By William Dewey
Pennsylvania State University (formerly University of Iowa)
From an 1823 account of the explorer Giovanni Belzoni and an accompanying sketch, we have one of the few descriptions and drawings of altars of the Kings of Benin before 1897, when all were dismantled. Equestrian figures such as this were apparently included on the altars, but who is represented is the matter of considerable debate. Some have suggested the figure is an emissary from the north, others that it represents an enemy, the King of Idah. Paula Girshik Ben-Amos suggests the “horseman may represent Oranmiyan, the founder of the second dynasty, who is said to have introduced horses into Benin, and who is also associated with the foundation of the Yoruba kingdom of Oyo, which rose to power through its mounted armies. The fact that such figures were placed on ancestral altars seems to support this identification” (1995: 54).