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Edo Women

The Origin of Benin and its Early Rulers 

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IN the name of their forebears, the Edo people have always dwelt. They cannot say much without a reference to their past which, again and again compels them to seek to know who they are! The heartland of the Edo revolves round Benin City on which the famous Old Benin Empire held sway for over two thousand years. Contrary to the beliefs of what the earlier writers had believed that the Edo migrated from the Yoruba race or from Egypt or from Uhe, modern historians are now beginning to accept neither the fact that the earlier beliefs as to the Edo origin are neither supported by arehaeo1ogicaI nor ethnological facts. Famous Edo works of arts, stand out uniquely - (neither Egypt’s nor Ife’s works have much in common with the Benin artifact). Were the Benin to originate from Ife or Egypt then their works of art and ethnological traces would have been replicas or similar in structure and form to those of their tutors. This assertion is made without prejudice to whatever political or social contacts the Edo people may have made with this ancient civilization. Thus, Dr. P. Amaury Talbot, in his book People of Southern Nigeria confirmed that “about the seventh millennium BC, a further wave of sudanic peoples began to pour in, first the Edo (Benin), EWE (POPO) and then the Ibo, ‘followed maybe about the second millennium BC by the earliest Yoruba.” in Professor A.FIC. Ryder’s book titled Benin and the Europeans 1485 - 1897 (pages 1-2) we are told that “This Edo speaking group of people covers an area extending from the broken, hilly country that borders the Igbirra and Igala in the north to the edge of the coastal swamp forest in the south, where their neighbors are the Ijo and Itsekiri. Their other boundaries are with the Yoruba to the West, and the Ibo to the East. Linguistic evidence suggests that they have occupied this region for some thousands of years in relative isolation, with the result. That their language and neighboring ones of the West Atlantic family, and even some of the dialects within the Edo group, have become mutually unintelligible.” Continuing, Ryder said:

“Language is not however, the only cultural feature which the Edo speaking peoples have in common. Dr. R. E. Bradbury has indicated three important characteristics of social organization that distinguish ah their communities, whether large or small. The village settlement is everywhere the basic political unit; within the village the male population is organized into age grades - usually three in number which represent the fundamental pattern of authority; and in their kinship and lineage organization there is a marked patrilineal bias and an emphasis upon primogeniture. In all likelihood agricultural village communities with these features of social and political organization characterized early Edo settlement; and such compact communities, largely autonomous in their political and economic life, still exist among them especially iii the north-western area".

In most places, however, this relatively simple pattern of organization has been overlaid hy the development of kingship, title systems and more complex political units; and it is the greatest of these more advanced po1itcs, the kingdom of Benin, which has won renown to the Edo people. At the same time it must be emphasized that the sway of Benin seldom, if ever, extended over ah the Edo peoples; less than half of them were brought into the kingdom with any degree of permanency, and some areas in the north were probably never dependent upon Benin. And if Benin was not a state embracing ah the Edo, neither was it composed exclusively of Edo subjects, for to the West it encroached upon Yoruba areas, and in the East it embraced many of the Ibo living to the West of the River Niger.

"The origins of the kingdom are lost in myth and antiquity, from which survives only a tradition of migration from east that is common to many West African peo5les. To reconstruct its growth it is therefore necessary to work backwards from nearer and better-known events which suggest that the process was not one of a number of groups coalescing, but the expansion of a city - state nucleus - something more akin to the emergence of states in classical Greece than in northern Europe.”

There are many versions of e origin of BENIN or more appropriately the Edo people. Chief (Dr.) Jacob Egharevba’s account stated that “many years ago, the Binis carne all the way Egypt to found a more secure shelter in this part of the world after a short stay in the Sudan and at Ile-Ife” which accounts takes no real cognizance of the culture which migrant  bring along with themselves to their new-found land. As a further proof that the Edo people do not come from Egypt, one may say that the Egyptian writing culture is significantly absent in the Benin or (Edo) culture. The origin of the Edo people remains on Edo land and cannot have its origin from Egypt which lends none of her culture to the Edo. The nearest inform and style to Edo culture is that of Ancient Romans whose laws, cultural, social and architectural forms compare in similar terms to the ancient BENIN (Edo). This is not to say that the BENINS migrated from Rome but it indicates that life springs up at different points on the earth surface and the Edo people cannot be excluded from such a natural phenomenon. In short, no one can say where the Edo people came from. The Edo mythology says that Benin is the cradle of the world. According to the BENIN Tradition, Edo orisiagbon meaning Edo is the cradle of the world. It is believed that all other people started life on Edo-land for the Oba of BENIN (king of Benin) owns the land as given to him by God Almighty!

