Fon and Ewe Religion

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FON AND EWE RELIGION . The Ewe and Fon, related linguistically and culturally, live along the coast and in the hinterland of Benin (formerly Dahomey), Togo, and eastern Ghana in West Africa. They number some three million; depend on fishing, intensive farming, and crafts (especially weaving); and live mostly in towns and large villages.

Europeans in contact with the Fon of Dahomey late in the seventeenth century left an exotic and exaggerated picture of kings, wealth, women soldiers ("Amazons"), brutal human sacrifice, and slave trading; such a picture has fallen into disrepute. Today the seat of the royal family is still centered in the towns of Abomey and Kana, which differ somewhat in both social organization and religion from the hinterland. The people today are organized into dispersed patrilineal clans in each of which the oldest living man is said to be "between the two worlds" of the living and the dead. There was traditionally a complex hierarchical organization from the compound to village chief to king. The kingdom has now lost its former political prerogatives but still retains many traditional ceremonies required by worship of the royal ancestors.

The Ewe of Togo and Ghana, historically representing the outposts of Fon civilization, share a sense of identity and history of migration (ultimately from Oyo in Nigeria) that is commemorated annually. The northern inland Ewe lack centralized political authority and have localized clans, while the coastal groups (known as Anlo Ewe) have a tradition of weak kingship, dispersed clans, and ancestral shrines that are of central importance in the religious life of the community. In each Ewe lineage there is a carved wooden stool, which is the locus of the cult of the lineage diety. During rituals this stool is the place to which ancestral spirits may temporarily be summoned.


The ancestral cult, believed to be necessary for the perpetuation of the clan, is the focal point of Fon social organization and of much religious activity. Funeral ceremonies for dead adults are concluded three years after their death so that their souls are not lost to the clan. Every decade or so the ancestors are "established," that is, they are deified as tovodu (family gods) by a rite in which a local group head must name all the dead group members from the most recently dead back to the earliest. At this rite an ancestral shrine (dexoxo ) is built. There, the tovodu are annually "fed" and honored with dancing and praise songs. The individual who is seen as the human founder of a clan is also a deified ancestor; because of this status, the founder is worshiped by a cult of priests and initiates who do not necessarily belong to that particular clan. Royal clan members, however, may worship only their own ancestral deities and cannot be cult-initiates of "public" pantheons of gods; ancestral worship is their only form of religious affiliation.

More powerful than the tovodu are the spirits of those who lived so long ago that their names are no longer known by their descendants: these ancestors, personified by Dambada Hwedo, are important because a "forgotten" ancestor is angry and dangerous. Also in the tovodu category are the spirits of twins, of children born after twins, and of malformed and aborted children. These last spirits are considered very powerful as they guard the rivers over which the spirits of the dead must pass to reach the other world. Furthermore, the world of the dead reflects that of the living, with local rank there being established by priority of birth in the land of the living.

The Fon have a number of variant cosmologies, and some disagreement exists concerning the identities of the various deities. Some say that the world was created by one god, Nana Buluku, both male and female, who gave birth to twins named Mawu and Lisa; the first, female, was given command of the night, and the second, male, was associated with the day. Opinion varies as to the identifying characteristics and even the relationship between the twins, whose names are often merged together in everyday speech as though they were a single deity, Mawu-Lisa. In addition to being siblings, Mawu and Lisa are also spouses. Other public gods who represent the forces of nature that affect all humans alike include Sagbata, the earth deity who watches over the fields and waters of the earth and punishes offenders with smallpox, and Sogbo, or Xevioso, the thunder and sea god who sends fertilizing rains but also punishes with his "ax," the thunderbolt. Under each of these is a pantheon of named deities (vodu ) ranked according to their birth order, each with differing tasks. Worship of each pantheon of these gods is in the hands of an associated priesthood. None of these three pantheons of deities has universal worship.

No single god is all-powerful, not even Mawu who is the parent of the others and controls life and death. The "writing" of Mawu is called Fa, the destiny of the universe. A highly specialized system of divination (derived from the Yoruba), administered by officials known as bokono, permits humans to know what destiny has been decreed for them. Only the divine trickster Legba, who is the youngest son of Mawu, can change a person's destiny. His worship is universal (unlike that of the other major divinities) and individual, with neither priests nor cult houses. Other forms of divination are practiced, including mirror-gazing and the study of entrails. Finally, most widespread of all forms of divination are magical charms (gbo ) of many and various kinds. These are said to be given to humans by Legba and Sagbata, and especially by the aziza, small hairy creatures who live in anthills and silk-cotton trees (Eriondendron anfractuosum ).


The Ewe share many aspects of culture, religion, and art with the Fon and indeed occasionally travel to Benin to obtain shrines and spiritual aid. They share many gods, including Mawu, the remote creator god associated with the sky, and Torgbi-nyigbla, the head of the nature gods (tro ) associated with war and thunder (and thus with Xevioso). Similar, too, are the practice of Afa divination and the Legba cult, including both dulegba and alegba (town and individual protective deities). There is, however, ambiguous usage among the Ewe of such key terms as vodu, dulegba, tro, and dzo (amulets), which are often confused. Most of these deities come from outside Eweland and each is thought of as a discrete entity; this inconsistent usage probably reflects differences in the history of migration and introduction of the cults.

Religious Change

Vast numbers of slaves were taken from the Fon-Ewe coast to the New World and they took many aspects of their religion with them. Syncretized with Catholicism in Haiti, Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica, Fon and Ewe religions contributed important influences to the formation of many cults in the New World, including Voodoo (vodoun ) and the cult of Shango, among others.

Christian missionaries have worked among the Fon and Ewe since the mid-nineteenth century. Today the vast majority of people declare themselves to be Christian, although most Ewe are involved in both Christian and traditional religious practices. In the north, reportedly, many rites of passage are now abandoned; traditional funerals, especially in the south, however, are still very important.

See Also



The standard work on Fon religion is Melville J. Herskovits's Dahomey: An Ancient West African Kingdom, 2 vols. (New York, 1938); on the Ewe there are several early accounts, mostly very patchy and superficial, summarized by Madeline Manoukian in The Ewe-Speaking People of Togoland and the Gold Coast (London, 1952). More recent works include D. K. Fiawoo's "The Influence of Contemporary Social Changes on the Magico-Religious Concepts and Organization of the Southern Ewe-Speaking Peoples of Ghana" (Ph. D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1958) and my "Mystical Protection among the Anlo Ewe," African Arts 15 (August 1982): 6066, 90.

New Sources

Adler, Alfred. Le Pouvoir et l'interdit: Royauté et religion en Afrique Noire: Essais d'Ethnologie Comparative. Paris, 2000.

Meyer, Birgit. Translating the Devil: Religion and Modernity Among the Ewe in Ghana. Edinburgh, 1999.

Riviere, Claude. Anthropologie religieuse des Eve du Togo. Paris, 1981.

Rosenthal, Judy. Possession, Ecstasy and Law in Ewe Voodoo. Charlottesville, Va., 1998.

Surgy, Albert de. Le Système Religieux des Evhe. Paris, 1988.

Michelle Gilbert (1987)

Revised Bibliography