached to which was the head of a
bush buck. This contraption was then carried around town by the
procession waving it over the heads of the people singing songs asking
the sickness or evil to go away.
4. Another form of general purification involved passing a chicken or
small animal around one's head and throwing it between the legs. It
was then transfixed on the midrib of a palm leaf, which is planted
upright at cross-roads or where a path branches from the main road.
In order to protect agriculture which was the staple of political
stability, certain ceremonies were dedicated to the welfare of crops.
Before the banishment of Ovoranmwen Nogbaisi, there used to be a small
plot of land called the King's Farm cultivated on Sakpoba road by a
slave known as the "fowl of the farm". Yams grown there were used to
draw omens for good rains and harvests.
Among commoners each farm had a special Ebo called utu - which was a
special large yam heap on top of which cutlasses and hoes were placed
side by side with a calabash of palm wine. Then a sacrifice (usually
of a snail) was offered during which the owner of the farm called upon
the yams to come and eat along with all the other ebo on the farm.
Other measures were also taken. Along farm roads, for example, it was
often the case that one could observe three (3) sticks planted upright
in the ground. They were called idiogbo - representing the first
individuals who ever made farms along that road. A sacrifice was
routinely made to them in the same way as to other ancestors.
In certain localities women had an ebo called ugiame or igiame
representing the first women who ever went to cultivate a farm in its
Ancestral cults have always occupied a key place in the psyche and way
of life of Edo speaking people. Before 1897, human sacrifices were
offered [in Benin-City] to ancestors by powerful chiefs. Since then,
however, the practice has been to use goats or cows.
Among wealthy families, celebrations typically took place on the
anniversary of the death of a man, in which processions marched around
town just as if the funeral was being replayed all over again. In
poorer families (and villages) an annual sacrifice to the dead man
One's ancestors are represented by `uchure' - long wooden staves with
decorated carvings, the top of which is shaped like a hand. 2-4
inches below the top, the staff is hollow, to enable the placement of
a piece of wood that rattles when the uchure is beaten on the floor
during a sacrifice. Ancestors of chiefs are also represented by
uhumilau - heads of bronze or wood upon which ivory tusks rest.
Every clan in Edoland has its own customs for ancestral worship but
the principles are the same. In some, all sons partake in the
ceremony. In others, only the first son does so. In yet others
daughters may partake or their husbands may do so for them.
Occasionally a brother may stand in.
The concept of a secret society in Edoland was different from what we
understand it to be in modern Nigeria. To be considered a secret
society meant either/ and/ or:
a. It was kept secret from women.
b. It involved masked figures which appeared at certain times of the
year e.g. Igodo, seven masked men who appear periodically at Gwato to
dance around town. Women were shut up from 7 p.m. until dawn at which
time they could behold the masquerades who then danced until 6 p.m. at
which time a goat was sacrificed. Women could not, however, eat any
part of the goat.
c. It was organic to secret ceremonies in the palace.
One major example of a secret society was the shrine of Ovia. Most
houses in the kingdom had a small altar on the outside of the walls
which contained a piece of wood or stone, cowries and chalk.
The precise meaning of the Ovia ritual is unclear, but considering the
fact that Ovia ceremonies were thought to keep people alive, the
origins of the society are interesting. Ovia was apparently a
woman, the wife of a certain Oba in the distant past. He loved her,
but she was hated by the other women. Using subterfuge, they
reportedly caused him (the Oba) to quarrel with Ovia, whereupon she
turned into water. Before this she apparently instituted a camp
society which she said should be kept secret from women. To this day,
Ovia is worshipped by Men and women are only allowed entry to the camp
once or twice yearly to clean the shrine and sing songs in support of
Northcote found it contradictory that although the leader of the
procession (and representative of Ovia) was addressed "Erhame" (my
father), the main mask of the society was known as the "mother mask".
All males in any village that celebrated it belonged to Ovia society.
At the onset of the dry season the procession went to a camp outside
the village and slept there for an entire month, appearing in the
village sometimes at night, sometimes in the day, and on some
occasions in ceremonial dress (e.g. with a large hat decorated with
parrot feathers). On some of these occasions women were not permitted
to come out of the house, but on others they marched around the
village and sang a chorus.
