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Observations placeholder

Melville Jean Herskovits - The Dahomey god of snake like things



Type of Spiritual Experience


Melville Jean Herskovits (September 10, 1895 – February 25, 1963) was an American anthropologist who  established African and African-American studies in American academia.

I think his account may have lost a little in translation but it is good we have it.

A description of the experience

"Cult of the Serpent" from M.J. Herskovit's Vol II 'Dahomey' .

The Dahomey god of snake-like things is a very old creation. It belongs to no other family but to Lissa-Mawu itself. It is a very important servant. In the days the earth was being created it carried Lissa-Mawu about in its mouth. When they rested it left its excrement which we call 'mountains'. It is important because it was creation so very early in the sequence of creation outlined above, and it is the link between all aspects of the universe as we know it. It binds all the levels together. If for no other reason it is wise to respect it because it is the trusted servant of a most powerful creation god. To quote a follower of the religion:

"Da(nh) is powerful. We have no love for him. He gives and he takes away. He is a thief. One is never done with being anxious about placating him, for he does not forgive readily, as Legba does."

Danh is a vodun who gives life its visible properties: movement, flexibility, sinousness, fortune (good than bad; bad then good). It manifests itself as a serpent, as the rainbow, as an umbiicus, as plant roots, as the nerves of animals, as gas coming out of mountains. It is the cord that leads from the Olurun through all the parts of the universe as created. It was why mammals are animated at birth with the cord. It is why if plants have their roots severed they die, as they lose connection with the spirit world. In a mature organism, humankind in particular, it is a volatile Fortune, either a confident, assertive conqueror or an bitter lackey. At death it is the thin stream of material which comes out of the top of the head, floating upward, taking a sinuous shape, holding vast sinister power capable of destroying mountains, or killing people.(paraphrase of statements made on page 252).

As always with Yorubian spiritual deities there are two, one male and one female. One who lives in the sky and one who lives in the sea (to keep cool). The one in the sky is Danh, the one in the sea Aido Hwedo. When Aido Hwedo moves there are earthquakes. Aido Hwedo is need to support the great weight of the Earth, or it will collapse. Monkeys bring up iron from the sea and beneath the sea for Aido Hwedo to eat. When the supply of iron runs out, then Aido Hwedo will begin to eat his own tail as Olledumare decreed, and the world will collapse. When Danh transports lightning to the earth from the spirit world there is thunder, the sound of his tail coming down and going back up (the double rumble sound).
At birth the umbilicus and afterbirth is buried under a tree (palm preferrably), but no one is told which tree so that no wizard can try to control the person by seizing spiritual control of the buried cord. The child and tree are not connected. As the child grows up, this animating spirit is only activated if the adult is responsibility for others and for property (a male in other words). As soon as people are dependent on him his spirit is activating and now he can succeed or fail depending on how much he attends to placating his connection to Danh. In fact anxiety now becomes a very ubiquitous in the young man's life. "When a man starts to succeed it is fitting he does not forget the one who brought him into the world".
He must pay attention to the manifestations of anxiety, restlessness, emotionally laden dreams, encountering a white shrouded man who disappears if spoken to, diviners tell him there are spirit messages for him. If the man ignores the signs then his animating spirit will wreck havoc in his life, even killing his children, his wife, and/or destorying his possessions. By serving his spirit he can avoid, or at least ameliorate the harm. By ignoring the messages that his spirit wishes placation and attention then the man comes to be dominated by others people who have attended to their spirits. In fact if a person attends to his spirit well, more power, possessions and prestige comes his way. At some point his spirit may be so powerful that the man and the spirit are responsible for protecting a whole community or even a set of communities.

The source of the experience

African tribal

Concepts, symbols and science items

Science Items

Activities and commonsteps