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The Cultural Significance of Coral Trade Beads in Benin

Coral beads have a unique symbolism to many tribes in Africa, yet few have adopted these beads into their culture quite as literally as the Bini people of Benin. They are customarily worn for both marriage and funeral rites, but also as an indication of social standing and power among clan chiefs.

There are two main types of coral bead identifiable in Benin culture: Ivie and Ekan. Ivie is considered the more precious of the two, and can usually be found in scarlet, rose and medium pink hues. Ekan is more stone-like in appearance with long threads of dark color interspersed with strips of steel gray. The former is considered far more valuable by Edo chiefs owing to its rarity, and also due to the fact it was allegedly stolen from the goddess of the sea by King Oba Ewuare in the 15th Century. It's rather more likely that both types of coral were introduced to Benin by European traders around this period, as the city was, back then, a crossroads for trade between Europe and Africa.

For centuries, the Oba (traditional rulers) of Benin have had strict rules governing the wearing of Ivie and Ekan in Bini culture. Certain shapes are considered rare and valuable, and can only be worn by clan chiefs and spiritual leaders. Historical records show that some chiefs who brought shame upon their clans, or fell out of favor with the Oba, were prohibited by Royal Edict from wearing coral beads completely. There is a well known story in Benin which tells how, in the 1940's, a ruler by the name of Oba Akenzua II seized the ceremonial beaded head-wear and coral beads of Chief Okorotun for his disloyalty to the royal family. Allegedly, the ceremonial garb was sent to his successor – an indication he was to become a chief, by order of the Oba. Had he refused, it would have been considered a treason of sorts. The chief would have become an outcast, and possibly even exiled for his refusal. What a price to pay for refusing a strand of beads!

African-inspired necklace  by Judy Merrill-Smith featuring hand-cut coral beads similar to Ivie.

African-inspired necklace by Judy Merrill-Smith featuring hand-cut coral beads similar to Ivie.