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Igue - African Festival: A Cultural Tradition And Not A Religion

Igue - African Festival: A Cultural Tradition And Not A Religion


A Paper presented at the second Annual Lecture of the Pearl Friends Club of Nigeria By Chief Nosakhare lsekhure, the lsekhure of Benin Kingdom.

Distinguish Ladies & Gentlemen, all protocols duely observed. Let me start by saying I am most delighted to be called upon to deliver this paper on the occasion of this 2nd Annual Lecture by the Pearl Friends Club of Nigeria on the aboved named topic.

I must say with all sincerity that the theme of this year occasion is not only captivating and interesting, but calls for sober reflection from our people, as virtually all aspects of our traditional heritage now grapple with the challenges of modernization, following the influx of western culture and religious belief in the name of globalization.

In the same vain, I must admit that the topic, “IGUE - AFRICAN FESTIVAL: A CULTURAL TRADITION AND NOT A RELIGION”, is not only apt and appropriate, but also timely, as it coincides with the period in which Igue Festival is being celebrated by the Oba and the entire Benin people.

In order to be able to do justice to this paper, we cannot but identify three lexical items that are distinct in the topic; they are tradition, culture and religion. It is therefore appropriate to attempt a definition of these items, in order to create a dichotomy as welt as a synergy.


The Oxford Advanced dictionary (7th Edition ) defines tradition as “a belief custom or way of doing something that has existed for a long time among a particular group of people; a set of these belief or customs; religious/cultural etc”.
From this definition, Tradition entails both cultural beliefs and religions beliefs. Therefore, both culture and religion are two distinct features of tradition.
Similarly the same dictionary defines culture as “a way of life, customs and beliefs, art and social organization of a country or group of people” while it defines religion as “the belief in the existence of a god or gods and the activities that are connected with the worship of them” in the light of these various definitions one can say that there exist no major difference between tradition and culture but a thin line exist between culture and religion.

It can therefore be deduced that it is the ways and manners in which a people worship a god or gods that are believed to exist that make religion a part of tradition. This therefore brings us to a very sensitive question; what is lgue festival: and how is it celebrated?



These are a set of annual cycle of rituals and rites which are performed to purify and strengthen the Benin kingdom and the Omo N’Oba.

According to Prince Ademola lyi-Eweka (Ph.D), the Christians have CHRISTMAS, the Muslims have the Feast of Ramadan, the Jews have the Hanukkah, the African- American have the Kwanzaa and the Edos of Benin have the Igue Festival. If African-American can invent and contrived a festival called Kwanzaa, it is so sad that the Edos of today are deserting the Igue Festival.

This sad note is as a result of misguided onslaught on Igue Festival by illiterate and semi-illiterate Pentecostal Christian preachers in most recent times.

The Igue festival is an event in the Benin kingdom and beyond around which the very essence of Benin customs and traditions are woven. The festival is as old as the Edo nation itself.

Igue Festival is preceded by the Ague; a period of fasting. This is also the time the Oba and some chiefs go into seclusion, and may not to be seen by visitors. When the Oba and his chiefs break the Ague fast, they are ready to perform the Igue. The Ague have been a probable Christian influence some 500 years ago during the period of Portuguese evangelization in Benin.

Igue festival ushers in the new year for every Edo man. Igue emhasizes the “the ritual of Uhunmwun(Head) celebration. It may bear different names in other Edo- speaking areas even in areas as far as the Dukedom of Umunede and the Ibo chiefdom of Onitsha to the east.

lgue essence of personal celebration of the being is represented by the Uhunmwun (the head). To the Edo man, it is the head that takes you through life journey. The head must be good to perform this life’s journey successfully. Interwoven with this, is the Edo belief of in Ehi; alter o spirit self” The spirit self that guides and protect the temporal self.”


