People and Culture of Benin Kingdom

Explore the history, people, culture and art of the great Benin Kingdom

People of Great Heritage

The people of Benin, the Edo people have a rich cultural heritage rooted in history. Over the years, the deeper essence of the normative values constitute an influence on the worldview of the people.

Identification

The people popularly referred to as “Bini” by others and  Edo by the indigenous, are descendants of the founders of the pre-colonial ancient and powerful Benin Kingdom and empire  (originally called Igodomingodo), now located in South/Mid-Western Nigeria and encompassing what is now Edo State, as well as surrounding areas.

The Benin people are those speaking varieties of the Edoid language, who occupy the Edo South senatorial district of Edo State in present-day Nigeria. The Edoid language is a branch of Kwa linguistic group of the Benue-Congo language family, which is the largest and most complex branch of the Niger-Congo language classification. The land of the Benin people is located in the sub-equatorial climatic zone where cumulus moist clouds, high rainfall, sunshine, relative humidity, fluctuating temperatures and favourable winds are experienced. These climatic elements have stimulated the growth of tropical rainforest which is evergreen and characteristically deciduous in nature.

The people are located in the Districts of Oredo, Orhionmwon, Ovia and Uhunmwode, which now constitute the seven local government areas of Edo South namely, Oredo, Egor, Ikpoba-Okha, Orhionmwon, Ovia North East, Ovia South West, and Uhunmwode. Within the districts, certain locations are identified as Iyekogba, Iyekuselu, Iyekorhionmwon, and Iyekovia. Within the location of the districts are specific areas of settlement such as in Uhunmwode where the people are in Ehor area, Umagbae area, Ahor area, and Urhokuosa area.

Benin had in over three thousand years of continuous history, developed a well articulated culture that captured the way of life, and indeed, the worldview of the people.  The culture is represented in the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual accomplishments of the people. The ideas, customs, beliefs, values, attitudes, hierarchies, religion, roles, notions of time, the concept of the universe, and social behavior of the people of Benin cumulatively define their cultural heritage. While outstanding achievements were recorded in the evolution of political culture, and in other aspects of culture such as dressing, palace and chieftaincy regalia, art, law, administration, medicine, and architecture, the cultural system was opened to influence from neighboring groups and even from the Europeans. However, the colonial period introduced additional cultural influences in the areas of education, language, religion, politics and economy.

The rich cultural heritage of Benin is well-known around the world. Benin boasts of the finest and purest bronze works in the world; and there are also carvings in ivory and wood, bead arts, pottery, and other crafts. Internationally, the technical sophistication and precious materials of the works of art are much admired, and many were looted and sold by the British after the conquest of Benin in 1897, and a lot now adorn museums in Europe in Europe and United States of America. The history of the objects has been subject of continuing research and investigations.

The Benin culture is manifested in their values, a rich tradition and festivals which make them peculiar among other ethnic groups in Nigeria. Ugie is one of the great festivals of Benin, instituted by Oba Ewuare the Great c.1440 AD. It is an end of year festival of thanksgiving, with a series of ceremonies which usually commence in the middle of December. Ugie features such great feasts such as Emobo, Orro, Igue, Ubirie, and Ewere. In the ceremonies and celebrations, Ewere is the climax of Ugie, where goodwill leaves (Ewere leaves) are distributed throughout the kingdom to usher in peace, progress, good health and prosperity for the Oba and people of Benin. The Ugie festival itself has strong spiritual re-strengthening of the people.

This rich cultural heritage has made Benin the home of arts, culture and tourism. This has encouraged the development of tourist attractions, and the preservation of the cultural heritage and historic monuments and sites. The lovers of arts and culture and holiday-makers will find the place a distinctive destination of the values and traditions of the people which have been transmitted from generation to generation. The long history of Benin and its fascinating culture are an indispensable contribution to world cultural heritage, and the monarchy is the expression of the kingdom’s civilization, hopes and aspirations.

Location, Geography and Climate

Benin City

The Benin Kingdom is strategically located even as it is economically and culturally endowed. It is situated in Edo State which has a land mass of 19,794 km square.

The Benin Kingdom is strategically located even as it is economically and culturally endowed. It is situated in Edo State which has a land mass of 19,794 km square. Lying on 05 44 N and 07 34 N latitudes, 05 4 E and 06 45 E longitudes. The entire area is low lying except towards the north axis where the Northern and Esan plateaus range from 183 meters of the Kukuruku Hills and 672 meters of the Somorika Hills.

The state is so located that it forms the nucleus of the Niger Delta region. It is bordered by Kogi state to the North and Delta State to the East and South, Ekiti and Ondo States to the West.

Like most other locations in the southern region of the country, the climate is typically tropical with two major seasons- the wet (Rainy) and the dry (Harmattan) seasons. The wet season lasts from April to November and the Dry Season December to March.

