Onojie of Ubiaja Palace

By Carol Ann Lorenz


Esan architecture and community organization have undergone many changes since the turn of the century. For example, strip settlements developed along roadways, first built by the British during the colonial era, in order to take advantage of the trade and development which followed the roads. Imported building materials, such as concrete blocks and corrugated metal roofing, were introduced along with non-traditional designs and multi – storey constructions.

Modern buildings are principally a feature of large towns, where motor parks, churches and shops of every description have become community landmarks.  In Uromi, there is even a grand structure, built by a wealthy businessman during the oil boom years of the early 1980s, which far exceeds the Onojie's traditional palace in size and costly features. However, these luxurious features, such as marble floors and wrought iron gates, lack the cultural significance of traditional architectural sculptures which decorate the homes of kings and chiefs.

1.    One of the first buildings in Uromi to be roofed in corrugated metal was erected by Okojie I in 1907 (Ikekhua c.1960: 102) during his rebuilding of the palace, which was partially destroyed by the British.

Indeed, despite the modern innovations which are evident in Esan towns, most village architecture and planning follow traditional patterns.

The basic concerns of traditional Esan architecture and village planning are universal ones: shelter; privacy and protection from outsiders; spatial definition of the community and groups within it; proximity to arable land, potable water and other resources; accommodation of economic activities; demonstrations of authority and status; and places for the worship of supernatural beings. In addition, Esan architecture reflects cultural realities such as the importance of the extended family, differentiation in gender status and roles, the social and political value of seniority, and the stratification of society in which the Onojie and his chiefs form an elite class as well as the central authority of each kingdom.

Esan Settlements

Esan oral traditions suggest that the overriding factor in the choice of Esan as a settlement area was the fertility of the land (e.g., Chief Paul Ativie, Irrua, 29 August 1980). Plentiful game is also cited in the selection of settlement sites (e.g., Chief P.E. Okoh, Ugboha, 16 June 1980; H.H. R. Ubiaja Edobor, Onojie of Ekpon, 30 November 1980). Certainly the proximity to water was not a factor; no major Esan community was established on the banks of the Niger River, and most villages are sited away from even small streams. Patrick Darling (1984: 32) suggests that avoidance of streams and rivers may have been an ancient settlement pattern established when the first proto Bini/Esan savannah dwellers moved into the forests and encountered the moisture-loving and virulent tsetse fly. In any case, on the Esan Plateau, where the oldest settlements are located, streams are rare and become dry during the dry season.

Inhabitants of the almost waterless plateau coped with dry season water shortages by digging community ponds (omi) and constructing water collection devices within impluvia or open courtyards (oghodo (also eghodo) or yghg) in their compounds. Water was collected during the rainy season and carefully rationed during the dry season. The use of artificial ponds and cisterns, which continues to the present, is evident in the ruins of ancient settlements on the Esan Plateau, many of which were surrounded by earthworks (iyala) to demarcate their territories and protect their autonomy (Darling 1984 passim).

2.    The introduction of pipe borne water obviated the need for ponds and cisterns, and many were filled in. Rural areas continued to use them, however, and today they are being reintroduced because deteriorating pipes and pumping equipment have rendered the modern water supply as unreliable as the natural streams.

Esan Village Organization

Onojie of Ewohimi-Lord Peter O.E

Each Esan kingdom consists of a royal center called Eguare and a number of ughele or ordinary villages which, in turn, are composed of various wards or quarters (idumu) separated by active farms, fallow fields and uncultivated bush. The Esan idumu is a structurally complete community organized around a central broad street or plaza (ughele) which contains a meeting place for elders of the quarter and sometimes important local shrines. A central village square, also called ughele, is the hub of the entire village and serves as its meeting place, hall of justice, and arena for social dances, masquerades and religious ceremonies. At the edge of the square, there is often a small local market (eki ughele), and formerly an artificial pond (omi).

The most important building in the village is located in the center of the plaza, and is given the name okoghele, "son of the village square." This is the council house of the elders (Edion), which is vital to the functioning of the community, but is nevertheless small, unimposing, accessible to all, and sometimes even partially open on all four sides. Its traditional construction is simple, often consisting of no more than poles lashed horizontally to a few posts and covered with a thatched roof (cf. Butcher 1936: 37-38; Hawkesworth 1932: 17). Others are of earthen construction but are equally simple and unadorned.

3.    Nowadays burgeoning populations have effaced the boundaries between some villages in the larger kingdoms, forming semi-urban communities centered on the royal precinct and main market.

This humble structure incorporates a sacred ukhinmhin tree, a symbol of settlement rights as well as supernatural presence. 4 Molded mud or log benches along the interior walls of the building place the elders all on one level, in a face to face position for consensual planning, decision making, and settlement of disputes.

Facing the central clearing are the compounds of individual families, which vary in size and elaboration depending on the wealth and status of the householder. In general, however, each compound (azagba) has a main building, which is that of the owner, and behind which are the women's houses, kitchens, food storage structures, animal pens, baths and latrines. A large compound may include a cistern or pond, vegetable gardens, economic trees, and even a small bush area. Sometimes the entire compound is fenced with brush or enclosed by a hedge or an earthen wall.

