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(Ovia Deity And Masquerade)

(Last Update August 4, 2023)

According to tradition, Ovia was a beautiful girl who lived a long time ago at Uhen, a village on the Benins-Yoruba boundary. One day the king of Oyo visited Benin and heard of Ovia‘s beauty. He then went to Uhen and asked her father for her hand, and her father agreed. So Ovia married the king and was made his favourite wife. The other wives became, however, jealous of Ovia and made the king believe that she was bringing sickness upon him. Out of grief at being accused for this Ovia melted into a river which ran out from the harem and along to her father at Uhen. When she reached her father, she told him that no woman should ever be allowed to know her secrets, as it was women who caused her to leave her husband’s home (Bradbury 1973: 187-188).

Ovia deity and masquerade
Ovia is the name of the largest river in the kingdom of Benin, but many of the villages practising the cult have no particular connection with it. The cult is said to have been introduced in the fifteenth century. It is also said to have been banned from Benin City in the reign of Oba Eresoyen in the first half of the eighteenth century (Egharevba 1968: 40). The Ovia cult is by far the most widespread cult of its kind, and it seems to have displaced a number of other community cults in recent times. Today Ovia is worshipped in many Bini and Ivbiosakon villages, but most of them do not perform annual festivals any longer. When the writer visited the village of Ekewan, 45 km. west of Benin City, in December 1977, the villagers toId him that they were performing an Ovia festival for the first time since 1941. In all Ovia worshipping villages, however, the priests make offerings at the Ovia shrine every five days, accompanying them with prayers for themselves and their families, the village community, and the Oba of Benin. Individuals from the village or outside may also approach the priests to make particular prayers or curses in Ovia‘s name, in respect of sickness, in seeking to bear healthy children etc.

Within an Ovia congregation, which is usually conterminous with the village community, there is a major cleavage along the line separating the sexes. Thus, the women are debarred from active worship of Ovia. They are not allowed to visit her shrine - except on two special occasions - or to enter the sacred groves, and there are certain ritual objects which they must not see. There is also a secret language and a sacred lore, which are the preserve of the men. The male worshippers are sub-divided into three grades – Oyo, Igbe and Edion - which correspond more or less to the secular age-grades of the village. These grades function as groups only on special occasions, namely during a festival, at rehearsals for a festival, and at certain mortuary rites for past Igbe and Edion. In each Ovia worshipping villages the cult is headed and controlled by one senior priest and one junior priest, both of whom are elected by the male worshippers on the basis of their knowledge of the sacred lore and ritual (Bradbury 1973: 188-189).
The Ovia shrine is usually situated in a clearing in the bush about one kilometre away from the village. Inside the shrine there is an altar in the form of a mud platform on which there are placed various pots, sculptured pieces of chalk, cowry shells ad a brass Eroro clapper-bell which is rung during prayers to attract the attention of the deity. Ukhurhe stick rattles which are the symbols of Ovia, are placed on this altar when a sacrifice is being made. The Ukhurhe are about 120 cm. high and carved with representations of Ovia masquerades. Ovia is sometimes said to enter them, when she is called upon by the priests. On either side of the altar are two circular seats of dried mud on which the priests sit.

The following notes will be devoted to a general description of an Ovia festival. This description is based on Bradbury’s excellent account of a festival that was performed in the first quarter of 1953 by the village of Ekho, about 22 km east of Benin City (Bradbury 1973: 185-209), and by the writer’s observations and recordings from parts of the 1977 Ovia festival at the above-mentioned village of Ekewan.
At the time of a festival most of the men in the village go into seclusion in the groves around the Ovia shrine for periods varying from a week to three months. At Ekho the period of seclusion lasted for about two months, but at Ikwan it only lasted for three weeks. Every second day throughout the festival the men emerge to dance in the village. Then they are completely masked except for their feet. Each man wears a suit of cotton with long sleeves which come down to cover the hands. Over this are draped two single circlets of fresh young palm leaves suspended from the waist and the shoulders. Round the ankles each dancer wears Egwen anklets and sometimes also anklets consisting of small Eroro brass dapper-bells or Igheghan pellet bells. On the head he wears a skull-cap of bark-cloth into which a framework of soft sticks is pegged. Into these sticks are inserted a vast number of feathers - red parrot feathers, and larger black and white feathers. In the centre of the headdress a mirror is tied, from the front edge of which hangs a string network veil which effectively conceals the face of the wearer. From the back hangs a long, wide strip of a scarlet cloth known as Ododo, and from a loop of cord at the front two Ikpasa stick clappers are hanging. With these clappers the masquerades beat out the rhythm of their dances. The Ikpasa and the above-mentioned anklets are the only musical instruments that are allowed during an Ovia festival. The masquerades are known as Erinmwin Ovia (Erinmwin = the Sacred world, the world of the dead and the unborn, where the gods also reside; it is also a general term for ‘ancestors”, the “dead’ and even the ‘gods’). They are said to represent the spirits of past Ovia worshippers, and each impersonates his most lately-deceased patrilineal ancestor. The Erinmwin Ovia are believed to be on the threshold between Agbon (the actual visible world in which men live) and Erinmwin (the sacred world) and, therefore, in great ritual danger.