While in the camp, the Ovia ceremony was conducted in a secret Edo
language which was a mixture of Bini, Ishan, Urhobo, Ora, Ika, Yoruba
and other neighboring dialects.
Among the Ora, Ivbiosakon and Akoko-edos, ceremonies during the
initiation of young men into their Otu were like the rites of a secret
society. At Otua, for example, young men were secluded for a period
of time and dressed up with masks and other ceremonial dresses in
which they danced for weeks.
Edo people believed every man had an ehi (soul or personal spirit).
One's ehi arrived at birth and departed for Elimi at death. A second
ehi, called ehinoha (soul of the bush) was regarded as an evil genius
which led man to do evil things. Occasionally, injury to ehinoha
could lead to ill health.
There were divergent views on where ehinoha resided. Some felt it was
on the back of the neck. Others felt it was simply a servant to the
real ehi with no particular geographic location. Yet others felt it
corresponded to ere (others). A few thought ehinoha was man's shadow
in Osa's house in elimi.
Among the younger generation influenced by early christian missions,
e.g. Sabongida, Edo beliefs about ghosts and apparitions at the moment
of death were similar to those of Europeans. But among the older Edo
generation at that time, people were very reluctant to admit seeing ghosts.
Among the Edo speaking people, burial customs depended primarily on
whether or not the deceased had children. It was very uncommon for
childless corpses to be buried by brothers or sisters with the same
degree of fanfare as occurred with those with children. Usually,
heirless corpses were buried in the same way as children - simply
thrown into the bush.
Burial ceremonies also depended on how wealthy the deceased was or
his/her rank in society. The richer (or more important) the family,
the longer the burial ceremony.
Graves were typically dug in the _fathers room_ - although the
colonial government tried (without much success) to banish this
practice. But in some areas ritual requirements necessitated burial
in the bush (for undesirable characters).
In Bini area, funeral ceremonies involved the use of Oton (burial
shrine) - a structure covered with Manchester cloth and tinsel.
Sometimes a figurine was used as an alternative. The Oton
represented the dead man.
Many aspects of burial custom were common to all Edo clans. First
the body was washed, wrapped in white cloth and then placed upon a
bed. Then a goat or fowl was sacrificed at his feet to make the dead
man strong enough to go to heaven. After this the grave was dug
either by relatives or members of the Igele age grade.
The actual burial was sometimes attended only by the deceased_s
relatives but at other times, his wives would also attend. Sons-in-
law had to contribute cloth, yams, coconuts, other objects as well as
a goat. This aspect was considered so sacred that if ever there was
a dispute about whether a woman had been properly married to a given
man the key question was always whether the alleged husband brought
contributions to the funeral expenses of her late father.
During burial, traditional burial songs were sung. After the grave
had been filled a sacrifice was offered and the grave-diggers would
purify themselves with water or a chicken.
Subsequently, night and morning sacrifices would continue for a
varying number of days (3, 7 or 14 or more). In cases in which the
family totem/ prohibition (Awa or Awaigbe) was used, the final act of
burial was a purification with afo. On the last night a family
member dressed up to represent the dead man and occupied his seat.
ADDITIONAL BURIAL PRACTICES IN SPECIFIC EDO CLANS
Here the king had a special type of burial. There could be no
mourning until the new king was chosen. Any violation of this
principle led to a fine of 5 pounds. On the day of death seven cows
were killed, two low walls constructed and sticks placed across. A
mat was then rested on these sticks and the king_s body placed on it.
At this point the walls were completed and the temporary mausoleum
roofed. Sacrifices were then offered.
As soon as the new king had been chosen, the temporary tomb was
reopened and the corpse of the late king put on a bed in a house
where it was left for nine days before being carried out through a
ceremonial gate. Once out on the street a sacrifice was offered to
the right hand while the King_s widows were brought to the spot.
With their faces covered with cloth, they were made to swear to
return all the late king_s property before returning to the house.
Upon the departure of the women, the procession moved to the royal
burial quarter at Iviogulu where the king would then be buried by the
Otu. It is noteworthy that at Iviogulu there were five burial spots.
