Edo people




Edo / Benin

[Comeback to the BASIC information]
EDO Masquerades

This text was compiled by NOWAMAGBE AUSTIN OMOIGUI, M.D., MPH, FACC who obtained the information from a colonial anthropological survey of Edo speaking peoples performed by Northcote Thomas around 1910. Somesections are derived mainly from Dr. R. E. Bradbury, caucasian Anthropologist who lived among Edo from 1951-1954.


An average Edo adult male was 5ft 5in in height. Those from villages in the hilly areas (Edo north) were of stronger strength.
Malnutrition was rare among Edos, although food was sometimes scarce, particularly in Ora areas, due to 'laziness'. Tribal marks were
already going out of fashion, but some were prominent, such as the raised scar on the forehead of the urhobos and the crow's foot at the
outer angle of the eye among ishans.
Physical deformities were rare but the most common physical deformity was the umbilical hernia 'due to wrong methods at birth'. Lunacy was
also rare. There were occasional deaf and dumb people. Albinism was common in some localities. Red Hair and supernumerary fingers were
also rare.


Although some common words were noted, the Edo group of languages were very different from surrounding Nigerian languages like Ijaw, Yoruba
and Igbo proper but unusually similar to Ewe (in Togo and Ghana). But with Yoruba, common words include oke (hill) and okuta (stone). This
was thought to be so for two reasons - first because of the cross-over of the Bini and Ife ruling classes and second because the rarity of
hills and stones in Edo land necessitated adoption of terms from immigrant groups. With Ibo, common words include unu (mouth).
Certain words like Ekuiye (spoon) were adopted from portuguese.


As I observed in an earlier posting, the village was the basic unit of political authority.


We have previously noted the tripartite division of males into Idion (elders), Igele, and Ologai. Idion was the village council and dealt with minor legal cases. More serious problems were referred to Benin City (Edo).
Igele were responsible for jobs like roofing. They were also carriers. Ologai were responsible for carrying wood and water and cleaning roads. A boy would typically join Ologai when strong enough.
To graduate from Igele to Idion usually required a payment of some Villages were under various forms of leadership - Ogie (Igie), chiefs, stewards or other village heads (odionweres). Igie were royal descendants of former Kings. Every village was represented in Edo by a chief or King's steward. Communications with (and tributes to) the King were made through these representatives. Interestingly, the representatives typically retained a fraction of tributes made to the King (10%?).
Among the Ora and Kukuruku adult males who were not chiefs were organized in companies called "Otu". An Otu was typically inaugurated every three years in a lavish ceremony that involved dancing around town. Junior Otus cleaned roads. On average the oldest Otu (about 65 years) was about 40 years older than the junior Otu (about 15 years). Among Ishan the organization was a replica of Bini organization, but there were variants. In Irrua for example, they had two Otu, the senior of which was only liable for work when there was plenty to do. Above that grade came the Igele and Idion.
Among other Ishans only Idion and Igele grades were found. Above this were the chiefs. Among Urhobos, there were several variants, some Bini-like while others were more rudimentary. However, a semblance of stratification into old men, adults and small boys could still be observed. Among Urhobos women chiefs also existed.
In the Edo Kingdom core, chiefs could be hereditary or non-hereditary. Positions could, however, be sold by the King to the highest bidder. Among Kukuruku (Edo North), chieftaincies were often purchased. But Agbede had a fairly formal system. In general, chieftaincy was prestigious and typically meant one could not be arrested or attacked in war.


The staple food of Edos was Yam. Yam production varied with individuals and villages. They were stacked in ropes (Uga) of 22-23.
Ten (10) ropes made an Ekbo or stack. On average an adult male typically produced about two Ekbo (450 yams) per season. Yam stacks were kept on the farm in Bini area but in other areas they were kept in the bush at a locality typically known only to an inhabitant of the place. Yams were brought into the village on a daily basis in quantities sufficient for consumption. Other items of food included corn, beans, and cocoyams. Corn was organized in pyramidal stacks with a pole in the center. More corn was produced in the hilly areas of Edo North. Among Urhobos, cassava was the staple food. A family unit typically had 200 square feet of land per adult for cassava cultivation.
Banana and Plaintain were also found in Edoland. Dried fish was popular with Urhobos and people of Owan area. But strangely, meat was not often eaten, while eggs and milk were basically unknown as sources of nutrition.
As regards booze, the only form was palm wine, made either from oil palm or raphia vinifera. One could either cut below the crown or simply fell the tree.
Pito was made from guinea corn.


We have always had a calendar. In the kingdom, there were two kinds of years - Male and Female - one a month longer than the other.
The year was divided into moons. Their names did not have bearing to lunar months but instead to ceremonies conducted in proximity to the said moon (month). From time to time months were longer than lunar months. But at one point in Edo north 20-day months were used, yielding a nine-month year.
However, the 4-day week was more universal. The principle behind this was that this was the typical interval between two markets at a given location. But in Idah area 8-day markets were sometimes found.
On the rest day, men would typically stop at home although farm work was not totally prohibited. But women would go to market as usual.


The overwhelming majority of items on sale in village markets were foodstuff. Edo markets began at daybreak and reached peak around Noon. But there were variants. In Agbede for example, markets were held in the afternoon. Peak trading occurred at about 3 p.m.
Among Edos market trading was an exclusively female occupation. When men were seen they were usually Hausa or Yoruba traders.
Outside the formal market, 'silent trade' could be observed along waysides and footpaths. Typically one could observe plantains or other foodstuff with palm kernels lying next to them. The number of palm kernels indicated the price in cowries. Before the British came, in order to trade in markets within the gates of Benin-City (Edo) one had to pay a toll of 5 cowries per person (or 5% of the value of the market load).
The location of markets varied. It was sometimes located within village territory. At other times (by mutual arrangement) it was located midway between two villages or along their boundary. In the olden days, it was forbidden to seize pawns in the market place or on the way to market.
Whether or not a market held was dependent on food supply. In times of scarcity, just before new yams became available, the market may not be held at all. In a few hilly areas of Edo north a smaller daily market took the place of the usual four-day market cycle.


