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The Children of Dahomey

A Brief History

From 1513 to the 7th October 1886 approximately 1.3 million slaves were taken from Africa to Cuba. These Africans came from various parts of the African continent in waves. The four major groups indentured were the Bantu, Ibo, Yoruba and Ewe/Fon. The largest of these groups bought to the Caribbean were the Bantu from the Kongo. To this day Cuba maintains a rich Bakongo culture which worship the Nkisi, the deities under the name of Palo which originated in Angola and Zaire. From South East Nigeria the Ibo and Ijaw came approximately in 1762, among them the Efik who were brought with them the cofraternity of the Ekpe, known as Abakwa in Cuba. One of the last groups to be taken were the Ewe Fon from the Royal Kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin between 1750 and 1800. It is the Dahomeans and their legacy still evident today that will be discussed here.

From the Ewe-Fon peoples that were enslaved and taken to Cuba preserved their traditional Dahomean worship of the Vodou. Commonly known as Arara by Afro-Cubans, from the word "Alada" a famous port on the Bight of Benin from which the slaves where transported to the New World.

In Cuba the Dahomean religious practices, although having less devotees than the Lukumi are thought to be relatively free of creolised or syncretised religious practices due to the fact that the Dahomean peoples were brought to Cuba towards the end of slavery in Cuba and so had less time under Colonial rule in order to mask their practices. The Arara were the penultimate group to arrive, the last and most influential being the Yoruba which comprised of many heads of religious and political roles bought to Cuba (and elsewhere) as Old Oyo collapsed.

The Vodun are worshipped by the Fon, Ewe (Evhe) Mina and Mahi peoples of Benin (ex Dahomey) and Togo, West Africa, neighbours of the Yoruba or "Nago" people. One of the principle languages used in the worship of the Vodoun is Fongbe, as we shall see both the religious practices and liturgical practices were transferred with the slave trade and preserved to present day in Latin America the Caribbean and Hispaniola. "Vodun" is the name given to the deities from this area, its usage designates deity, the agents of the deities, the 'priests' as well as the physical shrines of the gods.

Religion and Royalty are intrinsically linked in Dahomean religious practices. Dahomeans are considered children of the leopard as the founding myth of the Royal lineage where either the King of Adja the Adjahuto or one of his wives was a leopard in human form. The children of Adja were called kpovi or leopard children.

The supreme head of the Vodun pantheon is Nana Buruku, who gave birth to Mawu the female creator aspect which unites with the male Vodun Lisa to formt he androgynous deity Mawu-Lisa. Mawu-Lisa, considered united at all times are the sum of creation, much like Oduduwa in Yoruba religious practices. Mawu-Lisa are the moon and the sun.

It is Mawu-Lisa that is then named as the parent of all the other deities. First born to the creator couple was Da Zodji and his female twin and wife Nyowhe Ananu. Da Zodji is the chief of the earth pantheon of deities, Sagbata (called Shoponon in Yoruba) Second born of Mawu is Hevioso or Sogbo or the chief of the thunder pantheon.. Agbe, the head of the sea which also includes deities such as Aflekete was born next followed by Age the deity of the hunt. After Age, Gu the deity of Iron war and weapons was the fifth born of Mawu in this lineage which is completed with the birth of Legba the youngest and most important deity, the divine trickster who carries the role of meseengerbetween Mawu and any of the other Vodun hence Legba's omnipresence and importance. The important deities and characterisitcs of the Yorua and Dahomey are virtually mirrored due to the. The dahomeans also worship Fa, the god of the diviners or Bokonon.}

Nana Buruku
Lukumi Nana Buruku
with curved Ha.

