The Benin Monarchy, Olokun and Iha Ominigbọn
Daryl Peavy, Independent Researcher
Abstract The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate a link between the historical figure Ọba Ọhẹn (ca.1334-1370 CE) and Olokun in Iha Ominigbọn. There are no overt mentions in the Iha Ominigbon corpus of Ọba Ọhẹn’s association with the deity Olokun. However, I seek to demonstrate that the oracle speaks about the monarch, and his dual identity with Olokun, as well as historical events involving Benin chiefs, in coded, language through sacred folktales in the segments classified as deep meaning, plain meaning, personal names, and sacrifices. This interpretation begs several questions: What significance does worship of Olokun represent for the Ọba of Benin and Benin people?
What is the association between Ọba Ọhẹn and Olokun? What is the significance of the Ọba of Benin and Olokun in “personal names”? What is the significance of secret, coded, and symbolic meaning in the folktales? What is the significance of “deep meaning” in relation to the historical conflict between Ọba Ọhẹn and Benin chiefs? What is the significance of “plain meaning” in the historical conflict? What is the significance of “sacrifice” to Olokun and “father” in Iha Ominigbọn? The analysis of Ọba Ọhẹn, Olokun, and Iha Ominigbọn can provide substantial insight into sociopolitial insight into sociopolitical events in Benin.
Introduction This paper will analyze the complexities of relationships involving the Benin monarch Oba Ohẹn, the deity Olokun, and Iha Ominigbọn1 —the oracle of Great Benin2 . Iha Ominigbon is the indigenous divination system of the Ẹdo people of Nigeria. While the intertwined relationship of this monarch and the deity of the waters and wealth is noted in history, the evidence the divination system provides has been unexamined.
The itan Iha Ominigbọn, those proverbs and folktales that relate to the oracular divination system, demonstrate a link—in secret, coded, and symbolic language—between Ọba Ọhẹn, who ruled Benin in the early fourteenth century, and Olokun. In Edo mythology, every Oba is believed to be the reincarnate of Olokun, and Ọba Ọhẹn is believed to be the first noted of these reincarnations,3 and this association strategically positions the Ọba of Benin near the top of the list of Ẹdo deities; he is surpassed in this regard only by Osanobua Noghodua (God Almighty), and the Benin monarchy enjoys a sustained political advantage as a result. According to Kate Ezra, in referencing a Benin plaque, “The mudfish-legged king refers specifically to Oba Ohẹn (r. early 15th centurry)”.
The Benin bronze plaques that represent Oba Ohẹn with mudfish legs are referring to “his divine nature; he is the son of Olokun and the grandson of Osanobua—the creator god. The mudfish legs express his terrifying powers, since they suggest orrirri [sic], the fish that can give a jolting electric.”4 This gives the Oba, like his counterpart, supremeority over life and death.
hrough my analysis, I hope to provide a meaningful glimpse into Iha Ominigbọn divination and how its coded references to the Benin monarchy and to the monarchy’s relation to Ọba Ọhẹn and Olokun have helped shaped Great Benin history. By examining the plain meaning and deep meaning of the oracle’s folktales, as well as the folktales’ sacrifices and use ofsacrifices and use of personal names, we can see that the oracle speaks about the monarch and his dual identity with Olokun.
In the secret, coded, and symbolic language of the itan, or proverbs and folktales, the oracle contrasts the sociopolitical power and positions of the Benin monarch and Olokun in the personage of Ọba Ọhẹn. Also, some of the enin ọmwan, or personal names, belonging to itan Ek’Odin Owiha5 of Iha Ominigbọn correlate the deity with the Benin monarchy. I will demonstrate that when the proverbs and folktales speak of “father,” they are referring to Olokun as the spiritual ancestral father of the Benin king. Similar to the Ẹdo, the Yoruba believe that a reincarnated person can be present in both the physical world and the spiritual realm.
Joseph O. Awolalu, a scholar of Yoruba religion, gives an example of ancestral rebirth into the same family, which is also applicable to the Ẹdo people: “This idea of reincarnation sounds paradoxical when we remember the Yoruba also believe that in spite of the child that is born, . . . the ancestral spirit still resides in the spirit-world where it is invoked from time to time. This is why we cannot describe what we have among the Yoruba as full reincarnation, but, partial-reincarnation”7 The secret, coded, andic language of Iha Ominigbọn is restricted to the Ọb’oguẹga (doctor of Iha Ominigbọn oracle). The Ọb’oguẹga is not only a diviner but also a holistic physician, treating the physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual components of the community through herbal, mineral, animal, and magical means.
The Ọb’oguẹga engages in years of initiations, study, and apprenticeship to comprehend the Iha Ominigbọn and become an efficient adept.8 It is believed that the pronouncement of the sacred coded language, or “words of power,” of the Iha Ominigbọn oracle unlocks cosmic forces. In order to clarify the organization of the Iha Ominigbọn corpus, I have grouped it into several sections for analysisitan, or folktales.
These include erhia dinmwin, or deep meaning, which refers to an in-depth understanding of the contents; erhia khere, or plain meaning, which is a concise explanation; enin ọmwan, or personal names, which refer to the client’s name that the Owiha represents; 9 ẹse, or prescribed sacrifices to the Edo gods, which reference the Edo deities associated with helping the client resolve problems or ensure success in life.
Although many studies have been devoted to African divination, 11 especially Yoruba divination,12 very little has been written about the primary divination system used in Great Benin—Iha Ominigbọn. Examinations of this system, especially those in English sources, are usually limited to a few sentences.
