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The Future of African Gods
by Professor Molefi Kete Asante
Accra – W.E.B. Du Bois Center
July 10, 1998
I am pleased that you have come to hear my lecture tonight and I want to thank the organizers of this event for their diligence and generosity. In particular I would like to publicly thank Dr. Kofi Anyidiho, and Executive Director Moore, the staff and the Board of the DuBois Center for making this occasion possible. I give praise to Nyame, Asase Yaa, and the Nananom nsamanfo for whatever clarity I am able to share with you. I shall begin my lecture with a conclusion: Until an African leader publicly acknowledges, honors and prays to an African God, we Africans will continue to be viewed as pathetic imitators of others, never having believed in ourselves. So powerful is the concept of religion when we discuss it in connection with civilization that to deny the validity of one's religion is to deny the validity of one's civilization. Indeed to deny one's religion as valid is to suggest that the person is a pagan, a heathen, uncivilized, and beyond the sphere of humanity. So to talk about religion is to talk about our views of ourselves, our understanding of our ancestors, and our love of our culture. To establish my argument that we have a crisis in civilization because we have a crisis in religion I will make several points dealing with the themes of tradition, history, religion, and human action.
There are no people without traditions and traditions are the lifeblood of a people. A people who refuse to express its love and appreciation for its ancestors will die because in traditions, if you are not expressing your own, you are participating in and expressing faith in someone else's ancestors. No person is devoid of an attachment to some cultural fountain. Whose water are we drinking? Our African history has been a recent orgy of forgetfulness. We have often lost our memories and accepted the gods of those who enslaved and colonized us. This is something the Chinese and the Indians have fought hard to keep at bay. While we have often embraced our enemies gods they have found those gods to be anathema to their interests. Show me the gods we Africans worship and I will show the extent of our moral and ethical decay. Those who speak to us of Christian or Islamic morals have often been the very ones who had defiled our ancestors' memories and called our sacred rites paganism. Malcolm X once said that the world pushes the African around because we give the impression that we are chumps, not champs, but chumps, weaklings, falling over ourselves to follow other people rather than our own traditions.
The distribution of religion represents the distribution of power. African distribution is minimal and exists in a few places in the diaspora like Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica and the American South. The religion that people practice is based on the influences that have captured their imaginations. In the American South and the Caribbean and in South America one will often find the Yoruba religion. It is Africa's most powerful religious export to the Americas, but this is still a minimal influence when one considers the fact that others have imposed their religions on us and we have accepted the imposition often without a fight from our traditional leaders. Indeed our traditional religious leaders have often been hijacked by the material goods offered by the purveyors of these migrating gods.
The great African pharaoh, Menes, united the two lands (TAWY) bringing 42 clans or nomes under one government around 3100 B.C. By this time already Africans had formulated the first human response to the unknown. If anything we knew God before anyone else, not because we were wiser but because we were first to be civilized. If you take any of the scientific reports, we know that the first hominids were from Africa. Australopithecus afarensis is 4,200,000 years old and Australopithecus ramidus, 3,800,000. When Richard Johnason discovered Dinqnesh, later called Lucy, by the Europeans, he claimed to have found the earliest example of a hominid in Ethiopia. Until 75,000 years ago all humans were black. Did they have an appreciation for the almighty? Did they formulate a response to the unknown? Of course they did; they were human and human before anyone else. Our ancestors brought forth the first civilizations and gave the world the oldest organized cosmological explanations. Thus, Ra as Ptah, Atum, Amen, Khepera, Khnum - the many names of the one, the Supreme, created Shu and Tefnut, air and moisture, Geb and Nut, earth and sky. Then came Ausar, Auset, Nebhet, and Set. Ausar was killed by his brother Set and Auset put him back together with the assistance of her sister, Nebhet and her son, Heru, who avenged his father by killing Set. This is the story of good over evil.
