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TRADITIONAL RELIGION IN AFRICA:THE VODUN PHENOMENON IN BENIN Barthélemy ZINZINDOHOUE

INTRODUCTION

If it can be said that homo faber preceded homo sapiens, both these stages of humanity were borne by homo religiosus, an essential feature of man since the arousal of his consciousness. Indeed the religious phenomenon is not limited to a cult or an established link with the transcendent, but springs from the awareness of finiteness which gives rise to the need for the transcendent. Consequently, all men are religious, even if some are more religious than others, and the manifestations of human religiosity are numerous and owe much to the cultures of which they are the soul.

In the specific case of the cultures of South Benin (West Africa), whose religious soul I wish briefly to present here, it appears that this is to be found in a convergent way in the phenomenon of Vodun. Most of the peoples of South Benin have very similar if not identical cultural roots, and almost the same historical origin. This is why the religious phenomenon in this geographical region is manifested most fully in Vodun (or Orisha, with the Nago or Yoruba peoples).

Vodun designates a venerated and adored divinity. It also defines the whole social, psychological and supernatural structure surrounding this popular sort of religiosity. Indeed, Vodun permeates everything. Before Christianity, one could see how all the social fabric, starting with the family, was imbued by it. This reality justifies the fact that the first missionaries in our region were not dealing with areligious human beings. The difficulties they encountered, conversions made without deep cultural roots and their tendency to throw local culture and cults into the same dustbin of "deviltry", leads us today to reflect anew on the Vodun phenomenon which continues and constitutes a challenge to the New Evangelisation.

We will start by presenting it through a phenomenological approach. Then a brief explanation of what Vodun actually consists of will precede a critical appreciation of its functionality. Lastly we shall stress the need today to evangelise culture through a better rediscovery of its true identity.

PHENOMENOLOGICAL APPROACH :DIVINITY AS CONCEIVED BY THE AJA-FON

Mawu, the Supreme God

The South Bénin cultural area of the Fon, Gun, Mina and Ewe peoples is characterized by a similar conception of divinity: belief in the existence of God is general. This God, recognized as the Supreme Being, as Transcendent, is referred to by the term Mawu. According to the testimony of Fr. Paul Falcon "everyone professes the existence of a Supreme Being who created ‘the trees and the ropes’, a Fon idiomatic expression which means everything that exists… This Supreme Being is called Mawu". That God is the creator of the universe, of mankind and of all that exists is generally accepted. And this notion of God existed among these peoples before the arrival of the great monotheistic religions (Christianity, Islam). With the Fon, for example, this god Mawu is also named Sêgbo lisa, Dada Sêgbo, Sêmêdo or Gbêdoto depending on whether one is stressing the creation (Mawu, Dada-Sêgbo), the principle of being (Sêmêdo) or life (Gbêdoto).

But if there is no doubt at all about the Supreme God Mawu in the mentality of these peoples, where do the very popular practices of Vodun come from? To answer this question means showing the existing relationship between Mawu and Vodun.

The relationship between Mawu and Vodun

The absolute transcendence attributed to Mawu does not allow one to conceive of his relationship of immanence with humanity. Yet the human spirit needs a relationship of salvific proximity, of easy access to the Supreme Being. And since creatures manifest the Creator, man finds sacred forces in certain phenomena or situations that are beyond his understanding. It is through this vision of the world that Vodun emerges.

For the people of South Benin, Mawu is good, but he does not concern himself directly with man; he is omnipotent but has delegated his power to the Vodun(s). Hence the Vodun(s), recognized as Mawu’s creatures, according to the Fon expression "Mawu wê do Vodun lê", are Mawu’s representatives among men, signs of the divinity’s immanence in response to the spiritual desires of mankind. In this sense, Vodun designates all that is sacred, all power coming from the invisible world to influence the world of the living, everything that is mysterious. For this reason, it is explicitly distinct from Mawu. But we find that there is no actual worship of the latter in the tradition, except certain spontaneous prayers or references such as "Mawu na blo" (God will act), "Kpê Mawu ton" (may God decide thus) used on different occasions. The Vodun(s) receive the worship because of their proximity to man compared to Mawu. Divine qualities are attributed to them, characterised as the spirits they are considered to be above all natural laws. All these attributes are the work of Mawu. Examining the internal dynamics of the Vodun pantheon will give a clearer idea of the dependent relationship the Vodun(s) have with Mawu.

