Animal Imagery

By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

CameroonBamileke artist


Wood, beads

H. 47 cm (18 1/2")

Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Eleanor Clay Ford Fund for African Art, 79.18

Royal emblems often incorporate references to leopards, lions, and elephants, among the most powerful and aggressive of animals. In the Bamileke Kingdom, a king was addressed as one of these three animals, and his beaded throne was supported by a poised leopard. Sitting atop a leopard enhanced the king's image and signaled his domination over the most predatory beasts. The leopard also symbolized the ruler’s ability to transform himself into the animal. A slain leopard might be a king in his transformed state, and special rites were performed, including an invocation and a vow of innocence on the part of the killer. Following this purification, parts of the leopard were distributed among members of the court. Pelts were used as a cover for the royal bed, claws and teeth were worked into jewelry, the dried bones were rubbed on the children of the king for strength, and the heart—most sacred of all—was eaten by the king and selected guests (Geary 1983: 110).  

The royal palace in Oku with the king and notables during a ceremony, Northwest Province of Cameroon. Photo by Hans-Joachim Koloss.