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RITES AND POWER: CONCEPTUALING MENSTRUATION AND ANCESTRAL VENERATION AS A SYMBOLIC TOOL FOR THE EXCLUSION AND LEGITIMIZATION OF POWER IN THE BENIN TRADITION Abstract This paper is about how power, through traditional religious rites, is manipulated to exclude women from acquiring access to positions of political and religious authority in Benin. There are different feminist theories that explain how and why women are unable to achieve power in Benin. This paper is an attempt to provide a description of how this exclusion can be understood from a womanist perspective and how both wo/men and men can re-imagine certain rituals and taboos that have adversely affected women. My study is intended to broaden our understanding of conflicts between the spiritual and the human realm. In other words, qualities that describe Benin women today as being under empowered politically and economically can be better understood as the consequence of social and political forces that have been in existence for many centuries rather than being the result of any inherent flaw in women. The significance of this study is to demonstrate how ritualization has become a gateway to the misuse of power. I argue for a change in the socio-cultural processes that systematically exclude women from power acquisition in the society. Society, I believe must look to the Olokun priestess, who embodies spiritual and secular power and authority, for an example of how women can be valued and honored in society. 1 Introduction Mainstream assumptions or models for explaining the rational basis of modern political actions often exclude studies of the role of rituals in defining gender power relations in the society. Within the context of power analyses in Benin, rituals and taboos have been used to create political, economic and social realities which often appear in symbolic form. However the importance of understanding the role of rituals in modern politics is not only relevant to acquisition of power; it has also become a distinctive process of sustaining hold on power. In most cases this process is not only overlooked but identified with realms of religion and culture. Though modern societies have presumably separated political affairs from religious life, there are still assumptions that rituals remain politically significant whether in the primitive arena or in the highly developed societies. Women in aspects of Benin traditional religion are assumed to be men s equal; judged by the criterion of spiritual powers rather than gender. The principle of inequality is indistinguishable in gender religious role as women and men share equal access to priestly offices in some local religious cults. A good example of this is the Olokun worship which symbolizes power, wealth and fertility throughout the kingdom and very personal to every home. Women adherents have access to high priestly offices unlike some other local religious cults thus symbolizing a significant shift in power paradigm in Benin society. Olokun, from Benin cosmological account is perceived by some to be male and assumes a male persona 1 while others see Olokun as female. 2 Because Olokun worship accept females and males as chief priest/ess, it is noteworthy that women use of spiritual authority and power is also as important as men. 1 Paula Girshick Ben-Amos, The Promise of Greatness: Women and Power in an Edo Spirit Possession Cult in G. Parrinder, Religion in Africa. (New York: Praeger publication, 1969), 134. Also see Naiwu Osahon, The correct History of Edo, in 2 Cynthis Iruobe, Benin Cosmology, 2 The supreme power wielded by olokun priestess ultimately demonstrates the symbolic reversal of roles, contrasting male dominated status in the family, kinship, community and kingdom. Thus, women s access to power and decision making positions in Benin society remain ambiguous. Though there is a highly revered position for Iye Oba (king s mother), however the general status of women within traditional institution is only relevant within the context of sonmother relationship. 3 Women can be Enowanren ogh ikhuo (women leader), but they can never become oka egbe (family head) Odionwere (eldest male leader in the community) or to be crowned an Oba (monarch). The conception of power as a resource of social function is currently unequally distributed amongst women and men in Benin kingdom and there is no doubt that cultural beliefs and practices have helped in sustaining the unequalness. Exclusion based on woman s physiological makeup is a good example as women are declared unclean being judged incapable of fulfilling the esoteric need of the cosmic and spiritual that guide human affairs. The politics of rituals and taboos are tied to women s menstrual flow and ancestral veneration; an important component of religion/culture used as a tool to control, construct and order the society to continually sustain its patriarchal stance. This tradition thus illuminates the consequences ritual components have on the broader spectrum of social, institutional and structural contexts which shape individual relations to power. This paper explores notions of menstruation, indigenous ancestral veneration and the symbolic impact on women s access to trado-political power among the Benin people of Nigeria. The aim of the study is to hypothesize that the low level of women political participation is entrenched in local ideas and ideals of gender, that is, the cultural categories 'male' and 'female'. 