Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom

by Barbara W. Blackmun
Professor Emeritus, San Diego Mesa College

Ohen Omosede Iyoriovbe Igharo and her assistants, Priestess of Olokun and Shango, Olokun Shrine, Benin City, Nigeria, January 1982. Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.

 

Among the Edo women with status independent of their husbands and families are priestesses of various deities worshipped in Benin. Ohen (“Priestess”) Igharo maintains altars dedicated to several of these deities. The major altar, pictured here, honors the rich and powerful Olokun by a tableau featuring one of his wives with her court.  The sea god himself is symbolized by the figure in a simulated red coral crown to the right of the center. 

 White is often associated with the worship of Olokun. However, in addition to white china, white kaolin chalk, and strings of white cowrie shells, shining mirror-like surfaces and bright clear colors also evoke the luxury of Olokun’s undersea palace. The altar figures have been fashioned by the priestess herself, from a specially formulated clay mixed with plant fiber, that becomes hard and permanent when dry. They have been painted with commercial enamel.