OBA EWUARE OGIDIGAN: The Great African Warrior-King
By Chief Dr. Daryl Peavy, JD
Excerpt from “Kings, Magic & Medicine”
The forty-fourth king and thirteenth Oba was Oba Ewuare the Great (Ewuare Ogidigan) (1440 AD-1473 AD) (Ero 2003: 87; M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 90). Prince Ogun was the eldest son of Oba Ohen, and his mother was Queen Elere (M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 121CAT55). Prince Ogun succeeded his brother Oba Uwaifiokun by assassination. Upon his coronation, he took the title Oworuare which meant “the trouble has ceased” or “it is cool” (Egharevba 2005: 15). In fact, Oba Ewuare was the rightful heir to the throne because his brother had usurped it. Subsequently, Oba Ewuare changed the name Ile-Ubini to Edo after a loyal `servant (Egharevba 2005: 17) who had saved the monarch’s life when he was a prince in exile. According to Egharevba (2005), Prince Ogun used to secretly visit Benin City at night (Egharevba 2005: 17). When the elders heard of his arrival, they sought to arrest the prince, who took refuge at Chief Ogiefa Nomeukpo’s house. The chief hid Prince Ogun in an old abandoned well. However, Chief Ogiefa Nomuekpo was not loyal to the prince. He went to inform Chief Ogiamwen so that he would arrest Prince Ogun. Before Chief Ogiefa Nomuekpo could return, Edo, his head servant, advised Prince Ogun to escape. He did so with his sword and spear into the forest or “the bush that one must not enter” (oha ne ai la) (Nevadomsky 1997: 81). While in the forest and during the night, Prince Ogun took shelter under a tree in order to get some sleep. That night he felt what seemed like water dripping on his face. When morning arrived, he discovered a leopard above him in the tree. The leopard’s fresh kill had been dripping blood on the prince throughout the night. Prince Ogun immediately jumped up. However, upon rising, he discovered that there had been a puff-adder or python underneath him (Nevadomsky 1997). He slew both the puff-adder and the leopard (Ero 2003: 40). Subsequently, Prince Ogun planted a sacred ikhinmwin tree on the spot. He vowed that day if he should ever become king, he would make that place a shrine for worshipping the gods of his destiny (Egharevba 2005: 17). The shrine at Oha ne ai la became an important spot for the Efa group to worship. According to oral traditions, there was a transformed, invisible leopard called “The leopard that is an old person” (atalakpa ne o khin omaen) that patrolled the area (Nevadomsky 1977: 81). Afterwards, the bush leopard (atalakpa) and puff-adder or python were sacrificed to the Oba’s Head and became an integral part of the Igue festival (Egharevba 2005: 17; Ero 2003: 40). Oba Ewuare decreed that only the leopard hunters (Iviekpen) were authorized to capture the feline and that only the leopard slaughterers (Ivekpen) could kill it (Ero 2003: 140-141).
After Oba Ewuare ascended to the throne, he embarked upon every opportunity to reward Edo with many presents. When Edo died, the monarch purchased Edo’s body and buried him at an entrance to the royal palace near the tower named Unuogua (Egharevba 2005: 17). Oba Ewuare later deified Edo and changed the name of Ile-Ubini to that of his loyal friend Edo (Egharevba 2005: 17). According to Egharevba, Edo would later become known as the “City of Love” (Edo n’ Evbo Ahire)(2005: 17).
On another occasion, Prince Ogun caused a fire that engulfed Benin City in retaliation for being exiled by his brother, the usurper. Prince Ogun was noted for his mastery of Traditional Edo Medicine. According to Eweka, an old man approached the Prince and asked him to invoke the powers of Osun, by which the fire was extinguished (1992: 75-76).