Originally the historical events of Igue were celebrated during the Georgian month of September. Today the Olokun adherents of Urhonigbe performs the Igue rituals sometime in November and the Oba now perform these rituals in December, then after five days his children and other princes and princesses will celebrate theirs before the entire Benin nation will perform their own Igue rites at the Igue’Edohia.


Between 1897 and 1914, it was not celebrated because Oba Ovonramwen was exiled to Calabar by Sir Ralph Moor.
lgue festival was revived with the restoration of the monarchy with the coronation of Oba Eweka 11 in 1914. Chief Agho the Obaseki, a former servant of Oba
Ovonramwen and collaborator was forced on Oba Eweka 11 as the lyase of Benin by the British colonial administrators.

With the British rule fully entrenched, the Christian evangelizers quickly moved in on the Benin kingdom.
Agho the lyase was converted to Christianity and as a result, Oba Eweka II did not celebrate lgue festival of 1916/17.

Then the Influenza epidemic struck in 1918 in the aftermath of the World War 1. Thousands of Edo people died as a result of the epidemic and they blamed disaster on the non-observance of Igue festival.
Law and order almost broke down in Benin City as the people rioted.

The British colonial Governor had to send troops down to Benin to restore order. The Governor was furious and was bent on punishing Oba Eweka II for causing such a disturbance.

A Commission of Inquiry was set up ostensibly aimed at Oba Eweka II.
At the hearing, Oba Eweka II turned the table on the British Administration. He laid the blame of nonobservance of lgue Festival on the three people:
A. The Resident for supporting and encouraging Chief Agho the Obaseki now elevated to the lyase position to convert to Christianity

B. The Christians Evangelists for converting his lyase
C, Agho Obaseki the lyase for converting to an alien faith while holding on the most highest traditional office in Edo land.
I can not celebrate Igue Festival without my lyase. When you took my lyase away, you took Igue festival with him,” Oba Eweka II was reported to have told the Commission of Inquiry.

The Commission, in view of several other complaints against the lyase, recommended that Chief Agho Obaseki be stripped of his titles and office. It was leaked to the old man, who had gathered a lot enemies since 1897, when Oba Ovonramwen was taken into captivity from Agho the Obaseki’s house. The very night the report left Benin enroute to the Governor in Lagos, Chief Agho Obaseki died.

The impact of Igue Festival

The impact of Igue is felt generally among all people of Benin ethnic nationality in all the aspects of their economic, agricultural, socio-religious lives as well as in their relationship with foreigners who visit Benin in order capture the colourful events.

Economic activities are heightened as people engage in buying and selling in readiness for the great event which today coincides with Christian Christmas festivities.
The very fact that this festival is a period of spiritual and physical renewal for the Omo N’Oba and indeed all Benin people, it is believed that the ancestors and other Benin deities visit the communities to grant them their hearts desire.

During the period the Benin ardent of the Traditional form of Worship come together to appease the Ancestors and other deities for good luck and give thanks for surviving the outgoing year. The Igue also helps to foster better relationship with the ancestors and the deities who in return endow the Benin people with spiritual and material blessings.


Today, the present day Igue festival is a shadow of its former glory and the present format of lgue festival is very different from that of 1896.

The Igue itself-where the Oba perform the Igue’uhunmwun used to be stepped in mystique and the rites and rituals were hidden from the public. When the Christians and the other enemies of the Oba within continued to accused Oba of Eweka II of performing human sacrifices, he decided to make all the rituals public. To this effect, some of the walls at Ugha Ozolua were pulled down. Meanwhile, it was Oba Akenzua II who actually reorganised the Igue into the present fourteen- day period.

There is no precise date when Igue festival started but undisputedly, it has been celebrated continuously for the past 1,000 years.

There are several accounts of European travelers and missionaries have written about it from the 1600’s.
The Spanish Capuchin Mission Fathers who were in Ben in City, on August 10, 1651, had problem getting an audience with the Oba Ahenzae reigned circa 1641- 1661A.D . Unfortunately, they had come to Benin during the Igue festival.