Second only to food, the most important industry was palm oil production.
Palm Oil:
Every village had troughs for washing nuts. First they were cut from trees, then boiled before being placed into the troughs. The troughs were filled with water before the nuts were trampled by women until the oil floats to the surface. The husk was then separated from the kernel, the oil skimmed off and placed into a pot. Once again the husks are rinsed with water and oil skimmed off again. After the third rinsing and skimming, the husks are put aside for use in lighting while the kernels were saved for cracking at a later date. The oil is then boiled and separated with the inferior part being reserved for lighting purposes.
Edo land grew good quality cotton with strong thread. The limiting factor in production was the tendency to mix cotton plantation with food crops.
After removing the cotton fiber from the plant it was rolled on a block with an iron bar in order to remove the seed. Then it was cleaned with a bow. In order to spin it, it was wound round the left arm or on a short stick held in the left hand. The end was then fastened to a spindle consisting of a wooden rod passed through a disc made from a broken calabash. The women then twist the spindle as they draw a portion of the cotton out. After drawing about one yard of thread, it is wound on the spindle and secured by a hitch before a new length is made. When full the thread is either wound on to another spindle or wound upon a stretcher with movable pegs.
There were two kinds of Cotton Loom: 'Man' and 'Woman'. Women's looms created a short broad piece of cloth while a Man's Loom created a long and narrow fabric. Among Edos, men's looms were exceedingly rare. The market competitor to Edo women's Looms were European stores.
According to Thomas, The woman's loom is upright and consists of two pillars with crossbars, round which the woof threads, the shed is formed by a heddle rod wound with cotton for each piece of cloth; the warp thread is put through with a shuttle, and beaten down with a loom sword. The time taken to make a piece of cloth five feet long seems to be about three days. Coloured threads are employed to produce the patterns, for all of which native names exist. In some cases, the dye stuffs are produced locally, from bark, seeds, or roots, in other cases they are purchased from Hausa or Yoruba traders.
In general, clothing among Edos was made from cotton threads, but in hilly areas of Edo north the inner bark of trees was occasionally used for the woof threads.
Male looms were based on a different kind of technology. Heddle frames, worked with foot loops, produce the sheds, and much facilitate the making of the cloth. The warp thread is beaten home with a batten, and the cloth as it is finished is wound upon a revolving bar. The woof threads pass over a cross piece behind the heddles, and are made fast, some distance away, to a stone or other weight, by which the necessary tension is kept up.


Clay was purchased in the market. It was then watered and worked with feet until it had the right consistency. Sausage like rolls were then prepared. The potter then sat either on the ground or on a piece of wood almost the size of a door.
To make the base of a new pot, the neck of an old one was used; using lumps of clay thinned with the fingers, the new pot was then gradually made.
When completed, the pot was smoothed and after drying, decorated with ornamental marks and baked for 30 minutes in a fire made from bark and plantain stalks. Pots varied in size. The smallest pots cost three pence at that time.


Baskets were used for carrying food, for storage, for fish traps and also for drying tobacco. A wide variety were made in Edoland sometimes as tall as 4 feet high.


These were also made in many varieties and were extremely durable.


Sophisticated brasswork was almost exclusive to Edo (Benin-City). But bracelets and broad brass collars were seen from time to time outside Benin-City.


Blacksmiths were universal all over Edo land. In the Edo area of Ibillo extending into Kabba province, there were even smelting furnaces. But in other areas, iron was of European origin. The most commonly produced objects were farming Hoes which sold for 9 pence each Blacksmith's forges were also used for the repair of cutlasses and knives. Lamps and magical instruments were also produced.


