The Rattle Staffs of Southern Nigeria

WHAT ARE RATTLE STAFFS?

Rattle staffs are called ukhurhe and are found in the Benin kingdom of Southern Nigeria. The ukhurhe are used to memorialize people who have died. They are often hung with an altar (a raised flat surface used as the focus for a religious ritual to remember dead people). Everyone would get a rattle staff – it did not matter if you were royal or not.

WHAT DO UKHURHE LOOK LIKE?

A staff can be made of wood, or from metals like copper, brass or bronze. Ukhurhes made of metal are normally used for royalty. There is a chamber at the top of the staff. This chamber is hollow, and has a small clay cylinder (long circular tube) inside it that cannot escape. When someone shakes the staff, the ball bounces around the chamber and makes noise. While someone is praying at the altar of a dead person, they shake the ukhurhe and the noise from the cylinder is understood to attract the attention of the ancestors. Usually on the top of the staff there are carved human heads, figures or clenched fists.

Often, there are symbolic figures carved into the stem of the staff. These include animals, people, weapons such as swords, and patterns. The most common animals on a ukhurhe are elephants, leopards and crocodiles. Different animals symbolize different things. For example, the elephant is the traditional symbol for the power a chief has in a tribe. Leopards are seen as symbols for royalty in Benin art. Crocodiles are symbols for the water god, Olokun.

HOW AND WHERE ARE UKHURHE USED?

The rattle staffs rest against the clay walls of a house. In the house of important chiefs, the walls are corrugated (a repeated pattern in a material of ridges and valleys). Every ukhurhe represents someone different. The ukhurhes are placed on an altar. An altar is often decorated with brass or wooden sculptures of heads of the people who have passed away. There are often also bells used to signal when the ceremony has begun. With all these components and importantly the ukhurhe, a community can remember and grieve someone.

Marwin Ramos

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