3 Flora E. S. Kaplan, Iyoba, The Queen Mothers of Benin Images and Ambiguity in Gender and Sex Roles in Court Art in Flora E.S. Kaplan (ed.) Queens, Queen Mothers, Priestesses, and Power: Case Studies in African Gender. New York, Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 810, 1997, p.76. 3 This is in addition to demonstrating that symbolic veneration of ancestors result in rigid gender system with serious implication for the ambiguous role women play in society. It will be significant here to look at the political struggle of women in ancient Benin kingdom. A Brief of political struggle and how power was usurp from Women in Ancient Benin kingdom The great majority of its inhabitants speak Edo, the language of Benin City. 4 Benin kingdom was the area in which the Oba s writ ran most strongly and consistently. Generally, it may be defined as the area within which the Oba was recognized as the sole human arbiter of life and death. He was, and still is, perceived as the living manifestation of the Benin royal ancestors. 5 Locating women at disadvantaged positions has not always been occasioned by their intellectual incapability; neither was is it a heritage of her past history. The paucity of females within the new democratic political terrain and their denial in participatory decision-making process, results from the manipulation of certain traditional rites to subjugate women. Oral tradition has it that ancient Benin women accomplished so much in the production of socioeconomic goods and political administration which enabled the formation of Great Benin kingdom, albeit, scarcely acknowledged. 6 A good example of this, history recounts happened in the first dynasty, situated around 900 A.D. Oral tradition gives an account of the reign of two female Ogisos (head of state) Orhorho and Emose. Although no account of how long Orhorho reigned was documented, however, oral tradition has it that she was murdered by her chiefs while on a journey to Omi. On the other hand, Emose was noted to have reigned in this dynasty amongst numerous Ogisos. 7 4 R.E. Bradbury, Benin Studies. Peter Morton-Williams (ed.) London: Oxford University Press, 1973, p J. Eboreime, The Installation of a Benin Monarch: Rite De Passage in the Expression of Ethnic Identity in Nigeria. In cited on October 12, Salami, Irene I. Women and Political Struggle in Ancient Benin: Emotan, Idia and Iden as Paradigms, p J. I. Egharevba, A Short History of Benin. Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1968, 2. 4 Besides these women, another woman of interest who helped in the political struggle and formation of ancient Benin Kingdom was Edeleyo, daughter of Oba Ewuare the Great and sister of Oba Olua. She was rich, powerful and influential. Oral tradition has it that at the refusal of her brother Olua to accept the crown, and there was no other heir readily available to be crowned Edeleyo was ritually crowned Edaiken 8 (heir apparent to the throne). However, Edeleyo could not ascend the throne of her forebears as she became victim of palace intrigues perpetuated by Uzama Nihirion (king makers); she was divested from being made an Oba after attaining Edaikenship due to mere feminine indisposition. 9 Edeleyo disqualification was followed by law enacted to forbid coronation of any woman or princess. My understanding of feminine indisposition is menstruation. I believe it might be argued here that it was not because of feminine indisposition that Edeleyo was divested, but because the Uzama Nihirion were thirsty for power. It can also be hypothesized that they were responsible for Orhorho s death for the same motive. Bradbury complements this hypothesis when he stated that tradition indicates a long struggle between the Oba and Uzama, lasting from the founding of the dynasty up to the reign of the sixteenth Oba, Esigie. 10 Thus the reign of female Ogisos came to an abrupt end. It is not unlikely that it was after the failure of Uzama to retain their political dominance after having lost their power as a group to unseat the Oba that the system became primogeniture. From thence, the reign of women was so abhorred that when it was rumored that prince Odogbo, the only son of Oba Ehengbuda was a girl because he was very 8 See Eborieme for a better understanding of rituals of the present Oba Erediuwa s installation as Ediaken. To be crowned Edaiken, he was first initiated into the palace societies. From here he was restricted to the palace grounds at Uselu Quarters outside the city walls. He resided there and performed rituals. His initiation into the palace and Elderhood Council involved the payment of homage and sacrifices of goats and dogs at main royal shrines: Ugh Ozolua (Oba Ozolua s shrine) Aro Edion Edo (altars in honor of Benin s founding ancestors) and Iyantor (earth deity). I believe I can argue that Edeleyo would also have undertaken these ritual processes before the palace coup to divest her was made by the Uzama Nihirion (King makers). 