REGION: Africa
COUNTRY: Benin (Republic of Dahomey)
VALUE: 30 francs

This stamp was issued by the Republic of Dahomey, the former French colony (called Dahomey Français) comprising the former Kingdom of Dahomey.  French Dahomey became self-governing in 1958, and gained full independence in 1960.  It was renamed Benin in 1975. The stamp depicts the Gelede Dance of the Yoruba people of Nigeria and Benin.


TITLE: Yoruba Gelede Puppet Mask
TYPE: crest mask
DESCRIPTION: Gelede mask with a mounted puppet
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Gelede Society
AGE: ca. 1990s-2000s
OTHER MATERIALS: dyed cotton cloth; string; oil-based paint

The highly populous Yoruba people inhabit much of Nigeria and parts of Benin. The Gelede Society originates in cultural myths about Yemoja, the mother of all living things, who could not conceive children until she learned a dance with a wooden image on her head. The Gelede is named after Yemoja’s chubby daughter, and the dance therefore has a close connection with fertility rites. Nonetheless, the Gelede ceremony performs diverse functions in Yoruba society, including to pray for rain, purify the village of disease, to enlist spiritual help in wartime, and to honor the dead.

This mask is an example of a work made for sale to the tourist market.  It has been lightly but artificially aged to appear older. Nonetheless, the care and artistry of the mask make it suitable for ceremonial use. The puppet on the head has strings that pass through the wooden plank on which it sits, allowing the wearer to move his arms about by pulling the strings.  Most Gelede masks are static, but animated masks sometimes make an appearance, especially in the Efe dance, which satirizes and ridicules immoral behavior.

For more on the Gelede ceremony, see Babatunde Lawal’s incomparable monograph, The Gelede Spectacle (University of Washington Press, 1996).