No full recording of the throws and related verses, or the related exegesis through tales and aphorisms, has been published, nor has there been any analysis of the contents. However, Iha Ominigbọn houses a rich source of materials relating to the history of the Benin monarchy and has shaped the framework in which traditional Edo-speaking people view the world, as well as perceive history.
I have conducted research in Esanland and Benin City since 1995; my work includes, but is not limited to, studies and interviews with professional diviners and other ritual specialists and initiations into Ẹdo religions, including Oguẹga, Osun, Ọrọnmila, Ẹziza, Azẹn, Olokun, and Esango. Additionally, I have trained as an Iha Ominigbọn diviner. My familiarity with this material allows me to recognize the historical references in the oral corpus and extract them for further examination.
My interviewees in field research provided me with the following information either in Nigerian English or Ẹdo language, which I later translated.
Being born outside of the Ẹdo culture, I had to overcome my own cultural bias or subjective relativity before I could take on the monumental task of applying the itan to any scholarly work. In fact, it took quite some time before I could grasp the latent meaning of any of the proverbs or folktales.
As time went by, my interaction with the culture, the people, and history—as well as my initiations into deeper aspects of Edo religion, spirituality, and worldview—caused the meanings of the proverbs and folktales to gradually become more translucent and their application more viable.
The large continent of Africa is a vast, fertile ground for various divination systems that have developed many methods for discovering the unknown, or “ways of knowing.” Peek states, “In Africa, diviners are first and foremost diagnosticians who reveal (directly or indirectly) causes for ailments. Secondarily they often aid their clients in healing with prescriptions not just for proper behavior but for herbal preparations, sacrifices, and so on.”
This is certainly true of Benin. In addition, by using divination to provide such remedies, the Edo diviner communicates with the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional aspects of the individual and society. This truly holistic approach incorporates all of the cosmic energies—positive or negative—and provides a way to avoid obstacles from either this world or the other world.
Iha Ominigbọn is the repository and key to the understanding of the psyche, morals, mores, religions, medicine, magic, culture, spirituality, and art—in short, the total society—of Great Benin. This core of Edo culture is an oral corpus containing the historical wisdom, knowledge, and metaphysical science of the society, and it holds references to the Benin monarchy accumulated over millennia.
Iha Ominigbọn includes proverbs that address nearly every aspect of Great Benin life, and these are used in both formal discourse and informal conversation to reinforce applicable philosophical ideas and societal mores. Great Benin culture is orate, performative, and creative, its language expressing deep philosophical concepts through itie, or name calling—pronouncements of oracular code words, praise names, and panegyrics.
All the above and more are contained in Iha Ominigbon because of its sacredness and insight into the inner self of the people and their culture. Iha Ominigbon is essential in truly understanding the culture of Great Benin. According to Egharevba in Iha Ominigbọn Vbobọ, “Iha Ominigbon ore aza kevbe isanhẹn ẹmwẹn Ẹdo. Nọ ma rẹn Iha Ominigbọn ẹ i sẹtin rẹn ọto ẹmwẹn Ẹdo ẹse,” or “Iha Ominigbọn is both the storehouse and key to the things of the Ẹdo. He who does not understand Iha Ominigbọn can never adequately know the roots of Ẹdo.”
Analysis of a people’s indigenous divination system provides insight into the deeper meanings of the culture and history. According to Peek, divination studies convey three guidelines that may help with this process: “The first is the quest for hidden aspects of our reality, . . . the second is the dynamic relationship that divination has with the culture and religion in which it is embedded and the window it offers us on social realities. 18” The learning and comprehension of the oracular language—itie, itan, and erhia19—require years of initiations, study, and apprenticeship. Iha Ominigbọn’s “words-of-power” are believed to unlock cosmic forces that can make the spiritual manifest into the physical, and this knowledge of oracular words is latent in the uninitiated.
Benin Monarchy, Iha Ominigbọn and Olokun: Some Background Questions
What is the association between the Benin monarchy and Iha Ominigbọn? The language of Iha Ominigbon refers to the Benin monarchy and Olokun in its itan of Ek’Odin Owiha,or proverbs and folktales; these references support and elucidate
historical events recorded elsewhere.20 Iha Ominigbọn, has ancient associations with both the Benin monarchy’s Ogiso and Ọba dynasties. While the exact origins of Iha Ominigbọn are uncertain, there is a consistency in the belief that it was brought to Great Benin by a foreigner. According to Osẹmwegie, the word Ominigbọn consists of three parts: Omi, which is the name of the person who introduced Oguẹga to Great Benin; ne, which means “of” or “from”; and igbọn, which refers to somebody who is not a native or does not behave like a Benin person.
Manfredi contends through linguistic studies that the oracle traveled to Benin, but Iha Ominigbon does not have Yoruba origins23 (2011, 3). According to Ọb’Oguẹga Jackson, “Oguẹga was one of the 201 divinities that came to agbọn (earth) at the beginning of time.
Therefore, Ominigbon or Oguega is one of the primordial Edo divinities. If Ob’Oguega Jackon’s account is taken literally, Iha Ominigbon/Oguega25 divination is one of the earliest systems of knowing for the Great Benin people, as well as others,26 although no exact date is referenced.
The history of the Edo can be organized into dynastic periods. One way to estimate the period that Ominigbon/Oguega arrived is by using the chronicled history of Benin and looking at the approximate dates of the ruling Ogiso or Oba dynasty. A part of Edo life since time immemorial, divination has been incorporated into creation stories, proverbs, folktales, psyche, religions, as well as kingship.
