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A Comprehensive Way to Understanding Edo Culture”
By Chief Dr. Daryl M. Peavy JD
Presented in Benin City, Edo State, Nigeria June 2010 at the Conference organized on Traditional Edo Medicine, Benin City: Institute For Benin Studies,
The importance of a people’s indigenous language cannot be overstated. It is through language that a culture identifies itself and the universe. Language is our chief form of communication. Language is one of the tools used to identify an ethnic group. The indigenous language develops and holds the key to the concepts that are special and inherent within that particular ethnic group and culture. Languages also have latent meanings and symbolisms behind it use that only the native speaker is readily aware of or can translate. Without the living language, those concepts become lost. A people without its own language is unidentifiable as a people. A people without its own language cannot express its own ideas. A people that cannot express its own ideas have nothing to offer the world. A people who solely use a foreign language or the language of a foreign occupier, become knowingly or unknowingly surrogate agents of the occupier through the foreign language as well as alien to their own viable and valuable culture. In effect, the sole use of a foreign language with complete disregard for the native language destroys the continued development of that culture. Case in point, the Edo cultures’ apogee took place prior to the introduction of any foreign language to the populace. The language gave birth to all of the great indigenous thought of the Edo. Edo proverbs illustrate the rich vastness of transmitted learned thought through its poetic expressions.
The importance of Edo culture is best displayed in its rich cultural context in its own native tongue, Edo language. The cosmology, religion, poems, dance, music, songs, war strategies, science, architecture, medicine, magic, proverbs, morality, family greetings, etc., was already expressed and in place in Edo language before Europeans arrived or even were aware that there was such a place as Benin. Edo language is so connected to Edo achievements that such little achievement has been made without it. Great Benin achieved its prominence with the use of Edo language. However, since European domination, Edo language has been historically and linguistically isolated and underrepresented as far as literature wise, in Edo state and throughout the globe, either by design or negligence. In fact, Edo language has been on the wane. There are few Edo dictionaries and even fewer Edo linguists. Each time that I come to Benin, I have been engaged in trying to find an Edo textbook. During colonial times, the British had tried to eradicate or lessen the influence of Edo language among the Edo people, by emphasizing foreign languages such as Yoruba as the language of scholarship among the Edo. Edo State is still suffering from the lack of its language being preserved. Knowledge is passed on through language. The connection between our youth is demonstrated by the use of language. African history is an oral history. To keep an oral history, there most be a group of people who will preserve the oral traditions. At least, oral history now has to be documented to enable it to survive.
The decline in the use of Edo language imposes an obstacle to the transmittance of indigenous folktales, literature, religion, arts, concepts and knowledge. Edo language is essential to the Edo worldview. The traditional Edo approach in regards to the interplay between language, knowledge, folktales, religion, and culture displays a holistic approach that encompasses the Edo philosophy. In fact, Edo language expresses the Edo worldview in many forms and genres. Foreign languages can only give an approximation of the Edo concepts because many of the Edo concepts are uniquely Edo. The Edo culture has its own creation story, that addresses the philosophical thoughts and challenges of the Edo people, in a holistic viewing of the continuum of the physical and spiritual worlds. The traditional Edo worldview encompasses both a spiritual and physical world that resembles each other, a duality approach or worldview. In other words, the physical and spiritual are existing and interacting simultaneously, one interlocked with the other. Erimnwin or heaven mimics the physical world and the physical world mimics heaven.
