Igue and Ewere festivals which are perhaps the most colourful and crowd- pulling festivals in among the Benins are combination of various festivals. They are reminiscent of the past events in Benin history. Each of the events is connected with past Obas around whom Benin customs and traditions are woven. The Igue festival is celebrated annually by every reigning Oba and all Benin citizens at home and abroad to mark the end of the Bini year and to usher in a new one with renewed hope for peace and prosperity.
The ancient Igue festival is akin to the white man’s New Year ceremony. Before the innovations introduced by Oba Akenzua II Igue was normally celebrated during the month of September to climax a series of ceremonies, including Ugiododua, Ikpoleki, Rhor, Ugioro, Ugi’ gun or Isiokuo and Ihiekhu.
The festive nature and kindness of weather in December make that month the choice of all for such an important and felicitations occasion, hence the shifting of time to December.
During Igue, the Binis turn out in their best attire and the whole city is practically caught in a craze for felicitations Men and women dance and sing in pious glorification of the gods that protected them throughout the outgoing year. The ostentations display of the flamboyant Benin chiefs and the uniqueness of their traditional dress are something quite reminiscent of the power and glory that was Benin.
Cows, goats, fowls and other beasts are prodigiously slaughtered to propitiate the spirits of the departed Obas and the various gods of the people.
Before the European era, the number of human beings slaughtered during this period of the year approximated in quantitative terms to that of the lesser animals. In those days, most of the ceremonies were held at night, a situation which made the lives of the ordinary citizens most insecure.
The modern Igue festival is a combination of nine principal ceremonies namely: Otue- Ugierhoba, Ugierhoba, Iron, Orue-Iguoba, Igue-Inene, Emobo, Iguivbioba, Iguedohia and Ugiewere. Although Igue is said to be old as Benin itself, its limelight can be traced to Oba Ewuare (about 1440 A.D) as a great magician, physician, traveler and warrior, prince Ogun (later Oba Ewuare) encountered many difficulties before he was crowned. He was said to have slept on a python on a certain night when an overfed leopard bled upon him from a tree. He woke up and killed both the python and the leopard. This story he narrated to members of his paternal family (Ihogbe) when he was crowned and from then, all Binis joined him in celebrating Igue festival during which offerings are made to the god of good luck.
The Oba, the custodian of Benin customs and traditions, attaches great important to the Igue celebrations, Nowadays, Igue provides the only occasion during which the Oba wears his full traditional regalia and dances with the royal scimitar (Eben) in the presence of his people who always look up to the ceremonies with great joy and excitement.
During the Iguoba, Ugierhoba and Ugiewere ceremonies, The Oba comes out with some of his wives, a practice bequeathed to him by his forefathers. This is also the only occasion during which the Oba’s wives (IIoi) are seen by the public.
Otue .Ugierhoba: this is an occasion when all chief with individual group of dancers go to the palace to great and pray for the Oba in preparation for the subsequent ceremony- Ugierhoba. At this time chiefs dress in their full ceremonial robes according to their ranks.
Ugierhoba: This is a colourful and special ceremony during which homage is paid to the spirit of the departed Obas. During Ugierhoba, the ceremony shifts from the main place to Ugheroba, the ancestral hall. It features traditional dances during which the chiefs with their own scimitars dance before their overlord. A most colourful ceremony of the festival, Ugierhoba provides an opportunity for the chiefs to renew their allegiance to the Oba and to seek his favour anew. Loyal citizens are honoured with chieftaincy titles. There is an interesting aspect of the Ugierhoba ceremony which stranger hardly take notice of.
