Benin: Death Masks


Abomey was the capital of the ancient Dahomey empire which constantly waged war – both to grow its territory and to capture war prisoners to sell as slaves to the European powers. Dahomey was one of Africa’s most powerful and sophisticated empires covering most of modern Benin and France’s main obstacle to consolidating their control over the West Africa.

Abomey is also the centre of the Egun cult, a cult in which the Dead are summoned back to communicate with the living through ritual dances performed by “masks”, initiates of a secret cult who wear elaborate masks through which they are able to bring back the dead and communicate with them.

For onlookers, contact with a “mask” during an Egun dance means certain death, unless elaborate rituals are immediately performed to save the affected person. During a dance we observe, two people are touched by “masks” and immediately collapse in a coma. I myself narrowly escape contact with a “mask” when my minder pulls me back in extremis. The whole experience becomes slightly unsettling with the masks working themselves into a frenzy and actively chasing onlookers.