Benin: Death Masks of the Egun

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 West Africa.

Abomey is also the centre of the Egun cult, in which the Dead are summoned back to this world through ritual dances performed by “masks”. The Egun initiates, whose identity is kept secret, wear elaborate costumes and masks, through which they become possessed by dead spirits who communicate with the living through them.

Egun masks before the ritual
Egun dance

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 ceremony which we attend, 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.

masks in a frenzy