TRADITIONAL RELIGION IN AFRICA:THE VODUN PHENOMENON IN BENIN Barthélemy ZINZINDOHOUE
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).
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 generally in a growth crisis. It is said that a youth is "disturbed" by the Fá. He or she must "receive" and "adore" the Fá, in other words, "in a public religious act, conform his or her will to that of the Supreme Being of whom the Fá is the messenger (Fá Gbêwêndoto). Youthful freedom struggling for self-control must utter the most profound ‘yes’ to the will of God (Gbê) in order to become stronger". The consultation of the Fá reveals the "sign" (Dù) under which the boys or girls present themselves. This will be the Dù (word of the oracle) of their adolescence. For each one and with each one, the Bokonon (diviner-healer) removes the Adrà, in other words he offers the sacrifice that clears their path (i.e. their lives) of obstacles, accidents and misfortunes (Adrà). They are given the Fá and they receive it: it is the word of Mawu-Gbêdoto (God) for each one as he definitively leaves "childhood" to enter adult life.
The third initiation to the Fá is reserved for male candidates alone. They accede to it as adults. It is the door, although a narrow one, to the secrets of the Fá divination system. It is called Fá-titê (consultation of the Fá), a rite through which the Fá (son of Fá) "receives the revelation of the whole of his destiny". The candidate is no longer only the one for whom the consultation is made, but also the one who consults for himself. Needless to say, given the esoteric character of this initiation compared to the previous ones, non-initiates and women are not even admitted as spectators. The ceremony takes place in the Fázun (the wood, bush or forest of the Fá). As a master-initiator the candidate has a Bokonon. With hands joined containing a "hand" of sacred nuts, he prays three times to Mawu-Gbêdoto (God the Creator) for him to send the Fávi’s Joto, in other words the one who presented God with the clay that served to create the Fávi alongside his protégé. Then under the protection of his Joto, the Fávi manipulates the Fágbo (great Fá with 36 nuts) to extract the partial figures of the Dù (sign of the oracle) which he writes on the ground as they come out. Once the sign is formed, the Jogbana (the assistant to the Bokonon in the ceremony) reads it aloud. He then gathers up the earth where the Dù inscription is written and places it in a cloth sack. This constitutes the Kpoli of the Fávi: it is the visible sign of the spiritual principle that is in man, i.e. the visible sign of Sê.
Another consultation is held to ensure that the sign which emerged is for the good of the Fávi. A positive answer from the Fá is greeted with joy and satisfaction by everyone. A negative answer leads to an offering of sacrifices to cast off Kù (death), Azon (illness), Hwê (guilt and legal summons), Hên (poverty, wretchedness). At the end of this sacrifice of exorcism, the Fávi takes a ritual bath in flowing water. The Fávi’s hair, nails, a piece of his loin-cloth and everything that in him that symbolises impurity are buried in the sacred wood. Everyone then returns to the house of the Bokonon, the "spiritual Father" of the Fávi.
"If the esoteric meaning of the signs is not readable for the casual consultant, it is for the Fávi, at least in part, once he emerges from the Fázun (sacred wood). Indeed before he leaves, the diviner summarily reveals the qualities of the sign found during the consultation. Later, a more substantial explanation is given to him in the house, first by the colleagues of the initiator, then by the man himself".
Throughout the initiation period, the Fávi is not allowed to have sex: he is in a period of close and special relationship with the sacred. Sexual continence disposes the candidate to preserving all his vital energy for the benefit of his encounter with the "divine power"; it enables the sacred energy to operate effectively on the candidate, free of any hindrance. The lifting of the sex ban happens on the third day after he has returned from the Fázun (the wood of the Fá). It happens after a futher consultation of the Fá to make sure that the Fávi’s Dù came for his good. After this consultation and the lifting of the sex ban, the Bokonon makes recommendations to the Fávi:
"This is a sort of tradition in the constitution of his new state. There is a stress on the meaning of the sense of brotherhood there should be with all the other Fávi and on the respect and attachment there should be for the spiritual father and all the other Bokonons".
Finally the Fávi is clothed in a brand new white loin-cloth, then he goes home with his Fá. He is a full initiate as regards the order of the stages reserved to common man. Henceforth, he knows "the meaning of life" and the meaning of his own life, he "knows" his personal destiny.
The "Novitiate" of the vodunsi: "School of life"
The very day a child enters the Hun-kpamè or Vodun-Kpamê (Vodun enclosure), i.e. Vodun convent, the Vodun (Divinity) takes possession of the child, girl or boy, who has chosen it. He or she is therefore Vodunsi ipso facto and, for three months, will be Kajèkaji (a gourd who increases the number of gourds): a neophyte. What we call "novitiate" is therefore the process by which they will be made to become in fact what they already are mystically.
