Crown for Initiation, 1990s, by Jose Rodriguez (Brooklyn, New York, b. 1956), displayed at the Fowler Museum at UCLA
The art of the Yoruba peoples in Southwestern regions of Nigeria often revolves around the power of the king, and there is no grander example of this than the king’s crown. Some believe that objects not necessarily worn by a king, such as an elephant shaped beaded headdress from the Cameroon Grassfields or a hip mask from the Benin people, represent a right to rule. However, when compared to a Yoruba-style Crown of Initiation, they are far weaker presentations of royal power. The Yoruba-style crown is a better demonstration of royal authority and legitimacy because of its symbolism within the images such as the elephant, faces, and bird shown, the media used such as beads, and the powers associated with the display context of the crown itself.
This crown depicts a few easily recognized images that declare the owner’s right to rule. One figurine atop the crown is an elephant, which most often in the Yoruba culture signifies prestige, honor, and sovereignty (Lawal 2012: 26). The elephant is heavily associated with a king’s legitimacy because the founding city of the Yoruba culture, Ife, used elephant imagery as a way to refer back to and honor the original rulers of the civilization (Blier 2015: 321). Not only are elephants symbolically representative of power, but they are physically as well. According to Suzanne Blier, “…elephants also were seen to carry associations with death and risk not only because of the potentially fatal harm they could bring to humans (particularly hunters) but also because of the devastation they caused to agricultural plots” (Blier 2015: 322). She goes on to explain how in a matter of days elephants can destroy a year’s worth of crops (Blier 2015: 233). These presented hazards can be interpreted on the crown as a warning of the king’s toughness and capabilities to do harm. It can also be interpreted as a cautionary sign to his subjects that it would not be wise to double cross him. On the other hand, it can be seen and understood as a positive and comforting symbol of their leader’s strength. The elephant stands as a proclamation of the king’s strength, honor, and legitimacy.
Stylistically portrayed on the crown, along a register below the elephant, are a series of alternating images of geometric knot shapes and stylized faces. Though the exact meaning of the knot-looking decorative pattern is unknown, there are several meanings behind the faces’ imagery which point to the king. In Blier’s research she found these faces to be “…identified variously as the kingdom’s first ruler (and Ife’s founders, Odudua or Obalufon)” (Blier 2012: 81). She goes on to explain how the depiction of Ife’s first ruler stands as a direct connection from the current king to him. This means these faces justify the current king’s right to rule because of his royal ancestry. That concept also plays into the Yoruba belief that the king’s claim to legitimacy did not happen by chance, but it was destined to happen (Blier 2015: 81). The faces gaze out as a reminder of the king’s authority due to his predetermined right to rule. They also refer back to his lineage and are viewed as a continual reminder of his granted powers.
At the pinnacle of the crown there’s a bird perched on the elephant’s back as the highest proclamation of the king’s power. Though the artist does not specifically say the type of bird depicted, most Yoruba crowns are based on the greatly admired African Paradise Flycatcher (Blier 2012: 11). This bird is sacred and well known for the long white tails the males grow when they’re about three years old. The development of the tail is symbolic of transformation, a common theme associated with the king and his otherworldly powers (Blier 2015: 320). The use of a bird also draws lineage to Ife because according to Babatunde Lawal, “…it identifies the king as the descendent of Oduduwa who reportedly used a bird (embodying ase) to create land at Ile-Ife at the beginning of time” (Lawal 2012: 54). Ase (or ashe) is an important and popular concept in Yorubaland where it is often defined as the spiritual power gifted to certain individuals by the gods. Robert Thompson writes about ase saying, “The king, as master of ashe, becomes the second of the gods” (Thompson 1984: 7). Birds are often symbolic of the ase of mothers or older woman in the area. By displaying a bird, the king could be sending a message that he is supportive of the local women and their powers (Lawal 2012: 54). He could also be proclaiming that he has powers greater than their ase, thus announcing himself as the supreme ruler (Blier 2015: 357). Birds also often allude to the king’s ase in regards to his role as a median. He’s believed to spiritually venture between heaven and earth, much like birds are able to fly between the ground and the heavens (which they believed to be beyond the sky) (Lawal 2012: 54). By depicting a bird, the crown further represents the king’s powers. This crown’s use of a bird, stylized faces, and an elephant, are all direct correlations to the king’s authority and legitimacy.
Through the use of its media, this crown heavily exemplifies authority and power. It utilizes shells, beads, wood, and feathers in a way that showcases several Yoruba ideals of royalty. Although wood is used just for the beak of the bird, it is not otherwise incorporated into the piece. This is because wood is not considered an expensive resource associated with royalty in the way shells are. Shells were often used as currency, so by default they were considered a lavish item to decorate with. They often times represented not just wealth and power but luck too (Lawal 2012: 26). The beads themselves tend to be viewed as connected to Obalufon who, among other things, is the god of bead working (Blier 2012: 81). Also, the act of threading beads together is thought to represent unity and togetherness (Lawal 2012: 26). By linking the king to a god and representing unity, it could simultaneously send a message that the king has ase to unite and rule over all the people.
