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Shrines And Deities Of Benin Kingdom

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By Ojekhebholo Blessing Ose (11-07-2016)

THE ancestral shrines and state in the royal palace are considered to be the holiest place and essential core of the kingdom. For this reason the palaces represents the spiritual as well as the secular centre of the realm.

The Religious practices at court extend downwards in the hierarchy and the social ranks are reflected in the equality and splendour of the paraphernalia. Just as the king is ritually responsible for his office and kingdom, the rituals held at the house altars of the various office holders are meant to safeguard the latter’s social position and the well being of their families.

In Pre-Colonial Benin, Bronze objects were reserved exclusively for the ancestral altars of the king or queen mother, dignitaries were only allowed to use wooden heads, which at best were covered with imported brass sheet. Today these restrictions no longer apply with the same rigour and the objects with which a chief adorns his ancestral altar instead depend on his economic means.

In addition to the altars, shrines for the several deities play an important role. Especially important for supporting royal sovereignty is the worship of the sea god olokun who is also known as the god who bestows fertility and wealth. On the art works, a wide spectrum of motifs alludes to the relation between him and the Oba. These are, for instance, mudfish, crocodiles, pythons and stylized depictions of Portuguese white which stands for purity and good fortune, dominates on shrines dedicated to olokun, and he is represented in clay with some regalia and retinue as are characteristically found in depictions of the Oba, since the gods, as the king’s counterpart, is the ruler of the underwater world.

Ogun, the protective deity of war, iron and metal working, enables human to produce implements, arts, weapons and nowadays, machines, out of metal. The hot colour red associated with this god characterizes the shrines erected to him, which often consist of an accumulation of metal parts. Osun is the spiritual power inherent in medicinal plants, insects and reptiles. Massive trees in the forests around which pots filled with water and leaves are placed; can serve as Osun shrines. In traditional households, before important undertaking in the past for example, before setting off to war-men wash themselves with water from osun pots, which strengthens them for their tasks.

Ogiuwu is the terrifying god of death; a shrine dedicated to him once stood in the royal palace close to the war shrine (Nevadomsky 1993).

In addition to the Oba himself as the highest oracle priest, healer and herbalist, the presentation of the ritual significance of kingship is in the hands of ritual specialists who take care of the shrines and execute central functions in the religious ceremonies. In the past, numerous ritual vessels were used in this context whose original purposes we can nowadays not always determine for certain.

In this shrine, you can find the royal rattle staff (ukhurhe). The rattle staft (Ukhurhe) belongs to the Oba, for only him owned the bronze versions back then. Ukhurhe serve one or two purposes; they are either the essential items on an ancestral altar (all else including bronzes and ivories are mere adornment) or are the emblems of a masquerade or other cults. Decoration distinguishes them. Cult ukhurhe usually have a figurative midsection while ancestral ukhurhe finale indicate royal or non-royal clients. The heir commissions them as the first act of proper funerary rites shaking them to call upon the ancestors for blessing or curses. Even a king ancestors are represented by wooden ukhurhe but a bronze example was formerly used in prayer at royal at royal ceremonies by chief Isekhure, priest of the Oba’s ancestors. A proverb explicitly ties it to the Oba’s right to take life.

One of the staft’s patterns first appears in the 18th century at least two depict hands holding mudfish (a typical royal motif). Some illustrates a figure with a raftle staff while other shows the hand of good for, tune another elaborate example in the metropolitan museum of art portray the Oba on top an eleptiant flanked by leopards. It is thought to represent 18th century Oba Akenzua 1 trumphing over his enemy, chief Iyase n’ode .

Rattle staffs –Ukhurhe are the basic furnishing of an ancestor altar in Benin they consist of a wooden staff divided in segments, in the uppermost part of which one or two cavities are carved out, in which a loose piece of wood makes a rattling noise when the staff is shaken or hit on the ground. By this, contact with the spiritual sphere is established. The particular form of segmentation is modelled on that of the Ukhurhe Oho plant and symbolizes the life span of the deceased.

It is the duty of the eldest son to have a rattle staff like these carved when his father dies and to place it among the other staffs leaning against the back wall of the ancestor altar with this act he enables the deceased to join the community of the ancestors. Rattles are found on partneral ancestor altars.

Some other stuff like the Altar of the hand –Ikegobo of an Oba, Altar of the Iyoba –Ikegobo of an Iyoba, Altar stool –erhe e.t.c. 

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