Oba Ewuare made many more innovations to the Edo Kingdom. He created the title Edaiken or Crown Prince for the eldest son and heir apparent to the imperial throne (Edibiri 2004: 5). According to Edebiri, there was a great Edo warrior named Iken that lived in Upper Uselu (2004: 4). Iken became so wealthy and powerful that Oba Ewuare began to harbor ill feelings toward him. In the meantime, the Owo people in Yorubaland began to rebel against the Edo Kingdom. Oba Ewuare asked Iken to lead the Edo warriors against the Owo rebellion. Iken accepted, but asked Oba Ewuare to find a capable person to manage his own territory. Oba Ewuare sent his senior son prince Guoboyuwa to manage the territory for Iken. According to Edebiri (2004), Edayi N’ Iken meant to go and act for Iken (2004). It would later be corrupted to “Edaiken” and become a title for the heir apparent to the throne. Iken was successful in the war against the Owo. At the conclusion of the war, Iken sent the Edo warriors back to Benin with the war booty and the instruments of surrender, while he remained at Owo to savor the victory. However, one night, Iken wasattacked and killed by a group of snipers or renegades. Iken did not have a son to survive him, therefore, Prince Guoboyuwa inherited Iken’s wealth. Subsequently, all the Edaikens would reside at the palace in Upper Uselu (Eguae Edaiken) until ascending the throne (Edebiri 2004: 6). It was customary for the Edaiken to be his mother’s only male child. The Crown Prince (Edaiken) could have a sister, but never a full brother (Edebiri 2004: 49). Although this was not consistent. According to Edibiri, the Edo people stated that “The Tiger (King) breeds only one cub at a time” (Omokpa-ekpenbie) (2004: 49). The Edo people used the word “tiger” interchangeably with “leopard” in English, but it is the leopard that the Edo people were referring to, since tigers are not indigenous to Africa. The above custom probably reduced sibling rivalry for the throne.
Oba Ewuare was a great native doctor. Traditional Edo Medicine and its practitioners flourished under his reign. He created the native doctor guilds and titles called Iwegie, Eguezibon, Ehenika, Utomawen, and Obazuhunwunwa. Oba Ewuare’s reign was famous for the vast number of native doctors, magicians and heroes in Edo land. The king actively recruited native doctors from the Esan area of the kingdom (Okojie 1960: 180),and surrounded himself with a retinue of powerful native doctors and warriors who became his close friends. Many of the most famous native doctors, magicians, and heroes were deified after their deaths (Egharevba 2004: 17), such as Okhuaihe of Ikehen, Ovato of Igieduma, Emuen of Uhi, Ezuku of Ogan, Okan of Ekhua, Ogbeide, Ake of Isi, Ezalugha of Ilobi in Isi, Oza of Edo (Benin City), Ebomisi of Ugo, Oravan of Irhirhi, and Ireghezi of Ekne, Enowe of Ugboha, and Ogan of Irrua (Egharevba 2005: 17; Okojie,1960). Oba Ewuare was a great practitioner of Traditional Edo Medicine, herbalist, and magician, excelled at the secret arts and sciences (Egharevba 2005: 15). According to Curnow, Oba Ewuare was believed to have especially ‘tough’ medicine (1997: 76). According to Blackmun, Oba Ewuare was able to dive into the sea to Olokun’s palace and bring back the royal beaded regalia and the sacred iru containers (magical talking containers) from the god of Water. The Edo people believed that the royal coral beads (ivie) contained the power of Olokun ((1997: 154).
Oba Ewuare would often use a Traditional Edo Medicine bag called agba-oko that enabled him to successfully challenge opponents with great magical feats. According to Edo oral traditions, the agba- oko was originally kept in Almighty God’s most secret and inner chamber (Ibie 1986: 14). According to Ibie, the agba-oko was known as Almighty Gods Divine bag (1986: 14). It had the capacity to contain whatever was placed inside it, no matter the size, as well as being able to produce those same objects upon demand (Ibie 1986: 15). Possession of the agba-oko would have placed Oba Ewuare in a position of great psychological advantage in whatever endeavor he wished to undertake.
Oba Ewuare was known for his many war exploits. He was a great warrior king and strategist, and one of his appellations was “the Oba of Edo wages war on the Earth below and the Osogan wages war in heaven.” (Egharevba 2005: 18). Osogan was a monster that waged havoc on Edo people in earlier times. The Igbo people also stated that “Edo was the powerful land of the Oba.”(Egharevba 2005: 18). During his war campaigns, Oba Ewuare captured 201 towns and villages in Ekiti, Ikate, Kukuruku, Eka, and the Igbo side of the Niger River (Egharevba 1986: 15).
Oba Ewuare was able to maintain control of the government and to defeat many of his enemies through Traditional Edo Medicine and magic (Egharevba 2005: 15). Many of his war campaigns were later magnificently captured in bronze and brass by Royal brass-smiths (Igun-eronmwon). They made images of Oba Ewuare in war regalia with his chiefs (M’Bow 2005). In M’Bow’s Benin: A Kingdom of Bronze, Oba Ewuare can be seen striking a pose wearing royal battle- ready war attire, with two war Chiefs at his side holding spears and battle shields (M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 131). Royal brass-smiths pictured Oba Ewuare wearing Traditional Edo Medicine protective charms, a ritual bell was tied around his neck, and coral beads (M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 131). During his reign, the town of Edo grew in importance and size. Oba Ewuare built many roads in Edo (Benin City), and the greatest and innermost wall surrounding Edo (Benin City) to keep invaders out (Egharevba 2005: 15).
