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Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Oba Adémuwagun Adésida II ( photo taken in 1959)

Hey! Have you in any way been affiliated with or interacted with the internet in the last two decades? If so, you have probably received a heartfelt plea for assistance from a deposed/dispossessed/dispirited Nigerian prince.  This famous email scam requested a small amount of money upfront in exchange for a big chunk of the royal treasury once the hapless royal heir ascended to his (grammatically shaky) throne.  Since Nigeria is a federated republic (and since this was, to reiterate, a scam), nobody ever received the royal payola.  However there is a kernel of historical truth within the confidence trick: Nigeria was once an assortment of kingdoms, emirates, and tribal lands which was annealed together by the British.  Each of these principalities (or state-like entities) had a ruler, and, although they were stripped of legal power during the colonial era, the various eclectic potentates have held onto ceremonial, spiritual, and cultural authority.

Yoruba Ade

Yoruba Ade

All of which is to say, there are no Nigerian princes, but there are prince-like beings, each of whom has a different set of royal regalia.   These “crown jewels” take the form of thrones, statues, “magical” items, and royal outfits…including sacred headdresses.  The Yoruba people (who constitute the majority of Nigeria’s ever-increasing population) vested particular authority in ceremonial “crowns” known as ades.  An ade is a conical beaded cap usually decorated with beads and faces.  The kings of the Yoruba people styled themselves as “obas” (an oba being a sort of combination of king, high priest, and chief).  The symbol of the oba’s authority was his ade—his crown (or for a high obas–the “adenla” which means “great crown”).

Beaded Crown "Ade" (ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Beaded Crown “Ade”
(ca. 20th Century; Glass beads, cloth, thread, and basketry)

Obas were the powerful rulers of the Yoruba and their ades were the ceremonial font of their authority.  This power was connected to the numinous world of spirits, gods, and orishas (which this blog has glanced upon in talking about voodoo—the syncretic new world religion based on Yoruba spiritual concepts). To quote the British Museum’s culturally suspect (but nicely written) website:

Beaded and veiled crowns…are traditionally worn by those kings who could trace their ancestry to Ododua, the mythic founder and first king of the Yoruba people. The crown is called an orisha, a deity, and is placed upon the king’s head by his female attendant. Powerful medicines are placed at the top of the crown to protect the king’s head and thus his future. The veil that covers the king’s face hides his individuality and increases attention on the crown itself, the real centre of power. The birds decorating the crown represent the royal bird, okin.

Originally ades had long beaded veils to conceal the faces of their wearers, but European ideas about royal headwear influenced the makers, and many more recent examples of the craft resemble European crowns.  The beautiful beadwork and impressive otherworldly artistry of ades has made them popular—so some of these examples may be constructed for the tourist trade.  Nevertheless, the Yoruba ade is a very impressive sort of crown.  Here is a little gallery of online images of ades.

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Ade Oba (by ÌMÒ DÁRA)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba's Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

Yoruba Beaded Ade (Oba’s Crown) from Southwest Nigeria (Barakat Gallery)

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Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

Ade Olójúmérìndilógún, (with 16 faces) from Formação da Cultura Yoruba

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Chief's hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

Chief’s hat from the Yoruba tribe in Nigeria (ca. 1940)

 

The concept of crowns—ceremonial headdresses which indicate leadership–is ancient.  If contemporary tribal society is any indication, the concept of providing kings, chiefs, and high priests with fancy hats to mark their status predates civilization.  But whether that is the case or not we conclusively know that the concept goes back to the very beginning of civilization because we have textual evidence, and, more importantly, we have magnificent physical evidence!  Here is the headdress of Puabi, an important noblewoman in the city of Ur, during the Ur’s First Dynasty (ca. 2600 BC).

The Headdress of Puabi (ca. 2600 BC, gold)

It is not clear whether Puabi was a queen or a high priestess: her title “nin” or “eresh” was applied to queens, high priestesses, and goddesses.  Perhaps the distinction was not meaningful to her Sumerian subjects.  Puabi is also known as Shubad in Sumerian (although evidence indicates that she was Akkadian/Semitic).  She lived at a time when Ur was one of the largest cities on earth. 