Types of Vodun

It would be a vain enterprise to claim to enumerate the types of Vodun or to classify them exhaustively. Mgr. Robert Sastre tried to tackle the question in Les Vodun dans la vie culturelle, sociale et politique du Sud-Dahomey. Honorat Aguessy did the same thing in Cultures Vodun, Manifestations – Migrations – Métamorphoses (Afrique, Caraïbes, Amériques). With this important background, in our approach we will focus on the mystical origin of the Vodun(s) as proposed by Fr. Mêdéwalé Jacob Agossou in Gbêto et Gbêdoto.

Firstly, the Vodun(s) are considered as the sons of Mawu, God the Creator. Here are the seven most important of these:

Sakpata: This is the eldest son of Mawu to whom the earth was entrusted: "Ayi Vodun", the Vodun of the earth. His power is feared and terrifying. His attributes are the arm of smallpox, scissors, a chain and black, white and red spots. Sakpata has many sons, including the Vodun of leprosy (Ada Tangni), and of incurable sores (sinji aglosumato).

Xêvioso (or Xêbioso): This is the Vodun of the sky (Jivodun) who manifests himself in thunder and lightning. He is Mawu’s second son and is considered a Vodun of justice who punishes thieves, liars, criminals and evil-doers. His attibutes are the thunderbolt, the double axe, the ram, the colour red and fire. Xêvioso has several sons including Sogbo, Aklobè, Avlékété.

Agbe: This is the Vodun of the sea (Tovodun). He is also known as Hu. He is represented by a serpent, a symbol of everything that gives life. One of his powerful children is Dan Toxosu who manifests himself in the birth of monster babies.

Gu: This is the Vodun of iron and war. He gives man his different technologies. He is the Vodun who does not accept complicity with evil. Therefore he is capable of killing all accomplices in acts of infamy if he is appealed to. This is expressed by the Fon saying "da gu do".

Agê: This fifth son of Mawu is the Vodun of agriculture and the forests. He reigns over animals and birds.

Jo: This Vodun is characterized by invisibility. He is the Vodun of the air.

Lêgba: This is Mawu’s youngest son. He received no endowments at all because all had already been shared out among his elders. He is jealous, and it is he who loosens the rigid structure of the pantheon. He is the Vodun of the unpredictable, of what cannot be assigned to any other and he is characterised by daily tragedies; all that is beyond good and evil.

Alongside Mawu’s sons, one finds other Vodun(s) that are protectors of equally important clans. These are the Toxwyo: eponymous deified ancestors. They maintain a link between the invisible world and human beings in their daily lives.

From the above, we can classify the Vodun(s) as follows:

  • Inter-ethnic Vodun(s) linked to natural phenomena: Jivodun: Xêvioso; Ayivodun: Sakpata; Tovodun: Agbe.
  • Inter-ethnic Vodun(s) linked to historical-mythical persons: Lêgba, Gu.
  • Ethnic Vodun(s): Akovodun (Agasu for the Houégbajavi of Abomey). The Toxwyo are in this category.
  • Modern Vodun(s): These Vodun(s) are mainly from Ghana. They are Goro who protects against witchcraft, and Koku, the Vodun of the occult powers of violence.

After these investigations, it seems important to ask the question: so what exactly is Vodun?

It can be said that the Vodun(s) constitute a special class of Mawu’s living creatures. They are above mankind, but they are not "God". Let us recognise, together with Fr. Barthélemy Adoukonou and all the others, that defining Vodun is not an easy task, even for Vodun adepts. Fon expressions like: "Vodun gongon", "Vodun d’ablu" (Vodun is deep, Vodun is obscure) say it all. This is why, as Mgr. Robert Sastre said, we must refer to the social and cultural context which gives rise to Vodun in order to grasp what Vodun really is.

THE "THEODICY" OF VODUN AND ITS SOCIAL AND CULTURAL IMPLICATIONS

In view of what has been said above, certain questions arise: due to the practical implications which illustrate its manifestations, can Vodun be assimilated with fetishism, or even outright naturalism? What relationships does it establish between the practising individual and his entire cosmic, social and spiritual environment?

Vodun: naturalism, fetishism or animism?