9 ibid, p. 2. Also see Oronsaye-Salami, Irene Isoken, Emerging From the Shadows? Changing Patterns in Edo Women s Political participation. A paper presented at the Edo Nation Association in the Americas. 14 th Annual national Convention, Elizabeth, New Jersey, 2-4 th September 2005 in Edo Nation posted December 20, 2008, view October 12, 2011 and Irene I. Salami, Women and Political Struggle in Ancient Benin: p Bradbury, p handsome, with feminine feature, the reigning Oba his father made him to walk nude in the company of his attendants, from Uselu to Benin City in order to dispel the rumor. 11 It is very significant here for me to speculate why Orhorho was murdered by her chiefs, and by implication, Uzama Nihirion (kingmakers). Again, even though it is not on record for how long Emose reigned, it suffices to know that she reigned as an Oba. Did Emose suffer feminine indisposition during her reign or as critics will argue that she was past menstrual age? I doubt. Another remarkable reason to believe the Uzama Nihirion murdered Orhorho and were thirsty for power was the record that states that besides Olua who refused to be crowned and Edeloyo who was denied the throne because of feminine indisposition, there was no heir readily available. 12 That is, they displaced Edeleyo in order for them to be made Oba. In addition, there is no record that Uzama-Nihinron, Eghaevbo n Ore and Eghaevbo n Ogbe (palace and town chiefs) had women as members. This further explains why the ancient enactment to deny the woman on account of feminine indisposition was urgent; it was to make power remain with men. It is not out of place to assume that there were more women who reigned in ancient Benin kingdom but because history was almost always written by men and for men, women s developmental strides and accounts were given attention in passing. For example, Oronsaye s The History of Ancient Benin Kingdom and Empire was silent on Emotan s contributions to the political struggle by Prince Ogun to regain his throne. 13 We however, even though minimal, have Egharevba A short History of Benin to thank for revealing two female Obas - Orhorho and Emose and Edeleyo who was named an Oba but never became one because of manipulation of Irene Isoken Oronsaye-Salami, Emerging From the Shadows? Bradbury, p.2 D.N. Oronsaye, The History of Ancient Benin Kingdom and Empire. Lagos, Nigeria: Jeromeliaho Associates, 1995, 57. 6 rites and power. 14 How can women s political interest be stimulated to earn political prominence in the face of these manipulative tendencies? Even though women are in their numbers, Oronsaye-Salami notes that traditional limitations are still a barrier to assessing political powers. 15 The Benin People and Belief in Ancestral Veneration The spiritual world of Benin (African) peoples is very densely populated with spiritual beings, spirits and ancestors. 16 Benin people respond to their spiritual world for which they are sharply aware. The Benin people s veneration of ancestors shares commonalities with other African communities. Lansford observes that Ancestor veneration is a common feature across West African Religions as no specific African cultural community exists without the dynamics provided by the ancestral realm. 17 In other words, nothing in society is immune from the influence of ancestors. The ancestors are at the center of African religion because they are at the core of all harmony or disharmony in society 18 and Benin traditional religion is no exception. The Benin people accord the dead great reverence as it provides a means of communion and communication with those already departed from earth. 19 Mbiti's in his conceptualization of living dead depict the living dead as someone who though bodily dead but is active in the memory of those who knew him or her in this life as well as being alive in the spiritual world. 20 In reference to the involvement of living dead in the affairs of their people who are in the world, Jacobs notes Egharevbe, p. 2 Salami, p J. S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy. 1969, New York: Frederick A Praeger Press. 