A picture of Puabi's crown/headdress as it was probably worn (i.e. over a thick wig)

The crown of Puabi was discovered by Sir Leonard Woolley in 1928 (when the great archeologist was half way through a 12 year series of excavations in Ur’s “Royal Cemetery”).  The tomb had never been discovered by looters and it contained a treasure trove of precious grave goods including a chariot, a variety of jewelry, a set of golden tableware, and the remains of two golden lyres.

A reconstruction of the lyre (made with original pieces) from the British Museum

Puabi did not merely take riches with her to the next world. Her tomb also contained the remains of several oxen and 26 human attendants (most likely sent along with the Nim by means of poison). Most of these attendants were discovered in a central chamber of the tomb structure (which Woolley colorfully, and aptly, called a “death pit”).  The queen was buried in state a sumptuous treasure chamber with only three other retainers.  The Oriental Institute website provides a more complete description of Puabi’s dead attendants:

Puabi’s death pit contained the remains of more than a dozen retainers, most of whom were women. The approach to the pit appeared to have been guarded like that of the king [whose looted grave was found nearby], in this case by five men with copper daggers. The vehicle here was a sled, pulled by two oxen, and accompanied by four grooms. Other attendants within Puabi’s pit included ten women, all wearing elaborate headdresses, positioned in two rows “facing” one another and accompanied by musical instruments

The Oriental Institute goes to pains to point out that human sacrifice and mass suicide remain speculative and that “scholars have failed to come to any consensus concerning the exact beliefs and practices behind the royal tombs at Ur.”  I am going to ignore those august words and rely on the (heavy) circumstantial evidence of all those extra corpses to say “human sacrifice”.

Woolley's Diagram of the Tomb of Puabi

Puabi herself was about 40 years old when she died and she only stood 1.5 meters (5 feet) tall.  Although she may have been tiny, the stature of her city-state was rapidly rising at the time.  Ur was located near the mouth of the Euphrates and its location allowed it to grow wealthy from trade.  At the time of Puabi, it was beginning to rival Uruk (its predecessor) and it had long eclipsed ancient Eridu, the first of the Mesopotamian city-states.

An artist's reconstruction of the city-state of Ur

Phoenix crown worn by Emperor Wanli’ s Empress Xiaoduan, Wanli period (1573-1620), Ming Dynasty.

In Dynastic China the most important ceremonial objects around which the Emperor’s power was focused was not a crown but rather the imperial seals.  However that does not mean that ornate jeweled crowns were not a part of court life. Phoenix crowns were worn by the empress and other exalted noblewomen on ceremonial occasions.  These headdresses were adorned with intricate sculptures of dragons, phoenixes, and pheasants made from precious materials.  The crowns were highly ornamental and were literally encrusted with gold, turquoise, kingfisher feathers, pearls, and gemstones.

The 6-dragon-3-phoenix crown of a Ming dynasty Empress (3 of the dragons are at the back of the crown)

First crafted in the Tang Dynasty, phoenix crowns changed many times in accordance with Chinese fashion but they found their greatest era of popularity in the Ming dynasty when the wearer’s status was indicated by the number of dragons, phoenixes and pheasants on her crown.  The empress was allowed to wear a crown with 12 dragons and 9 phoenixes, but a less-favored concubine or minor princess might be forced to endure a mere 7 pheasants.

Wu Zetian (624-705 AD) the only de facto ruling Empress of China, shown wearing a Phoenix Crown in the Tang Era

A Phoenix Crown adorning a Song Dynasty Empress (from a Song portrait painting)

Phoenix Crown by 张雅涵

Phoenix crowns—or similarly elaborate jeweled crowns are also associated with weddings and the juxtaposition of the bride’s red robes (red is the super magic happy lucky color of China) against the bright blue of the turquoise and kingfisher feathers makes for a bold visual presentation.

Traditional Chinese Wedding Garb

Traditional Chinese Wedding

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