Ewe and Fon - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Various Vodu (Fon) and Tro (Ewe) orders are at the foundation of Fon and Ewe religion. A High God exists, according to numerous informants. Ewe may say that Mawu is the creator, similar to the Christian god, or, for some, more like the diffuse life force of the universe. For yet others, Mawu is the "mother/father" of all the Trowo (powerful spirits or deities). Among Fon, Mawu and Lisa are a couple, twins, or a female (Mawu) and male (Lisa) hermaphrodite divinity. Fon may say the world was created by Nana-Buluku, who gave birth to Mawu and Lisa. For others, Nana-Buluku, Mawu, and Lisa are all Vodus, and there is no all-powerful separate creator. Among Anlo Ewe, Nyigbla, the deity of the Sacred Forest is very important, as well as the entire pantheon of Yehve spirits, including Heviesso, god of thunder and lightning, and Avle, a goddess who sometimes impersonates men. Gu or Egu, the warrior and hunter god of iron, is central among all Ewe and Fon groups. There are a number of other Tro and Vodu orders, including Gorovodu, which is popular across Ewe and Fon populations in Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Mama Tchamba, a related order, involves the worship of the spirits of slaves from the north that Ewe once owned and married. The selfhood of each individual is involved with these major deities and spirit personalities. They are also protectors, healers, judges, and consummate performers. All Vodu and Tro orders work hand in hand with Afa (or Fa) divination, a complex interpretive framework within which each person has a life sign ( kpoli ), of which there are a total of 256. Each sign is connected to a set of plants and animals, stories and songs, dietary taboos, Vodus, and dangers and strengths, all associated with each other, as though clan-related. Events, projects, activities, and relationships also have their own Afa signs. Everything in the universe is related to Afa texts and themes, as though nature itself were divided into exogamous clans.

Many Ewe and Fon have become Christians; given their proximity to the coast, these ethnic groups were among the first to accept Christianity in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Certain Christian groups originating in West Africa, such as Aladura and Celeste, have a considerable following on the coast.

Religious Practitioners. Vodu and Tro priests are usually men, but postmenopausal women may become priestesses. The great majority of spirit hosts or "wives" of the Vodus are women. Priests, priestesses, and "wives" of the Yehve deities (Sosi, Avlesi, Dasi, etc.) do not usually practice trance. Afa diviners are almost always men, although it is said that a woman can become a diviner if she wishes.

Ceremonies. Vodu and Tro ceremonies are compelling performances for both insiders and outsiders. Worshipers who begin dancing to the drum music may go into trance. Spirits who possess their "wives" may have messages for the community, may take part in judging certain cases of conflict, and may heal the sick. Above all, they are dancing gods, and there are aesthetic conventions that have long traditions. In Vodu orders where possession is not usual, ceremonies are all the more dazzling because of the perfection of their collective execution. Rows of dancers, all clothed in ceremonial attire, move across a ritual space as one person, performing specific movements. Drums always provide a sort of text or context for movement, including narrative associations and instruction. Ceremonies are events during which symbolic associations are reinforced, individual and collective identity is stated, certain aspects of identity and power are recalled and redistributed, healing and admonishment take place, and, above all, collective exhilaration, ecstasy, and awe are produced. Ceremonies are always gifts to the gods.

Afa divination involves numerous complicated rituals based on a binary system of questions and responses, and permutations of the 256 life signs associated with collections of oral texts.

Arts. Some Ewe men specialize in weaving prized kente cloth (similar to that of Asante), worn during all important occasions. The weaving is done on small looms that produce narrow strips of brightly colored cloth that must be sewn together to make a kente 76 to 152 centimeters wide and as long as 4.5 meters. There are numerous combinations of colors and patterns that bear great significance for the wearers. Now batik art, brought from Indonesia, is practiced in Togo and is popular among tourists. Fon artists are widely known for their appliqué hangings with legendary motifs from the Kingdom of Dahomey and Vodu culture. Elaborate engraving or carving of calabashes is another Fon art. Brass casting (using the cireperdue , or lost-wax method) has been practiced by the Fon since early times. Brass workers belonged to special guilds in the Kingdom of Dahomey; they created some of the more striking objects constituting the king's wealth. Silverwork was also mastered. Both Ewe and Fon still carve wooden bocio figures for spiritual practices, as well as Legba statues (guardian deities) and other Vodu god-objects. Earthen Legbas are also common. Some god-objects, entirely abstract in form, are confected as a collage-sculpture, with numerous ingredients including cowry shells, goat horns, cows' tails, birds' claws, iron bells, and tree roots, all united with red clay and glazed with the blood of sacrificial animals. Drums of many different kinds are produced for specific ceremonies. Vodu costumes for spirit possession may be richly adorned with cowries sewn on in patterns. All of the objects necessary for Afa (Ewe) or Fa (Fon) divination are also created with great care and elaboration; thus they are sometimes bought by Europeans as objects of art. Stools are important to Ewe and Fon lineages. They are often carved with narrative detail so that their symbolic significance is inscribed for future generations to see.

Medicine. Today many Fon and Ewe seek medical assistance in modern clinics and hospitals and go to Westerntrained doctors. They may also frequent local healers and Vodu priests who employ plants and carbonized ingredients, as well as rituals to address illness and conflicts playing themselves out in a person's body and soul. Vodu medicine is not hostile to modern biomedicine. Upon asking Afa, though divination, what to do about illness, a sufferer may be told by Afa to go to a doctor in town. Vodu medicine is particularly effective in cases of madness. Ingestion of roots and plants, as well as "speaking pain and desire" to the Vodus make it possible for the alienated to mourn losses and go on with life once again.

Death and Afterlife. Upon death, certain aspects of the person are lost forever in their individuated form, whereas other aspects, for example, the djoto , or reincarnation soul, will come back in the next child born to the lineage. The luvo , or death soul, may linger for some time after death, looking just like the person in life and frightening loved ones with demands for attention and its cravings to be still with the living. According to some informants, the person as constituted in life does not survive death, but parts of the personality may indeed continue and even join with Vodus, as part of the conglomerate energy and personality of a deity. Others say that the spirit realm mirrors human life in every aspect, so that after death individuals go on in much the same way as before. Funerals are the single most important event in a person's history, more lavish and expensive than any other celebration or feast. Groups of drummers are hired, and mourners may dance throughout the night for several nights in succession. Attending funerals and contributing to them financially and with food and drink are among the most binding obligations for lineage members, neighbors, friends, chiefs, and Vodu worshipers (above all, for those who belong to the same order as the deceased).

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Conrad Anidiobu
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Feb 24, 2013 @ 3:15 pm
I am excited about this article. Has there been an interpretive book detailing the symbol-words of Afa communications - for it to be learnt through book? I do speak French and English well. I am presently translating such a material for French readers in West Africa - the Ibo language system of Afa.
kindly inform me, as I wish to do a comparative study/compilation trilingual version, of ECOWAS Afa Divination System in Igbo land. Merci beaucoup. a l'attente de votre reponse.
Ibo voice

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