The neophytes are supervised by the xwégan (head of house), the Kangan (master of the rope) in charge of discipline, then there are the Hunso and the Nagbo who are "novice" master and mistress respectively. The Hunkpamê (the convent) is a harsh school of renunciation and endurance. Within it, the elect are initiated to the cult of their "spouse", the Vodun to whom they are consecrated for their whole life. Initiation to the Vodun is a particularly important moment that deeply marks the life of the individual. Its aim is gradually to lead the profane from non-existence to their existence as sacred persons; the novice undergoes a series of separations which are each a death to the previous profane life. Before anything else, the Vodunsi must make a solemn vow of absolute discretion as regards what they have seen and heard or will see and hear in the convent. Any Vodunsi who cannot keep quiet about what is to remain secret and act with the veneration that is due to the sacred object he carries on his head will be a traitor. Failure to observe the rules of initiation, of consecration and of proper behaviour in the profane environment is an infidelity and a threat to the authority, not of men, but of the Divinity. One exposes oneself by this to the unpleasant effects of his anger. Those guilty of it can only make amends by paying a large fine and acceding to the rites of Flá (conjuration) and Wùslasla (purification).
In the pedagogy of initiation, the neophyte is required to prove his capacity for endurance in the formation trials; these formation trials are themselves a condensed form of the trials of life. Training through trials, which is already a characteristic of the Fon educational system in general, finds its strongest expression in the Hunkpamê. Discipline and tenacity are essential, and corporal punishment serves to develop these. In this respect it can be said "the body records knowledge". Each Vodunsi "stores up in his body, the soil in which the initiatory word is sown by means of gestures, attitudes, rhythms and, if need be, flagellation": the teacher’s words and gestures must be memorised and reproduced exactly by the students. The pedagogy of initiation involves the transmission of words and gestures, which requires action both by the group of initiators and by that of the "initiands". "Mind, heart and body work together to build the total man".
Apart from learning the Vodun language, cultural chants and dances, to satisfy the material needs of the convent and the Hunnon (Vodun high priest) the young "must devote themselves at fixed times to working in the fields and manual tasks: making baskets, mats and raffia cloth…which are then sold in the local markets by the convent servants". There is no "dolce far niente" in the initiation period; laziness is to be hated like the plague; "Kajêkaji mo no do hwemê mlon" they say: "the neophyte does not take siestas".
The Vodunsi, male or female, must show maturity and be serious in matters of religion. In this way they are to contribute to the balance and order, social, cultural and religious integrity of their community and people. Before returning to the world of non-initiates, after their consecration and initiation, among other recommendations they are urged to cultivate a sense of brotherhood with all the other Vodunsi, to respect the Vodun and to feel responsible for the land of their Ancestors. The ceremony of the giving of sand to the ex-Kajêkaji is significant in this respect:
"About fifteen years after I was Kajêkaji, the Vodunun gathered all the Vodunsi of my year and told us that he was going to lock us up in a retreat ("xwe mi do xo"). We had been told to utter a strident shout ("gbo") all the way from our houses to the Vodunon. He put a little earth in our left hand. With this gesture of offering earth, he said: "Danxome ko tonye die emi so do alomê nu hwi ma nu e jê ayi gbede o" (Here is the earth of the Danxomê which I place in your hands, let it never fall!)"
Vodun: from Hennu (family) to To (country): sociology
Hênnu designates the family, reduced or extended, the first unit of social organisation. It is a blood-line community, united by a single ancestor, with food or moral prohibitions, family Vodun cults and divinities to which the family is loyal. Tò is a grouping of several families or several xwè (parental enclosures). As in the family, it too has a hierarchy of prohibitions (Tosu), prescribed sacred practices (sin), protector Vodun(s) (Tovodun) and priests dedicated to the cult. Here, more than at the family level, the reciprocal influence of political and religious authority is apparent. More often than not, it is Vodun that prevails in the consecration of customary chiefs. And generally the Vodun oracles are also irrevocable: hence the fear they inspire and which provides for an easier take-over control of social phenomena. In this way, in traditional society, a social category without its Vodun(s) is fragile and bound to disappear. It should be noted here that quite apart from the ethnic or inter-ethnic Vodun(s), most Vodun(s) are all the more efficient when they are of foreign origin, in other words, imported.
