Art Finder Text Detail  
Item Actions
Ratings (0)

King's Crown (Adenla):


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Today most Yoruba people live in southern Nigeria and some in the Republic of Benin. They form one of the largest language groups in Africa. Many Yoruba people live in cities and large towns.

In historic times the Yoruba territory consisted of groups of city-states, urban centers each of which centered on its own royal court. Each independent kingdom was ruled by its own king. The Yoruba system of divine kingship extends back to the beginnings of the great Ife Kingdom (E-fay) during the 11th century or earlier. Prior to the early 19th century the term Yoruba was applied only to the peoples of the Oyo kingdom. Those kings that could trace their descent back to the founder of the Kingdom of Ife were considered divine. They alone could legitimately wear beaded veiled crowns, the supreme symbols of divine authority.

For centuries Ife was a large empire. It lost its pre-eminence to the Oyo empire around the 15th century. Nonetheless, its capital city continued to be the primary religious center for all of Yorubaland.

Up until the 1830s, the various Yoruba kingdoms co-existed in relative stability. In 1837, however, dissention in Oyo led to civil wars which displaced populations, eliminated and combined kingdoms, and created new ones. In 1893, the British imposed colonial rule over the Yoruba and created an even greater state of confusion, elevating to power chiefs who previously had been in subordinate positions. By the early 20th century, as many as fifty kings claimed the right to wear beaded veiled crowns.

The Yoruba have a rich mythology which preserves their history and supports their institutions. According to one version of their origin myth, (Lloyd 222-223) the chief god Olorun (oh-lo-roon), god of the sky, let down from heaven a chain, by means of which his chosen delegate, his son Oduduwa (Oh-due-duŽ-a), descended to the primeval waters. Oduduwa carried with him a handful of earth, a five-toed chicken, and a palm nut. He threw the handful of earth on the waters, whereupon the chicken scratched and scattered it until it became the first dry land. The Ife Kingdom, located on this spot, was, thus, in the center of the world. When planted, the palm nut grew to a tree with sixteen branches. These symbolized the sixteen original crowned rulers, the sons and grandsons of Oduduwa.

Oduduwa was the first ruler of Ife. Eventually, he sent out from Ife his sixteen sons and grandsons to found their own kingdoms. According to Yoruba belief, only a descendant of these original sixteen could be considered a divine king and, therefore, eligible to wear the veiled beaded crown, known as an adenla (great crown).

The Yoruba rulers who claim the right to sacred kingship by virtue of their descent from Oduduwa are collectively referred to as obas. However, more specific titles apply to rulers of different kingdoms. For example, the king of Ife is called Oni, and the king of Oyo is called Afin.

Although the right to wear a veiled beaded crown is the ultimate expression of sanctity, its significance is, to some degree, symbolic. In terms of real power, rulers with veiled crowns are in the same situation as those without. The power of all Yoruba kings is carefully limited and balanced by a council of chiefs. Furthermore, numerous religious cults and societies also help to regulate society.

During the 19th century, each oba lived in a large palace that was located in the center of the main town, across from the marketplace. It had at least two courtyards, usually more, and was surrounded by a wall which included in the back a large forest area. The divine oba was relatively secluded from his people, appearing only on important occasions. As the descendant of Oduduwa, he was a supernatural being who could assure the fertility of plants and animals and who was the indispensable link between the living and the dead. On his death, the members of the royal lineage drew up a list of eligible candidates from their ranks. The final choice was then made by the chiefs with the aid of the important Ife divination society. The Ife divination society had special abilities to foresee future events and to discover hidden knowledge with the help of supernatural powers.

Before the 19th century, some kind of crown was worn by the divine kings of Yorubaland, but surprisingly little is known about the form of these crowns. They may have been formed from some kind of natural material. (Fagg 9) The scholar, Robert Farris Thompson, has even suggested that they were perhaps once made of bronze. While this train of thought was inconclusive, he has demonstrated that the classic elements of modern crowns—frontal faces under birds—probably were established by about the 15th century. (Thompson 11)

Veiled beaded crowns were probably first made in the early 19th century. The first beaded crowns were made by the Adeshina family of Efon-Alaye, who were also great woodcarvers with many royal clients. At that time, tiny glass beads in a great variety of colors were imported into Africa from Europe. These beads inspired a flourishing of new art forms among the Yoruba. Beadwork was produced in abundance, although it was restricted to objects of spiritual significance—the bags used by diviners, covers for the staffs carried by herbalists and priests of the divination cult, and particularly articles for use by the oba, including slippers, gowns, and various headgear. Of all the beaded objects made, the veiled crown was by far the most important. Considered symbolic of the essence of kingship, it was a container of sacred power. It was worn by the oba only on important state occasions, such as his own enthronement, major festivals at which he functioned as high priest, or the conferring of titles. When not being worn, it was treated with the same reverence and protocol as was due the oba himself.

