Thursday, November 13, 2008
In the small world of the aristocracy, reputations build and shatter on the strength of words. Shaping an individual’s public persona might occur through idle but repeated chat, or be the result of a carefully crafted campaign. The weapon of gossip is a sharp one. While its use in tearing down someone is common worldwide, it can also be used to build a reputation. A well-known Benin story examines the fortunes of an early 18th century monarch:
Iden and Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ
Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ spent the palace’s resources on extravagant funeral ceremonies for his mother and was driven out of Benin. Only one of his wives, Iden, remained with him as he roamed in poverty. A diviner suggested there might be a way for Ẹwuakpẹ to return to glory. It required three things: empty oil containers, the carrier pads laborers wore to cushion head loads, and a human sacrifice. The Ọba sank into depression. The first two elements made no sense to him, and he had no funds to purchase a slave for sacrifice.
Iden understood. She obtained the containers, ensuring their mouths were slick with palm oil, and left them scattered just inside the palace gate. She scattered carriers’ pads throughout the grounds. Finally, she commanded an aide to slay her by an ancestral altar.
The next day, pages noticed the empty oil containers and alerted the chiefs. They concluded that tribute was pouring into the kingdom from the provinces. When they saw the carrier pads, they deduced others were sending presents to the king. The spectacle of a human sacrifice told them Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ was in control and honoring his ancestors.
As gossip about these events spread, so did alarm, revitalizing the king’s reign. Those seeking favor rushed to pay their respects, bearing gifts and pledges. Ọba Ẹwuakpẹ’s throne and wealth were secure once more. He honored Iden by declaring her grave should never be stepped on, upon pain of death.