HOW BENINS WORSHIP GOD TRADITIONALLY
Departed ancestors and “the Head” are worshipped in Benin Kingdom, just as the Benin people believe in the concept of the guardian spirit. The departed ancestors may be parents, heroes, heroines, chiefs or Obas.
The belief within the Benin cosmos is that the departed ancestors are still living members of the extended family. An art/cultural historian, High Priest Osemwegie Ebohon, in his article entitled “1400 Years of Benin Kingdom: From the Ogisos to Oba Erediauwa”, noted that death only physically separates the dead from the living. The belief in life in the hereafter or life after death is not just widespread among the people but is engraved in the deepest part of their thought. This may partly be the reason Ebohon noted that even after physical death the people still maintain links with the departed. “Spiritually, they are still communing with members of their families here on earth,” he wrote.
According to Ebohon, these ancestors live in the spirit world, Eguae Osanobua-Eguaosa, with God and have God’s ears. “Therefore, it is wise to pray through them to God for assistance in the arduous journey through life. In fact, these ancestors are even deified. They are consulted daily, routinely or during important occasions and sacrifices are offered to them for such life-making assistance,” he added. Whether it is daily, routinely or on special occasions, the traditional diviner is said to be always at hand to find out the wishes, orders, pleas, moods and emotional feelings of ancestors on request. “No Bini ignores these because the ancestors by fiat can cause pain, illness, poverty, impotence, insanity, infertility, childlessness, accidents, poor crop yields and even death for any transgression against them.
“The power, influence and authority of the ancestors are never ridiculed, questioned or challenged by the Binis in secret or in public,” Ebohon stated. To the traditional Benin, it is considered a sacrilege to go contrary to this deeply held belief. How then does the traditional Benin commune with their ancestors? “Homage is paid to the ancestors at meal or drinking times by descendants through the ritual practice of throwing food pieces and pouring libation to them before the first bite or drink is taken. It is a rule that the ancestors must eat and, or drink first before living descendant,” Ebohon explained. Homage-paying is not an all-male affair. The females, too, are involved. The art/cultural historian said: “Females that have lost their parents or any of their parents could give libation to their immediate ancestors.”
There are three platforms for the worship of ancestors in Benin Kingdom. Ebohon identified these platforms as the family altar, the palace altar and the communal altar. The family altar is where the eldest surviving male child, as chief priest, prays and intercedes on behalf of the family members to his departed father. The palace altar (or altars) is where a reigning Oba worships his departed Obas. A communal altar, as the name suggests, belongs to the community and it is where departed great elders in the community are collectively worshipped during certain festivals. At the community level, the Odionwere (eldest male) leads the worship. Similarly, Benin people regard the human head as more than a biological entity. To them, as Ebohon puts it, the human head is an altar through which God can be worshipped for conferring success on a person in life or for approaching God to get His blessings. “Success in life, among the Binis, is interpreted to mean that one has a good steering compass in the head. So, the Binis say you have a good head (Uhunnoma).”
The annual Ugie festival, usually celebrated every December, is said to incorporate head worship for the Oba, the royal family, palace chiefs and all sons and daughters of Benin Kingdom. It is also said that ancestral worship has a segment that is devoted to head worship. Ebohon further explained that to celebrate head worship as a religious practice, Benin people had a special commemorative head carving called “Uhunmwan Elao” kept in ancestral altars. Besides, he said there was an ancestral wooden staff of authority known as “Ukhurhe” with a carved human head on it, which is equally placed on the altars. Sometimes, according to him, there are rectangular bells (Eroro) with metallic human head found on these altars.
Belief in the existence of a guardian spirit among the Benin people is very common. They call the guardian spirit Ehi. Ebohon stated: “It is Ehi’s responsibility to help one’s head pilot a person through life. In other words, Ehi or the guardian spirit is a form of helper. Its mandate is to give support to a person so as to enable him achieve his destiny on earth, already chosen in the spirit world with God and the guardian spirit in attendance. Invariably, the Benins believe that the person in the spirit world chooses a person’s station in life. “Therefore, on earth, he cannot rewrite his destiny, part of which determines the day, week and month on or in which he is born; or the family and geographical location into which or within which he is born. To explain this fact, the Benins have a saying: “Aise Agbon ri Oba, erinmwin a ke rioe re”. It means one cannot just become a king on earth unless one is ordained from the spirit world.” The guardian spirit, Ebohon continued, is propitiated through the medium of head worship while an Oba of Benin normally appointed a chief to be in charge of his Ehi (Ehi Oba). The duty of the chief, it is said, is to undertake the worship of the Oba’s Ehi the Oba’s behalf. The Benin names, which are said to celebrate this factor of Ehi, include Ehiosuomwan, Ehimwenma, Ehigiamusoe, Obehi, Ehigbokan, Ehimua, Ehiogie (Ehigie), Ehigiegba and Ehimanmiegbo.