Vodún, Spiritual Insecurity, and Religious Importation in Benin

in Journal of Religion in Africa
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The Republic of Benin (formerly Dahomey) is known as the African source of New World Vodou and Voodoo, but the country’s religious landscape is best characterized by religious importation. Since precolonial times Beninois Vodún has exhibited ongoing amalgamation of deities introduced from neighboring peoples. This essay outlines historical Vodún imports along with more-recent spiritual influences from abroad. I argue that while Beninois people have always been accepting of foreign religions, today this process is largely motivated by the dangers and promises of witchcraft. The current constellation of spiritual traditions embodies a dynamic moment of religious transformation that prompts people to collect even more distant spiritual remedies to seemingly old problems. In this analysis we see that what scholars call syncretism is not necessarily an ideological or hegemonic process, but a product of Beninois people’s pragmatic response to life’s troubles, inequalities, and opportunities.



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Yai (1993) contends that Herskovits was incorrect about Mǎwŭ appearing in the translated Doctrina Christiana as the equivalent of God. However, Yai acknowledges that Jesus was indeed referred to as Lisà in this document, which was translated into the language of Allada (or Mina?) in 1658 (see Labouret and Rivet 1929). This would suggest that at least Lisà arrived in Dahomey’s southern borderlands well before oral history accounts acknowledge the event.


See also Tall (1995:818) and Henry (2008b) regarding witchcraft as a universal explanatory model.


This contrasts to Rush’s (2013) view of Benin’s religious hybridity in which she suggests that foreign elements are anticipated and belong to the local even before arriving. I am suggesting that the religions’ foreignness is visible and central to their adoption.


Apter (1991) critiques Herskovits’s model of syncretism for casting African religions as static, bounded, and pure.


Drawing on Taussig (1993), Rosenthal (1998) discusses how the Ewe have managed to appropriate foreign gods, reproduce them, and modify them while maintaining an indeterminate relationship to the original.


  • Masked Kútító ancestor sprits in a village outside of Abomey.
    View in gallery
  • A Mami Wata Shrine in Ouidah, showing mermaid and Hindu iconography.

    photo by onyinye edeh.

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  • A Tròn shrine in a village outside of Abomey.
    View in gallery
  • Asian-inspired healing treatment requiring the patient to handle snakes.
    View in gallery


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