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Benin Head

What do you notice first about this head? The wide-open eyes staring powerfully into yours? The high collar and cap, covering all but the eyes, nose, mouth, and ears?

This is the head of an oba, or king, of the Edo people. The oba’s strength as a leader depends on his personal traits and also on supernatural help from the kings who wore the oba’s cap and collar before him.

West Africa (Nigeria), Benin culture
Memorial Head, 1550-1650
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The John R. Van Derlip Fund

The kingdom of Benin flourished in western Africa for centuries.
The head of the oba represents his physical and spiritual powers.
Rituals connect a new oba to the power of the rulers who came before him.

Materials are Symbolic: Some materials associated with an oba, such as coral and ivory, are valuable because they are scarce and are symbolic because they have special qualities. Does our culture give materials special meaning for similar reasons? Make a list of materials considered valuable. Why are they valuable? Do they symbolize anything?  

The Head Leads One through Life’s Journey: The Edo Igue festival celebrates the importance of the senses and skills housed in the head. Compose a poem in appreciation of your head and what it allows you to do.  

Regalia for a Ruler: An oba’s ceremonial dress emphasizes important Edo ideas about the role of a leader. Design ceremonial regalia that reflect your own ideas about a leader’s role.  

A President’s Legacy: One reason Edo rulers build shrines to their ancestors is to commemorate their reigns. Compare this to the American practice of building presidential libraries. Visit the Presidential Timeline Web site. ( What do the two practices have in common? How do they differ?  

October 2008