Professor Thompson describes the production of a crown as follows:The bead embroiderer begins with the making of a wicker-work or cardboard frame. . . . The embroiderer or his helper stretches wet starched unbleached muslin or stiffened cotton over the frame, providing the base for the embroidery, and allows the object to dry in the sun. A frontal face, a Janus design, or circular band of frontal faces are often modeled in relief over the lower portion of the frame, with shaped pieces of cloth dipped in wet startch. The actual embroidering then follows, after a choice of surface patterns. . . .

The basic unit of the work is the single strand of beads. These may be extended vertically, diagonally, or horizontally to form geometric outlines, and they may be cut in diminishing to increasing lengths to fill in patterns. . . . (Thompson 8, 10)

Four basic design elements characterize beaded crowns worn on state occasions by the divine Yoruba kings.- projection at the top
- a beaded fringed veil
- frontal faces in relief or partial relief
- beaded birds rendered in the round
One of the significant features of a veiled beaded crown is the tall projection at the top. Among some Yoruba certain projections from the head, particularly those in the form of a hairstyle, signified sanctified power. The god Eshu (A-shoe), the trickster god and messenger of the other gods, was commonly portrayed with such a projecting hairstyle and certain special officials of the Oyo oba were similarly distinguished. The upright projection on the beaded crown seems to conform to this tradition. Into this projection on the top of the beaded crown, herbalist priests placed a container of powerful medicine known as oogun ashe (ogun ashay). The oba himself was never allowed to see this medicine and so could never look into the interior of his crown, which was put on and removed by a palace official.
The purpose of the beaded veil was to obscure the face of the king, to hide his identity as an individual. According to the scholar John Pemberton, "the veil of beads. . . not only masks the wearer's individuality, but focuses the viewer's attention upon the real locus of power, the crown, and protects the layman from looking directly upon the face of one whose head and person possess such power." (Pemberton 50)
The frontal faces that regularly appear on beaded crowns have been reduced to a single face of great size on the crown in the MIA's collection. These faces are believed to represent the royal ancestors. The Yoruba pay great reverence to their spiritual ancestors who possess the power to intercede with other spiritual forces, and, therefore to affect daily life.

The ancestors of the ruler are particularly important. In the case of those rulers with the right to wear a beaded crown, the ancestors included Oduduwa and his immediate descendants. It is possible that the single face on the Institute crown represents Oduduwa himself. Professor Thompson writes that the frontal faces on veiled crowns "suggest a syntheses of the world of the dead and the world of the living—the king as living ancestor. . . ." (Thompson 16) He continues, "the king behind the veil incarnates the most awesome powers a mortal can possess. . . . His own face has vanished and the countenances of his ancestors have become his own at a higher level of vision." (Thompson 16)

The beaded birds attached to the crown suggest several meanings. Gatherings of birds frequently appear in Yoruba art, and often refer to the association between birds and the power of certain crafty elderly women, called "the Mothers." According to some Yoruba, these elderly women, who have special powers to punish and destroy, turn into birds during the night and fly about wrecking havoc, threatening and even killing people. Pemberton and Thompson concur that the presence of the birds suggests that the king can rule only with the protection and help of the Mothers. MIA curator Louise Lincoln suggests that birds might also be associated with fertility because they reproduce easily and appear in abundance on the fields.
During the 19th century, tiny beads, imported from Europe, were used by the Yoruba to make many items of royal and sacred significance. Of these, the crown with a fringed veil, attached birds, and a face design was the most important.

This beaded crown was considered the prerogative of only those rulers of Yoruba kingdoms who, theoretically, as descendants of the original founder, Oduduwa, of the original kingdom, Ife, were of divine nature. In actual practice, at the start of the 19th century, there seemed to be no confusion as to which rulers might claim this prerogative. As a result of the civil wars that began in the 1830s, however, great confusion eventually arose as to who was eligible to wear a crown; and by the middle of the 20th century, as many as 50 rulers were claiming the right.

The beaded crown was not simply regarded as a symbol of the divine nature of the oba but was believed to be, by virtue of elements of its design, an instrument of power by which the oba was able to intercede with the spirit world, and particularly with his royal ancestors, for the benefit of humanity. Although the actual day-to-day authority of the oba was far from absolute, and although other institutions, such as secret societies and religious cults, were believed capable of also communicating with and influencing the all-powerful spiritual world, the oba, in the past, was nevertheless regarded with the greatest reverence and awe by his people. His beaded crown was accorded a similar regard, even when not on his head.

Bowen, T. J., Adventures and Missionary Labours In Several Countries in the Interior of Africa from 1849 to 1856, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London, 1968 (1857).