There is a hierarchy in creation with a supreme deity at the top, Osanobua or Osabaye depending upon your locality, and messengers (Uko) or Ebo (sub gods), or what the West would call angels. The reason I use the term angels is because even in Christianity or Islam, if you make offerings to an entity, pray to an entity, and seek a response from that entity, that entity is a god or sub god. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then there is a pretty good chance it is a duck, regardless of what you call it. In any case Edo language has played a large part in the development of Edo thought prior to 1897. In the Edo worldview, the physical world has a divine king, and chiefs around him to help administer the physical abode. This divine kingship on earth is the corollary to the one in heaven. In the traditional Edo heaven, there are friends, enemies, wives, husbands, children, markets, homes and palaces. Divination is even preformed in heaven to determine the outcome of the earthly visit (Ibie 1986). That divination system or way of knowing is the Iha Ominigbon--the indigenous oracle of the Edo people. Prior to the British invasion, the Edo people had a system of governance and culture that suited them well. The first system of governance was a gerontocracy that is best known as the Odionwere Period. The Odionwere Period is a system of government where the elders or wise ones through age and experience rule the people, it still survives today as the Odionwere of the village. Eventually, the Edo people chose a system of divine kingship.
The Edo divine kingships are divided into two parts, the Ogiso and the Oba Periods. According to Chief Ero, sacred oracular language can be traced to the earliest Period (Peavy 2009). According to Ero, the Ogiso dynasty began around 40 BC under Ogiso Igodo, if one does the math, Edo culture and divine kingship was well established for over a thousands years. Under this magnificent culture, many achievements have been through its indigenous philosophies and it consistent development of studying the seen and unseen universe. The Iha Ominigbon is the traditional keystone to the Edo people’s understanding of the seen and the unseen universe. Similar to other comparable works as the I Ching, Upanishads, Sutras, Torah, Koran and the Christian bible. For example, in Isaiah 3:2, diviners are ranked with judges, warriors and prophets. All of the above cultures have embraced some form of divination, an these books give references to them.
The origins of the Iha Ominigbon are not known. However, according to Ikpomosa Osemwnigie (2009 personal communication), the name Ominigbon consists of three parts, Omi, which is the name of the person that introduced Oguega to Benin, ne means of or from, and Igbon refers to somebody who is not a native or does not behave like a Benin person. In any case, Ominigbon probably traveled to Edo land from a far distant place. That theory is in accord with current linguistical data that suggest that the oracle, whether its called Iha, Ifa, Afa, Fa, etc., spread throughout the Benue-Congo area (Peavy 2009: 77). Even today, native doctors travel from one area to another seeking to discover new medical treatments and better divination practices to function more professionally. According to Chief Nosakhare Isekhure, Ominigbon first came to Benin City before moving on to other places in Edo land (2009 : personal communicaton). Some scholars and diviners I have interviewed have placed Omingbon to Oba Esigie’s reign, others to Oba Ewaure. However, Ominigbon’s arrival is probable far older than those dates. According to Ero, the Iha Ominigbon system of knowledge was used during the Ogiso era and therefore dates back at least a thousand years. In fact, many of the Edo kings are diviners. According to Ero, Ogiso Emehe (447 AD-466 AD), is a great diviner and native doctor, Ogiso Ogbomo (632 AD-647) is a native doctor and diviner. Some of the diviners and native doctors of the Oba dynasty are Oba Ewuare the Great (Ewuare Ogidigan)((1440 AD-1473 AD), and Ehengbuda (1578 AD-1606 AD), and so indigenous ways of knowing is associated with some of the greatest people in Edo history (Ero; 2003: Egharevba 2005). One of the ways Edo language exhibits its impact is on the sacred oracular language of the Iha Ominigbon or what is called deep Benin.
