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Around the World at the Time of Columbus

Kings and Cats
Benin (Nigeria)<br><i>Leopard</i>, 17th century<br>Bronze
zoom Benin (Nigeria)
Leopard, 17th century


Portuguese sailors in search of a route to India arrived in the African kingdom of Benin (now southern Nigeria) in 1485. They found there a city as large and bustling as those they knew back home. The great warrior-king Ewuare (eh-woo-AYE-ray), who ruled from 1440 to 1473, had expanded the kingdom’s boundaries and rebuilt the capital, Benin City. To solidify the authority and power of the king, or oba, Ewuare started some new traditions that would last for centuries.

One such tradition, linking the oba with leopards, began with a story from the days before Ewuare became king. One day, Ewuare took a nap under a tree and awoke to find blood dripping on him. Looking up into the branches, he saw a leopard with a dead antelope in its mouth. Ewuare leapt to his feet and killed the animal. He saw this close call as an omen of his good fortune and future kingship. The leopard might be the mightiest of wild beasts, but the oba was even mightier. From then on, the leopard symbolized the oba’s special powers.

Ewuare and the obas who came after him kept caged leopards, wore leopard skins, and were called “leopard” by their subjects. Court artists produced all kinds of leopard images for royal costumes and ceremonies. Like most royal art, leopard images were generally crafted out of durable materials—in this case bronze—to suggest the permanence of the oba’s power.

This leopard, made in the 17th century, is actually a pitcher for pouring water (it has a hole at the top of its head and holes in its nostrils). The oba would have used it in ceremonies honoring an ancestral oba. When not in use, the leopard stood inside a shrine to the ancestor, in the oba’s palace.

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1. The Portuguese encountered the kingdom of Benin as they sailed along the coast of West Africa in the 1480s.
2. The obas of Benin trace their roots to the neighboring ancient city of Ife, where this terra-cotta head of a royal woman was made. (Ife, Shrine head, 12th-14th century, terra-cotta)
3. As a symbol of the oba, the leopard appeared in many forms, such as this pendant. (Benin, Leopard pendant, 17th-18th century, ivory, copper)


September 2005