Ring depicting ritual sacrifice
When a new king of a Yoruba satellite kingdom was installed, the paramount Yoruba king, the Oni of Ife, had to be assured that all the prescribed kingship rituals had been performed and that he had the new ruler’s allegiance. Some scholars think the transfer of rule in these instances was officially recorded on a wreathlike ring. Eleven cast copper alloy rings, including the Dallas Museum of Art example, were unearthed at Ife and depict with realistic detail a scene with two or more bound and decapitated human bodies lying on their stomachs with their severed, and sometimes gagged, heads nearby. Each ring shows a human figure dressed in full regalia, at least one vulture pecking at a head or body, a crocodile and/or tortoise, and a hairpinlike form on the outer edge. All of the rings demonstrate a sophisticated artistry and complete mastery of the lost-wax casting technique.
The figures depicted in the horrific scene on the rings can be identified and interpreted by referencing Yoruba oral traditions, religious beliefs, and kingship rituals. The bound and decapitated bodies are sacrificial victims. In the distant past, the Yoruba practiced human sacrifice during occasions of grave importance to the entire community such as the installation of new king or the outbreak of a pandemic disease. “It was better to sacrifice one life for the good of the community than for all to perish” asserts Yoruba religious belief. Vultures, scavenger birds that feed on dead things, are positive images in Yoruba art because they are believed to be divine messengers. Their presence indicates the deities (orisha) accepted the sacrificial offering. The precise function of the upright vessel, which is found on only two of the rings, is uncertain. Ajapa, the cunning tortoise who tried to prevent death from entering the world, is placed above the crowned figure on the side of the ring. Tortoises were sacrificed to Ogun, the god of iron, who protected anyone working with metal, including sculptors, hunters, and executioners.
The predominant figure placed parallel to the surface of the ring is meant to be viewed as a live, standing figure. He wears a conical crown and a long wrapper with a textured pattern and is adorned with chest baldrics, armlets, wristlets, and anklets. The scarification of opposed crescents on the figure’s forehead is a pattern found on Oshugbo society emblems from the ancient Yoruba kingdom of Ijebu. The pinlike forms, a simplified rendering of an edan—a cast brass male and female pair joined by a chain—near the crowned figure’s elbow are also symbols of Oshugbo. The society of male and female elders responsible for the selection, installation, and burial of kings was also known as Ogboni. The conical forms above the crossed baldrics may be either feminine breasts or masculine pectorals. The right hand holds a staff or scepter. The larger left one rests just above the waist. A dimpled seedpod rests between the figure’s feet. Who does this figure represent? The conical crown, elaborate dress, and adornments suggest a person of high rank. The forehead scarification suggests it is a male or female member of Oshugbo, or the king’s female representative to this society.
Scholars interpret a scene of ritual sacrifice and acceptance of the sacrificial offering, Oshugbo emblems, and an aristocratic personage as a record of a very important event—such as the rituals performed during the installation of a new king. The ring would have been sent to the Oni of Ife as proof that the prescribed rituals had been accomplished.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s ring was probably made at Ijebu, as indicated by the emblems on the principal figure’s forehead. Dating is problematic, but it has been suggested that all of the rings in the corpus were made after the 12th century CE because the type of crown depicted on this figure is not found in any works from Ife’s Classical period, when the cast bronze heads were made.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 56-58.
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Learn more about the Kingdom of Ife.