The first known historian that sought to document the Iha Ominigbon or the indigenous system of knowledge is Chief Egharevba, subsequently Emovon, Ibie and now myself. Chief Egharevba work is entirely in the Edo language, but out-of-print and almost impossible to obtain. Emovon’s work is easily accessible on the internet. Emovon gives an account of the Ominigbon myths of origin, instruments of the Ominigbon, training of the priests, a complete listing of the Obihas (Arms of Iha), the divination process, and some of the Owihas, such as Erokhua-Oha, Eture-Nabe, Eture-Ikhitan, and Odin-Obara, the sacred oracular language. Ibie’s work gives an account as to Omingbon’s place in regards to Oronmila as well as a listing of the Obihas or Arms of Iha. Osamaro Ibie, in his book entitled “ Ifism: The Complete Works of Orunmila, vol. 3”, also gives several folktales about Ominigbon but no listing of the Owihas (House of Iha) or meaning. The folktales that Ibie gives illustrate the relationship of Ominigbon and that of Oronmila, from the perspective of an Ifa diviner. Ibie states that the Edo believe that Ominigbon is a divination deity and that Ominigbon also demonstrates that his divination abilities are far superior to Oronmila. However, Ibie emphasis that Ominigbon is a slave of Oronmila. One of the earliest author refering to the Iha Ominigbon/Oguega is Melzian, in his book entitled, “A Concise Dictionary of the Bini Language of Southern Nigeria“, published in 1937, makes reference to some of the Iha Ominigbon’s Owihas (House of Iha) by name only throughout the dictionary, but does not explain their meanings. Melszian also gives a definition of the Iha Ominigbon diviner or doctor as ob’ oguega, as well as a brief description of the training process. Other authors such as Joseph Nevadomsky, Paula-Ben Amos, Bradbury, and Barbra Blackmun make mention of it usually in passing in reference to some other aspect of Edo culture.
This Author, Chief Dr. Daryl Peavy, an Ob’oguega (Iha Ominigbon diviner) and scholar, expounds on the subject in his book entitled “Kings, Magic & Medicine”, and gives an in-depth analysis of Traditional Edo Medicine which includes the divination of the Iha Ominigbon--being the most superior form of divination in the Edo culture, and how it relates to the Edo people and traditional governance as well as its positive impact on the Great Benin Empire (Peavy 2009). According to Iro Eweka, at the Institute for Benin Studies Third Egharevba Lecture series, quoting Chief Egharevba, “ Iha Omnigbon is both the storehouse of and key to Edo words”. and “He who does not adequately understand Iha Ominigbon can never adequately understand the roots of Edo“. The Iha Ominigbon is the heartbeat of the Edo people. Reading the sacred coded messages (itia) of the Iha Ominigbon is a direct window into the Edo psyche, into the Edo mind as well as rediscovering the brilliance of Edo civilization, prior to any forced-foreign intervention. Western thought is just know becoming aware of the value of traditional medicine, this is displayed in the findings of the WHO, as well as private entrepreneurs developing the local pharmacopeia for export to overseer’s markets. Losing one’s language distances himself from one’s own treasures. While the European is looking at the African treasures, the African is busy running off to acquire the latest European goods.
The Iha Ominigobon is one of the many treasures of the Edo. The Iha Ominigbon displays an indigenous theme of analysis and organization in the itan-Ominigbon (Ominigbon-folktales), interpretative analysis of erhia (deep meaning), erhia (plain meaning) and the ese or solutions and sacrifices to the obstacles that approaches one’s way of ingress or egress. The indigenous system of knowledge also possesses a analytical context to understanding it latent meanings. The sacred oracular language holds much symbolism with characters such as animals, object or divinities that represent certain principles and concepts that the oracular folktales wish to impart to the listener. The analytical process involves a deciphering component and analysis of the erhia or deep meaning to a more easily understood mode of the erhia or plain meaning interpretation of the oracular coded messages. In addition to the sacred oracular language that is employed, the Iha Ominigbon is an indigenous way of knowing the latent and not so obvious aspects of the Edo culture and the universe. Traditionally, the Edo people saw the world as a harmonious structure composed of many realms including the spiritual and physical, that encompassed an ongoing interaction as well as continuum between them including a cause and effect analysis. The Iha Ominigbon is a collection of sacred oracular codes (itie), erhia or deep meanings, folktales (itan-Ominigbon), plain meanings (erhia), and solutions or sacrifices (ese) in regards to the all inclusive concept of Traditional African Medicine or Trado-Medicine as its more commonly known in Nigeria.
