Annual customs of Dahomey

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Every year in the Kingdom of Dahomey, a huge festival in honor of the ancestors was organized called the annual "customs".

In the customs, the king would assemble the entire court, foreign dignitaries, and the populace. He would offer sacrifices, conduct Vodou ceremonies, give gifts to the populace, and review the last year's policies and plan those of the following year.

On the day of customs, any commoner could bring complaints of any nature against anyone in the kingdom, the king included, with the promise that he or she would not be punished.

Vodou practitioners and diviners, called bokono in Fon or babalawo in Yoruba, would be in attendance to assist in determining the divine will for policy. The council of ministers would be consulted openly, again with a promise of no retribution for contrary opinions. And since the traditional Fon, as most traditional African peoples, saw the visible world as only a part of a larger reality that included the unseen and spirit world, 'messengers' would be sent to the 'council of the dead kings,' and other ancestors to determine whether these important powers were in concurrence with the policies and justice meted out.

The 'messengers', usually criminals or prisoners of war originally condemned either to horrible deaths or slavery, but 'spared' by the 'amnesty' allowed by the customs honor of becoming a 'messenger', had the messages to the dead whispered into their ears, and were quickly dispatched with a knife to the throat. Answers from the council of dead kings to the queries posed by the messengers were given through divination: either by tossing cowry shells or seed pods and marking the results on dust-coated Fa boards, or by spirit possession of Vodou adepts.

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