- O rei, o pai e a morte: a religião Vodum na antiga Costa dos Escravos na África Ocidental por Luis Nicolau Parés
Luis Nicolau Parés
São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras, 2016; pp. 487, $66.21 paper.
Luis Nicolau Parés is a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA, Brazil). By 2007, he published an important book, The Formation of Candomblé: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil, which was translated into English and French. The author is dedicated to the research of African societies as Atlantic spaces. After the contact with Europeans in the fifteenth century, cultural traditions and political economy changed. These transformations intensified with the growth of the transatlantic slave trade.
For those interested in the study of black cultures in the Americas Nicolau Parés's new book is fundamental. In The King, The Father, and Death, Parés closes a gap in the study of spiritual possession in Brazil as well as the origins of this practice in the region where the Gbe linguistic group predominates. This area corresponds to present-day Republic of Benin and Togo. The book focuses on the flow of religion and culture among Bahia, Maranhão, and Benin. The author documents the modalities of this circulation. This field of study was advanced by Pierre Verger, and it reflects the fact that Brazil was the largest importer of enslaved Africans in the Americas.1 This line of research is part of the growing historical interest in Atlantic dialogues.
In this new book, Parés relies on the rich historiography on the African religion of voduns, written sources such as European travelers' accounts and commercial reports, as well as oral traditions, the iconography of various periods, objects of material culture, and the results of archaeological research. The period analyzed spans 1650 to 1850. However, given the lack of historical records, the author uses oral traditions and ritual ethnography as sources that extend this work into the twentieth century. Thus, the book comprises a long-term analysis with a methodology that uses "ethnographic ritual as part of the historical record" (41). [End Page 149]
The main contribution of The King, The Father, and Death is its meticulous use of original sources by travelers of diverse nationalities. Parés goes beyond the idea of the "African fetish" used by travelers, and instead he presents the reader with a complex and dynamic religion that he systematizes despite the trivialization of the topic suggested by the phrase "African fetish." For example, Parés reveals the relevance of domestic and public spiritual and religious groupings and their interrelations; the centrality of female initiatory rites in public worship; and new evidence of Atlantic exchanges that shaped vodun spiritual practices in Bahia and Maranhão.
Parés shows that the social organizations of the kingdoms of Aladda, Whydah, and Dahomey were all based on "clans" that integrated the territory of origin with a patrilineal descent system. He argues that the clan serves as the model of authority, and he presents the relationship of children to their father as the same as the authority of the people to the king. In Aladda and Dahomey, ancestor worship legitimized the power of the king, who became a sort of king-god. Parés argues that the ideology of descent was mediated by the relationship between collective identities and religious practices. The king-led ceremonies involved more than the priestly function and included the sacralization and deification of the living sovereign.
In the 1650s, for example, the worship of the Dangbe serpent in Whydah became an institution that contributed to the formation of a "national" identity that mirrored the supra family nature of social organization and authority. The public ceremony of the leopard Agassu came to be confused with the myth of the origin of Dahomey, whose founder was believed to be a leopard. So, Agassu became the largest practitioner of vodun in all of Dahomey because of his close relationship with the king, who was considered to be the leopard himself. In...