Gelede mask with snakes and birds
Yoruba gelede mask
(This object is no longer in my collection)
Masks like this are worn by men in elaborate masquerade performances known as "Gelede." This ritual takes place each year between March
and May, at the beginning of a new agricultural season. The purpose of the performance is to pay tribute to the special power of women, both
elders and ancestors, who are known affectionately as "our mothers." Women can use a spiritual life force, ase, which can be creative or
destructive. When these powers are used destructively, women are called aje (witch), and, if angered, are believed to have the capacity to
destroy individuals or entire communities. The masquerade provides an opportunity for "our mothers" to be placated or pampered so that they
do not use their destructive powers against the Yoruba people; instead they encourage rain and fertile soil.

The masks are worn at an angle on the top of the head, with pairs of men wearing similar masks. The masquerade has an elaborate and bulky
costume, emphasizing the breasts and buttocks of the woman it represents, showing the desired fatness of a beautiful and graceful woman. The
identity of the wearer is not secret; he can be seen through the transparent cloth worn over the face, and he can unmask in public. The name of
the dancer may be given in the song which accompanies his act, making him the subject of praise or criticism, depending on the skill and rhythm
of his performance. Drumming and singing, essential features of the performance, accompany the strictly choreographed dance. The harmony
and balance demonstrated by good dancers shape a metaphor for social perfection, where people help one another, share their wealth and
talents, and enjoy the life they have been given.

The Gelede headdress often consists of two parts, a lower mask and an upper superstructure. The lower mask depicts a woman's face, its
composure expressing the qualities of calmness, patience, and "coolness" desired in women. The static expression and simplicity of this portion
of the headdress contrasts with vitality and diversity of the superstructure. The design of the superstructure is intended to placate the mothers
by displaying their inner powers for all to see, thus pleasing them and ensuring the well-being of the community.

One source states that birds signify the dangerous nocturnal powers of women who act as witches. Snakes symbolize the positive feminine
qualities of patience and coolness.  A snake coiled around the front also cautions vigilance with the saying "the snake sleeps but continues to
see." Gelede artists demonstrate their artistry and mastery of the medium by developing complex imagery within the confines of the basic
cylindrical mass of wood.

Another source states that masks with birds represent the "messenger of the mothers" while snakes represent "power".

I think the symbolism portrayed in my mask is great. I am still learning about the Gelede and Epa masks and the symbolism, there is a huge
degree of variation in these masks from the very simple to the extremely ornate.

My "initial impression" of my mask was:
Birds are very protective mothers and snakes are generally thought of as evil. In this mask you have a group of snakes and two of them are
clasping one of the bird's eggs between them. The bird has the body of one of the snakes in her mouth fighting to protect her egg(s). The
mother bird protecting her eggs/future children against the powers of evil, the snakes.

Further research uncovered the following:

"One of the most recurrent themes on Gelede headdresses is that of two fighting animals. Many informants identified this motif as either ijdkadl
(combat) or ajangbila (fight to the end). In one example, what looks like the poisonous stink rat (Asinrin) bites the body of a snake, while the
latter strikes back (H. Drewal 1974b: pi. 11).

Sometimes, a bird fights a snake or carries it in its beak. On one headdress, a snake seizes a crocodile, which in turn attacks another snake.
According to art historian Rudolf Wittkower, the bird-and-snake motif has been inspired by real-life observations of struggles between the two
creatures: 'The most powerful bird [the eagle] was fighting the most dangerous of reptiles. The greatness of the combat gave this event an
almost cosmic significance" (1977:16). Jacques Bernolles has suggested that the occurrence of the bird and snake motif on Gelede might
indicate a relationship of some sort with similar representation in ancient India, arguing that it represents the struggle between the elements of
the sky (bird) and the earth (snake/serpent) (1973:26, 32). This hypothesis is weakened by the fact that many Gelede headdresses depict two
terrestrial animals in a similar struggle.

Henry and Margaret Drewal, on the other hand, suggest that this theme may very well symbolize the competing forces in the Yoruba cosmos.
This is more likely though the Drewals do not elaborate. When I showed photographs of the theme to informants in the field, however, a majority
interpreted it as a visual metaphor for eso (carefulness) or pelepele (caution). I did not grasp the full import until a Ketu elder related the theme
to a popular Yorubi proverb:
Adie ba l'okun. Ara ko ro okun. Ara ko ro adie. (A fowl perches on a rope. The rope feels uneasy; the fowl also
feels uneasy.) Describing a tense situation, a strained relationship, or a mutually destructive encounter  between two stubborn parties, this
proverb is often used by the Yoruba to plead for caution in a risky venture, as the outcome is unpredictable. With this proverb in mind, the theme
of fighting creatures becomes more meaningful. As the two creatures are rendered in such a way that it is difficult to predict which will survive the
combat, this theme seems to warn of the dangers of violence in human society and appeals for a peaceful solution to all problems. For life is so

The bird-and-snake motif occurs on other Yoruba art forms as well, especially on Epa headdresses and on figurated Ifa divination cups (Fagg
and Pemberton 1982: pi. 63). But no consensus exists as to its meaning in these non-Gelede contexts. While some informants (in 0yo, Ekiti, and
Igbdmina areas) identify the motif as a metaphor for potential crisis or trouble (ijogbon, isoro), which could be averted through prudence,
divination, and rituals, others perceive it as a carver's record of a natural event with no more than a decorative function.