Religion was (and remains) a key part of the life and thought of the Edo speaking people.
Every house had a shrine for Ebo worship as well as Ancestral worship.
Every village or each quarter had seasonal celebrations all of which were subordinate to the supreme deity called OSA or OSALOBUA - the creator of the world.
OSA was (and is) deeply embedded in our folk tales. Almost every village had an emblem consisting of a long pole with white cloth on it.
Two types of Osa were known (good and evil) - OSANOWA (God of the house) and OSANOHA (God of the bush). Osanowa created Man while
Osanoha created animals as well as a house of sickness in which all diseases were kept.
Two versions of how Man and Animal became enemies were accepted:
- In the first version, men and women on their way from heaven to earth sought refuge from rain in the house of disease - which is how disease came to earth. Since Osanoha was also the creator of animals men and animals became enemies and Man, therefore, killed animals on earth.
- In the second version, Osanowa and Osanoha met to reckon their relative wealth. Since Osanowa had more children, Osanoha swore enmity.
Edos believed that Osa (as well as lesser Gods) resided in Elimi (heaven) which was where all dead people went. Elimi was also where sacrifices were offered toward.
Under Osa several Ebo like Ake, Ochwaie, Olokun, Ogun, and others existed - numbering 201. The tradition was that these deities were previously followers of King Ewuare. They had apparently died in a fire after many years of service to the King. Some of the Ebo were derived from Yoruba sources.
All over Biniland there were Egwaibo (temples) dedicated to various deities. Annual sacrifices were offered and people came from far and wide to partake in these festivities. In some cases, the road was stopped and passers-by expected to make contributions.
Separate from Ebo various religious objects were in use called Uxumu (medicine). They were used to protect people and property and while they were not considered personal deities, sacrifices were nonetheless offered to them.
The further away one went from Benin-City the fewer Ebo were worshipped - although Osa was a consistent feature. Some Ebo became depersonalized. More emphasis was placed on _medicine_ and less on _personal Ebo_. Even Osa took on a slightly different significance.
On the fringes of Edo North , for example, Osa was described as a cloud - a skygod. And while Osa was represented by a tree with white cloth around it, Esu (the deity of mischief) was found outside houses - clearly a feature of yoruba influence. In some other parts of Edoland, Osa was represented by a pot.
It was fairly frequent to see pots and calabashes suspended from rooftops or perched on trees. These were regarded as medicine whose purpose was to keep people alive and well. Dilapidated buildings here and there were evidence of previous cults that had been abandoned with time.
Attitudes to Ebo varied. Some thought ebo was embedded in stones at the foot of shrines. Others felt it was part of an image. But those who were in the know claimed that ebo used images as well as stones as his tools and would typically descend from elimi to take part in sacrifices.
In folk tales Osa was granted a body like that of man; as was Ogiuwu.
Personal spirit (Ehi) had substance attributed to it. Many believed that ebo was invisible except to priests and that dead people could only be seen by those who washed their faces with special medicine.
Witches were also thought to be invisible.
From the viewpoint of European observers, Edo traditional religion was not purely animist. It was viewed as a cross between animism and spiritual theory.
Among ordinary Edo people, there was a certain comfort level in dealing with household ebo. However, there was much fear to enter serious shrines like the Egwaibo to Oxwaie - unless a priest was present. Interestingly the Europeans noticed that such reluctance was not shared by non-natives who were not weighed down by basic Edo beliefs.
One curious detail relates to gender roles in Ebo. Women were generally not allowed to hear or see anything of men's rituals. For example when the sweepings of Egwaibo were brought out, women might be warned away by musical notes from the Oko instrument. But on the other hand women were expected to clean some shrines. The Ovia house for example was rubbed by women even though they were typically excluded from Ovia ceremonies. During Ovia ceremonies men were also expected to seclude themselves for one month and refrain from sex.
Similar seclusion was seen in other parts of Edo land. In Edo North (Otua) during the eliminya celebration initiates had to sleep away from home for one night. In Fugar (Vice Admiral Akhigbe's village) seclusion was also practised at birth. A similar custom was observed in one Urhobo clan. [If living in her husband's house, menstruating women were also expected to stay away from their husbands in certain parts of Edoland. This applied even if she was staying in her own room in the oderie (harem quarters)]
Certain deities commanded great fear. One example was the Obazu juju covered with a type of cloth, which if lifted, was believed to cause death. In other situations like the hunting of dangerous animals or on the last day of certain funerals, awesome rituals were sometimes imposed on participants.
Sacrifice typically consisted of food and drink considered required by the bodily needs of the recipient. It was widely believed that the dead carried their funeral offerings along with them to heaven [elimi] and shared it with the family. In some areas (like Otua in Owan), sacrifice was regarded as a payment for work. Alligator pepper was used as a stimulant to facilitate the recipient. Among the Etsako there was a custom of lighting fire under medicine to make
it strong against sickness.
When sacrificial meat had to be consumed by the whole village, adequate preparations were made. Usually the animal victims were held in a manner that prevented them from uttering any cries while they were being slaughtered.


The Egwaibo to the cult of Ake at Idumowina was about 50 years old at the time of Northcote Thomas's investigation. It was decorated with many images of deities like Osa, Olokun, Ogun and others along with lesser figures.
The local practice was to worship Ake annually for a 14-day period in April. There were also some smaller shrines at which sacrifices were also offered.
The procedure was as follows:
Prior to the actual ceremony, the priest would dance around the shrines asking for a blessing. On the day after, women would clean the lesser shrines while men would clean and decorate the Egwaibo.
When thrash was being carried out of the Egwaibo, women were warned to keep away. After these preparations were complete, the Egwaibo was
opened after which both men and women danced, offerings of kola made and images of deities painted.
Later that evening a sacrifice was offered at the shrine of the ancestors of the village (ogwedion). Then some more dancing was done at the Egwaibo.
During the following evening sacrifices were offered including, for example, the killing of a goat to Osa. When the goat arrived it would be held by the priest using a rope. He then rang a bell and offered prayers as those present chorused "Ise", meaning `Amen'. Then a bowl of chalk was brought forward, from which the priest would choose a piece to use in marking the front of the shrine. During this break a little boy would hold the goat.
Then Kola would be offered to Osa and his wife, after which the goat's legs would be held apart as the rope is removed from its neck. The goat's mouth was tightly held so it could not make sounds while a small cut was made behind its ear. From this cut blood was poured out into a bowl as those present shouted "gale".
Then the throat would be completely slit and blood smeared on the backof the priest following which the goat's head is then totally severed.
Blood from the head was then rubbed on the shrine while the head was laid down. Then the blood containing bowl was emptied onto the shrine after which the head of the goat is removed.
Next, a piece of goat skin was cut from the left hand side of the neck, a prayer offered and then it was fixed to the beam above the shrine.
In conclusion, the priest would stand in front of the shrine with the knife and make three strokes vertically each time calling "Osalobwa" (God).
After this the priest would offer sacrifices to Ogun, Olokun, Ake and his Idion (elders and ancestors) before retiring to a shrine of Ake in a private home for further sacrifices. After this the whole procession would go to the shrine of Akenilo about half a mile away.

After the fall of Benin, one of the ceremonial rites banned by the colonial government was called "Aiabobewimi" - which was a method of discovering stolen goods by asking the Ebo (juju): "Who took my goods?"
To do this one would need a dish into which a small bowl was placed with cowries and other emblems of Ake. The dish was placed on the head of a girl while the loser of the property followed her with a bell ringing it and singing: "The one who took my fowl, if he does not bring it back, may the Ebo kill him."

Olokun is a sea or river Goddess worshipped by women in many Bini and Urhobo communities. Just as men would go to the camp of Ovia, women
would go to the camp of Olokun. Its emblems included pots containing water, chalk, peeled rods and white cloth.

The image of the God of mischief (Esu) was often seen all over Edoland in the form of a mud figure or thorny piece of wood. This image is said to have come from beyond Ilorin. Esu was thought to be the doorkeeper of Elimi. The image of Esu was typically set up in the gate of houses to keep Esu out of the house. The fear was that if Esu was allowed in domestic squabbles between man and wife would result and fire might even break out.

This Ebo was very important. It was particularly revered at Eviakoi and Ulola among Binis and Ishans. The rites were similar to those of Ake. However, whenever Oxwaie came out no-one was permitted to go to Enyai market - expressed by the phrase "ugbodeniai" meaning `shutting the road of Enyai'.

