Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Nigeria; Benin Kingdom

Hen

Wood

H. 46.3 cm (18 ¼”)

The University of Iowa Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.316

Although one had to be wealthy to construct the great altars associated with the King, sub-chiefs also built altars commemorating their ancestors. Often the objects, such as this hen, were carved from wood, rather than cast in brass. The post on the back of the hen once supported a small elephant tusk. Ben-Amos indicates that hens are a symbol of femininity and a particularly apt image to celebrate the memory of a maternal ancestor (1978). This same iconography can be seen in the hairstyle of the Queen Mother portrait on the previous screen. The crest of the carved hen has been broken off, probably in 1897 when the piece was removed from Benin by the British.