My day started like many in Benin: hot, sweaty, and slightly confused. I had time off that week and had decided to travel south in order to explore more of the country, catch up with some fellow Peace Corps volunteers, and take in some southern Beninese culture. I was 27 and had been in Benin as an agricultural volunteer with the Peace Corps for about a year and a half at that point. As I pulled myself up off of the thinly woven plastic mat that had served as my bed, I wondered two things: how long would this hangover last, and what the hell was I getting myself into?
On my way down from the north I had been stopped by a spirit. My friend Ben and I were traveling by motorcycle from his town of Houegbo to our coworker Alex’s town of Sègbo and on our way we had been briefly separated. As we passed through a small village a group of men made their way into the road and stopped me.
I was completely surrounded by this group of men, all of whom were dancing and chanting. Suddenly, a section of the crowd opened and a large figure appeared. It was covered in beautiful red and gold cloth, bells on its ankles, and a mask made out of seashells covering its face. It approached, chanting and dancing until it was standing directly next to me.
Things are going to be very different for you now, your life is in danger.
With a whirl, it turned around, flipped up the back of its long garb, and revealed a small clay head on a wooden pedestal. The crowd of men immediately went from boisterous to deathly silent. I stared at the head and it stared back at me. The beautifully garbed figure spun around as quickly as it had before and in perfect English with an American accent attached, it said “give me money white man”.
I had none to give other than what I needed for my next taxi ride. Furthermore, I was in a state of utter bewilderment. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in northern Benin. The only similar events I had seen up north were the occasional circumcision and whipping ceremonies. Both had groups of men dancing, but neither involved figures with such elaborate costumes or clay heads on pedestals.
Before I could contemplate my next move, the figure vanished into the thicket lining the road, which was an accomplishment for someone or something so imposing. As the group of men dispersed, one of them turned to me. “Things are going to be very different for you now,” he said in French, ominously before he too left. “Your life is in danger.”
And with that I continued on my way. Later that day at a bar we found out what had happened in that small village. “You failed to show respect to the spirit,” an acquaintance at the bar who was well versed in local traditions and the local liquor explained. “This is why you are in danger.” He said as he moved a few seats farther away from us.
Not all hope was lost for me and my spiritual relations. Perhaps its wasn’t a coincidence that I was in Sègbo to attend a traditional Vodun protection ceremony, something that might remedy all of this.
The Protection Ceremony
Benin, and specifically the southern city of Ouidah, is the capital of Vodun (also spelt Vodou). “There are many places and temples around the world where Vodou is practiced,” my friend and Vodou informant Anicet informed me, “but Ouidah is the only place where one can find all 41 of the Vodun spirits in one location.”
Anicet has lived his entire life in Ouidah. He is in the process of becoming a Vodun Oracle and hopes to soon have his book on Vodou and the slave trade published.
I knew very little about Vodou before living in Benin. The portrayals of the religion I had seen usually presented it in a derogatory, baseless, and simplistic way– usually featuring Vodou dolls and mesmerized zombies. That being said, Vodun does allow people to talk to and celebrate the dead, one example is through the Egoun ceremony.
What I was hoping to do in Sègbo was learn about Vodun firsthand. A little spiritual protection probably couldn’t hurt either considering I had just royally pissed off a wandering spirit.
There were seven of us foreigners in attendance for the protection ceremony. All of us had been living in Benin for a decent amount of time working as Peace Corps volunteers, but only one of us, Alex, had participated in any official Vodun related activities. Alex lived in Sègbo and was the one who organized for us to be invited to partake in the ceremony. We were asked to make a contribution of 10,000 CFA, about $20 USD, in order to attend the ceremony and receive protection.
Protection ceremonies have three parts: consultation, sacrifice, and protection.
I assumed Alex would be able to provide me with some explanation of events during the ceremony due to his proximity to Ouidah and his claim of having participated in a Vodun ceremony before. Unfortunately, he spoke just enough French to prevent himself from starving to death and could only say ‘hello’ in Fon, the local language spoken in Sègbo. How he was able to get permission for seven foreigners to attend a Vodun protection ceremony in a very small village in the middle of the forest remains a mystery to me. This was not somewhere that most, if any, foreigners were even aware of.
Alex’s usefulness was gone the second we arrived at the Vodun place of worship, the home of village’s Vodun priest. I was either going to have to try to figure everything out as it unfolded or embrace the Buddhist concept of simply being present and ignore a search for meaning. Truthfully, I did a bit of both.
We entered a walled-in courtyard that held several standalone structures, an area shaded by a palm thatched roof, and a rather ominous looking well. There was quite a good amount of open space as well. This was fortunate as the protection ceremony was not just for us, but for the entire town’s population of approximately 50 people. Due to the number of people in attendance, the ceremony was set to take the entire day.
Anicet later provided me with explanation for what I witnessed firsthand that day. “Protection ceremonies have three parts,” he explained. “The first part is a consultation, the second part is sacrifice, and the third is protection.”