This Ebo was peculiar to native doctors as a protective deity, typically found on village gates. His emblem was 'osunematon' - a piece of iron planted in the ground with associated symbols. Osun was also found as a subsidiary shrine linked to Ake, Ochwaie and other serious Ebo.

This was the God of blacksmiths represented by an iron knife or image of Iron. Although usually worshipped by men, (mainly blacksmiths), women could sacrifice to him if there was no male child in the family.

This deity was worshipped whenever a person fell ill without cause. It involved drawing a small circle in front of one's house with kola, chalk etc.. in it. Aluere means "others".

In addition to Olokun there were other women specific deities. They included Obiame (mother of all mankind) and Omeiho (which was represented by a pile of small anthills beneath a tree outside the village).

These included Akobie - a child's deity represented by a human figure on the wall, and others like the shrine of the hand, shrine of the mother, shrine of the father etc.. illustrative of ancestral worship.
In some houses could be seen a small mound in the center of the floor with four sticks round it. Within the mound, the skull of a goat or other animal was sometimes embedded, surrounded by cowries. This "medicine" was also for protection.
One interesting form of medicine was the Ohumewele. Prior to greeting anyone in the morning, the owner would wet his or her finger with saliva, draw it over the medicine and then down his forehead before saying "May every man, woman, and child do good to me."

Even for conquering Europeans, it was very difficult to get details about the practice of magic or the manufacture of "medicine" in Edoland. These subjects were regarded as trade secrets.
But Northcote was able to get native doctors in Otua and Sabongida (Akoko-Edo/ Owan area) to divulge some details.
In one type of medicine made from a type of wood, the wood was ground up, mixed with alligator pepper and other products after which the native doctor repeated an incantation to the effect that the medicine was once a tree in the bush but was now "medicine".

Belief in witchcraft was universal. Witchcraft trials were frequent. Northcote reported that in Fugar (Etsako) an epidemic (of trials) broke out....it is estimated that at least eighty people lost their lives before it was suppressed. In fact, after the Europeans forbade the use of sass wood (for commercial reasons) the number of witches reportedly increased considerably throughout the land.
Edos believed (just like European folk did) that witches met at night, flew through the air invisibly, and could only be seen by a witchdoctor who could make them fall to the ground using special rites. Witches had human form but were equipped with a bird's mouth and feathers on their body. An alternative view held that witches had birds in their stomachs who emerged at night to fly wherever they chose. While this was occurring, the body of the witch lay asleep and unarousable. Further, the body could not be killed, even with a gun. However, if the bird was caught the witch could be killed.
Witches were felt to possess power from birth, power that was thought to be qualitatively equivalent to but quantitatively greater than that of the native doctor - who thus required special preparations to protect himself.
Belief in witches was so pervasive that along roads and footpaths, fragments of calabashes with cowries and food were frequently observed as evidence of offerings to witches. In fact, providing protection against witches was a huge source of revenue for native doctors.
Sickness was usually regarded as being due to the malevolence of some fellow human being. When native doctors were consulted they would usually diagnose the problem as being mediated by witches who (it was felt) would need an offering (made at night) for appeasement. Since the native doctor was the only one who could talk to witches safely, this positioned him to benefit from the transaction. With his face smeared with a native potion, the doctor goes to the bush and summons the witches by blowing into an ivory horn after which he begs them to leave the man alone. If they are not holding the sick person tightly, they will ask for a goat. One interesting detail was that a relative (son, brother or father) of the sick person was usually concealed near where the offerings were made to witches so that he could recognize the witch. Thus, during the conversation, the witch would typically ask the doctor if he is alone. Only when they are assured that this is the case will they emerge to take their sacrifice. The edible remnant of the offering was usually eventually eaten (or disposed of) by the native doctor.
Another option open to a sick person who consulted a diviner was to offer sacrifice to his or her father - but this was much less common than witch offerings.


Before 1897, human sacrifices were common in Edo (Benin-City) but do not appear to have been practised elsewhere in Edo country. Such sacrifices included sacrifices to the sun, the rain and year.
Human sacrifice victims were crucified on trees within the city. In addition, once a year a lame man was dragged around the city as far as Adaneha on Enyai road as part of a ceremony of purification.

Several forms of purification were known:

1. If one felt unwell, one might make circular marks on the ground either with one's feet or chalk. An eggshell is then spiked with on a short stick. The performer then stands in each circle each time turning to point the eggshell to the sun, blowing along the stick and reciting words to the effect that any evil in this body must leave it.

2. In another method, seven circles of cowries are made. The remorseful celebrant was then led along the cowries as his or her body was brushed with leaves or a chicken which was then discarded.

3. General purifications were also performed on a larger scale. In Gwato for example, diviners often order isusu to be driven out whereupon all in the village would take their cutlasses and run about the town. Then a stick was obtained, leaves tied on top of it, after which roasted corn was tied on, attached to which was the head of a bush buck. This contraption was then carried around town by the procession waving it over the heads of the people singing songs asking the sickness or evil to go away.

4. Another form of general purification involved passing a chicken or small animal around one's head and throwing it between the legs. It was then transfixed on the midrib of a palm leaf, which is planted upright at cross-roads or where a path branches from the main road.

In order to protect agriculture which was the staple of political stability, certain ceremonies were dedicated to the welfare of crops.
Before the banishment of Ovoranmwen Nogbaisi, there used to be a small plot of land called the King's Farm cultivated on Sakpoba road by a slave known as the "fowl of the farm". Yams grown there were used to draw omens for good rains and harvests.
Among commoners each farm had a special Ebo called utu - which was a special large yam heap on top of which cutlasses and hoes were placed
side by side with a calabash of palm wine. Then a sacrifice (usually of a snail) was offered during which the owner of the farm called upon the yams to come and eat along with all the other ebo on the farm.
Other measures were also taken. Along farm roads, for example, it was often the case that one could observe three (3) sticks planted upright in the ground. They were called idiogbo - representing the first individuals who ever made farms along that road. A sacrifice was routinely made to them in the same way as to other ancestors.
In certain localities women had an ebo called ugiame or igiame representing the first women who ever went to cultivate a farm in its second year.

