Festivals in Benin Kingdom

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Timetable of Festivals at the Royal Court of Benin

Although some writers of Benin history have done some work on Benin festivals, writers have concentrated more on the end of the yearly festivals with scanty attention paid to the Ceremonies which come up to open the yearly cycle. Events and festivals of the opening months and middle periods of the year are either ignored or written off as footnotes to end of year festivals; sometimes as appendix to Benin socio-cultural systems.

As part of the preparation towards the yearly cycle, water from the last rainfall of the previous year is collected from either in November or December and stored as part of what would be used during Ague. Ague has come under different names for festivals that come up within the period of January to about April of every year.

Ugie Ukhure which opens up the yearly cycle comes up during Ifie (bush clearing) period of farming. The Ugie Ukhure is intended to enhance the fertility of the land and to seek the ancestors’ intervention for bountiful harvest. By the festival of Ugie Ukhure, the soil is blessed. It is also seen as the purification of the land where we live and harvest our foods. The purification process is not complicated as no blood animal except snail, wine and kola nuts are used to pray at the base of lkhinmwin tree. It is believed that snails bring cooling effect on the ground. In addition appropriate guild, such as the Ewaise helps purify the land before farming begins.

Still, during the period of the Ague the Ugie Ivie follows. The beads having been used for all festivals in the previous year are brought to the Palace to be blessed. This event takes place at the lwebo Chamber. All Chiefs bring their beads to lwebo for this festival. This event is performed without the participation of members of the public except the Chiefs. Once blessed the beads are cleansed for use and also believed to be enhanced with mystical powers. Benin Chiefs cherish beads that have been ‘processed’ because such beads are strengthened.
In the yearly sequence, Ugie Oro commences after Ugie Ivie. As observed every year the rains already begin to fall at this time, usually, about late march. The time period for Ugieoro can take up to twelve weeks.

Historically significant but now out of practice within royal cycle of festivals at the royal court is the festival of Eghute which was the feast of fertility. Fertility here is not a reference for soil fertility but procreation; aimed at preventing miscarriages and death at childbirth. As Paula Ben Amos correctly put it” All pregnant women are sent outside the city limits for the duration of the rites in order to protect them from the frightening secret activities. (Ben Amos P. 1980 P.78)

By Benin account, in the past, people were sent to Udo to collect herbs which were used to make medicines. These medicines caused corn and yams to fructify the same day as planted. (Ben Amos 1980 P.78)

Again, not now within royal cycle of annual festivals is the Orhu festival. A festival specifically directed at the driving of evil from Benin land. The biggest festival during the period of Ague is Ododua festival usually held about mid-March and dovetailing into early April. The ritual used to honour Oranmiyan’s father. It was introduced by Oba Eresoyen in the eighteenth century. (Ben Amos 1980:37)

By way of dress, the Ododua wear long robe made of red flannel {Ododo}. Each Ododua masquerade has his face covered with white cotton net immediately below the headpiece. Every masquerade has feet covered with white chalk. In their hands, they carried two items each, namely, hand fan made of leather on the one hand while on the other hand they may carry as the case may be, avalaka-like iron piece; some may carry Umozo-like piece or a cross. The Ododua masquerades have order of seniority amongst them.

The Chiefs whose assignment it is to manage Ague are Osa and Osuan. They officiate at Ague and by primary responsibilities also look after the royal gods of Uwen and Ora, a male and female who were husband and wife. The shrines of Uwen and Ora were said to have been brought from lfe with Oranmiyan.

In the period between Ododua and lgue, three Ceremonies come up, two annual and the other comes up as situation may demand in the Palace; that is on adhoc basis. They are Eho festival, Ugie lgun and Ugie lbudo. Eho is a festival which is carried out only by Chiefs and in celebration to their paternal ancestors. While it can be said that the Oba does not celebrate Eho directly as Chiefs do, but the Palace extends hands of blessings and support to the Chiefs during Eho festivals. This is because in the morning of the Eho festival day, all Chief (they celebrate Eho any day of their choice between late June and late September) go to the Palace where the Oba gives them four kola nuts to add to their items for propitiation to their ancestors.

Ugie Obodo on the other hand is a Ceremony where the Oba at his discretion directs that a Ceremony be put together for him to confirm ennobled Chiefs who have been awarded titles. The format of Ugie Obodo or Palace adhoc Ceremony is in some respects like Ugie Otue with all categories of Chiefs present. Details of Ugie proceedings will be explained when end of year festivals are discussed later in this paper.

