Fetish or altar figure "Vodun"
Fon or Ewé people, early to mid 20th century, Benin/Togo/Ghana, private collection from Netherlands.
Fon (called also Fon nu, Agadja or Dahomey) and Ewé people, related linguistically and culturally, live along the coast and in the hinterland of south Benin (called Dahomey until 1975) and adjacent parts of Togo, and eastern Ghana in West Africa. The Fon are the largest group in Benin, and they speak the Fon language, a member of the Gbe languages. The Fon are famous for their history, in the past they founded the Kingdom of Dahomey, that became a great force in the area. Cities built by the Fon include Abomey, the historical capital city of Dahomey on what was historically referred to by Europeans as the Slave Coast. These cities became major commercial centres for the slave trade. The people of today are organized into dispersed patrilinear clans in each which the oldest living man is said to be "between the two worlds" of the living and the dead. The Ewé of Togo and Ghana, historically representing the outposts of Fon civilization, share a sense of identity and history of migration.
The economy of the Fon is based agriculture, relying mainly on maize, sorghum, sesame, okra, cassava, and yams as staples. Hunting and fishing are other sources of food. The Fon villages, in agricultural areas of the country, are made up of houses built with mud bricks, grouped into a single compound with an open court, surrounded by a mud wall. Each village also has a group of professional hunters who are surrounded by supernatural sanctions. Craft specialists include male ironworkers and weavers and female pottery makers.
The traditional Fon religion is regionally called Vodoun, meaning "numerous immortal spirits and deities" in the Fon and Ewé languages. Vodoun is also spelled Vodun, Vodzu, Vodu or Voudou. The religious practise of the Fon people have four overlapping elements: public gods, personal or private gods, ancestral spirits, and magic or charms. The ancestral cult, believed to be necessary for the perpetuation of the clan, is the focal point of Fon social organization and of much religious activity. A typical traditional home compound of the Fon people has a Dexoxos, or ancestral shrine. There, the tovodu (family gods) are annually "fed" and honored with dancing and songs.
The Fon people have a concept of a supreme being called Nana Buluku, both male and female, who gave birth to the twins named Mawu and Lisa; the first, female, was given command of the night, and the second, male, was associated with the day. After giving birth, the Mother supreme retired, and left everything to Mawu-Lisa, deities, spirits and inert universe. Mawu-Lisa created numerous minor imperfect deities. In Fon belief, the feminine deity Mawu had to work with divine trickster Legba (who is the youngest son of Mawu) and the snake Aido Hwedo to create living beings, a method of creation that imbued the good, the bad and a destiny for every creature including human beings. Only by appeasing lesser deities and Legba, in Fon theology, can one change that destiny. Vodou cosmology centers around the spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that range in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees and rocks, as well as dozen of ethnic vodun, defenders of a certain clan, tribe, or nation.
Medicine is also influenced by Vodoun practises, local healers, and priests usually use plants, dried animal parts to celebrate rituals, and deal with the disease. Vodun talismans, called fetishes, are objects such as statues or dried animal or human parts that are sold for their healing and spiritually rejuvenating properties. Specifically, they are objects with inhabited by spirits. The charms are locally called gbo, gris gris, ju ju, or obeah, involve leaves, herbs, smoke and these are offerings to public or personal gods of each family. These are said to be given to humans by Legba and Sangbata (the earth deity who watches over the fields and waters of the earth and punishes offenders with smallpox), and especially by the small hairy creatures (aziza) who live in anthills and silk-cotton trees.
The Ewé share many aspects of culture, religion, and art with the Fon and indeed occasionally travel to Benin to obtain shrines and spiritual aid. They share many gods, including Mawu. Similar, too, are the practise of Afa divination and Legba cult. The deity of sacred forest (Nyigbla) is very important to Ewé as well as the entire pantheon of Yehve spirits, including the god of lightning and thunder (Heviesso).
Fascinating smaller altar or fetish figure. These fetish figures were made to protect individuals or families against evil, sorcery, illness or theft, and to provide power to success. A crudely carved seated maternity figure with highly stylized features. Worn out facial features. Traces of libations and sacrificial blood. A stunning dark brown patina. Age-related wear and handling over many years. Dirt, dust, soil. Fractures and cracks. Size approx. 17,0cm x 4,3cm excluding the modern stand.
Citations, references and sources:
African Vodun: Art, Psychology and Power, Suzanne Preston Blier, University of Chicago Press, 1995.
Vodún/Vodu, Resistance, and North/South Relations in Undemocratic Togo, Eric J. Montgomery, Brill, Journal of Religion in Africa, pp. 224-248, 2020.
Vodou, Serving the Spirits, The Pluralism Project, Harward University, 2020.
Four Vodun Ceremonies, George Eaton Simpson, The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 59, No. 232, pp. 154-167, Amercan Folklore Society, 1946.
Contemporary Vodun Arts of Ouidah, Benin, Dana Rush, African Arts, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 32-47 + 94-96, UCLA, 2001.
They Died in Blood: Morality and Communitas in Ewe Ritual, Eric J. Montgomery, Journal of Ritual Studies, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 25-40, 2018.
Vodun (Voodoo), Encyclopedia.com.
Vodun-Rada Rite for Erzulie, recorded in Haiti by Verna Gillis, Folkways Records, 1975. Smithsonian Folkways recordings, Smithsonian Institution.