Ancestral cults have always occupied a key place in the psyche and way of life of Edo speaking people. Before 1897, human sacrifices were offered [in Benin-City] to ancestors by powerful chiefs. Since then, however, the practice has been to use goats or cows.
Among wealthy families, celebrations typically took place on the anniversary of the death of a man, in which processions marched around town just as if the funeral was being replayed all over again. In poorer families (and villages) an annual sacrifice to the dead man sufficed.
One's ancestors are represented by `uchure' - long wooden staves with decorated carvings, the top of which is shaped like a hand. 2-4 inches below the top, the staff is hollow, to enable the placement of a piece of wood that rattles when the uchure is beaten on the floor during a sacrifice. Ancestors of chiefs are also represented by uhumilau - heads of bronze or wood upon which ivory tusks rest.
Every clan in Edoland has its own customs for ancestral worship but the principles are the same. In some, all sons partake in the ceremony. In others, only the first son does so. In yet others daughters may partake or their husbands may do so for them.
Occasionally a brother may stand in.

The concept of a secret society in Edoland was different from what we understand it to be in modern Nigeria. To be considered a secret society meant either/ and/ or:
a. It was kept secret from women.
b. It involved masked figures which appeared at certain times of the year e.g. Igodo, seven masked men who appear periodically at Gwato to dance around town. Women were shut up from 7 p.m. until dawn at which time they could behold the masquerades who then danced until 6 p.m. at which time a goat was sacrificed. Women could not, however, eat any part of the goat.
c. It was organic to secret ceremonies in the palace.


Edo people believed every man had an ehi (soul or personal spirit).
One's ehi arrived at birth and departed for Elimi at death. A second ehi, called ehinoha (soul of the bush) was regarded as an evil genius which led man to do evil things. Occasionally, injury to ehinoha could lead to ill health.
There were divergent views on where ehinoha resided. Some felt it was on the back of the neck. Others felt it was simply a servant to the real ehi with no particular geographic location. Yet others felt it corresponded to ere (others). A few thought ehinoha was man's shadow in Osa's house in elimi.
Among the younger generation influenced by early christian missions, e.g. Sabongida, Edo beliefs about ghosts and apparitions at the moment of death were similar to those of Europeans. But among the older Edo generation at that time, people were very reluctant to admit seeing ghosts.


Among the Edo speaking people, burial customs depended primarily on whether or not the deceased had children. It was very uncommon for childless corpses to be buried by brothers or sisters with the same degree of fanfare as occurred with those with children. Usually, heirless corpses were buried in the same way as children - simply thrown into the bush.
Burial ceremonies also depended on how wealthy the deceased was or his/her rank in society. The richer (or more important) the family, the longer the burial ceremony.
Graves were typically dug in the "fathers room" - although the colonial government tried (without much success) to banish this practice. But in some areas ritual requirements necessitated burial in the bush (for undesirable characters).
In Bini area, funeral ceremonies involved the use of Oton (burial shrine) - a structure covered with Manchester cloth and tinsel. Sometimes a figurine was used as an alternative. The Oton represented the dead man.
Many aspects of burial custom were common to all Edo clans. First the body was washed, wrapped in white cloth and then placed upon a bed. Then a goat or fowl was sacrificed at his feet to make the dead man strong enough to go to heaven. After this the grave was dug either by relatives or members of the Igele age grade.
The actual burial was sometimes attended only by the deceased's relatives but at other times, his wives would also attend. Sons-in- law had to contribute cloth, yams, coconuts, other objects as well as a goat. This aspect was considered so sacred that if ever there was a dispute about whether a woman had been properly married to a given man the key question was always whether the alleged husband brought contributions to the funeral expenses of her late father.
During burial, traditional burial songs were sung. After the grave had been filled a sacrifice was offered and the grave-diggers would purify themselves with water or a chicken.
Subsequently, night and morning sacrifices would continue for a varying number of days (3, 7 or 14 or more). In cases in which the family totem/ prohibition (Awa or Awaigbe) was used, the final act of burial was a purification with afo. On the last night a family member dressed up to represent the dead man and occupied his seat.

Burial practices in specific EDO Clans: IJEBA (Owan)

Here the king had a special type of burial. There could be no mourning until the new king was chosen. Any violation of this principle led to a fine of 5 pounds. On the day of death seven cows were killed, two low walls constructed and sticks placed across. A mat was then rested on these sticks and the king's body placed on it. At this point the walls were completed and the temporary mausoleum roofed. Sacrifices were then offered.
As soon as the new king had been chosen, the temporary tomb was reopened and the corpse of the late king put on a bed in a house where it was left for nine days before being carried out through a ceremonial gate. Once out on the street a sacrifice was offered to the right hand while the King's widows were brought to the spot.
With their faces covered with cloth, they were made to swear to return all the late king_s property before returning to the house.
Upon the departure of the women, the procession moved to the royal burial quarter at Iviogulu where the king would then be buried by the Otu. It is noteworthy that at Iviogulu there were five burial spots.
Ordinary people were buried on the road. The Kings had their own spot within Iviogulu proper just as there were plots for big chiefs, little chiefs and women chiefs.

Although commoners who committed suicide were usually buried in the same way as other deaths, royal suicides could be punished by the King. If the King elected to have the body of the person of royalty exposed, it was believed that the person would take nothing to heaven with them - meaning that upon arrival in heaven, there would be no sign that such a person was of royal extraction.

Missing persons
Those who died because they had been eaten by dangerous animals like crocodiles obviously could not be properly buried. Therefore, a palm leaf was obtained and carried along with a pot to the road by which the man last left town. The deceased's son or daughter would then call his name and touch the ground with the leaf calling upon him to come home. Thereafter the pot and leaf were taken home and placed upon a bed, sacrifices offered, following which the pot and leaf were buried as if human.

