Perceptive Travel - Dancing With the Dead in Benin

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Dancing With the Dead in Benin
Story and photos by James Michael Dorsey



When a traveler joins a strange voodoo ceremony in West Africa to shoot some photos, he becomes the stuff of legend by accident.


Benin travel

I had never been confronted by a dead man before, and have to admit at the moment we came face to face I was more concerned with getting the shot than my own demise.

Without warning a swirling dervish of Egun rushed in my direction stopping only at the final second, perhaps unnerved since I did not scream and flee as the other villagers do at such a moment. I was absorbed in taking photos and stood my ground, never thinking for a moment that my life was in peril, but as the dancer put on the brakes, his long robes kept coming, flowing over me like an ocean wave and an audible collective gasp went through the crowd. I had been touched by the living dead, and to the audience, like a scene from the movie, Ghost, the spirits were now on their way to collect my soul. The young apprentice who should have shielded me had frozen and just stood there, his mouth agape, unable to comprehend why an outsider would be sought out for this.

It took a few seconds before I heard the utter silence. From the corner of my eye I saw an older man, swathed in purple and holding a staff that announced his position within the hierarchy of the mambos jump to his feet and begin issuing orders to others.

A man rushed to my side, holding what looked like a wand in his hand and proceeded to wave it over my body much like a hand-held metal detector at an airport. As he did this his eyes were rolled back in his head and he appeared to be in a state of trance, mumbling incantations. Just like that I had gone from spectator to victim.

Sprits and the Material World
The muse had called me to the tiny village of Cove' in Benin, Africa, where I had been told I might witness an Egun Gun dance, (Pronounced "Egoon Goon") one of the more esoteric of all voodoo events. It is this dance more than any other ceremony that merges the living with the dead, but I, being counted among the living, had not planned on merging before it happened.

Voodoo is a word that frightens most people, mainly because it is misunderstood. It conjures up images of zombies, black magic, and dolls with pins stuck in them, and while that does play a role in the overall milieu, there is much more to it than that.

Mambo line

It is in fact, an established religion whose oral histories can be traced back 6,000 years to Benin, where it is still the official religion of the country, and an estimated 60% of all West African inhabitants practice it in one form or another.

The origins of black magic voodoo go back some 300 years when the black kings of Africa hunted their own people, selling them to white slavers. In the hulls of slave ships the evolution of dark voodoo took root as the only means of fighting back. By the time these ships reached the Caribbean, a benign belief system had been distorted into a monster that grew and spread in its' new homeland.

To the adherents of traditional African voodoo there is no difference between the waking world and that of spirits, they are the same, co-existing in what a westerner might call a parallel universe. The living and the dead are in constant communion, aiding each other just as they did in physical life. It is the job of the mambo, or griot, the West African version of a priest, to oversee this union, to guide it using established traditions that allow the living to navigate among the dead without being totally drawn into that void. While they believe the deceased are constantly among us, they also believe a living person can enter the twilight world for brief periods if under careful guidance, and of course depending on the personal power of the metaphysical traveler. The witch doctor or shaman are nothing more than spiritual guides who facilitate communication between those who have gone before and those who still occupy the material world.

The ceremony is presided over by a council of griots, or mambos as they are known locally; there are usually several in attendance, but the uninitiated will not know who they are. They are secret masters of ceremony, making sure all goes according to plan, and ready to make judgment calls if things get out of hand, as I was about to find out.

The Egun Gun are a secret society of men who spend most of their adult life learning an archaic set of rituals, prayers, and ceremonial traditions, that include their own private language and dances. They spend great amounts of time creating surreal looking outfits that hide not only their true identity, but emphasize the fact that the wearer is in a special place and not of this world.

Egun Gun dancer

They are so secretive that fellow tribal members do not know who is a member or not, and that days before a ceremony an Egun Gun dancer secrets his homemade ceremonial costume in the woods and makes excuses to disappear so no one will know where he is going and no one will ask why. During this time he prepares himself through fasting and prayer. Even more fascinating is the fact that once the ritual begins, he becomes the living dead. The Egun dance is tradition and religious rite simultaneously, as much theater as ceremony, part Kabuki and part melodrama, but deadly serious.

Once in costume and mask the dancer is no longer a member of the material world. He enters a trance like state, becoming a conduit for a deceased relative to enter his body. When this is achieved the dancer will begin to gyrate and contort in ways not normally doable in a waking state. The idea is that the dancer mimics all he has seen from his fellow tribesmen during the period since the last dance, showing the spirit inside him what everyone has done lately. This in turn allows the spirit to know who has been good or bad and who needs to be punished or rewarded. Ancestors, who are never far away, are the keepers and arbitrators of how their families should live and this dance is their periodic checkup. But being spirits, benign or not, they all hold a "terribelita" that once unleashed could wreak havoc if not properly controlled by ceremony.




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