Oba Ewuare made powerful and secret charms for protection and had them buried at each of the nine gates into Edo traditional medicine pots which were storage compartments of the god of Medicine’s (Osun) charms (M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 74CAT30). Native doctors used containers such as the “Pot of life” and “the Pot that Heals” (Akhe Isinmwinegbe) (M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 74CAT30, 104CAT.45). The pots held charms for protection, longevity, and were meant to ward off attacks and other mystical applications (M’Bow, et. al. 2005:74CAT30). The pot of Life was adorned with motifs of mystical snakes, tortoises and crocodiles that represented ritual and oral traditions (M’Bow, et. al. 2005: 74CAT30). Many of those animals represented the ability to coexist in both the spiritual and physical realms. Ritual cowry shells often lined the base of the Traditional Edo Medicine pots, which not only made their owners invincible to attacks, but also brought vast wealth. Although Oba Ewuare supported and gained from the practice of Traditional Edo medicine, he took precautions against the magical powers of others. The people of the village of Orogho were known for their many powerful medicines and charms. In an attempt to curtail some of those powers, the king had many of the charms buried under an ancestral shrine in the village (Eweka 1992: 126).
However, Oba Ewuare eventually suffered some tragedies during his reign. He had two sons who would later be the cause of a great calamity in the kingdom, named Princes Guoboyuwa and Ezuwarha (Edebiri 2004: 5; Egharevba 2005: 16). Prince Guoboyuwa was the Edaiken (Crown Prince) and resided at Upper Uselu palace. Ezuwarha was the Ogie ( ruler) at Iyowa (Egharevba 2005: 16). Princes Guoboyuwa and Ezuwarha were very close and would often send each other presents. One day, Crown Prince Guoboyuwa insulted Ezuwarha and called him a bushman by sending farming tools as a present (Egharevba 2005: 16). The two brothers eventually developed hatred toward one another. On one particularly tragic day, both brothers simultaneously poisoned each other (Egharevba 2005: 16). The act of poisoning each other on the same day was probably accomplished by the malevolent side or cursing side of Traditional Edo Medicine, which could be used both as a blessing or curse. Certain schools of Traditional Edo Medicine specialized in either blessings or cursing (Okoh 1997). Here, the brothers used Traditional Edo Medicine to attack or to send a reprisal attack. Native doctors used their knowledge of herbal mixtures to make poisons for clients and also used medicine to send reprisals for malicious attacks upon a person through charms. Sensing an imminent attack, a native doctor would have sent a curse to address the aggrieved wrong.
Once the news of Oba Ewuare’s sons’ deaths came to Edo, nobody dared to tell the king of the terrible tragedy. With reluctance, the royal court jester eventually stated the bad news in the form of a parable. He stated, “Oh, your Majesty, it rains at Iyowa but it does not reach Uselu and that of Uselu does not reach Edo” (Egharavba 2005:16). Oba Ewuare was unable to decipher the hidden meaning, and in consequence the elders sent Chief Ihama to relay the bad news. Afterwards, Oba Ewuare retired to his royal chambers and wept. He instructed the Town-criers to announce the sad news to the Edo people. According to Curnow, Oba Ewuare blamed the misfortune of his two sons on “spoilt land” (1997: 47). Subsequently, he enacted harsh laws that eventually led some of the Edo people to migrate from Edo land (Egharevba 2005: 16). Curnow suggested that Oba Ewuare passed these stringent laws in order to appease the land (Curnow 1997: 47). The Efas as priests and diviners of the land would also have probably been called in to make sacrifices.