The lgue festival starts with Otue Ugie Erha Oba. The end of year Ceremonies start sometimes at about the middle of December and goes on till about the last day of the year. During Otue Ugie Erha Oba Chiefs and Palace functionaries assemble at Ugha Erha Oba at about 4pm. The Oba later comes accompanied by Chiefs to join them at Ugha Erha Oba.

The very next day after Otue Ugie Erha Oba, is the Ceremony of Ugie Erha Oba. This Ceremony starts from about 3pm. All titled Chiefs dance with Emedo Emighan to the Palace. The drummers are supported by women singers.

The Oba in royal procession arrives Ugha Erha Oba walking through Adesogbe road (formerly called Plymount road). He moves up to the high platform; to the same platform that Aro Erha, the Erinmwindu shrine altar is established.

On Ugie Erha Oba day, Chiefs dress in their full regalia in line with their ranks. Primarily, all titled Chiefs wrap round their waist the Eyon. Those who are honoured with Ehangbehia, which is the Pangolin skin or scaly anteater outfit, wear them. Palace functionaries wrap round “Uhunmwogho”. It looks like Eyon but different by way of details. All Chiefs who have completed the associated Ceremonies wear their neck coral collar beads (Odigba) as well the rounded beads (lkele). Chiefs of all catergories wear bead necklaces, wristlets, and beaded anklets. On their foreheads, they wear Uda Ehae.

At Ugie Erha Oba, all Chiefs comes to the Palace with Emedo Emighan in a dancing procession with members of their family and friends. In front of every Chief is someone who usually carries his Eben which the Chiefs use to dance before the Oba.

At the end, the Oba himself rises and performs the dancing with Eben. In his case, he only simply majestically walks round the animals that were slaughtered in propitiation to the ancestors, the past Obas. There is no form of dancing to impress but he expresses a mere symbolic gesture and tosses his Eben amidst chanting of ‘lyare’! Animals slaughtered during this Ceremony usually include a cow, a goat and a cock.

Ugie Iron comes up on the third day, counting from Otue day.

The principal actors in Ugie Iron are the Lizama N’lhinron who do mock fight against those who support the Benin crown. The Uzama gets defeated by the Oba’s fighting team. This in Benin belief translates to means that all enemies of the Oba will always be vanquished while the Oba will always triumph.

Otue lguoba comes up a day after the Iron (as may be guided by the market days). Otue lgue Oba is the greetings Ceremony; usually a day before lgue Oba. Otue lgue Oba is done at Ugha Ozolua at a location where a raised platform is built, some yards from Urho Erie. At Otue, Chiefs come to the Palace to pay greetings to the Oba who himself sits on the Ekete (throne) in audience arrangement not different from the one done at Ugha Erha Oba some days earlier.

Otue lgue Oba is just a repeat of what was done at Otue Ugie Erha Oba. Not much difference except that one was done earlier in the quadrangle, the Ughe Erha Oba and Otue lgue Oba (and lgue Oba) are being done at Ugha Ozolua.

The lgue Oba comes up the following day. The lgue Oba is also called Adesugie. In the words of Omo N’Oba N’Edo, Uku Akpolokpolo Akenzua II, Oba of Benin, Ugie Erhoba differs from lgue Oba “in that in Ugie Erha Oba the King is the officiator while in lgue he is the object” (expressed by Oba Akenzua to Bradbury, 1959, BS-42).

On lgue Oba day all Chiefs come to the Palace in a dancing procession, dressed in their Chieftaincy costumes as awarded to them in lines with their ranks. By about 2pm, the Palace is filled up with people who have accompanied the Chiefs in their procession. In all directions one hears the sounds of Emedo Mighan, the Chiefs Ceremonial dance band. Soon the Omo N’Oba comes out of the Palace Chamber through lwori accompanied by the lhogbe group, Emehe, Efa, lkpema ba, lkpekete, Ogbelaka, lkpakoen lkpezuzu, the lkpema which is the group that plays Giemwenobasedo music, lkpe lwini, lgbuzebu, Oton, the Oludo dance band by the lweguae and the Esa kp aid e.

Ugie Emobo comes up on the fourth day after Otue lgue Oba. Emobo day is also the day the royals, Princes and Princesses of the Benin realm perform their own lgue.