During an Ovia festival certain ritual prohibitions must be observed by the whole community or by particular sections of it. The most important prohibition applying to the whole community is the ban on sexual relations for all residents. Another general prohibition forbids quarrelling. Some regulations apply only to the men in seclusion, the most important of which is the ban on washing and shaving. Most of the taboos fall, however, upon the women. They are forbidden to touch the masquerades or any part of their dresses, to join in their dances or songs, or to sing any other time than the one it is their duty to sing during the festival. They are also forbidden to see any of the men’s activities at night, when “the voice Ovia” the Odoma bullroarer the village. When the women hear the sound of the Odoma, they have to stay indoors.

When the Erinmwin Ovia comes out to dance in the village they enter it in a certain order. The Oyo arrive first, followed by the Igbe and finally by the Edion accompanied by a junior Oyo carrying an ukhurhe stick rattle. The senior priest is the last to arrive. He takes his place on the verandah of the house before which the, dancing is to take place. The Oyo, Igbe, and Edion line up in front of him with the junior priest in the centre, holding the Ukhurhe. The priests salute each other, and the senior one then makes art offering of kola nuts and water at the foot of the ukhurhe. This rite is known as Imiame, which means “I see water” (Ame = water). Its purpose is said to be to make the ground and the village “cool” so that the dancers will not fall down.

After Imiame the Erinmwin Ovia arrange themselves in a circle to begin the dancing. The first dance is said to be for the collective ancestors of the village (Edion) and is performed in front of their shrine (Oguedion). The second dance is for the senior priest, the third for the junior priest, and the fourth for the women. All other dances are regarded as being for the community at large. The dances are usually very intricate and vigorous. They are accompanied by the beating of ikpasa stick dappers and by songs. Occasionally, the dancers stamp their feet on the ground. The final stage of the dancing is the Obodo in which individually, and in reversed order of seniority, members of the Oyo and Igbe grades perform a kind of acrobatics, twirling in the air with both feet off the ground, turning over violently with hands and feet resting on the ground, and, in some cases, walking on the hands.

Between the dances the women of the village sing their own special songs appropriate to the occasion. All these songs are closely concerned with the festival. They must all be sung to a single tune the use of which is forbidden on any other occasion. A Larger number of the songs refer to the exploits and appearance of the men in their role as Erínmwin Ovia. Other songs express the ritual dangers attending those who go to serve Ovia at her shrine. Further, there are songs which express the dependence of the women upon the men, or the importance of co-operations between the sexes for the successful prosecution of the festival

At the end of all the dancing the Erinmwin Ovia disperse and wander round the village, stopping in front of some of the houses to demand gifts of money. In return for these gifts they grant requests for blessings and curses. Curses and blessings secured from Ovia at the time of a festival are held to be more effective than at any other time.
At the end of the festival the women of the village “kill” the Erinmwin Ovia by throwing cloths over their heads at a performance of the acrobatic Obodo dance. Thus, the return of the men to the real world is believed to be ensured. After this the women are taken to the groves where they are made to underline curses upon those who seek to harm members of the village by physical or supernatural means. The festival is then brought to an end by a rite of reconciliation between the sexes. When the festival is over the villagers perform the Agbala dance to the accompaniment of four Agbala drums and four egogo clapperless bells As Bradbury has pointed out, an Ovia festival can be seen in terms of three categories of social relations. First, it expresses the solidarity of the village as a whole against other villages and against individuals within and outside it who seek to harm its members. Secondly, it expresses the dichotomy between the sexes at the same time as it underlines the necessity for cooperation between them for the perpetuation of the group. Finally, it reinforces the authority of the old men over the young

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