The Edo Mythology goes further toy that when God vas creating, he created many kings who were ordained from heaven to govern the earth but before the kings carne down to this world, the Almighty God asked these kings to make their choices of whatever gift they wanted God to endow them with. Some chose money, others chose wo1diy possession but as the king of Benin was about to make his choice, a bird called (Owonwon) suggested to the king to choose that which was in’ the snail shell (Ze mwin Izo r’ughughon). The bird repeated these words several times and in the end the king (Oba) chose the snail shell (Ughughon) which contained sand as the story goes, the king of Benin created Iand wherever he went thus becoming the owner of the even up to Europe, as the Edo say: Obayan oto se Evbuebo. In his lecture-on The Evolution of Traditional Rulership in Nigeria given under the auspices of the University of Ibadan, Institute of African Studies on 11th September, 1984, the Orno N’Oba Eredauwa, Oba of Benin, puts the story of the Edo origin in the following words:

“According to our traditional history that evolved out of our ritualistic beliefs, this land of Edo is the origin of the word. It was founded by the first Oba of Benin who was the youngest son of the Supreme God. When the Supreme God decided to send his children to the world, He gave an option to each of them to choose what to take away. At that time (as the Holy Book came to confirm at a much later age) the universe was all water and no land. One of the children chose the sign for wealth; the other one took wisdom (or knowledge), another one chose medicine (mystical knowledge).

“When it carne to the turn of the youngest child, there was apparently nothing left for him to choose; but after looking around the whole place, he saw a snail shell which his senior brothers had overlooked because it was very dirty. He took that, broke it open only to find that it contained ordinary sand.
‘The Father commended him for this intuition and told him that on getting to .the world he should empty the shell in any place of his choice and the place would be his. He emptied it in the area that is now Edo (Benin) and the whole place became land. His other brothers who had been hovering around for somewhere to rest then came round to request for a portion of land to settle on. These other brothers represent the three shades of “ebo” or “white men” - as we call them - who occupy the rest of the world. That is why one of the .attributes of the Oba of Benin is that he owns land up to “evbo-ebo”, meaning European country. And this is also why the earth features so prominently as part of our coronation rituals. (Note - the words in parenthesis are mine).

“Although some contemporary historians claim that the Benin (Edo) people migrated from the Sudan, the truth is that no scientific historical explanation has been found to account for how the ethnic group known as the Edo (Benin people> came to be where they are today. This is an area I personally would like to see some more work done. -

“Generally speaking, Traditional Rulership is as old as the community to which it relates. Although, as earlier observed, the origin may differ from community to community, there seems to be one feature common to all and one can use the feature in the Benin Kingdom to illustrate. What carne to be known as the Benin Kingdom did not begin its existence as a Kingdom in the sense of its being headed by a King or a Traditional Ruler as is known today. It began as a conglomeration of villages, each of which was headed by the oldest man in the community which we refer to as Odionwere or village head. But with a cluster of family compounds each of which was headed by the householder or head of the family. believe this is the pattern of origin of Traditional Rulership in many parts of the country. As time went on several of the villages joined together for purposes of security against external aggression and for commerce, and the most powerful of the old people automaticity became the head of the group. This was what happened in Benin and the first to emerge as such as leader, almost immediately assumed the position of a King for by t1e wisdom he was described as being like a King in heaven or a King from heaven (Ovevbogie Noriso). This is the origin of the title ‘Ogiso’ which carne to be the title of the earliest Benin Kings, before the advent of Oramniyan.”

There were thirty—one of these kings who were styled Ogiso and their rule lasted for nearly 1000 years. In his book titled A Short History of Benin, Chief (Dr.) Jacob
U. Egharevba said Thirty-one Ogisos reigned but he only named .Fifteen of them as follows:

(1) Igodo (Obagodo) (9) Oriagba
(2) Ere (10) Odoligie
(3) Orire (11) Uwa
(4) Akhuaiilchuan (12) Eheneden
15) Ekpigho (13) Obioye
(6) Oria (14) Arigho
(7) Ernosé (15) Owodo
(8) Orhorho