The seven of us awkwardly took our places sitting among the assembled crowd. Individually, people walked to the center of the group where an oracle sat upon a woven mat. The oracle was there to speak with the spirit or spirits that present themselves during this part of the ceremony. These spirits know about your entire life and past lives and the information they provide is sent through the oracle. The oracle must relay the information correctly or else they will die.
The oracle handed me a rock which I was told to share my aspirations and prayers with. “Thank God the Vodou spirits understand all languages,” my friend Katlynn said to me, “otherwise you would not be able to share anything with them.”
Be sure to say thank you to the high priest and the spirits at the alter later.
I whispered my hopes, dreams, and some sweet nothings to the rock before handing it back to the oracle. He took the rock and gently tossed it, shells, other rocks, sticks, and bones in front of himself. The pattern in which they fell informed the priest which spirit had revealed itself, allowing the oracle to know with whom he was speaking.
I had already watched three people speak with the oracle before me and heard their fates and the subsequent advice they received. I reflected on it as I awaited my own.
“The people in your life that seem close to you now will not show up to help later,” the oracle had said to Katlynn. “For the next week, do not eat papaya” he advised.
Truly a cruel fate, but that’s the price you pay for health and safety.
“Stop sleeping with prostitutes” the oracle informed Alex.
News to all his coworkers, but sound advice in general.
“You have been marked for death” he told Ben.
Quite a predicament to be in. Fortunately, the man explained that this could be undone or at least delayed by participation in other parts of the protection ceremony. Though the news was delivered to Ben, I took note of it and assumed that the spirits would tell me the same thing.
After the sacred objects were tossed, he beckoned me to lean closer to him. I obeyed.
“Be sure to say thank you to the high priest and the spirits at the alter later,” he advised.
“What?” I asked, expecting more. “Are you sure I have not been marked by death? Can I still eat papaya?”
“Say thank you to the high priest and the spirits at the altar later,” he repeated.
“Are you sure that is all I have to do?” I asked again.
“Yes,” he said. “That and participate in the rest of the ceremony.”
With our consultations finished we were told to go wait patiently for those that had arrived after us to receive theirs. We were moved into the center of the courtyard where a long table had been placed close to the ominous looking well.
Once everyone had completed their consultations, the oracle and high priest met to speak with the spirits. We waited while they asked the spirits what they would like to receive in order to offer their protection.
Several large bottles of sodabi were brought to the table for everyone to drink from as we waited. Sodabi is a liquor made from distilled palm wine. The variety that we were indulging in was the Beninese equivalent of Appalachian moonshine. Having partaken of moonshine previously, I can confirm that both could power a car.
To add to our mental stimulation, we were instructed to chew on kola nuts between drinks. Kola nuts, when chewed directly, have a higher caffeine content than coffee. After an hour of throwing back shot after shot of sodabi and caffeinating the hell out of ourselves, the high priest was ready to commence the second part of the ceremony: Sacrifice.
Vodun is often looked at as a ‘dark’ or even ‘evil’ religion by westerners. They often believe it is used to curse or bring harm to others. My friend Anicet enlightened me on this misconception. He explained that this is actually a portrayal of ‘Gris-Gris’ in French or ‘Bo’ in the local language of Fon. “Gris-gris is the form of Vodou that aims to hurt, and not heal” Anicet explained. “Aman is the form of Vodou used to help, heal, and protect.”
They will offer you their protection, but want something in return.
As he explained, oracles and priests are the practitioners of Aman and use Vodou positively. Sorcerers and witches practice Bo and are viewed as extremely dangerous. If a village suspects someone of practicing Bo in their town, they may chase them out of town or even kill them so that they cannot cause harm to others. It is a very serious accusation.
Aman and Bo form the positive negative dichotomy of the Vodun religion. Similar good and evil dichotomies are found in other major religions around the world, with angels and demons being the one westerners are most familiar with. Practitioners of both Aman and Bo utilize similar techniques such as use of sacred objects and animal sacrifice to name a couple.
“The sacrifice of animals is done in order to satiate the spirits,” Anicet informed me. “They will offer you their protection, but want something in return.”
The second part of the ceremony commenced with all of us changing out of our clothing and wrapping ourselves in brightly colored fabric similar to how one would wear a sarong. We sat in rows. The priest instructed us to close our eyes as several oracles and priests walked through these rows marking our faces, chests, and backs with white paint made from crushed kola nuts. They then spat the remnants of the nut and some sodabi on to the tops of our heads.
As I was beginning to come to terms with having a mixture of chewed up kola nuts and sodabi spat on me, I was instructed to open my eyes. I was immediately met with a handful of sodabi being thrown directly into my eyeballs. The burning was profound.
Not to be outdone by the unfazed child sitting next to me, I tried to keep my composure as best as I could. I’m pretty sure I heard the kid let out a laugh or two which I assume was directed at the tall, whimpering white man.
We all stood up and formed a circle around two priests who began to dig a small hole. Once the hole had been made, we were called up in pairs and asked to bow our heads. The two priests were handed a baby chick, took out a sacred knife, and stoically slit the chick’s throat. I watched as the chick ran around, fell, and commenced its death throes. It was then, as the chick was dying, that it was picked up and brushed on our shoulders and, lightly on our faces. In total they sacrificed 22 chicks in this manner.
