For many centuries, historical and cultural narratives around the Benin Kingdom have been a subject of fascination for historians, and the world at large. Before colonial times, the Benin Kingdom was the envy of all other empires in West Africa and beyond.
The empire grew and flourished within the boundary of its culture and heritage, without any external infiltration or support. Its strong belief in the sanctity of the Obaship, its culture, its trade and arts made the Benin Kingdom an exception in many ways. This was an empire so powerful that its Military might was the cause of admiration and resentment by other empires.
After the Invasion of the Kingdom in 1897, the world became exposed to the underlying beauty and strength which had held the influential ancient kingdom together for thousands of centuries.
Its astonishing, intricate design (bronze artworks) had the global art market captured by a beauty so pure in its original form that the world couldn’t even believe that these pieces were made in Benin.
But far away from the Benin Bronze artworks, there was a world underneath the Kingdom. A world of its original gatekeepers, a world of creatures that hold physical and supernatural significance and power for the Benin Kingdom. These creatures shuttle between the physical and spiritual realms of the Benin world.
Benin cosmology is governed by three major creatures, and their dual role of spirituality and physicality is represented in almost every Benin Bronze art. These creatures are the Leopard, the Mudfish and the Ibis (also called Bird of Prophecy).
At the centre of all these mystic creatures and the importance they hold in Benin Culture, the Oba of Benin meditates as the intermediary between the world of man and the world of the gods.
The leopard is not just another wild cat in Benin cosmology and Benin art. Among all the animals that hold significance in Benin art and spirituality, the leopard is the most revered.
In ancient times, it was said that tamed leopards were seen walking around the Palace of the Oba of Benin. The tamed cats only have one lord; the Oba Himself, who talks and commands them at will. As “king of the forest,” his reputation is as great as that of the Oba. Killing a leopard was a privilege of the Oba, who had his association of leopard hunters equipped with “special powers” which enabled them to kill these animals without losing their own lives. The killing of this privilege animal is a crime for every other hunter in the Kingdom.
Tamed leopards would be seen walking behind the Oba during coronation and major festivals in the Benin Kingdom. The leopard symbolised the Oba’s authority, the loyalty of his subjects, and high status. How the leopard came to be a royal symbol, however, is a subject of debate. In one famous myth, the leopard is heralded for the balance between his strength and his reserve and moderation as a leader. The leopard symbolises the complete harmony between two compelling forces – the menacing and the moderating – that, in Benin, it is believed every ideal Oba should possess. The Oba himself has a moniker as the “Home leopard” this making him a lord at home and in the forest.
The Mudfish (catfish) has a highly respected place in Benin culture, especially within the worship of Olokun. The symbolism of the Mudfish in the Benin Culture covers prosperity, peace, fertility, and strength.
The display of the Oba’s power over land and water because of his connection to Olokun, the god of water, symbolises the king’s semi-divine power between the spiritual world and the kingdom of Benin.
There are two types of mudfish: One can give a powerful electric shock that is often used as a reference to the Oba’s immense power over his enemies. Another type is known for its ability to survive on land as well as in the water and this ability is perfect for illustrating the Oba as a divine king who can be part of the human and spiritual realms. The mudfish is an important symbol in both Yoruba and Benin cultures.
The mudfish can burrow into the mud at the bottom of the river as it loses water during the dry season. It then goes into a dormant state, which is seen as temporary death. When the rainy season comes, the mudfish come out of their dormant state and begin to swim in the rivers again. This is seen as a symbol of eternal life and the form is used on many works of art to symbolise that idea.
The Ritual pots for Olokun worship (akh-olo-kun) are made of mud from the river bed; the mud serves as a life-giver and supporter for the mudfish during the dry season and when the mudfish regains its full life support during the rainy season. The mud also provides a bed of comfort for the tricky fish; this 360 power-life cycle places the mudfish at a high pedestal in Benin culture.
During the battle of Idah, Iyoba Idia and her son Esigie marched into battle, and as they approached the battlefield, the “ibis” – conceived as a bird of prophecy – flew over the soldiers marching to battle, shrieking and flapping its wings.
The Oba ordered the bird to be shot (However, historians and record keepers have argued that it was Iyoba Idia, the Oba’s mother who fired the arrow that killed the bird).
Even since then, “The Bird of Prophecy” has then sealed its place in Benin cosmology and art. After the victory Oba Esigie had at the battle of Atah of Idah, he ordered and commissioned the royal blacksmiths at the Palace to make an image of the bird on a bronze head of a battle standard to remind the kingdom that the Oba was not subject to the fate of ordinary spirits.
Highly revered, these creatures are essential elements in understanding the mystic world of spiritualism of Benin culture, arts, heritage and cosmology.
Beyond being just everyday creatures, the leopard, mudfish and the bird of prophecy symbolize the very essence and spiritual cord that binds the soul of the Oba of Benin and the Kingdom together; thus giving him the power of a god on earth.