Ordinary people were buried on the road. The Kings had their own
spot within Iviogulu proper just as there were plots for big chiefs,
little chiefs and women chiefs.
Although commoners who committed suicide were usually buried in the
same way as other deaths, royal suicides could be punished by the
King. If the King elected to have the body of the person of royalty
exposed, it was believed that the person would take nothing to heaven
with them - meaning that upon arrival in heaven, there would be no
sign that such a person was of royal extraction.
Those who died because they had been eaten by dangerous animals like
crocodiles obviously could not be properly buried. Therefore, a palm
leaf was obtained and carried along with a pot to the road by which
the man last left town. The deceased_s son or daughter would then
call his name and touch the ground with the leaf calling upon him to
come home. Thereafter the pot and leaf were taken home and placed
upon a bed, sacrifices offered, following which the pot and leaf were
buried as if human.
UZAITUI (near Auchi)
In Auchi area burials were forbidden during the last two months of
the rainy season. Those who died during this period had to wait in
the bush until the period was over.
After the usual washing and white cloth wrapping of the dead body, it
was further wrapped in a mat and then leaned against the wall, after
which a fire was lit at the foot of the corpse (within a mound of
earth). This fire was kept burning until enough money was collected
to bury the dead man - typically about four days.
On the morning of the funeral, the head son purchased a goat which
was then killed in the street by the head of the compound. The meat
was then shared by the head of the compound and the three oldest men.
The pall bearers walk through the goat_s blood.
Burial style in the bush varied with the age of the corpse. For old
men the body was placed in a shallow trunk shaped like canoe which
was reusable. For young corpses a flat bamboo frame was used, placed
upon a small mound marking the grave.
On the way to the grave, cowries were thrown on the road. Other than
daughters, no other females were allowed access to the grave. After
the grave was filled the procession returned to the compound where
pall-bearers were given water by the Head of the Compound to wash
After the body is washed and dressed in the basic white cloth, it was
then placed in a leaf mat, around which another big white cloth was
placed. Every son was expected to bring a cloth and a mat - leading
to an excess of clothes and mats which were then shared after the
Married daughters would get a goat, cowries, a small cloth along with
three small sticks of bamboo. Covered with cloth and placed upon the
grave, this piece of bamboo was felt to represent the corpse. The
sons of the deceased then delivered a goat which was sacrificed to
the bamboo. Simultaneously, ALL goats belonging to all sons and
daughters were sent to be killed.
Early on the night of the mass goat slaughter, two men would
initially bring the bamboos to the killing field. But later on when
all of the procession had fallen asleep they would take the sticks
away for disposal.
Among Ibie people (Etsako Central), the dead man_s son was expected
to initially announce his death to elders. Using a long drum he
would then announce the death to the entire community. The deceased
daughters would also summon older women using a drum of their own.
During the burial, a masquerade called Elo would carry a thin stick
and walk through town scaring away little boys and girls who
interpreted his antics as that of the dead man.
At the end of the burial the game of _igbedo_ was played. Men took
their guns and acted like they were going to war. An image (similar
to Bini _Oton_) was made of cloth and sticks and initially placed on
the roof of the house. Subsequently, two men would lift this image
and dance around town with it to the beat of drums. Later on the
image was dismantled and the sticks thrown away. Five days later the
mourners would wash up and then wear black and white thread on their
SOSO (Akoko Edo)
Here also images were made to represent the dead man. The grave was
typically dug in the middle of the room for important individuals.
Alternatively they were dug outside the door for less important
The deceased_s clothing were gathered and an image (_Mamaci_) made of
them using three sticks. This image was then placed on the roof.
For women there was a slight variant - one of the calabashes the
deceased used for trading was obtained and covered with red cloth.
Subsequently her daughter-in-law (if any) would dance around town
with this image.
Just as was the case with Edo North, objects were also used to
symbolize the deceased. At Ovu, for example, the body was buried in
the house while a kid goat was sacrificed on the grave during the 1st
burial. During the 2nd burial a canoe shaped object (2ft by 2ft)
was carved in the bush and covered with white cloth. This symbol was
then carried home by two members of the family while the towns people
danced and threw cowries at it. After sacrifices, a second grave was
dug by the sons and sons-in-law next to the 1st grave into which the
canoe was then placed. In situations in which the deceased_s body
could not be recovered, two canoes were buried.
