Sunday, February 22, 2009
More on the moon...
Osayuki asked for more on the moon, her namesake. I don't know a lot beyond its visual use as a kind of charm to go and return safely ("Iyare!") when it appears with the sun. But I can demonstrate its frequent appearances over time at least. Here it is at right, on the Oba's egbele, worn at the Emobo ceremony in 1994.
But it also showed up on the seat of 18th-century Oba Eresonyen's throne, along with many blacksmiths' tools. The tools symbolize Ogun and the ability to clear pathways to get the job done, and the sun and moon's presence here is likely to be protective. But moons also show up as corner decorations on lots of 16th century plaques. What do they mean there?
Are they occasionally not moons at all? On a handful of hip pendants made for ritual specialists/native doctors, they are crescent-shaped seed pods, an ingredient in medicine. But where there's a sun, there's the moon to cool it and throw light on the darkness.
I never heard older Edo people say much about the sky, except for referring to the star-filled sky as being like a guinea fowl--spotted. But I dug up an old article by Northcote Thomas, a colonial officer in Benin in the early 20th century. In 1919 he wrote about the deserted "Iwuki" headquarters on the right-hand side of Ikpoba Road (Akpakpava) "just above the rest house"; he was talking about the Iwoki guild, but this group (founded by Uti and Avan, two Portuguese in Oba Esigie's service) dealt with celestial phenomena, as well as weapons (probably because they were sailors, used to watching the sky), so its association with the moon is understandable. Thomas said an elderly man took him to the group's place on Ikpoba slope, and that it included a shrine to the sun and moon that was marked by a mud "heap" and by a "chained" Osa and Olokun, who were to "settle any quarrel between the sun and the moon." Eclipses are certainly considered notable in Benin, and the phenomenon involves Iwoki.
Thomas went on to say that the moon would signal Iwoki for sacrifices: chalk for the moon, camwood and chalk for the sun. He also quotes some incantations for the celestial bodies, though the spelling is in the old orthography and probably includes some mispronunciations. Can anybody help with a modern transcription and verify or argue with his translation? Here's what he said: "In Edo when people see the new moon they take sand and throw it up and say 'Gevaxwe; nuyaxwe owe nogbedi; ogaluki noma, semime; gumeka bauki-womame; waluki nogbama itenue (here is soap; take it and wash your son Ogbedi; if you are a good moon, bless me; let me reckon you a good moon for my good luck; if you are a bad moon, I run away." Also "When they see a halo round the moon they say the moon has killed an elephant. When the moon looks dull they say, 'Uki lal ogiami' ('The moon has entered the playground of his enemies'). He also lists several Ishan prayers regarding sighting the moon and asking for blessings.
So perhaps plaques bearing moon motifs are also referencing protection, or they may be connected with Iwoki...I will have to look more carefully now at how many bear them, and what they have in common. And I promise when I return home I'll post a moon-in-the-corner plaque
Thanks for this question and a new direction of thought! Pleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese send more questions, requests, or degrees of separation!
Quotes from N.W. Thomas, "Nigerian Notes: IV. Astronomy." Man 19 (item 92, 1919): 179-183