The Sacrifice: Vodu in West Africa
The video footage shown here was captured in June 2013 in one of the many ethnic Ewe communities situated along the coast of southeastern Ghana and southern Togo. This brief scene shows one sequence of a much larger fetatrotro vodu ceremony, a three day celebratory festival meant to honor and venerate the vodu spirits as well as eat, drink, sing, drum, and dance along with them. This ethnographic short begins on the morning of the festival’s second day. Drummers tune and warm up the large brekete drums, children mill about waiting for something interesting to happen to break the monotony of a summer’s day in the village, and members of the community slowly arrive and take their seats in preparation for the day’s events. The centerpiece in the center of the ceremonial courtyard is the cow, for this morning is the time of the cow sacrifice, the main event of the ceremony. A young local priest of vodu (sofo), the son of the shrine’s head priest, is in charge of preparing and managing the cow before the ceremony begins. When these duties are complete, he takes his place among the drummers, whom he will lead during the ceremony.
Since a cow is such a large animal, it will not fit in the shrine itself, so the god-fetishes must be brought into the courtyard. A senior vodu priest oversees his assistants prepare the places in the sand by making the ‘+’ symbol with chalk – signifying the crossroads between the natural and supernatural worlds. Next, the god fetishes are brought out in basins and placed on the chalk markings. Gunpowder is lit to honor and welcome them. To view these fetishes as the actual gods themselves would not be wholly accurate. The gods are spirits that exist and act all around us, all the time, wherever we are. They communicate to us in dreams, appear in visions, and speak to us through divination. The fetishes are representations of the gods in material form. They serve as physical receptacles for sacrifices and offerings given to the gods by venerators. Now that they are present, the drums, clapping, and hymn singing may begin.
The call and response style of hymn singing is common in West African religious ceremonies. One woman acts as the song leader and calls which stanza or verse to sing, and the congregation answers with the appropriate response. All the while, the song leader communicates to the drummers and priests in order to manage the ceremony as a whole. After a short time, the song leader calls for quiet as the cow is led to the center of the courtyard. It takes several strong men to bring the cow into position near the god-fetishes. The senior priest pours libations of ritual gin onto the fetishes to appease the spirits before they receive the blood of the animal. Once the cow is in position, the actual act of killing is quick and methodical. Becoming a sacrificial priest (bosomfo) requires significant training, and the slaughter seen here is more humane than that at a factory farm in the United States. As the animal is killed, it becomes blessed and able to be shared with the gods and the congregation. Blood is collected by assistants and poured upon the fetishes and taken to other gods in other shrines in the community to share with one and all. Once the sacrifice is complete, assistant priests take away the carcass to be butchered and prepared for a feast for all participants at the ceremony that day.
Now that the gods have received this special gift, hymns are sung to call their spiritual presence to the community. This is a festive occasion, drums are played and people dance. A tertiary sacrifice is made by a senior priest who has travelled from far away to partake in the ceremony. The dog, symbol of the northern savanna from whence the gods originated and totem of the king of the Gorovodus, Kunde, is sacrificed and the blood allowed to pour over the Kunde fetish. The congregation sings a call and response hymn to Kunde asking him to make his presence known at the ceremony. After receiving this special gift and hearing the calls of the ceremony participants, Kunde indeed comes by possessing a member of the congregation. A women stands, folds her arms, and staggers in the first throes of possession-trance as Kunde assumes control over her body. He will use her body to speak to the congregation and attendant priests and confer blessings on those who offered gifts. Kunde is quickly surrounded by senterua, specially trained members of the congregation who manage the trance episode and ensure Kunde receives what he needs and respond to his demands. After receiving final libations of gin, the fetishes are returned to their rightful place in the shrine and Kunde too makes his way to the shrine to meet with the head priests waiting there to convey important spiritual messages about and to the community. From this point, the ceremony will continue for another full day. More sacrifices will be made and each god will come to the ceremony through possession-trance to engage and celebrate with the congregation.
The act of sacrifice is integral to many religions in West Africa and can usually be found in the history or in the contemporary practices of many religions around the world. In vodu, sacrifice lies at the center of ongoing relationships between people and gods, relationships that create and maintain the social and moral orders of society. It is a very common ritual, deployed during initiations, adjudications, appeasements, healing events, and asking the gods for serious favors. The destruction of the animal should not be viewed as simple killing. It is a relinquishing of resources and gifting to the gods. When an individual sacrifices a small animal, or the community collaborates to sacrifice a large animal such as a cow at a fetatrotro ceremony, the sacrificial act represents breaking bread with each other and with the gods. In return for the gift of sacrifice, which symbolizes veneration and commitment by the community, the gods will confer blessings, good fortune, and good health. They will join together with the community in celebration by possessing adepts and using their bodies as vessels through which the gods are able to dance and feast. Through sacrifice and possession, the gods are engaged and experienced directly by the congregation. They are brought from the spiritual realm to our physical world so we may all collaborate together for better lives and a better community.
Video by Christian Vannier