Although we have mentioned how Christianity for some time took root in the Capital of the Kingdom, we have not discussed the indigenous religious practices which it tried to supplant.
The idea of a Supreme God did not come from Christianity. The concept is indigenous to the ITSEKIRI People who called the Supreme God, “ORITSE”, the symbol of Whose Altar was “A long plain bamboo staff plastered white with chalk, pitched on the threshold of his house or in the centre of his compound.
On the foremost end of the staff is a Yam (Utsuokenren); also plastered white, stuck in the forked furrow, round which is tied a string of cowries which is made to lap at any length, with a piece of white Bart and a white chicken, downwards; and on the Yam is thrust a parrot’s red tail-feather (ileleasalabara or eko-odude).
Sacrifices before this Alter are made with nothing else than Pure Natural Water or Coconut Juice.”
Below ORITSE was the god of the Sea, “Umaleokun” which controlled the fate of all peoples and was responsible for wealth and fertility.
Since Warri was a Kingdom surrounded by water, the cult of Umaleokun was very important. At the mouth of the Benin River was the important village of “OGHEYE” which was the center of worship of Umaleokun.
The OLU assisted by his Chief Adviser was expected to preside over the ceremonies connected with the worship of the god.
*Did Olu AKENGBUWA, the supposed Christian King, serve the god of the sea as well? We have no direct record that he presided over any such ceremony at OGHEYE; but an incident in 1818 indicates that he had some thing to do with Umaleokun.
OGHEYE (Fish town) is a tiny village on a narrow creek where some European had found it convenient to land goods rather than at either BOBI or EGHORO. The village became a centre for smuggling and many Merchants resorted to it in order to avoid paying ever-increasing Customs Dues.
With the stoppage of the slave trade, few Ships anchored at the Ports of BOBI and EGHORO and the King’s revenue was adversely affected. It appeared to the Chiefs and People that the god of the sea who was responsible for bringing the European Merchants was angry with the ITSEKIRI Merchants and was punishing them by stopping the Ships from coming.
The Olu consulted the Priests who advised him that the village of OGHEYE had been founded without the approval of the god and that only its destruction would appease him.
Olu AKENGBUWA accepted this explanation and ordered the village to be destroyed. A messenger was sent to the people who occupied the village telling them to look at once for an alternative accommodation.
Then one day in March, 1818, a long procession of Canoes, splendidly decorated and carrying gaily dressed Men and Women, came to OGHEYE (Fish town) which had already been vacated.
In normal circumstances when Umaleokun was to be worshipped, the Olu himself had to be present with the OLOGBOTSERE. On this occasion however, it was the Chief Priest of Umaleokun who officiated.
A dog and a bullock were sacrificed and their blood sprinkled over the stream by the great Chiefs. The village was then razed to the ground. And if the god was not appeased at least the smuggling may have been stopped.
The festivals connected with Umaleokun had a definite aim, the honouring of the god and as soon as the religious part was over, there was public merriment. The masquerades of masked figures were the personification of this god in public.
Their masks which took the form of fish or ramhead were the objects of rites and fear to the uninitiated. The masquerades societies which grew up all over the Kingdom were confined to Men.
While Umaleokun remained the main god for the whole Nation, each town had its own UMALE, the deified earlier inhabitants of the Country. These have shrines at which appeals are made to the gods.
Each Shrine had a Priest who became the mouthpiece of the god and gave judgement. People believed that the names of these gods were used to curse those who offended them.
In the Capital there was the old Okpotu Shrine of IRIGBO. This preceded the GINUWA era and the Priest played an important part in all coronation ceremonies.
We are told that when the earliest OLU arrived, there was one important Umale, Ibirikimo in the Capital. The noise made by the worshippers was so great that it was decided that the shrine be taken somewhere else. The adherents found a grove at ORUGBO where the royal shrine is now stationed.
Many of the Chiefs who left the Capital to found new settlements had ceased to have anything to do with Christianity. They therefore took with them their Father cults and oracles.
It is believed that when OLOGBOTSERE went to BOBI he introduced the cult and oracle of Inama. When the IYATSERE escaped and settled in OLOGBO, he took with him the cult and oracle of Igbasala.
When therefore his Children settled in other parts of the Benin River after their Father’s death, they took the cult with them.
These gods performed more than purely religious functions. As we have seen in the case of the OGHEYE incident, the Priests connected with the gods were consulted on important State matters and their decisions were acted upon by those who believed in them.
When the gods were thus consulted, sacrifices were offered. No sacrifices to Igbasala, for instance, was complete without a dog. These various cults acted also as extraordinary tribunals or agencies for the discovery and punishment of Criminally who refused to confess.
A man wronged by someone unknown would resort to the shrine of some of the gods. If no confession resulted he went with the necessary ingredients and sacrificial animals to the shrine where the Priest completed the rituals and told the wronged person to swear in the name of the god.
It was believed that any part of the offender’s body offered to the god during the process of swearing would sicken and the person would die.
The Shrines in the different Villages for the UMALE consisted of little basket-work huts supported upon piles above the river bank.
They contained, hanging in the centre, a piece of white cloth while on the ground were broken plates, empty bottles, canoe models etc.
Often built in secluded spots, these huts were not to be approached by Women especially during their monthly periods. Offering of dried Fish were often made. In these shrines were kept all the masks used during the Umale dances.
END OF PART 7A