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Great Benin Influence on the Yoruba in the Americas

by AfroWorldNews

“The Influence of Edo Religion and Medicine in the New World”byChief Dr. Daryl Peavy,  JD

Presented in Benin City, Nigeria 2009 Institute For Benin Studies

I would like to give thanks to the Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Uyilawa Usuanlele, and the Institute for Benin Studies for their aggressive promotion of Edo culture, science, and technology. The topic of this paper is “The Influence of Edo Religion and Medicine in the New World.” Although the Great Edo (Benin) Kingdom were not major participants in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, because the Obas (Kings) believed that their subjects were too valuable to sell away, and their noblemen had need of war captives on their own farms, the influence of Edo religion and medicine has still been substantial upon the people of the Americas. The Europeans skillfully forced the trans-Atlantic slave trade upon West Africa. Because of the vastness of the Edo Empire, many Edo traditions were indirectly incorporated into the New World through its many far-reaching colonies.

The Edo Kingdom extended from the boundary with Oyo in the north (Otun) to the Atlantic in the south, Asaba in the east, and Eko (Lagos) in the west. According to Egharevba (2005), the headquarters for the colonies were; Agbor in Eka, Asaba in Iboland, Arochuku in Iboland, Irrua in Esan, Agbede in Kukuruku, Akure in Ekiti, Ondo in…?, Urele in Ikale, Warri in Itsekiri, Abraka in Urhoboland, and Eko (Lagos) on the Atlantic. Both Edo religion and medicine had been taken to those domains, following traditional practices originating in Edo land. According to Mason (1996), it has been widely accepted that Olokun (god of the sea) worship originated with the Edo and spread to the Yoruba (p.2). In fact, the most prominent part of Edo’s cultural traditions that has made its mark in the New World is Olokun worship. Olokun (god of the Waters) worship originated from Urhonigbe and then became prominent at Ughoton around the Ethiope (Olokun) River.

The priesthood and rituals were firmly established at the time. Some of the possible points of contact happened early. During the Ogiso Period, trade with the Yoruba and Igbos was quite extensive. Olokun worship may have spread to those areas through traders. Prior to the Oba Period, Ekaladerhan was initiated into Olokun as a chief Priest while he stayed at Ughoton, before his arrival at Ife (Ero,1999,p.108-109). Once he arrived, Ekaladerhan brought Edo traditions to the area and was made King of the Yoruba and crowed Oduduwa. From Ekaladerhan’s loins, the Yoruba dynasties began. The time period Olokun worship actually started in those areas may be debatable. However, it is certain that Olokun is an Edo divinity whose worship spread to the outlying Yoruba areas. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slave raids were launched upon Yoruba and Ibo territories. Europeans were able to obtain some of the greatest amounts of West Africans from both Yoruba and Ibo land (Crosby,1992, p.136). In the 18th century in Iboland at Isseke, slave raiders took a famous Edo subject named Olaudah Equiano, who later wrote about the encounter. Olaudah traveled to the New World and then to England, learned to read and write English, and shared his religious and cultural experiences.

Olokun worshippers in the Edo colonial territories would have been subject to the long journey to both North and South America and the outlying islands. The trans-Atlantic slave trade lasted for over three hundred years. Europeans deliberately sowed seeds of hostility between different West African ethnic groups to cause wars and fuel the supply of potential slaves (Crosby, 1992, p.128). It has been estimated that at least fifteen million Africans were displaced and taken to the Americas. The Portuguese were the first Europeans that made contact with the Edo (Benin) Kingdom and were also one of the chief culprits in the slave trade. They took West Africans to Brazil or sold them to Spanish slave traders that sold them in Mexico, other countries in South America or to the Caribbean (Crosby,1992, p.126). West Africans who were taken to the Caribbean went through what was known as a “seasoning process.” The “seasoning process” was how a European slave owner made the West African into a slave. The “seasoning process” resulted in many harsh trials and tribulations placed upon the West African that made him or her complicit to the role of being a slave for life. Africans had to employ the tools of religion and medicine to cope with those tragedies. West Africans arrived in South America in the country of Brazil during the 1530’s (Voeks, 1997, p.41). Some of these Africans were captured in the Bight of Benin as well as in Lagos (Eko).