The Oba who refused to see any white man, because earlier, an oracle had predicted that, an Oba of Benin would die in the hands of the white man.
The following is a description of the Igue festival Father Felipe de Hijar’ one of the Spanish Capuchin Mission Fathers.

“The chief men of the city who, the natives say number more than two thousand, were entering the palace, all wearing the various costume appropriate to the ceremony. They went in until they filled the four courtyards of the palace., and as it was now one o’clock and the palace was crowded and we entered the first court yard. Among those who were watching us was a venerable old man who, by outward appearance, seemed a veritable St. Peter. He made a sign that we should follow him.

We were amazed because we had never seen him before that moment, and also because the negroes had always taken care that we should not see the sacrifices. In the end we went with the old man from one court yard to another until we reached the last one where, of his own accord, he told us to stand under the gallery of the courtyard. In the middle of the gallery we found a table on which lay the scimitars that were used to decapitate five men and five animals of every species found in that country.

They performed their ceremonies, finished their cries; then the great men started to dance; and the King with them, making a turn of the courtyard so that they caught sight of us.”
The Spanish Capuchin Missionaries were promptly expelled from Benin City, for seeing what they were not supposed to have seen. They were dumped at Warrigi (modern Warn) and warned never to return to Benin City.
The Dutch traders account:.

Mr. A Raems who wrote to the Dutch Factor H Hertog, on October 22 1736 were both members of the Dutch Trading Company based in Benin. Raems was reported to have witnessed a parade of Oba’s wives, which pleased him far more than the spectacle of the ceremonies performed for Oba’s father; Ugie-erhoba during the reign of Oba Akenzua I circa 1713-1735A.D
Igue 1965: Celebration Of The Head; an account by Dave Sugarman

Art Matthews and I shared several unique incidents and experiences together, but one stands out as special.
During the Benin lgue festival, one of Art’s students invited us to join his family for the festival. They were a royal family, and so engaged a priest to conduct their ‘celebration of the head’. About 20 family members, young and old, as well as Art and I gathered in a 10’x15’ room lighted only by a tinned milk can kerosene lamp. The hour long ceremony began with the oldest female beginning to lead the group in chanting the family name .Obongwanye! Obongwanye!! Obongwanye !!!
(Oyenmwen ! Oyenmwen!! Igue Oyenmwen)

Throughout the evening, the chant continued. Sometimes slow, sometimes faster, occasionally softly, and then swelling and loud. Amidst the chanting, the priest began to offer blessings and provide offerings and sacrifices to family members and especially the ‘heads’ in attendance. As I remember so vividly, his first ceremonial was to approach each member of the circle, and place a spot of chalk on the forehead and chant his cant as he progressed.
1 was about halfway around the circle, and when he came to me he hesitated slightly and passed to the person on my right.

This happened to be the student who had invited us. There was a quick exchange of words, the priest retraced his steps, and with a large smile administered my very own chalk and blessing.

From that point on, I was part of the family celebration, chanting Obongwanye! Obongwanye!!, and received my anointment of coconut milk and a drop of the blood of the guinea fowl sacrifice, like the others.
We then shared broken kola, coconut, and a shot of kia kia (palm wine gin), congratulated each other and left into the city streets teeming with others moving from celebration to celebration. We joined a large family group of 50 or more, but it was a raucous, loud affair, nothing like the intimate celebration of family we had just left.

The next morning, children running from house to house blessed us with a bit of leaf stuck to our foreheads as we ‘dashed them small’, and then ran on. We also joined other Benin people at the Oba of Benin’s public ceremony, which in part honored him as the ‘head’ of all of Benin.

The culmination of the small family group ceremony was also performed that next morning. We returned to the home and were offered pounded yam and stew made from the guinea fowl of the previous evening. It wasn’t till after we left and I had taken two large helpings that I realized that all of the family members who had celebrated together were to partake of the blessing meal. This wasn’t the first or last time that ignorance of culture and custom resulted in my seeming insensitivity.