17 Tom Lansford, Islam and Indigenous Religion West Africa in Salamone, Frank A. (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals and Festivals. (Religion and Society, A Berkshire Reference Work, Vol. 1. New York, London: Routledge) 2004) Tom Lansford, Oso, S. O. Lectures on West African Traditional Religion. (Ado-Ekiti, Nigeria: Barnig Boye & Co. Press (Nig.) Ltd ), Mbiti, J. S. African Religions and Philosophy. (Heinemann, London, 1980), 25 7 that living dead are the most prized intermediaries between the spirit world and living. He refers also to community aspect, explaining that traditional Africans believe it is the duty of the ancestors to help ensure peace of the community 21. Benin people of Nigeria venerate their ancestors, not as God, but as their heroic and excellent pedigree as it is generally believed that no one person fell from the sky, nor started from the scratch without forebears. This heritage, Kasper held is the tradition that situates the Benin people inside a very explicit scope of truth. 22 Confirming this from African point of view, Mbuy posited that two pillars hold the African concept of life - a sense of community belonging and reverence for tradition. 23 With specific reverence to ancestral veneration, Onwubiko, added that the sense of community, communion, solidarity and representation are among the things that make ancestor central to Benin (African) heritage. 24 In line with the above, Imasogie, opines that justification for ancestral veneration is belief in continuity between the dead and the living. He further sheds light on the fact that Africans believe that as earthly parents provide for and protect their children, so they are expected to maintain in greater measure in the spirit world. In reality, Imasogie affirms that survivors are in no way cut off from the fortification of their departed. Most importantly, it is believed that ancestors are much more powerful than any living person, since with death they have overcome all physical limitations, and assume spirit being Jacobs, A.B. A Textbook on West African Traditional Religion. (Aromolaran Publishing Co. Ltd., Ibadan), Kasper, W. The Methods of Dogmatic Theology. (New York: Paulist Press, 1969),7 23 Mbuy, T.H. Understanding Witchcraft Problems in the Life of an African: Case Studies from Cameroon. (High Speed Printers: Owerri. 1992), 24 Onwubiko, A. O. Echoes from the African Synod: The Future of the African Church from Present Past Experiences. (Enugu: SNAAP Press Ltd, 1994), ), 39 Imasogie, O. African Traditional Religion. (Ibadan, Nigeria: University Press Ltd., 8 The ancestral spirits are the most intimate divinities 26 and must be consulted on important occasions. This is the reason that Benin people regard ancestors as keepers of morality. One of the ways descendants of an ancestor maintains a balanced society is by avoiding activities that were considered immoral by an ancestor. If someone violates moral path, then it is possible that the ancestors might bring about pains. 27 Attending to rites of ancestors is one way to continue to bind kin and kiths together as one because ancestors show continuity of family and compel communal action if necessary. 28 The dependence on ancestors is a key to appreciating African religion. The preponderant nature of ancestral world is such that ancestors are everywhere and are entitled to superior powers giving them authority to keep the living community harmonious. In reality, this conception of ancestors depends on the understanding of death as the end of biological world, but the entrance into afterlife. Although they are physically absent, yet they are spiritually active, always present and responsible for the well-being of family and community. 29 And harmonious living in society can be achieved only by following the ritual paths of elders. 30 Rituals are an intrinsic part of life and of society; and are related to cosmic view. In this way, ancestral spirits takes care of the life of the living and therefore have to be placated and honored. African rituals represent collective statements of continuity and unity that functions to express communal definition through group participation. Rituals are therefore fundamentally kept alive through the sustenance of the spiritual order Geoffrey Parinder, African Traditional Religion. (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.1990), Molefi K. Asante and Ama Mazama (eds.) Ancestor in Encyclopedia of African Religion. (A Sage Reference Publication, vol. 1, London: SAGE Publications, 2009), M. K. Asante and A. Mazama, M. K. Asante and A. Mazama, Ancestor and harmonious Life vol. 1), Asante, Ancestors and Harmonious Life in Vol. 1, Mwalimu J. Shujaa, in Frank A. Salamone, (ed.) Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals and Festivals. (Religion and Society, A Berkshire Reference Work, Vol.2. New York, London: Routledge, 2004), Rite of passage and Ancestor Veneration Rites of passage are a major feature in African traditional religion and these rites are routes for transition across boundaries. The rites (initiation being most common) are performed to transform a person and guide him or her to another stage in life that is, the novice passes from a passive to an active state. Mbiti noted that such rites are also performed at a person s death to transform his or her spirit into a good ancestor. Ancestors are those who once lived in huma
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