Staffs such as this one, known collectively as récades, have a long tradition in Dahomey, the pre-colonial, West African kingdom in what is today the Republic of Benin. Used in both religious and political contexts, the récade evolved over time. Its form was derived from an iron hoe improvised into an axe-like weapon of war when farmers of Dahomey defended themselves against an invasion during the reign of King Huegbadja (c. 1645-1685). Over time, ornaments representing specific feats or people were added to these military staffs (Adandé 1962:14).
The Kings of Dahomey soon incorporated the récade into their regalia as a scepter to be raised in oration, to be danced with in ceremony and to be worn, hooked over their left shoulders while seated or standing in public. Identifying symbols specific to a king and his reign were incorporated into his récade. By the nineteenth century, royal ministers and delegates used copies of the king’s staff on royal errands to prove their legitimacy to the receiver of a message or summons. In fact, the word récade, used by French colonists, is derived from the Portugese recados meaning messenger (Adandé 1962:13-14). People paid deference to these staff as they would to the king himself, by kneeling before it (Blier 1998:108). In short, récades were used as symbols of royal authority.
In contemporary Abomey, the pre-colonial capital of Dahomey, the king still carries a récade. In addition, these staffs are bestowed upon each head of a collectivity, the extended family organizations of Dahomey which can be as large as several hundred people.
Récades also played important roles in the religious sphere of Abomey. The distinctive crescent topped projection of this particular récade indicates that it was meant for a priest of Heviosso, god of lightning and thunder (the equivalent of Shango among the Yoruba). It is particularly appropriate to have the axe-like projection emerging from a mouth as Heviosso is said to spit lighting from the cloud tops. In Abomey, the designs of the récades of the priests of Heviosso indicate their rank. In addition to indicating religious authority, they are used in dance and carried in ceremony.
Adandé, Alexandre. Les Récades des Rois du Dahomey. Dakar: Institut Français d’Afrique Noire, 1962.
Blier, Suzanne Preston. The Royal Arts of Africa: The Majesty of Form. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.
Catalog entry written by Professor Lynne Larsen, 2016