Olokun the Owner of Beads

Have you ever looked at various necklaces (elekes) for Olokun and noticed that they vary a great deal from house to house? Obatala Ayaguna you can pretty much tell will be the same wherever you go, with minor variations, the same with Oshun Ibu Kole, and Shango is always red and white. Well, it turns out that Olokun is the original owner of beads. Beads were reserved for the monarchy, who are god-like for the Yoruba. Beads were and are used to adorn royal insignia, the paramount example being the beaded crown.

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Beaded crowns employ a number of devices in their function and imagery. The conical structure denotes ascendency, culminating in a bird like projection that signals the importance of female ancestral power – who is more important than the king? The mother(s) gave birth to the king and it is through a mother’s grace and care that a person may achieve greatness. The faces that appear on the crown are that of Oduduwa, founder of the empire and the starting point for the lineage. Hidden deep within the crown’s structure are powerful medicines: the head must be prepared to carry such a load and live. Finally, the strings of beads veil the face of the king, denoting his otherworldliness and dangerous, supernatural abilities, which is dazzling and dangerous to look at directly, just like the sun. Olokun gives beads to Obatala to make crowns for the noble. The first beads used were coral (Olokun’s gift) and also carnelian, which appears from the land rather than the sea yet shares a similar hue. Today, the few true Yoruba crown makers left are initiated to Obatala in order to carry out their craft. This hints also why it should be Obatala’s iruke that is used in etutu ceremonies, Obatala as bestower of the life-affirming crown must also have a hand in its symbolic removal at the end. Wow, that got deep, no pun intended!

So, if Olokun is owner of all beads, then all beads can be used by and for Olokun worship. This is why I rejoice when I see so many variations in Olokun’s bead patterns – some take crystal, others soap, light blue here, royal blue there. Olokun’s variations are consistent and in keeping with his connection to all beaded arts. S/he just lends them to the other orishas.

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An Edo Benin priestess of Olokun with elaborate coral crown, in front of her Olokun shrine containing urhobo, sacred lime chalk. Photo by Phyllis Galembo.

 

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Here’s a crown of beads I made for Olokun, the two large tassels with tubular, blue beads are attached to the crown. There are four tassels in total. There is also a veil of crystal beads attached to the rim of the crown.

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