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food / travel

Monkey Skulls, Peace And Harmony: Mysteries Of Voodoo Revealed

A rare encounter in West Africa with the supreme leader of the global animist faith, which mixes prophecy and ancient tribal rites with a modern quest for religious tolerance

Voodoo festival, Ouidah (Tracy Longacre)

OUIDAH - "In 2011, don't dress in red," says Daagbo Hounon Houn II, considered the supreme leader of voodoo. "Whoever does is going to face dangerous situations, disasters, diseases."

Perched on a wood throne lined with lace, Daagbo Hounon was dispensing advice provided to him by the oracle known only by the onomatopoeic name of Fa. His Majesty — as they call him — rarely talks to journalists, but has allowed La Stampa into a cone-roofed hut with traces of sacrificed blood on the walls, shells and bones on a nearby mat. Soon, the moment for the rite of purification arrives, when visitors bow barefoot to kiss the sun-baked purple earth and drink water and African vodka.

With stern eyes, an imposing frame, and necklaces and amulets draped over a black and white tunic, Daagbo Hounon offers up another prophecy: "It will be a difficult year for women who want children, they will need some particular protection." But his majesty also has a message of inter-religious tolerance ahead of next November's visit to Benin by Pope Benedict XVI. "Dialogue is the core value of voodoo: we preach honesty, peace, love and harmony. I hope that Christians and Muslims will listen to each other more, for without hypocrisy you can put an end to the tension."

We are in Ouidah, a city of 65,000 on Benin's so-called "Slave Coast" along the Atlantic Ocean. This is the capital of voodoo — the ancient cult not formally recognized in Benin as a religion until 1996 — practiced by 80 million people around the world.

In this dark and mystical corner of Africa famously described by English writer Bruce Chatwin, where the exhaust from old cars mixes with campfire smoke, the international festival of voodoo has just concluded. The festival brought together thousands of followers from Brazil, the Caribbean and Europe, who could also visit "The Door of No Return" monument (where slaves once departed for America).

This is the Mecca for animists who have come for two weeks to practice ancestral rites together, propitiate the future, purify villages of hostilities, appease the spirits, and celebrate January 10 (the only date available to the public) for Voodoo New Year's Day, marked with a series of pulsating tribal dances. These are the days when the poor of Africa do not cry, but sing and dance, play and pray.

Voodoo is not, as is widely misperceived, a kind of black magic, or baseless fetishism practiced by zombies, but rather a comprehensive pantheistic religion, with rituals, temples and congregations. "The protagonists are the Voduns, the anthropomorphic deities that are forces of nature to be respected in return for protection," said Bruno Barba, an anthropologist and researcher at the University of Genoa, who was in Benin for the festival.

There are spirits of the sea, of the dead, of storms, of iron, of fertility and then there is Erzulie, the mythological Venus of Africa. In the Temple of the Python in the middle of Ouidah, the powers of more than 40 snakes are harnessed. They are a symbol of vitality and duplicity to be fed and venerated. These offerings feed the life of the tribe not unlike Ave Maria for Catholics.

During this period, a fetishist market flourishes in the shantytown: street peddlers sell the skulls of monkeys, dogs, reptiles and mice; corn flour mixed with palm oil is spread over the half-naked bodies of dancers. There is, however, no doll to pierce. "Those are silly western ideas. It's like if you were to talk about Christianity and Satanism as the same thing. Here the religious aspect overcomes the folklore," said Flavio Nadin, from Faenza, Italy, who, with his Beninese wife, opened the "Maison de la Joie" home for women and children rescued from modern-day slavery.

An orchestra of bongos makes the earth shake, kicking up red dust announcing the emergence of the Zangbeto: dressed as straw-men they embody the gods that guard the villages and run around Dervish-like, emitting a guttural chant. They have the power to punish thieves and criminals, because here Gods are part of the family, functionaries in the structure of society, who teach order and rules.

In the streets, a river of tarantula-like people do pirouettes of the Revenant, which can make your head spin: it is the spirit of the deceased. At sunset, the children are taken to the sacred grove for the initiation ceremony. Meanwhile in the city one must be careful not to make eye contact with Oroh, the evil deity who is said to wander in the wind, a sign of impending disaster.

Linda de "Nobili, a photographer from Rome avoided Oroh, but did manage to photograph the sacrifice of a chicken: "I got them cutting off its head," she said. It works like this: Choose the gods and then express a desire to ingratiate yourself by offering an animal sacrifice. If the wish comes true, you must return to give thanks.

At the festival, you will also see tests of wills and acts of martyrs: a belly dancer stabbing at the air with knives, men swallowing shards of glass, other sheep and chicken sacrifices. The spectacle is too much for a French couple, in shock, who are tended to by a group of Italian doctors. The faithful are praying for a good harvest, painless childbirth, healing, rain. And security for the villages.

In Benin — where presidential elections will be held in March — the ritual climax of the festival occurs when Daagbo Hounon Houn severs a goat's carotid artery to the applause of the faithful, then promises political and spiritual peace. "Ouidah is and will remain an example: we have a Christian cathedral, a mosque, a Protestant church on the way, and our Temple of the python all in the same neighborhood, " says His Majesty. From this poverty stricken corner of Africa, the spirit of brotherhood taught him his proverbs: "Only mountains never meet."

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