The Moni, the Amazonians of Dahomey

Featured Image Source: Tropen Museum, Under Creative Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Groepsportret_van_de_zogenaamde_%27Amazones_uit_Dahomey%27_tijdens_hun_verblijf_in_Parijs_TMnr_60038362.jpg

This is an extract from ‘The third gender in Africa and Art’ an essay that will be published later this year

Another interesting gender in Africa are the Moni warriors of the Dahomey Kingdom in present-day Benin, (source). The Moni a were fierce and feared all women army that swore to protect the King. The exact circumstances in which the Moni where created is unknown though there are various different theories. It is likely that King Gezo ‘institutionalised’ the Moni into a fighting force rather than just being a ceremonial army, (source). Under King Gezo the force was expanded from around 600 warriors in the 1760’s to over 6,000 in the 1840’s, (source). European explorers, (slave) traders and army personal often described them as Amazonian after the Greek myth, (source & source). The Moni are therefore also known as the Amazons of Dahomey. Tales of the Moni inspired numerous Western artists to depict them in drawings showing them in battle. There are also many photographs of them made by Westerners before the French colonised the Kingdom. There is some evidence to suggest that the last Moni fighter died in 1979 which meant that she had seen her home become independent once again after French subjugation, (source & source). The Moni inspired many Western artists to depict them in drawings and numerous photographs of them. They also inspired the Dora Milaje (adored ones) in the Marvel movie Black Panther, (source).

The most extravagant depiction of the Moni comes from the book ‘Le Tour du monde : nouveau journal des voyages / publié sous la direction de M. Édouard Charton et illustré par nos plus célèbres artistes’ published in 1863. The book discusses the Moni at length. The depiction in question can be found on page 96, (source). The illustration shows to Moni archers, the one in the foreground has just shot her bow whereas the archer in behind her is holding two heads still dripping with blood. Below them lies another fallen enemy. The depiction is interesting for a number of reasons.  Firstly although the events taking place are rather gruesome the Moni are pictured incredibly gracefully and seem almost weightless, both standing on their toes. An allegory with the mythical Amazonians is easy to see. They are both adorned with various gold amulets and jewellery. Their faces are masculine and they look serious and determined to defeat their enemies. Thier quivers are filled with arrows and the Moni in the foreground holds a large dagger. Both are dressed in a purple dress with a green cloth wrapped around them like a harness. The illustration is not historically accurate but it is illustrative of how the Moni captivated the minds of western explorers, especially the French who would later colonise the Dahomey kingdom.

The gender of the Moni can be understood in a number of different ways. The Moni were named wives of the king although they were expected to be celibate during their service, (source). As the women were often chosen for service it is difficult to know whether the women felt thier gender had changed though the Moni described themselves as ‘We are men, not women’, (source). This points to the idea that the Moni felt different and did not feel merely as women who fought but something else. These facts meant that they inhabited a rather special place in the gender spectrum of the Dahomey kingdom.


Sources

Charton (1863). Le Tour du monde : nouveau journal des voyages / publié sous la direction de M. Édouard Charton et illustré par nos plus célèbres artistes. Paris, France: Hachette.
E Forbes, F. (1851). Dahomey and the Dahomans; being the journals of two missions to the king of Dahomey, and residence at his capital, in the year 1849 and 1850. London, United Kingdom: Longman, Brown, Green,and Longmans.
L Coleman, A. (2018, February 22). There’s a True Story Behind Black Panther’s Strong Women. Here’s Why That Matters. Retrieved April 13, 2018
Law, R. (1993). The ‘Amazons’ of Dahomey. Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde39, 245-260.
Smithsonian. (2011, September 23). Dahomey’s Women Warriors. Retrieved April 13, 2018
Smithsonian. (2014, April). The Amazon Women: Is There Any Truth Behind the Myth? Retrieved April 13, 2018
Van Creveld, M. (2000). Warrior-Women of Dahomey. Militärgeschichtliche Zeitschrift59, 115-123.
Wikipedia. (n.d.). Benin. Retrieved April 13, 2018

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