These may be naturalist, fetishist and animist expressions and manifestations, but the basic vision to retain is that… The argument for naturalism and fetishism in Vodun rests on some epiphenomena of its practice: the Voduns are related to different concrete elements of the universe and are materialised through specific objects to which devotional cults are rendered and sacrifices are offered (mounds of earth, metal bars, tree trunks…). Nothing would prevent us from seeing in this from the outset an attribution of soul and powers to common objects which, as a result, acquire a preponderant and terrifying importance. This begs the question: is the Vodun a person? Is it worth something in the absence of man above and beneath it? One answer to this question might be that Vodun is nothing but an ethical and religious structure set up to serve authority in society. But this is just a limited view of the Vodun reality.

Certain people erroneously equate Vodun with fetish. Indeed, some would see the Vodun cult as a coarse idolatry of material objects or as a cult of matter, without any consideration of its rich functionality which we shall illustrate below. Furthermore, it should be noted that these mistaken views are due to ethnological approaches to the Vodun phenomenon which refrain from articulating its uniquely physical, cosmic and social function in religious mediation. It is true that "Mê wê no ylo do Vodun b’ê non nyin Vodun" (it is because man calls it Vodun that it is Vodun). But rather than seeing in it a power generated by the complex interaction of senses, intentions, gestures and spoken words, it is far more a question of the anthropological support which places Vodun in a symbolic system where it owes its performance to the necessary mediation of the physical, and therefore of matter in general. It would thus be more correct to translate "Mê wê no ylo do Vodun b’ê non nyin Vodun" as: A personal attitude of recognition and acceptance is required for the sacred to become symbol. Vodun evokes the mystery and what pertains to the divine. In this way the suspicion is removed, at least as regards the essence, even if it remains in the somewhat deviant manifestations of the Vodun phenomenon. The network of relationships of which Vodun is a symbol is yet another proof of this.

Vodun and Gbe (life/world): Cosmogony

The word "gbê" which means "life", also means "the universe". It is this second meaning that we focus on here. The created universe in its cosmic deployment is not foreign to the deployment of Vodun. In the concrete expressions of the latter, there is a Vodun of the earth (Sakpata), a Vodun of the sky (Xêvioso), a Vodun of the sea (Agbé) and Vodun(s)representing the ancestors (Toxwyo), as we have seen. Indeed, all the elements of the universe are involved in the Vodun phenomenon. It is not that the mind-set of South Benin imagination conceives of a Vodun cosmogenesis: Vodun is thus neither the generator nor the creator of the universe. But its link to everything in nature is one of mediation and of the protection of man. In fact, its link with "Gbê" only finds its meaning through its link with "Gbêto" (man).

Vodun and Gbeto (Man): Anthropology

The religiosity manifest in man through the Vodun phenomenon makes him a subject who places himself at the service of its symbolism. And while serving it, he makes use of it in return. Furthermore, what men call Vodun, is the unknowable, mystery, the ineffable when it comes to natural elements; it is the extraordinary, the hero, the unbeatable, the powerful when it is a question of human beings. Before the name Vodun is given to them, they are referred to as "nu mê sên" (venerable thing; worthy of adoration). This gives rise to the cults and their impacts. After objectively identifying the Vodun, man becomes its subject. Henceforth, not a single aspect of his life escapes his object of adoration and veneration. The Fá , messenger of the Vodun(s), intervenes while a child is still in his mother’s womb, to identify his destiny and, if need be, to avert it. Similarly, throughout all the stages of life, from birth, and through the different existential situations, the Vodun faithful will feel enfolded in the omnipresence of Vodun, and will constantly benefit from the watchful and protective eye of the Pantheon, with all the consequences of this solicitude. But curiously and paradoxically, Vodun does not "accompany" a faithful in death, to the beyond. At the funeral of a Vodun adept, a rite exists to remove the spirit of the Vodun of which he is the "spouse", so as to leave him to his fate. Here there are perhaps two meanings that are important to note. Firstly, the Vodun takes care of the living and not of the dead; secondly, Vodun is essentially an intermediary between man and God the Creator, to whom he simply delivers him when he dies.As a principle of mediation for man, Vodun also plays an important role in the organisation of human society.

Religious initiation and educational plan in the context of Vodun

Àgbasa-yiyi: "access to the living room" and discovering the joto

The Àgabasa-yiyi is of capital importance in the lives of Fon men. It is the first of a series of three rites of initiation to the Fá through which the Fon pass. Of the three, Àgabasa-yiyi is fundamentally the most important one through which everyone must pass. Young girls and boys can be initiated to the second degree of Fá, but only men can reach the third degree of initiation. Initiation, as Fr B. Adoukonou points out, "represents one of the essential means invented by Africans to transmit in a lively and existential way what for lack of a better expression we shall call the fundamental parameters of life. These three initiations to the Fá are in religious terms of a type that is intermediate between a purely profane initiation to history… and a consecration to Vodun which can go as far as a crisis of possession". The Àgabasa-yiyi ceremony has no rigorously fixed date. It never takes place before at least three lunar months after birth.

