Mythic Origins

According to oral traditions, in the ancient past the Benin Kingdom and its people, the Edo, were ruled by the Ogiso, literally "Rulers of the Sky." While one account explains that the first Ogiso was the son of the High God, another claims that he was chosen from among the finest local rulers and governed to some extent through the good will of the people.

Contesting stories also recount the modern history of the Benin Kingdom. The predominant one suggests that as the leadership of the Ogiso failed, the Edo village chiefs of Benin sent a messenger to the ancient city of Ile-Ife asking its divine ruler to send a leader to restore order. The Ife king sent his son to rule, but the son was unhappy in Benin and returned home, though not before conceiving a child with the daughter of an Edo village chief. Their son inherited the throne and was crowned Oba Eweka I around 1200.

An alternative version tells of an Edo prince banished from Benin who went to Ile-Ife and became its king due to his extraordinary powers. Later, when the Edo sought a ruler, they appealed to Ile-Ife for the return of their lost heir, who instead sent his son to rule Benin.

These stories illuminate significant complexities and contradictions; namely, are the rulers of Benin of foreign origin, or are the rulers of Ife descended from an Edo prince? Both versions emphasize a connection between the rulers of Benin and Ife and underscore the interdependency of the divine ruler, or oba, and the village chiefs, a relationship that provides checks and balances to power that are essential to the success of Benin's political system.

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Head, 12th/15th century. Ife; Nigeria. The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 1999.2.3.