Oral tradition is the pivotal hub of Edo collective memory, so it is unsurprising that the oral traditions of kingship and Great Benin history mention divination and, most important, Iha Ominigbon. Osayọmwabo O. Ẹro writes that the eighth Ogiso (king)—Emẹhẹ, nicknamed the Oraculist (447–466 CE),27 from Benin’s Emẹhẹ Quarters—is associated with Iha Ominigbọn (1999, 21).
Ogiso Emẹhẹ was one of the greatest diviners and native doctors from Benin’s Emẹhẹ Quarters. Ero further specifies that Ogiso Emẹhẹ was a great Iha Ominigbẹn diviner. This, of course, puts the Iha Ominigbon divination system in Igidomigodo “ancient Benin“ during the Ogiso period around 447–466 CE. If Ẹro is correct, the arrival of Iha Ominigbọn can be no later than this date (1999, 21).
However, Iha Ominigbọn is probably older than the above date because Ogiso Emẹhẹ was already an accomplished Ọb’oguẹga (doctor of Iha Ominigbọn) by the time he ascended the throne. In an unbroken link, Iha Ominigbọn and other oracles continue to be used at the Oba’s palace. 29 27
What is the association between Ọba Ọhẹn and Iha Ominigbọn? Ọba Ọhẹn (around 1334–1370 CE) is the first monarch to be linked to the Olokun deity through secret, coded, and symbolic language and historical records.30 In the version I collected from the field, the itan, or sacred proverbs and folktales of Ek’Odin, use coded and symbolic language to mention Olokun—as well as Ogie, the traditional ruler—several times. In Egharevba’s version of Ek’Odin, Olokun along with Ogie31 are also referenced. It is by examining these itan that the reader is able to get a more in-depth understanding of the Benin monarch Ọba Ọhẹn and Benin’s history as well.
What is the significance of the Olokun deity in Edo land? Olokun is the most critical deity in Edo land. 32 According to legend, Olokun petitioned Osa (short for Osanobua (God) to endow him with all the riches he would need to help his devotees be successful.33 A Benin proverb succinctly illustrates this point: “No one ever lives without knowing Olokun, except one who never spends money.” In addition, his popularity can be attributed to people’s desire for a materially successful life and controlling success during life and his place within funerary rites.
Olokun is the only deity who must be appeased in order to guide the dead in and out of the spiritual world. At birth to death, the soul comes from the spiritual world to the physical realm in a boat through the vast sea—one of the deity’s symbols. 35 He is also the progenitor of female fertility and childbirth. The Ọbas have been linked with the Olokun deity starting with Ọba Ọhẹn (1334–1370 CE) and the stories of his mudfish legs.36 This reference alludes to the fact that Ọhẹn was a liminal being with the ability to exist in two worlds—ẹrinmwin (the spiritual world) and agbọn (the physical world). Ọba Ọhẹn was the first Benin monarch to officially and actively encourage Olokun worship.
In one rendition of Benin cosmology, Osanobua Noghodua, the Supreme Being and Almighty God, has three senior children: Obiẹnmwẹn, the now-archaic female deity of childbirth; Olokun, god of the sea; and Ogiuwu, king of death, 38 Obiẹnmwẹn, although the oldest child, could not inherit because she is female. By default, following the customary laws of Benin, Olokun, the second eldest and a male deity, inherits all of his father’s possessions and represents Osanobua Noghodua as his eldest son. As a consequence of the Benin monarchy’s association with Olokun, the Oba of Benin inherits through his father, the partial reincarnation of Olokun.
In Benin society, reincarnation is believed to take place through family lines, as well as a significant factor in the law of inheritance through familial lines. Belief in reincarnation plays a role in many aspects of Benin culture. According to Ẹro, “One of the greatest connections between the ancestors and the living is they can seek rebirth into the same family through reincarnation.”
In addition, Egharevba states in Benin Laws and Customs that “the system of primogeniture holds in Benin, both with regard to the crown and to all inherited property . . . if the king has no surviving male child, a brother may succeed to the throne,” 41 thus establishing a link between reincarnation, as well as inheritance through familial descent. Ero explains the inheritance of real property:
The Ọba’s ancestors are believed to take care of the whole nation, as the monarchs did when they were on earth. This is why the Benin people, mostly the chiefs and their households, join the Ọba in celebrating the Ugierhọba festival, during which homage is paid to the spirits of the departed Ọbas.
In describing the senior son’s relation to the departed father, Ero states, “The senior son is actually the chief priest of the departed father. He prays and intervenes on behalf of all the patrilineal descendants” (2003, 14).
Here, the Ọba’s dual nature of being the senior son of his biological father (the late Ọba) as well as the senior son of his spiritual father (the deity Olokun) establishes him firmly in line to inherit all the wealth of Edo land. Indeed, the Oba is known as Oba o re osanobua nagbọn, or “the god man”; his strategic, purposeful, and sociopolitical identification with the core deity of Benin—the deity of wealth and female fertility—and his association as his reincarnate, along with being the grandson of Osanobua,44 ensures the Edo people’s continued support of him and of their traditions.
There are many key politico-historical references to the Oba palace and Olokun, starting with Ekaladerhan, the okoro (or “prince”) who built the first communal Olokun temple in Ughọtọn. 45 According to Izevbigie, “Ekaladerhan must be credited for making the practical link between the leadership in Benin and Olokun.”
Olokun is also known as Eb’Ikalerderhan, or “the god of Ekalerderhan.” 47 Ọba Ọhẹn, the king depicted with mudfish legs, is represented in Benin iconography as Olokun reincarnate. 48 An additional link to the Benin monarchy is Ọba Ẹwuare.
