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Benin Head

The ancestral altar dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen in the Benin palace, Benin City, Nigeria
Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970. Image no. EEPA EECL



key idea
Rituals connect a new oba to the power of the rulers who came before him.

At the start of his rule, a new oba creates a memorial shrine for the previous oba (usually his father). The shrine is a way of remembering an oba’s accomplishments. But more important, it forms a connection between the new oba and the spirits of his ancestors. This is necessary for the health and prosperity of the people.

A sculpture showing the honored oba and his attendants stands at the shrine’s center. Pairs of bronze heads like this one, topped by ivory tusks, appear on either side. Surrounding them are rattle-staffs and bells, for getting the attention of the oba’s spirit. By the early 1800s, the royal palace in Benin City contained twenty-five or more ancestral shrines.

The oba performs one of the most important rituals of his kingship—the Igue Erha Oba rite—at the memorial shrines. The rite concludes the annual Edo festival of Igue (EEG-weh). During Igue, Edo men of all ranks honor their “inner” head by plastering offerings on their foreheads, their “outer” heads. The oba makes similar offerings on the sculpted heads of the ancestors at the palace shrines. In this way, he sustains their spirits even after death and strengthens his own power to rule.

October 2008