The identity of the bird of prophecy depicted on Benin ideophones is enigmatic. The iconic brass castings of this bird serve as a reminder of the Benin-Idah War of ca. 1515–1517 and offer one of the visual props of that event among the do (Bini) who inhabit what is now do State in southern Nigeria. As a commemorative icon the bird of prophecy ideophone is used at Ugie r (Festival of the Bird of Prophecy). Senior chiefs clack a brass casting of the bird to commemorate the war and honor the ba of Benin. The Uzama chiefs clack an ivory horseback figure that could be the Atah of Idah, as I wrote in one essay (Nevadomsky 1986) or the do (Bini) king as I wrote in another (Nevadomsky 1993). This ceremony occurs over a period of several weeks just before the rainy season.
The oral traditions of the Benin-Idah War offer several memorable markers. The exquisite Idia ivory hip mask is distinctive, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of two almost identical masks, with its more sublime counterpart in the British Museum in London. The Met pendant, part of the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, is modeled with an openwork tiara and collar of Portuguese mercenaries and mudfish, the latter representing the mediators between land and water, an apt artistic way to depict the visiting Portuguese from abroad. Another distinctive marker is the Queen Mother cult that acknowledges her historical importance, and there are the Ekasa funerary activities that derived originally from Igala prisoners of war, brought to Benin and settled in a designated neighborhood that still exists and provides Ekasa dancers. Ekasa later honored the queen mother and now gives due respect for a deceased king, linking palace funerary rituals and the new king's coronation.
The story about the Bird of Prophecy goes something like this. In the early sixteenth century the rival kingdom of Idah, northeast of Benin and on the eastern side of the Niger River, marched on Benin and almost conquered it. A strong defense on the outskirts of Benin City repulsed them and the retreating Igala army was hotly pursued by Benin warriors led by ba sigie, assisted by his mother, Queen Idia, whose agnomen “The only woman who went to war” suggests her power, actual or mystical. A bird of prophecy was heard to cry “Oya-o, Oya-o!” that Benin would be defeated, but sigie replied, “Whomever wishes to succeed in life must not heed the bird that cries disaster” and had the bird killed by visiting Portuguese mercenaries. He went on to victory. Ever since, the bird of prophecy is testimony to the power of the king to surmount destiny. The defeat of Idah gave Benin greater control over the Niger River and for a time the Atah became a vassal of Benin.
Jacob Egharevba (1968: 27–28) gives some attention to this conflict. There is also Alfred Osadolor's (2001) unpublished dissertation on the military system, an account based on published source materials. Other than these and briefs by Alan Ryder (1969: 13–15) and Robert Bradbury (1973: 35–36) the only reasonable commentary on the war is the essay by Peter Roese (1997) and my unpublished translation of Ikponmwosa Osemwegie's epic poem called r: An do Epic of War (Nevadomsky n.d.). The poem includes ancillary documentation about the war, the army, and military maneuvers, Idia at war, and present-day cast art and commemorations of the war at the king's palace, material that is largely absent from published information. (The poem was published in Benin City as r: Okuo sigie Kevbe Ata [Osemwegie 2008] but neither the appended materials nor a translation with extensive notes are included.)
Commemorative staffs are reminders of the bird of prophecy. The Met has more than half a dozen. The most stunning in their visual accuracy and superb casting are two from the Perls collection. One is shown as if in flight (Fig. 1; Ezra 1992: 202); another as if perched on a branch (Fig. 2; Ezra 1992: 196) with a seed in its mouth. Most of the others in the Met collections are indelicately modeled. Of particular interest is that these do not have the throat wattle displayed by Figure 2, but instead resemble Figure 3. The birds are cast on a cylindrical shaft, conveniently hand-held, and played by striking the bird figure on its beak with a metal rod.
Other cast examples include a plaque of three chiefs clacking the ideophones (Figs. 4–5) and depict the Ugie r ceremony, except for the costume that is no longer worn (see Ezra 1992: 197–207, especially Nevadomsky's Ugie r ceremony photo on p. 198). In the Ethnologisches Museum–Staatliche Museen zu Berlin there is a container in the design of the traditional palace with what looks like an r bird on the roof and two Portuguese soldiers shooting it. A plaque fragment also in the Ethnologisches Museum–Staatliche Museen zu Berlin—which Felix von Luschan in 1919 recognized as extraordinarily artistic (see Heymer 2007: 492), as did William Fagg (1970)—shows a hunter aiming an arrow at a bird of prophecy in a tree; the fluidity of the casting reminds one of modernist art (Fig. 6). This and several other works appear to be the castings of a single, creative artist that William Fagg (1963) named the “Master of the Leopard Hunt” (see Plankensteiner 2007: 455) whose renditions portray human figures and animals as if in motion. The iconic image of the r bird often appears alone on cast plaques.
