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Benin Head

The oba’s cap is a netlike lattice of coral beads. It would have been very heavy to wear.

A coral bead hanging over the oba’s forehead recalls the saying “Do not touch the leopard.” (The strong and swift leopard is another symbol of the oba.) Three lines over each eye are the traditional markings of an Edo man.

A hole on top of the head holds an elephant tusk.
Detail of an ancestral altar dedicated to Oba Ovonramwen in the Benin palace, Benin City, Nigeria. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1970. Image no. EEPA EECL 7588. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

key idea
The head of the oba represents his physical and spiritual powers.

The Edo people have a saying, “The head leads one through life’s journey.” As the center of vital functions—sight, speech, hearing, thought, and will power—the head symbolizes the powers of a successful leader. This bronze head cannot be recognized as any particular oba; it was meant to represent the oba’s powers.

An oba’s formal dress draws attention to his head. As this sculpture shows, an oba wears a tall collar of coral beads around his neck and a coral cap with dangling strands of coral beads. Coral was a precious material in Benin, coming to the kingdom from the Mediterranean Sea across the Sahara Desert. According to Edo tradition, an early oba stole the first coral from the god of water, and coral has protective powers.

An ivory elephant tusk, now missing, originally topped this sculpture. The tusk, however, was not part of an actual oba’s dress. In later times, tusks were carved with scenes featuring Benin's great warrior kings, linking the sculpture to the obas of the past. Ivory, like coral, could be used only by the oba. Very hard and from a massive, strong animal, it symbolizes permanence.

On later bronze heads, the ivory tusks had carvings of great Edo warrior kings.
Tusk, about 1750, ivory, Minneapolis Institute of Arts
October 2008