Iron Eben, the ceremonial sword that doesn’t cut but protects kings of Benin at public events

Stephen Nartey September 08, 2022
The Iron Eben/Photo credit: National Museums Scotland

It’s a sword, but one that does not attack an enemy or find itself in physical battles. The Iron Eben, a flat iron leaf-shaped blade with central rib flanked by triangular cut-outs, was introduced into the kingship of the Benin Kingdom during the Ogiso dynasty. According to history, it was Ogiso Ere who introduced the Iron Eben.

Ogiso Ere is acclaimed for inventing many of the famous African kingship paraphernalia including the Ada – a sword of honour, Ekete – royal stool, agba – a rectangular stool, Epoki – a leather box and iron Eben – a sword for dancing.

The iron Eben since time immemorial has been known as a ceremonial dancing sword created between 1700 and 1900, according to the British Museum.

The sword is carried by all Benin chiefs, however, it distinguishes the rank of a chief in the Benin kingdom. There are different sets of Iron Eben for each traditional ruler per their realm of influence. During ceremonial festivities, the chiefs skillfully throw their Iron Eben before the King in reverence of his authority, according to Goge Africa.  

Aside from the ceremonial role the Iron Eben plays, it has a deeper spiritual meanings underpinning its use. In acknowledging the king and family during traditional occasions, well-wishers shout ‘Iyare’ meaning ‘may you go and return safely’ at the chief carrying the iron Eben.

In the Benin culture, it is believed that the chieftaincy institution attracts envy and hatred associated with recognition, status and power, and detractors may seek to bring a chief to shame at public functions. The Iron Eben therefore becomes the spectre that protects and fortifies the king against any spiritual attacks.

The iron Eben at such durbars is expected to be tossed and twirled in the air before a chief directs it to the ancestral shrine. This large and flat object is stored on the ancestral altars always.

The chief touching the iron Eben to altar of his fathers while dancing  means he is linking himself with the ancestors since the path has been cleared by the leafy sword, as explained by Edo affairs.

The Edos of Benin believe that the Iron Eben has some mystical powers called ‘ase’ which literally means ‘the grant of words coming true’. The art of using the iron Eben to protect the kingship has been a long standing tradition since 16 A.D.

According to the Benin culture, a new chief must be guided by more experienced ones in tossing and twirling of the iron eben in several ways.

The tutelage is on how he must first greet the king, tipping the point of the sword to the ground several times in reverence of traditional authority.

Benin has been a kingdom with rich tradition and culture. It was one of the powerful states before the arrival of the Europeans in the late 15th century. It has survived attempts to demonize the customs and belief systems as a place of oppression and human sacrifice.

Many of these artifacts which were looted by British soldiers and sold to defray the cost of the military campaign on the kingdom of Benin have found their way to several museums abroad.

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