Irhevbu goddess / Edeleyo princess figure - Bini Edo - Nigeria


Bronze statue in African art: the lost wax method

This bronze figure is on the body of scarifications that clearly betray its origins Edo. It could be a young woman belonging to the harem of the Oba (king), a princess, or an Ikbibierhie. The latter were young servants serving the king's wives. Arrived at maturity, they could hope to become one of the many wives of the king. However, the bow and the arrow on the base of this statue, belie this thesis. Indeed, in Benin, the bow and the arrow are the insignia of Ake, national hero raised to the rank of god and patron of the archers. The naked girl would then represent Irhevbu, the beloved wife of the god Ake, who after her death was in turn raised to the rank of goddess. Ake was one of those exceptional beings that Benin was able to claim from the time of Oba Ewuare, about 550 years ago. This hunter and sniper, who excelled in the art of handling the bow and the arrow, was the first to coat the metallic tips, or uto, with his arrows with a poison of his invention. Ilobi, his native village in the district of Ise, became famous for the production of this poison which was used for hunting as well as for war.

After his death and once deified, Ake became, according to mythology, the official hunter of the gods of the pantheon, responsible for their provisioning. When he was young, Ake was a disciple of Okhuaihe, the greatest deified hero of the Edo country, and was one of his lieutenants. It was at the time when the first Europeans landed on the West African coast. The Oba Ewuare had heard of these strange, white-skinned creatures who, according to the descriptions of passing travelers in Benin, looked more like gods than human beings. Curious, the Oba sent to Okhuaihe coast, famous for his psyche foolproof, and entrusted him with the mission to invite these white men to Benin.

Okhuaihe headed for the coast with Ogan, another of his lieutenants who was deified after his death. Shortly after his departure, however, he turned back to get Ake he suspected of wanting to seduce his young wife Irhevbu in his absence.

To get to the coast, the three men had to take a narrow path winding through the forest. At a certain point, Okhuaihe lost sight of Ake, but continued on his way, thinking that he would join them at the Ikpe River, where they would continue their journey by canoe. But he waited in vain for Ake had returned to Benin, where he seduced Irhevbu, fled with her and married her.

Never had the gods seen a love so great as that which bound Ake and Irhevbu. Once assembled, nothing could separate them. It is said that they died at about the same time, that they were buried together and that three days after their funeral, a spring burst from their graves. This gradually gave birth to a river, which today bears the name of Ake.

Across the country, there are fifteen altars dedicated to Ake. His worship is celebrated by priests or priestesses supposed to represent his wife, Irhevbu.

Another possible interpretation is that this African bronze statue represents the eldest daughter of Ewuare, who should have succeeded his brother, killed by a poisoned arrow in the forehead, but who died before he could have been enthroned. The name of the girl was Edeleyo.

This remarkable authentic piece cast with the technique of lost wax is part of a huge set of bronze objects, regalia of the Kingdom of Benin whose pieces are exhibited in several museums around the world, including the British Museum in London. It should be noted that a similar copy of this traditional 16th and 17th century statue is on display at the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin.

Reference: Benin: Five Centuries of Royal Art, Snoeck, 2008, P. 438.

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Data sheet

Presumed dating
Circa 1950
84 x 48 cm
Ethnic group
Benin Kingdom / Bini Edo
Tribal Art Collection United Kingdom

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