The purpose of Àgabasa-yiyi is to introduce the child to the family community in the "living room" (Agbasa) of the representative of the eponymous Ancestor. It is the rite of the integration of a child or of several children of the same generation within the family community including the deceased members, the living and the Spirits which protect the family. The consultation of the Fá by the Bokonon, "Diviner-Healer", reveals the child’s Joto, in other words, the Vodun, "divinity" or the Mêxo (Ancestor; sometimes deified) who, in him, is "sent" to the family by the Great Sê. The Joto is a "reference to a protective force. It is… a dynamic element which intervenes in the constitution of the individual’s personality". The Joto is the Ancestor whose vital influx animates the child. He is referred to as Sê-Joto or Sê mêkokanto (Sê gatherer of the earth of the human body); he who presents to the Creator-God the clay out of which has been fashioned the body of the newcomer to the Land of Life (Gbê Tomê). He is the force, the vital and spiritual energy, which models and directs the existence of the person; hence the title Sê (Protector) that is given to him. The Joto is "Father of the coming into existence", the direct collaborator of Mawu in the generation of the child.

Once the Joto is known, he is given a welcome: "Sê doo nú wè" (You are welcome, O sê!), and as his "other self" and under protection, he is welcomed through the rite of Jono Kpikpé (encounter, welcome of the stranger, the guest). In principle, the child does not receive the name of his Joto. He can however be addressed by this name from time to time in order to remind him of it. This name can sometimes prevail if the person concerned is one day called and consecrated to the cult of his Joto. "In such cases, the name becomes a real name in religion. It is formally forbidden, under severe penalties, for the individual to be called by another name".

Despite the terminological ambiguities inevitably encountered in the formulation of the term Joto, any idea of reincarnation should be absolutely discarded: the child is not the reincarnation of his Joto Ancestor. The Fon religious belief holds that the individual Sê is immortal. When a person dies and enters the Yêsùnyimê (world of the Spirits, metaphysical world), the individual Sê goes back to Sêgbo (the Great Sê), in other words, to his origins, his original state. In his role as Joto, it is he who places his hand on the head of the candidate to life (Alodotanumêto) "to take him in a way under his protective shadow". There is no reincarnation in the proper sense, but a transmission of the personality. The individual soul of the Joto does not become incarnate in his protégé, but the Joto transmits to the latter "his sociological part, his status and his role". A proof of this is that several persons living at the same time can have and indeed most often do have the same Joto.

The Sê-mekokanto (the ancestor who gathered the clay with which the body of the new-born child has been fashioned) imprints on the child his social personality, what he has become "through his social and active commitment in the historical process" which "he embodied in his lifetime and which is maintained by the group that will educate the new-born child in accordance with the master" ( … ) "The social personality, the active commitment and the historical conscience that the ancestor hands down to his descendent constitute a psychological heritage which gives meaning to his life and coincides with the above-mentioned directives. The protector ancestor comes to materialise the right to safeguard and maintain life as well as that to act in such a way that it flourishes and develops fully. In this way the Sê-mekokanto (the protector ancestor) ensures the growth of the family life of which he was the first or one of the first important links…".

The Joto is sometimes assisted in his task by another Ancestor or Divine Spirit, acting as an auxiliary Joto or companion to the first one. This arrangement is fully consistent with the link-strengthening process, a reality that is viewed by the Fon as an inalienable value.

To identify the Joto, one first needs to have determined the Dù which reveals it. Dù is the name given to the signs or figures that are meaningful within the divination system of the Fá. These are the series of signs that serve to reveal the Joto’s self. Henceforth the revealing Dù and the Joto constitute two components inseparable from each other and intrinsic in the personal, social and religious destiny of the individual, as well as in his project of fulfilment. While Joto is the individual’s typological reference, Dù is "the sought and welcomed will of a Desired Third Party" (Sêgbo) coming as an epiphany, i.e. manifested by the Joto. Dù is the "word of the oracle", the voice of the Supreme Being on each person who comes into existence. As the voice of Sê, Dù is also the way that Sê traces and indicates for man. Because, "the world is without measure, but we cannot live without measure", thus speaks angoulevan. Dù is the word of life given and entrusted temporarily to parents as a measure of guidance for the one who has just made his entry into the land of life (Gbêtomê) and into the world of men (Gbêtolê mê). He traces the path he is to follow, in other words he establishes the ordinances or laws (Sù) according to which he will have to avoid death-bearing acts both for himself and for others, and acts detrimental to the community’s integrity. Until a child reaches the age of reason, it is the mother who respects the ordinances of his Dù. In general, mothers take upon themselves the responsibility and the concern to follow these ordinances for the rest of their lives, for and with their offspring, even when they are adult. By this gesture, they demonstrate that the life preserved in a family member is a gain in vitality for all and that everyone must co-operate in maintaining it.