Hans Melzian identified the bird as the African pied wagtail in his dictionary (1937: 5). This is a small passerine bird of about 20 cm with a white supercilium and a white patch in the folded wing. Paula Ben-Amos [Girshick] tentatively identified it as a type of kingfisher (1976: 252). Philip Dark thought it is an ibis (1962: 46; Dark and Hill 1971: 72) because it was found in Egypt and worshipped, even embalmed. William Fagg (1980: 21) disagreed that it is an ibis but did not elaborate. Daniel McCall (1975: 293) suggested that it is a hornbill cast without a double casque. Suzanne Preston Blier (1998: 69) surmised it is the large ground hornbill. Other possibilities are the fish eagle, the pin-tailed whydah, even the cattle egret, a white bird ubiquitous in the dry season and known as the king's bird because it is associated with peace and happiness and, these days with, Christmas (Nevadomsky 2007: 447).
Thirty years ago I argued (1986: 43) that identifications were based on the brass ideophones of a bird with a long curved bill. Fieldwork suggested that the bird had a short beak, the long bill serving as an exaggerated expression of its oracular powers, but especially as denoted by the white-tipped tail feathers, as Melzian also discovered with his pied wagtail attribution. My village fieldwork did not pan out, resulting only in a lot of dead birds as villagers scammed me, someone ignorant of local flora and fauna.
A year or so later, however, I found the bird right under my nose at the Òba Market, a major market in Benin City (Nevadomsky 1988: 72-83/100), and close to the king's palace. Madam Ehioghiren ran the most important apothecary outlet for traditional medical and spiritual practitioners. She had scores of dead birds, reptiles and snakes, insects, and prescriptive condiments. Name it, she had it—including the ọrọ bird. After inspecting the white tips of its tail feathers, other apothecary shop owners agreed that the bird I bought from her was the ọrọ bird and that proved its powers of prophecy.
I identified the ọrọ as the white-tailed ant thrush. It has tail feathers conspicuously tipped in white and a few white outer rectrices. However, it is a small bird with a short beak; nondescript as birds go, about 15 cm long, brown and chestnut, with a 1.3 cm beak (Serle et al. 1977: 77). This looked nothing like the cast bird of prophecy but appeared similar to the bird that Melzian had identified, though more bland. I kept this bird in a plastic zip bag on my desk as evidence until the bird desiccated.
As a result of my interviews with Madame Ehioghiren and others, I wrote Kemwin-Kemwin: The Apothecary Shop in Benin City (1988), which explored local meanings of animals in Benin art, in part as a sideways swipe at the essay by Paula Ben-Amos [Girshick] (1976). She used a Levi-Straussian framework to structure animals and birds in Benin art and, while useful at the time, she wrongly identified and misinterpreted these creatures. I also wrote an essay investigating the totemic associations of the leopard and elephant with kingship, arguing that together these animals are a conjunctive contrast that represents the king as purveyor of wealth and font of power, a link that is evident on his letterhead stationary (Nevadomsky 1997). The leopard and elephant were openly employed by others, however; the leopard characterizes traditional priests and authority figures, the elephant is linked to powerful town chiefs. Dan Ben-Amos wrote (1988) an essay arguing that the animals in folklore did not fit the centrist palace placement Paula Ben-Amos [Girshick] had allocated to them and operated under a different logic of meaning construction.
Scholarly scuttlebutt had it that, because I used Madame Ebioghiren as a source, the information on ọrọ as an ant thrush could be attributed to data based on one informant. As a sociological anthropologist who has taught university-level social statistics including chi square to linear regression and factor analysis, I ignored that criticism. It was hardly likely that I would have relied on a single source of information for such a problematic topic.
In her synoptic book on the Perls collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kate Ezra (1992: 200) reconciled my identification of the ọrọ bird as a thrush with the sixteenth century castings. She argued that maybe the bird associated with Ẹsigie no longer existed in the area. Since the bird is one of magical proportions, it might be a fictional composite, as Bryna Fryer (1987: 36) suggests, and may have been created to make the most of Ẹsigie's victory over the Atah (Ezra 1992: 200). Armand Duchâteau (1993: 71), citing Ernst Schüz (1969), comments that, since the bird is part of a myth, it never had a counterpart in nature but was an imaginative configuration.
Although Ezra says that “brass casters were not obliged to portray the actual features of the bird, but rather exaggerated the size of the beak since this was the source of its prophesying call” (1992: 200), she then hedges and says that Benin's sixteenth century casters were careful observers “when one looks at the care with which Benin artists observed and portrayed the salient features of other birds and animals, notably roosters and leopards. While their depictions are always stylized and removed from nature to some degree, the characteristic elements … are immediately recognizable” (1992: 200).
