In Focus

Sword Ornament in the form of a lion

The Asante, considered to be the most prolific makers of gold ornaments, have the Golden Stool as their royal symbol. According to oral tradition, in the early 17th century, this stool and a bell miraculously descended from the sky and landed on the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Asante king. Gold is the sun's earthly complement; the king, like the Golden Stool, represents the soul and vitality of the Asante nation. Gold regalia reflect this notion, thus the Asantahene (king), chiefs, and other officials wear and carry an abundance of gold. Swords are second only to stools as crucial items of Asante regalia. This hollow cast gold lion stands on an integrally cast, decorated platform with loops to accommodate leather ties to attach it to a sword. It once adorned a ceremonial iron state sword that had a carved wooden hilt covered with gold leaf and sheathed in stingray skin.

The earliest evidence of sword ornaments (absödeë) in present-day Ghana dates to 17th-century accounts published by European travelers to the "Gold Coast" that describe large red shells or the skull of a wild animal attached to a sword. These are undoubtedly the predecessors of cast gold ornaments found among the regalia of inland Asante chiefs. Thomas E. Bowdich, the first Englishman to leave a written account of the King of the Asante at Kumasi, first reported cast gold ornaments in 1817. Bowdich explained that the reddish color of many castings was achieved by boiling objects in a mixture of fine red clay and water which helped deposit a rouge-like coating. Other methods were employed during the 20th century.

Sword ornaments are cast by the lost wax (cire perdue) process. Though the hollow castings are thin walled, casting flaws are relatively rare. Non-symbolic diamond and triangular shapes often break the surface of the ornaments which are frequently stuffed with red felt or velvet to provide color contrast through the openwork. Most sword ornaments in the shape of animals have integrally cast bases, while other motifs have cast loops for leather ties. The majority of castings are naturalistic but playful renderings that demonstrate a close attention to detail.

The lion motif, like all sword ornament motifs, is drawn from the natural and the man-made world of the Asante. For example, people associate animals with particular behaviors and relationships. The icons are therefore associated with metaphors or proverbs. In the case of a lion, one can cite both: the lion (gyata) is a metaphor for the bravery and fighting spirit of the chief; and a proverb states, "If the lion has no intention to attack, it will not show its teeth before you," advising a person to heed the warnings of a chief.

Doran Ross, an authority on Asante court art, documented and photographed this cast lion in situ in 1976 while conducting a study of Asante regalia. He dates this lion to around 1935, during a renaissance of Asante art that occurred in the 1920s and 1930s. The renaissance was inspired by the repatriation in 1924 of King Prempeh I, who had been exiled by the British in 1896, and the restoration of the traditional Asante Confederacy in 1935. The Asantehene and chiefs in the confederacy began restoring the grandeur of their state treasuries, which included having state swords made with cast gold ornaments. This lion was probably one of them.

Adapted from

Roslyn A. Walker, DMA unpublished material, 2010.