Mode of Execution, Dahomey, 1845-46

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Image Reference

John Duncan, Travels in Western Africa, in 1845 & 1846, comprising a journey from Whydah, through the kingdom of Dahomey (London, 1847), Vol. 2, facing title page.

Caption, "Mode of execution at Dahomey, the blood drinker waiting with his calabash to drink the blood." The illustration shows a kneeling man, without clothes, being held by one man, while another is about to behead him with a sword or cutlass; on the right is the man identified as the "blood drinker." Duncan does not refer to this illustration in particular, but in Vol. 1 he describes the bodies of people who had been executed, and notes that "decapitation is the favourite mode of execution in Abomey" (pp. 219-220). Although the caption refers to the "blood drinker," Duncan may have misunderstood what was taking place. Very rarely in sacrifices or ceremonies do the Dahomean practitioners of Vodun actually drink the blood. They were most often collecting it to pour it, usually from a gourd, onto ancestral shrines or shrines to members of the Vodun pantheon. Probably a better identification would be the "blood server." More likely, this image represents a ritual specialist, who is collecting blood to be offered to an ancestral shrine or to a member of the Vodun pantheon. Numerous modern shrines throughout southern Benin contain iconographic representations of earlier (18th through 19th century) ceremonies where human blood sacrifices were presented to the deity represented by the shrine. (Explanatory comments provided by Neil Norman.)