Benin’s Golden Age in the 15th and 16th centuries came to an end when Oba Ohuan (enthroned c. 1608) died without an heir. The ensuing conflicts over succession weakened Benin’s monarchy, as powerful chiefs assumed much of the kingdom’s administration and took on the responsibility of selecting a new ruler from a deceased oba’s male relatives. In the following decades, a series of puppet obas ruled under the strong influence of the chiefs, until Oba Ewuakpe (enthroned c. 1700) challenged this state of affairs.

Oral traditions relate that during Ewuakpe’s reign a popular rebellion—perhaps stimulated by the controlling chiefs—protested his rule. He was stripped of his royal insignia, including his coral regalia, and forced to leave Benin City. Through perseverance and with support from the spirit realm, however, Ewuakpe made peace with the chiefs and regained the throne.

The difficult struggles during the 18th century led the obas to accentuate the attributes that most differentiated them from the chiefs, namely, their mystical powers and divine ancestry. Each oba took steps to increase the mysterious occult practices that connected him to the spirit realm and to strengthen his affinities to his most powerful ancestors. The royal arts of the period likewise reflect this change of focus. They are highly ornate and dense with imagery that elaborates upon the supernatural.

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Altar Group (Aseberia) with Oba Ewuakpe and Attendants, 18th century. Edo; Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum, III C 8165.