The word fetish comes from the Portuguese substantive feitiçio, which comes from the Latin noun facticius, meaning an artificial or manufactured object. However, the sense in Portuguese was not so much artificial as artful, and in 15th-century Portugal, the term was applied to religious objects such as relics and rosaries of saints. Consequently, Portuguese explorers of West Africa extended the term feitiçio to functionally similar indigenous “charms and idols.”
In the early 17th century, the word entered the English language from Portuguese; at the same time, the Portuguese word fetissero became in English fetisher or medicine person. In the meantime, the French had borrowed the Portuguese term, which became fétiche. It is this French form that gave rise to the current English spelling fetish and the less common spelling fetich, defined as an object regarded as having magical or spiritual powers and worshiped.
The meaning of the word fetish has extended in modern times to something regarded with great, sometimes excessive, admiration and reverence. It is this connotation that the English phrase “Make a fetish of something or someone” carries today. One would say of people who admire their cars so much that they always clean and/or wash them that they “make a fetish of their cars.” Likewise, people who love or revere their work so much and spend too much time doing it are said to “make a fetish of their work.” This entry looks at the role of fetishes in Africa, renewed respect for the religions that employ them, and a discussion of whether the term applies to gods as well as objects.
Fetishes in Africa
Regardless of whether it is deemed excessive, the word reverence (i.e., “great respect and admiration mixed with love”) has a positive connotation. Hence, out of a concept that was originally pejorative came a laudable idea. It is this positive connotation that the term Fetish (spelled with an uppercase “F”) carries today in French-speaking African countries such as Benin Republic and Togo Republic.
Indeed, when Benin people pronounce the phrase Fétiche Sakpata, they mean, with equal reverence, the divinity or Vodun Sakpata, also known among the Fon people as Ayivodun. Likewise, when they say of someone that the person is an adept of Fétiche Xêviosso or Xêbiosso (invariably spelled Heviosso or Hebiosso), also known as Jivodun, they mean that person is Xêviossosi, an adept or a follower of the divinity or Vodun Xêviosso. There is another derivative of the French word Fétiche, that is, Féticheur, which enjoys similar respect. As a matter of fact, when Benin people refer to a person as Grand Chef Féticheur (a high priest of a Fetish) or Grande Féticheuse (a high priestess of a Fetish), they are thus referring with great admiration, sometimes mixed with fear, to a Hounnon, Houngan, Houngbonon, or Hounnongan. All of these words mean paramount chief of Vodun in Fongbe, the language of the Fon people of Benin Republic. The Grands Féticheurs or the Hounnongan are by a ricochet, powerful medicine people, a power of curing all sorts of diseases and/or solving different problems facing human beings, that is actually embedded in them by the Vodun or Fetishes they oversee.
Actually, former Benin President Nicephore Soglo undauntedly reasserted the value of the African traditional religion and boosted its image in the country, making the Vodun religion a fully recognized national religion on an equal footing as the two major foreign religions practiced in the country as well—Christianity and Islam. The Vodun has regained vitality, and the words Fétiche (Fetish) and Féticheur (Fetisher) have gained much more respect and are no longer used scornfully.
Upon President Soglo's initiative and leadership, a 5-day symposium of various leaders of the Vodun religion was held in Cotonou, from May 28 through June 1, 1991. The purpose of the symposium was to restore the significance of the Vodun and establish a legal recognition for this traditional religion, which is significant in the everyday lives of Benin people and other people of African ancestry worldwide. Following this historic symposium, a great International Vodun Festival was organized and held in Benin in 1993.
This festival, known as “Ouidah 92,” has brought together people of African ancestry from all other the world, particularly from the continents of Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean Islands. Subsequently, January 10 was officially made a National Vodun Holiday, which has been observed in the country every year since 1993.
These different events restored the Vodun religion back to its rightful place amid world religions and helped the words Vodun and Fetish take on more positive connotations in Benin Republic and elsewhere. When the late Pope John Paul II visited Benin in 1993, he met with and paid homage to two Supreme dignitaries of the Vodun religion in Benin, Venerable Sossa Guédéhoungué, president of the Official National Council of the Vodun, and Daagbo Agbessi Hounon Houna, Supreme Chief of the Vodun in Ouidah. The Pope's meeting with the Vodun dignitaries was an indication that the Church could no longer ignore the existence and significance of the Vodun and continue to vilify the traditional religion. Hence, Benin people, neighboring Togolese, and other Francophone Africans use the words Fetish and Vodun interchangeably today, although the use of the authentic African word Vodun is rapidly taking over and must be strongly encouraged.
