Elephant tooth

19. Jahrhundert

About the object

In the ancient Kingdom of Benin, carved elephant tusks were attached to commemorative heads. Only a small circle of the initiated was able or permitted to "read" the carvings on the teeth. The carved tusks were regarded as a symbolic link between this world and the next. Elephants stood for power and longevity. The colour white symbolised purity, prosperity and peace.
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Richly carved ivory tusks were important components of the ancestral altars in the court of Benin. Their motifs tell of historical events or are of cultic origin. This interlace ornament is emblematic for the guild of ivory carvers. Ceremonial swords of dignitaries are frequent motifs, as well as representations of the hingemouth (Phractolaemus ansorgii). They stand for prosperity, peace and fertility. The wels catfish is a symbol of the king's relationship with Olokun, the god of water. Ivory was not only a valuable trading commodity of West Africa, it symbolised the ruler, standing for wisdom, strength, leadership and political power. From the 19th century onwards, tusks were inserted into the bronze heads. Unified in this way, they represent the king's connection with the realm of invisible, ancestors and gods. This ivory tusk was acquired privately in 1903 by a Hamburg dealer for the museum in Freiburg. Translation: Timothy Connell

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