The creation of ancestral altars dates to the earliest days of the Benin Kingdom. Altars honor the deceased and commemorate their achievements. They are also important tools for maintaining communication between the living and the dead. As a divine monarch, the oba does not relinquish his influence when he departs this world. Ancestral altars are among the primary means by which a living oba transcends the earthly realm to commune with his predecessors for the good of the kingdom.
A newly installed oba is responsible for creating an altar dedicated to his father, commissioning the appropriate objects to adorn it and activating it on a regular basis with sacrifices of food or animal blood. The oba does the same for his mother if she attained the title of iyoba, or queenmother. While bells and rattle staffs are placed on all ancestral altars, ivory tusks and commemorative brass heads are made specifically for royal altars. Associated with trade, ivory and brass are durable and valuable, and their colors—white like sacred kaolin clay and red like fire and coral beads—relate to royal power.
Before the British conquest, an oba’s courtyard was the focal point for rituals in his honor. British troops reported 18 altars dedicated to previous obas when they took possession of the palace in 1897. Today, all of the royal altars stand together in a single courtyard.
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Altar Head of an Oba (Uhunmwun Elao), 18th/early 19th century. Edo; Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. The Art Institute of Chicago, Major Acquisitions Centennial Endowment, 2003.16.