The Edo people of South Western Nigeria are divided into a number of sub-Units. The people of Benin occupy the heartland of the territorial patrimony of the Edo race and they constitute the nucleus of the Benin Kingdom, once an empire many, many years ago.

Centuries ago, at the time when the land was called Igodmingodo, the geographical area now known as Benin, was the hub of a mass of little towns that developed and spread into most of the areas of the old Mid-Western region created in June 1963 from the Benin and Delta provinces. The status of the region was changed to a state on May 27th 1967, and the state was in turn renamed Bendel State on March 17 1976. Bendel State was further divided into Edo and Delta states onAugust 27 1991 with Edo state now habouring most of the Bini.

With Benin City as capital, the population of the entire state is approximately 4million. The main ethnic groups in Edo State are: Edos (Bini), Afenmais, Esans, Owans and Akoko Edos. The Edo (proper) now occupy seven out of the 18 Local Government Areas of the Edo State and  constitute 57.54% while others Esan (17.14%) Afemai comprising of Etsako (12.19%), Owan (7.43%), and Akoko Edo (5.70%). However, there are splinters of Igala-speaking communities exist in Esan South East, Egbira related communities in Akoko and Afemai Areas as well as pockets of Urhobos, Izons, Itsekiris and Yoruba communities in Ovia North East and South West Local Government Areas especially in the borderlands and riverine swaths. Also, Ika speaking communities exist in Igbanke in Orhionmwon LGA.Generally in modern Nigeria most people of the other ethnic groupings live, thrive and regenerate in all parts of Edo land.

Virtually all the groups trace their origin to Benin City.The Esan, the Afemai, The Isoko, the Urhobo  are all of Edoid origin despite the tendencies for ethnic distinctions.

Demography

The Edo people of South Western Nigeria are divided into a number of sub-Units. The people of Benin occupy the heartland of the territorial patrimony of the Edo race and they constitute the people of Benin Kingdom.

Centuries ago, at the time when Benin was called Igodmingodo, the geographical area now known as Benin, was the hub of a mass of little towns that developed and spread into most of the areas of Bendel State (the Mid-Western Region was a division of Nigeria from 1963 to 1991, from 1976 being known as the Bendel state). As time went by Bendel State was split into Edo and Delta States, with Edo State harbouring the Bini tribe.

With Benin City as capital, the population of the entire state is approximately 4million. The main ethnic groups in Edo State are: Edos, Afemais, Esans, Owans and Akoko Edos. As a result, the Edo (proper) now occupy seven out of the 18 Local Government Areas of the Edo State which constitute 57.54% while others Esan (17.14%) Afemai comprising of Etsako (12.19%), Owan (7.43%), and Akoko Edo (5.70%). However, the Igala-speaking communities exist in Esan South East, Igbira related communities in Akoko and Afemai Areas as well as Urhobos, Izons, Itsekiris and Yoruba communities in Ovia North East and South West Local Government Areas especially in the borderlandsVirtually all the groups trace their origin to Benin City, although, these days the Esan, the Afemai, The Isoko, the Urhobo and others see themselves as a distinct ethnic group though they are all of Edoid origin. The Bini speaking people who occupy seven out of the 18 Local Government Areas of the state constitute 57.54% while others Esan (17.14%) Afemai comprising of Etsako (12.19%), Owan (7.43%), and Akoko Edo (5.70%). However, the Igbira speaking communities exist in Akoko Edo as well as Urhobos, Izons, Itsekiris communities in Ovia North East and South West Local Government Areas, especially in the borderlands. Also, Ika speaking communities exist in Igbanke in Orhionmwon LGA.

Language

A core member of the group of genetically related languages called the Edoid group, the Edo language is rated as one of the first few of the twenty-four languages, which make up the Edoid group in Nigeria.The Edo people are the ancient Kwa Niger-Congo language Bini-speaking ethnic groups including the Esan, the Afemai, the Isoko, the Urhobo among others. Edo people speak Ẹ̀dó also called Bini. It was and remains the primary language of the Edo people. There is, however, a slight dialectal change among the variant Edos which identifies them through the dialects of , Esan, Etsako and Owan. While these various “dialects” are spoken, Ẹ̀dó is the main language as used in official traditional events.

Culture

A large number of communities and certainly the ruling dynasties in all the clans trace their roots to the ancient kingdom of Benin. Cultural similarities are in the areas of religious worships, folk-lore, dances, and festivals, traditional modes of dressing, arts and craft. The political pattern and behaviour are based on a situation where both the monarchical and republican ideas flourish in an integrated manner.

Customs and traditions  are of course a huge aspect of the culture. The colourful traditional festivals manifest its rich cultural heritage. Most of the traditions and festivals still celebrated today are religious as the people remain strong believers in providence.

