HEART AND HOMELAND OF VOODOO, BENIN
Benin in West Africa is the heart and homeland of voodoo. Here, voodoo is the state religion.The world’s most misunderstood religion is a mystery to most.
It’s estimated that, officially, 35% of the populace practices Voodoo. However, that figure jumps to 65% unofficially, as many are Christians by day yet turn to voodoo priests to cure their woes and answer questions about the future.
VOODOO, A RELIGION LIKE ANY OTHER…NEARLY
Voodoo is a religion like any other. It promotes spirituality, nature, tolerance and healing. Like any religion, it harbours light and dark. The dark aspects are sorcery and witchcraft, widely know by the western world as voodoo itself. This misconception arose from early European invaders who encountered the religion on the shores of West Africa. They attempted to stamp it out whilst spreading Christianity, by force, particularly during the days of slavery. But instead, the religion evolved through the blends of Africans grouped together and shipped off via slave ships to the ‘New World’ – the Americas – they disguised their combinations of practices under the cloak of music and dance. This includes my favourite martial arts dance, Capoeira, which roots itself today in Brazil and South America. Haiti is a prime example.
BATTLE OF BENIN: GOOD VS EVIL
Currently, Benin is undergoing a battle not dissimilar to Star Wars. Voodoo priests are battling against sorcerists and witches, who can never be identified as they live in and amongst society in the same villages and communities. Witches only ever wish evil and spread ill-fate. Those who are found out, from time to time, are killed with the aid of voodoo priests. Often, on their deathbed, they admit to being witches, and admit crimes they’ve committed and deaths they’ve caused.
RITUALS AND PRACTICES
Voodoo is punctuated by rituals and practices. Dances, trances and sacrificial offerings are central to the religion. It pivots on the belief that we, the living, coexist alongside the spirits of passed ancestors. To live a smooth and trouble-free life, one must gain the blessings of ancestors’ spirits. Without these blessings, no major decision can be made and life cannot be lived well. Without these blessings, one cannot overcome ill-wishes and evil. The Beninois voodoo devotees live and die by this unwritten code.
These spirits can be appeased by sacrificed animals – food for the spirits, and purification ceremonies by voodoo priests – encouraging the good spirits back into our lives.
EGUNGUN FRENZIED FUNERAL DANCE
The most shocking ceremony, for me, is the Egungun funeral dance. This is the sole dance during which a dancer gets possessed by the spirit of the dead. A frenzied trance-like dance ensues. Often, in a state akin to an outer-body experience, the dancers cut themselves using metal – which is worshipped as a divinity – and can use whips to whip onlookers. The Egungun takes place on the day of the funeral, in a public compound. Possessed dancers are initiates of a secret society. They spin and twirl, before a game of catch ensues. The dancers, fully covered head to toe, chase boys in the public. It is the greatest taboo for the dancer to touch anyone – they will try, so the boys must run and escape the touch of the spirit, believed to bring the ultimate bad luck.
As the trance progresses, the spirited dancers approach onlookers (friends, family and the local village / community) for money, demanding cash. To not give cash is also taboo. And failure to give money can cause an aggressive and intimidating threat to hit, strike or touch you. My attendance at an Egungun was accompanied by security – in the form of a local man with a stick – he managed to keep the dancers from touching me and maybe striking me with a stick, as happened on a couple of hair-raising occasions. After this, I was promptly handheld out to safety. It is a heart-in-your-mouth experience and perhaps the most adrenaline-inducing ceremony I have ever witnessed.
Enjoy the images…