The purpose was to create Maat, balance, harmony, justice, righteousness, reciprocity, order. These are the key concepts in any ethical system and the fact that they emerged first in the Nile Valley of Africa suggests that other ideas, related to these ideas, found their way into the very practices and beliefs of our people throughout the continent. The deliberate attempt by the European to separate Africans from the classical civilizations of the Nile is one of the biggest falsifications in history. Only when we reclaim our history will we be able to see that the origins of many religious ideas are African. How is it that the parent has become the child? Thus, not only do we have the earliest emergence of God, we have the first ethical principles, reinforced by proverbs, and refined in the oral and artistic traditions of our narratives.
The ancient name of Egypt was Kemet and it was the culmination of classical Africa's achievements in science, art, architecture, medicine, astronomy, geometry, and religion. The Greeks honored the Africans as the originators of the science and art practiced by the Greeks themselves. It would be the Europeans of the 15th through 19th centuries that wouild try to divorce Europe from its African origin and deny Africa any role in civilizing the world. The early Greek historian, Herodotus claims that nearly all of the Greek gods came from Africa. We know that the Greeks worshipped Imhotep as Aesclepius, the God of Medicine, and that the name Athens, Athena, is from Aten. When Constantine in 325 A.D. took ideas from African spirituality and created a control mechanism at the Council of Nicea he was trying to organize a system for using African spiritual ideas. The early Christian church had to deal with the fact that Christians had used many African ideas, the son of God, eternal life, and the resurrection, in their religion. The sad fact is that since we have forgotten so much we do not know that we are the originators of religion.
The abandonment of our history, indeed the abandonment of our gods, the gods of our ancestors, have brought us deep into the quagmire of misdirection, mis-orientation and self pity. When the missionaries forbade our shrines and punished us in the Americas when we called the names of our gods and sounded our mighty drums they were looking for the Pavlovian reaction they finally got in millions of Africans: African is bad, it is inferior, it is pagan, it is heathen. We often hear others cursing our ancestors in ways the Chinese, the Lebanese and the British would never allow. Why is this? Are we truly shamed by our military defeat? Can we no longer think about how right our ancestors were in exploring human nature and positing ways to combat the unknown? Cannot we create new forms out of the old mold or must we throw away the mold?
What would be anymore pagan than the wanton willful destruction of millions of Africans, Jews, Native Americans, and Chinese by Christians Europeans? How could white men pray to a god on the second floor of a slave dungeon while on the first floor they held our ancestors, yours and mine, in horrible bondage? What kind of religion denied our humanity at the same time they were raping our women, brutalizing our children, and demanding our wealth and our souls? It is true that the idea of Christian names or Muslim names promotes and advances those cultures. Why must you change your name even if you chose to buy into a foreign religion? What is wrong with your name? Any religion that asks you to do what others do not have to do is asking you to abandon your mother. The question is, why would you abandon your mother?
Religion in General
What is religion but the deification of ancestors, the making sacred of traditions within the context and history. How can we honor any god who was used against us? The only people who accept alien gods are defeated people; all others honor and accept their own name for the Almighty. We must learn to appreciate ourselves and our traditions. What is wrong with the African God? What would we think of a Yoruba who accepted Chinese ancestors as his own? We would find it quite interesting and wonder how it came to be. But what of Africans' acceptance of others' gods? Is there no tradition with these alien gods? Of course there is tradition with these gods! To accept the Jews' god or the Arabs' god or the Hindu's god and so forth is to valorize those histories above your own. Indeed, it is to honor the names in those myths and stories higher than your own stories, it is to love the language, the places in their stories above your own. Why is Mecca, Rome, or Jerusalem more sacred than Bosumtwi? Quite simply, it is imperialism, not by force of arms, but by force of religion which sometimes comes armed.
Joel Kotkin's Tribes - a book about people ready for the 21st Century claims that only Jews, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and British are ready. These groups have some commonalities which include (1) strong sense of identity, (2) international network, and (3) a passion for technology. He does not include any African community or ethnic group. In fact, he believes that the African people were best organized under the leadership of Marcus Garvey who believed that Africans were not only capable of achieving without the whites; Africans had to achieve without whites in order to be seen as fully participating in the drama of history. Kwame Nkrumah believed in much the same idea.
Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations claims that there are six major civilizations: Chinese, Japanese, Orthodox, Hindu, Western, Islamic. He says each one has a nation that is vanguard, deeply committed to its religion and history. Africa has no such vanguard nation and furthermore Africa has yet to emerge from under the cloaks of its interventionists. Of 53 nations only one nation is more African in religion than either Christian or Muslim. That nation is small Benin.
Benin is 87% popular traditional African Religion. But it is a small nation with limited influence in a propaganda fashion. As such we do not expect African traditional religion to play a major part in the civilization of Africa for a long time to come, but we can begin to examine the questions, to raise the issues, and to interrogate our practices.
Let me explore African Religion with you to provide some common understanding.
In the first place it is important that we call popular traditional African Religion everywhere by a common acronym, Ptare. This means that Akan, Yoruba, Igbo, Zulu and Shona are the same religion with different branches. Just as Christians may be Baptists, Methodists, and Catholics, and just as Muslims may be Mourrides, Sunni, or Shiities. There is no difference in speaking of Ptare as one religion and speaking of Christianity or Islam as one religion. I believe that Popular Traditional African Religion everywhere (Ptare) is as old as civilization, indeed, it is much older than either Christianity or Islam. The major characteristics of Ptare are found in all of the traditions from East to West and from North to South. The fact that we have often misunderstood the legacy we have inherited is not the fault of those who left it; it is our fault for preferring the oppressors' legacy over that of our own ancestors.
The characteristics of Ptare include:
Domicile of Gods - Presence, Shrine
Priest/Priestess of God
Devotee of God - medium (Noc??)
Herbalist - Pharmacist
Psychiatrist - mental harmonizer
Diviner - scientist, Hunter's/explorers
All ritual in Ptare seek a return to Maat. Everything is one - we are a part of the whole and nothing is disconnected from the Almighty. That is why we recognize Mother Earth as well as Nyame. What Europe sees and teaches as limitations in Ptare are really advantages: No vast interpretative literary corpus to say what is and what is not - Ptare's interpretations are often dependent on a multitude of situations that demand attention.
No concentration on the material manifestations of the God's house. All temples started as shrines and from the shrine place people build other edifices. Buildings should have some historical or religious significance.
Advantages of Ptare
The ethical principles are more conducive to community, not so geared toward individualism. Some religions demonstrate their power by showing what they can build but this is only a matter of financial not moral wealth. Are you more civilized because you can build a nuclear bomb? We must not be impressed by the things which can be created because we are human and have the same capacity and can create the same things out of our own minds. But our African gods do not advance destruction. They have never been gods of death, but of life. The material manifestations of religion are not the wisest standard of how good god is unless your god is money. The new religions seem to bring schools and hospitals but we have always had those institutions without calling them by those names. Now it is time that the practitioners of Ptare explain the interrelationship of the traditions of ordinary life in the context of institutions. Our entire existence is religion. Our shrines are sacred places on sacred land given by the ancestors. Our health is interconnected to our spirituality.
We Africans have always believed in a supreme deity whether the name was Nyame, Oludumare, Abasi, Nkulunkulu, Woyengi, Chukwu, Mawu and Lisa. This is true although others have said we did not. They have confused a lot of us. When the white missionaries translated the bible in our languages, they asked our ancestors for the name of the Almighty and they used the names our ancestors had always used for the Almighty and then told us that we did not have a belief in the Supreme. But we now know that our priests were no less wise in their observations than the Greek sophists, the Hebrew prophets, the Arab ulema, or the Chinese literati.
Our ancestors believed in pluralism without hierarchy --- many expressions of God without saying mine is right, or the only one, and yours is bad, pagan, and heathen. Perhaps had we done that we would have stopped the alien religions at the shore, but we are the world's first humanists and we allowed others to come with their goods and their gods.
They came with a political ideology in the name of religion. It was imperialism. Imperialism brings destruction, obliteration. How could we fall for it for so long? The introduction of a book or a gun caused us to lose our footing, to stumble on our way, to denounce our fathers and mothers.