MOURNING CUSTOMS AMONG THE EDO PEOPLE
As a formality, gravediggers, pall bearers and family members washed
the hands, feet and body of the deceased.
2. Head Shaving
Family members also had to shave their heads. The exact details
varied from clan to clan. At Fugar the right side was shaved for the
father, the left for the mother and the entire scalp if both parents
were deceased. Usually, the middle was shaved for a brother or
sister unless one_s parents were dead in which case all of the scalp
was shaved. A wife (particularly the senior wife) was expected to
shave her entire scalp for a dead husband, but if her parents were
alive she would leave a small tuft of hair over her ears. Among
those Edo clans with grades of marriage, an Amoiya (full dowry) wife
was occasionally forbidden from shaving for her father, while for her
husband she was expected to wait for three months before shaving
because that was the time period allowed before property was shared.
An Isomi wife who (because of an incomplete dowry) reverts to her
father_s family, was expected to shave her head immediately the
3. Guidelines for Widows
In Gwato, for example, the widow was expected to sleep on the floor
holding a small broom in her hand. She could sleep during the
daytime but not at night. For seven days she was banned from taking
her bath, cooking or any doing any other form of housework. After
the seventh day she was expected to perform her purification rites on
the road approximately one hour after sunset. When going to the
point of purification, accompanied by a relative, the widows were not
expected to look backwards. If foul play was suspected in the man_s
death the woman might be asked to swear on his corpse. In some areas
she might even be asked to run naked around the town late at night as
a test of absolution.
In other parts of Biniland, a widow was expected to place two pieces
of wood with a cross piece on the roadside over which a piece of
cloth was hanged. But in some localities this act was the
responsibility of grave-diggers.
At Ibilo (Akoko-Edo) the widow_s hair was usually placed on the grave
after shaving. Then she wore a white thread on her neck which was
expected to remain there until it fell off. Curiously, however, as
long as the funeral rites had been completed, she was not prevented
from marrying another husband even if the thread had not fallen off.
NOTE: For widowers the process in some areas was that a man was
expected to sit naked next to a fire for three straight days.
ADDENDUM TO BURIAL RITES (WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE
TO THE EDO KINGDOM)
NOTE: This section is derived mainly from Dr. R. E. Bradbury, another
caucasian Anthropologist who lived among us from 1951-54.
You will (again) notice many similarities in aspects of burial custom
among Edos. Furthermore, those who have recently been involved in
"obito" will also notice that there have been various non-Edo
modifications and `imported' practices in Benin burials since the
early fifties. The account below is the unadulterated original
Among the Edo speaking people the preferred outcome was that parents
die before their children and elder siblings predecease their juniors.
No-one was expected to perform or participate in the rites of burial
for someone younger than himself.
In the kingdom itself only the Oba could be buried in the Ogbe section
of town. The details of how an Oba of Benin is actually buried have
never really been fully publicly divulged. But it is very elaborate.
It is also noteworthy that an Oba is never actually said to have died.
The accepted way to announce the event is to say that `chalk has
A TYPICAL WEALTHY MAN WITH SONS
During the first few hours after the death of a typical Edo man,
lamentation and mourning was forbidden, out of concern that his soul
might be prowling around, weighing the option of returning to the
body. Only when it was clear that death was final did weeping begin.
After initial washing the hair and nails are cut and kept in a block
of chalk (particularly if interment is likely to be delayed). After
anointing the corpse with the blood of a goat, it is decorated with
bracelets of cowries and a white cloth. A feather is stuck into the
As is the case in many parts of Edo north, the body would be laid on a
frame of bamboo and the whole structure wrapped in a mat. A more
recent option is to use a coffin. The ighele age grade would then dig
As previously noted, preference was for burial in the master bedroom.
But in cemetery burials, the family procession would accompany the
corpse singing seven (7) special burial songs, while scattering chalk,
salt and cowries along the way.
