The Cultural Significance of Coral Beads To The Benin People
The Benin people are known for their red coral beads, which decorate the necks of the royal family and brides during cultural events.
The origin of the coral beads date back to ancient Benin and hold uttermost significance to the fashion, lifestyle, culture and tradition of the tribe. These coral beads signify power, dominance and hierarchy.
Before we look into the cultural significance of coral beads to the Benin people, let us first consider what they are made of and why they are so important.
Corals come in a range of styles, shapes, and colours; however, their naturalism and stylisation make each coral unique. These corals are formed from natural organic sediments and are the remains of living and non-living organisms which have solidified over time to form sedimentary rocks.
The most popular of these corals are red, pink, orange and black corals which are used in jewellery.
Coral beads are not made from the living organism itself but rather the carbonate secretions that form the structure on which the coral ‘polyps’ survive. The harvested corals are cut and polished into cabochons which are then carved into beads.
The corals of the Benin people, Ivie Ebo and Ekan, originate from Phylum Coelenterata (Cnidaria), a unique red coral that grows in bush-like formations in the Meditteranean Sea and the East Sea.
Known for its vibrant red colour, the Ivie is also believed to possess spiritual properties that offer protection.
Tracing its history
Oral traditions trace the history of the red coral beads to the 1400s A.D. The account believed to have been given by Oba Ewuaee believed that the beads were allegedly stolen from the ‘goddess of the sea’ at Ughoton (Gwatto) and brought into the Republic of Benin.
However, another account narrates that the Portuguese in the 16th century brought coral beads into Benin city through trade.
The significance of coral beads in Benin culture
Whichever it might be, these coral beads have solidified their place in the Benin culture.
Ivie is considered the most important type of coral bead in the Benin culture, worn only by Benin Obas and Chiefs. This precious coral can be polished to bring out its beautiful red rose or pink colour.
On the other hand, Ekan resembles stone and is greyish.
While the Oba of Benin controls the use of Ivie beads, certain shapes and patterns are limited to members of the ruling group that other members of the tribe cannot wear.
The weight of corals in the royal regalia holds great importance, signifying dominance. And some rare jewellery, regalias and accessories are reserved for special ceremonies and festivals and cannot be worn for mere public appearances.
A symbol of power and royalty, Obas are adorned in coral regalia, including a beaded crown, necklaces, bangles and shoes.
On the other hand, the Benin chiefs limit their coral regalia to their necks and wrists, while the Oba’s wives wear these beads on their necks, wrist, and ankles.
The Benin coral beads are also used to signify a rise to prominence, and when the Oba sends beads to a person, that individual is being made a chief and refusing the palace’s beads is viewed as an unpardonable sin causing one to be some ‘Oghian Oba’ (the Oba’s enemy).
The Ivie can also signify punishment when Chiefs are banned from wearing them for their disloyalty.
The presentation of a bead from the Oba to a single woman symbolises a marriage proposal that she is bound to accept. During the wedding ceremony, she wears Okuju, a beaded crown that either sews the Ivie into her hair or wears it as a wig.
For other members of the society, wearing coral beads are limited to special social and ritual occasions like weddings, coronations and funerals and are worn by both men and women.
The beads are also used as a sign of feminine beauty worn on the waist by Benin women to emphasise their slim waist and curved hips.
The Ugie Ivie Festival
The Benin people celebrate the festival of beads Ugie Ivie yearly. This cultural and religious event is viewed as a physical attempt to communicate with the spirit world.
During the week-long festival, the wearing of beads within the Benin Kingdom is prohibited until after the ceremony.