There are no other people on the earth who have had to denounce their ancestors in order to become better people. Is it because our ancestors are so strong that we are forced to denounce them before our conquerors? This is one thing you shall never find me doing because I know too much about my African contribution to history.
Contributions of Ptare
The first naming of the divine, netcher, god, or netcheru divinity from which some say the English word nature is ultimately derived.
The first trinity: Ausar, Auset, Heru which has been repeated by Amen, Mut, Khonsu and then God, the father, God the son, God the holy spirit. The Christians took out the mother who represented Auset -and gave Christians a virgin Mary, but she was no god. Asase Yaa is Mother Earth, but no one can have a son without a mother.
The first idea of a son of god or a daughter of God. Sa Ra or Sat Ra.
The first black stone altars - long before the Kaaba was revealed at Mecca.
The first example of the resurrection from the dead Ausar. This is also where we find that the Neb Ankh- Lord of Life was not a sarcophagus, that is, not a flesh eater, but something that spoke of life.
The name of god Amen now used by others in their prayers.
The idea that your good should outweigh your evil, that your soul should be lighter than a feather, that perfection is not what is sought after, but overwhelming goodness. (the original last judgement http://wysinger.homestead.com/bookofthedead.html)
The complementarity of males and females, different roles but not subjugation, Mawu and Lisa, male and female - Auset and Ausar, complementarity.
The first records of ancestors' wisdom. The books of Ptahhotep, Kagemni, Duauf.
The idea of heaven and earth, Nut, Geb, Auset is called, Lady of Heaven.
Here in Africa humans have prayed to God longer than on any other continent. When the pyramids were finished, Europe had given the world not one organized civilization, even Asia was just stirring. Just look at a broad chronology:
2500 B.C. - The African people along the river valleys of the eastern highlands floated stones down the Nile to help build monuments to God.
2500 Hsia Dynasty rises in China.
2200 BC. Harrapa and Mohenjo Daro were found in India.
800 BC Homer is the first voice of the Greeks.
500 Romans come to power in Europe.
639 A.D. Arabs are able to cross into Africa with force under General El As from Arabia-Yemen.
Africans made the idea of the beautiful and the good one world nfr - nefer.
Ptare gave the world its first ethical system: Maat - balance, harmony, justice, righteousness, reciprocity, order - Maat was the only major deity without priesthood since all were priests of Maat.
The idea of eternal life - Ankh neheh was African.
The first libations, offerings and burning of incense as ritual forms.
The ten commandments were preceded by the 42 confessions in the Egyptian Book of the Dead or more accurately the Egyptian Book of the Coming Forth By Day. (the original 42 Commandments http://www.nubeing.com/unblind2/42.htm)
Ptare gave the idea of collective and communal salvation rather than a rampant individualism which says save me and the rest of the world go to hell.
All futures are made by human beings. But the begin with consciousness which precedes Afrocentricity.
A few days ago I walked into a Kumasi restaurant and found that I could get Ghanaian food only by pre-arranged request. But western food was immediately available. Imported. Are African Gods only on request? We determine this by how we live.
The Wolof and Senegal say wood may remain in water for ten years but it will not become a crocodile. We live Africa by living its tried and true values and customs, this is a credit to our gods. Almost all of the disarray in Africa can be traced to the disruption of the traditional religion. In fact, one can go from country to country and find that the cause of the problems can be laid at the feet of alien civilizations. This is not a wild statement; it is based on deep reflection and study. I believe in the African gods and believe that just as we have exported our cultural forms in music, art and science, the world needs a more sane and sensible ethic.
What Must Be Done
We must talk honestly to our elders --- those who have not abandoned the traditions - consult the priests, learn from them, and discover the source of our problems.
Remove all images of a white Jesus. This is not correct even if one is a Christian. The historical Jesus had to be black in color despite the missionaries' attempt to paint him English and Swedish.
We must believe that our names are as sacred as Arabic or European names.
