The Ivory Vessels of the Yoruba Owo Kings 

By: ANNA BUSUTTIL


posted on: July 1st, 2020

THE HISTORY OF THE YORUBA OWO KINGDOM

In the 18th Century, modern day southern Nigeria was known as the Yoruba kingdom of Owo. The Owo became powerful through multiple factors. The two most important reasons are trade and conquest (when one community takes control over another community through military force). Another important reason for the Owo being powerful is that it also had strong political ties with the Benin Empire. The Benin Empire was also in modern day southern Nigeria. Thanks to the power and prestige of trade, conquest and its political ties, the Owo grew to be a very powerful state.

SYMBOLS OF POWER IN THE YORUBA TRADITION FOUND IN IVORY VESSELS

In all cultures, there are images which act as symbols. This means that although we see, for example, an image of a snake, the real message of the image is different. In the Yoruba tradition, snakes or pythons are important symbols of royalty and also of destructive power. A snail shell is another example of a symbol. The Yoruba tradition views the fluid inside snail shells as soothing, cooling and balancing.

WHAT DOES AN IVORY VESSEL LOOK LIKE?

A vessel is a small container which is normally used to hold important materials. Vessels mostly look like bowls, often with a lid. Ivory is considered a special material to the Yoruba people, since it is white and is associated with the sea god, Olokun. The colour white is also symbolic, as it represents purity (freedom from corruption). The outside of the vessels would be carved with intricate symbols – like the python and the snail shells – and motifs (decorative images or design, repeated to form a pattern).

WHAT IS AN IVORY VESSEL USED FOR?

Because ivory is such a special material, it is often only used for royalty. Carved ivory vessels were usually used to hold small items or gifts. These vessels would be stored in the reception room of a palace, and given to important guests. These vessels could be used for improving relations between empires. The ivory vessels are a good example of how cultural generosity and craftsmanship can be used to improve the lives of a kingdom. Being generous and having strong political ties promotes peace and cooperation. Additionally, the allies learn more about each other through exposing each other to different aspects of their own cultures. The ivory vessels are a striking example of leaders sharing and caring for each other, and therefore for the needs of their people.

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