Bocio (Protective Figure)

Kpodohonme ('Pegged' Bocio)

By: Adenike Cosgrove Tagged:


The Fon ethnic group of Benin worship vodun (meaning ‘gods, spirits, ancestors, and deities’) and Mawu (the supreme God) of the Vodun religion. Similar to the Yoruba orisha, the Fon believe that vodun, residing in the afterworld, can be communicated with and that each god plays a role in controlling forces on earth. These forces can be harnessed to provide protection to a household or community, used to keep away witches and criminals, used to manipulate the weather, harnessed to maintain crops, or harnessed to promote health and wellbeing. In essence, vodun are believed to be responsible for maintaining order and ensuring harmony.

Of the many vodun, the following are some of the most important:

  • Mawu: The supreme god
  • Hevioso: God of thunder and lightning
  • Sagbata: God of smallpox
  • Dan: Serpent and rainbow
  • Gu: God of war
  • Houeli: God of household protection
  • Legba: Messenger, protector, and tricker god

To communicate with these gods, an individual must first go through a Fa diviner (bokonon; meaning "owner of Bo knowledge")—a guide or spokesperson for the gods. The diviner is responsible for identifying the god their client must honour in order to obtain favours from the vodun.

If a client (which can be a neighbourhood, a lineage, a secret society, a family or an individual) seeks health, well-being, and/or protection from misfortune, witchcraft, or death, the bokonon prescribes that a bocio (spelt 'bochio' in some sources) figure be made. Bocio (meaning "cadaver that possesses divine breath") are power objects representing spirits and the vodun gods. It is believed that the spiritual force of a god resides within the bocio figure and that this force serves as a surrogate for the individual who commissioned it. The spiritual force residing within the bocio is said to be enough to deflect negative forces, drawing danger away from the individual.

Once created, bocio figures are hammered into the ground in front of a home’s entrance, near a family compound, in agricultural fields, or within a little shelter covered in palm leaves. The figures receive offerings and are fed palm oil, cornflour, saliva, urine, and animal blood.

A subset of bocio figures is the kpodohonme bocio, used to prevent the fears of its owner from becoming reality. The owner whispers their wishes into a hole carved into the kpodohonme bocio and this hole is closed shut with a peg to seal in the wish. According to Gabin Djimassè, the position of the hole and peg dictates the role the bocio is believed to play:

  • A peg in the chest: promotes well-being and calming of the heart, or conversely asphyxiation
  • A peg in the head: causes speechlessness, loss of memory, a lack of awareness, and other mental disorders
  • A peg in the neck: inhibits the function of the oesophagus and the trachea
  • A peg in thigh or buttocks: causes immobility
  • A peg in the arm: stops the offensive action of an evildoer
  • A peg in the ear: causes the person targeted to remain silent
  • A peg in the genitals: prevents use of that part of the body

All these ailments inevitably lead to the death of the intended victim.

Distinguishing Features

Common features among all bocio figures:

  • Core form usually of a single piece carved from iroko, kozo, or kake wood
  • Unrefined carving style
  • Mouth usually closed
  • Eyes often closed
    • However, when open, they may be bulgy
  • Stake carved, that supports figure in the ground (sometimes made of iron)
  • Come in all sizes
  • May be female or male
  • Some janus, double-headed examples appear (said to guard both inside and outside of the house)
  • Some topped with a squatting monkey
    • NOTE: Monkeys may also symbolise dual or twin births. A monkey depicted eating an ear of corn sometimes represents King Oyo, who reigned as the Yoruba monarch until the early 19th century. But it more likely refers to an image of the ancestors who are the protectors of the realm of the living
  • Identical copies do not exist (as every situation calls for its own bocio)
  • Majority of bocio can only be used when materials have been added to 'activate' the figure
    • Textile, shells, iron, horns, skulls of animals, locks, rope, glass bottles
    • Iron pieces sometimes embedded into top of head, nose and eyes
  • Rough surface
    • NOTE: Wood of bocio found at crossroads or near fields is usually eroded

Sub-type variations (kpodohonme peg bocio):

  • Holes in surface of figure
  • Pegs, pins, or other objects inserted into holes
  • A subset of kpodohonme bocio have padlocks attached

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