When any chief of the class of the Uzama- Nihiron (kingmakers) or the group of Eghavbonore (State Ministers) daces, he waves his left hand questioningly at the Oba while he holds his scimitar downward with the right hand. The Oba, who sit on the throne simultaneously wave back his right hand questioningly at the particular chief. This demonstration of great historical significance is reminiscent of an event which took place in Benin in or (about 1369 A.D) in which the then Iyase (Prime Minister) Emuze was said to have been killed on the order of Oba Ohen for eavesdropping senior chief in Benin demanded to know what had happened to the Iyase while the Oba in turn demanded from the chief, the whereabouts of their colleague thus denying the allegation that he had murdered the Iyase. Infuriated at this, the chiefs later stoned Oba Ohen to death with white chalk (Ohen mien orhue).
The demonstration being made with the left hand during Ugierhoba ceremony is a commemoration of that great event of (1369 A.D).
IRON: Another important ceremony performed during the festivals is Iron (pronounced ee-ron). It commemorates the battle fought against the restoration of monarchy in Benin by some elders led by Chief Ogiamwen. They had opposed the installation of Prince Oranmiyan from Ife as a king to open the second period on Benin history (about 1170 A.D). He was opposed at the ovia ferry—seventeen miles on Benin Siluko road. The royalists were victorious.
In about (1255 A.D) when Oba Ewedo was to move his palace from Usama, the old site, to the present palace, he was opposed like his great- grand father Prince Oranmiyan. As Oba Ewado landed at Isekherhe, Ogiemwen took up arms to prevent his entry into the city. He told the Oba to go back to Ife his father’s native land. He was however defeated by the royal troop and the Oba took up residence on the site of present- day palace. Today, Iron features a mock battle between the Oba and the elders represented by the kingmakers (Uzama- Nihinron).
OTUE-IGUOBA: Chiefs of various grades also dance with individual group to greet the Oba and wish him well in the performance of the Igue festival.
IGUE- OBA: This is the occasion when sacrifices are made to the guardian spirit as symbolized in the Oba’s head. The ceremony is performed by those who belong to the palace societies but suffice it to say that two chiefs Esekhurhe and Ihama, as well as Ihogbe (Oba’s relatives) play a major role.
Traditional dances from various organizations, groups and societies are invited to perform throughout the night before igue- Oba ceremony is performed a leopard used to be slaughtered during the ceremony but this is now a thing of the past. Nowadays, kola-nut and wine are also freely used. Prayer is said for the preservation of the Oba’s life, for peace among his people and prosperity for all.
IGUE-INENE: Unlike Igue-Oba this is held at the Oba’s harem and is celebrated exclusively by his wives. This ceremony is not open to member of the public and only members of the Oba’s family (Ihogbe) and some important chiefs as well as members of various palace societies are allowed to watch this, Cows, goats and fowls are slaughtered during Igue-Inene ceremony which is held in the third day.
UGIE-EMOBO: This is performed the fourth day at a temporary hut in the palace main gate. It commemorates an event in Benin history which date back to (about 1504 A.D). On the death of Oba Ozolua at Uzen in Ishan, his two sons Osawe and Arhuanran (the giant of Udo) contested the throne. They were the second and third sons respectively, the eldest being Ogidogbo who had been refused by the Binis because he was cripple due to the fracture he sustained while pole- jumping over the pond of Agbodo as a demonstration of strength in a contest with his two brothers.
Osawe was later crowned Oba Esigie but his brother Arhuanran, would not give him peace. This led to a punitive expedition, the fiercest battle of which went by the name Okuo- Ukpoba (the battle of blood), to avoid being disgraced. Arhuanran drowned himself in lake (Odighi) at Udo before he did so; he deposited a chest-lace made of superior coral beads, which had aided him during his war, at the vicinity of the lake with a curse that any person who wore it must run amok.
This chest-lace of beads was taken as booty by Oba Esigie. No sooner he put it on than he began to behave strangely. He was quickly cured. It is that incident of strange behavior that is today celebrated in Ugie- Emobo.
