Tag Archives: vodun

A Visit To The Sacred Forest

When Adam and I learned where we would be living in Benin (near Porto Novo), we were handed a packet of information with a map of our commune (kind of like a county), job descriptions and a consultant’s report about the population, environment and economy. It’s rare to come by such comprehensive, professionally prepared information about your Peace Corps hometown, so I devoured this report as quickly as my French comprehension allowed. Being who I am, I started by studying the map and then I dove into the section on geology.

The area we live in is wrinkled into a series of broad, shallow valleys and wide, low ridges. The river valleys are laced with slow-flowing rivers with interwoven channels and stretches of wetland. I read through the details about ferruginous and hydromorphic soils, clay and peat deposits, and then came to a little bulleted text saying that our river valleys are home to 49 sacred forest islands, protected because they harbor the notorious Vodoun spirit named Oro.

I already heard a lot about Oro because he’s quite threatening and mysterious: he and his followers come out at night and perform secret ceremonies meant to chase away evil spirits. Before Benin was colonized, Oro functioned as society’s police force. Thieves, murderers and other bad people had to pay for their actions even though there wasn’t a judicial system like there is now. Only initiated men are allowed to see Oro. Women must stay out of sight, on pain of death. Fortunately, Oro is only active for a few weeks in August or September (depending on where you live), and word of his schedule is spread in advance (if only a few hours). Also, his entourage makes quite a racket, so he’s avoidable.

There are a couple other types of Vodoun spirits who are often out and about around here, viewable to all: Zangbeto and Egun (or Egungun). Zangbeto looks like a haystack and Egun looks like a person. In both cases, the spirits seem a lot like a person wearing a costume, but any identifiable features are covered up. However, followers claim that they have called forth spirits to inhabit the costumes, and that there are no people underneath. It’s not abnormal to come across small buildings that house these spirits. In the case of Zangbeto, the haystack often sits clearly visible through barred windows or doors. I can only speculate about Oro, but I’m guessing his outfits are stored on the sacred islands and that he’s a person dressed up for ceremonies.

A spirit’s house that we passed on our walk.

A spirit’s house that we passed on our walk.

Despite the intrigue surrounding Oro, I was most interested in the ecological value of his forest islands. In my Peace Corps training manuals, I had read that sacred lands like this serve the secondary purposes of protecting ecosystems and their functions. For instance, the forests and wetlands along a river valley might be reserved for ceremonial uses, with the result that they are left intact to filter water and provide feeding and nesting habitat for wildlife. In this way, the community maintains a reliable source of clean drinking water, wood (logging is permitted in some forests) and plant materials, although these aren’t the primary objectives of preserving the forest. Sacred lands can also conserve biodiversity because they are places where many types of plants are cultivated for medicinal and religious uses.

I knew that I wouldn’t be setting foot in Oro’s forests, but I tried to learn a bit more by asking around. Unfortunately, I didn’t get too far. Most people either don’t know, or don’t really find the topic of religious forests very interesting, because they’re so common and embedded into life here. Although Vodoun is a strong presence in our area, traditional practices have eroded as more people have adopted Christianity and modern medicine and have gained access to better education. However, a few weeks ago, Adam and I went with a local non-profit organization on a neighborhood walk to see an area that the organization is hoping to develop for eco-tourism. I had asked the non-profit’s leader about sacred forests before, and he mentioned to me that we would pass by one during this walk.

That day, we headed out from the mayor’s office, past the youth center and through the grounds of an elementary school. There, not even half an hour into our walk, and no more than fifty feet past the school, my guide turns to me, points, and says, “There it is. The sacred forest.”

There it was, right behind the elementary school, on a patch of land not much bigger than the city lot containing my childhood home. Not quite the vast expanse of dense woods I had imagined. I noticed a wall of vegetation enclosing a line of large, evenly spaced trees of different species. My guide laughed and wagged his finger at me. “Don’t ever go in there,” he said. “Oro is in there. Do you know what happens if a woman sees Oro?!” He laughed and walked on. Hilarious.

The sacred forest.

The sacred forest.

I stared skeptically at the forest. It seemed so average. There it was, right on the edge of town, where anybody could find it. Here in our town in Benin, a patch of forest to house an idol is on par with the storefront churches I passed by all the time in Harlem, or the local synagogue down the street from my childhood home. The believers revere it, and the nonbelievers pass by without thinking about it. I wondered how often little kids dared to sneak in and peek at Oro.

A few hundred yards further down the road, we came to an enormous tree whose buttressed roots sheltered this guy. This particular tree species is very uncommon in southern Benin, but this one is protected by its religious association.

3_Statue by tree4_Statue by treeAnd pretty soon after, we looped down to the waterfront where we photographed this ominous display.

5_Doll head by riverNobody batted an eyelash as we crowded around to take photographs, nor did anyone really explain the items. (“It’s religious. This is an important spot on the water.”) We rested a bit, did some shots of palm liquor (it was 10 in the morning, but that’s hospitality), and continued on. Soon we arrived at a collection of ceremonial statuary.

The statue building.

The statue building.

7_Statue close-up 19_Statue close-up 3 8_Statue close-up 2During our walk—from the unremarkable sacred land, to the unremarked-upon sacred strangeness—I had been struggling to sort it all out in my mind. Truth be told, Vodoun is just as ho-hum as any other religion. Shrines, fetishes and statues are everywhere. I can buy ceremonial goods at my local market for less than a few dollars. The other week, Adam and I bought an altar for communicating with our ancestors. We knew it was a ritual object, but we weren’t sure what sort, and we thought it would make a good souvenir to put in our garden. We haggled over its price just as we would for a pile of tomatoes (end result: $2.25). Then we carried it around the market for an hour and the only reaction we got was a vendor who demanded to know why we hadn’t bought one from her stall.

