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Thursday, March 06, 2008

Benin: Human Sacrifice, Palaces and A Voodoo Ceremony

Benin: Human Sacrifice, Palaces and A Voodoo Ceremony
(Monday 3 Mar 08)
Spent the whole day in Abomey, a small town today in southern Benin. A hundred years ago, it was the capital of the ancient empire of Dahomey, which is also the name of the whole country before it was changed to Benin. Dahomey was so named in the 17th century when King Abaka defeated his archrival, King Dan, cut his belly up in a sacrifice to the gods, built a palace just next to the place Dan's disemboweled remains were buried. Hence the name "Dahomey", meaning, the belly of Dan. What a blood-thirsty name!
The Dahomey empire continued to expand over the centuries, constantly conquering neighbouring tribes and selling captives to the Europeans who had arrived on the coast and needed slaves for their colonies in the America. In return, the Dahomey kings received canons and other weaponry which they used to wage war to capture more slaves, as well as assortment of exotic goods like Chinese vases and mirrors. This thirst for more slaves continued until late 19th century when Dahomey's ambitions clashed with the French, who were building their own African empire. French canons reduced Dahomey's formidable Amazon army of women warriors, once all-powerful in West Africa, to total defeat. The king of Dahomey retreated, leaving his capital and the dozen palaces in flames. The ancient kingdom of Dahomey ceased to exist.
Today, the town of Abomey is a sleepy place which is more village than town. Friendly locals greeted us wherever we went, "Bonjour, bonjour," that is, except when we took pictures of the ruins of palaces and temples of the old Dahomey kingdom. The town of Abomey may be a tourist town of sorts and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the remains of Dahomey have remained scared spots for the Fon people who live here, as well as for the Voodoo religion that they practiced. To them, the spirits of the dozen old kings of Dahomey continue to live in the mud palaces and their ruins, and to take the pictures of these palaces (aesthetically adorned with primitivist paintings of sacred symbols) was deeply offensive.
Except for the Historical Museum which was located in the sole remaining complete palace complex, none of the other sites had signs that prohibited photo-taking. However, whenever we raised our cameras, locals nearby would shout at us and on one occasion, an elderly man ran forward, grabbed hold of Gordon's camera and refused to release until we deleted the photos. Needless to say, any photo of humans are also greeted with disapproval, for some say voodoo believers thought that the camera could capture one's souls. For a town where we had experienced perhaps amongst the friendliest people in all West Africa, their reaction to any form of photo taking, even of inanimate buildings and ruins, was often deeply shocking and radical.
We walked around amidst oppressive tropical humidity, perspiring non-stop, visiting various palaces, temples and ruins. Many sites told of the often bloody and glory history of Dahomey. The Dahomey kings practiced human sacrifices and as 41 was considered a sacred number, palaces and temples were often consecrated with sacrifice of 41 humans and 41 animals of different kinds. Many kings were also buried together with 41 of their over thousand strong contingent of wives, as well as 41 slaves, 41 bulls and what have you. There was also the tale of how a king slaughtered his wives by covering them in red palm oil and letting ants ate them alive, and how one of these wives came back to haunt him and he had to build a temple to appease her spirit.
On the walls of the sole remaining complete royal palace which is now a museum, we saw ornamental carvings of decapitated heads of enemies and chopped up human limbs, amongst symbols of sacred animals and mythological creatures. In face, one of the most famous artifacts is a throne mounted on four human skulls. Another is a fly frisk once again set on a skull.
The Fon people are proud of their kings and the simple yet aesthetic symbols of each of the Dahomey kings decorated many traditional mud houses and even public buildings such as the City Hall and Palace of the Prefectural Government.
We met William, who runs a hotel, while walking around town and he invited us to an evening voodoo ceremony in a nearby village. Together with an American and a Canadian, we walked to the village and found ourselves in a village's sacred compound surrounded by sacred initiation temples where ancient voodoo gods and spirits of other deities live. Images of some of these deities and other sacred creatures adorn the whitewash walls of the temples. The event tonight was an initiation ceremony for some young people who had gone through a full year of secret religious education and about to be admitted to the next level of religious hierarchy. It was also a celebration of the beginning of the wet season during which rain would bring fertility and good crops. The initiated would go into trance and voodoo gods and spirits would possess them.
