Elek (Ancestor Altar Head)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Baga believe that the world was created by the god Kanu and that Somtup is the spiritual being created to govern the Simo male initiation society; female societies are governed by a-Bol, the wife of Somtup.

Elekel shrines created to worship Kanu, Somtup and lineage ancestors are stored in the family homes of villagers in an effort to appease ancestors and as a centre for sacrificial offerings in exchange for protection against evil spirits and witchcraft. According to Denise Paulme, "the shrine includes a flywhisk made from a cow's tail, sacred stones, bundles of vines and bark reddened with spit-out juices of kola nuts, enormous snail shells containing powdered leaves and bark mixed with magical ointments, bodies of dead scorpions or claws of crabs. A basket protects the whole assemblage".2 During the rainy season, an elek (meaning 'medicine') head, believed to be a physical representation of Kanu, sits on top of the basket.

The dry harvest season heralds in ceremonies, community festivities and male initiations during which elek heads are taken out and danced. Elek heads are also used during the funerals of lineage heads and other important community leaders.

NOTE: Elek heads are called by a variety of names including a-Tshol, a-Nach, anok, anuk, atiol, masoli, matiwoli, maty uali, kuye and ma-Tshol.

Distinguishing Features

  • Made of hardwood
  • Formed of two distinct parts:
    • Main head piece
      • Elongated horizontal hollow head
      • Alternating rows of diamond-shaped cut out holes on both sides of head in some examples
      • Central crest on head
      • Rounded convex forehead
      • Brass tacks inset for eyes
      • Straight protruding nose
      • Slender protruding beak pointed slightly downwards (some beaks have teeth carved)
      • Extremely slender neck
  • Head mounted on a cylindrical pedestal
    • NOTE: The head can be detached from the pedestal

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