What was life like in Benin?

Benin was a large and varied kingdom. Some people lived in villages and small towns, but most people lived and worked in Benin City.

The most important person in the kingdom was the king, known as the Oba. Hundreds of men and women lived at the royal court, and devoted their lives to looking after the Oba and his family. Some people at court had very special jobs, working as acrobats, sorcerers or leopard hunters.

Most people in the countryside worked as farmers but there were also potters and blacksmiths. They made simple pots, weapons and tools for the villagers.

The people of Benin traded with merchants from Europe and with other African kingdoms. Instead of using money they exchanged goods. Find out more about the goods they traded.

What was life like for the Obas?

The people of Benin believed that their Oba was a god. He lived apart from the ordinary people inside the royal court in Benin City.

Most of the time the Oba was kept very busy with his duties as king. He held meetings with his officials and he led religious ceremonies. But he also had some free time to spend with his family. Obas had many wives, and all their wives and children lived in special apartments inside the palace.

The Oba owned all the land in his kingdom. He gave orders to his chiefs on how his kingdom should be run and he decided when his armies should go to war. Sometimes he rode into battle at the head of his troops.

Everyone had to show great respect to the Oba. People approached him on their knees and nobody could look at him without his permission. Most people in Benin believed that the Oba didn’t need to eat or sleep!

A brass plaque showing an Oba with his attendants.
This brass plaque shows an Oba with his attendants. Two bodyguards hold up their shields to protect him from harm. The two smaller figures hold symbols of his power.

Who else was important at court?

The Oba relied on many chiefs and officials to help him run his kingdom.

Palace chiefs ran the royal court, organised the craft workers and made agreements with European merchants. They came from rich families and their jobs were passed down from father to son. Town chiefs were chosen to do their jobs because they were good rulers. They governed the ordinary people.

Another important figure was the mother of the Oba. The first great Queen Mother or 'Iyoba' was Queen Idia, the mother of Oba Esigie. She helped her son to defeat his enemies and gain control of the River Niger. As a reward, Esigie gave her a palace of her own.

People believed that the Queen Mother had magical powers. She was not allowed to see her son after he became Oba, in case she used her magic to control him!

An ivory pendant from Benin, probably showing Queen Idia
This ivory pendant of a Queen Mother probably shows Queen Idia. Around the top of the mask are the carved heads of Portuguese merchants.These are symbols of the kingdom’s power and wealth through trade.

What was life like for ordinary people?

Many people in Benin lived in villages in the rainforest. They cleared away the trees to grow vegetables and they built their houses from mud, wood and palm leaves.

Benin was famous for its craft workers. Specialists in a craft (like ivory-carvers) formed groups called guilds. All the members of a guild lived and worked together.

There were more than 40 guilds in Benin City and each guild had to perform a special duty for the Oba. Not all the guilds were for craft workers. Doctors, drummers, acrobats and dancers had their own guilds too.

Men from all over the kingdom served the Oba as soldiers. Warriors went into battle armed with swords, spears and crossbows, and by the 1600s they had guns as well. Some brave boys trained as hunters. They started their training very young and the bravest of all became elephant hunters.

A brass plaque showing acrobats
Acrobats, like the ones shown on this plaque, caught birds for the Oba to sacrifice to the gods. Once a year, they performed a special ceremony where they swung from ropes and pretended to be birds.

What kind of gods did people worship?

The people of Benin worshipped many gods. They told stories about their gods and held ceremonies in their honour. Some of these ceremonies are still performed today by the Edo people.

According to Edo legends, the great god Osanobua created the world. Olokun, his eldest son, became the god of the waters. Obiemven, his daughter, was put in charge of farming and childbirth. Ogiuwu, his youngest son, became the king of death.

Olokun was a very popular god. As well as ruling the ocean, he was the god of wealth. Other popular gods were Ogun the god of iron and warriors and Osun the god of medicine and magic.

People believed that the Obas of Benin were the direct descendants of Osanobua, the creator god. The Obas were all worshipped as gods.

A brass head of Osun
Osun was the god of magic and medicine. People believed he controlled all the plants and creatures of the rainforest. His crown of birds helped him predict the future.