This scorpion ring (mpetea) symbolized the power of its royal wearer. Cast from gold, it combines first-hand observation of nature with imaginative decorative flourishes. Two tightly grasping pincers snap closed directly in front of the face. Segmented forelegs are wrapped tightly alongside the head. The artist has carefully rendered the eyes as coffee-bean-like ovals with slit depressions and the mouth parts as small triangles. The neck and the ridges (keels) of the tail and abdomen are enlivened with geometric patterns: some are indented into the metal, while others are raised lines, zig-zags, or dots applied using filigree or granule techniques. The eight legs are rendered as small curved projections dwarfed by the enormous body. The segmented tail rises from the posterior, curving down towards the body. Though now broken, the tail would have terminated with the stinger (aculeus), the pointed projection through which the scorpion delivers venom. The main body of the ring is hollow, which allowed it be lightweight and to be cast using a minimal amount of precious metal. It is mounted on a plain circular band.
The leadership of the Asante Empire, with its multiple states and elaborate hierarchy, were patrons of a complex of regalia, symbols, and proverbs that reflected upon the royal status, grandeur, and personal qualities of the sovereign. Historically, only royals and members of their entourage could possess precious metals like locally mined gold (sika) and imported silver. Akan gold production likely began in the second half of the fifteenth century, yielding approximately fourteen million ounces of metal by 1900. Gold circulated in powdered form (sika futuro) as the currency of the Asante Empire and many of its neighbors until 1901; when not accumulated as a form of personal wealth, gold dust was melted down and cast into fashionable ornaments. Regalia—including woven textiles and elaborate gold ornaments—have been impressive markers of affluence and power at the Akan court since at least the fifteenth century. Members of the royal goldsmiths' guild exclusively produced gold ornaments, including staffs and rings. According to oral traditions, these highly skilled artists claimed ancestry from Fusu Kwabi, who supposedly descended from heaven in the 1400s to teach men how to work gold.
Since the fifteenth century, Akan rulers (Omanhene or Asantehene) have used elaborate displays of royal regalia (agyapdie) to express their power and wealth, as well as to shield themselves from harm. As part of these ensembles, gold rings were frequently worn in multiples, and slowly displayed to better allow viewers to absorb the message encoded in their imagery. This is one example of the “verbal-visual” nexus of Akan culture, in which the oral and visual are closely intertwined. (Cole 1977, 9) While the power of the scorpion’s sudden movements and poisonous sting could be appreciated in its own right, and served as a metaphor for a warrior, the insect was also tied to proverbs that spoke of the power of the king. Two examples suggest revenge or retribution: “When the scorpion stings you mercilessly, you have to kill it in the same spirit;” and “The pain from a scorpion sting takes as long to subside as embers to cool down.” A third proverb associated with the scorpion suggests how enemies may secretly undermine you: “The scorpion does not bite with his mouth, but with his tail.” (Ross 2009, 102, 105) Thus, the scorpion was a strong, multivalent symbol of the Akan leader’s ability to both fight and maintain control in his territories. The gold itself was believed to be the earthly embodiment of the sun, and thus the force of life itself (kra).
Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 2016
Sylvan C. Coleman and Pam Coleman Memorial Fund Fellow in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas
Cole, Herbert M., and Doran H. Ross. The Arts of Ghana. Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, 1977.
Garrard, Timothy F. "The Akan of Ghana." In African Gold: Jewellry and Ornaments from Ghana, Cote D'Ivoire, Mali and Senegal in the Collection of the Gold of Africa, Barbier-Mueller Museum in Cape Town. New York/Munich: Prestel, 2011.
Ross, Doran H., Georg Eisner, and Leslie Jones. Royal Arts of the Akan: West African Gold in Museum Liaunig. Neuhaus/Suha: HL Museumverwaltung, 2009.
Wilks, Ivor. Forests of Gold: Essays on the Akan and the Kingdom of Asante. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1993.