During Emobo Ceremony, no animal is slaughtered. The Oba has an Emobo regalia as different from those used for Ugie Erha Oba and lgue Oba. Chiefs whose titles are of Egie Egbe perform their lgue on Emobo day. The venue for the celebration of Emobo is at the location on the right hand side of Urho Okpere at the entrance into the Oba Palace ground. A pavilion is set up there with red flannel by lwebo Society. On Emobo da y, the lhogbe arrive the Palace at about 3pm. The ihogbe carries from the ancestral shrine of the Oba Ukhure or staff and they wait at Ugha Erha Oba for the Oba, the same way the Ogbelaka group that plays the lwini music. As soon as the Oba arrives the Ugha Ozolua, these groups join in the procession to Unuogua where the Urho Okere is located, the venue of Emobo Ceremony. The lhogbe member holds the Ukhure covered with Ododo and stays in front of the Oba.

The yearly cycle of festivals ends with Ugie Ewere. In the evening before Ugie Ewere, all families in Benin led by the family heads come together to perform the rite of worship of the head (lgue Edo hia). The Benin people thank the head for making them survive and also for them to prosper. Prosperity for additional new children in the family and prosperity in improved farm yields in the outgoing year. The events just concluded in the Palace represent the Ceremonies at the State level. By it, every Benin man believes that the welfare of Benin people depend on the Oba’s head which is the object of worship at lgue Oba; an event all Benin people participate as a Benin central public rite of divine Kingship. This is the same reason that the Omo N’Oba directs all his subjects to perform their own lgue for the same reciprocal benefits that makes the family leader serve not only his own head but also those of his wives and children.

On Ewere day, the lhogbe group comes to the Palace in the evening with Ewere leaves in joyous celebrations. To the Oba and all the Benin people, it is an indication that all the Ceremonies the Omo N’Oba performed went well. Ewere Ceremony in the Palace is not a long Ceremony. The Oba comes out at about 5pm in the usual manner as he did in all other Ceremonies accompanied by Palace groups. This time, he does not dress heavily but put on the less sophisticate crown (Ede Ada) and the long robe either made in Ododo or white cloth.

The lhogbe led by the lhama follow in a single file to give Ewere leaves to the Oba one after the other. Even young children, some of them as young as seven years old hold the leaves and present to the Oba, although after receiving the first few leaves in his hands, the Oba allows the remaining presenters to lay their Ewere leaves by his feet. The main song on that event is ‘Ewere Ewere gbe arie rie’.

This bring the yearly cycle into a close and to begin again with Ague in the new year. Evil spirits have been chased away, the Earth has been appeased for higher agricultural yields; the person and god figure of the Oba revitalized and the Oba’s father propitiated. Once again, Benin belief “that the well being of the people depends directly upon the Oba’s life force or spiritual energy” as amply expressed by William Fagg is reinforced (Fagg, F. Divine Kingship in Africa, Trustees of the British Museum London, 1979).

Our rich culture in display

Of all festivals held in the Benin Kingdom, The Igue takes pre-eminence. First celebrated during the reign of Oba Ewuare (1440), the cultural excellence of the Edos could rightly be traced during Igue festival than any other festival in Benin kingdom The period of the festival in Benin, is a period when the Oba and the people of Benin embark on spiritual cleansing of the kingdom. Prayers are offered for continued protection and growth of the land.

The Igue festival, is a period of offering thanks and asking for blessings for the coming year. During this period, chieftaincy title holders display their Eben emblem in the Ugie dance as they appear in their traditional attire, according to the type of dress the Oba bestowed on individual chiefs during the conferment of title, while the Oba seats majestically in the royal chamber (Ogiukpo).

Chiefs Performing The Famous Igue Dance During The Igue Celebrations

The festival takes place during the last two weeks of every year at the palace of the Oba, the custodian of the Benin culture and traditions and always attracts thousands of people from the city as chiefs also pay homage to the ObaThose who watch it are taken back some hundreds of years into Benin history. In the days past,  visitors were not allowed to visit the Oba and all routes leading to the kingdom are closed to foreigners. After the Oba’s flag off of the festival, the citizens generally also carry out the family versions of the special prayers and festivities.

Other important festivals celebrated in Edo State include Ekaba, Ukpe, Irua, Agiele, Adu-Ikukwua,Ebomisi, Eho, Ipihionua, Ugbele, Itakpo, Ofarhe, Emomorhe, Iko, Uzo, Ugozo/Ihiasa, Uba,Egbere, Owere, Ukpako, Oriminyam, Ohonmoimen, Itikiri, Ivhamen/Ororuen, Amekpe, Oto-Uromi, Ighele and Okpuge-Oro.

