Luba Art and Divination

by Mary Nooter Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles

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

 

Beautifully wrought ceremonia1 axes, with incised geometric designs on the blades and finely sculpted female heads on the shafts, belonged not only to Luba kings and chiefs but to high-ranking titleholders, female spirit mediums, secret association members, and diviners. They were worn over the shoulder to signify rank and title and also were wielded in dance and other court ceremonials. Ancient axes very similar to 19th century examples have been excavated in first millennium grave sites in the Upemba Depression and provide evidence for the antiquity of a political order based on metalworking technologies in the Luba area. Royal axes embody references to blacksmithing as a technology of transformative power, said to have been introduced to Luba by the first sacred Luba king, Kalala Ilunga. Through the making and wearing of an axe, a royal official remembers and commemorates the origins of Luba royalty.