In Benin culture and tradition, marriage rites are held in very high esteem, in fact almost religiously. It is often said that marriage is one of the important cardinal points of anyone’s life, the others being birth and death. According to Benin culture, the family forms the bedrock of any community and hence the norms and values imbibed at the family level goes a long way in the achievement of success or failure of the entire community. Marriage is seen as the starting point for the formation of this all important bedrock. Hang on as I take you through the traditional marriage rites according to Benin native law and custom.
Marriage ceremony according to Benin native law and custom is a very interesting and fun filled event that also showcases the rich custom and tradition of the Benin people.
In ancient times, the process of marriage can actually begin right from the point of birth of a female child through the process of betrothal; that is when a female child is born, an interested family betroths her on behalf of their male child by symbolically dropping a log of wood in their compound. On acceptance of the proposal she will then catered for by the family, until she is ripe for marriage.
In modern times, this type of betrothals rarely or never even happen as most people would rather pick their husbands or wives by themselves instead of depending on their parents to do it for them.
What normally obtains now is that a young man sees a girl he likes, approaches her and if she accepts his marriage proposal, then she fixes a date for him to come and meet her parents to seek their consent an also start the next stage of the marital rites.
As the intended groom goes for the first visit, he is usually not required to bring along any family members as a sign of independence, although he might bring a few of them if he so desires, along with a few gifts for the girl’s immediate family members.
On getting to the girl’s fathers house, he introduces himself and tells them his intentions, they then fix a date for him to come with selected members of his immediate and extended family for an introductory visit. The purpose of the introduction is for both families to meet and also for them to investigate if they are related by blood as it is seen as taboo for two people related by blood to marry. They both also go in-depth to find out if there are any known bad traits in the family.
In ancient times, before the prevalence of western education and religion, both families usually conducted a check in their family shrine to know if there are any ancestral curses or diseases running in either family. If such curses are found, they either stop the marriage plans or appease the gods to break the curse.
If all checks show that there are no issues, then they can proceed with the marriage plans. The bride’s family will carry out consultations and send a list of the requirements for her dowry, as well as a suitable date for the traditional marriage rites proper to take place. This date is normally seen as the “big day”.
In the traditional marriage rites according to Benin native law and custom, the dowry normally includes salt, sugar, honey, palm oil, palm wine, yams and the sum of twelve pounds and ten shillings (as at the time these requirements were documented by the Benin traditional council, this amount equated to ₦25 and is still paid till date). The quantity of the other items required are regulated by the individual families. Some might ask for large quantities while others might ask for little.
On the selected date, the groom will be expected to arrive at the girl’s house in company of his family members and friends. A member of the girl’s family will welcome them and offer prayers. They might even offer them few drinks after the prayers.
The ceremony then begins with the oldest male from the girl’s father’s family (Okaegbe) taking charge of the ceremony, and acting as a spokesman. The groom’s family will also select a spokesman who most times is also their Okaegbe. After all the pleasantries, the groom’s Okaegbe then informs the bride’s family on the purpose of their return visit. He would normally say something like “we were walking past your compound and we saw a lovely flower which we have come to pluck with your permission”. The bride’s Okaegbe then responds by saying “I have plenty lovely flowers in my garden, let me bring them so you can identify the one you are after”
He then tells a female in the family to bring out the maidens in the family. In order to make it more interesting, they will bring a maiden covered with a veil who is not the intended bride, and ask ὀnὀ na nὀ a, meaning “is it this one” and the groom will reply éo, meaning no. This is repeated for four or five times before they bring out the bride who will stand out prominently because of her Okuku (traditional hairdo). The groom will then answer Ehn, meaning yes.
After confirming her identity, she then goes to sit with her family while the groom’s family presents her dowry. After the acceptance of the dowry, the bride’s Okaegbe then hands her over to the groom’s father by placing her gently on his laps while counting aloud up to seven. At the seventh time, she then sits on his laps. The groom’s father then hands her over to his son by placing her on his lap. This action symbolizes that she has been officially handed over to her new family, and they have accepted her.
Both families then offer prayers and blessings for a fruitful, loving and lasting marriage. After the prayers, the new couple then move out along with their friends and immediate family members to appreciate all those who have come to grace the occasion. They normally wave hands and chant wa ruese meaning “thank you”. After the appreciation, food, drinks and other refreshments are served to guests who will later dance with the couple and hand them gifts of cash.
In the past, the bride would be escorted to the groom’s family house on the eve of the traditional wedding, but now, this escorting is done after the Christian or Islamic ceremonies have been done.
The escorting of the bride is another interesting aspect of the marriage rites. The bride is usually escorted along with her personal belongings by elderly females and some youths from her family. Her parents are not involved in this ceremony.
The brides escort party will normally get to some distance from the groom’s family house, and then send one of the youths to inform them of their arrival. A delegation from the groom’s family will then proceed to meet them. On getting there, the bridal escort party will act like they are tired from a long journey and the groom’s delegation will have to drop some money on the floor for them to continue the journey. This “drama” is repeated a total of seven times along the way before arriving at the groom’s family house.
On getting there, the youngest wife in the groom’s family performs the ikpoba ovbioha (washing of hands and feet). This ceremony involves washing the hands and or feet of the new bride and wiping it dry with a new scarf that has never been used by anyone. This scarf becomes the first property of the new bride.
After the washing ceremony, prayers are then offered for blessing and success of the union after which the bride is finally handed over to the groom’s family amidst singing, dancing and merriment. Her escort party then leave her behind at her new home.
These are the events that usually mark traditional marriage rites according to Benin native law and custom. These events have of course been tweaked due to modern civilization but the significance still remains the same.