In addition, the colors of the shells and beads also attest to his right to rule. White’s category includes grey, silver, and lead shades, but pure white is held in higher regards. Pure white is considered sublime and is almost exclusively used by noble people because of its display of iwa (Thompson 1984: 11). Iwa is simply defined as character, but can also represent a sense of tradition and coolness. It can refer to being level headed, and morally, as well as physically, beautiful. Pure white, according to Lawal, “…is associated with transparency, light, the sky…”, and “…the color signifies the celestial and sublime…” (Lawal 2012: 26). Blue is considered to represent water or “coolness” and in this case is defined by a sense of calm (Lawal 2012: 28). This coolness represented is also thought to pacify the gods (Thompson 1984: 12). Pure white as a sacred color leaves a sense of mystery and awe which is supported by the calmness reflected in the blue beads. Together these various shades help represent the ase and power of the king and display his leveled temperament which is well respected in Yoruba.
This crown also uses a handful of bright red feathers which, in Yoruba, can also establish a king’s authority. Red is another display of ase, and can represent danger, blood, rage and even destruction through its associations with Ogun (the god of war) (Lawal 2012: 27). Red feathers, more specifically, often come from grey parrots. The importance behind this is the power believed to be possessed by this breed of birds. Parrots are gifted with the capabilities of human speech, which is a grand mystery to the Yoruba peoples, and this secrecy entails unknown knowledge to them which alludes to power. Also, the uniqueness of the parrot’s tail feathers makes them more valuable because they’re the only pop of color while the rest of the parrot is grey. Probably the most important association with the red feathers is a popular belief that if the king lays eyes on the eggs of a grey parrot, he will die (Blier 2015: 355). The possibility of death could help the king appear brave for wearing feathers from a bird that could cause his fatality. It could also lead viewers to understand that although the king is in part otherworldly, he can still easily perish if his fate wishes it. All three of these examples tell us that by wearing the red feathers, which can be associated with the grey parrot, the king is displaying dangerous and unique qualities. This may have been done to show that he himself is a representation of these attributes. The tie to birds also leads us back to the concept discussed earlier, that the king resides over the ase of women (which is commonly depicted by birds). The color of the feathers and the feathers themselves show us the king’s authority, link him to a powerful god, and warn of his possibly dangerous side.
Aside from the messages of power sent out through the imagery and materials of this crown, the crown itself holds power that asserts the king’s authority and legitimacy. Although the crown is usually a part of a whole ensemble (which includes a heavily adorned and decorated footrest, scepter, robe, boots and leggings) it is still a grand display of power by itself (Blier 2012: 80). Even the height of the crown symbolizes his authority as being both royal and sacred (Blier 2012: 11). Only a king would wear a crown like this, and it stands as a declaration of his authority, which is often picked through divination, and in turn alludes to his ase (Lawal 2012: 51).
The veil of the crown, which covers the king’s face when worn, is a result of the ase he is believed to obtain. The veil of stringed shells and beads hangs down to shield his face and more specifically to cover his eyes. The purpose of this is to protect viewers from his powerful gaze and to obscure his identity (Blier 2012: 11). Not only does this add a sense of mystery, but it makes the king seem more otherworldly and again is a reminder of his ase. By obstructing the details of his face and depersonalizing himself, the king seems less equal to his subjects and is thought of as more powerful and thus further legitimizes his ruling. The veil not only protects those around the king, but it protects the king himself. It is thought that by having the veil between the king and others, it will help disarm any spells that a jealous or bitter subject may try to cast upon him (Blier 2015: 337). Another way the crown is thought to protect the king is by assisting him spiritually, according to Blier, “The crown helps to protect the king as he engages in ritual combat with powerful spiritual forces in the course of the festival” (Blier 2015: 337). The crown stands as a reminder that the king is a median between worlds and often is believed to be dealing with spirits beyond our comprehension. The mysteriousness of the veil ties into how the Yoruba peoples believe that once that crown is put on the newly initiated king’s head, he inherits ase and his entire persona changes (Lawal 2012: 52). The initiated king is believed to have been divinely chosen and so this ase grants him the right to rule and draws lineage from him to the original rulers of Ife.
The crown holds a power within itself too because it is believed the king’s fate (decided before he was enthroned) is sealed within it. This is why he can’t look inside of the crown, only his wife can. Blier refers to it as a “…container for the king’s destiny…” (Blier 2015: 347). It is believed among the people of Yoruba that if the king looks into the crown it will lead to his own destruction. Which is why, in some cases, when the king has gravely messed up he will be instructed by kingmakers (the ones who put him into power through the decision made by their divination acts) to stare into the crown. This is in a sense suicide because the king is well aware of the shared belief that once he gazes into the crown, he will die not long after (Blier 2012: 83). That is a display of the king’s authority and the crown’s authority. It shows how important of a role it is to wear that crown and how important it is to properly rule with your kingdom’s best interest in mind. The crown is powerful, and it is through divine right and authority that the king is chosen to wear it. The crown shows his power through iwa, ase, and ewa (ewa is commonly defined as beauty) (Blier 2012: 80). To wear the crown is a huge responsibility, and even at times a burden, but it is the supreme symbol of ase.
This Yoruba-style crown is a prime example of the king’s authority and legitimacy which it exemplifies through the symbolism in the imagery, the materials used, and the powers invested in the crown itself. The Yoruba peoples believe that the king is divinely chosen to take on his authoritative role, and this crown continually establishes that.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. (2012). Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. London: Lawrence King Publishing.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. (2015). Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba: Ife History, Power, and Identity, c. 1300. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lawal, Babatunde. (2012). Visions of Africa: Yoruba. Italy: 5 Continents Editions.
Thompson, Robert Farris. (1984). Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art & Philosophy. United States: First Vintage Books Edition.
[This piece can be found at UCLA’s Fowler Museum/Original Research Paper by Gabrielle Palmadessa]