An Ode to Ancestors

Article excerpt

About the Fon Peoples

The Fon live in the southern part of the People's Republic of Benin. They inhabit an area about the size of Connecticut. To this day, many Fon are farmers. They plant yams, corn, and cotton, and cultivate palm trees that produce palm oil. Ancient beliefs in spirits and natural powers (called vodun) that govern the world and provide a spiritual philosophy for living are still part of the Fon worldview, although many Fon have adapted the Christian faith.

More than a century ago, the city of Abomey, approximately eighty miles from the coast, was the capital of the Fon people's kingdom of Dahomey, At the center of the city was the king's splendid palace with noblemen and their entourages, a household with royal wives, and family groups of artists who worked for the kings. Founded in the late seventeenth century, the kingdom gradually expanded its territory, securing the port of Ouidah in the early eighteenth century. With the access to this important harbor town, Dahomey became involved in the transatlantic slave trade, which drew a growing number of foreign traders and visitors to the West African coast. Ouidah, in particular, developed into a cosmopolitan town. Yoruba, who live mostly in Nigeria and are neighbors of the Fon, and Europeans from many countries, added to the rich cultural mix of the region. When the slave trade was abolished in the first half of the nineteenth century, freed African slaves returned from Brazil to the West African coast, and in particular to Ouidah as traders and craftspeople.

With constant expansion in agricultural production, trade, population growth, and land acquired through military conquest, Dahomey was at the height of its power in the early nineteenth century. When European powers invaded Africa in the late nineteenth century to appropriate territories, the kingdom yielded to the French and became part of a French colony. It was not until 1960 that the region regained independence. The newly independent country of Dahomey was named for the famous kingdom within its borders and changed its name to the People's Republic of Benin in the early 1970s.

The Fon, among many of the peoples in the Republic, play a crucial role in national affairs, and are actively involved in economic and political decision-making. Fon society of southern Benin today reflects the meeting of cultures over the past 200 years. European influences mix with Yoruba contributions and those of other peoples in the larger region. Not surprisingly, asen altars, a sacred art form, reflect the blending and richness of all these cultures.

About the Art

"We are born with death." Fort proverb For African societies, important kinship groups include not only the nuclear and extended family, but also the lineage, the long line of ancestors, through which an individual traces his or her descent. The worship of these ancestors is an integral part of Fon life. To commemorate dead family members, the Fon employ skilled blacksmiths to forge iron altars in the form of staffs called asen. Every family, each of which lives in its own compound, owns many asen and stores them in a specially designated building in a central courtyard where rituals and ceremonies take place.

Each ancestor usually has one asen. However, individuals of higher status or royals may have numerous asen. The eldest woman of the family is responsible for their care. Asen function as the point of contact between the living and the dead. They remind the living of their obligation to honor and remember those in the world beyond. Ancestors provide counsel and help, but if disregarded or offended, they can do harm to the living. …