Spirit Embodiments

By Barbara Thompson
Friends of Usambara Society, Tanzania (formerly Stanford University; University of Iowa)

NigeriaOron peoples

Ekpu (ancestor figure)


H. 95.8 cm (37 11/16")

Seattle Art Museum, Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.515 

In addition to their participation in healing rites, ancestors can also be invoked to protect or prevent imbalance and misfortune within the community. Objects that embody ancestor spirits often serve as protectors of the living. Most such ancestor figures are identified by unique scarification dress, or other marks of personal adornment that reflect the ancestor's personal achievement and status. Among the Oron Ibibio in southern Nigeria, ekpu ancestor figures such as this included beards and status headgear. As an embodiment of the deceased's soul, the figure localizes, confines, and stabilizes the spirit's essence while also forming a channel of communication between the living and the dead (Rubin 1976: 6).