Understanding Ancestors/Senior Elders (Edion) inGreat BeninTradition (Excerpt from ‘Kings, Magic & Medicine”
By Chief Dr. Daryl Peavy
The Edo people’s belief in ancestral veneration was an integral part of the social mores of the civilization. The Edo word Edion meant both ancestors and senior elders (Ero 2003: 14). Both ancestors and elders were regarded as vital components of enforcing the moral codes of the society. The family unit was the beginning of moral codes. The Edo believed that the family unit was composed of the living as well as the departed (Awolalu 1996: 61). Ancestors were the departed elders of the family, and society that made an impact upon people’s lives. Ancestors were part of the family units that consisted of fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts. Ancestors might also be kings, chiefs, superheroes and any person who had positively impacted the Edo people (Ero 2003: 8). Although deceased, the departed family members continued to impact their relations as much as they did when they were alive. The ancestors were able to retain the senses of sight, sound, smell and touch, and also retained the same emotions that they had when alive. Therefore, the ancestors were able to interact with the living with a degree of humanness and closeness that the other spirits did not possess. The ancestors were the closest spirits to humankind. The Edo people believed that ancestors resided in heaven and delivered personal messages to God Almighty (Ero 2003: 11). Therefore, the Edo people communicated with the ancestors regularly.
Ancestors maintained an unbroken relationship with the family units and served as spiritual family heads (Ero 2003: 9). The Edo believed that the ancestors had an integral part in all major family decisions. They were the guardians of family ethics and traditions. Ancestors were involved in blessing as well as punishing their offspring. Similar to a child that tried to please his parents, ancestral veneration demanded the same moral code.
The concept of ancestors was multidimensional. Some ancestors existed in both the spiritual and physical realms. The Edo people believed that through the cycle of birth and death, their ancestors could be reborn into the same family through the process of reincarnation. Ancestors that returned to the same family were given names that illustrated their rebirth. Such names as “father returns” or “mother returns” (Awolalu 1996: 60) revealed that it was the parent that returned to the physical world. On certain occasions, during the naming ceremony called izomo, a diviner would be called to indicate the particular ancestor that was reborn. However, it would not be a full rebirth. The spirit of the ancestor in heaven would also be worshiped through traditional methods as well.
The intimate association between ancestors and elders is evident in the word edion. Edion was used interchangeably for ancestors and elders of the most senior age grade (Ero 2003: 14); therefore, elders were revered just as much as ancestors. Beginning with the Edo age grade (otu) structure prepared the elders for their future roles as leaders in the community. A person’s membership into an age grade was one of the indicators that determined social status. The age grades were evbirhoba, eroghae, igbama, ighele, owere, and odionwere. The evbirhoba was from six to 13 or 14 years. The eroghae or igbama was the age grade from 14 years old to 21-27 years old. Ighele was the age grade from 21-28 years old to 42-45 years old, while owere or elder age grade was from 42-45years old to the departure from this world to the spirit realm. The most senior elder was called the odionwere. In the period before kings, the odionwere governed. He was the village headman, who made the major decisions for the community. The odionwere was also the chief priest of the collective ancestors in the community (Ero 2003: 14).
The Edo people maintained a structured moral consciousness through ancestral veneration (Ero 2003: 9). The Edo people believed that the ancestors were watching the family members’ every move, like a child who was aware that his parent was dutifully watching every step (Ero 2003: 8-11). Ancestral reverence developed an intimate awareness of right, wrong, good, or bad. A child spent most of his life trying to please his parents and to not bring disfavor upon the family’s honor. As members of a higher age grade and caretakers, the father, mother, uncles, and aunts held a very respectful and beloved status in the family. They were respected for their nurturing leadership abilities in the family setting. Elders were held in high regard for the wisdom that they brought to the community. The Edo people believed that elders achieved wisdom by attaining knowledge that was broad and balanced, that was applied with reason and seasoned with experience (Edebiri 2004: 71). The Edo people called that type of wisdom experience of the world!