The royal center or Eguare of each kingdom is a special case of village planning. The village square is in front of the Onojie's palace (eguae). Often an open courtyard or a public structure in front of the palace serves the same functions for the state that the okoghele performs for the village.

4. The ukhinmhin tree was introduced in the ancient past as a boundary marker and eventually displaced the iyala earthworks which had served the same function (Darling 1984: 65).

Nearby are the large central market (eki olele) and shrines for the deities of the entire kingdom. No other houses face the palace square, however, and the homes of palace chiefs and loyal servants are strategically arranged in nearby quarters.

Traditional Housebuilding Methods

Traditional Esan buildings are constructed of earth built up in successive courses. House-building takes place at the end of the rainy season, when water is plentiful for puddling mud, but the weather is dry enough to allow the earthen structure to dry completely. Mud is puddled in a borrow pit (uwolo) near the building site, hand formed into lumps, and passed to the builders who mold the lumps into a short wall, approximately two feet high and eight to twelve inches thick. When this wall is completely dry, another two-foot course is added to it. The walls of a typical house consist of four courses, each of which is named 5. When complete, the walls are smoothed inside and out, and plastered with clay and water.

5.   The names of the four levels of a common dwelling vary greatly from kingdom to kingdom within Esan.

6.    Nowadays, those who still build in earth, which after all is plentiful and free of charge, often form the puddled mud into bricks with a mold called uroolu or urooli, which is clearly derived from the English language.

They seals the earthen walls and gives them a shiny polish. Sometimes women will decorate the facade of the main house or, more frequently, their own quarters, with geometric, organic, and occasionally representational motifs in natural white, black or blue pigments (Fig. 37). 

In a traditional Esan house, much of the furniture is molded directly into the structure of the building. Seating is provided by a banquette (ukpebala) running along the facade, rear wall, and courtyards of the house, as well as the interior walls of the entrance room. Traditional earthen beds (ukhuokhuo-eken), now rarely seen, are enclosed in molded compartments built into the wall. Smaller niches serve as shelves and closets. There are few openings in the thick walls (egbegbuwa), which help to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature. Although the rooms are consequently dark, most of the daily activities take place outdoors or in the interior courtyards. A verandah (onakase), covered with a thatched roof supported by earthen or wooden posts, shields the householders from the harsh sun or rains, and provides a comfortable place for work or socializing. In traditional houses, a thatched roof of leaves (ebe) or grass (ato), supported on a framework of logs and sticks, also covers the main structures.

A clayey wash manner of finishing the walls, however, is the same as with hand-molded buildings.

Esan House (Uwa) Plans  

Esan houses are built on a rectangular floor plan. The simplest house (uwa) consists of just two main rooms - a man's sleeping room and a public room (oduwa) - while his wife's bedroom and kitchen are located in separate structures behind the house, across a small yard. The oduwa and erie are complementary structures designating the domain of men and the domain of women respectively. In simple dwellings, bedrooms double as storage and shrine rooms, but larger homes have separate rooms for these purposes, as well as rooms or separate buildings for the additional wives, children, extended family members and servants of a prosperous household. These rooms are arranged around one or more open courtyards, surrounded by a roofed verandah.

The houses of chiefs (Ekhaemho) are usually larger and more highly ornamented than the homes of commoners. The palace (eguae) of the Onojie is larger and grander still. Often the walls of the principal buildings of the Onojie's palace are taller than usual, incorporating a fifth course of earth.

7.  Although the traditional method of molding earthen walls is still practiced in Esan villages, the thatched roof can be seen only in the most remote areas or on the poorest of homes. Corrugated metal ("zinc") sheeting is durable and impervious to vermin and has become a status indicator because of its costliness. 

The extra height requires thicker supporting walls, giving the palace the appearance of massive stability and security. Security is further enhanced by a stout earthen wall surrounding the palace environs, and by a maze-like configuration of rooms and courtyards designed to separate the visitor from the private and secret areas within.

Both the palace and the compounds of chiefs require large public spaces for meetings, ceremonies, public entertainment and other purposes. In the palace, each of these spaces is dominated by a large, three-tiered molded earth throne (ojiukhuo), from which the Onojie presides over community gatherings. These areas are singled out for special elaboration, and often display molded mud wall ornaments; decoratively carved doors, lintels, ceiling beams and verandah posts; and rich furnishings, including the titleholder's state swords, stool of office, and other regalia. These items are not only sumptuous, but they are laden with symbols of power and prestige which are exclusive to the Onojie and certain chiefs by his gift.

