January 10: Benin Republic’s annual Voodoo festival5 min read
Traditional Voodoo Day, or Fête du Vodoun, is a public holiday in Benin that celebrates the nation’s history surrounding the West African religion of Voodoo.
It operates almost like other religions, with a “pope”, priests and devotees.
Centuries before colonial masters and missionaries came to this part of the world, voodoo had been a staple practice of the people. While some countries were made to believe their voodoo religion was completely bad, some parts were left to practice their heritage.
In Benin Republic, Togo, and some parts of Nigeria, for example, the practice of voodoo and its rituals is still rife till today.
The celebration is held annually on January 10 (which is a public holiday in the Republic of Benin) throughout the country but most notably in the city of Ouidah, a city on the coast.
A former slave port on the Atlantic Ocean, some 40 kilometres from Cotonou, Benin’s capital city, it is known by many as the birthplace of voodoo.
Voodoo was officially declared a religion in Benin in 1996 and the festival has attracted thousands of devotees and tourists to Ouidah to participate in the festivities ever since.
About 60% of the country’s 6.3 million people practice it!
It was recognised as a major religion in Benin in 1996 but the first Voodoo Festival was inaugurated in 1993, and It became a national holiday on 10 January 1998.
The central belief of voodoo is that everything is spirit, including humans, and the festival’s aim is to rehabilitate the traditions and cultures of voodoo, as well as celebrate the humanistic value of the traditional religions that form the basis of African spirituality and to reclaim the identity and dignity of black Africans.
Beginning with the slaughter of a goat in honor of the spirits, the festival is filled with singing, dancing in a trance and the imbibing of liquor, especially gin.
Sacrificing a goat is a good way to receive the blessings of the ancestors as well as keep diseases away from the entire population of Benin, not just the voodoo followers.
The ritual slaughter of a goat is also made to honour the deities such as Gou the god of Iron, Elegbara the Messenger, Kokou the Warrior, Zangbeto the guardian of the Night, Mami Wata goddess of Water, among others.
Thousands of citizens of Benin and their guest from other parts of the world have celebrated the day in style.
The annual festival is held in tents with colourful flags representing different voodoo sects and this is a time when ordinary people from all over Benin get a rare chance to rub shoulders with kings and queens in expensive African attire.
They are joined by travellers from as far afield as Haiti, the United States and Europe.
You could also see the traditional chiefs, shamans, voodoo worshippers make the ancestral cult practices such as killing chickens and goats, snake worshipping, drinking lots of spirits like gin, and dances which are done when worshippers have been possessed by dead ancestors.
The tranced worshippers usually spray their face with white talcum to indicate they are in a trance.
People who practise the tradition believe that life derives from the natural forces of earth, water, fire and air.
Voodoo 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 dozens of ethnic spirits, defenders of a certain clan, tribe, or nation.
Adherents also emphasize ancestor worship and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living, each family of spirits having its own female priesthood, sometimes hereditary when it is from mother to blood daughter.
Patterns of Voodoo worship follow various dialects, spirits, practices, songs, and rituals.
The divine Creator, called variously Mawu or Mahu, is a female being, an elder woman, and usually a mother who is gentle and forgiving.
She is also seen as the god who owns all other gods and even if there is no temple made in her name, the people continue to pray to her, especially in times of distress.
In one tradition, she bore seven children.
Sakpata (voodoo of the Earth), Xêvioso or Xêbioso (voodoo of Thunder, also associated with Divine Justice), Agbe (voodoo of the Sea), Gû (voodoo of Iron and War), Agê (voodoo of Agriculture and Forests), Jo (voodoo of Air) and Lêgba (voodoo of the Unpredictable).
The Creator embodies a dual cosmogonic principle of which Mawu the moon and Lisa the sun are respectively the female and male aspects.
Lisa is the sun god who brings the day and the heat, and also strength and energy. Mawu, the moon goddess, provides the cool of the night, peace, fertility, and rain. A proverb says “When Lisa punishes Mawu forgives”.
Lêgba, often represented as a phallus or as a man with a prominent phallus, is known as the youngest son of Mawu and he is the chief of all vodoo divinities.
It is only through contact with him that it becomes possible to contact the other gods, for he is the guardian at the door of the spirits.
Dan, Mawu’s androgynous son, is represented as a rainbow serpent, and was to remain with her and act as a go-between with her other creations. As the mediator between the spirits and the living, he maintains balance, order, peace and communication.
Other popular loa, or spiritual entities, include Azaka who rules over agriculture, Erzuli who has domain over love, and Ogoun who is in charge of war, defense and who stands on guard.
Either way all creation is considered divine and therefore contains the power of the divine.
Voodoo 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 considered objects inhabited by spirits.
The entities that inhabit a fetish are able to perform different tasks according to their stage of development. Fetish objects are often combined in the construction of sort of shrines, used to call forth specific voodoo and their associated powers.
And about the festival itself, it holds from Ouidah to Cotonou, along the beaches and in towns.
Aside from the spooky attraction of the country, Benin has all that most tourists look out for: tropical climate, palm-fringed beaches, national parks and some pretty extraordinary sites of historical interest….
Images from web – Google Research