Posted by: ghostdawg2 | June 8, 2009

The Dahomey Amazons of Africa by Ashley MacGregor & Stacie Mallas

Mythic Origins of the Dahomey

The folktales of the Dahomey are intimately related to the twin theory. Although in other cultures twins were considered unlucky, twins in this culture are held with high respect. It was good fortune to give birth to twins because it shows strength within the female. The tale of the origins of Dahomey’s political power is as follows: Two twins were born named Ahangbe, female, and Akaba, male, who reigned jointly in the area of current day Abomey. Akaba died of smallpox while leading his army against the people to Abomey’s east. Ahangbe then controlled the territory for three months. Her reign was unusual because Dahomey had specified gender roles for males and females, with males controlling the power structure. The people saw her unique lifestyle, and expelled her from the throne (Alpern). This was the beginning expansion of Dahomian power outside of traditional boundaries. (Other cultures such as the Fon did not care as much for the birth of twins. They killed the first born of every twin.)

Dahomey kings had a period of influence lasting about 300 years, from 1600 to about 1900. Throughout this time, they developed their own forms of ancestor worship and annual “customs”. Customs was a huge festival every year honoring their ancestors in which the society offered sacrifices of prisoners and animals, conducted ceremonies, and exchanged gifts. Their worship focused on the two initial sky gods, along with their 14 children, and several earth gods. All human souls were thought to reside in the sky at the end of their long journey (Alpern).
The King’s Wives

The kings had many women inhabiting his palace who carried out different purposes for him. Each king had anywhere from 2000 to 7000 wives, which were used as conventional slaves, child bearers, or royal guards (Alpern, Edgerton).

How did Dahomey women enter the palace?

· Slaves – entered by trade of ownership.

· War captives – entered by loss or seizure during warfare.

· Married from aristocracy – entered by marriage for sole purpose of position.

· Unmanageable wives/daughters – entered for reformation by family.

· Foreign women – entered to enhance living situations.

What were the roles each female would play?

· Slaves: they would usually be the palace cleaners, cooks, or the king’s child bearers.

· War captives: they usually had the same role as the slaves, but some captives would be the palace guards.

· Married from aristocracy: this group of females were the kings royal child bearers who gave him offspring

· Unmanageable wives/daughters: they too did the jobs of the slaves. Cooking, cleaning, and being palace guards.

· Foreign women: this group could be anything. They had the jobs of guards, slaves, or child bearers.

The Royal Guards (“Amazons”)

· Guards encompassed two-thirds of palace women.

· The palace guards had extensive battle training.

· Weapons: muskets with iron bullets, swords, clubs, 18-inch long razors, bows and poisoned arrows and they even used their nails and teeth as weapons (Edgerton).

· The guards would oil themselves up before battle for easy evasiveness.

· They had to take an oath of celibacy to become a palace guard. Death was the consequence of violating this oath.

The arrival of the French

The French mainly saw and dealt with the palace guards while trading in slaves and other products. They saw that this group of women held a certain reputation of being strikingly beautiful and brutally loyal. The women could complete moves and shots in 30 seconds with flintlock rifles, having absolute precision in hitting targets. The men could perform the same task in 50 seconds, hitting enemy targets with only 50 percent accuracy (Edgerton). French visitors were impressed with their immense skills regardless of whether victory was attained.

The knowledge of Dahomey rule came mainly from the French settlers. They saw the training of the guards and the different “customs” the Dahomey had, but their access to the palace was limited. They could not understand the reasons of female warriors, or the king’s place among his people (Mills). There were a few French men (traders, soldiers and travelers) who kept a written record of their encounters with the people of Dahomey. Their records were limited to outside of the palace walls.

The End of Dahomey Rule

The French invasion of the Dahomey territory began in the 1800’s. French colonies were not the only reason the Dahomey kingdom fell. They had had wars and conflicts with the neighboring settlements prior to the arrival of the French due to the continuous expansion of their territory. The Europeans first came to Africa for the trade of slaves. Europeans traded with the Dahomey for items such as: cowry shells or currency, guns, and bolts of cloth, to get the Dahomey’s enemies or war captives (Mills). What began as just a trade between colonies became a war of the amazons and foreigners. France tried to control the coast of Africa where the Dahomians lived and in the process of securing their power war broke out. In 1889-93 the king resisted the French and did not want them to have the land, but in 1892-93 France defeated Dahomey and exiled the king. This was the last of the Dahomey rule under Behanzin, the last king within Dahomey rule…

…“The labia thing”- a form of female mutilation in the Dahomey society. The young teenage females would elongate the lips of their labia to heighten the sexual pleasure. They would also make little incisions in the inside of their thigh and on the bottom of their back. This procedure took four years for completion. Once finished, the lips of the clitoris protruded out, much like that of a penis (Alpern).

