The oba of Benin is a sacred monarch, a living link to the powerful realm of ancestors and deities. He is considered to be beyond the needs and restraints that limit humankind, such as eating, sleeping, illness, and even death. The oba is referred to metaphorically as “the leopard of the house,” and images of the beautiful, cunning, and immensely dangerous cat appear frequently in Benin’s royal arts. Before the British invasion in 1897, domesticated leopards were kept in the palace to demonstrate the oba’s mastery over the wilderness. Leopard imagery is also frequently linked to the oba’s military might.

The oba’s divine right to rule is reiterated in his regalia. His coral crowns, shirts, aprons, necklaces, and accessories refer to those that Oba Ewuare is said to have stolen from Olokun, the god of the waters and prosperity. Coral and red stones such as jasper and agate are also filled with supernatural energy, or ase, as are elephant ivory and brass, two other valuable materials that the oba has historically controlled.

Despite his divine status, the oba cannot rule alone. He must rely on others to fulfill his destiny, a dependence that is physically expressed when he walks or sits with his arms supported at the elbows and wrists by attendants. They help him bear the weight of his regalia, a constant reminder of the burden of kingship.

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Pair of Leopards, 16th/18th century. Edo; Benin Kingdom, Nigeria. The National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, 52.13.1–2.