Burial practices in specific EDO Clans: UZAITUI (near Auchi)

In Auchi area burials were forbidden during the last two months of the rainy season. Those who died during this period had to wait in the bush until the period was over.
After the usual washing and white cloth wrapping of the dead body, it was further wrapped in a mat and then leaned against the wall, after which a fire was lit at the foot of the corpse (within a mound of earth). This fire was kept burning until enough money was collected to bury the dead man - typically about four days.
On the morning of the funeral, the head son purchased a goat which was then killed in the street by the head of the compound. The meat was then shared by the head of the compound and the three oldest men.
The pall bearers walk through the goat_s blood.
Burial style in the bush varied with the age of the corpse. For old men the body was placed in a shallow trunk shaped like canoe which was reusable. For young corpses a flat bamboo frame was used, placed upon a small mound marking the grave.
On the way to the grave, cowries were thrown on the road. Other than daughters, no other females were allowed access to the grave. After the grave was filled the procession returned to the compound where pall-bearers were given water by the Head of the Compound to wash their hands.

Burial practices in specific EDO Clans: UZIA (AGBEDE)

1st Burial
After the body is washed and dressed in the basic white cloth, it was then placed in a leaf mat, around which another big white cloth was placed. Every son was expected to bring a cloth and a mat - leading to an excess of clothes and mats which were then shared after the burial.

2nd Burial
Married daughters would get a goat, cowries, a small cloth along with three small sticks of bamboo. Covered with cloth and placed upon the grave, this piece of bamboo was felt to represent the corpse. The sons of the deceased then delivered a goat which was sacrificed to the bamboo. Simultaneously, ALL goats belonging to all sons and daughters were sent to be killed.
Early on the night of the mass goat slaughter, two men would initially bring the bamboos to the killing field. But later on when all of the procession had fallen asleep they would take the sticks away for disposal.

Burial practices in specific EDO Clans: IBIE

Among Ibie people (Etsako Central), the dead man's son was expected to initially announce his death to elders. Using a long drum he would then announce the death to the entire community. The deceased daughters would also summon older women using a drum of their own.
During the burial, a masquerade called Elo would carry a thin stick and walk through town scaring away little boys and girls who interpreted his antics as that of the dead man.
At the end of the burial the game of "igbedo" was played. Men took their guns and acted like they were going to war. An image (similar to Bini "Oton") was made of cloth and sticks and initially placed on the roof of the house. Subsequently, two men would lift this image and dance around town with it to the beat of drums. Later on the image was dismantled and the sticks thrown away. Five days later the mourners would wash up and then wear black and white thread on their wrists.

Burial practices in specific EDO Clans: SOSO (Akoko Edo)

Here also images were made to represent the dead man. The grave was typically dug in the middle of the room for important individuals.
Alternatively they were dug outside the door for less important people.
The deceased's clothing were gathered and an image ("Mamaci") made of them using three sticks. This image was then placed on the roof.
For women there was a slight variant - one of the calabashes the deceased used for trading was obtained and covered with red cloth.
Subsequently her daughter-in-law (if any) would dance around town with this image.

Burial practices in specific EDO Clans: URHOBO

Just as was the case with Edo North, objects were also used to symbolize the deceased. At Ovu, for example, the body was buried in the house while a kid goat was sacrificed on the grave during the 1st burial. During the 2nd burial a canoe shaped object (2ft by 2ft) was carved in the bush and covered with white cloth. This symbol was then carried home by two members of the family while the towns people danced and threw cowries at it. After sacrifices, a second grave was dug by the sons and sons-in-law next to the 1st grave into which the canoe was then placed. In situations in which the deceased's body could not be recovered, two canoes were buried.


1. Washing
As a formality, gravediggers, pall bearers and family members washed the hands, feet and body of the deceased.

2. Head Shaving
Family members also had to shave their heads. The exact details varied from clan to clan. At Fugar the right side was shaved for the father, the left for the mother and the entire scalp if both parents were deceased. Usually, the middle was shaved for a brother or sister unless one_s parents were dead in which case all of the scalp was shaved. A wife (particularly the senior wife) was expected to shave her entire scalp for a dead husband, but if her parents were alive she would leave a small tuft of hair over her ears. Among those Edo clans with grades of marriage, an Amoiya (full dowry) wife was occasionally forbidden from shaving for her father, while for her husband she was expected to wait for three months before shaving because that was the time period allowed before property was shared.
An Isomi wife who (because of an incomplete dowry) reverts to her father_s family, was expected to shave her head immediately the husband died.

3. Guidelines for Widows
In Gwato, for example, the widow was expected to sleep on the floor holding a small broom in her hand. She could sleep during the daytime but not at night. For seven days she was banned from taking her bath, cooking or any doing any other form of housework. After the seventh day she was expected to perform her purification rites on the road approximately one hour after sunset. When going to the point of purification, accompanied by a relative, the widows were not expected to look backwards. If foul play was suspected in the man's death the woman might be asked to swear on his corpse. In some areas she might even be asked to run naked around the town late at night as a test of absolution.
In other parts of Biniland, a widow was expected to place two pieces of wood with a cross piece on the roadside over which a piece of cloth was hanged. But in some localities this act was the responsibility of grave-diggers.
At Ibilo (Akoko-Edo) the widow's hair was usually placed on the grave after shaving. Then she wore a white thread on her neck which was expected to remain there until it fell off. Curiously, however, as long as the funeral rites had been completed, she was not prevented from marrying another husband even if the thread had not fallen off.

4. Widowers
NOTE: For widowers the process in some areas was that a man was expected to sit naked next to a fire for three straight days.


NOTE: This section is derived mainly from Dr. R. E. Bradbury, another caucasian Anthropologist who lived among us from 1951-54.

You will (again) notice many similarities in aspects of burial custom among Edos. Furthermore, those who have recently been involved in "obito" will also notice that there have been various non-Edo modifications and 'imported' practices in Benin burials since the early fifties. The account below is the unadulterated original version.
Among the Edo speaking people the preferred outcome was that parents die before their children and elder siblings predecease their juniors.
No-one was expected to perform or participate in the rites of burial for someone younger than himself.