The grandeur, complexity and secrecy of the Esan palace, as a seat of government, are in direct contrast to the small scale, simplicity and accessibility of the elders' meeting house in the villages. The exclusive three-tiered throne of Esan kings (two-tiered thrones are permitted to certain chiefs) elevate the titleholder and distance him from the ordinary citizen, unlike the single-level seating shared by the elders, around which the community can gather to listen to their deliberations. As a home, the palace of the Onojie (and certain chiefs) stands in sharp contrast to the compounds of ordinary citizens, but it must be noted that the degree of differentiation varies from kingdom to kingdom. Generally, the larger and more powerful the kingdom, the greater is the difference. In addition, while the elaboration of the homes of elites is focussed on the main buildings and public spaces, the living and working areas of the aristocrat's wives, children and other dependents may not be any larger or more comfortable than those of a commoner. Moreover, the standard of living of an Onojie might not be significantly different from that of his subjects. Apart from his sprawling palace, abundant food and numerous wives and children, the material evidence of the Onojie's status was limited to a small number of prestigious possessions. Among these were his regalia, and elaborately carved architectural features and house furnishings. 

Architectural Sculpture 

Almost any wooden element in an elite Esan house might be decorated with carved images. Wooden elements include supporting beams (uwahan), lintels (oworo), doors (akhu or ode), and verandah posts (okpo or ore). Shutters, while common now in Esan houses, were probably not traditional B and none of them are decoratively carved. Most of the house posts are large-scale sculptures in the round, while the beams, lintels and doors have flat surfaces bearing incised or relief images. A few plank-like posts are also decorated with relief carving. 

Beams and Lintels

The beams and lintels of courtly Esan buildings bear the simplest of carved designs, but because these structural elements are not ordinarily decorated, they convey a sense of lavishness to the regal home. There are a few representational images, such as the Ebenlen (ben) sword representing status and power, but by far the most common design is a repeat pattern of hatched rectangles or triangles (Fig. 40). Although it is simple, this pattern is exclusive; as in Benin, where it is called ighavbien (Monday Edokpaigbe, Benin carver, December 1988), in Esan it is reserved for traditional leaders. In contrast to the lintels and beams, carved doors contain the fullest vocabulary of motifs not only in the Ishan architectural setting, but in all forms of Ishan art.


8. That shutters are probably not traditional is suggested by the fact that there is no distinctive word to designate them; rather they share the terms akhu or ode which mean "door"

Carved Doors

The door of a traditional Esan house belongs to the two-pronged haar type (Fig. 40) which is widely distributed in Africa. The lower projection of the door is inserted into the earthen floor or a stone socket, while the upper projection is set into a flat wooden lintel which bridged the opening in the first three courses of the house walls. The fourth and last mud course is built up above the lintel and seals the door in place. Some doors are carved from a single piece of wood, but many consist of two or three planks held together by wooden boards across the back, or attached to one another by metal staples.

The doors of Esan elites, and especially those of the Enijie, were decorated with a variety of motifs and images. By far the simplest and most common of these is the incised hatched rectangle or triangle pattern, which appears alone or as a background for relief figures. A number of doors are ornamented with a single relief figure or small number of images on a plain or incised decorated background. More commonly, however, multiple images are arranged in vertical rows; each figure or figural group is discrete, and has no narrative relationship to other images on the door.

9.    Few of the extant doors in Ishan compounds are used in the traditional way. Some have been modified to fit into a modern framed doorway, while others have been removed to a shrine, where they are preserved as relics of the forebear who had carved or commissioned them. Disused multi-panel doors are often separated into their constituent parts, of which sometimes only one or a fragment of one survives.

The figures, moreover, hover in space without benefit of a ground line. Esan doors belong to a widespread tradition of relief door carving in Nigeria. Among the Igbo peoples to the east, for example, doors may be ornamented with geometric shapes filled in with series of parallel or concentric lines or crosshatching (Cole and Aniakor 1984, 69-71, Figs. 117122) which are reminiscent of Esan incised ornamentation. The basic designs and the patterns formed with them, however are limited in Ishan, while they are combined in infinite abstract variations in Igbo doors. In any case, the hatched shapes are too simple to suggest borrowing in either direction; they may derive from a common tradition, but are equally likely to have been invented independently.

An important feature which distinguishes Esan doors from their Igbo counterparts is the preponderance of human images, which are rare in Igbo door carving. Human images are common in the doors of the neighboring Yoruba peoples, but the composition differs from Esan examples. In Yoruba doors, human figures are arranged, together with animals and other images, in coherent scenes enclosed in horizontal registers (e.g., Drewal et al. 1989: 123, Figs. 124-5).

Human images are also prevalent in reliefs in Benin, which is not noted for traditional carved doors, but has produced wooden stools and brass plaques in relief, some of which lined doors in the Oba's palace (Felix Roth diary, in Roth 1903: Appendix II, xi). Unlike the Esan reliefs, Benin works depict interrelated, and usually hierarchically composed, groups of figures.

The composition of Esan doors is closest to Nupe examples (Fig. 43; see also Stevens 1966: 32-34), in which unrelated images are similarly arranged in vertical rows. Visual correlates also exist in relief doors among the Northern Edo peoples (Borgatti 1971: Figs. 92-94) who, like northern Esans, may have been exposed to Nupe artistic traditions through trade or during a period of political domination by Nupe invaders in the late nineteenth century. At that time, the Nupe kingdom staged periodic raids among Northern Edos and the northernmost Esans to obtain slaves and goods which they, in turn, paid as tribute to the Fulanis who had established themselves as overlords in much of northern Nigeria during the jihads of the nineteenth century (Erhagbe 1991: 4-5). To buy peace, subjugated peoples were forced to accept the presence of Nupe agents, who collected tribute on a regular schedule (Mason 1970: 204-205). As Mason {1970: 206) points out, "the heritage of Nupe colonialism is not uniform;" while it affected Northern Edos "profoundly," in Esan there were few converts to Islam, and the Nupe legacy is ·limited to the occasional title of northern origin, such as Daudu and Talu (Bendel State 1979: A162-164), and occasional similarities in carved door composition.

