Iran Otibago (Soul Container Figure)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Bidjogo (also known as Bijogo, Bijagó, Bidyogo and Bidyugo) people of Bissagos (also Bijagós) archipelago, in current day Guinea Bissau, believe that the spirit of deceased family members live on past the expiration of the person's body, but only for as long as the soul is remembered by surviving family members.

At death, the surviving members create a wooden figure (iran otibago, also known as ira or Eraminhô) within which the spirit of the ancestor resides. Sacrifices are regularly made to the figure to appease the ancestor within. It is also stated that a villager looking to tend a field or grow crops from the land must also offer animal sacrifices to the iran otibago figure asking ancestors for approval to make use of the land and for a successful harvest. After the harvest, the farmer is also required to present a portion of the crops to the iran otibago as an offering of gratitude.

Sources state that the figures are also used as a medium for consultation with the Supreme Being (Orrebuco-Ocoto) and also used for:1

  • Weddings
  • Sickbed vigil for dying persons
  • Determination of guilt in a condemnation of sorcery
  • Confirmation of the selection of a village chief
  • Condemnation of sexual indiscretion
  • Resolution of civil feuds

Iran otibago figures are stored in a traditional candjamo shrine maintained by a female priest (oquinca).

Distinguishing Features

All iran otibago figures fall under four main forms:

  • Type 1: Figure sat on stool
    • Stool resembles Ashante style
    • Figure can be of either sex
    • Varying degrees of abstraction
    • All limbs usually articulated
    • Hands on the edges of the seat
    • Wide shoulders
    • Ringed neck
    • Elongated head
    • Realistic face with finely carved features
    • Dismissed rearward foot following the curvature of the oval base
  • Type 2: Bust mounted on hourglass shaped base
    • Cylindrical, sometimes ringed, disproportionately long neck
    • Abstract head with little emphasis on cheekbones
    • Rectangular torso - slightly wider at top than at bottom
    • Torso usually decorated with geometric designs
    • Limbs and genitals rarely carved
  • Type 3: Figure wrapped into cylindrical figure
    • Lack of human characteristics
    • Predominantly cylindrical appearance (bowling pin shape)
    • Figure sealed within textile wrapping
    • Only jutting chin and eyes are defined
    • Limbs and genitals not carved
  • Type 4: Detailed head mounted on cylindrical base
    • Top hat mounted on head

Common features among all iran otibago figures:

  • Nails typically driven into head to serve as eyes
  • Many figures have traces of eggshell, feathers, red and white pigment

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