Benin crafts


In the palace of the Oba (king) lived guilds of specialists such as leopard hunters, astrologers, drummers, and craftspeople who produced brass, ivory, wood sculptures, embroidered textiles, and leather fans for the Oba, his chiefs and priests. These skilled artisans lived in close proximity and often married within their guilds. Outside the court people lived in villages, some of which specialized in particular crafts and produced items for their own communities.

In both the royal court and in the villages, craft specialists were usually men. There were strict religious taboos against women handling metal or metal tools; they were only permitted to work for the weavers’ guild, where they made elaborate ceremonial wigs and wove hip pennants. More recently, female members of the guild have begun to make decorated pots. Pottery was an important women’s craft until the early part of the twentieth century and remains a female specialization in some villages.

Artisans in all the crafts developed their own designs which were handed down from generation to generation. Within the guilds they believed that the supernatural formed the basis for their creative inspirations. Artists sought guidance and protection against accidents and witchcraft.

Ivory armlet, Edo peoples, c. 15th-16th century, 10.5 cm in diameter, Benin, Nigeria, © Trustees of the British Museum

Ivory armlet, c. 15th-16th century, 10.5 cm in diameter, Edo peoples, Benin, Nigeria, © Trustees of the British Museum

The ivory armlet above is worn by the Oba (king) of Benin in ceremonies in which he wears a coral costume, dances with a ceremonial sword and carries a gong. The Oba is represented on the armlet with mudfish legs and his hands raised to the sky, thus linking him with the great god Olokun, ruler of the sea. The mudfish has symbolic significance among the Edo people as it can live on land and sea. Similarly, the Oba is invested with divine powers from the spiritual world above and the secular world below.

Learn about more Benin objects on the British Museum website

© Trustees of the British Museum

Cite this page as: The British Museum, "Benin crafts," in Smarthistory, September 19, 2016, accessed September 30, 2016, http://smarthistory.org/benin-crafts/.