“Iwu, depicted on many brass and ivory figural works (Figs. 9-11), are of considerable antiquity. The practice survived until the 1940s. They can still be seen on very old people but are disappearing as the senior generation dies out. DierickRuyters, the Dutch chronicler who sojourned in Benin City early in the seventeenth century, gave us our first description: “[The Bini] cut their body from the armpits to about the groin, or in the middle, with three long cuts on both sides, each one finger broad, and consider this a great virtue conducive to their salvation” (1602, in Talbot 1926, vol. 2:399). The merchant David Nyandael later commented on the gender variation of the tattoos: “The females are more adorned with these ornaments than the males, and each at the pleasure of their parents. You may easily guess that this mangling of the bodies of these tender creatures may be very painful; but since it is the fashion here and is thought very ornamental, it is practiced by everybody” (1705, in Talbot, p. 399). In 1889 the Englishman C. Punch described the operation: “All girls had to undergo it. The child was laid down and held by the mother, and the expert proceeded to scrape the skin at the place required, with a sharp glass, very lightly, as one erases a blot of ink on a book. I was not told that anything was rubbed into the skin . . . but the child’s suffering was acute” (in Talbot, p. 399). A quarter century earlier, Sir Richard Burton had described the tattoos as “three broad stripes of scar, like the effects of burning, down the front of the body from the chest to the lower stomach,” and also mentioned the forehead iwu: “vertical lines of similar marks above the eyebrows” (in Talbot, p. 399).
While these commentaries testify to the antiquity and continuity of iwu, they are silent about its origins. Here one has to rely on oral histories. In one version collected by EkhaguosaAisien from UnionmwanOrokhorho (pers. com., 1985), a traditional surgeon, the tattoos originated during the reign of Oba Ehengbuda in the late sixteenth century. Ehengbuda married the daughter of the Yoruba ruler of Akure, but she refused to consummate the marriage because he did not have “Akure tribal marks.” The enraged Ehengbuda abused his wife, word of which reached the Alakure. When Ehengbuda visited Akure, his father-in-law attacked him with a cutlass, and Ehengbuda’s body thereafter bore the scars of this assault. So as not to embarrass their king, his subjects imitated them. Jacob Egharevba, however, offered a different account (1968:15): iwu originated with Oba Ewuare (ca. 1440). Ewuare, distraught over the death of two of his sons on the same day, punished his subjects, who then fled the city in panic. To stem this exodus and ensure that deserting subjects could be easily identified, Ewuare ordered everyone tattooed.
Both narratives point to an essential purpose of iwu: to mark citizenship and birthright. Visible and indelible, the tattoos acknowledged one’s right as ovien-oba, “slave of the king.” For every freeborn citizen of Benin, “I am a slave of the king” remains a declaration of ethnic pride. The ancient Roman boast that one was a citizen of Rome is quite similar.
Although Nyandael and Burton stated that tattooing took place during infancy and youth, the information we have is that it occurred when “a young man came of age” and “during spinsterhood” for young women, that is, between puberty and marriage. Although the tattoos were marks of ethnic affiliation, they also expressed a social commitment to marriage. Indeed, marriage made them mandatory–no man would marry a woman without them (see Punch’s comment). The community called a mother’s children omoiwu (“children of the tattoo” when necessary to distinguish them from more distant blood relations such as a grandchild. The tattoos were thus transformative, signaling a change in jural status (unmarried/ married, youth/adult). “