Although the arrangement of Esan and Nupe door elements is similar, the imagery is quite different. For example, human beings predominate in Esan doors but, because of the strictures of Islam, they are rare in Nupe examples (Fig. 43). Where human figures appear in Nupe doors, they are similar in style to Esan relief figures, but their rarity in Nupe might suggest borrowing from the plentiful Esan occurrences rather than the reverse. Animal images are somewhat more common in Nupe doors, but by far the largest number of motifs depict inanimate objects (including household items, tools, weapons, shoes, fans, and Islamic prayer boards), and designs which are nonrepresentational but have symbolic content (Stevens 1966: 29). In contrast, inanimate and non-representational motifs are almost absent in Esan doors.

Esan door subject matter is similar to Benin reliefs, which focus attention on the king and his court (Fig. 33). In Benin, however, courtly figures are arrayed in richly detailed garments, ornaments, and ceremonial regalia, while Esan representations of the Onojie and his courtiers are often unclothed and have remarkably few status indicators.

10. Rubin (1982: 64) notes that carved doors also constitute "traces of a Nupe artistic presence, not otherwise indicated" among the Alago people of Plateau State. Two doors were captured from the Nupe, and another was commissioned from a Nupe carver.

Furthermore, Benin art is preoccupied with images of state leadership to the exclusion of commoners such as village elders, but the latter are well represented in Ishan doors and other sculpture. Nevertheless, the focus of the imagery in Esan doors, and indeed all the architectural sculpture, is the expression of legitimate authority supported by military and supernatural powers.

Although Esan doors share some elements of composition, design, or subject matter with relief sculpture of neighboring peoples, they cannot be said to derive from any one of these traditions. For each element of similarity with neighboring reliefs, there are numerous other differences. The diagnostic features of Esan relief sculpture has been described in the previous chapter. The only noteworthy deviation from this relief type which can be found in Esan doors is the occasional presence of profile figures. Equestrian figures (Figs. 44, 51), for example, are depicted in profile, and a small number of swordsmen are depicted in active poses including a profile stance (Fig. 45). Moreover, Esan doors incorporate a vocabulary of images which, taken as a whole, is both unique to Esan and consistent with other forms of Esan art.

Esan Door Iconography

Only one known Esan door contains hierarchically composed figures. The door originally from the kingdom of Ogwa but currently in the Benin Museum (Accession No. 59B: 1:1), depicts an Onojie with his hands resting on the heads of two small sword bearers, and a second group consisting of a warrior chief or Onojie flanked by a man and a woman. Although hierarchically arranged groups are generally rare in Esan art, other types of images have been devised to indicate power and status.

The most common and significant image in the Ishan doors is that of one figure supporting another on his shoulders (Figs. 47-51, 57). The piggyback figure is a multivalent image referring in a general sense to the stratification of Esan society, in which some men are supported while others bear the burden.ll It also refers specifically to the former practice of the Enijie and warrior chiefs (Ekakulo, sing. Okakulo) who went to battle carried on the shoulders of a slave or orderlyl2 (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, Correspondence, 28 November 1983).

11.  The image of a nobleman being carried on the shoulders of a slave or servant is unusual but not unique in African art. It is found as far afield as Luba-Hemba territory in Eastern Zaire (Museum fur Volkerkunde 1983: 24, Fig. 1; Cole 1983: 14-15). Piggyback figures from Tanzania, Mozambique, and Malawi represent pubescent boys or girls on the shoulders of adult guardians during their initiation ceremonials (Kecskesi 1982). The theme of hierarchy inherent in the Ishan piggyback image is seemingly unrelated to the East African initiation figures, although Kecskesi mentions an unproven suggestion that "being borne on the shoulders ... could be a survival of an 'aristocratic' ceremony" (1982: 55). The piggyback motif must be distinguished, however, from common superposition in African art, in which figures are depicted above one another but are otherwise unrelated.

Their elevated position allowed them to conserve energy, survey the battlefield, and issue clearly visible directives to their troops. Human porters were more accessible and reliable than horses, which do not survive long in the tsetse fly infested forests. The piggyback image is, therefore, probably more realistic than the equestrian warrior (which also appears in Esan doors), and is favored because of its polysemous nature.

The piggyback image also refers to the Ujie dance, part of the Esan first burial ceremony, in which leadership in warfare is an important theme. During ujie, as witnessed today in Esan villages (Fig. 52), the sons of the deceased carry ebenlen swords of office as they are carried aloft in the manner of war leaders of old. Each son is joined by a large group of supporters from his Otu (age set) who go into mock battle against the trees of the neighborhood (Ikekhua c.1960: 88-89), slashing off branches with which they beat the ground, whip the air, and make threatening gestures. Brandishing the freshly cut branches, which signify a recent death, the young men vigorously and jubilantly escort their favorite through the village to his father's compound.

