How Oba Ewuare's Attempt To Destroy The Deities Of Edo Land By incineration Failed

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By Ekhaguosa Aisien (Last update March 23, 2022)

One of the best remembered and often repeated stories about Ewuare was the attempt he made, one fine day, to destroy the deities of the land by incineration. The story narrates that Oba Ewuare invited all the deities of the land to the palace, to a banquet as a show of his appreciation to them for all of their support during his struggle for the throne.

The deities were the IHEN, the mystics, who in life accomplished extraordinary things which suggested that they possessed supernatural attribute, and who at death were therefore defied and worshiped. Priesthood was created for the particular IHEN so recognized, and this priesthood was hereditary going from father to the eldest son.

Priests - (Ohen)

Honouring the Oba’s invitation were Okhuaihe, Ake, Ovator n’ Igieduma, Ogan n’ Ekhua, Ireghezi n’ Ekae, and all the other IHEN who were alive in the land at the time.

Ewuare received them in a large hall in the OGBE Quarters, near the palace, in a place called the IWETON, said to be behind the Oba market. A large door provided the entrance into the hall.

With the formal welcome concluded with prayers and the breaking of kola- nut, Ewuare bade the IHEN to settle down enjoy themselves because a sumptuous banquet had been prepared for them. He then left his guests and returned to his living quarters in the palace.

The meal of pounded yam was brought in, along with pots of stew choc-a-black with venison meat, and supported with kegs of sweet palm wine. The deities disported themselves around the meal provided and fed themselves to satiety washing the meal down with the sweet palm wine from the calabashes.

When Ewuare was told that IHEN had all been prodigally fed and were in an expansive mood of relaxation, he ordered that the only door to the banquet hall be shut and barricaded from the outside. The hall should then be set on fire, so that his guests would, with no means of escape from the burning building, be incinerated.

The order was carried out. The thatched roof of the hall was set on fire in many places. The hall went up in a great conflagration, with all the deities in Benin land trapped in the inferno, a scenario similar to the burning of heretics at the stakes in the medieval Europe of those days

The deities brought their supernatural capabilities to bear on the emergency situation the found themselves in shrouding themselves in cocoons of non-inflammable ethereal clouds, each and every one of them exited unharmed from the burning hall, either right through the substance of the two-feet thick mud walls of the hall or over the top of the portions of the high wall already denuded of their roof cover by the fire.

The AKE deity, the god of archery, and patron/guardian of the hunters of the land, was the only IHEN who suffered any physical blemish in this treacherous and murderous encounter in Oba Ewuare’s palace. In his attempt to escape from the burning hall through the caves of the roof, some portions of his fore-arms and of the shins of his legs were singed by the fire. The burns healed leaving de-pigmented patches over those portions of Ake’s limbs. Thenceforth in attempts to hide these skin blemishes, Ake took to adorning his body with the red pigment of the cam-wood tree — umee, a habit that this deity’s devotees subsequently adopted, and sport to this day.

For this act of unprovoked murderous treachery perpetrated against the deities of the land by the king, apparently in an attempt to destroy the native religion of the land, Ewuare, it was said, was later punished. The disease of generalized oedema anasarca , was inflicted upon him in his later years, a disease of which he subsequently died. The nature of this infirmity determined that the remains of this Oba be not interred in Benin City, his capital, but away from home, as it was believed that his death was a retribution for a transgression against the OVIA deity. Were the corpse to be buried in his house, as was the custom with every dead Edo adult, the act would elicit the wrath of the ofended deity against the house or community where the internment took place.

At death, therefore, the body of this greatest of the ancient Obas of Benin had to be taken to the non-descript village of ESSI, his maternal grandmother’s village, beyond the OVIA river, and there interred a world away from Benin City.

The folklore explanation of the unexpected, uncharitable and murderous action of Ewuare against the deities of the land, personages who constituted the pillars which upheld the religion of the land was that Ewuare became bad tempered when he was told that the deities were unhappy with him. They were said to have accused the Oba of ingratitude. They had played their different roles in support of his struggles to attain the throne of his father, Ohen. But since he became the king, Ewuare seemed to have conveniently forgotten the debt of gratitude he owed them.

But Ewuare was now the king and, as the source of all power and alt beneficence in the land, he felt uncomfortable to be seen to be beholden to any group or entities in his kingdom for his tenure-ship of his supreme office. A solution to this feeling of indebtedness to these beings would be to use the power he now had to destroy these benefactors, and so free himself of any sense of obligation to them.

Other episodes of similar reasoning are to be found in the lives of Ewuare himself, and also of his son OZOLUA: the destruction of a benefactor as a means of ridding oneself of the sense of obligation lo the benefactor.
The other potent reason for bringing destruction, instead of gratitude, to a benefactor was that the gift which was in the power of the benefactor to confer was so potent that this recipient wanted to hold on to the monopoly of the power inherent in the gift conferred on him. The death of the benefactor would permanently take care of the fear of the recipient that the same power, in the hands of another person, might someday be used against him.

