Friday 8 July 2022

The Sign of the Leopard

Leopard Imagery in the Kingdoms of the Yoruba, the Kingdom of Benin, and the Kingdom of Dahomey by Anne Brisbaine Baird PhD Thesis (2004)

"Within Yorubaland, whose long and tumultuous history has gone through many upheavals, the King’s power is tempered by chiefs and councils. The concept of balance is an important aspect in Yoruba thought, applying to their political system as well. 

Hence, an aggressive symbol such as the leopard is not appropriate for the visible symbol of their kings; and is seldom, if ever, found as a direct reference to the King. Instead, the leopard refers to royalty, and to hunters and warriors; and is found mainly in the arts of the people, such as in masquerades.

In the Kingdom of Benin, powerful and warlike from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century, the King is absolute. The leopard becomes a very visible symbol of this ultimate power to determine life and death and is plentiful in all the royal arts. The leopard becomes the wilderness counterpart to the King.

Dahomey, whose kings were all-powerful, used the leopard as a symbol of its dynastic origins. Myth proclaims that the kings of Dahomey are descendants from the offspring of a Tado princess who mated with a leopard spirit....

Early Archeological Sites - One of the earliest sites in West Africa where significant leopard imagery has been excavated is Igbo-Ukwu, near the east bank of the Lower Niger River in Igbo territory. Numerous intricately embellished sculptures in cast bronze, unique in style, have been unearthed. These were discovered in three sites. One of the sites seems to have been a burial chamber of what is now believed to be a high priest, Nri, who had king-like powers; another of the sites was a shrine. 

The Igbo-Ukwu sites are believed to date from the tenth century (Visona et al. 2000: 274-276). One of the sites yielded a spectacular vessel in the form of a spiraling shell, topped with a small figure of a leopard, its spots made of raised concentric circles. 

It is believed that this vessel may have been used in rituals (Visona et al. 2000:278). At the burial site, a bronze leopard skull attached to a long spike was discovered placed in front of the body of the priest/king (Shaw 1977: 48; Visona et al. 2000: 275).

* Edo cast bronze leopard 16thC - 19thC © The Trustees of the British Museum Af1947,18.45

1 comment:

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