Sep 23, 2009

Zangbèto - the Magic Haystack

So I am back from the "voyage d'etude" to Togo and Benin with some really sympathetic students, my good friend Sewa Serge Sousthene Agbodjan-Prince and nice fellow citizens from Austria even beyond my age. Time to do some blogging.
Filed under "practical information", the homepage of the historical museum of Abomey, Benin, cautions the foreigner: "In some areas of the town, secret societies called Zangbèto are in charge of security from midnight to 5 a.m.: do not go out without identity papers after midnight, or else go out with an initiate."
Zangbèto is a Vodun that acts as the nightwatchman in Benin. Whilst other Vodun incorporate in female mediums, Zangbèto - like the Egungun, the spirits of the ancestors - are represented by persons covered by a "mask". Zangbèto has the shape of a haystack. On the upper left one can find a picture of a Zangbèto I have taken September 08, 2008. On that day, I have also taken some photographs of one Zangbèto walking on the water in that small village near Ouidah, Benin:
In Benin (and in Togo), the belief is widespread, that there is no person under the mask, but that the empty construction is empowered by a spirit (one person told me, the initiates were using the spirits of the newly deceased to do the job). There are explanations galore, like my favourite one from a catholic lay person in Lomé, who told me, that in fact there was a person under the mask, but one could not see it due to a spell of the priests of Zangbèto. Be that as it may, a nightwatchman regarded as a spirit seems to be more effective than a human being fulfilling that task. Zangbèto initiates at the "Tam Tam Zangbeto" will therefore try to prove the "no person under it"-theory.
After going through tough negotiations we could convince an informant in Ouidah to get some Zangbèto inititates in just another small village nearby to do a Tam Tam for us (we also had to take measures to ensure that at least half of the money spent would go to the villagers, who did the work and a GREAT job).
The ones ready to believe will see the two clips I post here as evidence. The others will have their explanations. At least, the Zangbèto initiates are a bunch of GREAT illussionists.
Question: Is there a human being under the mask or is it a spirit?
Go to the poll after having watched the two Zangbètos I have filmed on September 12, 2009. The first one shows an astonishing sense of balance. At the starting point of the clip one can also take a look under the mask and see, that there is nothing to be found (as it seems) but a bundle of cloth.
The second one features an undefinable bundle of whatever it may be, and the mask is placed on it. Shortly after that, the thing begins to move and starts its dance. This is in real time, without any cutting. I am looking forward to reading some sophisticated explanations!

What is the moving force in Zangbèto cult??? Vote at the bottom of the page.


  1. It was interesting watching the Zangbeto maskd dance and I kept doubting if someone was under the mask but when it was lifted and I saw the inside, there was nothing inside, this made me to believe that it was magical.

  2. Only explanation I can proffer is that the person is camaflouged in rags or whatever material is used to construct the zangbeto and graps ahold of the frame upon the instruction of the guides just prior to the reveal(guides always talk to the mask and knock it prior to the lifting for the big reveal).