Linguist Staff (Okyeame)

Date: 19th–early 20th century

Geography: Ghana

Culture: Akan peoples, Asante

Medium: Gold foil, wood, nails

Dimensions: H. 61 5/8 x W. 5 3/4 x D. 2 1/4 in. (156.5 x 14.6 x 5.7 cm)

Classification: Metal-Sculpture

Credit Line: Gift of the Richard J. Faletti Family, 1986

Accession Number: 1986.475a-c


Magnificent gold-covered staffs like this one are carried by high-ranking officials within the courts of Akan chiefs in an area of West Africa once known as the Gold Coast. Because they are a society that originally had no written tradition, the Akan peoples place an enormous emphasis on speech. The spoken word, in the form of axioms and stories, is the repository of Akan custom and values, and a complete mastery of proverbial lore, combined with an eloquent and insightful way of conveying it, is considered the mark of intellect of highly esteemed individuals. Those who possess this knowledge and an articulate command of language may be appointed as court linguists, the most important nonroyal court officials.

Court linguists play an invaluable role in Akan circles of leadership. Their vast knowledge and superior diplomacy make them essential as counselors, ambassadors, legal experts, and historians, and most Akan rulers keep several in their employ. The linguists' staffs of office, carved of wood and covered in gold foil, are said to be modeled after the cane used by the first court linguist, a woman who carried a cane because of her great age.

The finials of these staffs commonly illustrate proverbs that assert the ruler's legitimacy and capabilities or praise the linguist's experience and sagacity. This staff is surmounted by two human figures flanking a large web, with a spider positioned at its center. The finial refers to the saying, "No one goes to the house of the spider Ananse to teach him wisdom." Ananse the spider, who brought wisdom and taught weaving to the Akan, is the originator of folk tales and proverbs and is thus linked to linguists. Here, Ananse is the ultimate repository of erudition, as is the linguist at an Akan court, neither of whom should be challenged in that domain.

Although this artwork appears on the 20th-century segment of the Timeline, it is ascribed a date of 19th–20th century.