Font size: +

House of the Head

Orí, the Head
Orí, the Yoruba word for head is also the complicated god of the head and destiny in the Yoruban pantheon. In the traditional Yoruba religion of southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, before one is born they stand before a wall of potential destinies and choose their own ìbòrí, which directly translates to ‘inner head’ but as with Orí likewise indicates one’s fate. Though Orí and an individual’s ìbòríare abstract concepts, one’s ìbòríalso takes the physical form of a small, conical structure of the same name. The immense job of protecting ìbòríis given to a larger but otherwise similarly constructed container of leather and cowrie shell, the ìlé orí, home for the head. This post examines the symbolic importance of some of the elements of the bird-topped ìlé orí in the Bowers Museum’s African Collection.
House of the Head (Ile Ori), 19th to 20thCentury
Yoruba culture; Nigeria, Benin, or Togo, Africa
Fabric, cowrie shell, leather, canvas and mirror; 23 1/2 x 9 in.
Gift of James and Gladys Strain


Detail shot of the cowrie shells covering 2004.60.3.
Cowrie Shells: More than Money
Cowrie shells, the primary medium of both ìbòrí and ìlé orí, were first introduced to Yorubaland in the 15thCentury, becoming widespread by the 16th Century. These small white shells are vitally important as currency and either a symbol of good fortune or fertility throughout much of the world. Despite this, it was rare that they would take on a form so intricately tied to the spiritual one of ìbòrí. It was the good fortune associated with cowrie shells that led to their use in ìbòrí and ìlé orí. Completely, coated in row after row of these shells the symbolism is obvious: literally, one’s fate is surrounded by good fortune. As a currency, though, the use of cowrie shells in this way had serious financial ramifications. The below Yoruba saying indicates flawed logic of those who would remain wealthy and neglect their ìbòrí, as a hole in either the ìbòrí or the ìlé orí would cause their concentrated power to diminish.
“Tightly packed and plentiful is money
used in making Ori’s house,
But loose and free are the beads of the wealthy.”
The ìlé oríespecially was an investment with no option for early termination. Some of these shrines held as many as 12,000 cowrie shells. As for the eventual fate of the cowrie shells, after death the ìbòríand ìlé orí are shattered over the grave of the deceased. Some sources indicate that the cowrie shells were later collected by the family to be reused, but other sources note that these remains were buried with the dead. Archeological evidence from Yorubaland sites seems to confirm that the former is the case.
The beaded bird finial atop 2004.60.2.
The Birds and the Beads
The house of the head was decorated to be as ornate as possible. With this ìlé orí, we can see this in the attached mirrors—a fascinating note considering that it is a container for one’s self—as well as the beadwork bird on the shrine’s apex. Both beads and birds held extremely important symbolic meaning in the culture of the Yoruba, with birds specifically existing as symbols of the soul, and by their popular use adorning the crowns of the Yoruba as symbols of leadership. It was thought that at birth the divine essence flies into people like a bird and escapes from the mouth upon death. The parallelism between this and the ìbòrí which floated around inside the head was strong enough that birds feature heavily into the rituals surrounding ìbòrí. It has been posited as well that the conical shape of ìbòrí and ìlé orí stems from the beak of a bird, though local archaeological evidence from the 13th and 14thCenturies indicates that even then the cone was independently a symbol of personhood.
A Last Thought
Various factors including the large scale, bird finial, and open design of the top indicate that this ìlé orí was made for and used by rulers. Why exactly this ìlé orí was not shattered when its royal owner passed away is unclear, the likeliest answer being that they converted to either Islam or Christianity during their lifetime. Whatever the case, these houses of the head are now empty, with no destinies contained within; obscured under a fine coating of dust, the only evidence of personhood to be seen is in the reflection of its mirrors.

Text and images may be under copyright. Please contact Collection Department for permission to use. Information subject to change upon further research.
Fijian Kiakavo Dance Clubs
Perfect Rings: Dimbo of Cenderawasih Bay

Related Posts



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Sunday, 14 April 2024

Captcha Image


2002 North Main Street
Santa Ana, California 92706
TEL: 714.567.3600

Follow Us On

Bowers Hours

Tuesday - Sunday
10:00 am - 4:00 pm
Closed on:
Fourth of July
New Year's Day