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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Marymount Series: Lions of Dahomey

Golden lions, a royal symbol of the ancient kingdom of Dahomey, acquired in Abomey, Benin, West Africa, in 2008. A hundred years ago, Abomey was the capital 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 disembowelled remains were buried. Hence the name "Dahomey", meaning, the belly of Dan. What a blood-thirsty name!

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.

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 practice. 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. We snapped a few photos of the palace buildings and were immediately chased away by locals.

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