Bocio (Protective Figure)

Wutuji ('Swollen' 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 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").

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 (wutuji bocio):

  • Inclusion of various bulges, humps or mounds of materials
  • Dense opaque protrusions attached to various parts of the body
    • Usually attached to stomach or back
  • Bundles typically include plants, powders, oils, alcohol

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