Art and Rule in the Benin Kingdom

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

A chief’s altar commemorating his paternal ancestors. Benin City, Nigeria, October, 1981, Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.

On this patrilineal altar, ukhurhe (carved wooden rattle staffs) rest against the wall, which is also molded of clay.  The horizontal corrugations on the wall are permitted only in the homes of prominent chiefs.  Each ukhurhe staff represents a specific person in the lineage. When the base of the ukhurhe is struck against the ground, it makes a rattling sound that alerts an ancestral spirit that prayers are being offered on his behalf. An altar is often decorated with brass or wooden commemorative heads, and brass bells are used to signal that ceremonies have begun.  In the past, the highest ranking chiefs added matched pairs of carved elephant’s tusks. The most elaborate of these ancestral shrines were in the Oba’s palace.