However, in the lecture delivered by Dr. O.S.B. Omoregie on the Evolution of Benin, as part of lectures on the lost Treasures of Ancient Benin organized by the National Commission of Museums and Monument, Benin City, June 25, 1982, the name of the Ogisos were given as follows:
(1) Igodo or Obagodo (16) Oírla . .
(2) Ere (17) Emose (female
(3) Orire (18) Orrorro (fema1e
4) Odia (19) Irrebo
5) lgh ido (20) Ogbomo
(6) Evbobo .. (21) Agbonzeke
(7) Ogbeide (22) Ediie
(8) Ernehen (23) Oriagba
(9) Akhuankhuan (24) Odoligie
(10) Ekpigho (25) Uwa
(11) Efeseke (26) Eheneden
(12) Irudia (27) Ohuede
(13) Etebowe (28) Oduwa
(14) Odion (29) Obioye
(15)’ Imarhan (30) Arigho
(31) Owodo

The expanded form of the word Ogiso is Ogie-Iso, which. When translated in Edo means King from Heaven or king of the sky. The word Ogie means king, Iso means .sky or Heaven. Thus Edo people believe that their kings come from the sky or more appropriately, from Heaven or from God. It is this belief which explains why the Oba is the embodiment of the culture of the Edo people. The story of the people cannot be written without reference to their kings (or Oba). Indeed, everything revolves round the Oba. For example, a matured man would be appropriately referred to as Opioba (meaning Oba’s man). Conversely, a woman would be referred to as Okhuoba (meaning Oba’s woman).

The salutations of the Edo people have not excluded their Oba. Thus for “good morning”, the Edo man will say Oba owie (meaning the king of the morning). For “good afternoon’, they will say Oba avan (meaning king of the noon) and for “good evening”, they will say Oba ota (meaning king of the evening). The origin of the word.Oba has been a subject of much controversy. The early kings in Benin  were  known as Ogisos. The successors were the Obas which began with Oba Eweka (1200 AD). Some writers claim that the word Oba is a Yoruba word which means king. Others insist that the word must have been derived from the Benin words O baa meaning “it is hard or difficult” or probably from an abbreviation of the original name of the first Ogiso Obagodo (Oba godo; Oba - king; godo - high; thus High King). The long history behind the Edo people is reflected in their uniquely rich cultural heritage. The heritage they leave behind tells of a story of the greatness similar to those of Alexander or Hercules  as understood by Europeans. To lay to rest all the conflicting beliefs about the origin of the Edo people, one can now say unequivocally that the Edo people never migrated to their present location, but in fact were created in and have always lived on the pre-sent site of their ancient City. There is no doubt that other people have migrated to join the aboriginal Edo people and that in the course of history the migrants have inter-changed their culture and also imbibed the culture of their new abode.

In a reference to the Edo historical link with Ife, the Orno N’Oba Erediauwa in his lecture earlier referred to said that:

“Another important traditional ruler whose origin deserves examination is the Oduduwa of Ife whose origin is also shrouded in myths or legend. He is believed to be the father of the principal rulers of the Yoruba land, the father of Oranrniyan who was the father of Eweka I of Benin and who was also the founder and  the first Alaafin of Oyo Kingdom Ife traditional history says Oduduwa descended from heaven (in a like manner to the Edo account). Some modern historians say that the great Oduduwa was a fugitive from the Muslims of the Middle East and that he came to settle in what is present-day IleIfe. We in Benin believe, and there are historical landmarks for such belief, that the person whom the Yorubas call Oduduwa was the fugitive Prince Ekaiaderhan, son of the last Ogiso of Benin by name Ogiso Owodo; he found his way to what is now Ile-Ife after gaining freedom from his executioners and wandering for years through the forests. It was after the demise of his father when, in the interregnum, Evian, and later his son, Ogiamien, tried to assume the kingship that those who knew that Ekaiaderhan was alive organized a search party to fetch hm. it was this search party that emerged at lle-ife and discovered Ekaladerhan, known then to the people of Ile-Ife as Oduduwa as already enjoying the status of a king.. After failing to persuade him to return with them to Benin, they succeeded in getting him to send his son Oranrniyan to rule in Benin.
“This leads us immediately to the origin of Kingship in Oyo Kingdom. Oranrniyan’s stay in Benin was brief. Our own account is that he returned to his father in Ife. His father then told him that since he had been a king in his own right, it was improper for both of them to live in Ife. He then sent him to rule over Oyo where he became the first Alaafin from where he ruled over Ife after the demise of Oduduwa. I am aware of another account which says that Oranmiyan’s emergence in Oyo was the failure of his attempt to march a punitive expedition to the Middle East to avenge the expulsion of his father. This other account, of course, we in Benin do not accept, and I doubt whether it is acceptable to Oyo people.

