{Benin City, Nigeria Local Time}
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Sacredness Of Ovia Masquerades

By Ambrose Ekhuosuehi (Last Update July 12, 2020)

Ovia was a beautiful woman transformed to the name Ovia River, the largest river in the kingdom of Benin. She is worshipped in many communities but women are not allowed to enter her sacred groves.

At the time of Ovia festival most of the men in the community go into seclusion in the groves around the shrine for periods varying from a week to three months. They are completely masked and in every second day throughout the festival the spirits emerge to dance in the village or in the town. Each spirit wears a suit of cotton with long sleeves which come down to cover the hands. Over this are draped two single circlets of fresh young palm leaves - Omen or palm fronds suspended from the waist and the shoulders.

Round the ankles each dancer wears anklets and sometimes also anklets consisting of small brass clapper - bells Eroro or pellets bells Ighenghan.

On the head the spirit wears a skull-cap of bark-cloth into which a framework of soft sticks is pegged. Into these sticks are inserted a vast number of feathers - red parrot feathers and larger black and white feathers. In the centre of the headdress a mirror is tied from the front edges of which hangs a string net-work veil which effectively conceals the face of the wearer. From the back hangs a long, wide strip of a scarlet clothes known as ododo and from a loop of cord at the front of two stick, clappers are hanging. With these clappers the masqueraders beat out the rhythm of their dances.

The Ikpasa sticks and the anklets are the only musical instruments that are allowed during the festival. The masqueraders are said to represents the spirits of past worshippers and each impersonates his most patrlineal ancestor. The spirits are believed to be on the threshold between the actual visible world in which men live and the sacred world.

During the Ovia Festival, certain prohibitions must be observed by the whole community or by particular section of it. The most important prohibition applying to the community is the ban on sexual relations for all residents. Another general prohibition forbids quarrelling. Some regulations apply only to the men in seclusion, the most important of which is the ban on washing and shaving.

Women are forbidden to touch the masqueraders or join in their dances or songs or to sing any other tune than the one it is their duty to sing during the festival. They are also forbidden to see any of the men’s activities at night when the voice of bullroarer sounds. When the women hear the sound of the bullroarer, they have to stay indoors.

When the spirit-Erinmwi come out to dance, they enter it in certain order. The Oyo arrived first, followed by the Igbe and finally by the Edion, accompanied by a junior Oyo carrying and ukhure stick rattle. The senior priest is the last to arrive. He takes his place on the verandah of the house before which the dancing is to take place.

The Oyo, Igbe and Edion line up in front of him with the junior priest in the centre, holding the Ukhure. The priests salute each other and the senior one then makes an offering of kola nuts and water at the foot of the Ukhure. This rite is said to make the ground and the community cools, so that the dancers will not fall down. After this, the masquerades arrange themselves in a circle to begin the dancing.

The first dance is said to be for the collective ancestors and is performed in front of their oguaedion- ancestral hall. The second dance is for the senior priest, the third for the junior priest and the fourth for the women. All other dances are regarded as being for the community at large.

The dances are usually intricate and vigorous. They are accompanied by the beating of Ikpasa sticks clappers and by songs. Occasionally, the dancers stamp their feet on the ground. The final stage of the dancing is the obodo in which individually and in reversed order of seniority perform a kind of acrobatics, twirling in the air with both feet off the, ground, turning over violently with hands and feet resting on ‘the ground, and in some cases, walking on the hands.

Between the dances, the women of the community sing their own special songs appropriate to the occasion. All these songs are closely concerned with the festival. They must all be sung to a single tune, the use of which is forbidden on any other occasion.

A larger number of the songs refer to the exploits and appearances of the men in their role. Further, there are songs which express the dependence of the women upon the men or the importance of co operations between the sexes for the successful prosecution of the festival.

At the end of the dancing, the spirit disperses and wanders round the community, stopping in front of some of the houses to demand gifts. In return for these gifts they grant requests for blessings and curses. Curses and blessings secured from Ovia at the time of a festival are held to be more effective than at any other time.

At the end of the festival, the women throw cloths over their heads at a performance of the acrobatic obodo dance. Thus the return of the men to the real world is believed to be ensured.

The women are taken to the groves where they are made to underline curses upon those who seek to harm members of the community by physical or supernatural means. The festival is then brought to an end by a rite of reconciliation between the sexes.

When the festival is over, the villagers perform the Agbala dance to the accompaniment of four agbala drums and four egogo c1apperless bells.

According to expert researchers, the sacredness of an Ovia festival can be seen in terms of social relations. It expresses the solidarity of the community as a whole, against other communities, and against individuals within and outside it, who seek to harm its members. It expresses the dichotomy between the sexes, at the same time as it underlines the necessity for co-operation between them for the perpetuation of the group. It reinforces the authority of the old men over the young.

In this regard, Ekpo Ugo reinforces its solidarity against forces that threaten it and denotes Edion- Ebo-senior doctors while the sacredness of Ovia Masquerades - Ekpo Ovia has similarity also linked up with the kingdom at large through the mythology of the masks.

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