When the body is being lowered into the grave, the children, led by
the senior son throw in fiber bristles from a broom, each supported
with a prayer that the deceased live a more trouble free life in his
next incarnation. After the grave is filled the feet of the mourners
is washed using the blood of a hen. The significance of this is that
there are certain impurities and ritual dangers associated with a
grave. The grave-diggers also purify themselves with water (along
with eating the hen) to cleanse "the feet with which they entered the
grave, the arms with which they dug it, and the face with which they
looked upon the corpse."
NOTE: AT THIS POINT THERE WAS AN OPTION TO DELAY
FULL BURIAL - USUALLY FOR FINANCIAL REASONS. FULL
BURIALS HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO BE DELAYED IN
BENIN FOR AS LONG AS 20 YEARS.
This phase is called "iwaorivi" (laying out the corpse).
Only members of the deceased's lineage can be present at this ceremony
during which the deceased's hair and nails, along with chalk, cowries,
and salt are placed in a piece of white cloth into which a white
feather is inserted. Over this image of the dead man, a goat is
sacrificed. After singing the seven burial songs, this image is
"buried". After this phase, offerings provided by male descendants
and sons-in-law are sacrificed daily within the courtyard until the
funeral is over.
Day 3 (izaxwe)
Within the family compound, the eldest son offers a sacrifice to his
ancestors (edio) using a cow or goat. After this, each of his
brothers, brothers-in-law, adult sons and sons-in-law lead processions
(in order of seniority) around town singing praises to the deceased.
Day 5 (Isoto)
Once again, processions are organized (like izaxwe) except that the
leader of each carries a box (oku) decorated with red cloth and brass
ornaments representing the prosperity and status of the deceased. The
procession leader also carries `oto' - consisting of a goat, a
calabash of oil, basket of coconuts, seven kolanuts, a mat and a white
cloth. Upon returning to the house each leading mourner presents his
oto to elders of the family lineage (egbe) for inspection. If the
items are incomplete a money fine has to be paid. When the elders are
satisfied a mortar is fired after which there is much rejoicing that
the said procession has not been disgraced. The eldest son
subsequently retains his oto while others are divided between the
elders and all the heirs.
Day 6 (Ikpowia)
On the evening of the sixth day an all night dance takes place. Based
on the recommendation of a diviner an individual is selected to dress
up to represent the deceased (onodierhayi). This individual must not
sleep during the night or else it was believed that he would dream of
the deceased and probably die shortly thereafter. Seated on a bench
he receives all the children of the deceased who make offerings (cash
and kolanuts) and ask for assurance that their late father will
continue to look after them from the spirit world. After the last
descendant completes his/her ritual the "father" dances with all "his"
Day 7 (Isuerhafua)
At dawn on Day 7 the procession is led by the onodierhayi to the bush
where an image consisting of a frame of sticks covered with cloth had
previously been erected. The onodierhayi pretends to sit on it (as do
all the mourners) until it collapses, after which its contents are
discarded. This symbolizes the final disposal of the remains of the
deceased along with ritual impurities associated with death.
As they return home, the procession sings a song "it is cool like the
bush near the river" meaning they are now ritually pure. On arrival a
mortar is fired to induce the spirit of the departed to come home.
The onodierhayi then traces a line (using native chalk) up to the
shrine where the deceased will be worshipped.
Several hours later the eldest son and his oldest uncle perform
`ukuve' (planting) during which the uxurhe (carved staffs) are placed
upright on the altar of the deceased. At this point yet another goat
is sacrificed, further offerings made and the uxurhe (representing the
dead man) is invited to come and eat with his "children".
Subsequently other descendants come (in order of seniority) to pray
for themselves and their dependents.
RECOGNITION OF THE VILLAGE AND OTHER CLUBS OR GROUPS
The eldest son presents a goat to the village for sacrifice to their
ancestors. Similarly if the deceased was a member of any cult or
title-association group or order, offerings are made to these
constituencies. If the deceased was an Onogie his son must present
goats to EVERY village under his late father's jurisdiction.
