Horse-and-rider figure (elesin Shango)
This exquisite sculpture depicts one of the most important imports—Equus caballus, the domestic horse. Introduced circa 1640-1532 BCE to ancient Egypt by western Asian conquerors, horses were initially used to draw chariots in military campaigns. Subsequently, horses were introduced to western Sudan (northern region of West Africa) via the Sahara Desert in about AD 1000 by Muslim Arab and Amazigh (also known as Berber) traders. Mounted armies enabled the medieval Sudanese kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai to be established and flourish. Despite the inhospitable, humid climate and deadly tsetse flies, it appears that horses—or the knowledge of horses—reached as far as the southern area of present-day Nigeria. The evidence is a 10th-century CE bronze hilt cast in the form of a horse and rider that was excavated from a royal burial chamber in Igbo-Ukwu village. This sculpture predates the horses Portuguese mariners and merchants brought to coastal West Africa in the mid- to late 15th century. During the centuries that followed, northern traders and invaders continued to supply horses while successive European voyagers brought new breeds to sub-Saharan Africa.
Horses bearing foreign goods were welcome, but horses carrying warriors on their backs were "fearful bearers of power" that facilitated conquests of other peoples and territorial expansion. Equine speed, physical strength, ability to elevate their riders above even the tallest standing person, and the cost to acquire, sustain, and replace them made horses, and by association their owners, symbols of power and prestige. In African art, horse-and-rider imagery generally connotes prestige, wealth, and power.
Among the Yoruba, carved wooden elesin (literally "horse owner"), horse-and-rider figures, serve as supports for divination bowls, as superstructures on staffs and Epa masks, and as freestanding figures on altars dedicated to various deities (e.g., Shango, the god of thunder and lightning; Ogun, the god of iron; Erinle, the hunter; Orisha-oko, god of the farm; or Eshu, the divine messenger/trickster). Carved ivory horse-and-rider figures like this one are prized because elephant ivory was reserved for the king (oba) and the hunter who killed the animal. Such objects are found among the divining paraphernalia owned by highly successful Ifa diviners and by rulers who install the figures on private or communal altars in shrines dedicated to Shango (the deified fourth king of the old Oyo kingdom in northern Yorubaland, who is believed to have reigned in the 17th century and who was a brilliant military general and a master horseman). According to his praise poem (oriki), Shango had a stable of 10,000 horses!
Religious rituals and indigenous oral traditions, which include oriki and owe (proverbs), can be used to interpret the meaning of equestrian figures for Shango shrines. During worship activities, for example, favored devotees are "ridden" or "mounted" by Shango; hence, horse-and-rider imagery symbolizes the state of being possessed. In an oriki about the deity, the horse symbolizes lightning that Shango learned to attract using a powerful charm:
Fire in the eye, fire in the mouth,
fire on the roof
You ride fire like a horse.
The concept that the power of words is equal to the strength and speed of a horse is expressed in the adage "Proverbs are the horses of communication."
This elesin Shango was carved in the Owo kingdom located in the tropical forest region and famous for the fine ivory carvings that were made from the 16th to 18th century. It would have been difficult to sustain horses in Owo, so this rendering may not be based on actual experience, but on oral descriptions or the carved altarpieces that traveled with Shango worship. The unknown sculptor carefully and skillfully depicted the details of the rider's costume and the horse's tack as he created a highly stylized and esoteric image. The rider is taller than the horse, which could indicate that the artist was emphasizing the importance of the rider, Shango. The single-reined, bitless bridle and the absence of saddle and stirrups probably reflect early West African horsemanship before the introduction of saddles. Equestrian figures carved during the 19th century or later portray the rider seated on a saddle and his feet in stirrups.
The rider's tailed cap is decorated with a geometric pattern that is perforated, probably for inlaid pieces like those used to form his pupils. His bulging eyes follow stylistic conventions of Yoruba art and contain characteristics, such as the notched lids that may represent eyelashes, associated with Owo artistry. The lines, carved in relief and extending from his temple to his mouth, may represent a scarification pattern, albeit one that is found among the Ijebu-Ode Yoruba to the south. The clientele of Owo ivory carvers extended far beyond the artisans' hometown. In another interpretation, the rider has a gag to echo the curved bridle on the horse. If the rider is indeed Shango, as either king or deity, however, he would not stand to be gagged.
 Ulli Beier, quoted in Abiodun, in Pemberton 2000: 187; Beier 1970
 Abiodun, in Pemberton 2000: 182-192
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 268, 270.
- University of Iowa Museum of Art, Art & Life in Africa
Read an essay about Ifa divination.