Clapperton, Hugh, Journal of a Second Expedition into the Interior of Africa from the Bight of Benin to Soccatoo, to which is Added the Journal of Richard Lander, Frank Cass & Co. Ltd., London, 1966 (1829).

Eyo, Ekpo and Frank Willett, Treasures of Ancient Nigeria, A. Knopf, New York, 1980.

Fage, J. D., A History of West Africa. An Introductory Survey, The University Press, Cambridge, 1969.

Fagg, William, Yoruba Beadwork, Art of Nigeria, Pace Editions, Inc., New York, 1980.

Fagg, William and John Pemberton III, Yoruba Sculpture of West Africa, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1982.

Fraser, Douglas and Herbert M. Cole, eds., African Art and Leadership, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, Wisconsin, 1972.

Lander, Richard and John Lander, The Niger Journal of Richard and John Lander, edited and abridged by Robin Hallett, Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1965.

Laude, Jean, The Arts of Black Africa, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971.

Ojo, G. J. Afolabi, Yoruba Culture. A Geographical Analysis, University of London Press, London, 1966.

Parrinder, Geoffrey, African Traditional Religion, Hutchinson's Library, London, 1954.

Thompson, Robert Farris, Black Gods and Kings, Yoruba Art at UCLA, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indian, 1976.

Vogel, Susan, ed., For Spirits and Kings. African Art from the Paul and Ruth Tishman Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1981.

Willet, Frank, African Art, Praeger, New York, 1971.

Aju, A. I. Asiw, "Political Motivation and Oral Historical Traditions in Africa: The Case of Yoruba Crowns, 1900-1960," Africa, Vol. 46, No. 2, 1976, pp. 113-127.

Chappel, T. J. H., "The Yoruba Cult of Twins in Historical Perspective," Africa, Vol. 44, No. 3, 1974, pp. 250-265.

Drewal, Henry John, "Efe: Voiced Power and Pageantry," African Arts, Vol. 8, No. 2, 1974, pp. 26-29, 58-66.

Drewal, Margaret Thompson, "Projections from the Top in Yoruba Art," African Arts, Vol. 11, No. 1, 1977, pp. 43-49.

Grottanelli, Vinigi, "The Lugard Lecture of 1961," African Images, Essays in African Iconology, eds. Daniel F. McCall and Edna G. Bay, Africana Publishing Co., New York, 1975, pp. 3-22.

Lawal, Babatunde, "The Living Dead: Art and Immortality Among the Yoruba of Nigeria," Africa, Vol. 47, No. 1, 1977, pp. 50-61.

Lloyd, P. C., "Sacred Kingship and Government Among the Yoruba," Africa, Vol. 30, No. 3, 1960, pp. 221-237.

Morton-Williams, Peter, "The Influence of Habitat and Trade on the Politics of Oyo and Ashanti," Man in Africa, eds. Mary Douglas and Phyllis M. Kaberry, Tavistorck Publications,London, 1969, pp. 79-96.

Morton-Williams, Peter, "An Outline of the Cosmology and Cult Organization of the Oyo Yoruba," Africa, Vol. 34, 1964, pp. 243-261.

Morton-Williams, Peter, "The Yoruba Kingdom of Oyo," West African Kingdoms in the Nineteenth Century, eds. Daryll Forde and P. M. Kaberry, Oxford University Press, London, 1967, pp. 36-39.

Ojo, G. J. Ofolabi, "Traditional Yoruba Architecture," African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 3, 1968, pp. 14- .

Olajubu, Chief Oludare and J. R. O. Ojo, "Some Aspects of Oyo Yoruba Masquerades," Africa, Vol. 47, No. 3, 1977, pp. 253-275.

Pemberton, John, "Eshu-Elegba: The Yoruba Trickster God," African Arts, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1975, pp. 20-27.

Thompson, Robert Farris, "The Sign of the Divine King, An Essay on Yoruba Bead-Embroidered Crowns with Veil and Bird Decorations," African Arts, Vol. 3, No. 3, 1970, pp. 8-17, 74-80.

The Yoruba crown can be used on the following tours:
  • Religion and Art
    To discuss the crown as a symbol of the king's divine authority, owing to his descent from the divine founder of the first Yoruba kingdom.
  • Safari
    To illustrate the use of birds as symbols.
  • Mythology
    To demonstrate the use of a myth as an explanation of a society's development.
  • Visual Elements
    To show how design elements, like pattern, can be used to convey ideas and concepts.
  • People and Places
  • African Art
  • Compare the Yoruba crown with other images of power, such as The Winged Genius.
  • The Yoruba crown can be used as a comparison to the masks in the Ensor to discuss the different reasons people conceal their identity.
Comments (0)
Tags (0)
Source: Docent Manual entry for Nigeria (Yoruba), <i>King's Crown (Adenla)</i> (19th Century), The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Education Division (1998).
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009