Blacksmiths of Western Africa
emerged around 1500 B.C. Blacksmiths are feared in some West African societies for their powerful skills in metalworking, which is considered a form of magic, but universally revered by West African for their technological pioneering. While common people fear the power of the blacksmith, they are highly admired and hold high social status. Because the trade is so specialized and dangerous, blacksmiths are often requisitioned by towns and villages where there are none (Ross). Other ironworking societies such as the Mande people of Mali and the Bamana exist in West Africa.
It is sometimes hard to imagine today an age where people used their surrounding environment as the only source for survival. At the very rise of African civilization the essential tools to survival were found through the use of wood and stone tools. These tools proved to work well enough for hunting and farming but as times changed and mankind evolved it became necessary to find more efficient means of survival.
The first known Ironworking exists in Turkey and the age of metals such as gold, copper, silver, lead and iron were not made workable until approximately 4000 B.C. This development slowed until around 1500 B.C. with the development of furnaces capable of forging iron tools. The era of iron had begun and the art of the blacksmith soon spread throughout Western Africa (Joyce 2002).
The Nok people of Nigeria show the art of blacksmiths, which date back to the sixth century B.C. These Nigerian metalworkers developed a technology that gave them the upper hand in life, and would prove to be a technology to revolutionize the world. Ironworking made farming, hunting, and war much more efficient. Iron allowed for greater growth in societies. With the ability to support larger communities came social growth and the development of large kingdoms, which spread across Western Africa.
Throughout Nigeria two more very important West African civilizations arose. The Ife and the Oyo people of the Benin and Yoruba Kingdoms are very similar in their spiritual and ritual beliefs. Both base their existence around ironworking. To these African civilizations iron had become the key to their development and survival, and it was worshiped as such. The Ife and Oyo people believe that the blacksmith has the power to express the spirit of Ogun, the god of iron, because they create iron, which is the foundation for their survival.
Ogun, the god of iron
Ogun, the god of iron, is one of the pantheon of "orisa
" traditionally worshipped by the Yoruba
of Nigeria (Ross). Ogun is the god of iron and metalworking and was himself a user of iron as a blacksmith and metal worker. In Yoruba the use of “O” means “a spiritual force has mastered a particular form of wisdom” (Fatunmbi). Ogun therefore means the survival through assertive and aggressive action that is directed toward maintaining survival (Fatunmbi). Most of Nigeria's numerous ethnic cultures have a god of iron and metalworking in their traditional religion
The Mande blacksmiths
The Mande blacksmiths are powerful individuals holding very important positions in society. Blacksmiths are often called upon by the chief for guidance in major decisions regarding the village. The power of the blacksmith is thought to be so great that they are also feared. Mande Blacksmiths control a force called nyama. This means that they control all energy and power in the village as well as the makeup and workings of the Mande society (Ross). The ability to control such a force is not given to just anyone. A single family in the village is designated to produce blacksmiths. The boys from that family are taught the daliluw, “the secret knowledge about the use and nature of nyama”(Ross).
“Nyama is the foundation that nourishes the institution of smithing, so that it may nourish society, is the simple axiom that knowledge can be power when properly articulated…. One must first possess it (nyama) in substantial amounts and then acquire the knowledge to manipulate and direct it to capitalize on its potential benefits. Acts that the difficult or dangerous—like hunting, or smelting, and forging iron—demand that a greater responsibility of energy and a higher degree of knowledge be possessed by the actor
(Perani, Smith 1998: 71).
They begin training at an early age, as an apprentice in order to master the techniques of blacksmithing by the time they reach adulthood and become a Mande Blacksmith.
The Bamana society is very similar to the Mande. Bamana society is also endogamous, so blacksmith families are the only Blacksmiths in the village and they hold a very high status, due to the extreme power and responsibility that they possess. Bamana Blacksmiths are also experts in divination, amulet making, as well as the practice of medicines due to their extensive knowledge of the Spirit of Ogun. Bamana Blacksmiths are responsible with the well being of the villagers and the safety of the village. This power like the Mande is driven by their control over nyama.
The Bamana training of young blacksmiths lasts about eight years. After completion of the apprenticeship the young blacksmith is ready to begin forging tools, weapons, and ritual masks and staffs, used for ceremonial purposes. “When used actively and sacrificed to, iron staffs continue to gain and radiate power, the power to protect, cure, fight, honor, lead, and repel” (Perani, Smith 1998: 71-72).
The situation today
The West African Blacksmiths mastered a tool that is still in use today. Iron has been a part of everyday life ever since. The intricate designs and mastered craftsmanship of the African Blacksmiths was truly unmatched in its time. Everything they created was done with a purpose in society. From the plows and hoes for cultivation to weaponry for hunting and protection. The African Blacksmiths were the key to survival for the Nok, Ife, Oyo, Mande, and Bamana people. The everyday objects were not intended as art because art was not essential in survival.
- Fatunmbi, Awo Fa’lokun. “Gu” (Ogun): The God of Iron
- Joyce, Tom. (2002) The Blacksmith’s Art from Africa Life Force at the Anvil.
- Perani, Judith. Smith, Fred T. (1998) The Visual Arts of Africa, gender, power, and life cycle rituals. 71-72 p.
- Ross, Emma George. The Age of Iron in West Africa.