On further reflection, 1 have a strong feeling for what we experienced. It was a celebration in some ways similar to the family Thanksgivings my family has always practiced. It also had many of the elements that the Jews incorporate in their Passover celebration, in the past few years a friend and his family included me and my family in their family traditional Passover commemoration, and it was very reminiscent of the experience on that night long ago in that faraway place of Nigeria.

The celebration of family, the inclusion of outsiders, the symbolic foods, and the feeling of closeness were universal. I will never forget
Obongwanye…… Obongwanye….. Obongwanye.


The Oba as the custodian of all Benin customs and traditions, attaches great importance to the Igue Festival. Igue Festival which perhaps is the most colourful of all Benin royal activities, is a combination of various nine principal ceremonies.
it is important to note that, it is this central point of the festival that the Christians especially the Pentecostal and some Muslims have consistently tried to undermine.. Before Ugie Edohia and Ugie Ewere comes Ugie Iron.


The Ugie Iron is a celebratory re-enactment of the conflicts between the Oba of Benin and the hereditary pre-dynastic elders of the Benin Nation; Uzama nobles. The royalist were triumphant. Other historical incidents of the life of the Edos, such as the drowning of Oba Ehengbuda at Ikorodu and the assassination of lyase Emuze on the directives of Oba Ohen circa 1375 AD.

The Ugie Iron used to be separated from other festivals by 4 to 14 days


Of annual cycle of rituals which are performed to purify and strengthen the Benin kingdom and the Oba, the Ugie’Erhaoba is the greatest. This is a ceremony honoring the reigning Oba’s father and the Erinmwin’Idu the collective royal ancestors.
As the Benin people believe very much in ancestral worship, everybody joins the Oba and his chiefs to perform the Ugie Erha’Oba rites. The Ugie Erha’Oba ceremony is held at the Ugha-Erha Oba; one of the several great halls that in the old days housed each of the Oba’s ancestors . On this occasion, the Omon’Oba is dressed in full coral regalia and he will also participate in the ritual dance with the Eben in honour of his father and the collective royal ancestors.


The Igue Oba ceremony is held at the Ugha-Ozolua” the palace Hall. The Ugha-Ozolua is an open quadrangle located in the fore court of the palace were most Benin royal social and traditional ceremonies take place. The Omo N’Oba is heralded by the Ifieto guild and the various Benin royal musical guilds namely, the lkpekete N’Ovah, Igbemaba N’lguoshodin, lkpema N’ldunmwun lkpema and lkpeziken and Ikakohen from Utoka village.
Accompanied by chiefs and palace functionaries, the Oba pays homage with the Eben at the altar of the Oba Ozolua, a great warrior who reigned from 1480 — 1504 and in whose reign the Portuguese first exchanged ambassadors with the Benin Kingdom about 1486.

At the venue ceremony the Oba sit on the Ogie’ukpo; a raised platform and proceed to invoked the power of the Almighty God and the goodwill of the Ancestors, to guide the ceremony. After this ritual, the Ewaise guild performs the purification rites for the Oba.

The rituals of Igue ceremony are very intensive, with one ritual leading to another. However, worthy of note is the sanctification of the Omo N’Oba by Ogiefa N’Umuekpo. Herbs which are numbering fourteen different kinds are used for the purification rituals. Each of the fourteen herbs have its own accompanying songs and incantations for well being of the human body.

After which herbs is applied to the Omo N’Oba, a part of it is taken by the Ogiefa and grinds for himself on a wooden grinder, while the pother, portion is grounded for the Omo N’Oba on a grinding stone in accordance with tradition.

