Esan Traditional Marriage and Taboos


By Prince Kelly O. Udebhulu

Esan people value their children, male or female, this is why unlike some cultures; the bride price is very low. The payment of bride price is vital to the conclusion of marriage notable under Esan native law, which like any other customary law marriage in Nigeria; it is recognized under the Marriage Act.

The impression being that Esan people do not sell their daughters in marriage, the requested amount for bride price is usually meagre; N24 (representing 24 cowries or British pounds used in the pre-colonial and colonial days).

A huge sum is usually presented these days, from which the prominent members of the bride’s family would remove a small amount and refund the balance to the groom for his wife, their daughter`s up keeping.

A calculated message to the groom that she is still considered a family daughter even though she is married, hence the tradition that at death, the corpse of Esan woman is returned to her family to be buried with her ancestors.

We have two major types of marriage in Esan Land:

-Monogamy- A marriage of one man to one woman,

-and Polygamy- A marriage of one man to two or more wives.

Marriage also known as matrimony is a socially or ritually recognized union or legal marriage contract between two individuals that establish obligations and rights between them and their children and in-laws.

However, the concept of marriage is not a new practice and it has been a part of our society since ancient times. Marriage is a universally accepted social institution, but the types of marriages practiced in the world can be diverse. Different societies and cultures have different religious beliefs and practices for the recognition of a relationship.

In the days of our fore-fathers in Esan tradition and culture, a woman married another woman (Stylish lesbianism) but the only different to the modern day lesbianism is that the wife (woman) had children through a calculated and arranged mechanism and channel whereby an opposite sèx visited nocturnally or vice-versa in a more clandestinely MOU with the husband (woman) and children from the wife answered the husband’s (woman) name as surname. Not adopted children as in the modern days lèsbianism. It mainly happened then under a scenario whereby an acclaimed wealthy woman in the community happened to be a barren woman and she decided to have children of her own so that her lineage continued after her demise.

It worthy of note that all due responsibilities and accountabilities as a wife and husband with the exception of having sèxual intercourse abound in this type of marriage.

Just as it is difficult to ascertain the actual opposite sèx who fertilized the wife of a barren man as often happened under and after a mutual family rite (ritual) that allowed the said wife of a barren man to extend her legs to outsider besides her betrothed husband, so it was under the practice of woman married woman in those days in our history.

Traditional marriage is usually an arrangement between two families as opposed to an arrangement between two individuals.

Accordingly, there is mutual requirement from the bride and bridegroom to make the marriage work as any problem will usually affect both families and strain the otherwise cordial relationship between them.

The man usually pays the bride-price and is thus considered the head of the family. Adultery is acceptable for men, but forbidden for women.

Marriage ceremonies vary among Esan Clans

Prior 1897, girls were generally regarded as ready for marriage between the ages of 15 through 18. Courtship can begin among the individuals during the trip to the river to fetch water or during the moonlight play – EVIONTOI.

Sometimes parents actually go looking for a wife or husband for their children. This led to the BETROTHAL SYSTEM where marriage were conducted with or without the consent of the individuals involved. Sometimes such betrothal, took place when a baby girl was born. Suitors would begin to approach the parents by sending a log of wood or bundle of yam to the parents of the child. You are likely to hear statements such as -” Imu’ Ikerhan gboto”-I have dropped a log of firewood. When a boy decides to get married and the parents have accepted the bride as a prospective daughter-in-law, messages go up and down between the two families. This is called IVBUOMO-SEEKING FOR A BRIDE.

Series of investigations are conducted by both families – about disease, scandals and crimes which may affect the families. The term of the marriage which of course may include the pride-price would be settled in some families. Gifts for mother of the bride and IROGHAE- members of the extended family would be part of the settlement. Then a date would be set for the ceremony which would take place in the home of the woman’s family. This was called IWANIEN OMO in the old days the go-between for the two families must be somebody well known by both families. There would of course be a lot of merriment on the day of marriage when the bride and the bridegroom are presented openly to the two families.

Kola nuts and wine are presented. The OKA EGBE of the woman’s family would normally preside over the ceremony. Prayers are said and kola nuts broken at the family shrine. Rituals vary from family to family. The woman always sits on her father’s lap before she is given away. Amidst prayers, laughter and sometimes tears, the woman would be carefully hoisted on the lap of the OKA EGBE of the bride’s family.