          Traditional Edo medicine would have been a necessary part of the slaves’ existence. The West African slaves continued to incorporate a holistic view to the treatment of mankind. There were medicines for physical diseases as well as ritual medicines for spiritual ailments and sufferings.One of the many important aspects of traditional Edo religion that influenced African slaves in the New World was the Edo creation story, which reached the Americas via its inclusion into the Yoruba creation story. Similar to the Edo version, sand from a snail’s shell exhibited the important role of being emptied onto the great waters to form land. A chameleon was placed upon the land to probe and test the firmness of the earth. That very spot in which the land had spread out from became the center of creation or Benin (Mason, 1996, p.5).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Around 1859, Olokun worship took hold in Cuba, an island that is close to Florida in the United States (Mason, 1996, p.16). It was actually the Edo-ruled Egbado Yoruba who brought Olokun worship to Cuba through the Olokun priestess Yen Ye T’Olokun. However, Olokun initiations in Cuba also included being initiated into the Yoruba deity YEMALLA?. The Cuban towns of Regla and Mantanzas were the two main places where Olokun worship was developed. The town of Regla was known as Ara Olokun or relatives of Olokun (Maseon, 1996, p.18). The town of Mantanzas was the site of the most prestigious Olokun worship. Mantanzas held the spiritual power of Olokun as well as the consecrated drums for worship (Mason, 1996, p. 29).  Some of the Olokun shrine objects in Cuba were similar to their Edo counterparts: a large box decorated with mirrors with a white cloth was used in mortuary rites to contain the deceased’s wealth and social status (Mason, 1996, p.2). Other objects sacred to Olokun included brass ladders, coral, and beads. The Olokun drums consisted of four goblet-shaped bodies, with a tapered foot, single-headed and peg-tuned. In the 19th century, the drums had a fish-legged figure pictured on them, similar to the fish-legged Olokun emblems in Edo land. An agogo bell was played in accompaniment to the Olokun drums, as it is in Edo land.

According to Mason (1996), quoting Ortiz, “another Olokun drum is played that resembles the Edo Emighan drum that is used in Edo for Olokun worship” (p. 29). No Filomino Garcia Atanda introduced the Olokun masquerade tradition in Cuba )Brown,2003,p.76). An Olokun priest named Eworio Rodriguez was very knowledgeable about Olokun rituals and would often dance the Olokun masked dance (Mason,1996, p.18). An annual Olokun festival in Cuba was held around Easter Sunday. There was singing to Olokun, and drum playing. In Cuba, no newly initiated priest/priestess would be allowed to dance in front of the sacred Olokun drums. Olokun priests and drummers would take a boat out into the ocean and perform sacrifices. In similarity to the traditions in Edo land, some of the sacrifices consisted of goats, guinea hens, roosters, pigeons, turtles, and very plump pigs (Mason, 1996, pp. 19-20).

            The dance of Olokun was held the following day. Another interesting similarity to Edo land was that the children of Olokun were born with thick curly hair (Mason, 1996, p.34). The Cuban emigrant Evella Collazo brought Olokun worship to New York City in the 20th century. During that time Olokun worship was combined with the Yoruba deity Yemanja (Mason, 1996, p.19). Some of the Olokun ritual objects were brought to the United States through many Cuban emigrants. However, some ritual Olokun objects were brought to the United States directly from Edo land. In South Carolina, there is a neo-African village called Oyotunji where an Olokun temple was erected. The Olokun temple was directly modeled after the Edo Olokun temple., and is the largest temple at the village. The Oba of Oyotunji village had visited Edo land to acquire knowledge of how the temple would eventually be erected. Similar to the depictions of Oba Ohen, there was a gigantic statue of a fish-legged Oba in the temple. Several initiates in the United States have gone to Edo land to receive Olokun. Norma Rosen was one of the initiates that have extensively written about Olokun worship. Other initiates include the scholars Paula Ben-Amos and Barbara Blackmun. There were also shrines to Ogun and Esango in the New World. The Edo divination system called Iha Ominigbon/Oguega has also penetrated the United States. I had the fortunate opportunity to meet an Edo man from Esan land who was willing to introduce me to the indigenous system of divination over a decade ago. As is true of most people from Edo land in the United States, this teacher was a professional as well as a businessman who owned an African import store.

