Among the Yoruba, each oba (ruler) has authority over a city-state, a city or town and its surrounding territories. For ceremonial occasions, the oba wears a conical beaded crown within which are sealed powerful herbal medicines. The tiny glass beads used here are typical for crowns made in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when Yoruba beadworkers (who were always male) replaced the traditional red beads of coral or carnelian with multicolored glass “seed beads” obtained through trade with Europeans.
Faces on either side of the crown may refer to Olokun, god of the sea and “owner of the beads”; to ancestors of the oba; or to the “inner [spiritual] face” of the oba himself. They also serve as a reminder that the oba sees and hears all, even that which takes place behind his back. Other designs include an interlace pattern symbolic of the ruler’s power, and zigzag motifs representing energy and/or the lightning bolts of the god Shango. The elongated shape of the crown emphasizes the importance of the head, which the Yoruba believe to be the center of an individual’s character, destiny, and spirituality.
Although generally well preserved, the crown may have suffered some losses. Often a veil of beads hangs over the oba’s face, separating him from earthly concerns and uniting him with the spiritual realm. In addition, a three-dimensional beaded bird may surmount such a crown as a symbol of the spiritual power of older women, called “our mothers,” whose support and cooperation is essential to the oba’s successful rule. It is also possible that the crown never had these features, for rulers wore simpler or more elaborate conical crowns, depending on the occasion.