It is claimed that Ọba Ẹwuare received the king’s regalia of coral beads directly from Olokun. 49 Ọba Ẹwuare rebuilt a second communal Olokun temple in Ughoton and another in Benin City. According to Izevbigie, Oba Ẹwuare fully completed the tripartite connection between Benin kings, Olokun, and Osanobua—or sons, father, and grandfather. (1978, 85).50 In addition, the architecture of Olokun temples reflects an association with the Benin kings. In mud palaces, or eguaẹ-Olokun, the walls bear the ama eguaẹ-Oba; these royal marks are parallel lines reserved for the Oba of Benin’s palace.
What is the significance of Olokun worship to the Oba of Benin and Benin people? Olokun is the most revered deity in Ẹdo land because of his association with wealth, female fertility, and childbirth. The most dreaded fate in Benin society is to die childless. 51 Children are extremely important because they assist in old age, as well as perform the necessary funerary rites for their parents. The deceased cannot make the transition to ancestorhood unless their offspring survive.
The emphasis on having children is evident in the designations of a person’s status at the time of death. The most sought-after death is called Ọfiya— death in old age and leaving surviving children Oguomirere is childlessness resulting from the death of children. Agan refers to death in old age without ever having had a child, and Uwu means death at a young age without children.
Not only is Olokun the deity who brings children into the world, but he is also the divine spirit that takes the departed to the spiritual realm in his boat, one of the deity’s symbols.53 Therefore, Olokun’s role as the deity of female fertility and the transporter of life in both birth and death, as well as his association with the Oba of Benin (his partial reincarnation), fulfills Benin society’s goals, particularly with regard to continued family lines and property through childbirth and inheritance.
For the Edo, wealth is children, as shown through this selection of the meanings of Benin names: Ẹf’ ọmọ ‘rẹfe—“having children is wealth rather than anything else,” Ọmọsigho—“having a child is better than having money,” Ọmọkaro (Ọmọkaruẹfe)—“a child is first in wealth.”
Also, the title Oba is common both to Olokun and the king of Benin. One of Olokun’s titles is Ọba n’amẹn, or “king of the water,” while part of the king of Benin’s title is Ọmọ n’ Ọba, meaning “child of the king” or “first child of Olokun.” 54 This demonstrates a connection with Olokun, as well as the monarch’s position as a deified traditional ruler through ancestral inheritance, the first child of Olokun, and supports the traditional government’s objective of divine kingship and legitimacy.
What is the significance of secret, coded, and symbolic language in Benin proverbs and folktales? Knowledge of Ẹdo proverbs and folktales, or itan, and their appropriate application are signs of a traditionally well-educated and cultured Benin person. Many of the characters and inanimate objects in itan Ẹdo take on anthropomorphic qualities and symbolize people or certain kinds of people in specific situations that can be applied to life’s individualized lessons. Some of these proverbs have been documented and notable examples are the works of Emmanuel I. Aigbe and Alex G. Igbineweka.
Ẹdo proverbs and folktales also give cultural references for an indigene, who could easily recall them from childhood memories. Yet many of the culturally symbolic and specific meanings would be hidden from the outsider. What is the significance of the similarity between the coded and symbolic language of the Yoruba Ifa religion and Iha Ominigbọn in Nigeria? There are similarities in the usage of folktales in Iha Ominigbọn divination with the better known Yoruba Ifa divination system. According to Wande Abimbola and Mary Nooter-Roberts:
Secrecy has three primary functions in Ifa. First, it is a safeguard against indiscriminate use of power. The second function of awo is to promote objectivity. Finally, awo protects against anti-social forces (Favret-Saada 1980, 31–91). The opening lines of almost every verse of the 256 Odu56 give a figurative name for the historical babalawo whose divination prescription these particular texts records.
Oracular remedies for the many individual prescriptions that constitute the Odu, these priests adopt secret names, their referents known only to the initiated. 58 In Iha Ominigbọn divination, similar to the Yoruba Ifa divination system, secrecy serves as a system of checks and balances between the diviner and clients, keeping the coded and symbolic language exclusive to the initiated, as well as concealing the clients’ personal information from the diviner.59 The Iha
Ominigbọn client whispers inaudibly into the utah60. Then the Ọb’oguẹga strikes the oracle with it to take the client’s message to ẹrinmwin (spiritual world); the answers from the spiritual world are returned in itan Owiha. What is the significance of coded and symbolic language in Edo religious lore? As in Yoruba religion, secrecy, 62 or coded and symbolic language, is incorporated into Iha Oronmila Odu. 64 In Ifism: The Complete Works of Orunmila, Volume 1, Cromwell O. Ibie states the following: Okonron-meji made divination for the ant before he left heaven for earth.
The ant was so small that he wondered how he was going to be able to work for a living on earth. He went to Okonron-meji otherwise known as Okon feere and feere. He told the ant he would be given governance over all food in the home if he could make sacrifice with 2 pigeons, 2 rats and 2 fishes, in order to gain everlasting control over all household materials in the world. He made the sacrifice and left for earth.
Okonron-meji’s secret, coded, and symbolic reference to an ant seeking a diviner and verbally communicating—asking questions and performing the recommended prescribed sacrifices—relays certain latent meanings to the reader that is privy to Edo or Yoruba cultural proverbs and folktales, as well as secret, coded, and symbolic meanings to the Benin Ih’ Ọrọnmila diviner, who would readily be able to apply this proverb and folktale to the appropriate situation for a client.
The similarities between the Benin Ih’ Ọrọnmila and Iha Ominigbon are striking. Although Benin Ih’ Ọrọnmila and Iha Ominigbon are two distinct oracular systems, their goals are the same: to help the client understand the meanings of the oracular proverbs and folktales in an effort to remedy the problem at hand.