Certain individuals resort to the use of force because they think that they can overpower their supposedly weaker opponent. It often turns out in
the end, however, that the aggressor has miscalculated and is overwhelmed by the concealed and lethal power of the seemingly defenseless
opponent. The dangers inherent in arrogance, tyranny, wickedness, foolhardiness, or social injustice are exemplified by the motif of a snake
attempting to swallow a porcupine or tortoise, whose sharp quills or hard  shell will in the long run destroy the predator.
Hence, the popular warning: Kikere I'abere kere, ki i se miml f'adie. (Small as a needle may be, a  fowl must not swallow it.)"
Source: The Gelede Spectacle
Called abaja, these three short horizontal lines adorn each cheek.
The mark is popular in the Oyo, Egba, Egbado, Ketu, and several communities in southwestern Yorubaland.
Examples below for reference purposes
A photo of a Gelede mask with snakes and birds from the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
There are a LOT more Yoruba masquerade photos in the archives
Gelede headdress featuring a cock and a snake locked in a fight to the end
(ajangbila). Struggling to free itself, the snake bites the right leg of the cock,
twisting its tail round the left leg— another variation on the theme of caution.
Wood, pigment, h. 13 inches.
Gelede headdress featuring a fowl (adie) pecking at snake, which in turn
seizes the fowl by the leg, recalling the popular Yoruba proverb:

A fowl perches on a rope; the rope feels uneasy; the fowl also feels uneasy.
Describing a mutually perilous encounter, this proverb warns of the dangers
of violence within society's delicate balance. Wood, pigment, h. 8 inches.
Identical pair of masks dancing in Ijio (1969)
From the book: The Gelede Spectacle
Gelede headdress with 2 pythons attempting to swallow a tortise. This
motif also occurs in the repertoire of Apidan (theatrical Engungun)
masks to warn against imprudence. In the Apidan, when a python
succeeds in swallowing a tortoise, it chokes to death.

From the book: The Gelede Spectacle
Yoruba gelede mask and costume
in the display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York
Gelede Dancer with mask with two snakes devouring antelopes 1971
MASK [90.2/ 82]
Culture: YORUBA  
Locale: MEKO
Country: NIGERIA
Dimensions: W:34.5 H:31 [in CM]
Acquisition Year: 1951
Exhibition History: SPIRITS IN STEEL (AMNH , NEW YORK, NY, 1997)
American Museum of Natural History in New York
MASK [90.2/ 7691]
Culture: YORUBA  
Country: NIGERIA
Dimensions: L:32 W:25 H:22 [in CM]
Donor: WEISS
Acquisition Year: 1983
American Museum of Natural History in New York
MASK [90.2/ 5976]
Culture: YORUBA  
Country: NIGERIA?
Dimensions: W:25 H:22 [in CM]
Acquisition Year: 1972
American Museum of Natural History in New York
Society: Yoruba
Location: Nigeria
Image Source: Bayly Art Museum

This mask belongs to the Gelede cult which honors the power of women. Yet Gelede is only one part of the cult, the diurnal half, Efe being the
noctural other half. Efe/Gelede ceremonies usually take place at the beginning of an agricultural cycle, at funerals, or at times of need such as
drought or disease. The occurance of the masked dance is determined by the female cult head, iyalase (Drewal 552).

The Gelede festival pays tribute to female mystical power of ancestors, elders, and dieties. These women are known as "our mothers." The
power of "our mothers" is at once constructive, relating to fertility, knowledge of the secret of life, and also destructive, a surreptitious power,
aje, which is more like witchcraft. (Drewal and Drewal 8)

The Gelede festival takes place in the marketplace for several reasons. The marketplace is seen as a metaphor for the world, it is a place
where mortals and spirits mingle, and it is the domain of women. Women control trading and they are economically independent, therefore the
marketplace is a setting full of female power and presence. (10)

The Gelede dancers are men, yet they represent both men and women in the performance. The dancers embody the inner natures and
generalized roles of men and women.

The mask above, from the Bayly Art Museum, is a female mask. The lower face represents the idealized outer, visible head of a female. It is
perfectly calm and poised, showing no emotion. She is like all of "our mothers": patient and powerful in a covert manner (15). This idea is also
represented in the female dance which is powerful yet restrained, while the male dance is more violent and aggressive (151). The
superstructure above the face represents a woman's inner head, the place of her mystical power. This mask shows snakes and bird. The
former often associated with women because they are nocturnal creatures, and the latter because it is thought that women and birds have
similar clairvoyant powers (15).