We were there at 7pm but like other shamanist ceremonies elsewhere in the world (including the folk Taoist ceremonies in Singapore), the time to start was decided by the gods, not man. The village drum ensemble (which is a respectable name I have coined for this purpose) beat their drums to signal the start of the ceremony but it was only with the gods' call around 8pm that the initiates came out of the sacred initiation temple, dancing to the traditional African beat. It was a pity we hardly understood what was going on. We were in a crowded compound and it was quite dark with little light. Our guide was rapidly explaining the ceremony in French to the Canadian girl who explained in English some of it.
Even then, what we could see was certainly exciting. To loud tropical drum beat, the initiates sang and dance, sometimes with the crowd joining their tunes. The initiates, heavily laden with talisman and sacred ju jus of various kinds, danced wildly, swinging their hips in that exuberant African style one sometimes see on TV. At times, they seemed to dance in some set exaggerated pattern which could perhaps be of special religious significance, while occasionally, they seemed to be as coordinated as clubbers high on ecstasy in a London club.
It was too dark for us to take any photos, which was a pity given that our donations for the ceremony had secured the village chief's permission for photo taking. It was clear that the initiates sure needed to be sufficiently agile and athletic to dance in the manner they did, sometimes even managing rather difficult swings and acrobatic jumps. Perhaps, they were indeed possessed by voodoo gods and spirits. Despite that, their eyes did not seem to exhibit the sort of boundless, faraway stare into emptiness that one associates with people in trance.
Occasionally, shamans possessed by the fertility gods would suddenly emerged with huge wooden penises with straw hair, and ran around the compound with loud screams. Then they would, with little warning, threw a wooden penis onto a spectator, usually a child but could well be an adult in some cases. According to William, this happens when the god decides to "rape" the targeted person. The fertility god would normally "rape" a person of the same sex as the god. William confessed about having been "raped" by a female goddess when he was a child, because he looked like a girl at that time.
We were a little concerned. We weren't quite sure what was meant by "rape" here. Mere acting or an actual act to be done in public? As we were the only foreigners here, we stuck out like sore thumb. Would we be selected by the gods to be raped? Nevertheless, we stayed on. Let fate decide.
During the ceremony, we witnessed two "rapes". On both occasions, male children were selected by the gods. The possessed shaman would drag the chosen one to the middle of the compound – by this time, the child would be screaming and crying, though the other spectators were already roaring with laughter. Then the shaman would point the wooden penis towards the groin of the child, and then swung his hip to stimulate rather aggressive and exaggerated sexual acts. The chosen would in the process be blessed while engaged in virgin sex with the deity. Even then, we (the visitors) were slightly worried about being selected to be the rape victim and I tried my best to avoid any form of eye contact with the possessed shaman who ran round the compound.
Before the ceremony, I had some apprehension about attending the ceremony, given that the invitation had brought back memories of Hollywood horror movies on voodooism, which was portrayed as a dark force of evilness and black magic. Although voodooism involves elements of secrecy and mystery, it is no different from other faith in its purpose to its believers, that of a stablising force in private and social life, regulation of moral and traditional values, propagation of hard work and promotion of harmony with nature and the environment. In fact, although I attended the ceremony with some element of fear, it was soon obvious to me that the village audience was having a lot of fun joining the shamans and the initiates in a celebration of traditional song and dance, as well as experiencing crude folksy fun through the "rapes" that occurred
By 9pm, we were getting tired and hungry (hadn't had dinner), and somewhat worried about mosquito bites in a region infested with deadly malaria. We decided to leave and waved good bye to the friendly villagers, who would no doubt stay till the end of the ceremony that could last till 2 or 3am.
The next day, we would head for Porto Novo, capital of Benin, and Ouidah, another major voodoo pilgrimage spot and renowned slave trading port.

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