In the kingdom itself only the Oba could be buried in the Ogbe section of town. The details of how an Oba of Benin is actually buried have never really been fully publicly divulged. But it is very elaborate.
It is also noteworthy that an Oba is never actually said to have died.
The accepted way to announce the event is to say that 'chalk has broken'.

During the first few hours after the death of a typical Edo man, lamentation and mourning was forbidden, out of concern that his soul might be prowling around, weighing the option of returning to the body. Only when it was clear that death was final did weeping begin.
After initial washing the hair and nails are cut and kept in a block of chalk (particularly if interment is likely to be delayed). After anointing the corpse with the blood of a goat, it is decorated with bracelets of cowries and a white cloth. A feather is stuck into the hair.
As is the case in many parts of Edo north, the body would be laid on a frame of bamboo and the whole structure wrapped in a mat. A more recent option is to use a coffin. The ighele age grade would then dig the grave.

Day 1
As previously noted, preference was for burial in the master bedroom. But in cemetery burials, the family procession would accompany the corpse singing seven (7) special burial songs, while scattering chalk, salt and cowries along the way.
When the body is being lowered into the grave, the children, led by the senior son throw in fiber bristles from a broom, each supported with a prayer that the deceased live a more trouble free life in his next incarnation. After the grave is filled the feet of the mourners is washed using the blood of a hen. The significance of this is that there are certain impurities and ritual dangers associated with a grave. The grave-diggers also purify themselves with water (along with eating the hen) to cleanse "the feet with which they entered the grave, the arms with which they dug it, and the face with which they
looked upon the corpse."


Day 2
This phase is called "iwaorivi" (laying out the corpse).
Only members of the deceased's lineage can be present at this ceremony during which the deceased's hair and nails, along with chalk, cowries,
and salt are placed in a piece of white cloth into which a white feather is inserted. Over this image of the dead man, a goat is sacrificed. After singing the seven burial songs, this image is"buried". After this phase, offerings provided by male descendants and sons-in-law are sacrificed daily within the courtyard until the funeral is over.

Day 3 (izaxwe)
Within the family compound, the eldest son offers a sacrifice to his ancestors (edio) using a cow or goat. After this, each of his brothers, brothers-in-law, adult sons and sons-in-law lead processions (in order of seniority) around town singing praises to the deceased.

Day 5 (Isoto)
Once again, processions are organized (like izaxwe) except that the leader of each carries a box (oku) decorated with red cloth and brass ornaments representing the prosperity and status of the deceased. The procession leader also carries `oto' - consisting of a goat, a calabash of oil, basket of coconuts, seven kolanuts, a mat and a white cloth. Upon returning to the house each leading mourner presents his oto to elders of the family lineage (egbe) for inspection. If the items are incomplete a money fine has to be paid. When the elders are satisfied a mortar is fired after which there is much rejoicing that the said procession has not been disgraced. The eldest son subsequently retains his oto while others are divided between the elders and all the heirs.

Day 6 (Ikpowia)
On the evening of the sixth day an all night dance takes place. Based on the recommendation of a diviner an individual is selected to dress up to represent the deceased (onodierhayi). This individual must not sleep during the night or else it was believed that he would dream of the deceased and probably die shortly thereafter. Seated on a bench he receives all the children of the deceased who make offerings (cash and kolanuts) and ask for assurance that their late father will continue to look after them from the spirit world. After the last descendant completes his/her ritual the "father" dances with all "his" children.

Day 7 (Isuerhafua)
At dawn on Day 7 the procession is led by the onodierhayi to the bush where an image consisting of a frame of sticks covered with cloth had previously been erected. The onodierhayi pretends to sit on it (as do all the mourners) until it collapses, after which its contents are discarded. This symbolizes the final disposal of the remains of the deceased along with ritual impurities associated with death.
As they return home, the procession sings a song "it is cool like the bush near the river" meaning they are now ritually pure. On arrival a mortar is fired to induce the spirit of the departed to come home.
The onodierhayi then traces a line (using native chalk) up to the shrine where the deceased will be worshipped.
Several hours later the eldest son and his oldest uncle perform 'ukuve' (planting) during which the uxurhe (carved staffs) are placed upright on the altar of the deceased. At this point yet another goat is sacrificed, further offerings made and the uxurhe (representing the dead man) is invited to come and eat with his "children".
Subsequently other descendants come (in order of seniority) to pray for themselves and their dependents.

The eldest son presents a goat to the village for sacrifice to their ancestors. Similarly if the deceased was a member of any cult or title-association group or order, offerings are made to these constituencies. If the deceased was an Onogie his son must present goats to EVERY village under his late father's jurisdiction.



According to Northcote, the underlying principle in Edo Law (as in all traditional African Law) was that the commission of a crime created a relationship of debtor and creditor between the criminal and the victim (or system). The only exception was a category of crimes known as "God palaver" which attracted the death penalty. The death penalty was also used for certain 'crimes against custom' such as stating publicly that the Oba was dead, asleep, eating, or washing.
Among the Edo speaking people in general, the overwhelming number of offenses belonged to the debtor category. The death penalty was rare EXCEPT in Edo ("Benin-City"). Offences which in other parts of Edo country might attract a milder sentence, frequently led to death in Benin City. The reason for this discrepancy was that the practice of human sacrifice (reportedly largely peculiar to Benin-City) created a demand for readily available "cheap" victims. [But there is evidence that southern Edo clans also engaged in human sacrifice. The Urhobos and Isokos certainly did, as part of rituals to the war deity at Owe or the "Oyibo" cult, for example. The mischievous notion that only members of other clans and tribes were sacrificed by "Binis" is
false. Similarly, there is ample evidence that members of identical Edo speaking clans engaged in selling one another (from other villages or village groups) for slave trading.)

In Edo law, the offense known as 'justifiable homicide' was not identical to 'murder'. If the parties involved had a previous quarrel, for example, the elders would investigate and enter this into evidence. Except in some communities (like Ewori and Uzia) homicide generally attracted a less severe sentence than murder.

