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Here is a fascinating status object from the deepest Congo. This is a ceremonial knife of the Mangbetu people, a tribe of approximately 1 million people who live in the northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mangbetu people are historically famous for metalworking prowess, beautiful art, and elongated skulls (which were artificially lengthened by skull-binding during infancy). Early visitors were struck by the sophistication of Mangbetu politics, architecture, and crafts as well as by the breadth of their agriculture (which included diverse crop cultivation and cattle herding). These early historical accounts also remark upon the Mangbetu penchant for cannibalism (but such accounts are viewed with skepticism among prevalent schools of modern cultural scholarship).

A picture of the distinctive elongated skull favored by Mangbetu elites (circa early 20th century)

The ethnological history of the Mangbetu tribe is interesting and instructive. The Mangbetu language is Central Sudanic in character (as to a greater extent is Mangbetu culture), yet the people are Bantu and live in the northeastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is believed that during the climate crisis of the little ice age, Sudanic climate refugees fleeing south met a larger Bantu community migrating north and the two groups annealed (with the Sudanic people claiming group leadership). This cultural cross-pollination explains the Mangbetu’s political and technological strength relative to the other peoples of their territory (the Mangbetu conquered their lands and displaced or otherwise dealt with the original inhabitants).

Anyway, these knives were not weapons or tools, but rather ceremonial objects denoting power and status which could be exchanged for goods and services (I guess in the modern world we call such things “money”). As greater globalization reached the Mangbetu in the 19th and 20th centuries, they realized that their valuable ceremonial status knives were valuable to other people as well, and they began to mass produce more and more of them for trade. This means that many of these knives exist but that the quality is not always consistent with the refinement and beauty of early pieces.

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The Flag of the Ashanti (Featuring the Golden Stool)

The most important of Ghana’s crown jewels is not a crown at all but rather the legendary Sika ‘dwa, the Golden Stool which is believed to house the living spirit of all Ashanti people from all time.  According to lore, the Stool descended from heaven into the lap of Osei Tutu, the first Ashanti king in 1701.  At times struggle for control of the Golden Stool has devolved into war–including the eponymous “War for the Golden Stool” which broke out in 1900 when Sir Frederick Hodgson, governor of the British Gold Coast demanded to be allowed to sit on the Stool (which is a ceremonial object which is not meant to be sat upon—or even to directly touch the ground).  Although the conflict left Great Britain in control of Ghana, the Golden Stool was hidden until 1920 when it was discovered and despoiled by a group of laborers who were promptly sentenced to death (although the British administrators commuted the sentence to perpetual banishment).

The Golden Stool of the Ashanti

The stool is 18 inches high, 24 inches long, and 12 inches wide.  It is covered with gold ornaments and has bells attached to it to warn the Ashanti tribe if danger is eminent.  If you are confused by the above photo of the Golden Stool, that is because it is “lying down” (since it is not made to be sat upon anyway).  Below is a picture of another Ashanti stool to give you a better idea of the object’s form.  Even a non-royal, non-gold Ashanti stool is imbued with special meaning which edges toward the supernatural.

A Carved Ashanti Stool (Ghana, mid-20th century)

In 1999, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was crowned as the 16th leader of Ghana’s largest ethnic group, the Ashanti (although at this time in history, the king’s role is ceremonial and he is barred from serving in Ghana’s government).   The golden stool made a fleeting ceremonial appearance before being returned to the secret location where it is kept.  However the royal family has many other crown jewels which are worn on various state occasions—or just in general.  On October 12, 2012, King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II was traveling in Oslo, Norway to attend a conference when jewel thieves made off with a bag containing many of the lesser crown jewels of Ghana (which they stole from the lobby of the Radisson Blu Plaza Hotel).  It seems like the King of the Ashanti might have lost some of the splendid gold headdresses pictured here.

Ashanti King Otumfo Osei-Tutu II

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