kissi penny, money, currency, sierra leone, liberia, gabon, trade, anthropology, ethnography, moesgaard museum, momu, ethnography, anthropology, museum, value

Money with soul: The kissi penny

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Africa, Oceania

If I say ’money’, I’ll wager that there is a pretty good chance that you’ll conjure up an image of coins and bank notes. But what exactly is money? What it basically boils down to, is some sort of artefact that we have all agreed on has value. And in today’s world, most of the money around is actually not even that; it is merely 1s and 0s somewhere in cyberspace, which we all trust manifests in our ability to put our credit card into the machine at the grocery store, allowing us to take the bananas, milk, and bread in our basket home. Without any physical money ever changing hands.

But even physical money is so much more than coins and notes. Around the world, and in different periods in time, cowrie shells, dogteeth, rolls of feathers, and of course precious metals in different shapes have been used as a currency. The most spectacular, and without a doubt the most impractical, form of money that I have ever heard of is the ‘rai stones’ of the Micronesian island of Yap. You might think that the people of Yap would trade pebbles for food – oh no. The Rai stones are huge doughnut shaped stones, sometimes as large as 4 metres in diameter, which you might place in front of your house to display your wealth, or you might ‘spend’ a stone to pay your daughter’s dowry. ‘But everybody can just go get a stone’, you might argue. But no, the limestones used to make the rai stones were quarried in another island, making them rare and valuable on Yap.

yap, rai, money, currency, stone, kissi penny, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Gabon, South Pacific, moesgaard museum, momu, ethnography, anthropology

A rai stone

So, what does all this have to do with the strange and dangerous looking metal rod in the picture above? That metal rod is what is known as a ‘kissi penny’, which was widely used as a currency in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Gabon from the 1880s to the first decades of the 1900s – in Liberia kissi penny lasted as a currency as late as the 1960s. We can marvel at such odd-looking money, but once you think it through, what makes this more strange than little pieces of paper, which can so easily be lost or destroyed? Kissi penny might not be so practical to carry around in your back pocket, but at least they can’t be cut to pieces by a curious toddler, who got a hold of her mum’s purse. But what sets kissi penny truly apart from many other forms of currency, is that it is money with soul.

Kissi penny was not just made by blacksmiths to be traded, bought, or cut into pieces of smaller value (like the Vikings for example did with pieces of gold and silver). In fact, the blacksmiths who make the kissi penny were often also witchdoctors, and if a kissi penny was broken or cut into pieces, the ‘soul’ living inside it could escape, rendering the metal pieces devoid of value. The only thing to do then was to bring the broken pieces to the witchdoctor/blacksmith, who would perform a ceremony, re-joining the broken pieces and trapping the soul inside again.

Even after kissi penny stopped being used as money in everyday transactions, they remained in use in ceremonies and rituals. Still today, some in West Africa believe that the metal rods contain souls or magical powers. We have many ‘living’ artefacts in our collections, believed to contain some sort of spirit or soul. So now, in my mind, the kissi penny joins the New Guinean ancestor skull and the Siberian gihr gihr  as artefacts that should be treated with that little extra amount of respect.

//Sophie Seebach


Read more about the Yap and their stone money here:

Read more about kissi penny here:


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