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.
Select the Culture Summary link above for a longer description of the culture.
Africa --Western Africa
Note: Select the Collection Documents tab above to browse documents.
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
For more detailed information on the context of the individual works in the file, see the abstracts in the citations preceding each document.
Asigban – bridewealth payment – use MODE OF MARRIAGE (583)
Mawu – creator god – use SPIRITS AND GODS (776)
Su – taboo – use AVOIDANCE AND TABOO (784)
Vodunsi – – female adept in Vodun – use PRIESTHOOD (793)
rhythm with accompanying dance – use DANCE (535)