This unusual anthropomorphic/zoomorphic metal staff was made in the Yoruba polity, Nigeria. It is an unusually complex example, with a central human figure – in the Ogboni style – surmounted by numerous bird forms. The number of birds is uncertain due to the age of the piece; however, if there were originally sixteen, this confirms that this is in fact an Ifa divination staff. Sixteen is a mathematically perfect number for the Yoruba diviners, who have memorised 256 (i.e. 16 x 16) divinatory texts, only one of which will be appropriate for any one supplicant’s appeal for assistance.
The nation state is comprised of numerous subsections that were joined historically by the rise and collapse of the Ife (12th to 15th centuries) and Benin (13th to 19th centuries) polities. The Yoruba are sedentary, agriculturist and hierarchical, and are ruled by hereditary kings known as Obas. Each of the sub-kingdoms – including Oyo, Ijebu and smaller units towards the west – had their heyday, and are loosely united through language and culture, while still retaining a measure of independence in terms of artistic and religious tradition.
The Yoruba therefore possess one of the most ancient artistic heritages in Africa, most of which is designed to thwart evil spirits, and to placate or honour those that bring good fortune to the populace. Access to the supernatural world is supervised by a very complex arrangement of priests and spiritual intermediaries, who straddle the cosmological border between the tangible realm of the living (aye) and the invisible realm of the spirits and the hereafter (orun). The creator of the world is Olodumare – the source of all ase (life force) – and his spiritual minions include all manner of spirits, gods and ancestors who can be appealed to or appeased through diviners and other holy men (babalawo).
This staff would have been owned and used by an elite member of the divination society. It is a compelling and impressive piece of magico-religious regalia.