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"Crocodiles are the Souls of the Community" An Analysis of Human-Animal Relations in Northwestern Benin and its Ontological Implications

By Sharon Merz

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In this thesis I explore human-animal relations amongst the Bebelibe of the Commune of Cobly, in the northwest of the Republic of Benin, West Africa, with a focus on how they relate to their tikedimɔmɔnte (true totem(s), literally “interdict(s)-true”). I start with an historical review of totemism, the debates it generated and how these contributed to the recent ontological turn in anthropology. I then explore the theoretical ideas I use for my analysis, which include “presencing” and the “ontological penumbra” (J. Merz 2017b; J. Merz and S. Merz 2017). Presencing builds on semiotics by explaining how people make meaning present through their engagement in and with the world around them, whilst ontological penumbras are the shadowy spaces of limbo that affect our whole being and that people need to negotiate as part of making sense of their engagement with the world. As part of these theoretical frameworks, I examine the “onton”, as introduced by Johannes Merz (2017b). Ontons are experiential, agentive and relational entities that are the result of presencing processes. Ontons, however, cannot be divided into representations (signifiers) and represented (signified) as signs can. An engagement in the world between different entities in an ontonic and thus nonrepresentational sense necessitates my introducing further notions including shared “ontonity” (instead of shared humanity) and “ontonhood” (rather than personhood). I demonstrate how these theoretical ideas work with reference to human-animal relations primarily amongst the Bebelibe in the Commune of Cobly. In order to do this, I provide an in-depth, “thick description” (Geertz 1973) ethnography that explores how people perceive and relate to animals through hunting, domestication, attitudes to eating meat, animal commodification, reincarnation, shapeshifting and totemism. As part of my analysis I also examine the impact of Christianity on human-animal relations by exploring several incidents involving Christians and their tikedimɔmɔnte.


Marcy Wilhelm-South

Purdue University

Date 2018
Pages 346
Publisher University of Exeter
Department Sociology, Philosophy & Anthropology
Degree PhD in Anthropology
Language English
University University of Exeter
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Animal roles
  2. Anthropology
  3. Benin
  4. crocodiles
  5. Human-animal relationships
  6. open access
  7. Religions
  8. Wild animals
  1. open access