Inventory no.: 3111

Yoruba Eshu Figure Cowrie Shells


Eshu (Elegba) Shrine Figure

Yoruba People, Egba Tribe, Abeokuta, Nigeria

circa 1900

height: approximately 34cm, width: approximately 9cm, depth: 26cm

Eshu is one of the most well-known deities in the traditional Yoruba belief system. The Eshu shrine figure here has a superb sculptural presence and a fine, dark patina.

It is well carved, and adorned by strands of cowrie shells. The figure is a female. She is naked and kneeling – a traditional, idyllic representation of generosity and devotion. The figure wears wrist bands, which is further suggestive of her devotion. The breasts are full and pointy, and held forward by both hands. She has big incised nipples. An iron nail pierces each of her knees.

The fingers are finely carved, and the nails are also well defined. The toes have similarly been carved with precision. The buttocks are full and perky. The eyes are bulging and have heavy eyelids. The nose is fine and slightly flared and the lips are full. Three vertical scarifications (

pélé) are incised on her forehead, and three horizontal scarifications (àbàjà) are incised on each cheek. Her body is adorned by further scarification: a cross-hedge diamond-shaped tattoo is on the back, and a similar but smaller one is on the abdomen.

Her coiffure is classically Eshu. The hair is elongated, swept back and incised with triangular fine lines. She wears a hair band made of bottle-shaped gourds, which separates her forehead from the phallic hairstyle. The face that appears at the tip of her phallic hairstyle is important in determining the specific role of this Eshu figure. When represented with two heads, Eshu is the protector of travellers. The deity is also the overseer of crossroads and gatekeeper of all entrances and exits. The metaphor of having two heads signifies intense watchfulness. Generally, Eshu is believed to be male. But Witte (2002, p. 78) argues that Eshu is both male and female. As both male and female, Eshu mediates both sexes and bridges the sexual energies between men and women. Thus, this figure might be regarded as a female devotee of Eshu. But, she might actually represent Eshu herself.

The figure has a dark glossy patina and shows signs of ritual use. But the real tell-tale signs of the age of this piece comes from the patina of the cowrie shells and the leather straps with which they have been attached to the figure.

According to Chemeche (2013, p. 26), Eshu is a trickster who is able to be good and bad, trustful and mischievous, and can deliver prosperity or cause misery. He is the protector of travellers. Most importantly, he is the mediator between the realm of spiritual and mortal worlds. Hence he is the guardian of all rituals. He supervises all the sacrifices to the gods. His long phallic coiffure is unique. It symbolises a power that is both creative and destructive. This power allows him to bless those who perform their rituals properly and correctly with good fortune, and to bring misery to those who do not perform their rituals properly. Eshu is therefore often represented on the shrine alongside other deities.


Abiodun, R., H. J. Drewal & J. Pemberton III, Yoruba: Art and Aesthetics, The Center for African Art and the Rietberg Museum Zurich, 1991.

Bacquart, J. B.,

The Tribal Arts of Africa, Thames & Hudson, 1998.

Chemeche, G.,

Eshu: The Divine Trickster, Antique Collectors’ Club, 2013.

Fagg, W., J. Pemberton III & B. Holcombe,

Yoruba: Sculpture of West Africa, Collins, 1982.

Polo, F.,

Encyclopedia of the Ibeji, Ibeji Art, 2008.

Robbins, W. M. and Nooter, N. I.,

African Art in American Collections, Smithsonian Institution, 1989.

Walker, R. A.,

Olowe of Ise: A Yoruba Sculptor to Kings, National Museum of African Art, 1998.

Witte, H., “The World View and Iconography of the Yoruba” in

Forms of Wonderment: The History and collections of the Afrika Museum Berg en Dal, Afrika Museum Berg en Dal 2002.Provenance:

acquired from the estate of Dr Peter Sharratt (d. 2014). Sharratt was a linguist and lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh who published on Renaissance French sculpture. In his private life, he was an avid collector of tribal art, building up his collection over fifty years. During that time, he bought from UK dealers, collectors and auction houses.

Inventory no.: 3111