Within the Dahomean tradition of kingship by divine right, each king becomes a royal Vodun or Ahosu upon death. The Vodun Agasu, is the progenitor of the Fon dynastic line. Each king is commemorated in bas-relief on the palace walls of Abomey as well as tapestries, both traditional arts of the Dahomean peoples. Each king has a set of symbols, a visual representation of their motto for rule:

King Reigned Symbols Motto
Gangnihessou Ca.1600 Male gangnihessou bird, a drum a throwing or hunting stick "I am the biggest bird and the loudest drum. You can't keep the bird from singing, you can't keep the drum from
Dako Ca. 1620 An indigo jar, tinderbox, war club "Dako Kills Konou as easily as breaking an indigo Jar" Referring to an indigo planter whom Dako killed.
Houegbadja Ca.1645-85 A fish, net, war club "The fish who has accepted the net won't go back in it" Referring to the King's wisdom in refusing to be caught in the traps laid by his enemies
Akaba 1685-1708 A warthog, sword "When the warthog looks up at the sky, it gets its throat slit" Ref. to not getting distracted in royal matters
Agaja 1708-32 European boat "No one can set fire to a large tree that has fallen whole with its branches (first it must be cut)" Ref. to the importance of strength and unity.
Tegbessou 1732-74 A buffalo wearing a tunic "Nothing can force the buffalo to take off his tunic" Ref. to Tegbessou acceding to the throne by not removing his royal tunic (to accede, the tunic needed to be worn for an entire day, his rivals had placed stinging nettles in it)
Kpengla 1774-89 the Akpan bird, gun "The agitated akpan strikes out at the other birds" Ref. to Kpengla engaging in battles.A very controversial ruler.
Andandozan 1797-1818 Large parasol "The king overshadows his enemies"
Guezo 1818-58 Jar pierced with holes, held high by hands "Our Freedom can be compared to a jar with many holes, which cannot hold water. If each one of you, the sons of this nation can put your finger in one hole, the jar will hold water." Ref to unification.
Behanzin 1889-94 An egg "The world holds the egg that the earth desires." Ref. to his efforts to save his kingdom from the French
Agoli-Agbo I 1894-1900 A foot tripping over a rock "Beware! The royal Dahomean dynasty has stumbled but has not fallen" Ref. to conitinuation of royal rule after French had taken rule.

There are Vodun worshipped by People born with deformities which are linked to the Tohosou, the head Vodoun of the Tohosu is known as Zomadonu. This royal Vodoun cult came into being when a Dahomean King gave birth to a deformed boy. Zomadonu which is also linked with springs, wells and fountains. His cult is an exclusive royal pantheon which is still honoured in both Cuba and Brazil.

In Brazil, the African derived religions now practiced are divided into "nations." Dahomean religious practice and related Vodoun pervade virtually all of the nations, to varying degrees. The Jeje nation takes its name from "Adja." Initiates of Jeje nations are called Vodunsi and undergo specifically Dahomean rituals, such as those relating to the moon, as well as undertaking rites that have both Yoruba and Dahomean influences. Songs, names and chants are in both Yoruba and Fon.

Haitian Vodou's roots lie mainly in Dahomean and Bantu (as well as Ibo and Yoruba) culture and models of initiation. Deities from Dahomey, which appear on the list below are called "Rada lwa". Rada, the creole term for Allada. Mythical and physical Africa is referred to as Ginen, referring to the Guinea Coast. Haitian Vodou contains a large liturgical glossary of Fon words. The highest grade of initiation attainable in Haitian Vodou is Asogwe, the name for the rattle used by certain Dahomean heads of state to assert their authority. Following is a tale showing the easy transition of some of the most well known deities from West Africa to the Diaspora.

Yoruba Orisha Dahomean Vodoun Haitian Vodou Lwa

s / lgbara





Lisa / Ogou-batala





Dan Ayido Hwedo








Nn Buruk

Nana Bukuu

Nanan bouclou






Ezili Dant

If / rnml








Papa Loko




Oya / Iyansan





Ezili Freda







It is the Sagbata (Snpnn in Yoruba) or the earth pantheon, the most important and eldest children of Mawu and Lisa that will be discussed in depth here. It is what the Arara of Cuba are the best known for, Da Zodji is known and sung to in Cuba as Asoji. He is also called Obaluaiye, Babaluaiye, Omolu by the Yoruba and their descendants in Cuba and Brazil. Another popular priase name is Asohano in Cuba which comes from the Fon epithet Azohani, an ancient praise name for this deity from Mahi the North of Dahomey.

