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Periodical article Periodical article Leiden University catalogue Leiden University catalogue WorldCat catalogue WorldCat
Title:'My Head Belongs to the King': On the Political and Ritual Significance of Decapitation in Pre-Colonial Dahomey
Author:Law, Robin R.ISNI
Periodical:The Journal of African History
Geographic term:Benin
Subjects:Dahomey polity
death rites
History and Exploration
Peoples of Africa (Ethnic Groups)
External link:https://www.jstor.org/stable/182916
Abstract:The kings of Dahomey in the 18th and 19th centuries claimed to 'own' the heads of all their subjects. Contemporary European observers of the precolonial period of Benin understood this claim in terms of the king's exclusive right to inflict capital punishment, decapitation being the normal Dahomian method of execution. More recent Dahomian tradition, however, suggests a ritual aspect to the claim, connecting it with stories that the early king Wegbaja prohibited the decapitation of corpses before burial, supposedly in order to prevent the misappropriation of the heads for use in the manufacture of 'amulets', or for ritual abuse by enemies of the deceased. This article argues that this prohibition of the decapitation of corpses is probably a genuine Dahomian innovation, even if its attribution to Wegbaja is doubtful, but that its significance and purpose is misrepresented in Dahomian tradition. The decapitation of corpses in earlier times was probably related to the practice of separate burial and subsequent veneration of the deceased's head as part of the ancestor cult of his own lineage. The suppression of this practice by the kings of Dahomey can be understood in terms of their desire to downgrade the ancestor cults. Notes, ref.