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:
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 wutuji 'swollen or pregnant' bocio associated with protecting the user against infections, disease, emotional distress, and acts of sorcery. They are also said to be associated with fertility and motherhood—swollen bellies on the figures allude to pregnancy and swollen backs reference children carried on the backs of their mothers, hence the name nyandohwe (meaning "pregnant woman of the house") by which these figures are sometimes called.
Drawing power from the medicines attached to the bundle, wutuji bocio are also said to be associated with negative forces such as conducting sorcerous acts—they are used to communicate malevolence towards a victim, from a distance. In this case, the figures go by the third name of agbandjayni (meaning "the burden has fallen").
Common features among all bocio figures:
Sub-type variations (wutuji bocio):