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

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