Through the Àgbasi-yiyi rite, the Fon individual is recognised as a true member of his family, since his link with the ancestors, mystical foundations of the family, is determined by it. Through his Joto, his integration among the living members of the family is reinforced all the more by his being tied to the deceased members. The Agbasa rite has two dimensions: while the possession of a Joto confers a social status on a person, the determination of his Dù, "Word of the oracle on his power of fulfilment", recognises his individual character. Thus there is reciprocal interaction between social status and the status of the individual.

Those who have not been through the rite of Àgbasi-yiyi have neither personal nor community status: "no word of the oracle supports them in life" (E do du é ji à). If these points of reference, the Joto and the Dù, are not known by their families, they remain strangers, men without roots. Hence the anxious question of a Fon faced with another who shows a habitual behavioural imbalance: E ka yi àgbasa n’i à? "has the rite of Àgbasi-yiyi been accomplished for him?". The same question is often asked spontaneously as regards the ceremony of SunkÚnkÚn, E ka kosun n’i à? "Has the rite of Sunkunkun been accomplished for him?" It is said of a person whose behaviour raises such questions that his spirit is not at rest: "Ayi ton huhwê à; ayi ton j’ayi à"; the spirit is agitated. This agitation is a manifestation of an inner, social and religious lack of harmony. It is considered that it cannot be otherwise, because neither this person nor the others have a knowledge of the sublime will of the "Great Sê" which gives meaning to his life, the "word of the oracle" which governs and directs the individual’s life.

Listening to history and tales strengthens the character of the young; their moral formation, largely based on examples received, combines the imitation of elders, particularly Ancestors (history) with that of heroes (tales).

Religious education

Common initiation

An education which does not assume moral and religious values as essential is not an education of quality. Religious conviction gives meaning to behaviour and moral choices. Fon religious education, according to Mgr. A.T. Sanon, leads the individual to "sense the invisible through the visible and concrete":

  • - Nu kplon mê o, (moral) education,
  • e no zé do we place it on
  • Numêsênlê sin ali nu: the path of "the-beings-to-be-adored"
  • (divinities and ancestors):
  • Vodun lé do lè a Vodun has ordered such and such a thing
  • Sakpata gbê do Sakpata has forbidden
  • E ma wa nu le o. such a thing to be done.
  • Numêsênlê wê e so It is mainly "the-beings-to-be-adored"
  • Do nukon taùn that we have put forward
  • Bo do kplon nù vilê na to educate the children.

At the heart of the Fon man there is a religious "fear" which, at the moment of moral action takes the form of a deep conviction: it is the E-gblé-ma-kú (may-I-die-if-it-goes-wrong: the determination to succeed) which we find in our elders. This adamant conviction has fundamentally contributed to keeping the peace in society. No compromises would be tolerated, whoever the perpetrator might be.

The young Fon is faced with his religious responsibilities as soon as he reaches the age of Do so kan nu (12 or 13). His parents teach him to know his Joto and his Dù: "Dù le wê jo wê, bo nù le vê wè" (you are born under such and such a "sign", you are under the protection of such and such a "Dù", and it is ill-fated for you to do such and such or to eat such and such). Until this point, he has been allowed not to observe the ordinances of his Dù, given his young age. His mother acted on his behalf. Henceforth, it is up to him to respect these ordinances, even if his mother continues to do so for him. Life is maintained by individuals for one another, but everyone must maintain it if it is to be preserved and increased. If it is true that we walk for each other, it is also true that each one walks for himself. Only this way will all attain the fullness of life.

Agoo-ma-yi-sogwé is the stage that marks late adolescence (around the age of twenty). At this time the second initiation to the Fá takes place, known as Fá-sinsên (adoration of the Fá) or Fá-yi-yi (reception of the Fá). At this stage in their lives, boys and girls are

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