Analysis of Ọba Ọhẹn, Olokun, and Iha Ominigbọn What is the significance of secret, coded, and symbolic language in the itan Iha Ominigbọn? As stated earlier, understanding the language of Iha Ominigbọn is reserved for the ob’oguega. According to Osemwegie, it consists of “deep Benin,” which is an archaic Edo language that is no longer spoken by the general public (Personal interview. 21 Aug. 2009).
Within the “deep Benin” of Iha Ominigbọn, secret, coded, and symbolic references keep the oracular language in the sole purview of the ọb’oguẹga diviner. However—and this is the case with Benin Ih’ Ọrọnmila as well—once the “key” to this secret language is understood, the everyday proverbs and folktales of the itan Iha Ominigbọn become comprehensible.
Olokun’s association with Ọba Ọhẹn can be demonstrated through the secret, coded, and symbolic language of Owiha Ek’Odin. The secret, coded, and symbolic language of the itan erhia dinmwin refers to Olokun, Ọba Ọhẹn, the iyasẹ, and the Benin chiefs and addresses the historical relationship that resulted in the iyasẹ’s death and an eventual rebellion.
Ek’Odin states: Iruẹbọ Erha ye ẹrinmwin—ọmwan ẹtin. Ugbẹn ogie ore nọkpọlọsẹ vbe ekhaẹmwẹn, o mu iran. Ugbẹn ise ọre ẹtin nọkpọlọsẹ vbe non ọriọni ẹmwẹ, ọ gha rrie va o Ugbẹn Olokun ọre—ọ mu amẹn66
“serve their Erha (Father) in spiritual world—a powerful somebody. When the king is more than chief, he suppresses them, when the ise (vital force) is more powerful than the word, it tears it. When Olokun is—suppresses water67”
Here, I contend that the oracle is using secret, coded, and symbolic language to say that the “king,” Ọba Ọhẹn, is “more powerful” than his weaker chiefs, so much so that he can “suppress them” or control them. All chieftaincy titles emanate from the monarchy.68 In addition, the monarchy owns all of the beaded regalia that a chief is permitted to wear based upon his title;69 these are beads made of stone70 or coral that originate from ẹguaẹ Olokun, or Olokun’s palace.
In other words, the Ọba of Benin grants the right to wear such regalia and can recall these rights upon demand, demonstrating his “power” over the chiefs and his ability to “suppress” them. This interpretation is reinforced in Benin legends of Ọba Ọhẹn and the murder of his prime minister, the iyasẹ.
The oracle simultaneously references—through secret, coded, and symbolic language—Olokun’s being“more powerful” than his junior or son, the king of Benin.73 Similarly, a more common Edo proverb contrasts the relationship of the superior Olokun74 with the junior Ọba of Benin: Ọba na amẹn erọ sẹ nẹ rhe oke, or “the king of the sea who is greater than the one on land.”
This comparison of the sea king (ruler of the vast ocean) to the land king (ruler of the much smaller terra firma) supports the itan that the sea god is “more than” the divine land king. In addition, I believe that Owiha Ek’Odin is referring to Olokun in the passage that mentions “Erha— powerful somebody.”
In Benin culture, the father is the ultimate head of the household. This headship76 over the family continues after a father departs for the spiritual world. I contend the itan is speaking about Olokun as the “ancestral father” of the Ọba, as well as the partial reincarnation of the deity, giving credence to divine kingship. The Edo and Yoruba are not identical when it comes to naming the partial reincarnation of parents.
According to Uyilawa Usuanlele, the Benin people believe in partial reincarnation but do not have Yoruba names like Babatunde and Yetunde to show that the parent has returned to the physical world. The translations of these words are Erha re nẹ and Iye re nẹ, but they are not used as personal names. 77 However, the process of partial reincarnation espoused by the Benin people is similar to that of the Yoruba.78
Therefore, a contextual examination will be applied to the analysis of the term father in the Owiha Ek’Odin, in order to show that Olokun is depicted as the “father” of Ọba Ọhẹn. In the above sentence, the spiritual Olokun-the-father is being prayed to by the partial reincarnation of the deity: his son, who is his divine manifestation in thephysical world, the Ọba of Benin—Ọba Ọhẹn. In addition, Owiha Ek’Odin’s references to Olokun and the Ọba of Benin’s power simultaneously allude to their wealth. Olokun’s wealth originates from the sea.
The Ọba of Benin’s wealth comes from the commerce of the market80 and daily presents offered at the palace, yet another comparison of Olokun and his son, the Ọba of Benin. In addition, the Oba’s palace merged with the Olokun cult and became the “state’s religion” in an attempt to control trade81 and wealth.
The marketplace, the physical center of wealth, is monitored and controlled by the Akaẹrọnmwọn (titled palace disabled and court jester) as well as “article lifters,” 82 who keep a close eye on “forbidden” market activities”.
Thus, utilizing the religio-political symbol of Olokun, the Oba, uses his servants to tightly control the ebb and flow of trade and wealth in the kingdom.kingdom. What do the Oba of Benin and Olokun signify in enin ọmwan of Ek’Odin of Iha Ominigbọn? It is not clear of Ọhẹn is a corruption of the word ohẹn which means “priest” in the Edo Language. If it is, then the name suggests his association with priesthood based on the historical accounts of their association, probably the Olokun cult as well.