12. An unusual figure from Isare in northeastern Yorubaland depicts a warrior in elaborate dress carried on the shoulders of a retainer who is less than half his size. William Fagg (Fagg 1982: 45-46) illustrates this piece, which he dates to the late nineteenth century, and states that it has been replaced with a more recent copy.

Ujie with its vociferous shouting and singing, is like a dance of victory after warfare, through which both nobles and common men traditionally distinguished themselves in the community. But throughout Esan another form of ujie is associated with royal display on ceremonial occasions (e.g., Scallon 1936b: 114; H.H. Imadojiemu II, Onojie of Igueben, 11 September 1980)13. In the royal ujie dance, the Qnojie is surrounded by his chiefs, who dance with their swords of office. The royal origins of the burial ujie is suggested by the fact that the sons of the deceased carry ebenlen . . . swords (or wooden skeuomorphs of them), rather than ordinary weaponry.

Although today any man of status can be buried with the ujie dance, in the context of traditional Ishan doors, the Ujie image refers to a titleholder. This motif suggests the continuity of hereditary leadership, and the legitimate transfer of title, property and rights from the deceased to his heir, which can only be accomplished through the proper burial of his father. For this reason, doors with the ujie motif could be commissioned only by men who had celebrated the costly itolimhin or second burial ceremony in honor of their fathers and assumed full titular status in the community.

13. Under the cognate term. a dance of royal display is also known at Benin and Owo (Bradbury Archives BS26).

The door then became a statement of the new titleholder's right to succession, and in a sense it also became an object of ancestral devotion.

The noble status and military associations of the ujie image are reinforced by the types of objects carried in the hands of the upper figures. These objects are limited to swords, fans and two types of staffs. The ebenlen sword of office is the most common (Figs. 48, 57), but the ada sword, representing the Onojie's right to take human life, is also depicted. Some of the ujie figures carry a round fan (azuzu) in addition to, or as a substitute for, the ebenlen a sword (Figs. 47, 49, 51). The decorative leather azuzu is also a sign of rank, although it has a wider distribution than state swords and can be owned by chiefs, elders, and priests as well as the Onojie (Fig. 15). The azuzu fan can also drive away evil and "cool down" situations which have become out of control; it is used to control unruly masqueraders, for example, and elders gesture with it to maintain order during acrimonious disputes.

An object with similar status-indicating and regulatory functions is the miniature ukhure held vertically in the hands of some ujie figures, as well as other figures appearing in the doors (Figs. 47, 48). The ukhure; will be examined in detail in another chapter, but in brief it is an ancestral staff which is the focus of veneration of the dead in every family compound. Like the motif, therefore, the ukhure is a symbol of continuity between one generation and the next. A special form of ukhure, called ukhuren'ojie, however, is exclusive to the Onojie and consists of a short staff with a cowrie shell at the top; the staff may be covered with beads (Fig. 53). In some Esan kingdoms, the Onojie carries the ukhuren'ojie during his installation ceremony, and as a protective device whenever he leaves the palace (H.H. Aidenoje Akhimien II, Onojie of Ekpoma, December 1988; H.H. Ehizogie, Onojie of Ogwa, 1 December 1990). Closely related to the protective ukhuren'ojie is a short staff with bulbous ends carried horizontally by some Ujie figures (Figs. 49, 57), and by other figures in the carved doors. Such staffs, called ojiogho, were exclusive to titled men but are no longer used in Ishan. They were boiled in medicines for power and protection against enemies (H.H. Ehijogie, Onojie of Ogwa, 1 December 1990) .14 This device is associated with the olden days (agbon Oba, meaning literally "world of the Oba" and figuratively "when the Oba ruled us"), and its memory is barely preserved in images such as those found in the carved doors.

Another figural group represents a captive and his captor. Although this image appears in only one of the Esan doors which have so far come to light, it is common in agbala royal stools (Figs. 112, 114, 118) as is the motif (Figs. 113, 115).

14. Similar staffs are known in Benin as osusumaye or osunsunmaye (Monday Edokpaigbe, Benin carver, December 1988).

Also like Ujie, the captor/captive is a polysemous image. The captor carries an

ebenlen sword, referring to legitimate authority; in conjunction with the prisoner image, it suggests the right of traditional leaders to discipline criminal elements in the society. This image can be read as a scene of execution, which is the extreme means of maintaining order in society. According to the Chief Ezomo of Uromi (Chief Ijele Iriogbe, Uromi, 21 August 1980), the Effiada or royal sword bearers were also the Onojie's executioners. The captor/captive image also suggests a human sacrifice, which formerly was required at burial ceremonies for an Onojie (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Correspondence, 28 November 1983; Chief Francis Ojieabure, Uromi, 30 July 1980). This image also refers, however, to victory in warfare and the subjugation of an enemy chief, or simply the capture of an enemy warrior.

