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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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. The presence of the birds suggests that the king can rule only with the protection and help of the Mothers( awon Iya mi osoronga).
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.