Included within Iha Ominigbon corpus are enin ọmwan (or personal names) identified with many Owiha (or “houses of the oracle”) that suggest the essence of the mystical forces associated with said names. According to Izevbigie, “In Benin the meaning of names can be very important. From considering the names of people and places, one can gain insight into the political, social and religious philosophies and culture
bolic language suggests an intimate association between Ọba Ọhẹn and Olokun. These are Igbinokun, “I seek refuge in Olokun”; Olokunọrọbo, “Olokun is doctor who cures or saves”; Okunsogie, “Olokun is the ruler”; and Ọbasuyi, “the king is glorious.” 86 Igbinokun is composed of I, meaning “I”; gbinnna, “seek protection”; and okun, “water” or “god of water” in this context. Olokunọrọbo is an elision, and the full name is Olokun, “god of water”; o re, “cures or saves”; and obo, “native doctor.”87 Ọbasuyi is composed of Ọba, “king of Benin,” and suyi, “is glorious.”
These personal names reference the Benin monarch and Olokun simultaneously and interchangeably, addressing the association and link between the Benin monarchy and the deity that is supported by the traditional government. The most commonly used names in Benin culture are Osanobua, Olokun, and Ọba.
For example, some popular personal-names are; Osazuwa means— Osanobua “God” is the giver of wealth; Osanobua’s son—Olokun or Okunzuwa, meaning—Olokun is the giver of wealth; and Olokun’s son—Ọmọ N’Ọba— Ọbazuwa—the king of Benin is the giver of wealth;
The Edo word “gie” is utilized and an ending in the tripartite forms of Osasogie—Osanobua is greater than other kings; Okunsogie—Olokun is greater than other kings; as well as Obasogie—king of Benin is greater than other kings. 89 The interchangeability of these popular personal-names illustrates the comparableness and compatibleness of the Oba with the son and the deities, of Olokun as the Oba’s father, and of Osanobua as the Ọba’s grandfather, giving divine legitimacy and sociopolitical power to the Benin ruler.
Olokun’s superiority relative to the Oba of Benin, as well as to the Benin chiefs, is reinforced in itan Owiha Ek’Odin, where the oracle states, “Now serve their father in the spiritual world . . . a powerful somebody”; “The king is more than chief”; and “He suppresses them.”
These statements show the child is subservient to the father, just as the chiefs are subservient to the king. An alternative reading is that Olokun (father) is superior to the Ọba of Benin (son) and that the Ọba is superior to the Benin chiefs. Olokun’s ritual superiority to the Oba of Benin is demonstrated when a high priest of Olokun appears at the palace with the adaOlokun (ritual ceremonial sword of Olokun). The Oba of Benin must tip his own ada downward in acknowledgement of the deity’s elevated status.
In any other context, the priest is an oviẹn-Ọba, or servant of the Ọba (the term used for a native Benin person). 90 In turn, the Ọba of Benin’s ritual authority over the chiefs is visible in their mode of addressing him—they must kneel and properly salute him91 with appropriate respect and formality, for he is the “absolute ruler.” In the vernacular of ohẹn (priest) and ẹb’oguẹga (diviners), a “powerful somebody” means someone who has not only physical power but magical power as well92 In this case, Olokun is a being with vast magical powers—more so than a divine king, his son.
What exactly is the historical association between Olokun and Ọba Ọhẹn? In an attempt to conceal his paralysis, 93 Ọba Ọhẹn associated himself with Olokun. 94 Prior to his paralysis, in an effort to fortify his royal position with magic, Ọba Ọhẹn utilized the famous native doctors from the Olokun communal village Ẹvbo-Odebọ in Edo land and made them court physicians95 in an attempt to utilizetheir magical abilities. 96 According to Kathy Curnow, in one version of the story, medicine was used adversely to paralyze Ọba Ọhẹn’s legs.
In another version, according to Ekhaguosa Aisien, Ọba Ọhẹn fell into a hole and broke his legs, leading to paralysis. In any case, according to legend, the paralyzed legs and the association with mudfish (a liminal being) and its iconography gave rise to his mythological origins (Olokun) and made him the partial reincarnation of the deity.99 His mudfish legs were spiritually charged, and if they contacted the earth, they would render the ground infertile, 100 serving to enhance this mysterious legend.
In addition, legend states that Olokun asked Osanobua, his father, for permission to visit the physical world and became reincarnated as Oba Ọhẹn with mudfish-like legs, 101 legs that were spiritually charged—a sign of his divine qualities and sea-bound origins. This association has promoted and secured the Ọba of Benin’s political and religious authority in Edo land.
What is the significance of Ọba Ọhẹn, Olokun, and the Benin chiefs? Historical accounts relate an aggravated conflict between Ọba Ọhẹn and the iyasẹ103 (prime minister and head of the town chiefs) of Benin, which led the to plant medicine under a bridge that Ọba Ọhẹn would secretly pass.104 Sometime afterward, Ọba Ọhẹn was stricken with paralysis.
In order to conceal this, Ọba Ọhẹn rearranged the order in which his chiefs would enter and depart the council chamber. Before, the Ọba would be the last to arrive and first to depart. After his paralysis, Ọba Ọhẹn became the first to arrive and last to depart the council chamber, so as to conceal his servants carrying him to and from his throne.
One day, the iyasẹ hid and observed Ọba Ọhẹn’s servants carrying him into the council chambers. Subsequently, Ọba Ọhẹn had Iyasẹ Emuze killed for his deceit and contempt.105 Later, in rebellion, the chiefs stoned Ọba Ọhẹn to death because he had had the Iyasẹ killed.