Asohano, Nanume & Eshu Afra

Lukumi Altar for Obalay, Nanume and Eshu Afra

It is the very nature of Asohano that lends given names with which to be praised to placate this deity. Although considered benevolent by many and quite rightly so, Asohano is known as the deity of pestilence, contagious disease in particular smallpox, disfigurement and those that live on the fringes and those excluded from society. The importance the Yoruba and their descendants place on the words that one says, as ofo-ashe or words of power is indeed great. Care is taken to mention only the positive aspects in a flattering nature of this formidable orisha so that no malady will invoked. Worshippers of thi deity would therefore be more reluctant to refer to Asohano as Shoponno and would rather hint at his powers and prestige as Obaluaiye. A few of his praise names are:

Obalay King of the world
Ilgbn Hot earth
Olde Lord of the wilderness
Oba King
Olay Lord of the world

Asohano is intrinsically linked with the harmattan winds, that can be used to spread infections. He is also associated with the mid-day sun, the hottest part of the day. This is in direct contrast to the Yoruba precept of maintaining and striving for cool (tutu) and calm (ero). Asohano is known as Ilgbn or hot earth due to the sun and wind mentioned above but also as a reminder of what his agent, smallpox can produce on the human body, a deadly hot infection that is made worse by the apllication of cold water (which actually splits the membranes of the boils produced by this pox). Cold water is thus seen as an eewo (taboo)of Asohano, and the water on skin is paralleled by the pouring of water on the earth in his name which would incur his "wrath."

The taboo of cool water is reflected in Lukumi religious practice for Asohano. Also the relevance of the inclusion of fire / burning in the consecration process can thus be clearly seen in certain religious acts for this deity.
The social ramifications of His dieseases is shown to be a judgement by Asohano, His priests being competent in spreading and controlling infections are a force to be reckoned with, they themselves are often placated as earthly messengers of Asohano. Also, destitutes, strangers and other members of the society at large are seen as the messengers of Asohano and so there are many stories that tell of maintaining charitable relations and the many consequences of failing to do so told which promulgates this awareness of 'us' and 'them'.

The pock marks, the souvenir of the ravages of smallpox are mirrored in the shrine implement of Asohano, In the Lukumi tradition, the container's shape is reminiscent of a mound of earth (a traditional emblem of all the Sagbata deities, including Nana Buruku) but can also be interpreted as the shape of a pox / boil. The red clay pot of Asohano (ajere) is pierced with seven holes which can either be left as is or adorned with guinea hen feathers. In the Orisha temples of Brazil, the altars Obaluaiye / Asohano are virtually the same as those of the Lukumi. It should be also noted that it is this actual container that is seen as equal if not of even more importance as an emblem of the god than its contents.

These altars are not so much seen as receptacles of the Orisha but of a place into which Asohabo can be called. When not in ritual use, the pots are kept behing closed doors, away from the normal activity of the house / il as if to mimic Asohano's location in the "other" or "wilderness" (de) and not in the urban / populated areas where his 'gifts' are not welcomed. Asohano is left undisturbed and his shrine is not attended to as a shrine for example, the orisha Shango would be propitiated.
Asohano is said to have conquered Empe / Nupe, (or Tapa as called by the Yoruba) According to tradition, as Asohano's troops started to advance and with the extremely well known ability of Asohano to be able to kill violently with poisons and by spreading disease, the Nupe consulted If and were told to cool and placate (tutu / eru) Asohano by greeting him with Kbys Oltp Elmpe! Welcome King of Tapa, Ruler of Empe! and offerings of popped corn. The Nupe followed If's advice and were spared and the new kingdom favoured as Asohano's residence (Verger, 1982)