Iha Ominigbon is the indigenous divination system of the Edo people, that is held as the foremost authority, even higher than Ifa. Iha Ominigbon is composed of four physically independent chains that each have four Oguega seeds attached to them. The four chains give a total of sixteen Oguega seeds where two chains are combined in forming a sacred oracular language to give an itie or coded message of knowledge. The oracular coded message is an archaic and special form of the Edo language that is particular to the Iha Ominigbon diviner. The diviner interprets the sacred oracular language by reading the sacred Owihas or Houses of Iha/Divination of Ominigbon that are revealed through the divining chain. The Owihas are composed of two Obihas or Arms of Iha. By themselves, the Obihas do not have a meaning. But when combined to form an Owiha--two Obihas, the House of Iha becomes a coded message contained in sentence that gives a deep meaning, folktale, plain meaning and a solution to the particular circumstance that faces the client. Therefore, the building blocks or alphabet of the sacred oracular language consist of the Obiha or Arms of Iha. The word Iha means divination. Divination is the foretelling of the future, past or present through an oracle. There are sixteen Obihas that form Owiha sets, which means the House of Iha or the House of divination, that are keys to the Oha Ominigbon series. The sixteen sacred oracular Obihas or Arms of Iha Ominigbon are Ogbi, Akuo, Oghori, Odin, Oba, Okan, Oruhu, Oghae, Ikhitan, Oha, Eture, Ete, Ose, Ohun, Erokhua, and Eka. As stated earlier, it takes a combination of two Obihas to make one Owiha before a sacred coded message in the Edo indigenous knowledge system can be ascertain. For example, when the two Obihas of Ogbi are combined, they form Ogbinabe. The word nabe means double or two. The Owiha of Ogbinabe gives rise to an in-depth analytical and philosophical system of thought that includes a deep meaning analysis, folktale analysis, plain meaning analysis, and a solution for the client.
In the oracular language, Ogbinabe is the first in hierarchy in regards to the Owihas and is one of the people that made Oguega. Ogbinabe also represents the Day. Not just the day in the physical sense, but the Day with a capital D, in essence everything spiritual and physical that is associated with the Day or light. For example, physical beings that operate in the day and spiritual beings that also operate during the day. In the deep meaning portion of the Iha Ominigbon, there is an Edo proverb that states in pidgin, “The road that brought to marketeer to the market will bring him back, stranger is coming, could be from a distance, money is coming--if it comes or falls (Ogbinabe--oracular code), many times, can say it will be rain today--rain is part of the visitors.” In the deep meaning portion, Ogbinabe is illustrated by the concept of a road and being able to traverse it forward and backwards, coming and going. The concept of coming is the main point being illustrated. Something is coming, whether it is money, rain, etc. The art and science of Iha Ominigbon even goes further in distinguishing whether it is rain or not, appearing by the number of times the oracular coded message of Ogbinabe appears through divination. Through the word Ogbinabe, and by the special language that is reserved for indigenous diviners of the Iha Ominigbon, the oracular code word Ogbinabe illustrates a full Edo message that puts many of Edo history, proverbs and tales into a contextual being that places them in a historical perspective because of the specific reference to the culture by the language. The proverbial message that Ogbinabe illustrates is a deep look into the Edo conscious and sub-conscious makeup and society. Symbolisms, metaphors, morality, salvation and remedies are held in the oracular coded language. Although, sharing some common themes with other cultures, the particularities are uniquely Edo. Many of the remedies that are suggested by the oracular code can also be specific according to different localities in Edo, and therefore, somewhat diversified in methodology. Further still is the folktale that illustrates the deep meaning of the particular Owiha.