In implementing the purification laws, Oba Ewuare forbade anyone from dressing up or having sex for three years, prohibited bathing, dance, and celebrations (Curnow 1997: 47; Egharevba 2005: 16). On the advice of Omaen n’ Erokhin (Old Man Chameleon), Oba Ewuare eventually revoked the harsh laws (Egharevba 2005: 16). He sent messengers all throughout the neighboring states to order the traditional rulers not to give sanctuary to his deserting subjects. Furthermore, he eventually had tribal marking (iwu) placed upon the Edo people as identification (Egharevba 2005: 16). The Osiwu “One who sculpts tattoos” was the Iwu surgeon, who also performed circumcisions and clitoridectomies. The position became hereditary. The Osiwu possessed an assortment of instruments that assisted in the performance of tribal markings. These included a scalpel, triangular blade for clitoridectomy, medicinal bangles that the Iwu surgeon wore to control bleeding, and herbal medicines, as well as analgesics. Edo men had seven blades or markings placed upon their body, which involved the arms, torso, and legs. Edo women had sixteen markings. These markings would later evolve to symbolize stratification by pedigree, delineating selected occupations and gender classifications (Nevadomsky and Aisien 1993: 68-69).
It was during Oba Ewuare’s reign that the first known contact with Europeans occurred. Ruy Sequeira, a Portuguese, visited Edo land around 1474 (Edebiri 2004: 127). It was not known if he was able to have an audience with the Oba. European explorers were overwhelmed at the organization and grandeur of the Edo. Europeans reported that the royal palace was as large as a Dutch town. However, Oba Ewuare made a prophecy before his death concerning the Europeans and Edo land. He prophesied that one of the subsequentObas of Edo (Benin) would be deported and that the chiefs would become the rulers of the kingdom. Oba Ewuare’s prophecy was later fulfilled during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 and the subsequent interregnum.
Migrations of people from neighboring lands also occurred into the Edo land. According to Egharevba, there were two ferocious cannibals named Osa and Osuan who arrived from Igbo land. Oba Ewuare had forbidden the practice of cannibalism in Edo land (Egharevba 2005: 17). The two chiefs were also associated with human sacrifice and the bathing in or drinking of blood (Curnow 1997: 47). In any case, Oba Ewuare made Osa the Chief Priest of the royal god Ora, who seemed to be associated with war and aggression. Oba Ewuare also made Osuan the Chief Priest of the royal goddess Uwen (Curnow 1997: 47; Egharevba 2005: 17). Uwen was a deified Osun (god of Medicine) specialist whose province was healing, obstetrics, and fertility of the soil (Curnow 1997: 47; Ero 2003: 82). According to Ero, Ora was the deified wife of Uwen ( 2003: 82). However, Curnow states that Chief Osuan is in charge of the female deity. (2009). Each worshiped his respective deity in his individual shrine. However, there was also a palace shrine where the Edo gods (Ebo n’ Edo) were worshipped together (Curnow 1997). Both chiefs were essential to palace functions and privy to some of the most secret matters. According to Curnow, there was an Edo saying that illustrated the importance of Chiefs Osa and Osuan. The Edo proverb stated “The ceremony the Oba opens finds Chiefs Osa and Osuan there” (1997: 47). The Chief Priests Osa and Osuan would support the hands of the Oba during important royal outings and festivals. Oba Ewuare coalesced the Ooni’s Ague festival (Ague-Oghene). During the festival, the Oba and High Chiefs entered into a special fasting period named ilonu and igbohanmwen (abstinence), and would refrain from alcoholic drinks, eating at normal times during the day, and would abstain from their wives, friends, visitors, and other engagements (Ero 2003: 81). The participants of ilonu and igbohanmwen were required to obtain a badge in cross form called umanague from the Ohen Osa (ohensa). The High Chiefs wore the umanague tied to their waistcloth by small strings of coral beads (Ero 2003: 81). Other chiefs wore the umanague around their necks. The participants were not allowed to eat new yam for seven days. No one was allowed to see the Oba until the seventh day. Firing guns and drumming was forbidden during the period. Ague’s self-denial, isolation, and purifying aspects kept the participants pollution free, strengthened their spiritually, and appeased the Edo ancestors (Curnow 1997: 48). According to Curnow, yams were ostensibly at Ague’s core of importance and included four ceremonies (1997: 46). In the first ceremony, yams were planted in a symbolic pattern around the Oba’s Ugbeku village farm. Native doctors examined the general pattern of the harvest to determine the yield. Sometime, native doctors would recommend human sacrifice to appease the spiritual forces. The second ceremony took place after the general harvest near Ague-Osa. The third ceremony was the New Yam feast. Budding yams were offered to paternal and maternal ancestors, deities, the unburied dead, and hostile spirits (Curnow 1997: 46; Ero 2003: 81).
Oba Ewuare was also a patron of the arts. He supported the craft guilds of ivory and wood carvers. Oba Ewuare the Great had a long and prosperous reign and established many traditions for future Edo kings. He was buried at Esi village near Udo (Egharevba 2005: 18).
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