“We have so far discussed the origin of Kingship in Benin, Ife and Oyo and indicated the link between those Kingdoms. Let us now look at Lagos which also has an age-long kingship and which also has historical link with us in Benin.”

The Oba in the same lecture further told us the story of Lagos as follows:


“There is a lot of traditional history at both the Benin and Lagos ends relating to the origin of what is now Lagos, its ruler and its connection with Benin. But perhaps to avoid inadequacies and controversy which the academics claim surround traditional history, we may like to hear what some modern historians have to say on this subject. Robert S. Smith, in his book titled Kingdoms of the yoruba, after examining the early history of some principal Yoruba towns, especially in and around Oyo, and the westward expansion in the l7th century of Benin Kingdom with its number of subject towns on or near to the coast, which included Lagos, went on to say this about Lagos in particular:

"Its names reflect its past; to the Yoruba it is Eko, deriving probably from the farm (oko) of the earliest settlers, though alternatively - or additionally - it may be the Benin word (eko) for a war-camp ... We say ‘Eko’ is a Benin word that rneans ‘camp’.”

After describing the activities of the armies of Benin under Oba Orhogbua, culminating in his arrival at what is now Lagos, Smith went mi to add:

“Some time later the Oba appointed a ruler for Lagos to represent the interest of Benin and to forward tribute there. The man chosen is named in both Lagos and Benin tradition as Ashipa”

“Smith says that by Lagos account this Ashipa was an Isheri Chief, while the Benin account says Ashipa was a grandson of the Oba of Benin. We shall come to this later. Smith was however; satisfied that Benin had established its ascendancy in Lagos and had founded a dynasty there at some period before 1700. The dynasty’s dependence Benin, Smith found, was emphasized by the appointment of another Chief, the Eletu Qdibo, who alone had the right to crown the Oba and who in early times probably maintained close connection with Benin (Eletu Odibo is a corruption of the Edo equivaient Olotu Odibo).

“G.T stride and C.Ifeka in their books titled people and Empires of West Africa have this to say on the same subject:

“Oba Orhogbua was clearly a strong warrior for he enforced tribute payments from all parts of the empire and in the mid1550s conquered all the coastal lands up to Lagos where he left a permanent garrison. Tradition in Lagos says that their first Oba, the Eleko of Eko, was a son of Oba Orhogbua of Benin”

It will be seen, therefore, .that even if we were to disregard traditional history is enough material from modern historians to confirm the fact that what is now Lagos was founded by an Oba of Benin who also gave it its first ruler. But we really cannot disregard traditional history. In Benin tradition, and we believe the same of Yoruba and other ethnic groups in this country, one way to establish that an event in traditional history did occur is by the type of anecdote or adage that evolves from that event. Thus, for instance, we the Edo people say that “Orhogbua gb’Oiague, ona y’ukpe abekpen z’umwen rie Edo”, rneaning that Oba Orhogbua defeated Olague and used sword to bring his salt to Benin. This is in allusion to the exploits of Oba Orhogbua while in his camp (eko) from where he over-ran the place known as Mahin with its ruler whom the Benin people nicknamed Olague. There Orhogbua discovered the common rock salt and brought it to Benin who thereby tasted it for the first time.

Now the name “Ashipa” has featured quite prominently (and rightly too) in the history of Lagos. After the Oba Orhogbua returned to Benin from his ‘eko’, he appointed a commander or an administrator, who was called ‘Aisikpa’ to look after the skeleton troop left in the camp (eko) until he returned again from Benin. He could no longer return having seen the situation at home. The name ‘Aisikpa’. was specially chosen for the administrator to commemorate the Oba’s many years sojourn at Eko and it is simply a contraction of a Benin phrase, “Aisikpa-hienvborre” which means “people do not desert their home-land.” This is how Aisikpa, who in the Yoruba now call Ashipa, came into Lagos (Eko) history. ‘Eko’ is still there as the traditional Benin name for Lagos; Ashipa has been retained as a senior traditional chieftaincy title while his descendants now retain the modern name of ‘Oba of Lagos’

The interaction of the Edo people with others in distant lands must have inevitably resulted in cultural exchanges.


The historical accounts narrated so far gives a clear insight into the evolution ofBenin Kingship in Edoland as well as the Edo in Diaspora. The earlier kings in Edoland, having consolidated their positions, did not forget the elders (Edion) who formed the bedrock of the administration of the people. Naturally, these elders eventually came to be known as Ekhaemwen (Chiefs) and they treated the earlier kings almost as primus inter pares: In spite of this position, the early Kings (Ogiso) had already secured their position “y applying the law of primogeniture as demonstrated by the last Ogiso Owodo who banished about AD 1 100.