According to Aighobhai, the folktale of Ogbinabe states;Ogbinabe was a king. A younger person to Akuonabe. Ogbinabe was asked to vie on the position of seniority among the Owihas.Ogbinabe was told to do sacrifice. Ogbinabe does sacrifice. The tall person did not do it. There was a tall mountain they wanted them to climb. They asked Ogbinabe to call a conference and feed them. Ogbinabe fed everyone, asked to go to river and serve Ogun and Night for sacrifice. Ogbinabe called Akuonabe. Akuonabe was the assistant to Ogbinabe. All night took the sacrifice. The day Ogbinabe was suppose to move, he moved. Oghorinabe was contesting for seniority. Oghorinabe was very powerful. He gathered people to wait for Ogbinabe. Oghorinabe said he (Ogbinabe) would never gain chieftaincy title. Ogbinabe served Esu with he-goat, Ogun with cock and assisted Ogun with roasted yam to eat cock, Sango with cock, served Eziza a colored male cock, before Ogbinabe consulted Oracle to get chiefancy title.Ogbinabe went on the road to get to the tall mountain. Oghorinabe blocked road. Oghroinabe was a giant. Oghorinabe say you must never pass. Because of earlier sacrifice that Ogbinabe made at road block, Esu sent rabbit, rat and many other small animals to distract Ogbinabe‘s enemies. They ran after the small animals and forgot about their mission. Ogbinabe was able to pass. Ogbinabe traveled for sometime and came across a second roadblock. Esu once again came to the assistance of Ogbinabe. Esu sent larger animals to distract Ogbinabe’s enemies. Esu went to grasscutter, antelope, and other larger animals. Once again, Ogbinabe’s enemies forgot about their mission. They deserted their posts and ran after the larger animals. Ogbinabe passed the second roadblock without problems. Ogbinabe traveled for some time to get to the mountain.
Ogbinabe came across a third roadblock. This time, Esu sent even larger animals to distract Ogbinabe’s enemies. Esu sent deer, pigs, and other large animals, because of sacrifice that Ogbinabe made, Ogbinabe overcome all of the obstacles that he faced. Esu, Eziza, drive Ogbinabe’s enemies off road, before they could come back Ogbinabe has passed. When Ogbinabe got to the mountain he raised up his head and crown. “stranger has come”. Ogbinabe has won the competition. The road that drew Ogbinabe to the temple was the road that brought him back. Strangers are coming! “Ogbinabe tell that person to bring my money” (2009).
There is a great amount of latent information in the above oracular folktale about Edo culture within the Edo language that even an indigene and especially a non-Edo could necessarily miss, without exploring the soul or heart of the people, the keystone---Ominigbn. Iha Ominigbon folktales go to the core of the Edo psyche. The Iha Ominigbon encompasses the entire traditional Edo worldview.
The Iha Ominigbon folktales addresses the physical as well as spiritual concerns of the Edo. In traditional Edo society, in art, folktales, proverbs, rituals, and daily life, the laws of cause and effect, give and receive, and the interwoven nature of the unseen and seen cosmos exhibition upon the people is displayed again and again. The scared oracular Edo folktale showcases this constant concept of continuous transformation in Edo traditions and culture. In the Ogbinabe Owiha, the philosophy of cause and effect, giving and receiving are best illustrated in concept of sacrifice. Esu, a trickster deity and messenger responds faithfully and repeatedly after receiving the he goat by providing assistance to Ogbinabe in defeating those enemies that desire to prevent him from ascertaining his greatness as chief, in reaching the mountain top as the most senior of the Owihas. The folktale also illustrates the constant theme of something is coming. Whether it is the enemies, good fortune, obstacles, overwhelming odds or blessings, for Ogbinabe--something is coming! Also, a very important part of Edo folklore and philosophy is the concept of transformation and it is illustrated in sacred oracular folktales. Through the appropriate sacrifice, a methodology of implementing the laws of cause and effect, where something must be given before something is received, Ogbinabe is able to transform into a high ranking titled-chief, well above his enemies. Once again, embracing one of the fundamental components of Edo culture, a high system of organization and separation of duties.
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