The 2018 Marvel film Black Panther earned much praise. Actors Chadwick Boseman’s and Michael B Jordan’s roles were widely acclaimed. But, atleast for some the real stars were the fearsome and principled female bodyguards- Dora Milaje of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda.
Wakanda may be fictional, but there was a ‘real’ Wakanda, in fact these powerful women characters are inspired from real life. The descendants of these women still keep their traditions alive, for them life cannot be separated from these traditions and culture.
Even now the queen is adorned with a crown and treated as ‘our King’, ‘our God’. “She is our King. She is our God. We would die for her”.
According to the local legend Queen Hangbe is the founder of the Amazons. Amazons is an elite group of female warriors, known for their fearlessness.
The Dahomey Amazons were frontline soldiers in the army of the Kingdom of Dahomey, a West African empire that existed from 1625 to 1894. Its remnants lie in modern-day Benin, which occupies a sliver of the coast between Nigeria and Togo.
In one of the final battles against the French in 1892 before the kingdom became a French colony, it is said only 17 out of 434 Amazons came back alive.
According to legend, Hangbe assumed the throne in the early 18th Century after the sudden death of her twin brother, Akaba. After a short rule, she was forcibly deposed by her power-hungry younger brother, Agaja.
The traces of Queen Hangbe’s reign were erased by Agaja, who believed that only men should hold the throne. In a dusty museum that lies within the walls of the Royal Palaces in Abomey, the monarchs’ elaborate bronze sceptres are displayed in order of their reign. There is no sign of one belonging to Hangbe, and some historians question whether she existed at all.
Some sources describe the Amazons as elephant hunters who graduated to human prey. The more widely accepted theory is that they served as royal bodyguards to Hangbe and the kings who came after.
An integral legend told of Mawu-Lisa, a male and female god who came together to create the universe. In all institutions, political, religious and military, men would have a female equivalent. The king, however, reigned supreme.
Many historians and missionaries recorded their encounters with fearless women.
In 1861, Italian priest Francesco Borghero described an army exercise where thousands of women scaled 120m-high thorny acacia bushes barefoot without a whimper. In 1889, French colonial administrator Jean Bayol described witnessing one young Amazon approach a captive as part of her training. “[She] walked jauntily up, swung her sword three times with both hands, then calmly cut the last flesh that attached the head to the trunk… She then squeezed the blood off her weapon and swallowed it.”
Dahomey’s female fighters were called Amazons by Europeans who visited them during 19th Century, after the cruel warriors of Greek mythology. Later historians referred to them as ‘mino’ meaning ‘our mothers’ in local Fon language. However some historians claim that in contemporary context the word no longer carry their previous meaning, but means ‘witch’. In course of time the meaning underwent drastic change, so do their roles.
Today, the role of Queen Hangbe and her Amazons is primarily ceremonial, presiding over religious rituals that take place at the temple near her home.
A dressmaker, designs a new umbrella for her queen every year. Loaded with symbolism, these elaborately decorated parasols once showed status in the Dahomey court. In the 18th and 19th Centuries, these umbrellas were often adorned with the bones of vanquished enemies. They also featured images of birds and animals, as well as the round-headed clubs that Amazons used in battle.
Each king would build a new palace next to his predecessor’s, leaving the former as a mausoleum. Though Behanzin, the last king of the Dahomey Empire, burnt the palaces before the French arrived, a section still stands in Abomey, a rusty Unesco sign hanging limply at the entrance.
As the status of women is changing in Africa, people want to know more about their role in the past. Villagers still remember the former soldier as “strong, independent and powerful,”.