BY Stephen Nartey, 9:00am March 09, 2023,

Remarkable facts about the Altar Tableau, a symbol of female power in the ancient Benin Kingdom

Altar Tableau/Photo credit: Met Museum

The Altar Tableau was one of the most powerful ancestral altars in the Kingdom of Benin. It may pass to outsiders as one of many ancient African relics, but in the political hierarchy of the ancient ruling elite of the kingdom, it was placed at the level of the top advisors of the king. This is because the cast brass tableau or urhoto always sat in the palace of the reigning king, and was only carved when the king’s mother passed away.

It was created to represent the queen mother in her absence and symbolized her position in the royal court. While alive, the queen mother was considered the spiritual protector of the king, and once she passed away, the task of protecting the king against his enemies and ensuring the kingdom prospered didn’t end with her demise until the reign of the king came to an end.

The institution of the altar began with the mounting of a large semi-circular mud platform, on which a replica figure of the queen was placed with sculptured female servants surrounding her. Her figure was embellished with an elegant ceremonial dress to reflect her prominence, which included a teardrop-shaped coral bead crown to highlight her stature. This summed up the significance of the queen in the scheme of her Royal ranking.

Even after her death, it was believed she would continue to enjoy all the luxury and privileges of male title holders in the king’s court. Her sculpture was flanked by the figures of two young women who stood at both ends of the queen, reinforcing her importance when appearing in the state. The ornaments used to decorate the sculptured maidens signified them as pure and groomed for marriage to the king or major political figures. A pair of male sculptures were designed to hold shields above the queen’s head to signify shelter against the vagaries of the weather.

One major significance of the altar was to celebrate the accomplishments of the queen mother and also serve as a vehicle of communication between the king and the queen, according to Imo Dara. This explains the essence of the nine sculptures placed on the rectangular base with a square opening at the center of the altar, which represents servants at her beck and call.

The mudfish and elephant trunks with hands holding leaves that flank her signify her strength, one that is needed to protect the king and ensure his good health at all times. According to Met Museum, this is fortified by the sacrificial offerings in the form of goat and ram heads which are placed on the sides of the figure beings.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: March 9, 2023

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