The Art of Fasting: Benin’s Ague Ceremony

The Art of Fasting: Benin's Ague Ceremony
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by Kathy Curnow, Cleveland State University (1997)

Formerly a ceremony of critical importance, Ague has received little scholarly attention, perhaps because its full celebration ceased during the reign of Oba Eweka II (r. 1914-33).
In its development, it confirmed the Edo adage “Every new Oba creates new rules,”‘ for Ague changed substantially under various monarchs until ultimately it came to knit together such disparate elements as Lenten denial and regional New Yam beliefs. These successive royal innovations suggest that other Benin festival “traditions” may have similarly dynamic, complex histories.
Yams, Benin’s staple food, and crop were ostensibly at Ague’s core, but its ultimate concerns were the ownership, pollution, and sanctification of the land. Before the British invasion, yams played a ritual role in four related ceremonies.
In the first, which opened the agricultural cycle, yams were planted in a symbolic pattern at the Oba’s Ugbeku village farm. Diviners examined this yield to forecast the general harvest, sometimes ordaining human sacrifices to avert disasters (Thomas 1918:138-39).
The second ceremony took place after the general harvest with the commencement of Ague-Osa, a period of fasting that required participants to abstain from eating newly harvested yams.
At its conclusion, Benin’s New Yam festival was celebrated,3 and budded yams were offered to paternal and maternal ancestors, deities, the unburied dead, and hostile spirits (Melzian 1959:99)
The fourth ceremony, a second Ague period known as Ague-Oghene, followed, ending the agricultural year. By the 1930s Ague-Ohene’s activities were already obscure (Melzian 1959), and the two Aguesare often confused and conflated today.
Ague was a sober time. No burials or marriages took place, no guns were fired, and no drums or calabash rattles were played. While all Edo avoided eating new yams, only the Oba and certain Chiefs, priests, and courtiers were full Ague participants.
Their abstinence extended to other types of fresh produce and to sexual celibacy for up to four “Benin months.”
* Ododua masqueraders at the Oba’s palace Benin City, 1986. Photo: Joseph Nevadomsky


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