During the ceremony, the Oba puts on his red ceremonial robe, holds an ivory bell while Chief Esekhurhe holds the shrine- stick called ‘Ukhurhe’ Chiefs Ihaza and Esogban dance round the hut while drummers from Ogbelaka supply the traditional music. The Oba and Chief Esekhurhe do the same before performing some rites in the hut. It is at this time that Chief Esogban calls on Edo, Uselu, Uzebu and all the gods (propitiated) to leave Benin City for Udo. This done, Chief Esogban goes home straight without looking back. The Oba accompanied by Chief Esekhurhe dances, into the palace while Ogbelaka group still supplies traditional music to end Emobo.
IGUE –IVBIOBA: This is an exclusive ceremony for the prince and princesses of Benin Royal family. Performed on the fourth day of Igue, it affords opportunity to members of the royal family to offer sacrifices to members of the royal family to offer sacrifices to the gods of good luck. Other citizens do not participate in this ceremony- which is held in individual homes of those concerned.
UGIE- EWERE: The origin of Ewere festival has been traced to Oba Ewuare (1440 A.D). When Oba Ewuare was still prince Ogun and was haunted by the Binis, he fled to a bush on the way to Igogogin. He was nearly caught there, but for the stray movement of some leaves which indicated that Benin warriors were still around. These leaves, he later called (Ebe- Ewere) the leaves of good luck. After ascending the throne, Oba Ewuare married the three daughters of Ogieka, achief on the Benin- Ekewan road. First was Ubi, then Ewere and lastly it was Oyoyo, Ubi was stubborn and was disgracefully driven away from the harem maids who struck her with burning brands while shoutinh on her ‘Ubi rie’ (Ubi go)
Oba Ewuare was said to have sent to Chief Ogieka to send his second daughter. Ewere in place of Ubi. This was done but unlike Ubi Ewere carried good luck and the expression of loyalty and allegiance paid to the Oba in cash and kind, words and deed by the people marked a new era in Oba Ewuare’s reign. Today, the name ‘Ubi’ is synonymous with evil spirits and had things while ‘Ewere is Synonymous with good luck.
Although beloved by all, Ewere was not happy in the Oba’s harem because her sister Oyoyo was not with her. It was her deep feeling of sorrow expressed through weeping, the gnashing of teeth that led Oba Ewuare to send for Chief Ogieka’s third daughter, Oyoyo. On the arrival of Oyoyo Ewere became a happy woman. This was the origin of the song that is rendered at the festival till today; ‘Ewere gh ‘Oyoyo’ meaning, ‘Ewere look at Oyoyo’. The Oba later married both sisters and Oyoyo gave birth to a female under the care of Chief Ihama. This happy and prosperous marriage was celebrated annually thoughout Oba Ewuare’s reign and has since been personified in the leaves of good luck (Ebe _Ewere) which are exclusively used during Ewere festival.
Ugiewere by far the most popular of all heralds the dawn of a new year. As early as five o’ clock in the morning on Ugiewere day, young men and women troop out of their homes to take part in the traditional fireworks (Ubirie) designed to drive away the evil spirit from the town before the New Year rolls in. These enthusiastic young celebrates go to the out skirts of the city to bring back special traditional ‘Ewere leaves’, believed to be the symbol of good luck and prosperity. The fortune leaves are subsequently given out as New Year gifts to all citizens who anoint their fore-heads with them. Children and adults are to be seen dancing along the streets visiting every home and distributing Ewere leaves.
Evere leaves are presented to the Oba by Chief Ihama of Ihogbe and Chief Isekhure both of whom are his paternal relations from the ancestral home at Ife. A prayerful song ‘Arhie were re ukpo ighi ghe ivbiore’ meaning: ‘we have brought the leaves of good luck: our youth will be preserved this year’ then rents the air while the big drum, a status symbol in Benin, starts throbbing out the age- long sounds from the compound of every big chief who has the royal authority to posses it. Friends and well wishers are lavishly entertained in every home occupied by a traditional occasions in Benin which have survived the test of time. Visitors from overseas countries have been thrilled by the splendor and historical setting of the festival.