I acquired the Oguega divination apparatus in Akron, Ohio in North America. In fact, it has been quite common to acquire knowledge and contact of Edo rituals, and deities through business owners in the United States. John Mason, an African American Olokun priest in the United States stated in his book “Olokun: Owner of Rivers and Seas” that he had met an Edo businesswoman in New York City who was an Olokun priestess, and she enhanced his knowledge about the deity (Mason:1996). Subsequently, and during my training in the U.S., I acquired a puff adder (Ighede) drum for native doctors and warriors. I was introduced to the Ewawa/Osiru divination modus. I was also introduced to the kola nut, alligator pepper and many other precious cultural items from Edo land. There were many objects of Edo origin that found their way into the mainstream of residents in Akron, OH, including statues of the Oba and his wives, altar bells, Ibibio masks, Ofoe (Death’s Messenger) masks and many others.

I was introduced to the Edo religion through Olokun worshippers. I have personally visited Oyotunji village and saw the magnificent Olokun shrine. I also began my instructions in Iha Ominigbon/Oguega in the United States. Later I was also able to learn the oracular language of the Iha Ominigbon from Esan teachers in the villages of Northern Edo. The efficacy of traditional Edo medicine and the tested methods of our ancestors can hardly be disputed. Many medicines were handed to me to try out or to give to clients for various ailments. Some of the medicines were alligator pepper, chalk (orhue), kola nuts (evbee), chewing sticks, etc. I called my trips to Edo land a pilgrimage because African Americans have enthusiastically embraced the culture of their ancestors. Returning to Africa was one of the greatest experiences that I have had. The stories of the Great Edo (Benin) empire and its many achievements were some of the key motivations of coming to Africa. I have taken the knowledge of traditional Edo medicine back to the United States to share with its inhabitants. As a practitioner of traditional Edo medicine, I have provided oracular consultations as well as cures for various ailments, both physical and spiritual.

I have also written a book about native doctors and their role within the Edo Kingdom. On my last visit, I received further training in the divination systems of Oguega, Ewawa/Osiru, and Ezeiza. The native doctor, as the foremost practitioner of traditional Edo medicine, used the divination systems as analytical tools for physical as well as spiritual illnesses. In addition to my teacher from Esan and myself, there has also been a Yoruba diviner from Ekiti, a once Edo-ruled part of Yorubaland, who has brought Oguega/Agbigba divination to the United States. The native doctor employed the use of local herbs as medicines. The herbal knowledge that Africans brought to the New World contributed to their survival skills. More recently, there has been an Edo herbal company that has established itself in the United States. Many books on traditional Edo medicine can be found through the Edo herbal entrepreneurs and their representatives in the United States. The name of the company is Pax Herbals. Although the Edo herbal company is Christian in its philosophy, the chief herbalist gives acknowledgment to our ancestral native doctors who discovered the wealth of herbal information. Osun, as the deity of Medicine, had a great impact on medicinal cures. The Edo herbal company has found a market in the United States that addresses the holistic approach to medicine. From medicines for general health to improved sexual reproduction, traditional Edo medicine continues to have an influence in the New World.

