Collection Description

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Culture Description

The Fon are one of the largest groups in southern Benin, associated with the origin and expansion of the seventeenth to nineteenth century kingdom of Dahomey. Though fundamentally a patrilineal society, matrilineal kin ties are strong. The Fon are primarily agriculturalists, though increasingly involved in commerce and government, and rural settlement in family compounds is, for wealthy elites, shifting to separate urban housing. Traditional and tourist arts include sculpted figurines and appliqued cloth.


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Africa --Western Africa




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Collection Overview

Documents referred to in this section are included in eHRAF World Cultures and are referenced by author, date of publication, and title where necessary.

The Fon collection covers cultural, economic and historical information on the Fon-speaking peoples of the Kingdom of Dahomey of southern Benin, from the early sixteenth century into the mid-late twentieth century. Even when it is not the principal subject of a collection document, the independent, pre-colonial monarchy often receives extensive coverage; the major historical sources referenced are from the nineteenth century.

The most comprehensive ethnographic accounts date to the colonial period, 1892-1960. Le Herissé’s (1911) survey of Dahomey history with observations on turn-of-century Fon society is the earliest. But the fundamental ethnographic source on the Fon is by Herskovits (1967, vol. 1) and Herskovits (1967, vol. 2), based on fieldwork conducted in 1931. From these two sources Bohannan (1949) re-evaluates the sociological context that contributed to the presence of thirteen "types" of Dahomey marriage. Herskovits and Herskovits (1933) focus on the many dimensions of Dahome religion. Tardits and Tardits (1962) add to the ethnographic literature with a discussion of marketing behavior and the role of markets as observed in 1954-1955.

Several works meld original observations with historical reconstruction and analysis. Argyle (1966) does so in arguing that earlier descriptions of Dahomean kings as absolute despots were not entirely correct. Mercier (1954) re-interprets historical accounts to uncover important links between Dahomey concepts of power as reflected in organization of the monarchical system and the dynamics of traditional religion, as revealed in the multiplication of gods, cults, and myths. Two studies focused on traditional Fon art forms discuss the meanings and functions of sculpture Blier (2004) and appliqued cloth Adams (1980). Blier (1995) analyzes informant retellings of Dahomey dynastic origin myths, offering at once a critique and counter-narrative to official dynastic history.

Others follow Le Herissé’s (1911) inclination and dive fully into history. Diamond (1996) compares information about the Kingdom of Dahomey with the evolution of state-level political systems in other parts of Africa. Law (1997) examines the background and significance of the royal succession crisis that occurred in Dahomey in 1858. Bay (1995) assesses the history of the office of the kpojito , the female reign-mate of Dahomey kings, through an analysis of religious change.

For more detailed information on the context of the individual works in the file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.

Overview by

Teferi Adem

Collection Indexing Notes

Ako – patri-clan – descendants of a common ancestor sharing common taboos – use CLANS (614) with KIN RELATIONSHIPS (602)

Amazon – female warrior – use MILITARY ORGANIZATION (701) with GENDER ROLES AND ISSUES (890)

Asen – metal staff at ancestral shrines – use CULT OF THE DEAD (769) with SACRED OBJECTS AND PLACES (778)

Asigban – bridewealth payment – use MODE OF MARRIAGE (583)

Daa – household head – use KINSHIP TERMINOLOGY (601) with FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS (593)

Dókpwě – cooperative work group – use MUTUAL AID (476) with COOPERATIVE ORGANIZATION (474)

Dan – snake and rainbow spirit – use ANIMISM (774) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Egungun – secret society for honoring the ancestors – use CULT OF THE DEAD (769) with CONGREGATIONS (794)


Gu – spirit of iron – use ANIMISM (774) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Henu – multiple family compounds consisting of an extended family – use EXTENDED FAMILIES (596) with SETTLEMENT PATTERNS (361)

Hevioso – thunder and lightning spirit – use ANIMISM (774) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Joto – soul – use CULT OF THE DEAD (769) with ESCHATOLOGY (775)

Kpojito – female reign-mate of Dahomey kings – use CHIEF EXECUTIVE (643) with FORM AND RULES OF GOVERNMENT (642) and STATUS, ROLE, AND PRESTIGE (554)

Legba – trickster spirit – use ANIMISM (774) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Lisa – solar spirit – use ANIMISM (774) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Mawu – creator god – use SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Nensuhwe – royal totemic ancestor cult – use "CULT OF THE DEAD (769) with CONGREGATIONS (794)

Oro – Vodun-related secret society – use ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796) with SODALITIES (575)

Sakpata – earth and smallpox spirit – use ANIMISM (774) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Su – taboo – use AVOIDANCE AND TABOO (784)

Tanyinon – senior women of the household – use FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS (593) with GENDER STATUS (562)

Tohosu – spirit of malformed and stillborn children – use ANIMISM (774) with DIFFICULT AND UNUSUAL BIRTHS (845)

Vigan – head of children of a household – use AGE STRATIFICATION (561) with FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS (593)

Vodun – – traditional Fon religion – use "GENERAL CHARACTER OF RELIGION (771) with SPIRITS AND GODS (776) and CULT OF THE DEAD (769) – spirit or sacred force – use SPIRITS AND GODS (776)

Vodunsi – female adept in Vodun – use PRIESTHOOD (793)

Yi asi gbe – engagement ceremony – use ARRANGING A MARRIAGE (584) with REGULATION OF MARRIAGE (582)

smallest patrilineal kin unit – use KIN RELATIONSHIPS (602) with COMMUNITY STRUCTURE (621)

Vodun-related secret society/folklore troupe – use ORGANIZED CEREMONIAL (796) with MAGIC (789) and VERBAL ARTS (5310)

rhythm with accompanying dance – use DANCE (535)

Indexing Notes by

Teferi Adem

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