Many years ago, the woman would be sent to the bridegroom house about thirteen days after IWANIEN OMO and gingerly hoisted either on her husband’s lap or the OKAEGBE of his family. They are done immediately nowadays in the home of the bridegroom. The bride, now known as OVBIOHA would be led by her relatives to the husband’s house with all her property meanwhile the family and friends of the bridegroom are feasting, drinking, singing and dancing while waiting for the bride to arrive.

As the family and friends of the bridegroom awaits the OVBIOHA, messages will arrive suggesting that there are UGHUNGHUN-barriers on the road. The bridegroom has to remove the barriers by sending money to the party, bringing the wife to him or else the wife will not arrive. As they approach the house of the bridegroom, you can hear the echo of OVBIOHA GHA MIEN ARO-ARO, meaning “Bride! Be proud/ the Bride is proud.” Arrival at the bridegroom’s house is immediately followed by the ceremony of IKPOBO-OVBIOHA-washing of the bride’s hands. A bowl of water with money in it would be brought out. A woman in the groom’s family, sometimes his senior wife would bring out a new head tie, wash the hand of the Ovbioha in the bowl and dries her hand with the head tie. Both the new head tie and the money in the bowl belong to the bride.

A few days later, the bride would be taken to the family altar and prayers are said for her. She undergoes what is called the IGBIKHIAVBO ceremony-beating of OKRO on the flat mortar. This would be followed by a visit by the bride’s mother-in-law and other female members of the family to the newlywed, if they are not living in the same house. She would demand the bed spread on which they both slept when they had their “first sèxual relationship” after the wedding and if the bed-spread was stained with blood, the bride was regarded as a vìrgin and as such she would be given many presents including money. If it is proven that she was not a vìrgin, then the preparation for the ceremony of IVIHEN-OATH TAKING ceremony would be set in motion.

First, she has to confess to the older women, the “other men” in her life before she got married. The husband would never be told any of her confessions, then, she would be summoned to the family shrine early in the morning, without warning to take an oath of FIDELITY, FAITHFULNESS, TRUSTWORTHINESS, HONESTY ETC, to her husband and family. This ceremony is the equivalent of the oath people take in the church, mosque or marriage registry. Once the oath taking ceremony is over, she would be fully accepted back into the family and immediately becomes married not only to her husband but to the family and sometimes to the community.

Christianity, Islam and Westernization of today have weakened the Edo traditional system of marriage. The traditional ceremony is sometimes done the same day with many of the rituals avoided in the name of Christianity or Islam and many women would rather die than take the oath we described above. It was the oath that kept Edo women out of prostitution for many years; thus making the Edo women in general to be regarded as very faithful, trustworthy, honest with strong fidelity to their husbands making neighbouring tribes want them as wives. It also made divorce on the ground of adultery, less common in those days.


There are “don’ts and dos” in Esan marriages but some are enumerated below.

When a woman is married to an Esan man, it is an abomination for another man to touch her wrapper, else it is considered as though she has committed adultery unless the married woman shouts at the man or reports to her husband.

– When a woman commits adultery, she will lose her children and her life as repercussion for the abominable act unless she confesses and as restitution, she is striped completely unclad, her head is shaved, a part of her private part is shaved, one of her armpits is shaved and both of her hands are tied behind her, while a basket full of trash is placed on her head. She is then paraded around the community by other women.

– If this is not done and the woman goes ahead to cook for her children, her children will die one after the other including her. If she also confesses to her husband and out of love or pity her husband conceals the confession, he will die within a week, if he eats a meal cooked by the woman.

– It is a taboo for another man to cross an outstretched legs of a married woman else it is considered as though she already had sèx with the man.

– A married woman cannot steal her husband’s money in Esan land as it is seen as an abomination. She must tell him about it.

– It is considered an abomination for a man to sit on the matrimonial bed of an Esan couple as it is seen as a taboo.

– It is also an abomination for a woman to spit on her husband under any circumstance. If she does, she must sacrifice a fowl to appease him but the man can bathe his wife with his own spit.

– It is seen as an abomination for an Esan man to use the same bathing bucket with his wife but due to widespread Christianity, this taboo has almost gone into extinction.

– The husband of a woman who just gave birth must stay away from her sèxually for three months as she’s considered unclean because of the after delivery blood she discharges.

On list of requirements to marriage, contact your would-be in-laws as it varies from family to family.

Ref: Dr. C. Okojie.

  1. Joy.

Esan historians.

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