The captor/captive group is related to other figure groups with similar multiple meanings. One image type depicts an upright figure with symbols of status (state sword, ukhure staff, or beaded ornaments) standing above one or two figures lying horizontally. This image may also be interpreted as the commemoration of victory in warfare; in the case of a fragmentary door from Uzea, the vanquished foe also has beaded ornaments and may represent an enemy leader. As in the captor/captive image, these figural groups may also represent a royal burial, during which slaves, criminals or victims of war were sacrificed.

The upright/horizontal figures appear four times in three known Esan doors; in three examples, a female figure accompanies the upright male noble. In a door from Ubiaja, for example, a male figure (okpia) holding a segmented ukhure staff is positioned above a female figure (okhuo), below whose feet a horizontal female figure lies.

In a door from Uzea, we must rely on the owner's testimony that the missing half of the door had a female counterpart to the heavily ornamented male figure, and that the head and torso of the horizontal male figure lay beneath her feet (Aneta Omiokhue, Uzea, 5 October 1980). A door from Uromi depicts male and female images standing above and below a small horizontal figure in one panel, while in a second the ujie group is the dominant motif. In addition, a door from an unknown kingdom includes a male/female pair standing side by side above a scene of warfare or sacrifice which includes a falling victim.

A similar juxtaposition of images is associated with the figure of a man holding a decapitated head in his left hand, while raising a protective ukhuren'ojie above his head in his right hand (Fig. 55). The special ukhure identifies this otherwise unadorned figure as an Onojie, and the severed head suggests both military success and human execution or sacrifice. This door and a similar relief were held by the Harry Franklin Gallery in Los Angeles in 1969 (Borgatti 1971: Pl.88,90). The second panel depicts a female figure; although the torso is eroded, long breasts are visible, and the figure holds the curved elo knife associated with women (cf agbala stool).

If these panels were designed as parts of a single door, or as companion pieces, we may be seeing another example of a male/female pair in the context of the taking of life under legitimate circumstances.

Unfortunately, no one in Esan could explain the relationship between the male/female images and the victim of sacrifice or war. Elsewhere in Esan art, male/female pairs express the continuation of a royal or noble lineage through their procreative power. Such pairs represent both the ancient progenitors of the lineage and the procreative process which will extend the family into the future. Perhaps the male/female couples in Ishan doors are intended to extend the meaning of other images with the theme of continuity and survival. When juxtaposed with images of warfare or execution, for example, the male/female pairs might represent the harmony and growth that is possible when external and internal enemies of society are eliminated.

15. It is noteworthy that the theme of human procreation is rendered in Esan art with considerable restraint, in comparison, for example, to Yoruba doors and other reliefs, where coitus is explicitly depicted.

When associated with the Onojie in state, the image, or sacrifice at royal burials, male/female images suggest the continued vitality of the office of kingship and the support of royal ancestors.

Michael Rowlands has explored the association between violence and the royal dead in Benin. He states (1993: 300) that "violent acts by an Oba should be expected as a sign of his potency [and] the sacrifice of war captives is literally part of the exchange made between a living Oba and dead ancestors." Sacrifice is made to insure success in war, which produces more victims for sacrifice in an endless, escalating cycle. Rowlands discusses violence in Benin as a theme related to the overthrow of indigenous Edo leadership by a "stranger king" (1993: 291). This idea is also applicable to Esan, whose historical narratives detail the usurpation of power by Enijie appointed by Benin. Thus, the images of execution, sacrifice, and warfare in royal Ishan art may be understood as symbols of the power and success of the Enijie, whose leadership is in basic conflict with the conquered or colonized commoner population. Warrior images and other military themes also imply, however, the subsequent resistance by Esan Enijie to the over lordship of Benin, against which they struggled for independence.

There are numerous images in the Esan doors which address the theme of violence, particularly through the display of weaponry. The armed equestrian (Ohenakasi) has already been mentioned). Standing warrior figures hold a variety of weapons) including knives (oghale), double-edged swords (agbada), spears with iron points (opolo), and even a Dane gun (osisi). The grid-like shield (known as in Benin (Monday Edokpaigbe, Benin carver, December 1988; Bradbury R4: 1), is held aloft by warriors in an Ubiaja door, and in a relief panel at Ugbegun which is now disused but may have been part of a door originally. The shield was made of sticks or palm ribs, which would not offer much physical defense; however, it was fortified with protective medicine (ukhumun) which enabled it to repel or catch enemy weapons. It was also a device used by the Onobosele and other warrior chiefs to direct the battle (Chief A.G.Idiahi, Uromi, December 1988). This sort of shield once had a wide distribution in southern Nigeria, but is no longer used in warfare. In some parts of Igbo country today such shields (aba-ogu) is used to direct and control fierce masqueraders. A ring or relief circle is found in some Ishan doors in conjunction with images of authority figures or warriors. The ring represents the powerful, a circlet made of iron, brass, leather or cloth which was imbued with protective medicines. A small was held in the hand or worn upon the arm or wrist, while a large leather or cloth version would be worn around the waist or chestl6 (H.H. Ehizogie, Onojie of Ogwa, December 1988; cf. Monday. Edokpaigbe, Benin carver, December 1988). Esan warriors wore such devices to deflect hostile gunshots and cutlass blows, while Enijie wore them for protection against invisible enemies.