EDO LAW & ORDER
According to Northcote, the underlying principle in Edo Law (as in all
traditional African Law) was that the commission of a crime created a
relationship of debtor and creditor between the criminal and the
victim (or system). The only exception was a category of crimes known
as "God palaver" which attracted the death penalty. The death penalty
was also used for certain 'crimes against custom' such as stating
publicly that the Oba was dead, asleep, eating, or washing.
Among the Edo speaking people in general, the overwhelming number of
offenses belonged to the debtor category. The death penalty was rare
EXCEPT in Edo ("Benin-City"). Offences which in other parts of Edo
country might attract a milder sentence, frequently led to death in
Benin City. The reason for this discrepancy was that the practice of
human sacrifice (reportedly largely peculiar to Benin-City) created a
demand for readily available "cheap" victims. [But there is evidence
that southern Edo clans also engaged in human sacrifice. The Urhobos
and Isokos certainly did, as part of rituals to the war deity at Owe
or the "Oyibo" cult, for example. The mischievous notion that only
members of other clans and tribes were sacrificed by "Binis" is
false. Similarly, there is ample evidence that members of identical
Edo speaking clans engaged in selling one another (from other villages
or village groups) for slave trading.]
In Edo law, the offense known as 'justifiable homicide' was not
identical to 'murder'. If the parties involved had a previous
quarrel, for example, the elders would investigate and enter this into
evidence. Except in some communities (like Ewori and Uzia) homicide
generally attracted a less severe sentence than murder.
Benin-City Death/ Human sacrifice (crucifixion)
Ijeba Public hanging (marketplace)
Otua/ Okpe Purchase a substitute human being
Ewori Purchase a substitute human being
Uzia Burning of the house of the murderer
Seizure of farm of murderer
Fine of one person
Agbede Murderer handed over to victim's family
for death, sale, or assimilation
Ishan Fine was payable to Chief of community
Fugar Payment of two persons to victim's family
Uzaitui Hanging. Family could retrieve murderer's corpse in
exchange for one goat
Ikbe If accused was of the same compound as
victim, he was left to his conscience and the vengeance of
the departed victim's spirit
Agenebode Destruction of murderer's farm;
Destruction of murderer's house;
Exile of murderer to Bush for 2 months;
Fines: One shilling six pence to sweep burnt house; One
shilling six pence for water fine; One sheep; payment of
two persons and four shillings to victim's family.
Yanipodi Murderer killed if he was not of the same compound as
deceased. Otherwise he had to pay two
persons to bereaved family.
Soso Murderer sold to Bida slave dealers or
fined one substitute human being
Semolika Death penalty
Ibilo Murderer banished from community, property shared,
wives free to remarry
Urhobo (Okwoloho) Murderer allowed to hang
himself. If he escapes, his property along
with that of his parents would be destroyed.
Urhobo (Effurun) Murderer forced to hang himself. If he escapes
his property along with that of his
parents would be destroyed, and his family would be
banished until he is found or one member of his family hangs or
three persons paid to victims family.
Urhobo(Ughelli) Murderer hanged himself if from the same town as
victim. If not, both towns declared war.
Urhobo (Iyede) Murderer hanged by brother of deadman after
which he offers plantains to the corpse.
Alternatively the community dragged
the killer along the ground with a rope until
Regarding theft, certain Edo-wide principles formed the bedrock of
judicial attitudes. The thief and his victim could potentially reach
an amicable arrangement through which payback was arranged, without
invoking the communities' legal system. But in some communities,
theft was regarded as so serious an offense that the thief could be
sold into slavery or executed. Another interesting sideline was that
stealing in the marketplace (shoplifting) was not regarded as a
serious offense, whereas burglary was. This gradation of judicial
attitudes to circumstances of theft is similar to present day American
and European systems.
Benin-City Public flogging. Occasional death.
Usen Public humiliation; return of stolen goods
[But strangers were flogged and fined]
Ijeba Return of stolen goods; 10 shillings fine
Sabongida 28 shillings fine payable to Chiefs; if fine
defaulted, thief was executed.
Idegun Nighttime theft often led to death. Daytime
theft led to fine of 4 pounds. Injured party
could also recommend punishment.