This historical event is commemorated during a section in Ugierhọba107 ceremony. The Eghaẹvbonore, town chiefs,108 use a hand gesture to ask the Oba, “Iyasẹ vbo?” 109 This translates as, “Where is the iyasẹ?” The Oba replies with a similar gesture. 110 Ever since, Ọba Ọhẹn has been identified as a reincarnation of the Olokun deity.
What is the significance of itan erhia dinmwin Ek’Odin Owiha in relation to the historical conflict between Ọba Ọhẹn and Benin chiefs? I contend that the erhia dinmwin, or deep meaning interpretation of Ek’Odin of Iha Ominigbọn oracle, where it states that “the king suppresses them—chiefs,” refers in secret, coded, and symbolic language to the historical incident in which Ọba Ọhẹn killed or suppressed the Iyasẹ of Benin in retaliation for the Iyasẹ’s spying.
Furthermore, I suggest that Ek’Odin’s statement “when the ese [vital force] is more powerful than the word—it tears it” is speaking (1) of Ọba Ọhẹn’s vital force and medicine being more powerful than the Iyase’s orhiọn, or life force and/medicine, and (2) of a deity’s vital force being so much more than that of mere mortals.
In Great Benin religious, spiritual, and magical traditions, the “word” is believed to be very potent and carries its own spiritual force. Every prayer or incantation ends with the word of power. The esẹ, or vital force, from the partial reincarnation of Olokun is so powerful that it tears apart or cuts or destroys the Iyasẹ’s word or essence.113 In other words, the Iyase was effectively stopped from reporting his findings to the other chiefs by Olokun.
For sociopolitical reasons, this would eventually make the king’s murder of the Iyasẹ justifiable to the masses, because it was Olokun that performed the deed. Also, sacred itan, as well as the everyday proverb and folktale about Ọba Ọhẹn and the town chiefs, serves as a sociopolitical reminder for potential rebels that the divine monarch has the absolute power to defeat them.
In addition, Ọba Ọhẹn’s killing of the iyasẹ destroyed his physical existence, or tore him apart fromhe physical world, sending him to be born again through partial reincarnation115 at some later time.
What is the significance of Ọba Ọhẹn and the Benin chiefs and erhia khere of Owiha Ek’Odin? The erhia khere, or plain meaning interpretation, of Ek’Odin speaks of otọẹ (or “ground”), okuta (or “stone”), and Otọẹ (or “god of stone or ground”). There are several interpretations as applied to Ọba Ọhẹn and Benin town chiefs that can be examined. I contend that the secret, coded, and symbolic language of erhia khere refers to Ọba Ọhẹn’s spiritually charged mudfish legs117 contacting the otọẹ, or “ground.”
In support of this interpretation, the legend of the ground being made infertile on contact with Ọba Ọhẹn’s mudfish legs suggests an intimate association between the ground and the Oba’s spiritually charged legs. In itself, otọẹ, or “ground,” is deified in the form of Otoe—divinity of the earth, which is very powerful.118 Also, the sacred ground is able to neutralize other magic.
Olokun’s vital force (ase) energy is water; Ọba Ọhẹn, as the partially reincarnated deity of water, is greater than and also neutralizes the ground. Water is able to wash away the ground, break down earthen barriers, as well as reshape the earth—that is, water can suppress the ground. This is coded, symbolic language for Ọba Ọhẹn’s superiority and temporary postponement of a rebellion by his chiefs, especially the iyaẹe.
Furthermore, I believe the erhia khere of Owiha Ek’Odin and the mention of okuta, or “stone,” refer to the legend that Ọba Ọhẹn was stoned to death by the Benin people for his killing the iyasẹ of Benin.119 However, there are alternative meanings to the erhia khere Ek’Odin. In my experiences as an Ọb’oguẹga, when Ek’Odin usually falls for a client (three other Owihas compose the total set of sentences as well and the meaning is contextual), it can indicate that the person is strong, immovable, permanent; like a stone or the ground or like the god of ground, who can neutralize any bad or evil medicine, such a person can overcome obstacles. Applying this analysis to Ọba Ọhẹn, a sociopolitical figure representing the Benin monarchy, we see him depicted as someone who can overcome any obstacle because he is immovable, permanent, and can neutralize any evil medicine.
What is the significance of Ọba Ọhẹn and Olokun in the ẹse of Owiha Ek’Odin? The ẹse of Iha Ominigbon prescribes making sacrifice to the Benin gods. In this case, Ek’Odin prescribes offerings to Olokun and the ancestral “father.” I believe that “father” is a coded reference to Olokun as the father of Ọba Ọhẹn. Here is another example of the father-son relationship from partial reincarnation.
The son, Ọba Ọhẹn, is making a sacrifice to his spiritual father, Olokun, who is in the spirit world and at the same time exists in the physical word as Ọba Ọhẹn, the partial reincarnation of the deity himself. Also, the ancestral Benin kings are the “fathers” of Ọba Ọhẹn, as the partial reincarnation. By going to their respective shrines, Ọba Ọhẹn serves and pays homage to Olokun (his spiritual father) as well as the ancestral father.121 I contend that examining the types of offerings selected suggests the deity’s and royal ancestors’ preferences and reinforces the deity’s sociopolitical association with the Benin monarchy.
The ẹse of Ek’Odin states the following: “Iruẹbọ -Olokun keghi re Ọkporu nọfua, Erha keghi re Ayọn, ẹvbẹẹ, kevbe Ọkporu, ọghe Esu keghi re ovbukhọ nọfua,” which translates as, “Sacrifice for Olokun deity is made with white cock, to Erha [father]with drinks, kola nut, and a cock, and to Esu with he-goat.”
