Herbalist's Staff

Accession Number

Herbalist's Staff


Artist Nationality
Yoruba (culture or style)

Object Creation Date
early 20th century

Medium & Support

25 4/5 in x 10 ⅝ in x 11 7/16 in (65.56 cm x 26.99 cm x 29.05 cm);6 ⅛ in x 6 in x 6 1/16 in (15.56 cm x 15.24 cm x 15.4 cm)

Credit Line
Gift and partial purchase from the estate of Kurt Delbanco in honor of Nicholas Delbanco

Subject matter
Herbalists or onísègùn in the Yoruba language, those that mastered the healing properties of plants were followers of Osanyin, the Yoruba orisa (god) of herbal medicines. They often carried a staff, or opa, such as this one, called opa Osanyin. The staff acted as an altar to Osanyin, as the large bird on top carried messages between the physical world, aye, and the spirit world, orun. Rising above the others, the central bird also mirrored the power of Osanyin over humanity and his knowledge of herbal medicine to protect them. While this staff has 14 birds in a circle, some could have as many as 16, which Yoruba-speaking peoples considered a powerful number. Birds have also been found on the beaded regalia of obas, or sacred kings. These images were used to convery the spiritual power of women, but in the context of such staffs, the birds acted as a warning: a herbalist understood the power of women and if used to harm others, the herbalist's knowledge of medicine could counteract potential harm. 

References Cited:
Drewal, Henry John, John Pemberton and Rowland O. Abiodun. 1989. Yoruba: Nine Centuries of African Art and Thought. New York: Center for African Art.
Lawal, Babatunde. 2012. Visions of Africa: Yoruba. Milan: 5 Continents Editions.
Thompson, Robert Farris. 1983. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House.

Physical Description
Iron staff with a circle of 14 small birds surrounding a large, central bird, which is topped by a smaller bird. 

Primary Object Classification

Collection Area

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birds (motifs)

& Author Notes

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