The youngest girl who perform this grinding, must be below the age of puberty. After which the Ogiefa N’Umuekpo rocks the Oba from side to side. This action is a symbolic demonstration that he has successfully sanctified and fortified the Omo N’Oba on whom the well being of the entire Benin Nation depends. The presumption of this is that the Oba is certified strong and healthy for another long year.

The performance by the Ogiefa N’Umuekpo and his group is seconded by the appearance of Oton a group of traditional priests who offer prayers for the well being, longevity of the Omo N’Oba.
The chiefs dance is in an ascending order of seniority. The junior chiefs, Ibiwe N’Ekhua, Eghaevbo N’Ogbe, Egbaevbo N’Ore, Uzama N’lbie and Uzama chiefs.

The senior chiefs, start off dancing and a cross bar is placed in position for them to pass under before continuing their dancing. Only chiefs who have fully completed all the four stages of chieftaincy ceremonies, the lyan’ehien are permitted to cross without the bar in place. As the Eghavboe N’Ore Chiefs come out to dance, each of them perform his own dance style and touches the ground with the tip of his Eben in homage to the Oba.

Then he will signal with his hand ask the Oba the age old question; lyase Emuze vbo? that of the where about of their leader, the lyase of Benin, who was killed by Oba Ohen in circa 1395 AD. A question to which the Oba also respond by similar signals that he does not know.

On the other hand, when a chief who has performed the four chieftaincy rites comes out to dance, he kneels down before the Oba and make some signs with the Eben. To conclude the homage paying, the lyase; Commander in chief of the Benin army and head of all the chiefs comes to perform the ritual to clear the sacred crossbar off the arena.

After the dance, the Ehodon and lsekhure take position for the commencement of rituals connected with worship of Omo N’Oba’s head . As a prelude, the Oba says prayers with a bowl of kolanuts while holding a rope that is tied to all the sacrificial animals, after which the lsekhure takes over the kolanuts bowl and rope and prays for the Omo’N’Oba and the royal family.

The ritual slaughtering of the sacrificial animals, by the lwaaranmwen led by the Ehodon commences and the lsekhure anoints the Omo N’Oba head, hands and feet with blood of the sacrifice. Similarly, two female members of the lsekhure’s lhogbe also come forward and anoint the head of each of the Oloi (Queens).
The Oba first made his offering to the Almighty God, Ancestors and the Deities.

In the old days before the events of 1897, usually leopards, goats, cows, and cocks are the various order of sacrifices. The Leopard is the Ultimate sacrifice. It was elevated to the king of the bush by Oba Ewuare N’Ogidigan reigned 1140-1472 A.D…Oba Ewuare as Prince Ogun had encountered many difficulties before he was eventually crowned.

Benin Dynastic myth has it that Prince Ogun in course of his twenty years wandering as an exile in the Benin great rainforest, once slept on a python at the foot of a tree with a leopard that bled upon him from the tree branches. By dawn, Prince Ogun(Oba Ewuare) woke up and killed the two creatures. He anointed his head with their blood to thanked God, and the ancestors, for his good luck.

According the story, When he eventually became king, Oba Ewuare narrated the incident to the members of the lhogbe; a group of royal priests who are referred to the Omon’Oba’ paternal family and from then on it was decreed that the event be incorporated in the Igue festival.

One notable feature about the Igue Oba is that the ceremony comprises the active involvement of all the palace guilds and groups. This include the priest; Ogiefa who sanctifies and purifies he earth. The Ihogbe N ore’ led by the lsekhure a high priest who anoints the Oba’s head. The Ehondon and his guild of royal butchers, Ogbelaka the royal bards, lgbemaba drummers from lgu’oshodin. lsikhuan and Emehe a palace women guild who sing praises of the Omo N’Oba and all the different categories of chiefs during ceremonies.


Two days later, the princes and princesses perform their Igue rituals in their various homes. Then the entire Benin nation make their offerings of goats and coconuts on chosen dates within the month of December.
The entire residents of the capital perform the lgue rites at their own homes and later in the night of lgue’Edohia, the youths would troop out of their homes holding flaming firebrands to take part in the traditional fireworks display “Rie Ubi ne; (Send Ubi home)” to drive away all the evil forces from the kingdom.