The types of offerings, as well as their colors, have secret, coded, and symbolic meanings. I contend that the sacrifice of a cock (male gender) to Olokun symbolizes kingship because the fowl wears a crown on its head (cock’s comb), making it an appropriate offering. The cock’s comb is also red (ododo), a color associated with power, royalty, and spiritually charged areas,and it is a part of the ritual ceremonial attire of the Oba of Benin.
Also, the color white is a symbolic reference to Olokun, for it symbolizes purity, as well as the Benin monarch. In addition, the Benin monarch’s regalia is either white or red or a combination of the two colors, both colors representing his connection to the Olokun deity.
According to Izevbigie, “The ododo may be the most sacred and prestigious of all the costumes of the Oba’s regalia” and the color white is also important in ritual attire. Here, Olokun and the ancestral Erha (father) take the cock, suggesting that their requirements are the same—and in fact, they are the same entity in different manifestations, the spiritual deity as well as the physical god king.
I suggest that the focus on the sacrificial bird’s being male results from two factors: (1) Olokun is a male deity. (2) Only the firstborn male heir, or Edaikẹn, may ascend to the throne; 126 thus, all Benin kings have been male. All Benin deities take kola nut127, and it is a traditional offering.
All the Edo deities take some kind of drink. However, Olokun does not take harsh drinks, 128 but harsh drinks were not prescribed. The prescribed sacrifices of Owiha Ek’Odin of the Iha Ominigbon are both synonymous with Olokun (“father”) and the Oba of Benin, reinforcing the sociopolitical association of the Benin monarchy with the deity.
In this context, Esu takes his normal sacrifice, a male goat, to help with carrying the sacrifice to Olokun and Erha in ẹrinmwin (spiritual world) complementing the Edo cosmological order of Olokun or Osanowa, a positive force, and Esu131 ,a negative force. Both are necessary for the monarchy and Iha Ominigbọn.
In conclusion, the itan in each segment of Owiha Ek’Odin of the Iha Ominigbọn—deep meaning, plain meaning, personal names and sacrifices— provide indirect references in secret, coded, and symbolic language to Olokun, Ọba Ọhẹn (divine king), and rebellious Benin chiefs. All of these itan Ẹdo nẹdẹ ọghe Iha Ọminigbọn, or ancient Great Benin proverbs and folktales of the Iha Ọminigbọn oracle, are essential to elucidating latent aspects and complexities of the Great Benin worldview in general and give insight into socio-historical events in particular.
The Benin monarchy strategically positioned Ọba Ọhẹn as the partial reincarnation of the Olokun deity, the most revered god in Edo land and son of Osanobua, or God Almighty. In this way, the socio-political legitimacy of the Ẹdo ruler is ensured, as is his adoration by the Ẹdo people. The Ọba’s divine status was instrumental in quelling rebellions initiated by the Benin chiefs, benefitting not only Ọba Ọhẹn but also later Benin monarchs, such as Ẹwuare, Ọzọlua and Ẹsigie (who were Ọhẹn a son, grandson, and great-grandson, respectively).
I contend that the itan, or proverbs and folktales, of Ek’Odin ofe Iha Ominigbọn indigenous oracular system of Ẹdo land contain insight into some historical events during Ọba Ọhẹn’s reign and that because of the oracle’s secret, coded, and symbolic language, the meanings of the itan were previously available only to the initiated—Ọb’oguẹga diviner. My analysis involves examining the complete itan of Ek’Odin, consisting of erhia dinmwin (deep meaning), erhia khere (plain meaning), enin ọmwan (personal names), and ẹse (prescribed sacrifices), along with the known historical aspects of Ọba Ọhẹn’s reign and his conflict with the Benin chiefs.
Each of the itan segments contains valuable socio-historical insights about Ọba Ọhẹn: his status as a beloved deity and his paralysis, his status as an opposed ruler and his subjugation of an imminent rebellion, his eventual confrontation with and murder of Iyasẹ Emuze (leader of the town chiefs), and the retaliation of the town chiefs for the murder.
I contend that the erhia dinmwin, or deep meaning, of itan Ek’Odin where it states that “the vital force is more powerful than the word—it tears it” speaks of Ọba Ọhẹn’s vital force being more powerful than Iyasẹ Emuze’s word—he was going to inform the town chiefs about the Oba’s paralysis—and refers to the murder of the iyasẹ by the Ọba’s servants.
I suggest that when itan erhia khere Ek’Odin speaks of “ground,” it refers to Ọba Ọhẹn’s spiritually charged mudfish legs, which were so powerful that their touch would make the earth infertile, and addresses his association with Olokun. Where itan erhia khere Ek’Odin speaks of “stone,” it refers to the town chiefs’ using stone—or orhue, white kaolin chalk, which is one of Olokun’s symbols—to murder Ọba Ọhẹn.
I contend that where the itan ese Ek’Odin speaks of “father,” it refers to Ọba Ọhẹn’s making sacrifice to Olokun, his spiritual father, as an example of the divine father-son relationship through partial reincarnation.
I suggest that the type and color of the sacrificial offerings reveal the preferred colors of Olokun and the monarch, white (symbolizing purity and powerful kingly attire) and red (the color of the cock’s comb or crown).
I contend that the itan enin ọmwan, or personal names, of Ek’Odin speak of the association of Olokun, kingship, and Ọba Ọhẹn. All of these sacred proverbs and folktales have been systematically incorporated into the indigenous oracular system of Benin, Ek’Odin of the Iha Ominigbọn, as the sacred cultural memory of sociopolitical and religious events—illustrating how politics and religion are often married to promote a reigning monarch’s status.