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Arts of Africa

At the MFAH, art from the diverse continent of Africa spans ancient to contemporary times and includes the world's most significant collection of gold objects: the Glassell Collection of African Gold.

Sword with Ornament in the Form of a Palm Fruit
c. 1930–50 (sword) and 19th century (ornament)
Iron, wood, gold leaf, and cast gold

Sword: 40 1/4 x 4 1/2 x 6 1/4 inches 
Ornament: 3 x 5 3/8 x 7 3/4 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gift of Alfred C. Glassell, Jr.

Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, & the Americas

Arts of Africa

Swords play a central role in rituals of the Akan peoples, including oath-of-office ceremonies and purification rites for the chief's soul. Considered to be empowered by divinity, swords serve to protect shrines and bear witness to the chief's power. The ornament adorning this sword represents a palm fruit, a symbol of invincibility.  

The blades and shafts of swords are created with great skill, in geometric patterns and animal forms. Designs of elephants, lizards, snakes, and sankofa birds make these ceremonial blades works of art rather than weapons. On this sword blade, a frog or turtle appears at the top. Winding from there is a serpent whose tail is tipped with a flat crescent shape. The cut-out portions on the flat end of the blade create the silhouette of a scorpion.

Swords are also decorated with gold-leaf handles and elaborate cast-gold ornaments that relay proverbs and have symbolic meaning. The palm fruit is a plant feared for its thorns, which are seen as weapons. As an ornament on this sword, it elicits the proverb "The chief is like a palm fruit. If you fire a gun into it, you waste your bullets."