Benin-City: Death / Human sacrifice (crucifixion)
Ijeba: Public hanging (marketplace)
Otua/ Okpe: Purchase a substitute human being
Ewori: Purchase a substitute human being
Uzia: Burning of the house of the murderer, Seizure of farm of murderer, Fine of one person
Agbede: Murderer handed over to victim's family for death, sale, or assimilation
Ishan: Fine was payable to Chief of community
Fugar: Payment of two persons to victim's family
Uzaitui: Hanging. Family could retrieve murderer's corpse in exchange for one goat
Ikbe: If accused was of the same compound as victim, he was left to his conscience and the vengeance of the departed victim's spirit
Agenebode: Destruction of murderer's farm; Destruction of murderer's house; Exile of murderer to Bush for 2 months; Fines: One shilling six pence to sweep burnt house; One shilling six pence for water fine; One sheep; payment of two persons and four shillings to victim's family.
Yanipodi: Murderer killed if he was not of the same compound as deceased. Otherwise he had to pay two persons to bereaved family.
Soso: Murderer sold to Bida slave dealers or fined one substitute human being
Semolika: Death penalty
Ibilo: Murderer banished from community, property shared, wives free to remarry.
Urhobo (Okwoloho): Murderer allowed to hang himself. If he escapes, his property along with that of his parents would be destroyed.
Urhobo (Effurun): Murderer forced to hang himself. If he escapes his property along with that of his parents would be destroyed, and his family would be banished until he is found or one member of his family hangs or three persons paid to victims family.
Urhobo(Ughelli): Murderer hanged himself if from the same town as victim. If not, both towns declared war.
Urhobo (Iyede): Murderer hanged by brother of deadman after which he offers plantains to the corpse. Alternatively the community dragged the killer along the ground with a rope until death.

Regarding theft, certain Edo-wide principles formed the bedrock of judicial attitudes. The thief and his victim could potentially reach an amicable arrangement through which payback was arranged, without invoking the communities' legal system. But in some communities, theft was regarded as so serious an offense that the thief could be sold into slavery or executed. Another interesting sideline was that stealing in the marketplace (shoplifting) was not regarded as a serious offense, whereas burglary was. This gradation of judicial attitudes to circumstances of theft is similar to present day American
and European systems.

Benin-City Public flogging. Occasional death. Usen Public humiliation; return of stolen goods [But strangers were flogged and fined]
Ijeba Return of stolen goods; 10 shillings fine
Sabongida 28 shillings fine payable to Chiefs; if fine defaulted, thief was executed.
Idegun Nighttime theft often led to death. Daytime theft led to fine of 4 pounds. Injured party could also recommend punishment.
Ewori (Agbede) Thief tied up, stolen goods returned, injured party given liberty to sell the thief or release him
Uzia Value of stolen item plus 2-3 pounds
Fugar Sale into slavery or death penalty
Ibie Thief sold into slavery
Yanipodi A night society actually existed to prevent theft. But they did come of the stealing!
Soso Fine imposed unless it was a theft from a farm in which case the offender was considered hungry and let off lightly.
Semolika Thief tied up with rope until his family bails him out. If thief was killed while stealing, the property was placed on his corpse for public viewing.
Urhobo Fines. Occasional death penalty (Iyede). Occasional sale into slavery (Evleni).

Punishment for assault depended on the severity of the assault and also upon whether or not injury resulted.

Ijeba Fines
Uzia All the assailant's goats were seized
Fugar Punishment only if a wound resulted
Auchi Six shillings fine if cutlass was used.
Urhobo In Ajeyubi, if a wound resulted, the two families went to war and fought until 3 or 4 members were wounded on each side.
* Note that assault on women was rare and punishment for assault on a woman also rare. But there were exceptions. At Ijeba, for example,
the assailant would have his house destroyed. At Otua the chief s collected one goat and eight shillings as a fine, which THEY kept.

Attitudes to arson varied. In some communities it was not even known as an offense - because it just did not occur. In others it was punishable by fines. But in some communities, arson was regarded as act of war.

Heavy fines were levied for this. Taking away a man's good name was regarded as a fairly serious offense. One way to do this was to call a man a slave in public.

When a crime had been committed and the culprit unknown or where an individual was suspected, certain methods were used to get at the truth. (Lie detector test)

Examples included:
1. Making the suspect take a supernatural oath with penalties if he/she lied
2. A visit by the complainant to the shrine to invoke vengeance against unknown offenders
3. "Bring out the Ebo to find the thief" - Ake method
4. Invoking the ITA ordeal. The process involved passing a fowl's feather (or needle) halfway through the tongue of the suspect and reciting an incantation to the effect that if they be guilty the feather will stay in the tongue. In Urhoboland, one form of Ita involved passing a nail (or feather or needle) through the ear. If guilty, the nail would break. If innocent it would pass through in pristine form. Another option was to get plaited leaves and test
guilt by observing whether or not they could be unplaited. Yet another option was to place a calabash of burning oil on the head of the suspect. A variation of this involved asking the suspect to pick out a cowry from a pot of palm oil (or boiling water) into which a cowry and some native medicine had been placed, while a fire was lit near him. If innocent, the fire would die down. If not it would engulf the suspect. Lastly, [particularly among the Urhobos], a suspect who had previously washed his hands in a native potion was asked to pick out an axe blade that had been placed in a fire. He was then expected to walk with the ax blade for 25 yards without sustaining a burn.

This was reserved for witchcraft but sometimes used for other serious offenses. If a suspect was picked out by sasswood, the rest of his or her close family was frequently put to death along with the individual. On the other hand, if the accused was proven innocent the accuser had to pay a fine of one person to him or her. Another approach against witchcraft in Urhobo land was the Eni lake ordeal.


Day to day administration of the Benin Kingdom was carried out through private consultation between the Oba and senior titleholders. When it was necessary to promulgate new laws, declare war, raise special taxes, or take special ritual measures to prevent epidemics, a full state council was summoned. Membership included the Uzama, the Eghaevo, as well as lesser titleholders, in a supporting capacity.
This system also had judicial functions depending on the seriousness of the offence and where it had occurred. Villages outside Benin City often referred serious legal matters to the court for adjudication.

Source : www.edo-nation.net