Facts About the Altar Tableau, a Symbol of Female Power in the Ancient Benin Kingdom

The Altar Tableau was one of the Kingdom of Benin’s most significant ancestral altars. It may appear to outsiders as one of many ancient African antiquities, but it was put at the level of the king’s senior advisors in the political hierarchy of the ancient governing elite of the kingdom. This is because the cast brass tableau, or urhoto, was always kept at the reigning king’s palace and was only sculpted after the king’s mother died.

It was designed to represent the queen mother when she was not present and to signify her position in the royal court. The queen mother was regarded the spiritual guardian of the monarch while she was alive, and once she died, the responsibility of safeguarding the king from his adversaries and ensuring the kingdom prospered continued until the king’s reign ended.

The installation of the altar began with the construction of a massive semi-circular mud platform on which a replica figure of the queen was installed, surrounded by sculptured female servants. Her body was adorned with an elaborate ceremonial gown that reflected her significance and had a teardrop-shaped coral bead headpiece to emphasize her stature. This summed up the queen’s importance in the framework of her Royal position.

Even after her death, it was expected that she would continue to enjoy all of the luxuries and benefits enjoyed by male title holders at the king’s court. Her sculpture was flanked by two young women who stood at opposite ends of the queen, emphasizing her prominence when she appeared in state. The decorations used to decorate the sculptured maidens denoted purity and grooming for marriage to the monarch or significant political people. A pair of male sculptures were created to hold shields above the queen’s head to represent refuge from the elements.


According to Imo Dara, the altar’s main purpose was to commemorate the queen mother’s achievements while also serving as a means of communication between the monarch and the queen. This explains the meaning of the nine statues on the rectangle foundation with a square entrance in the center of the altar, which depict attendants at her disposal.

The mudfish and elephant trunks flanking her represent her strength, which is required to protect the king and preserve his good health at all times. According to the Met Museum, this is reinforced by sacrifice gifts of goat and ram heads put on the sides of the figure beings.

Written by PH

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