Altar of the Hand

From Benin, Nigeria
Probably late 19th century AD

The importance of the Hand

Like many West African peoples, the Edo of Benin see the various fates of mankind as governed both by destiny and personal action. Destiny is located in the head and personal action in the hand. Ceremonies devoted to the head tend, therefore, to involve ancestors and destiny, while those strengthening the hand involve an individual and his own achievements.

Chiefs erect shrines to the head in the private chambers of their homes, while a man who has led a successful and prosperous life can build a shrine to his hand to represent his individual achievements and wealth. Such shrines, or ikegobo, are carved out of wood; only royalty or occasionally favoured chiefs could commission a brass one. They consist of two parts: a rectangular or semi-circular base with a frieze of sacrificial animals, and on top of this a cylindrical form with a figure of a successful warrior chief. The image of the hand is represented as a pair of upraised hands in a gesture of holding wealth.

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Dimensions

Height: 44.500 cm

Museum number

AOA 1897,1011.2

EAF14447

Gift of Sir William Ingram

Location

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