In actual fact, in view of these examples of the functional role of Vodun, we can but admit the instrumental dimension of the phenomenon: Vodun(s) are not ends in themselves, they all lead to a same end.
Vodun and monotheism
By identifying Vodun as an idolatrous fetishism or a superstitious animism, certain ethnologists came to the conclusion that the Vodun cult is the perfect illustration of polytheism. This is perhaps true with reference to the Pantheon of Greek gods. But with every analogy explored and keeping things in proportion, even the unknown god to which a temple in Athens was dedicated in the times of the Apostle Paul does not have the same value as the Mawu of South Benin to whom no cult is rendered and who is even invoked by all the priests of all the Vodun(s). In fact, the Vodun phenomenon has a single objective although it has a multiplicity of expressions and manifestations. It is the expression of homo religiosus through a given culture. In the collective imagination of our people, the cult rendered to the divinities known as Vodun(s) is a short-cut to the True God whose revelation is as yet lacking; ultimately, it is to this God that all worship is given, he who alone is worthy of being adored. Indeed, in this same view, it is the Great God who created all men and all these Vodun(s), and gave them to men as intermediaries. Even if there has been a certain attempt at inculturation by seeing these intermediaries as stepping stones to the acceptance of Jesus Christ as the unique mediator between God and man, it must be noted the terms of this comparison are disproportionate: Christ being the beyond of the models.
It clearly follows to speak of polytheism in the context of Vodun is hardly correct. Rather, it appears to be polyhedral monotheism which highlights an active relationship with the cosmos, nature, phenomena and deceased human beings, in contrast with a direct relationship with God. Neither can one say absolutely that we are in the presence of a pantheist (God in everything), it is rather pan-in-theist (everything in God). This stage is not far removed from the Christian belief in a single God. But this is nothing more than an apology of Vodun which would not be naïve and fallacious if Vodun were limited to this positive substance which characterises it.
CRITICAL APPROACH TO THE VODUN FUNCTIONALITY
Vodun, in spite of its functional ramifications that we have just discovered and its ethical value that we shall proceed to demonstrate, also has some regrettable sides. We shall simply mention the two principal ones.
From the sacred to violence
Seeing certain Vodun practices on the cultural and moral (behavioural) levels, one might be led to define it as the dictatorship of the sacred. Generally, in traditional religions, the sacred is what overcomes us and imposes itself upon us, that to which we ultimately entrust our forces and freedoms for it to protect us and ensure our happiness. In this sense we understand how sovereigns of kingdoms are not far from the sacred, in other words from being deified. In the case of Vodun, the sacred assumes an even more terrifying dimension. A certain Vodun can seek vengeance. Another may kill. Yet another may require human sacrifice… The man who has succeeded in enslaving himself to a Vodun and mustered the necessary popular credit for this, can finally take any liberty. One easily forgets that it is a man speaking in the name of the divinity. Sacred violence thus becomes normal, especially to the extent that exemplary reprisals are often ordered to dissuade those who might be tempted to ask the reason why. This violence manifests itself as much at the level of the austerity of the Vodun convent mystique as at the level of the occult practices that are its adjuncts. It is even manifest simply on the level of Vodun cultural and folkloric demonstrations. In the face of this violence human freedom is totally without defence. It is enough for fate to designate individuals for them to be forced into the convent. With the coming of Christianity, the Church authorities had to fight intensely with the Vodun heads of convents in cases where catechumens were kidnapped. In comparison with these cases of physical violence, the occult dimension of Vodun is even more frightening.
Vodun and magic sorcery
With the functionality of Vodun described above, one might say that it is simply a naturalist religion. However, the whole power of the phenomenon is based on two meta-rational realities: magic and sorcery. It is these that confer upon it its power, the viability of its hierarchical structures and its credit with the people. It is a complex universe which one cannot penetrate and emerge from unscathed. What is even worse is the malefic use that is made of its power. The key words are Bô (charm) and Azé (sorcery). The former is supposed to protect from evil spells. But whoever knows how to make the antidote has also known the poison… Thus the Bô can also be cast on someone as an evil spell: é do bo’é. As for Azé, it seems that there must also be a protective sorcery called white sorcery. But there is nothing more dangerous than this inextricable world where evil takes the shape of good and imposes a code of conduct. It is precisely this connivance between Vodun and these esoteric circles of harm that always make a deep inculturation difficult, given that in Vodun the cult aspects are amply mixed with cultural ones.
