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'My Head Belongs to the King': On the Political and Ritual Significance of Decapitation in Pre-Colonial Dahomey

Robin Law
The Journal of African History
Vol. 30, No. 3 (1989), pp. 399-415
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/182916
Page Count: 17
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Since scans are not currently available to screen readers, please contact JSTOR User Support for access. We'll provide a PDF copy for your screen reader.
'My Head Belongs to the King': On the Political and Ritual Significance of Decapitation in Pre-Colonial Dahomey
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Abstract

The kings of Dahomey in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries claimed to 'own' the heads of all their subjects. Contemporary European observers of the pre-colonial period understood this claim in terms of the king's exclusive (and arbitrary) 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 (the second or third ruler of Dahomey, but conventionally regarded as its true founder and the creator of many of its political and judicial institutions) 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. The article argues, drawing upon contemporary European accounts of the pre-colonial period and ethnographic material from the neighbouring and related society of Porto-Novo as well as Dahomian traditions, that unlike many of the supposed innovations traditionally attributed to Wegbaja this prohibition of the decapitation of corpses is probably a genuine Dahomian innovation, even if its attribution specifically 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 (for which there is other evidence) to downgrade the ancestor cults of the component lineages of Dahomey, in order to emphasize the special status of the public cult of the royal ancestors, and more generally to concentrate or monopolize ritual as well as political and judicial power in the hands of the monarchy.

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