As can be seen in the photographs of a Gelede dance, the dancer is hidden under a costume of brightly colored cloths. These cloths come
from "a multitude of women's head ties, baby wrappers, and skirts tied in varrious ways" (120). The borrowing of cloth from all the women of
the village is another thread tying together Gelede's unifying theme of "Our Mothers".
Mask for Gelede Masquerade

Before 1886. Yoruba. Wood. Nigeria. British Museum:
Ethno 1887.2-3.1.
H: 56 cm.

This was used in a traditional rite of the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the Gelede dance. The
primary Yoruba deities Ifa (divination), Eshu/Elegba (trickster), Ogun (iron and war) and
Shango (lightning and thunder) are all depicted, as the Gelede influences fertility, life and death.

The British Museum

Photo Credit:
The British Museum
Ceremonial Mask (Gelede), n.d.
Yoruba Peoples, Nigeria
Carved wood (polychrome), 14" h
Gift of Dr. Jeff R. Donaldson, 1992
Howard University art gallery
Mask (Efe/Gelede), about 1940-1962
Yoruba people
wood, paint
Ball State University Museum of Art
Yoruba gelede mask
Metropolitan Museum of Art - NY
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : Nov 11, 2004


Anago region, of domed form, the sensitively carved face with full features, incised
scarification and prominent almond-shaped eyes with pierced slits and wearing an elaborate
transversely crested coiffure with pendant flanges; fine deep brown surface with areas of blue

height 13in. 33cm

Estimate:$ 15,000 - $ 20,000  
Price Realized:$ 14,400

Eric Robertson, New York

Cf. Fagg, Pemberton and Holcombe (1982: plates 5 and 49) for other Gelede masks from the
Anago region. This mask was carved in a very similar tradition to the two aforementioned
masks by an unknown 19th century carver.

According to Drewal (1974: 14) four broad categories exist for the Gelede ceremony: role
recognition, satire, hierarchy and commemoration. Without specific field data it is almost
impossible to determine the specific message of each Gelede mask. This mask could
represent a display of a fashionable female coiffure or an important woman in the community
(Fagg et al, 1982: 116). Alternatively, it could represent a priest of the god of thunder and
lightening, orisha, Shango. In a praise song for Shango it is said that 'the back of his head is
like a rainbow'. Therefore, he is sometimes represented with a transversely plaited coiffure,
similar to a woman's coiffure. 'Shango priests, when on the god's business...don female dress
and hairstyles....Empowered by his orisha, [the priest] articulates the troubling ambiguities that
pervade human experience' (ibid. : 156).
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : Nov 11, 2004


of domed form and pierced at the perimeter, the face with sensitively carved features, including delicately pursed lips beneath the large,
diamond-shaped eyes with circular pierced pupils, and the gently sloping forehead framed by curvilinear ears and wearing an
elaborately plaited crested coiffure; varied blackened surface dusted with red mineral pigment.

height 11in. 28cm

Estimate:$ 20,000 - $ 25,000  
Price Realized:$ 24,000


Eric Robertson, New York

Phillips, ed., Africa: The Art of a Continent, 1995: 148, number 175, catalogue of the exhibition, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New
York, June 7 - September 29, 1996

The Gelede Society ceremony is performed primarily among the western Yoruba around the Nigeria-Benin border. Intended for
instruction and reinforcement of Yoruba social values, the ceremonies are held during funerals of dignitaries and during times of crisis.
This men's society believe that women possess special powers, ashe, and during ceremonies the society calls upon these powers for
beneficent use. Many different members of the community are represented during the ceremony.

This sensitive and idiosyncratic mask, which exhibits great attention to symmetry and proportion on the part of the carver, wears the
elaborate plaited coiffure of a priest or royal messenger.
Sotheby's - New York
African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art
Auction Date : May 12, 2005


of large proportions, the helmet-shaped headdress with a typical stylized face supporting an
elaborate superstructure comprised of three seated figures in a blacksmith-shop scene
beneath a pitched roof; aged surface decorated with red, white and blue pigment.

Carlo Monzino Collection

Cf. Roberts (1998: 14) for a related mask from the collection of the Toledo Museum of Art and
Sotheby's New York, May 17, 2002, lot 37 for another. The offered mask originates from the
Ketu region and is almost certainly from the same workshop as the two cited herewith based
on the stylistic qualities and the unique composition.

Worn in performances by the Gelede society, all Gelede masks consist of a regal human face,
referred as the face of equanimity. Above this face is a platform for conveying the ideals of the
Gelede society through social commentary. In the offered mask, a blacksmith's workshop is
portrayed. 'While the Gelede masks honor all professions, metalworking is a highly charged
metaphor for the concepts of birth and generation, for blacksmiths are considered to be
masters of transformation and metamorphosis' (Roberts ibid. : 15).

height 27in. by width 19in. 68.5cm by 48.3

Estimate:$ 5,000 - $ 8,000  
Price Realized:$ 4,800


3,000—5,000 USD
Lot Sold.  Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium:   3,585 USD
length 17 1/2in. 44.5cm

of helmet-like form, the protruding face with pendant beard and
typical features wearing an elaborate headdress with ridged tresses
and surmounted by a drum; varied surface with areas of red, white
and blue pigment.
A FANTASTIC reference book on the Gelede masks!