DISTINGUISHING THE CULT FROM THE CULTURAL, A SINE QUA NON CONDITION FOR ANY ATTEMPT AT INCULTURATION
In the cultural area of South Benin, which is the area I am addressing in my discourse, the deep influence of the religious phenomenon on the social, economic and political structures is undeniable. The present time is solidly rooted in the time of the venerated ancestors; events, almost in their minute detail, are explained, understood and lived in a certain continuity with the will of the Vodun. The pharmacopoeia constitutes a major force of the convents. Each family, each son or each large socio-geographic entity (the To) has its special Vodun which imposes itself as the primary area for the quest for existential meaning. Wisdom has as its base the fear of Vodun. Economic life receives the aid expected from the Vodun. "The art of arts, in other words politics, is marked by the Vodun reality". From these various data collected at source, one might infer that the Vodun religion imbues the social fabric to the point that worship may supplant culture.
Such a deduction is much more theoretical than real. Vodun does not absorb all that is cultural. There is a strong tendency for religion to replace culture. What does recur is that the cult appropriates cultural elements. The religious cult can claim for itself as meaningful signs (acts, gestures, words…) those by which man shows his relationship of communion with the transcendent. In Vodun, this is a specific act of devotion and religiosity. The essential acts of worship in the Vodun religion are sacrifices (of propitiation or thanksgiving), offerings and prayers. Communion meals and annual purification rites complete the vast range of forms of ritual worship. The cult’s impact on cultural life goes through the moral prohibitions and prescriptions which emanate specifically from Vodun (Vodun-sù). This necessary distinction between the cult and the culture is the unavoidable condition for sincere dialogue between this culture and Christianity, so as to start a process of inculturation. But this precise definition in no way seeks to insinuate that the religion as a whole is a negative, coarse idolatry.
If the truth is to be told, it must be recognised that the shortcomings, failures and deviations of Vodun (charms, magic, sorcery, fetishism…) exploit the senses, the useful, in a quest for power. There is an unwarranted substitution of symbols, signs for the pure material nature of the sign. This leads to superstitious and magical attitudes, widespread infusion of wickedness and terror in Vodun practices. Hence the perplexity and scepticism when faced with a Vodun that promotes a certain morality. In the Hênnu, the Ako (lineage) and the To, Vodun constitutes an element of social cohesion. The regular ceremonies of each social entity’s particular Vodun provide great moments of brotherhood in action. The followers of the same Vodun are bound by this Vodun’s specific prohibitions and legal prescriptions. The Vodun rules establish a life of solidarity among these individuals: quarrels between followers of the same Vodun are generally settled at the convent or at the Vodunun’s house. In addition, Vodun tolerates no transgression of its prohibitions. This maintains among sincere Vodun adepts a permanent culture of fidelity. The total commitment of ex-Vodun adepts who have converted to Christianity is a proof of this. Finally, it should be noted that if Vodun does not oppose the rules of life known as Gbêsu, it accepts them implicitly. These Gbêsu hold the destruction of life and the betrayal of friends in abomination. The features to be focused on therefore, are the values of fraternity, solidarity, communion and religious fidelity, without forgetting the social prohibitions to which Vodun implicitly give credit.
To conclude this brief communication on the traditional Vodun religion of Benin, I must point out that it was not possible to say everything, even on essential aspects. However, in spite of all the excesses to its discredit, Vodun in its purity remains a fertile ground for evangelisation. As a cultural phenomenon, it could offer numerous values to be Christianised. But the gordian knot remains the difficulty of setting it on the Paschal way. To empty Vodun of its magic and sorcery would be beneficial for the people of Benin. For the time being, this seems an utopian enterprise, today more than in the past.
Indeed, the seventeen years of Marxist-Leninist policies in Benin, 1972-1989, with anti-religious campaigns and witch-hunts, had contributed to diminishing the importance and reducing the influence of Vodun. But with the coming of democratic renewal since 1990, Vodun has regained vitality. From 28 May to 1 June 1991, a symposium of the great leaders of the Vodun cults was held with the aim of restoring a certain degree of legal recognition for this traditional religion. In 1993, a great international Vodun festival was organised and held in Benin: "Ouidah 92". Its effect was to foster its renewal. In the same year, Pope John Paul II’s visit and his highly media-enhanced meeting with Vodun leaders were taken by many Vodun followers, not as a sign of dialogue, but as the indication that the Church at last recognises that the Vodun cult has its place. This combination of circumstances means that in Benin Vodun is currently organising and structuring itself more and more as a traditional religion, with a national feast (10 January) and a national hierarchy. In sum, to reach out to these Vodun adepts, the Church will no longer be able to use only the Bible and Holy Water, but above all will need dialogue.