Flora Edouwaye S. Kaplan
Benin religion presents an interesting case study for the questions raised at the “Beyond ‘Primitivism’: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity” conference. 1 The conference enquired about the nature of non-Western contact with world religions, apart from major Eastern religions - and the consequences of often abrupt and violent encounters with the West - and the responses and the effect both parties, or more, have on each other in a complex interaction between indigenous religious traditions and modernity. Benin offers several reasons for presentation as a case study. It suggests some answers as to why some traditions continue to form the basis of ethnic and even national identity in a modern nation-state, and why some religions resist change and others do not. Benin illuminates how some structures of indigenous tradition such as myths, symbols, and institutions both respond to contact with foreign traditions and shed light on their reaction to major world religions such as Christianity, Islam, and others.
Notions of sacred kingship in Benin were reported from first contacts with the Portuguese in the late fifteenth century. These notions both resemble and violate Western ideas of similar phenomena and challenge us to accept and extend our understanding of these potent ideas in non-Western religions. This case study considers the consequences of West Africa’s often abrupt and violent encounters with the West - the responses and the effects both parties (or more) have on each other - and the complex interaction between indigenous religious traditions and twentieth-century modernity. Benin offers an example of resistance in the face of violent colonial encounters. It shows how the contradiction between modernity and indigenous religion is sometimes resolved by the capacity of ancient traditions such as sacred kingship to take on new roles and meanings. At the same time, key indigenous institutions, myths, and symbols provide the basis for both the Benin’s resistance and their eventual, selective acceptance of world religions.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Europeans decried Benin religion as “barbaric, ” especially for its ritual practice of human sacrifice. British accounts of Benin City at the time of their 1897 military expedition against the Benin kingdom painted a gory picture of bloody brutality. They christened the capital city, Benin, “City of Blood” (Bacon 1897). The “Punitive Expedition”’s surgeon, Felix Roth, MRCS, LRCP, vividly described in his diary the remains of human sacrifice the British found along the way and in the kingdom’s capital in 1897 (see also Figures 13.1 and 13.2):