The meaning of the raised disk is more problematic, as no one could identify it. It may be useful, however, to consider similar images in Benin. Disks and circular rosettes appear in Benin brass relief plaques and in a brass stool, where they represent the sun, a cosmic symbol as well as a reference to the deity Olokun, who controls the sea into which the sun sets (Ben-Amos 1980: 28, 31). In at least one brass plaque, a Portuguese soldier holds a round disk (Dark 1960: Pl 39), and rosettes are associated with other Portuguese figures (e.g., Dark 1960: Pl.45); because they arrived in Benin from the sea, the Portuguese were linked with Olokun in a complex of symbols (Ben-Amos 1980: 28). Because Olokun is a powerful supernatural and a source of wealth, the sun disk itself appears to have come to symbolize power and wealth in Benin, and this association may have been transferred to Esan.

16. Similar objects are worn around the waist or chest of powerful masqueraders, as well as wrestlers, in Igbo land.

17. In Benin, protective armlets, also called were used by hunters, warriors, chiefs, and others engaged in dangerous pursuits (Ben-Amos n.d.: 7).

Supernatural and a source of wealth, the sun disk itself appears to have come to symbolize power and wealth in Benin, and this association may have been transferred to Esan.

Joseph Nevadomsky (1991: 216-217) offers another explanation, however, of the disks when they appear in Benin plaques bearing images of warriors. He suggests that such disks are equivalent to the medicine-imbued basketry shield known as asa-ebo or atete-ebo. The idea of a shield is appropriate in the context of the violent images of the Esan doors, as the disks appear in conjunction with warrior images and war/execution scenes. Like the ring, then, the disk might have an apotropaic function on Esan carved doors. The disk shape differs, however, from the rectangular grid-like shield illustrated elsewhere in Esan reliefs. The grid shape also echoes the form of a game board (Fig. 59) of a common African type; the capture game played on such boards is a well-known metaphor for war.

Certain animals appearing in Esan doors continue the theme of aggression. The leopard (ekpen or atauakpa) recognizable by the tail which arches over its back, has the same significance in Esan that it has in Benin (cf. Ben-Amos 1976). Leopard is the fierce king of the animals (ojie-elamhen), the counterpart of the Onojie,

18. The basketry tray (atete) which is the basis of the Benin shield is called otete in Esan.

Who rules the human community? Leopard kills other animals of the bush, just as the Onojie executes human beings (Chief Paul Ativie and elders, Irrua, 21 September 1980). In Ewohimi, descendants of a certain Onojie call themselves Ibhi-Ekpen, "sons of the leopard" (Butcher 1932: 8). Throughout Esan, if a leopard is killed, it must be brought to the Onojie, who will provide for its burial with honor (Chief Paul Ativie and elders of Unogbo, Irrua, 21 September 1980). The crocodile (onyen), a powerful and dangerous denizen of the waters, is also considered to be its king (ojie-amen). In Esan doors (Figs. 44, 45, 51, 57), its aggression is graphically illustrated when it holds a fish or other animal in its mouth. Both the leopard and crocodile images are juxtaposed with images of the Onojie or warriors in Esan doors, associating them with leadership and military strength. Unidentified snakes occasionally form side, upper or lower borders in Esan door panels (Figs. 45, 46). They may represent python (ikpin) or puff adder (oboto), both of which are high ranking (Chief Paul Ativie and elders of Unogbo, Irrua, 11 October 1980) as well as dangerous snakes in the animal world.

Domestic animals are also represented in Esan doors. In addition to the equestrian figures, the image of a horse (akasi or esi) appears alone (although with a saddle) in one door (Fig. 46). Horses were cherished because of their rarity and costliness, and became a symbol of wealth and status in Esan, as they have elsewhere in Africa. After contact with Nupe cavalrymen, the Esan people also saw horses as symbols of military prowess. Other domestic animals appearing in Ishan doors include fowl (okho) and goats (ebhe), both of which are important . . . sacrificial animals, particularly for the veneration of ancestors. In Esan art, they serve as permanent evidence of sacrifice, in much the same way that blood, feathers and skulls of sacrificial animals are left in shrines as proof of human devotion.

Only one surviving door depicts the monkey (emelen). Although monkey is never used for sacrifice, its watchfulness makes it a desirable ingredient in medicines to enable a person to see beyond the usual. A proverb explains that "the watching monkey sees the hunter first" (Abodo emelen ka daghe ohue) (Chief Ojiemhenkele Iriogbe, Irrua, 20 September 1980). Unfortunately, its meaning in the carved doors was unknown. In general, however, the animal imagery in Esan doors reinforce the themes symbolized by the human figures -- power, rank, aggression, and sacrifice.

