Iron smelting and forging technologies may have existed in West Africa among the Nok culture of Nigeria as early as the sixth century B.C. In the period from 1400 to 1600, iron technology appears to have been one of a series of fundamental social assets that facilitated the growth of significant centralized kingdoms in the western Sudan and along the Guinea coast of West Africa. The fabrication of iron tools and weapons allowed for the kind of extensive systematized agriculture, efficient hunting, and successful warfare necessary to sustain large urban centers.
In Nigeria, iron was fundamental to the rise of several important kingdoms—Dahomey, Benin, and the Yoruba kingdoms, including primarily Ife and Oyo. All of these Nigerian kingdoms had a great deal of contact with one another and therefore share similar spiritual beliefs concerning the attributes of iron and ironworking methods. Ogun, the god of iron, is an important deity recognized by all of them. Ogun is credited with introducing iron as well as being the first hunter and warrior, the opener of roads, clearer of fields, and founder of dynasties. The iron sword of Ogun, a central symbolic motif, is associated with both civilizing and aggressive actions.
Iron had significant ritual status in all these Nigerian states, in which the forge functioned as both a ritual shrine and sanctuary. The anvil was often used for the taking of an oath or as a sacrificial altar. Ironworking demanded great proximity to supernatural powers, thus smiths were both admired and feared. The highly specialized skills of ironworkers were so prized that such artisans were often itinerant and moved where they were needed, or even traveled with armies into battle. This traffic expanded the social contact that occurred between Nigeria’s major kingdoms and therefore fostered the rapid exchange of knowledge and spiritual beliefs.
Blacksmiths of the same period among the Mande peoples of Guinea and Mali were far less mobile, though they held similarly ambiguous roles in society. Politically and socially, they were extremely powerful, offering invaluable counsel to the village chief concerning all major decisions. However, while revered and honored, the spiritual and ritual knowledge and activities of blacksmiths were also greatly feared. They were believed to control the natural forces intrinsic to all objects, a force the Mande call nyama, which is understood to be both energy and the explanation for the organization of the Mande world.
Blacksmithing among the Mande is endogamous, meaning that only those born into blacksmithing families are eligible for the long apprenticeship into the craft. It is during this period that a young trainee is taught the daliluw, the secret knowledge about the use and nature of nyama. The first important task of the apprentice is to learn the complicated pounding rhythms for which the master is renowned. The Mande people believe that the hardest village task, the pounding of metal with the heavy and awkward tools, is alleviated through musically rhythmic patterns, rendering the task pleasing rather than arduous. The unseen participation of both ancestral and spiritual forces also lightens the workload.
Blacksmiths in West Africa are responsible for the production of agricultural tools and weapons but also for important regalia and protective amulets. The Bamana staff, or ceremonial spear (1979.206.233), while fabricated in the nineteenth or twentieth century, is a good example of the type of object produced by blacksmiths as early as the fourteenth century. Bamana staffs are almost always figural, and though they may possess sacred names, publicly they are simply called “iron women.” They are often carried by those who have purchased an important village title, or are of high rank. They may also be commissioned by members of either the Jo or Gwan initiation associations, to be placed in the ground around altars in the sacred groves or in shrine houses. Among the Mande, similar staffs are presented to young men at the conclusion of their initiations and as part of circumcision rituals. As spears were the primary weapons used for both war and hunting before the introduction of guns, they continue to be considered an important symbol of manhood. Staffs often receive offerings of millet, water, or beer, which are poured over the works during ceremonies. This can lead to the heavy rusting found on even relatively recent examples.
Across West Africa, forges are considered to be female, and the act of smelting iron is equated to the gestation period. Thus the male smith is often considered the “husband of the forge.” Though women are involved in many aspects of the metallurgic process, they almost never work the forge.