We must understand that when others extend their values, religion and institutions they are penetrating our traditions with the poison of alien power that teaches us to hate ourselves and to love our oppressors. Meanwhile, they never follow the prescriptions they leave for us.
We must enhance the economic, political and military power of African states because a lack of such power creates self doubt, identity crisis, and a search for the material gods of the west who seem to produce these things. But spirit is greater if we use it and we can only use it if we practice.
We need boldness from our leaders to accomplish this transformation.
The British called Harry Lee the best Englishman east of the British Isles when he finished Oxford. He changed his name, converted to Confucianism and they wondered what happened to him. He learned Mandarin Chinese and became Lee Kuan Yew, a leader who rejected Western values. Asians are calling for Confucianism as they emphasize tradition. The Japanese are calling for Nihonjinron, Japanese values. Why must we be stuck with the attitudes and values of the European, so-called Christian values, particularly since they have shown themselves to be bankrupt on many fronts.
We can achieve our aims not so much by modernizing African traditions as Africanizing modernity itself. We are the modern people. Our ecological values, relationships values, respect for others values are the keys to the future.
I recognize that humans cannot advance without answering some basic questions like, Who Am I? Why am I here? What is the purpose of existence? Who are we as humans, Africans, Ghanaians, Gas, Ewe, Guans, Akans, African Americans?
Religion provides compelling answers and often small communities of others who believe like we do. African deities and the Almighty God of Africa do that for us. They give us identity and direction. We are the children of the Supreme God sustained by our ancestral connections, formed to glorify the best values of Maat, encouraged to assume responsibility for each other in a community of consciousness. Failure to do this is a deviation, an abomination and we can only re-connect through rites of ablution--- making, doing or sacrificing time, money, energy in the name and interest of Africa. The concept of the gift is the idea, not what we give.
This may change given education, science, sensibility, scarcity, etc., but we need to sacrifice for Africa. But our God must not be one of exploitation, egocentrism, conservatism and westernization. If so, we shall go to hell.
We must create our African personality and identity in art, dance, medicine, education, science, and religion and if we cannot do it here in the land of Okomfo Anokye, Nkrumah and Du Bois, then it cannot be done in Africa. If we do not do it here in the land of Yaa Asantewaa, then we can never be the hope of the hopeless. If Africa cannot find its way, then I fear the prospects of the world.
But Africa will rise to throw off the vestiges of mental enslavement and there shall be rejoicing among the Nananom nsamanfo. The ancestors will say: Rejoice! Rejoice! Let the Gods of Africa Rejoice!
The Council of Nicea and the making of a new religion
Around the start of the 4th Century AD, The Roman Empire was governed by the Emperor Constantine. The Empire at this time was not in the best of health, being a morass of different cults and belief systems. The official state religion was the worship of Sol Invictus, the Sun God, and this was Constantine's own religion. However, the relatively new cult, as it then was, of Christianity was starting to enjoy a groundswell of support, and it did not require much thought to see that steps needed to be taken if Rome's tenuous grip on the Empire was to be strengthened.
Constantine called together a meeting of religious and secular leaders at Nicea, Bythynia, Asia Minor in 325AD to resolve the situation, and it is principally as a result of this meeting that he earned the title of Constantine the Great, bestowed upon him subsequently by Church leaders. It was at this meeting that Constantine and his council resolved that if the proletariat had to have their superstitions, then better it was controlled by the state and adopted policies that the state approved of. It is this meeting that the world has come to know as the Council of Nicea, and from which the world still feels repercussions.(to continue reading article http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A30
Further articles about this topic on our site in addition to our 'links' page
Africans and their obsession with other people's religion
The African origins of the major western religions by Dr. Ben Jochannan
Biography and other books on religion by Dr Ben Jochannan
African Religions & Sacred texts
An overview of Ancient Egyptian Religion
The black Madonna
Was there a Christianity before Christ?
Video: The three major Western religions exposed by Walter Williams
Jews come from Europe, not the East
Absurdities of the bible
The quest for the historical Jesus
Racist theory of creation
Adamites (whites) and Pre-adamites (non whites)
Evidence of Black Africans in the Bible