The ITSEKIRI were constantly engaged in wars and for this reason there have always been many gods associated with war both in the Capital and in various towns and villages of Benin River.
The cult of Ogun, the god of war was believed to have been brought by IDIBIE from Benin. Ogun is also a YORUBA god of war and it is not unlikely that its existence in ITSEKIRI land could also be traced to the Yoruba migration theory.
Less important than Ogun, were the two male and female gods associated with war: Ukpokwa (male) and Oweisiemo (female). The alters to these two gods are located near the site of the old Royal harem. This should suggest a proximity to both the OLU and his wives.
For purposes of the ITSEKIRI war effort, the most important war god was Ada and it does seem that this was the god for which human sacrifice was made. The importance of this god can best be assessed from the fact that the OLEKUN was its Chief Priest. The sacrificial victim was always an Albino.
ANCESTOR WORSHIP – EBURA
The ITSEKIRI have always believed that Ancestor Spirits always keep watch over the affairs of their descendants. For this reason, the anniversary of the death of the Founder of the village or Head of the Family was an important occasion for Communal Worship of the Ancestors.
One of the junior male members of the Family, officiated as Chief Priest. He was dressed up “in top hat, silk-clothes, costly beads and with something like a sceptre in his right hand… He was seated on a well-decorated stool preparatory to his pouring libations and offering meat before all the principal ancestral images”.
All members of the Family, including the Priest’s own mother and his elder Brothers and Sisters, bowed down on their knees and worshipped him. He was regarded as “the dead Father in spirit”. Sometimes this ancestor worship was done before an important undertaking such as house building, fishing, fighting, marriage, childbirth, boat-building.
Where a slave was made the Priest, he was entrusted with all the charms, war, criminal, love-philtre, protective and any other for the well-being of the Chief and his Family.
Through this Priest and his assistants (Ebale), the all-seeing ancestor spirit, after receiving the prayers, sacrifices and libations of the descendants, heard confessions from all those who have contravened kinship taboos.
The offenders knelt with plates of cowries before the Priest who on their behalf spoke to the ancestors before the ancestor shrine.
The Cowries were used as instruments of divination and expressing the voice of the ancestors. They were cast on the ground and the Priests read the auspices.
The importance of this domestic cult is that it provided the platform for enforcing social order and bringing the Women in particular constantly under strong moral discipline.
The ceremonies brought to an end inter-family quarrels and feuds. It was an instrument for good social purification and dedication to Family ideals.
This took place in the Ancestor Shrines inside the houses which had one side open and had all sorts of things such as the skulls of animals that had been sacrificed. There was no images here as in Benin, but like in Benin the articles for decoration of the shrine were arranged in raised platform.
Ancestor Worship was not only a domestic but also a National Cult.
What a dead Father meant to his Children, so a demised OLU meant to the whole Nation.
The ITSEKIRI Tradition is that the national cult of the Royal Ancestors began with the arrival of OGBOWURU. He set up what is now called the Temple of the OGBOWURUS (OGUA OGBOWURU) where the most important Annual Rites culminating in all night sacrifice to the past OLUS were held.
A reigning OLU, with all his Chiefs, his Wives and other leading Men and Women in the community performed in the most solemn manner the important act of worship and remembrance and prayed for the well-being of the realm.
The spirits of the departed OLUS were invoked “in aid of peace and happiness of the ITSEKIRI Nation throughout its length and breadth”.
THE GODS, SPIRITS AND ANCESTORS AS EXTRAORDINARY TRIBUNALS
In the Benin River towns and villages as in the Capital, the most prevalent crime was that of Witchcraft. This could be detected by the Priests of the gods. But people often preferred to resort to other methods.
When a person suspected of Witchcraft died, the Ife Oracle was consulted. If the dead person was declared a Witch or Wizard, the corpse was not buried but thrown into the the bush to be devoured by wild animals.
If the Oracle cleared the dead person of Witchcraft but declared that the death was due to foul play, trimmings of the deceased hair and nails were tied inside a piece of cloth and hung on a ladder. It was claimed that the ladder would lead those carrying it to whoever was responsible for the person’s death. The divination was accepted by all and the criminals banished.
An accusation of Witchcraft was one which involved the good name of the whole Family. To clear the name of those involved resort was had to trial by sauce wood. This was such a serious affair that the prior permission of the Local Authorities had to be sought.
In the Benin River area such trials usually took place at UGHOTON. The Contestants were not allowed to eat anything which contained palm oil. The sauce wood was beaten in a wooden mortar and water added until the mixture became a paste. This was then made into egg-shaped balls and swallowed. It was believed that while the innocent person would swallow and then vomit the ball, the guilty person would be choked to death.
These various devices tended to check the practice of poisoning which Dapper reported was less common among the Itsekiris than in Benin.
Dapper’s comment made in the Seventeenth Century was confirmed by Landolphe during his stay among the ITSEKIRI in the second half of the Eighteenth Century.
Murder by poisoning was probably less common than ritual poisoning. The ITSEKIRI believed that the greatest danger of murder by poisoning lay in the use of an extract from the liver of the Tiger. We do not know how the poison was extracted but Landolphe has told us of the precautions taken against its use.
“The Negroes believe that the Tiger’s liver is a poison as subtle as violent, and the Chiefs of the villages take every precaution to prevent it being used. They collect all the men of whom eight are elected by a majority of votes, and who take an oath not to touch the liver.
The Tiger is cut open, his heart and liver are placed in an earthenware jar, and a heap of stones are piled around it. The eight men get a Canoe and take this jar which they throw into the middle of the river. On their return they take a fresh oath that they have not touched anything inside the jar”.
Precautions were useless, however, wherever ambitious men believed that their rise to wealth and fame depended on the liquidation of their rivals.
Such people did not scruple to send to Benin or Ife for medicine men who were adept at poisoning. And circumstances at the close of the reign of Olu AKENGBUWA were such as to foster both ambition and violence.
END OF PART 7B
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