In Esan doors, there are few visual indicators of the elevated social or political status of the Onojie or chiefs. Most human figures are depicted naked; occasionally they wear short wrappers (the Esan version of a loin cloth), beneath which the genitals are often evident. In a figural group such as the ujie motif, each figure will bear similar body markings, whether representing the Onojie or his orderly. Very few figures wear beads, and these are so simple that they cannot be relied upon to identify specific courtly characters or to differentiate status among them. There are, however, a few accessories which are exclusive to the Onojie, or which identify the warrior, the elder, or court functionaries. For example, the Onojie is distinguished by the possession of the protective ukhuren'ojie and state swords. In addition, he can sometimes be recognized by an exclusive curved cap of a type which once contained protective substances (H.H. Akhimien II, Onojie of Ekpoma, December 1988). Although the actual cap was made of thick cloth and beaded (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, December 1988), the representation of it in Esan reliefs is highly stylized and undetailed.

Court functionaries are recognized by the properties they carry, such as the ekpokin treasure box which contains both tribute from the villages to the Onojie and sacrificial offerings from the Onojie to the shrines of the town deities. The trumpeter (Wittmer and Arnett 1978: is represented with the side-blown ivory horn (akala) which is sounded during the ujie portion of the royal burial and on other ceremonial occasions (H.H. James Ehijiator, Onojie of Ugun, 26 November 1980). An Esan proverb states, "as the elephant is great, so is the person to possess its tusk" (Eni kpono. O mun uhien-eni kpono) (Chief Paul Ativie, Irrua, 21 September 1980). A musician playing a whistle (ufele) represents the town crier (Fig. 60), who functions as a herald when the Onojie appears. publicly. The whistle also controls the royal dance by signaling the Onojie to change his dance style, take care in his movements, or end the dance and retire from public view (Chief A.G. Idiahi, Uromi, December 1988).

The respected elder is depicted smoking a pipe (ukoko or obodo). The pipe symbolizes solidarity among members of the odion age grade; it is "usually passed from mouth to mouth as a sign of oneness" (Okojie [1960]: 281). The long-stemmed obodo pipe in particular is a prerogative of elders, who may call on any youth to light and tend the tobacco in the bowl. The importance of seniority is reinforced by the exercise of this privilege. Thus, although the image of the elder may represent a commoner, it nevertheless illustrates authority on the village level, and the status accorded to senior members of Esan society. Similarly, warrior images may represent valorous men of the Ighene or middle age grade but, more importantly, they illustrate the military might which is at the disposal of the Onojie.


The door reliefs contain the fullest corpus of images in Esan art, and yet these images are limited and highly simplified. Simplicity enhances their polysemous possibilities, as each image is often imbued with multiple meanings. Although Esan doors have no narrative content, they construct an ideal image of Esan society which focuses on the legitimate leadership of the Onojie, symbolized by his possession of state swords, a crown, and the ukhure; staff. Courtly musicians and heralds allude to the splendor of his court. The continuity of the royal dynasty is suggested by the ujie motif and male/female pairs, as well as by the ukhure. Royal animals (leopard, crocodile, and perhaps python) represent the status of the king, as well as his potential for aggression. Military might is illustrated by warrior figures, equestrians, captor/captive images, and the ujie group. The captor/captive also suggests the Onojie's right to execute or sacrifice human beings. Tribute bearers represent both the Onojie's right to financial support by his people, and his responsibility to provide sacrificial materials for village shrines. The images of goats and fowl extend the theme of sacrifice. Supernatural protection is also indicated in the protective crown, - hield, and egba rings. Finally, in this view of an orderly world, reference is made to a hierarchy which includes kings, chiefs, elders, and adult men. Women are also represented, as partners with male figures in a flourishing society.

As Abner Cohen notes, ambiguity and multiplicity of meaning (1974b: ix), as found in the Esan relief images, are key features of symbols which may be" manipulated, consciously or unconsciously, in the struggle for, and maintenance of, power between individuals and groups" (1974: xi). It seems that the images appearing in Esan reliefs have been carefully selected or invented to construct an Esan political identity which is related to, yet distinct from, Benin. The reliefs draw upon some symbols of authority, such as the ada and ebenlen swords, which were readily recognized throughout the area of Benin domination.

The state swords, in particular, refer to the institution of the Onojie title and to its powers. On the other hand, although the ukhure and a few other symbolic objects are displayed by royal figures in the reliefs, in general Esan imagery avoids depicting the Onojie in the elaborate costumes and ornaments, as well as the hierarchic arrangements, which characterize portrayals of the Oba of Benin.

Instead, Esan reliefs emphasize images such as the ujie motif and captor/captive group which illustrate the power of the Onojie but may be read on several levels. While Ishan imagery suggests power and authority in different terms from those obtaining in Benin, thereby suggesting an independence from the capital, this imagery also subtly distinguishes the Onojie from those he rules. As simple and limited as his symbols of rank and power may be, their absence in figures of commoners is palpable. At the same time, however, the absence of exaggerated visual distinctions between elites and commoners may have avoided antagonizing the latter, for whom the Onojie was the representative of an alien system of government often at odds with the consensual policies of the council of village elders.

By Carol Ann Lorenz

Associate Professor of Native American Studies; Director, Native American Studies Program Sociology & Anthropology, 

Further Reading on Esan Art::


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