Horizontal water-spirit headdresses in the forms of sawfish, sharks, and other predatory aquatic animals probably originated among the Ijo peoples, fishermen in the coastal delta region of the Niger River. These colorful masquerades spread to neighboring groups, including the Abua, Ekpeya, and Igbo. These riverine peoples hold annual festivals honoring water spirits to ensure their benevolent influence on fish and crop harvests in the coming year. One eyewitness account of an Ijo community tells of a sawfish headdress worn by a young man brought to the village in a canoe. Having disembarked, the sawfish danced on land, where he was “hunted” by masqueraders representing fishermen.
Makers of water-spirit masks such as this employed carpentry techniques whereby fins, teeth, and other components of the whole were carved separately and attached. Mirrors obtained by trade with outsiders were used for the eyes and to adorn the tail of the sawfish.