The easily remembered examples of this type of reasoning are Ewuares treatment of the worm-infested tree which gave him the talisman of instant wish-actualization and, also of Oba Ozolua’s slaying of Orinmworia, the man who saved him from being slain by ISE after ISE had defeated him in the battle of Utekon village.

There is a well-known saying in Yoruba land that the first person a newly crowned Oba executed when he came to the throne was the personage who was the most instrumental to his attainment of the throne. This was in order for the new Oba to rid himself of the feeling of indebtedness to any other moral for his position at the apex of society, possessed as he now was of the power of life and death over everybody else in the community.

This tendency, to use unrestrained power to the disadvantage of a benefactor instead of using the power to his benefit in gratitude, seems to be a recurring theme in the story of human relationships. Unrestrained power does not co-exist easily with a sense of gratitude and obligation.
But a more plausible way to look at this event of the attempted incineration of the deities of the land by Oba Ewuare is to argue that this episode tells the story of the attempts made by Portugal to converts the king of Benin to Christianity.

The well-known scenario which depicts the Christian missionary in Africa, in the 19th and 20th centuries, in the actual act of receiving the converted natives into the new religion always involved, at some point, the destruction, by incineration, of the heap of gathered idols which the newly converted natives had been worshipping, and which worship they had now renounced.

This writer, as a little boy, was a witness to one of such episodes more than seventy years ago, in the town of URHONIGBE in the Orhionmwon territories of the Benin kingdom. It was in the year 1936, The Rev. W. 1. Payne, the English missionary in charge of the Benin District of the Anglican Church visited URHONIGBE town, the seat of the famous shrine of the OLOKUN deity, the god of the sea. There was already an Anglican Church building in the town, as well as a primary school, run by [he church. The author was six years old, and a pupil in the school. He was living in Urhonigbe because his father was, at that time, the court clerk of the Native Court of the town, the scribe of the Judiciary created for the community by the British Colonial Administration.

A motley crowd of people gathered one evening in front of the church building. They were the new converts to Christianity, souls just won for Christ by ¡he English missionary on his pastoral visit to Urhonigbe from his headquarters in Benin City. Each convert had come to the gathering bringing with him or her all the idols they had hitherto worshipped, the physical representations of their erstwhile religion which they had now repudiated.

The idols were gathered together in a heap in front of the church building. Bundles of firewood were procured and heaped upon the religious artifacts. The mound was then set on fire. It was verily like the burning of heretics at the stake in medieval Europe.

All the Christians, old and new, Inked hands with the white missionary, formed a circle and danced round the crackling conflagration in the early darkness of the dusk, singing and dancing and clapping to Edo Christian songs, like witches in a coven,

The folklore memory of the attempted destruction by fire of the deities of the land by Ewuare almost certainly represents the attempt, by Portugal, to convert this monarch to Christianity. Portugal was already in colonial occupation of the equatorial off-shore islands, especially of Sao Tome. A thriving agricultural industry had developed in this colony, based on the sugar cane cultivation. A vibrant church was flourishing there, and it was the seat of a Bishop. The Island authorities must therefore have been desirous of establishing mutually beneficial contacts with the African mainland. And one of the first things they would attempt to do in this regard would be the Christianization of Benin. Ewuare went through the motions of incinerating the artifacts representing the gods of the land, all in an attempt to convince his new friends of the seriousness with which he regarded their advice about the evils of idolatry and the benefits, both spiritual and political, of declaring for Christ. Of course it was not until the reign of his grandson. Oba ESIGIE, that this effort at Christianizing Benin took root and Christianity flourished for a long while in the land before it went into regression.

It should be emphasized that the Portuguese, on first getting to Benin, must have been greatly relieved that the kingdom was not as yet a Moslem kingdom, judging from the fact that much of what Portugal had seen of Africa up to that point in time. and certainly as far down south as the latitude of Cape Verde, had largely been Islamized, And taking into account the centuries—old struggle with Islam which Christian Europe had been engaged in, in their own home front, coupled with the fact that Moslems were even, at that point in history, still in occupation of portions of Europe, including areas of the Iberian Peninsula, when Portugal was already in Benin it must have seemed doubly important to the Portuguese in Benin to attempt to plant the Christian religion in this “virgin” soil. so far un-exposed to Islam, Achieving this would permanently make Benin land an extension of Christendom, a natural friend and ally rather than the hostile territory it would be had it been Moslem.

It would, therefore, have been undrinkable for Portugal, in the 1460’s and 1470’s, not to attempt to convert to Christianity a well — organized West African Kingdom like the Benin of Oba Ewuare, and so keep the kingdom for ever from the orbit of Islam. And Portugal seized the opportunity. The result of the effort, as remembered by folklore, was the gathering of the gods of the land together at IWETON by Ewuare, and his attempt, in one fell swoop, to destroy them, as demanded by his new-found friends.

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