Conversely, the two derivatives of the word Fetish (i.e., fetishism and fetishist) have yet to gain comparable consideration and respect. When Benin people say that a person practices le fétichisme or that the person is unlune fétichiste they say it with a certain disdain and usually in comparison to foreign monotheistic religions, to mean that the person is not a Christian or a Muslim. As a matter of fact, fetishism is still used today in many parts of the world to mean charms, sorcery, magic, occultism, or animism. Appropriate terms for the derogatory words fetishism and fetishist would be Vodun religion and follower of the Vodun religion, respectively.
In view of the positive connation that the word Fetish has now taken as described above, one may list African Vodun as African Fetishes. A selected list of Vodun or Fetishes is found in Table 1 .
Table 1: List of Vodun Fetishes
|Dan Ajaguna||Ke||Sinji Aglosumato|
|Dan Ayido Huêdo||KpÔvodun||Yalodé|
Fetishes or Gods?
African deities, divinities, or gods are innumerable, and the Dahomean, Nigerian, and Haitian pantheons are particularly vast. The attributions, roles, and importance of these divinities in society vary considerably as well. Known as the Vodun among the Fon people of Benin Republic (former Dahomey), Orisba/Ocba among the Nago and the Yoruba ethnic groups of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Benin Republic, Tron among the Ewe people of the Republic of Ghana and Togo Republic, and Loa or Lwa among the Haitians of the Caribbean Islands, these African divinities were erroneously called fetishes by the European invaders. As a result, the Vodun religion was cynically referred to as fetishism, and the Vodunsi, the adept or initiated follower of the Vodun religion, was called fetishist by Westerners.
Today, ironically, African experts and scholars of the Vodun religion use the term Fetish to refer to African divinities or gods. Throughout his acclaimed book, Le Fa, une géomancie divinatoire du golfe du Bénin: Pratique et technique, Rémy T. Hounwanou, a veritable Bokonon (an exceptional Fa diviner), has written Fétiches ou dieux (Fetishes or gods) in referring to African deities/Vodun, Tohossou, Yalodé, Lissa, Loko, and so on. In the same vein, when Beninese historian and author Jean Pliya wrote his novella and tided it L'arbre fétiche, he was referring to a divine tree, a sacred tree, a tree god, so to speak.
It was a huge sacred baobab tree in the city of Ouidah. In African traditional religion, many trees are Fetish trees (not artificial or manufactured objects), including the baobab and iroko trees. Actually, one of the most sacred trees in Cotonou, the economic capital city of Benin Republic, is an iroko tree known as Azaaloko, at the foot of which important Vodun rituals are performed by the Hounnon or Hounnongan (High Priests of Vodun). All in all, Vodun practitioners do worship Vodun or Fetishes (but not mere images), although just as in Christianity and most other major religions, sacred symbolic representations are made of the divine forces and spiritual manifestations of God. In looking at the symbolic representations of African deities/Fetishes, Westerners or any outsiders may see man-made artificial objects, but Vodun initiates and devotees see gods revealing themselves to humans through the spirits thus represented. Today, in using the word Fetish, outsiders and insiders have two diametrically opposed realities in mind. Molefi Kete Asante aptly pronounced that it is in the soul of Africans to seize and redirect language toward liberating ideas and thought.
- African religions
- Hounwanou, R. T. (2002). Le Fa, une Géomancie Divinatoire du Golfe du Bénin: Pratique et Technique (2nd ed.). Cotonou, Bénin: GAPE.
- Kiti G. Le Fétiche au Dahomey Etudes Dahoméennes (IRAD nouvelle série), 11 (1968, January) 133–147.
- Merriam-Webster (Ed.). (2004). Webster's New Explorer Dictionary of Word Origins. Darien, CT: Federal Street Press.
- Pliya, J. (1971). L'arbre Fétiche. Yaounde, Cameroon: Editions CLE.