Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom

by Barbara W. Blackmun
Professor Emeritus, San Diego Mesa College

Chief Izevbizua Iyamu, the Esogban of Benin, “playing” the eben at Igue. Oba’s Palace, Benin City, Nigeria, December, 1981. Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.

The eben dancing sword carried by each titled man in Benin is pierced to lighten the weight of the metal, enhancing its aerodynamic qualities. To honor the Oba and to demonstrate his fitness for high office, a chief of the Esogban’s rank must toss the eben repeatedly in the air without dropping it, while dancing before crowds of spectators at the palace during the heat of the day.  The higher the rank of the chief, the more skillfully and imaginatively the tossing must be displayed.  Above the coral beads and heavy brass cuffs on the Esogban’s wrists are narrow brass bracelets called egba, which are worn for protection during these demonstrations of dexterity, agility, and endurance.