By Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

Titleholder Twite wearing ceremonial axe over his left shoulder to indicate status, Luba artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1989. Photo by Mary Nooter Roberts.


Finely sculpted axes, for example, are often part of the regalia of Luba chiefs and kings. They are worn over the left shoulder to communicate high status, and they are also used and worn by diviners, secret association members, and spirit mediums. That the blades of such axes are blunt proves that they are not used as tools or weapons, but as prestige emblems. Luba axes have been found in high-status graves dating to the 9th century A.D., indicating the continuous use of this object type in contexts of leadership for more than a millennium. In much the same way that a king transcends his ordinary mortality, so do his emblems surpass their ordinary use value to become symbols vested with sacred power.