The Ivory Pendant of the Iyoba Queen Mother

By: ANNA BUSUTTIL


posted on: July 1st, 2020

WHAT DO THE COLOUR WHITE AND IVORY HAVE IN COMMON?

In the Edo culture, the colour white has a very important symbolic meaning. It is a colour associated with ritual purity (freedom from contamination) and is also associated with Olokun. Olokun is the name for the god of the sea, who is believed to be the bringer of extraordinary wealth and fertility.

Ivory (a hard white material made from animal tusks and teeth) is also white and has been equally associated with positive impacts. Ivory was the material which attracted the

Portuguese to the Benin Kingdom. The Portuguese brought wealth to the Kingdom of Benin through copper and coral. Therefore, ivory is seen as a material which attracts good fortune. The Portuguese, since they landed after sailing from the sea, were perceived as inhabitants of the Olokun’s spirit realm.

THE IVORY PENDANT OF THE QUEEN MOTHER

In the 1500s, the mother of the King or Oba Esige helped him immensely to win some important battles. She was called Idia. To thank her for her help and to honour her success, the Oba Esigie gave her the title “Queen Mother” or Iyoba. This title goes to the mother of the Oba’s first son. This tradition has been passed down until the current day.

In addition to being called Queen Mother, Esigie made an ivory pendant (a worn hanging ornament suspended from a chain or rope) which looked like Idia. The Oba may have worn the pendant at rituals honouring his mother. Today, the Oba wears such pendants at annual ceremonies of renewal.

WHAT DOES THE PENDANT LOOK LIKE?

The pendant measures 23.8 x 12.7 x 8.3 cm. The face looks like an oval and is long. Idia’s eyes and nose are carved to draw attention to them. Her pupils are made of  iron disks so they reflect light. There are four scar marks on her forehead. Four is, a number associated with the female gender. Below her chin is a band of coral beads. Around her head and her neck there are stylized (to design in a particular style) mudfish and Portuguese traders. Because the mudfish can survive both on land and sea, they are believed to represent the Oba’s dual nature as both human and divine. The pendant and Idia’s face looks elegant, fierce and complex. It honours the Queen Mother with grace and power.

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