There is also a Masquerade tradition being sustained.. The masquerades of the Edos are generally believed to be earthly representatives of some celestial gods, goddesses or ancestors. Many masquerades are linked to traditional festivals, while others are only social and for entertainment with no ritualistic backgrounds.

Music, Songs, and Dance

Considering the various forms of cultural events and festivals that exist amongst the Edos, there are quite a variety of music genres, songs and dances as each is celebrated with several unique dances.

Edo North treats you to spectacular tunes and dances with great agility. The harmony produced by a combination of great Altos, Sopranos and male voices is most remarkable. The echoes remain a long time in the mind after the performance.

In Edo Central, among the Esan speaking people, a series of New Yam Festivals from one community to the other will thrill visitors from September to early December. Amidst the celebrations, guests are treated to traditional dances which include the Asonogun dance, Igbabonelimhin dance, Kokoma, Kpegbegbe and a host of others. Among these, the Igbabonelimhin masquerade dance is exceptional for the masquerades in their unique and beautiful costumes treat guests to various forms of Acrobatic steps. Their gymnastic display is unparalleled and unsurpassable anywhere in the world.

From the swift steps in the central region, the spotlight falls on the relatively slower but calculated steps of royal dancers in the south. The Igue Festival ceremonies which begin in early December and runs through to the first week of January in Benin City features Chiefs in their royal regalia, who come to the Oba’s palace in their numbers to pay homage and celebrate Igue with the Oba. The come with their splendid dance steps and royal swagger.

In their colourful collection, they dance the Ugie-Oba. Traditional rulers in the affiliate towns and villages also come in their royal convoy to pay homage and celebrate Igue with the Oba who is the head of the traditional ruling council in Edo land. The entire event is  colourful and memorable.

Benin chiefs performing the traditional dance during the Igue

From the swift steps in the central region, the spotlight falls on the slow but calculated steps of royal dancers in the south. The Igue Festival ceremonies which begin in early December and runs through to the first week of January in Benin City features Chiefs in their royal regalia, who come to the Oba’s palace in their numbers to pay homage and celebrate Igue with the Oba.

In their colourful collection, they dance the Ugie-Oba dance. Kings in all the affiliate towns and villages also come in their royal convoy to pay homage and celebrate Igue with the Oba who is the head of the traditional ruling council in Edo land.  The entire event is so colourful and memorable.

In the area of music, a number of traditional songs and chants have been passed down from generation to generation via oral tradition. Most traditional songs are accompanied by heavy beats which the dancers step in tune with. Praise-singing is commonplace among musicians in the state. The involvement of the youths in the performance of these songs and dances ensures continuity in the traditional heritage of the people from one generation to the other.

In Edo State, there is no dance or song that has no satirical connotation or bearing. The songs or dances that have evolved in many communities in the state have socio-cultural backgrounds. The same pattern of call and response mode of singing and the deft chorographical dance steps obtain in all the areas of Edo State

Benin Traditional Dancers

In the area of music, a number of traditional songs and chants have been passed down from generation to generation via oral tradition. Most traditional songs are accompanied by heavy beats which the dancers step in tune with. Praise-singing is commonplace among musicians in the state. The involvement of the youths in the performance of these songs and dances ensures continuity in the traditional heritage of the people from one generation to the other.

Moving beyond the earlier traditional forms of music with a background of string, wind and percussion instruments, there are musical  performers  hired for all kinds of occasions and ceremonies Music artistes of Edo origin, including Osayomore Joseph Collins Elaiho, Segun Alile, Akaba Man, Chief Arala Osula, the late General Bolivia Osigbemhe, Vincent Ugabi, Sir Waziri Oshomah, Aibor Bello, Omo Smart Idonijie, Constantinopolous Osigemhe, Benji Igbadumhe, Patrick Idahosa, Felix Duke,Eno Lius, Omoadoni, Adesua, Queen Orete and scores of others have modernized the rich folklore songs of their people into universally-accepted music forms. The late Ohenhen, Chief Isaac Ayeni and Anco Momodu are exponents who are largely regarded as the doyens of the traditional music genre in Edo State.  Edo State has a rich share  of nationally and internationally renowned musicians also. Sir Victor Uwaifo, now a professor of music and arts, a multi-talented artist, leads this pack, with others including the late revolutionary Sunny Okosun and Majek Fashek 

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