“The Breast Thing”- in ancient Greek mythology the Amazons would sear their right breast for better aim with the bow and arrow. This was described by ancient authors, but has never been seen through artwork.

Lived in a palace with a king – the Dahomey amazons were married to the king and had to live in his palace with everything given to them by the king.

Lived in the wild – it is stated in Greek literature that the mythic Amazons lived in the forest and beside rivers. They would grow their own food and make supplies for themselves.

Celibacy – Dahomey amazons were not allowed to procreate. They would lose their places in the kingdom and in some cases; they would loose their lives. It was an oath of loyalty they had to take in order for them to become a palace guard.

Choice of intercourse – it is stated that the Amazons would mate with the Gargarians and the Sythians to have baby girls. The choice of a mate was random, each Amazon had the option to mate or not. Other than this ritualistic mating practice, the Amazons remained celibate.

Trained for war – at the beginning of Dahomey rule, the women were used solely as palace guards, although they had thorough battle training. It was not until the French invasion of the territory that the women were immediately thrown into the front line of combat.

Fought in wars – the Amazons were their own generals. When they wanted to fight in a battle, they did not have to ask for permission. The only time in written history the Amazons paired with another tribe was when they were fighting the Greeks. They joined the Trojans.

Mainly for king’s protection – since their battle skills were rarely used, the Dahomey amazons protected the king against his enemies. They would kill anyone thought to resist the king and they would be the people to recruit new men into the army.

Protected their territory – the area they had conquered needed protection against others. Land was a primary reason for fighting and to live and farm, they had to fight for their land.

Lived in Abomey Africa – this is the site the French colonized and it is where they were first discovered the Dahomey.

Lived by the Thermodon River in Asia Minor – many ancient authors have placed the Amazons “as far away as the ends of the Earth” because no one knew exactly where they lived.

Similarities between the Dahomey amazons and the Greek Amazons

* Lead roles in society – the Dahomey amazons as well as the Greek Amazons were held in high respect throughout their societies.
* Egalitarian – In both societies, each amazon regardless of their duties was considered equal to one another
* Weaponry – both cultures had an eclectic arrangement of weaponry. The Greek amazons carried half-moon shields and Dahomey amazons carried 18-inch long swords.
* Lived among all females – Male contact was rare in both societies unless it was necessary, such as war.
* Warlike – both societies trained for war by incorporating training into their everyday activities.

Summary and Discussion

There is no solid evidence for the mythical Amazons of Greece to have actually existed. Although ancient authors speak of them consistently throughout their writings, there has never been any archaeological evidence found. We can not compare the Dahomey amazons with these mythological figures because the amazons of Dahomey are real. Evidence of their existence is the countless encounters with the female warriors of this tribe. Although there are noteworthy similarities between the two societies, is it correct to identify an authentic group of women in history with a title of theoretical descent? Could we truthfully consider the women warriors of Dahomey as amazons? In making the two societies synonymous, it almost minimizes the impact the Dahomey women had in history. The Dahomian women held their kingdom and palace sacred, and fought for its preservation. We have found the females’ bones of whom fell on the battlefield, and told their story from their blood, the story of loyalty, pride and precision. For us to say that these women were “Amazons”, mythical and undiscovered as the term refers, we might as well bury the bones in an everlasting whole of denial. These women existed, fought, and lived; where is the blood Greek Amazons stained upon history?


1. Alpern, Stanley B. The Amazons of Black Sparta. New York, NY. The New York

University Press,1998.

2. Edgerton, Robert B. Warrior Women: The Amazons of Dahomey and the Nature of

War. United States of America. Westview Press, 2000.

3. Mills, Wallace G. Dahomey. 7 Dahomey. Electronic. 22 October 2002.

4. Unknown. World History at KML. “History of Dahomey”. Electronic. 24 January


5. Unknown. Maps. “Amazons of the Thermodon River”. Electronic. 13 November


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