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The staffs of the kings of Danhomè



The staff : a stick unlike others

Coll. Musée de l'Homme, Paris
   King Glèlè's staff (detail)

During dances and other festivities in the Abomey area the group leader can often be seen executing dance steps holding a stick hooked over his shoulder. The stick keeps its own balance when the leader walks and allows him to mark the main beats of rhythm when he dances. In fact, this stick is a ceremonial staff (or recade).

Kings employed staffs to authenticate their messages and these staffs could be considered as visiting cards or tokens.

History has singled out the staff from other sticks (kpo) used by the Fon people. Amongst these is the club or kpota, mainly used to knock out an animal whilst hunting but also, if necessary, a prince whose blood should not be shed. The Fon also used the cane or kpogué which became an important court feature where it was used as a walking stick. The walking sticks of hereditary princes, before their accession to the throne, are varieties, Ghézo's aligokpo being the most well-known. Important cult dignitaries also had distinctive sticks which enabled them to hold down a sacrificial animal by the neck or to use it as an elbow-rest when they had to stand a long time. There is also a curved stick or aglokpo used by drummers. The particularity of the staff lies in its specific links with Fon history and justifies its true name of makpo, the "stick of fury".


History of the staff : from a hoe to an Agassouvi parade object

Why has the staff come to be called "makpo"? Abomey oral sources mentioned in Alexandre Adandé's work (1962) state that the "Houegbadjavi", victims of a surprise attack while in their fields, had to rout their enemies with their hoes. To celebrate this victory and to spread their fame amongst other rivals, they transformed this battle instrument into a parade object which was hung over their shoulders. In the course of time the instrument underwent many changes to the point where it became only distantly reminiscent of the original agricultural tool. The Fon today consider the staff to be a synthesis of human and animal - it has a head, eyes, a mouth, a throat and also a mane. This is an attribute which fits the Houegbadjavi who had a panther as their ancestor. Alexandre Adandé (1962:14) who knows the story related by the oral sources, considers it possible that the staff developed out of an arm used under the reign of Houegbadja (1645-1685), "a slightly curved stick with one of its extremities bulging and fitted with a ring of iron".


Decorative message sticks

Glèlè's staff, coll. Musée de l'Homme, Paris
   King Glèlè's staff
   Click here for detail

The desire of court artists to retain the rulers' words, the obligations which perhaps bound them, led them to make of the staff an object which "speaks" and delivers messages. These, for the most part, were "transcribed" on the blade of the object which nevertheless still retained its basic form. Like other court objects the transcribed mottoes recounted the strength of Danhomè kings and their capacity and determination to overcome their enemies.

The staffs also recall the sovereigns' assumed names and, apart from the staff, the other arms which were used to achieve their aims. Thanks to elements taken from different reigns, staffs also demonstrate the close relationship between nature and culture enjoyed by the Fon. The staffs show a procession of a variety of animals known and observed by them. It is not surprising that the kings often identified themselves with these animals or other natural phenomena depicted on the staffs.

The court arts of the old Danhomè kingdom no doubt require a preliminary initiation into the principles of language and culture before they can be fully understood. Today a number of proverbs or sayings which they illustrate cannot be decoded by many court specialists. This probably reflects a loss of knowledge which needs to be overcome quickly if we wish to preserve what has been the strength of this prestigious culture for several centuries.


Uses of the staff
King Gbêhanzin's staff, coll. Musée de l'Homme, Paris

The staffs are specific objects pertaining to the Danhomè kings. They had a variety of functions. They were firstly the insignia of royal power and, more rarely, of those who shared it, such as princes or political and religious dignitaries for example. A staff could not be carried without the king's permission. The king could be represented by someone carrying a staff, authenticating in this way a message received. Thus the staff represented the king himself and travellers' texts, confirmed by oral witnesses, state that when the staff carrier presented the object the same signs of respect had to be shown as if the king were there in person - people prostrated themselves and threw dust over their bodies. All these functions quickly pushed the initial use of the staff as a combat arm into the background.

 

Conclusion : the staff today is increasingly popular

A staff can be acquired today without royal permission and has become a popular object. But its full use is only found among the Fon who are the true heirs to the culture of the Danhomè kings. It is part of the costume worn by leaders of traditional dance groups and continues to reflect the links with spheres of traditional power still represented by princes who perpetuate the past.


Bibliography

Adandé, A.S., 1962 : Les récades des rois du Dahomey, Dakar, Ifan, 104 p. ill.

Romano, F, 1997 : Les récades du royaume d'Abomey. Paper presented for a DEA in anthhropology of the object, Musée de l'Homme, 112 p. ill. catalogue, unpublished.

 

 

Joseph Adandé
National University of Benin

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