Ewori (Agbede) Thief tied up, stolen goods returned, injured
party given liberty to sell the thief or release
Uzia Value of stolen item plus 2-3 pounds
Fugar Sale into slavery or death penalty
Ibie Thief sold into slavery
Yanipodi A night society actually existed to
prevent theft. But they did come of the
Soso Fine imposed unless it was a theft from a
farm in which case the offender was considered
hungry and let off lightly.
Semolika Thief tied up with rope until his family
bails him out. If thief was killed while stealing,
the property was placed on his corpse for
Urhobo Fines. Occasional death penalty (Iyede).
Occasional sale into slavery (Evleni).
Punishment for assault depended on the severity of the assault and
also upon whether or not injury resulted.
Uzia All the assailant's goats were seized
Fugar Punishment only if a wound resulted
Auchi Six shillings fine if cutlass was used.
Urhobo In Ajeyubi, if a wound resulted, the two
families went to war and fought until 3 or 4
members were wounded on each side.
Note that assault on women was rare and punishment for assault on a
woman also rare. But there were exceptions. At Ijeba, for example,
the assailant would have his house destroyed. At Otua the chief s
collected one goat and eight shillings as a fine, which THEY kept.
Attitudes to arson varied. In some communities it was not even known
as an offense - because it just did not occur. In others it was
punishable by fines. But in some communities, arson was regarded as
act of war.
Heavy fines were levied for this. Taking away a man's good name was
regarded as a fairly serious offense. One way to do this was to call
a man a slave in public.
When a crime had been committed and the culprit unknown or where an
individual was suspected, certain methods were used to get at the
truth. (Lie detector test)
1. Making the suspect take a supernatural oath with penalties if
2. A visit by the complainant to the shrine to invoke vengeance
against unknown offenders
3. "Bring out the Ebo to find the thief" - Ake method
4. Invoking the ITA ordeal. The process involved passing a fowl's
feather (or needle) halfway through the tongue of the suspect and
reciting an incantation to the effect that if they be guilty the
feather will stay in the tongue. In Urhoboland, one form of Ita
involved passing a nail (or feather or needle) through the ear. If
guilty, the nail would break. If innocent it would pass through in
pristine form. Another option was to get plaited leaves and test
guilt by observing whether or not they could be unplaited. Yet
another option was to place a calabash of burning oil on the head of
the suspect. A variation of this involved asking the suspect to pick
out a cowry from a pot of palm oil (or boiling water) into which a
cowry and some native medicine had been placed, while a fire was lit
near him. If innocent, the fire would die down. If not it would
engulf the suspect. Lastly, [particularly among the Urhobos], a
suspect who had previously washed his hands in a native potion was
asked to pick out an axe blade that had been placed in a fire. He was
then expected to walk with the ax blade for 25 yards without
sustaining a burn.
5. SASSWOOD ORDEAL: This was reserved for witchcraft but sometimes
used for other serious offenses. If a suspect was picked out by
sasswood, the rest of his or her close family was frequently put to
death along with the individual. On the other hand, if the accused
was proven innocent the accuser had to pay a fine of one person to him
or her. Another approach against witchcraft in Urhobo land was the
Eni lake ordeal.
Day to day administration of the Benin Kingdom was carried out through
private consultation between the Oba and senior titleholders. When it
was necessary to promulgate new laws, declare war, raise special
taxes, or take special ritual measures to prevent epidemics, a full
state council was summoned. Membership included the Uzama, the
Eghaevo, as well as lesser titleholders, in a supporting capacity.
This system also had judicial functions depending on the seriousness
of the offence and where it had occurred. Villages outside Benin City
often referred serious legal matters to the court for adjudication.
LEGAL SYSTEM AND ATTITUDES IN SELECTED EDO CLANS:
Village, Multi-village and tribal councils were the recognized
judicial bodies. The tribal council settled very serious offences -
like murder within the tribe. Offences like homicide,
robbery-with-violence, witchcraft, slave dealing (within the tribe)
and child stealing (within the tribe) were dealt with at the council
level in the Village where the offence was committed. A village
council in a given tribe could not, however, pass the death sentence
on of its own without calling in titleholders from other tribes. If a
matter could not be settled at the Village council level, it was
referred to the tribal group.