This ritual is a re-enactment of the expulsion of Ubi a daughter of Ogie’Ekae and senior sister of Ewere who was rejected by Oba Ewuare as a result her unwholesome acts and breaking of taboos in the harem of the Omon’Oba. This is ancient ritual designed to drive away all evil spirits and bad luck from the town before the new year rolls in.


In the very early hours of the following morning, they will return bearing the Ebe’ewere’ green leaves of joy and prosperity. The ceremonies and rituals at Ugie Ewere are re-enactment of the prosperous and fruifful marriage to Ewere the daughter of Ogie’Ekae. The lhogbe priests and chiefs led by the Ihama N’Ihogbe and lsekhure N’ lhogbe N’ore later in the day during the Ugie’Ewere would present the Ewere leaves to the Omo N’Oba . This symbolises that the ritual has been performed and that the Omo N’Oba fortified and the Edo nation will prosper.
At Ugie’Otue, Ugie’Erhaoba and Ugie Ewere, Chiefs dance from their homes to the palace with their followers, all dressed with their best regalia and dresses. The flamboyant and colourful display of the Benin Chiefs and uniqueness of their traditional regalia are quite reminiscent of the power and glory that was Benin. They also add special colour with individual group of dancers going through important streets in processions. The dancers display their art, and the people dance with the good luck leaves: Ebe Ewere round the whole city from door to door and gifts freely given and received.

The Ewere leaves are subsequently given out as new year gift to all citizen as a form of anointing. The children and adult to be seen dancing along the street visiting friends and well-wishers. The Enogies and the other traditional rulers in the ancient kingdom, fixes their own dates in their respective domain after Ugie Ewere.


In conclusion, it will be a appropriate to state that though there exist series of rituals in the celebration of Igue, it cannot be said to be rituals/sacrifices carried out in respect of a particular god or gods but a rite of propitiation to God Almighty.

The various celebrations of the various stage of Igue by the Oba and the entire Benin which culminate in Ugie-ewere are a cultural tradition of the people.

It is appropriate at this juncture therefore to call on all Benin sons and daughters to join the clarion call to make a Igue festival a state or National festival with the declaration of a public Holiday to enable all Benin both those in Diaspora to participate in it just as it is also necessary for the corporate organizations to join in the sponsorship of this great festival of ours.

This invariably will help to boost the image of the festival as well as help to erode all the erroneous impressions which people in some quarters have about the Igue festival.


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Comment by Otedo News Update on December 29, 2011 at 6:00pm

Thank you Kofi.. I agree with you

Comment by KOFI AGYAPONG on December 23, 2011 at 11:38pm


.Religion is the key to human knowledge.  Since Africans brought religion and other social sciences into this world there is nothing done to glorify humanity in Africa that does not relate to our Gods. The missionaaries who had very little knowledge of God and religion came to Africa to tell us, the first childreln of God, who know much of God through our Gods, that we do not know anything about the Almighty God and that what Emperor Constatine had created at the Council Necea is the way to God.  False.  The Europeans have changed so much of Africa that even families that were matriachal are now  patriachal. We do know that after four generation a society forgets all that had happened unless the ancestors really teach the children to pass on from  generation to generation. There are very few culture in Africa that do not belong to the Gods. We have abondoned the Gods and even our personalities and since we did not know what was for our Gods and what was not, we assume that all festivities are social. I beg to  disagree. All festivities in Africa are done to glorify our Gods and our ancestors. Only the present day Christian and Moslem Africans have given up our Gods and go to Christians and Islam. We are actually a dead race imitating Europeans as if all festivities are Holywood scripts or creations.  It is not so. Visit us and join us at www.sada54.org



Kofi Agyapong

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