By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)
This pair of leopards, probably from the sixteenth-century, are actually water vessels (aquamanile), which are used for making ritual ablutions by pouring the water out through the nostrils. Such cast leopards were kept on the royal ancestral altars and were used by the Oba, when he prepared himself for the Ugie Erha Oba ceremony, in which he honors his deceased father. Leopards appear frequently in Benin art, and there was a special guild of leopard hunters who captured leopards. Some were sacrificed, others were tamed, and the Oba led them in processions as symbols of his control over his counterpart, the king of the forests (Girshick Ben-Amos 1995: 15). A seventeenth-century engraving, based on a Dutch visitor’s observations of Benin, shows the Oba in procession with his tame leopards.