The dead share the existence of the living
Almost all cultures throughout the world have some way of preserving the memory of the dead. Many of them use an object, more or less modified by art or crafts, as a projection holder or memory catalyser; this object can prevent the living from letting the dead sink into oblivion. Although a popular Gun song affirms that "the heavens are our true home, we only pass on our way on earth" there still remains a feeling that we should not leave entirely but should remain present in the memory and daily life of those dear to us.
The "gbé" language cultures, which extend West and East from the Volta in Ghana to the Ogun in Nigeria and 300 kilometres from South to North, have invented portable altars (assen in Fon or assanyi in Gun) to meet this need. As an object common to all the dead which it celebrates, it thus reflects their equality faced with a natural event. This is why portable altars can be found cheaply in markets. However, the artistic transformation which comes about when they are dedicated to kings, as is the case of those in the Abomey Historical Museum, makes them out of the ordinary. The assen or assanyi is one of those rare objects whose history can be reconstructed as both oral and written sources bear witness to its development.
The Assen: from a gourd to a metal stand
Assen dedicated to King
Agoli Agbo's mother
Oral sources from the city of Abomey and ethnological research carried out by Abdou Serpos Tidjani show us how the gbé-speaking peoples came to adopt a metal object for the cult of the dead. The same object has, in fact, two names: assen or sinuka. Different meanings have been put forward to explain the first word. The most common takes the Fon semantic field to make of assen "the object worthy of veneration". Sinuka, the second word, literally means "a drinking gourd". This helps us follow the evolution of customs and traditions as well as the changes in form which the object has undergone.
Tradition reveals that the gbé-language populations initially offered food and drink to the dead in gourds, rightly called sinuka. After coming into contact with the Yoruba, however, these populations became acquainted with the canes of Osanyin, the god of medicinal plants and healing. These canes were made of metal and could be pushed into the ground to keep them upright. This tradition influenced the gbé language peoples. They therefore substituted a metal recipient for their own traditional gourd without, however, changing its basic form. They mounted it on a metallic rod raising the recipient to a half-way position between the earth, where the body remains, and the "sky", where the most tenuous part of a human being is said to reside after death. We do not know why these changes took place. It is probable that the new adoption was dictated by the durability of metal as it lasts longer than a vegetal object. But the phonological closeness of the words is unmistakable - the Gun call it assanyin which indicates a definite Yoruba source of inspiration.
Different types and functions of the assen
Assen dedicated to king Akaba
The assen is a three-dimensional object. Its basic shape is a gourd with its lid, mounted on a metallic stand which can be pushed into the ground. This shape has been preserved in the assen godokponon. Over time the central part has become stylised. In the assen godokponon it became transformed into a series of curved colonnades which were brought together at the base and fanned slightly outwards at the top from the central axis. The widening out of the upper part, in spite of the space between the colonnades, continues to give an idea of the initial recipient. The sinuka has lost its functional aspect - thanks to the smiths at the court of Abomey it has become a beautiful object where space is integrated into the volumetric construction. What was once the lid of the gourd has become similar to a roof whose surface is used for the expression of maxims and proverbs or elements recalling the kings' assumed names. These different surface transformations are sometimes completed by the addition of pendants on the upper tray.
The formal complexity reflects the social rank of the individual or family. It also reflects the craft of the smith or workshop where it was made. The deposits of sacrificial remains, oil and alcoholic libations give still functional assen a distinctive appearance. When seen in the yoxo where they are found, they look a bit like a forest of trees with foliage at different levels.
In general, the assen can be considered as an object which links the world of the living with the world of the ancestors or gods. Every dead person, whatever his age or the circumstances of his death, has the right to an assen. The object is the sign of a successful life on earth and integration into the world of the ancestors. Very few cases are kown where a dead person did not have this right. But the assen is rarely set up before the special ceremonies of jo nu dido or xwetanu. These two ceremonies are festive occasions. The Fa is consulted and animals are often burned and their blood spread over the assen. Alcohol is drunk and a libation made with it to the deceased.
The assen represent the dead but, apart from the exception of kings or important persons, they are not to be assimilated with physical portraits. The assen does not attempt to describe a person's character. On the other hand it enables this person to be invoked and become present as from the moment of invocation. Its presence appears to indicate that a person is being confronted. Nevertheless it is also a support for action implying a ritual. The term "portable altar" describes it well in this context. It is sufficiently light to be taken from one place to another if necessary and also enables the transfer of the substance of meals to those who can no longer absorb wholly material elements.
There are two forms of assen, the assen acrelele used by the bokonon (diviner) and the assen hotagantin. The assen acrelele is the one set up by the bokonon or diviner before beginning consultation of the Fa allowing him to see into the past, present and future. This sort of assen has an upward curved piece of metal on the main stand which can be used if need be as an elbow-rest by the diviner. The assen accrele does not infer the personal ancestors of the diviner, but all those who carried out the craft before him, who no longer exist, but whose active presence is expected to lead the consultation, which involves simultaneously diagnostic, the search for a solution and a cry for help, to a successful conclusion.
The assen hotagantin is not really an altar but more of an indicator of well-reputed houses. In general they are set up on the summit of dwellings and, in Abomey in particular, on the Jèho at Huetanu times, or at yearly ceremonies. This practice has now almost disappeared. But the most famous assen are those dedicated to the former kings of Danhomè, some of which can be seen in the Abomey Historical Museum.
The Assen of the kings of Danhomè
King Béhanzin's assen
The collections in the Abomey Historical Museum and the Museum of Mankind in Paris house a number of assen once belonging to the former kings of Danhomè. It is difficult to present them all in this brief text. As already noted, the assen of the kings of Danhomè are memorials. Like most court objects, they were made by a specialised group of smiths, the Hountondji, who took particular care in their fabrication. The royal assen are different from usual ones in that court craftsmen sometimes used other metals than iron. Certain pieces ordered from outside or given to the kings by foreign visitors were made in high-grade metals such as silver. King Béhanzin had an assen made in gold consisting, in fact, of a core metal covered with a thin sheet of gold. This assen was dedicated to the souls of all departed kings as gold, so rarely used in Abomey, is the king of metals. Each king has his own assen and these were often dedicated to him by his descendants or successors. It is not possible to have an assen in one's lifetime.
The assen of the kings of Danhomè represent a refinement of an indispensable and common object found in gbé-language cultures. Whilst recalling the equality of all faced with an inevitable end, they also confirm that every human being can become part of a chain of ancestors close to the gods if they have lived with dignity and are recognised by their family as worthy of respect. But differences can appear in the signs translating the integration of the deceased into the college of ancestors and those whose acts ensure the maintenance and perpetuation of the family. The royal assen display this difference and imply that a similar condition to the one on earth is to be found in the beyond. Other cultures in Benin which are not gbé-language speakers venerate their dead in other ways. The Yoruba, for example, have the "egungun" or "ghosts". In this case an object does not recall the deceased who becomes a person able to converse with the living. The essential point is that the links between the living and the dead should not weaken and that the community remains united beyond both life and death.
BAY, E, 1985 : Asen, iron altars of the fon people of Benin, October 2 - December 21,
Emory University Museum of Art & Archaeology, 48 p, ill, 26 cm
MAUPOIL, B, 1981 : La géomancie à l'ancienne Côte des Esclaves, Paris, Institut d'Ethnologie, 686 p, planches.
MERCIER, P, 1952 : Les asen du Musée d'Abomey, Dakar, Ifan, 75 p, planches.
TIDJANI, A. S., 1998 : Notes sur le mariage au Dahomey, Ivry-sur-Seine, Editions Nouvelles du Sud, 163 p.
National University of Benin