The Journal of African History

Death, Ritual and Power in West Africa

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

Robin Lawa1*

a1 University of Stirling

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.


* Earlier versions of this paper were read in the panel on ‘Religion and the State in Pre-Colonial West Africa’ at the Conference of the African Studies Association of the U.K., Cambridge, September 1988, and in the panel on ‘Myth and History in Danhome’ at the Conference of the African Studies Association of the U.S.A., Chicago, October 1988. The author's thanks to those who contributed to discussion on those occasions, and especially to Murray Last, Edna Bay, David Ross, and Suzanne Blier; and also to the Nuffield Foundation, the British Academy, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the University of Stirling for their financial support of the research on which it is based.