Lukumi Obalay shrine

Lukumi Nanume / Nyowhe Ananu shrine

"Sagbata" is the name for the group of earth deities headed by Da Zodji in Dahomey. In Brazil, this group of deities is referred to as "Kerejebes" and the ritual attendant to these deities and their altars is given the title Assogba. Candomble Olorisha have a large number of priests of Kerejebe orisha including Obaluaiye in a variety of different roads, with differences much more pronounced than found in Lukumi.

An example would be the funfun Obaluaye, considered a distinct deity. It is estimated that Obaluaye has the second highest number of Elegun or mounts in Brazil than any other Orisha in Brazil. The most populous being Ode or Oshoosi. There are also quite numerous elegun of another of the Kerejebe; Oshumare in Brazil, and less numbers but still prominent are priests of Nana Buruku, Iroko, Osanyin and Iyewa, all members of the Kerejebe family.

Click here to listen to a Cuban Arara Chant for Ojun Dagara

These Kerejebe Orisha, in both Lukumi and Candomble enjoy quite a lot of unique ritual paraphernalia. Most commonly associated withthese Orisha are the straw brooms and raffia arm bands (cacha). The cacha are insignias of these orisha of the earth, and like the broom (which are bundles of palm ribs) are made of dessicated plant material, post-mortem almost. Often a prescription of divination to initiates and non initiates is to receive the consecrated necklace of Asohano for health. The cacha can also be received at this time. The cacha is a piece of burlap strung with raffia beads and cowries consecrated along with the ileke for Asohano (Nana, Nanume, or Oshumare) and worn on the upper arm. They are said to prevent sickness and death. These raffia arm bracelets, Dahomean in origin are also part of the initiation costume of Iyawo in Brazil (often called contra-egun, literally against egun [death]) which protect the new initiate during the first three months of their priesthood when they are said to be particularly susceptible to negative forces.

Osanyin is considered a Kerejebe in the Candomble nations. His characteristics as both healer and sorceror, connects him with the wilderness and forest making him a close ally of the other orisha of the earth pantheon. The Lukumi Osanyin altar is maintained outside of the house, in a small hut like construction, which indicates his distance from humanity and raw, unrefined energy. Opa Osanyin adorn practically every Candomble Ketu shrine for Obaluaiye. Because these two Orisha are considered of the same family, they are said to work together to heal their devotees. This closeness between these two Orisha is not promoted in Lukumi, however on some Cuban altars of Asohano can be seen a small Opa Osanyin (Osun) which is surmounted with a dog, considered Asohano's inseperable companion. The Fon ethnic group have a rich tradition of casting asen, iron platforms with decorative tableaux to honour and offer sacrifices to ancestors and the Vodun. Perhaps both the Lukumi and Candomble osun / opa Osanyin are rooted in this Dahomean tradition. Further weight is given to this theory by the fact that Pierre Verger photographed a Fon asen for Oshumare which features the deity's totem aimal the python biting its own tail.

Lukumi Iroko shrine


Bay, E G (1985) Asen: Iron Altars of the Fon People of Benin. Emory University Museum of Art and Archeology, Georgia.

Buckley, A D (1985) The God of Smallpox: Aspects of Yoruba Religious Knowledge. In Africa: Journal of the International African Institute. Vol 55 No. 2 pp 187-200.

Herskovits M J (1967) Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom. Vols I & II. Northwestern University Press. Evanston.

Herskovits M J & Herskovits F S (1958) Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Northwestern University Press. Evanston.

Piqu F & Rainer L (1999) Wall Sculptures of Abomey. Thames & Hudson London.

Verger, P (1982) Orisha: Les Dieux Yorouba en Afrique et au Nouveau Monde. A M Mtailli Paris.

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