Vodou Footprints: Egunguns and Other Souls of the Dead

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-122

It is staring directly at me—there’s no doubt now. Looming up like a mythical beast, the spirit with bright blazing eyes has targeted me. Sequins, from mighty crown to lowly street, adorn the form in a glittering mist. Folds of thick fabric obscure the possessed body inside. Cowrie strands dangle and clash in the breathless fervor. Its movements are creased, unpredictable, and otherworldly. Transfixed, I turn to the face—yearning for the reassurance of something distinctly human. But no detail has been spared. Beneath the thin chainmail mask, all I can discern is the eerie soft suggestion of features as if pressed into a bedsheet—the phantasmagoric picture of death presiding over me. Now, I’m cowering.

A finger suddenly points in my direction. I raise a calming hand in supplication and instinctively squat lower. As the figure nears, I begin to hide my camera further below. My partner is but a few feet away and still squinting into his viewfinder. There is a brief moment of stillness. Then chachachachacha! His camera fires a fusillade of high-speed clicks.

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-300

The spirit turns sharply and reveals a rising whip. The black crowd surrounding us joins in an uproar as the Egun slowly approaches my companion.

The whip is a tattered five-foot branch, split at its end into numerous lengths, which multiply and expand its powerful lashing. There are eight such instruments around the dirt field, each wielded by its own menacing spirit. Anyone foolish or daring enough to cross the area receives a brutal flogging—ceased only through rescue by the spirits’ guardians or that other time-honored savior, money.

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-318

Lavishly costumed, variously colored, and elaborately festooned, these ominous dancers are the Egunguns. With garlands of yellow and orange, sequined waves of blue and green, and cloths of blood red, they are at once absurdly threatening and enchantingly beautiful. Atop each figure of dark elegance is a hat fit for a queen. Regal and lethal. The one bearing down on my partner also has a shield of horns on its back. And with each stride it twists and turns like a knife into flesh. Mortals cry beneath the might of the Egungun.

We’ve been accepted into this ceremony by luck (and a little loot), buying our way into the Yoruba ritual via our guide Stephano. In a backroad ghetto of Cotonou, we’re the only white people in a sea of a thousand celebrating Beninese. Men carry large cans of Guinness and Efes, while all are dressed in their Sunday best. With our pragmatic clothing and shiny camera gear, we admittedly stick out. Each time we raise a lens to shoot, even more attention is drawn by shouts from nearby spectators—and evidently, the spirits don’t need an excuse to investigate.

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-178

Egungun, literally “powers concealed,” are the souls of the dead—departed ancestors who have returned with advice to the living. Oddly, there appears to be more punishment than advice during this particular ceremony; but despite the imminent peril, it’s impossible not to feel something deep and ancestral about the whole spectacle. As these lively ghosts skate across the dust, they jump and stomp to the rhythm of the pulsating drums. The movement is infectious. With fluctuating spines and flailing arms, they fly as parrots in a trance.

And, in fact, the Egunguns are in a trance. Like all of Vodou, the Egungun society is a secret organization where only initiates are allowed access to the understanding, appreciation, and practice of opening one’s soul to trance state. Under the spell of music and sodabi (local palm alcohol), the Egungun spirit enters the body and becomes a direct translation of God. The Egungun’s words are final. Community members must obey; otherwise, their houses will be shaken. This obeisance is an essential tenant of any divinity in the ancient practice of Vodou.

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-372

And right now, with the spirit upon us, obeisance sounds perfect. We can hear its breath. The whip is raised and threatens unmistakably. I keep my camera low. Hastily, our guide throws a wad of cash at the Egun. A guardian reaches down and examines it. The spirit, with a final glare, accepts and moves on. Others are not so fortunate, but the only two yovos, or whiteys, are spared today.

***

This was one of our first direct Vodou experiences—with many to follow. The energy was electric. The celebrations were riveting. The whole event seemed a fulfillment of spiritual rawness that transcended ordinary comprehension. Vodou is undoubtedly the inexplicable—and when we returned back to our room that night, we quickly rediscovered why.

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-212

During the negotiations to attend the Egungun ceremony, we were told that if our offerings to the spirits were not accepted and we still remained to photograph, the mere presence of the Egungun within our lenses would completely halt our cameras’ systems. Memory cards would be wiped. Shutters locked. Only once departed would our equipment resume its normal operations. Fortunately, our offerings had been accepted.

That evening, however, something wasn’t quite right. While transferring our files—a task we’d each performed tens of thousands of times—we noticed that many were curiously missing. An entire flash card was corrupted. Substantial video footage from one of mine had also disappeared. There was no explanation. Our gear had worked flawlessly the whole time since arriving in Benin, including throughout the ceremony, and had never left our possessions. Bemused, but not convinced, we shook our heads and blamed the unbeliever’s trusted scapegoat, coincidence.

We set the room lock from the inside, as every night, and crawled off to sleep—the images of the day soon flashing and dancing beneath closed eyes. And as my mind began its graceful lengthening and gradual tumble into slow peaceful repose—I bolted up. Sunlight streamed in from the blinds. It was morning. Early. Then the door—the locked door—started to creak open, revealing the hallway’s dim florescent glare. Rising, I closed it. Reset the lock. And sneaking hesitantly back to sleep. I knew that coincidence had some serious explaining to do.

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-90

On the following evening, I was again abruptly awoken, this time to two bewitching cries and a loud unnerving hiss. I had heard that wild cats occasionally roamed the guesthouse grounds, but these sounds came from an animal much larger and nearer. With my eyes alert in the pitch-black, I could just make out my partner upright in his own bed. Silence. Darkness. No more sounds were heard, but it was the feeling which followed that kept me wide awake—a feeling of otherworldliness and possession, as though in some other room, an inner spirit animal was haunting a fellow resident. I realized then that we were not alone in our endeavors. The Egungun had followed.

For the remainder of the trip along Vodou Footprints, similar oddities revealed themselves—occurrences that spun the uninitiated Western mind into perpetual circles of questioning and doubt. Everything that we had ever known suddenly became totteringly balanced on a precarious ledge of belief. A witchdoctor we would come to know and respect put it perfectly: “Human beings own the earth. But above the earth, there is only Vodou.”

After tales of human resurrection, piles of animal sacrifice, and bottles of snake venom wine, such simplicity resonates. Vodou is that onion whose inner ways are revealed only through time, discipline, and absolute respect. It will know when your purpose is false or uncertain—and if so, will shake your house to its feeble foundation. Remarkably, following Vodou Footprints, mine was only beginning to be built.

Next essay –>

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-308

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-588

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-203

Day2_Cotonou_Egungun-100

logo_blackTrajan

Comments

  1. Robin Tremper says:

    WOW… fantastic! Beautiful photos… what a journey!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: