Brass helmet mask for the Ododua ritual
Edo peoples, 18th century
From Benin, Nigeria
In addition to his executive powers and duties, the Oba (king) of Benin also performed a number of rituals throughout the year. Guilds of specialists such as drummers, shield-bearers, carvers, brass-casters and weavers provided regalia and ritual objects. The cycle of ceremonies coincides with the agricultural cycle, but they are also concerned with the strengthening of the kingdom.
The first festival of the year is the Ikhurhe which is performed to purify the land in preparation for planting. This is followed by the Bead Festival, Ugie Ivie, in remembrance of ancestral warrior kings. The two most important rituals are the Ugie Erha Oba, in honour of the king's deceased father, and the Igue which strengthens the king's mystical powers. Igue includes the presentation of gifts by the Oba to his chiefs, dances in ceremonial costumes, animal sacrifices to the king, and the application of magical substances onto his body. On the last day children carry torches to drive away evil spirits from the town and gather ewere leaves or 'leaves of joy' on the outskirts of the town which are then taken home as symbols of hope and happiness.
This brass helmet is used in the Ododua ritual, in honour of the father of Oranmiyan, the legendary founder of the ruling dynasty. The dance is performed by seven masqueraders who wear brass helmets and carry ceremonial swords to signify their high status. They dance back and forth before the Oba seven times as a sign of their commitment and loyalty.
P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)