Vintage Yoruba Cowrie Shell Head Shrine, Africa, Nigeria (1657BSK) $785


H:15 ”  W: 9 ”  D: 9 ” | SHIPPING INFORMATION REQUIRED contact us at 213-568-3030

This vintage handmade crown-like cowry shell-covered cylindrical “crown” called an ile ori and is a mixed-media cult of the head shrine to honor the head among the Yoruba people of Nigeria. Never meant to be worn, it is round, divided into sections and has four upward pointed curving triangular panels leaning inward and set in a sea of arranged cowries. The flat-topped symbolic crown is made with a wide rectangular cutout for viewing. As it is handmade, the size, placement and tones of the cowries may vary, but the design is very impressive.  This headdress was included in the San Francisco International Airport, “Crowning Achievements” exhibition in April-August, 1994. The headdress is in good shape with a dark patina showing age and use, some leather bindings lifting, minor insect damage to the fabric, scrapes on the leather and some missing cowry shells. It comes with a Lucite stand.



The Yoruba in Nigeria believe in a “cult of the head” in which the head is considered a person’s soul and essence and where good judgment, spiritual intuition and destiny are contained. Not simply a head, ori is a Yoruba metaphysical concept referring to human consciousness, mental clarity and ethical worth. The ile ori is the “house of the head,”  an iconic shrine usually covered with cowrie shells made to show gratitude for and recognition of the power of the head. This concept is central to Orisha (Orisa), the word used for both Yoruba deities and also their religion. Most Africans sew cowrie shells on their textiles as they are a sign of wealth and status. Cowrie crown-like shrines like this are often placed on altars for prayer and divination and can also be a symbol of a Yoruba deity. Cowries are also considered symbols of fertility, birth and wealth and an important in African tribal-art . Used for centuries by Africans as currency (shell money), early colonialists imported huge numbers for use in the slave trade. As a medium of exchange, they were a symbol of wealth and prosperity and were controlled by the powerful. Resembling the shape of female organs, they have also been long used on African altars with prayers for births, fertility and sexuality and represent protection by goddesses. Their use in divination, originated by the Yoruba, is among the oldest spiritual practices used to affect the guidance of deities, ancestors and spirits. They are also used to send symbolic messages (aroko), prepare medicinal herbs and aesthetically decorate jewelry and other objects. See other African-art and textiles, Vintage Kuba Cloth Square and Vintage Kuba Cloth Rectangular Textile for complementary accessories.


Beverly Chico, Hats and Headwear around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2013, p. 249-251

James, B. Odunbaku, Ph.D., “Importance of Cowrie Shells in Pre-Colonial Yoruba land South-Western Nigeria: Orile-Keesai as a Case Study,” in, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 2, No. 18, October 2012, p. 234-241.

Additional information

Place of Origin



Antique/Vintage (1910-1980)


20th Century

Materials and Technique


Dimensions (inches)

Ht: 15” W: 9” D: 9” On Stand: 20”

Dimensions (metric)

Ht: 38.1 cm W: 22.86cm D: 22.86cm On Stand: H: 50.8cm


6 lbs 10 oz


Very good, patina and wear consistent with age and use

Item Number



6” to 11.9”

Shipping Box Size