The Ogiso period ended in 1100 AD as mentioned above. The advert of Oba carried with it the age-long custom of hereditary succession which was aptly described in the following manner by Professor AY.C. Ryder in his book Benin and the Europeans 4585-1897. “In their kingship and lineage organization, there is a marked patrilineal bias and an emphasis upon primogeniture. “ Historical accounts state that.. Ogiso Owodo in his desire to ensure that the primogeniture law was maintained became obsessed with the idea that he might not have a child of his own to succeed him. if his only son (Ekaladerhan) was to die before him. His wives took advantage of this obsession and so persuaded the king to consult the oracle to explain the reasons why Ogiso’ wives could not bear him other male children who might succeed him should the only child die before the king. Esagho the most senior wife of Ogiso (as the story went) was commissioned to lead the delegation to consult the oracle on the issue. It turned out that the Oracle found that Esagho herseif was responsible for the inability of ihe Ogo’s wives to have children. The oracle then recommended that Esagho had to be executed to appease the gods of the land before Ogiso could have more issues. By Esagho’s  intrigue , the oracle’s message was twisted to say that Ogiso’s only child, Ekaiaderhan must be sacrificed before more children could be born. Ekaladerban, according to the story, wandered away into the bush and finaily arrived at Ughoton. It was not quite long before Ogiso owodo knew that Ekaladerhan was still alive whereupon, the young Prince started on a flight which took him to a place he called Uhe where he finally settled with his own men among the people he found in his new abode. For his skill in hunting 1 magical powers acquired during his long wandering in the forest coupled with  Ifa prediction that a stranger would come to rule them, the people in Uhe accepted his leadership. In his joyful relief at the reception he received from his new abode, he exclaimed Imaghidoduwa or “Imadoduwa” which trans!ated, rneans “ I have not missed my path to prosperity. “ The word Imadoduwa was eventually mispronounced as “Ododuwa” which word became the name of the new ruler who is acclaimed to be the father of Oranmiyan who begat Eweka I of Benin and also the Yoruba Obas. However, history had it that when Owodo eventually died without a successor, there was an interregnum during which Evian became an administrator of Edoland.


According to Chief (Dr.) U. Egharevba’s historical account, during Owodo’s reign, a man called Evian came to prominence. At that time there were a great monster called Osogn whiçh killed many people at Okedo now known as Ikpoba Slope in Benin City. The harassment took place mostly on market days. Because of this, the market was nicknamed Agbayo-Aigbare, meaning “we go there together but we never return together. On a market day, so the story went, Evian armed himself with a red hot iron rod which he thrust into the mouth of the monster which eventually perished and was heard of no more. Evian was hailed as Evian nu r!e ebe which, translated mean “Evian who prevents danger” It is for this single act of gallantry which brought Evian to prominence  and he was then selected  to administer the Government of Benin after the banishment of Owodo who was the last Ogiso. We were told that the aging administrator (Evian) nominated his son Ogiamien to succeed him. Such nomination was not acceptable to the Edo people and after much internecine war, Edo people went search of a king and this eventually led them to their exiled Prince now fully settled as a king at Uhe. The Edo tried to prevail on Ododuwa to come back to Benin but he refused although  he eventually agreed to send a son if only the Edo people  could prove  that they were capable of taking care of the new king. As a test the grate Ododuwa gave the emissaries lice to nurse for three years at the end of which they should report to him the fate of these insects. Chief Oliha who headed the delegation kept his own louse in his own servant’s hair and at the end of the third year he was able to produce as many lice as possible to prove that the Edo people who were able to take care of such tiny things as lice were also capable of looking after their king. This fact earned Oliha the appellation of “Ogelemodu” or Ogele muiru.


Ododuwa having been convinced about the ability of the Benins to cares for their king sent his son Oranmiyan to rule, but it turned out that he couldn’t rule    people whose language and customs were different from those of Uhe. Oranmiyan who married a Benin woman however left a son who eventually became EWEKA I(1200 A.D) With the restoration of kingship, the original king-makers (then known as Edion) among whom was Oliha, were rewarded ad their titles  became  hereditary  like that of the Oba. Over the years, as a result of the struggle between the Edion (elders) and the king for supremacy, the group name Edion came to be known as Uzama

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