A sacred forest obviously has a rightful place in the middle of town, and it can still have ecological significance if it’s located there. The danger is that if the religious uses lose status, then the land can be appropriated for some other use. If that happens, the secondary functions are easily lost because no one is thinking about them. And on top of that, a walk through town becomes far less interesting.


Meeting a King


Before colonization Benin was a series of kingdoms ruled by local royal families. Though there is a modern democratically elected government today, royal lineage continues and kings play a significant role in local communities by mediating disputes and paying for local infrastructure. (A new high school in me and Jen’s area was paid for by our town’s king.) After visiting the chameleon church (see yesterday’s post), our group met briefly with the local king. He told us that he financed the building of the church to attract outsiders to learn more about the Vodun religion. His goal, he told us, is that Vodun will be seen as a positive community force like other religions, a religion where worship of a higher power goes hand-in-hand with a moral code.

The pictures above and at the bottom below show parts of the wall that surround the king’s compound. The photo directly below shows the king’s throne. While meeting with our group he sat in a plastic lawn chair like the rest of us.

King's Throne

Wall 2

Chameleon Church

Chameleon Church Front

Chameleon Church Side

Chameleon Church Interior

Outside of Abomey a local king is building a Vodun church to look like a sitting chameleon. Through a friend’s connection we were able to tour the church and meet with the king. Though still under construction, services are held here weekly.

Celestial Church of Christ

A large Christian Celestial church in our town.

A large Christian Celestial church in our town.

Christian Celestial is a religion founded in Benin’s capital of Porto Novo by the Rev. Samuel Biléhou Joseph Oschoffa in 1947. Combining elements of Christianity with elements of local religions such as Vodun, this religion spread to other parts of West Africa and the African diaspora including the US and France. Practitioners of the Christian Celestial religion are recognizable by their white gowns and hats, a common sight in our town.

Benin and Religion

A small Christian church, one of dozens in our town.

A small Christian church, one of dozens in our town.

Walking down the road recently I passed a Nigerian neighbor who asked me about my religion. Nigeria is an English speaking country so this conversation took place in English:

– Neighbor: Hello! You are welcome! (A typical Nigerian greeting.)
– Me: Thank you! How are you?
– Neighbor: Fine. Where are you going?
– Me: To Porto Novo.
– Neighbor: Are you going to church?
– Me: No.
– Neighbor: Are you Catholic?
– Me: No.
– Neighbor: Are you Muslim?
– Me: No.
– Neighbor: What are you?
– Me: I am Jewish.
– Neighbor: Jewish? I don’t know this. Do you go to church?
– Me: No.
– Neighbor: Why not?! (Said with equal parts alarm and incredulity.)
– Me: My church doesn’t exist here.
– Neighbor: But you believe in Jesus?
– Me: No.
– Neighbor: But you should! (A look of horror on her face.)
– Me: I don’t.
– Neighbor: I want you to go to church.
– Me: No, thank you.
– Neighbor: I want you to go to church. (Said in a very serious, motherly tone.)
– Me: Ok. I’ll think about it. Have a good day. (I was in a rush and this was my out.)

Many Beninese that I know take religion very seriously, spending a dozen or more hours in church each week, participating in prayer groups at home and attending large religious revivals. Discussing religion is not taboo. I have never been asked about my religion as much as I’ve been asked in Benin. When I tell people I’m Jewish, they are confused because they aren’t familiar with the religion. But they are happy that I have a religion.

Christianity, Islam and Vodun (or traditional religions) are the most commonly practiced faiths in Benin. Many Christians and Muslims mix traditional and Vodun beliefs into their religion, however, so its not uncommon for Catholics to meet with Vodun priests to protect their families from evil spirits.

There are more than two dozen churches within a fifteen minute walk from our house. The Catholic church is a huge, elaborate structures with stained glass and elaborate murals. Other churches are little more than a thatched roof and some wooden benches.

The Catholic church in the center of town.

The Catholic church in the center of town.

One of the larger mosques in our town.

One of the larger mosques in our town.

A Vodun shrine in our town.

A Vodun shrine in our town.

A Vodun idol in the sacred forest of our town.

A Vodun idol in the sacred forest of our town.

Zangbeto: Divinity of the Night

Zangbeto: Divinity of the Night

Zangbeto, another Vodun divinity, is the protector of the night. This depiction of the divinity sits outside of a house in a neighboring town and is about three feet tall. I was told it was constructed to protect the house. At certain times of the year and at special ceremonies, this divinity comes out into the community in a bodily form (or, if you are a skeptic like me, then a person puts on a costume to represent the Zangbeto). The bodily form of Zangbeto looks like a walking haystack. I have seen this several times but have been warned against taking photos.

Hèvioso: Divinity of Thunder and Revenge

Hèvioso: Divinity of Thunder and Revenge 1

Statues and monuments of Vodun divinities abound in our town, frequently to protect a house from evil spirits, a family from illness or a field from bandits. Most are small and simple. Some, like this statue of the divinity of thunder and revenge, show complex scenes with ten-foot tall statues. It was explained to me that Hèvioso can protect you from directed harm and will then take revenge on the person who sought to harm you. The scene in the photo above apparently shows Hèvioso killing a woman who tried to poison another person. Note the small bottle of poison resting on her stomach. The photo below also shows Hèvioso; this statue is a neighboring town.

Hèvioso: Divinity of Thunder and Revenge 2