Aside from these formal entities, Heads of families, wards and age
grades could settle minor internal disputes.
Judicial procedure was unclear but anytime evidence was either absent
or irreconcilable, oaths and ritual ordeals were adopted.
Murder was punishable by death but depending on the status of the
accused relative to the victim, he could (on occasion,) negotiate his
way out of the sentence. Manslaughter was punished by transferring
two persons from the defendant's descent group to that of his victim.
Witchcraft guilt was usually established using the sasswood ordeal.
Many innocent people died from sasswood poisoning.
Enforcement of judgements was carried out by the otuleha (middle age
grade), except in cases where the victim's family was directly
authorized to carry out vengeance.
Minor crimes were settled at the lowest possible administrative level.
Murder, Arson, Habitual theft etc_ were dealt with at higher levels.
In civil disputes, enforcement of judicial mandates was generally
carried out by the accuser. A range of options were available -
including cursing, planting "juju" outside the defendant's house, or
seizing his property. However, at Iviele, a class of people called
"inotu" had special judicial roles.
In addition to the traditional Edo approach to witchcraft [using
sasswood], some Etsako established witch-hunting organizations [onene]
during the mid part of this century.
Criminal cases and civil matters were heard by a joint judicial
council consisting of local priests and titled elders often in the
house of the village head, but sometimes at the scene of the crime.
For murder, manslaughter and arson, the cases were referred to a
higher community level.
When establishment of guilt could not be otherwise ascertained,
certain ordeals were resorted to. Defendants may be asked to eat
kolanuts placed on the staff of the members of titled associations.
Alternatively, oaths were taken on the insignia of the association or
on local deities. The implication was that 'perjury' would lead to
Forcing the defendant to hang himself (in the marketplace) was the
usual punishment for murder. However, occasionally, defendants were
simply buried alive. Manslaughter was compensated by payment of two
relatives or slaves from the offender's family.
Offenders caught in the act of Arson were frequently thrown into the
In addition to usual Edo patterns of compensation, assault offenders
were often made to look after their injured victims until they
recovered. In other cases public disgrace was a popular approach.
Adultery usually required payment of an offering to the aggrieved
husband. But at Okpe seducing the chief's wife was punishable by
selling the guilty wife into slavery and executing the seducer. (Note
that the man was always regarded as the seducer).
When fines were assessed, the judges typically shared them.
Depending on the offence, matters were settled at the ward, village,
tribal, title-association or age grades level. Murder, violent
robbery and crimes considered an affront to the entire community were
referred directly to the tribal council as a first step. In addition
to premeditated unjustifiable homicide, killing in a fight was also
regarded as murder.
Murder was typically punished by hanging. The tribal head would touch
the murderer on the head with a carved staff (uxurhe) after which the
iletu or iko would carry out the hanging. In some cases, however, the
defendant was forced to hang himself. If he refused, his family would
be called upon to hang him.
Among Urhobos, a man could kill his own slaves, but he could not kill
another man's slave without replacement.
Assaults were punished in the usual way, but stealing and robbery
attracted a wide range of penalties depending on mitigating
circumstances. One could be fined or flogged; but habitual stealing
was punishable by execution (at Emevor for example), blinding or
simply being sold into slavery. Among the Isoko, one could choose to
marry the daughter of a thief caught stealing one's property without
paying a bride price (Aye udi).
Libel was punishable by large compensations. Adultery was treated in
the same way as in other Edo clans.
Treatment of rape depended on several factors. The rapist (of an
unmarried girl) could be fined and asked to compensate the girl's
father; but in some communities, if the girl was passed puberty, rape
was not considered a serious offence. Raping a married woman was
dealt with like adultery, although it occasionally attracted an
The accused were typically publicly brought before the council by the
iko. They stated their cases and witnesses were deposed.
In Isokoland, afterwards the edio, ovie and osewo would then meet in
private to deliberate on the situation. Afterwards, the otota, acting
on behalf of the odio ologbo would announce the judicial decision.
Oaths and Ordeals
This required both the plaintiff and defendant to agree on the deity
or symbol on which the oath would be sworn.