I noted (e.g., Nevadomsky 1988) that confusion arose because the bird carries a lot of nomenclature. The bird is typically known as ahianmwen-ọrọ, “bird of oro.” Ọrọ is opaque and could mean bird of disaster, or prophecy, or destiny, or greetings, as in “I bring you (ominous) greetings,” depending on the context. More colloquially it is called oniguegue (again opaque, possibly “owner of deceit/treachery”). It is also called odibosa (“messenger of god”) and has numerous praise names to boot.
Thanks to a tangential reference in a National Geographic Society film on Burmese birds, I can say that the Bird of Prophecy is almost certainly the West African Pied Hornbill. The Latin designation is L. semifasciatus, conspecific with L. fasciatus, but separated on account of white only at the tips of its tail feathers versus all-white outer rectrices, on a remarkable black bird (Fig. 7). In plain English, it is a small, glossy black hornbill about 45 cm long with a particularly striking white belly and a pale yellow bill with an extensive black tip. Noteworthy is that the male has distinctive white tips to its outer tail feathers.
The species has a strong pair-bond. The female will seal herself into the hollow of a tree while incubating the eggs and caring for the young birds, relying on her mate to bring a steady supply of food to feed the chicks. The male is often shown in flight carrying an insect or seed in its mouth. A whooshing sound is produced by gaps in the wing feathers as air is compressed by these gaps. The female lays up to four eggs in a tree hole which is then almost sealed during incubation, only one narrow opening allowing the male to transfer food to the mother for the chicks. A favorite food is the fruit of the oil palm tree. Of incidental interest is that the bird loves cooked yam, a West African human staple.
Seeing this bird in flight (Figs. 8–9) showed that it is well-represented by the “Hand-held Clapper with Bird of Prophecy” in Ezra (1992: Fig. 90) shown in Figure 1. The white tail feathers of the ọrọ are shown on the bird sitting on a tree branch while another takes flight. Watching the male bird ready to feed the nesting female in a tree hollow (the female then feeds the chicks) is depicted by Ezra's Figure 89 (Fig. 2 above), and is similar to field photos of a bird holding a seed or insect in its casque (Figs. 8–9).
That seed carried by the male is believed to be an awase, “a charm in the shape of a pebble used to wish people evil or to bless them” (Melzian 1937: 14; see also Blier 1998: 66). Having watched films of this bird (courtesy of the National Geographic Society) holding a red seed in its beak, it is easy to see how that activity had the symbolic association with messaging.
I have not come to any conclusion about the cylindrical throat flaps that appear on a few castings (e.g., Fig. 2). The West African Pied Hornbill does not have a throat wattle and, in the several species of hornbill elsewhere that do, the throat skin is bulky and the natural appearance is quite different. In any case, most of the Bird of Prophecy figures that came out of Benin Kingdom lack this cylindrical throat addition.
One hornbill expert, Tom Smith (personal communication, March 15, 2018), director of the Tropical Research Institute at UCLA, thinks that the bird's proportions and its wattle fit the Abyssinian ground hornbill. However, that bird is easily identified by a short but prominent open-ended black casque on top of its bill; besides, its habitat is open savanna and grassland, with a distribution from southern Mauritania and Senegal in West Africa across the savanna/sahel to East Africa and Ethiopia, northwest Kenya, and Uganda, where its cultural importance is acknowledged in some villages and there are even songs based on its male and female courtship duets.
How the West African Pied Hornbill bird came to be identified as a small bird with a short beak is anybody's academic guess, but clearly that classification is based now on those white-tipped tail feathers that are the significant clue to what local dispensers of traditional medicines perceive as the source of the bird's prophecy. No one, villager or apothecary dispenser, ever showed me a West African Pied Hornbill or similar bird and I never saw one in the wild, though the bird is not endangered (del Hoyo, Collar, and Kirwan 2018: n.p.). Its present West African habitat is from southern Liberia through southern Nigeria, including southeastern Nigeria and southwestern Cameroons. These are areas of lowland evergreen forest, also gallery and dense forest canopies and adjacent patches of secondary forest (Birdlife International 2018).
Bird classifications in the Benin Kingdom are locally construed in the sense that a bird is perceived as having a particular characteristic that makes it meaningful. For example, young vulturine fish eagles are tawny brown but the feathers turn white as the bird ages, and these feathers are therefore associated with maturity, even chieftaincy, and chiefs wear a white feather attached to their head gear during ceremonies.
As the ant thrush with white-tipped tail feathers came to be associated with the prophecy omen and became noteworthy for traditional doctors, its beak diminished in medicinal if not ceremonial importance. It remains an open question as to how this shift from the West African Pied Hornbill to white-tailed ant thrush occurred and when (pre- or post-1897 British Punitive Expedition for example, when the British conquered the kingdom, gained control of Niger River commerce, and incorporated the kingdom into the British Empire). This is a task for interested art historians. It should also be of interest to museum curators who are most curious about the bird's identity and may wish to redo the captions to the bird castings they have in their collections or on display. I would certainly say that the West African Pied Hornbill heads the list of candidates as the Bird of Prophecy. Other birds stand down.