The Edo people had many proverbs that revealed the importance of elders to the community. One of the Edo proverbs stated, “It is the words my father tells me that I will always believe,” which illustrated the sanctity and value of the elders’ wisdom (Galembo: 54). The seasoned knowledge and understanding of elders was also expressed in another Edo proverb that stated, “When you become older, you will understand the inner feelings of others” (Galembo, et. al. 1993: 54; Ero 2003: 10). Furthermore, according to Edebiri, the Edo people had a proverb that displayed the elders’ wisdom in relationship to the youth (2004). The Edo proverb stated that “the old man sees vision and the young man dreams” (Edebiri 2004). The proverb indicated that elders were able to foretell the future based upon an experienced vision, where the youth in their hastiness were full of inexperience. The elders were held in such high respect and love that children were expected to bury the father or mother in the child’s home and perform a proper funeral. For the Edo people, parental love, care, guidance and interaction permeated even after death. The ancestors’ children prepared their loved ones for the journey to the spiritual world through elaborate burial ceremonies (Ero 2005: 8-14). The ancestor’s social status determined the length and splendor of the burial ceremony.
The common people’s burial ceremony lasted for seven days and was attended by family and the local community (Edebiri 2004: 7). The king’s burial ceremony lasted for fourteen days (Edebiri 2004: 7). The royal funeral ceremony was a grand occasion. The entire society paid homage to the departed king. Chief Isekhurhe would ceremonially strike the white-chalk (orhue) on the ground, breaking it into pieces. Chief Esogban would publicly proclaim “Osorue bunrun” or “the
white chalk has been broken” (Edebiri 2004: 2). Special funerary dances were performed. The ekasa dance was performed during the funeral ceremonies of departed Edo kings and iyobas (Queen Mother)(Edebiri 2004: 8).
There were also ancestral ceremonies for the entire kingdom. The Edo people worshipped the spirits of their departed parents in annual festival for paternal gods (Eho) (Ero 2003: 78). The Edo people believed that every eldest son was a chief priest for the departed family member. The ancestor’s entire family would take part in the festival with the eldest son officiating. The Eho festival was also intended to bring different lineages of the family together so that they could regroup and know one another (Ero 2003: 78).
After death, the father’s home usually passed to the eldest son. The eldest son was also the chief priest for his siblings and performed the familial ceremonies (Ero 2003: 14). The eldest son paid homage to the departed elders at the ancestral shrine (erinmwin-idu) located inside the compound (Ero 2003: 14). The eldest son sacrificed a goat and a cock to his departed father. The goat and cock were cooked and eaten the following day (Norborg 1992: 161). A dance for the ancestors called ohogho was performed at Eho. Ohogho was danced in a revolving circle, and the dancers played egogo bells. In the houses of certain chiefs, the emighan drums were played. According to Norborg, in some families, women played the ube drums (1992: 161).
If the eldest son neglected any of the ritual functions, the ancestors would inflict their wrath upon the entire familial group. The Edo people had a proverb that illustrated the importance of taking care of the elders and ancestors. The Edo proverb stated that “As you had done for your parents, so also your children will pay you back” (Ero 2003: 10). The Edo proverb could be a blessing or curse depending on how a person treated his parents. The Edo people believed that the ancestors could cause sickness and death if their descendents neglected them. The Edo people had a statement about a person that informed all about the neglect of an ancestor, it stated “he was troubled by the ancestors” (Ero 2003: 10). When neglect was ascertained, native doctors would be called in to determine what sacrifices were needed to appease the ancestral spirits to cure the problem. Because of the belief in punishment and reward, ancestral reverence was one of the major forces behind Edo morality (Ero 2003: 9). Belief in the ancestors maintained a high level of social order (Ero 2003: 9). Children were wary of bringing.shame upon the family because of some malevolent act. The community-at-large also refrained from committing acts that would upset the collective deified ancestors because of divine retribution.
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