As there were many people in attendance that day, and this was a major protection event, the sacrifices continued. Two chickens were then sacrificed by having their throats slit. Their blood was poured into hole that had been dug and their bodies were laid to the side next to the pile of chicks.
We all rose and walked over to the well. Two goats were brought out. Their throats were slit with the now increasingly dull knife, and their blood was poured into the well. I never learned if the sole purpose of this well was for blood or if this was a way of blessing it. I stopped asking questions after having two dead and bloody chicks rubbed on me.
The final sacrifice was the most difficult one for me. It had slightly shaken me to see chicks, chickens, and goats killed for religious purposes, but I had never had one of these animals as a pet. Watching a dog, puppy, and kitten be killed as part of a religious practice struck a very different cord. The extent of the animal sacrifice was shocking to me, though a normal part of the ceremony for the Beninese in attendance.
That moment made me question myself deeply. It was not my place as an outsider with absolutely no understanding to pass judgment, and yet, I could not help thinking about how unnecessary it all seemed. Then again, many religious practices seem unnecessary to me.
All religions have aspects that seem strange and/or bizarre to me: Muslims perform animal sacrifice (usually a goat) for Eid al-Adha also known as Tabaski, practitioners of Judaism (though not exclusively) practice male genital mutilation on their eight-day old boys and call it Brit milah, Catholics think they are literally eating their lord and savior’s flesh and drinking his blood every Sunday morning through Eucharist, and most of the world indulges in some form of “talking to God” or “praying”.
I was familiar with those practices. As unsettling to me as they may be, they are not new news. Extensive animal sacrifice on the other hand- that was shocking to me. I have killed animals for food, but not as part of a religious ceremony. To this day, I have not fully reconciled with it even though I now know that those animals were specifically raised for that purpose: to be sacrificed in a religious protection ceremony.
I was emotionally numb by this point of the day due to a variety of reasons. Looking around, I saw that everyone in attendance had the same emotionless façade. It was very much as though everyone was outside of themselves during the entire process, removed from reality.
With proper offering paid, we each were allowed to approach the alter in a courtyard that was behind a set of doors next to where the sacrifices had occurred. When it was my turn, I walked into the small courtyard and was instructed to pray. I am not a religious person, so I would not call what I did prayer, but I quietly meditated on my day thus far and the run in with the spirit on the road the day before.
After silently paying my respects to the sacred space and the people that allowed us to participate in this ceremony, I left the courtyard and was instructed to prepare for the final part of the ceremony: Protection.
“Protection is done in three ways,” Anicet informed me. “Sacred objects such as charms can be blessed by a high priest and carried by an individual, an individual can be washed with sacred herbs and water, and/or an individual can be cut with a knife and have sacred dirt and ash put in them.”
Members of the community and a few of the folks I had come with were lined up. Holding a mixture of charcoal and ash in one hand and a small razor in another, the priest cut two small lines on each side of a person’s chest or back. They then filled those cuts with the charcoal and ash. These scars or ‘tattoos’ serve to further protect these individuals and denote to evil spirits this fact.
After the cuts had stopped bleeding the men and women were taken away separately for a wash. At the time I thought that this was done so that we could finally wash the paint, chewed nuts, spit, blood, and sweat off ourselves. This was, in fact, another form of protection which would explain why we received ‘help’ washing ourselves.
With the ceremony complete, we moved on to some activities that I enjoy most: eating, drinking, and dancing. I achieved my objective of learning more about Vodun first hand. As I am still alive and well, I believe I also made up for disrespecting the spirit the day before the ceremony. However, I have only begun to understand what happened that day. I was given a glimpse at a massive and complicated religion.
Protection is done in three ways, sacred objects, a wash with sacred herbs and water, and/or an individual can be cut with a knife.
It is not my place to say what is morally right and wrong in regards to the practices of Vodun. I can only speak about my own thoughts on the subject of religion in general. I was raised Catholic and come from a community that has a weird and almost religiously fanatical love for sports. When I was a child, we would practice Catholic mysticism by partaking of the Eucharist every Sunday morning. I’ve seen cars lit on fire because a college basketball team lost one game and watched in awe as a crowd of thousands chanted their football team’s hymn in a massive temple-like stadium. As I have come to learn throughout my life, what is considered ‘normal’ is highly subjective.
Like others, Vodou is a lived religion. It takes far more forms than the protection ceremony I attended and I hope to continue to learn more about it. Vodun is something people partake in and interact with constantly. It will leave scars on your body. It offers protection from evil, but can be used to do harm. Vodou will offer you a look at life and death and show you how the two are not that distant from each other. It builds a sense of community and allows people to express themselves spiritually.
Three years later I still think about that protection ceremony, the animal sacrifice, and the advice the oracle gave me. I think of these things and am truly thankful. I am thankful to have experienced and learned about a small part of an incredibly complex religion and thankful for those that allowed me to experience it. I am thankful to have shared the experience with my now wife-to-be. In that sense, I am most thankful for the bonds that were formed that day and the protection given by the long-lasting friendships that emerged from them.