Let it be affirmed that one of the very basic, yet well researched submissions of sociologists is to the effect that a culture of a people must be gratifying. This means that all of those traits that gather under the banner of the so called culture, must in practice be such that give joy to the practitioners. Also from an elevated spiritual point of view, apart from the culture being something that is dynamic, it must also never lose the beautiful side of its essence. It is when the culture is kept beautiful and intelligible that the enduring and beneficial pearls therefrom are preserved in a sustainable manner and in a way that is agreeable to most of its practitioners or inheritors.

In the new time, this should also be key as a people once versed in breathtaking art, adept in military campaigns and astute in socio-political organization, take an important step to face up with the realities of the 21st century within the context of a modern Nigeria.

Dressing

One of Africa’s richest dress cultures, the people of Edo are well-known for their traditional attire. The Benin dress culture (Nigeria) reaches back to antiquity, its basics including beads, wrappers and clothes, body marks, bangles, anklets, raffia works and more.​

The Edos have one of  Africa’s richest dress cultures. The people are well-known for their stand out traditional attire. The Benin dress culture (Nigeria) reaches back to antiquity, its basics including beads, wrappers and clothes, body marks, bangles, anklets, raffia works and more. Apart from the big ceremonial dresses, there are costumes for chiefs styled after the Roman Catholics, while the formal citizens wear include the Iwu dress and other forms with high neck collarless designApart from western styled apparels, a flowing robe- agbada made with any material ranging from Ankara, Voile, Lace, Jacquard, or Guinea cloth material is worn over a trouser and topped with either a long or short-sleeved loose shirt of the same or varied material and an embroidered cap and carved walking stick may compliment this dressing. For some traditional rites, the white wrapper is usually tied around the waist, and Coral beads are popular among the men and women folks.

The Edos place a high value on coral beads.  The two kinds of Coral beads; ‘Ivie’ and Ekan’. are both members of the Coral  family. Corals are mined from Coral stones in oceans and polished to jewellery. ‘Ivie’ is a brand of Coral beads considered as sacred jewels, an important type of jewellery worn by Edo Chiefs. When coloured red, it assumes inestimable value in the eye of the people and are prided as objects of sacred beauty and harmony. ‘Ekan’ looks like a stone and is greyish in colour.

Benin traditional attire

Today, all over the Nigeria, women are seen wearing the coral beads hairstyle which mainly draws inspiration from the unique Benin hairstyle Eto Okuku worn for ceremonies, brides at weddings and other special occasions. The hair is woven and beaded in a crown-like manner.  There are now also instances where complementary beads are worn around the neck and sometimes also now  on the shoulders.

Food

The staple diet of the Edo people is fairly representative of what obtains in most southern states in Nigeria.  Their diet consists of a lot of vegetables, carbohydrates and some meat. Rice and beans are popular across the state. The Edos pride themselves as good pounded yam eaters and generally prepare this and others such as plantain in homes and restaurants. As far as meat goes, they eat mostly beef, fish and chicken.

The traditional cuisine aincludes Pounded yam or Eba which is eaten with such soups as Black Soup (Omoebe), Bini Owo soup, eaten with plantain or yam, Starch and palm nuts (banga) soup or melon soup  Corn soup, Isaewe (groundnut soup) cooked with either bush meat (Antelope, Pig and Grasscutter etc), beef or fish. Due to the constant social interaction of the people from other parts of Nigeria and Africa, other  foods like Amala, varied types of pepper soup, fufu  and of course western cuisine and the growing fast foods have  crept into the local menu.

Economy

The economic activities of the Edos at the start of the century largely depended on coastal trades even though  agricultural activities are also a  major feature of the economic life of the  people. Yam, plantain, cassava, palm oil, maize  etc., are the basic crops  while a labour supply is usually mobilised for the harvest.

The other cash crops of the area include Rubber and Timer. With its bronze heads, decorative brass plats and Ivory ornaments, the Benin kingdom has an enriched economy. Tese together with a growing carpentry and furniture trade are of great export value.

Religion

Freedom of worship is enshrined in the ethos of the people. The adherence to any form of religion  is one of the features for which the Edos are known., perhapse a good reason for the religious harmony that prevails . There are three predominant religions practised by the Edos evolved and received at different times. First was traditional religion then Christianity and later Islam. The biggest place of worship in the state for the adherents of the old Christianity received from the Portuguese is the Holy Arousa Cathedral in Benin City, headed by the Oba. It is widely acclaimed as the oldest church south of the Sahara. There are still a number of traditional religious adherents who still keep their alters, shrines and ancestral worship figures. The Benin monarch occasionally attends worship at the traditional church especially after Igue festival for thanksgiving. The temple which conducts services every Sunday is acclaimed to have  the most unadulterated bible used for worship. Today however,  traditional religious practices are gradually giving way to the two other major religions.

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