Many of Osun’s characteristics can be seen or were assimilated into the Yoruba deity called Osanyin in the New World. Osanyin, the Yoruba equivalent to Osun, was important in Cuba, Brazil as well as the United States as a powerful deity of Medicine. It has especially affected those that are seeking alternatives to modern (Western) medicine. With the advent of an African becoming president of the United States, the influence and interest in Africa have increased. In Edo, the word Oba’ma means fine king (Curnow: 2009). There are many more African Americans that have taken an interest in returning back to their ancestral homes and focusing on Edo land. Museums in the United States exhibit the beautiful treasures of the Edo (Benin) Kingdom. On the Internet, a person can view Edo’s traditional art, history, culture, kingship, dances, and festivals. An excellent Edo exhibit that lasted from 2008 to 2009 was the Iyare exhibition headed by Dr. Kathy Curnow. The Iyare exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum featured Edo pieces such as elephant tusks, plaques, unhumwun elao, ada and eben, and other fine works of Edo art and culture.

There were also some ritual instruments displaying images of a native doctor with snakes emanating from his nostrils, a sign of the supernatural powers of traditional Edo medicine. Most of the Edo objects had a religious purpose. Many of these objects introduced the viewer to an Edo perspective on religion. Previous to the Iyare exhibition was the Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Art from Nigeria, held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2007. The Chicago exhibit represented six centuries of Edo art. Princess Theresa Erediauwa was at the Art Institute representing the Edo culture. The exhibition pieces are valuable, one of a kind, artwork that tells of the glory of the Edo Empire. For most people in the New World, those exhibits were the most concentrated means of learning about the great Edo civilization. In the Iyare exhibition, traditional Edo dances and songs were performed, the participants in full traditional attire. Many of the Edo exhibits brought Chiefs from the Edo Kingdom as authorized representatives of the Palace.

The acrobatic Esan masquerade “Igbabonelimhin” has been held at the many Edo association meetings in North America. The Edo associations in the United States have played a huge part in heightening Edo awareness. The Umagbae Association has also brought the Edaiken Eheneden Erediauwa to the United States to attend its inaugural function in 2009. Edo groups have been calling for research into many of the indigenous practices in Edo land in order to document and develop them accordingly. Some of the topics that have been discussed were the impact of science and technology, medicine, architecture, engineering, and pharmacology. The Institute for Benin Studies has been at the forefront of that discussion. Uyi Usuanlele has been an integral part of furthering the written record of Edo knowledge and has also been a valuable resource to my knowledge and experience of Edo culture. I would also like to mention Tina Iyare for her many contributions to the restoration of the Edo Empire. She has aided with many resources on the subject matter. There are also other Edos in the Americas, too numerous to list here who have contributed to the promotion of Edo culture and knowledge. There are also websites on the Internet that display many cultural and historical landmarks of the Edo Kingdom. In whatever medium one chooses, you can find references made to the Omo N’Oba N’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo. The people of the New World look at Edo land as a historical landmark that holds fast to its many traditions, thus keeping the door open for the restoration process of traditional religion and medicine in the New World.

Conclusion                                                                                                                                                                                                                         Edo religion and medicine have had a substantial impact on the people of the New World. The Edo creation story served as the foundation for the African explanation of how the world began. Olokun is the main Edo deity that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Olokun worship was practiced in the Caribbean and the Americas. Traditional Edo medicine was another key component of the religion. Traditional Edo medicine has also either been reintroduced or is being proposed for development by Edo-based entrepreneurs in North America.

The new possibilities of Edo religion and traditional Edo medicine in the New World is staggering.. African Americans are interested in reuniting with their cultural heritage and reestablishing connections with the Motherland. The history of Great Benin (Edo) is a magnet for that transition. Other Americans are also intrigued with the many possibilities of Edo religion and medicine. Some have adopted Edo traditional practices. There is a frank discussion going on within the Edo newsgroups in the Diaspora regarding how to revive Edo customs and medicines. The Edo civilization is going through a renaissance with many wonderful ideas coming from the diaspora. We are brothers and sisters who take great pride in the Great Edo (Benin) Kingdom. The people in the United States wish to build bridges with the people of Edo. This has been established by the influence of Edo religion and medicine in the New World. I believe that we can accomplish this goal by working together in the Edo renaissance.

Oba Ghato Tokpere Ise!

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Read more about Great Benin’s  influence on Yoruba culture, Ifa,  Olokun, etc


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