Why we shouldn’t shy away from African folklore
Black Ballad’s writer, Jumoke Abdullahi, recently released an article discussing how hard it was for her to connect to her Yoruba heritage because the traditional beliefs of Yorubaland were shied away from by her family. As a classicist, this got me thinking (and feeling more than a little guilty about) the fact that for all of my knowledge of Ancient Greco-Roman (and occasionally Mesopotamian and Ancient Egyptian) beliefs and culture I really know very little about the beliefs and spirituality that sustained my ancestors in West Africa. And Abdullahi is right. There are a lot of aspects of re-educating black people that are talked about often, particularly with regards to historical studies. But one point that is so rarely discussed is myth and folklore. And people ask, ‘why teach that when we have so many real historical figures that we still need to learn about – right?’
But that SO wrong. The beliefs and belief systems of religions like the Orisha and Akan are so rarely spoken about by modern-day West Africans and those of the African diaspora. And when they are brought up, they tend to get shut down almost immediately and written off as being juju or paganism – devilish, heathen ways. And my honest opinion is that it’s because people don’t really understand them, or how pagan religions actually work.
Paganism is not devil worship. It’s a belief system comprised of multiple gods, each to whom different aspects of human existence and physical worldly phenomena are attributed. Some of these gods aren’t nice, this is true. But in pagan religions, there is no ‘good and evil’ as good and evil are monotheistic concepts, linked to a one God and his ultimate adversary, the Devil. Belief systems that do not have two opposing beings who are sole rulers of their respective domains of good and bad, simply have life and the less enjoyable parts of it. Those less enjoyable parts are out of our control and thus get attributed to a few divine beings whose sole domain it is to control that bad and who can be appeased to alleviate suffering. This allows believers to be able to make sense of and make peace with, the bad in the world. It’s a way of interpreting the world around you, in the absence of standardised religion and if your religious and looking into ancient and pre-historic cultures, is a brilliant and admirable example of humanities need for spirituality.
But white European history has been plagued with periods of over-zealous witch hunts and condemnations of those who are different, deemed as ‘savages. This most definitely feeds into the way that non-Greco-Roman pagan religions are viewed in western European societies and their colonial properties. We need to understand that European Christianity (not Christianity itself, but the way white European’s dictate the religion) exists to demonise those that are different, as it has tried to demonise every faith that is different from mainstream Christianity, including different Christian sects. It tried to do this to religions like, Hinduism, thankfully unsuccessfully, and it continues to dictate that religions like the Akan and Orisha are somehow uncivilised. And it’s a narrative that unfortunately we of African descent continue to perpetuate by writing off our own heritage as heathenish and evil because it does not conform to the way that our current beliefs systems, and European Christianity, do things. You are continuing the narrative of the oppressor.
Part of the reason for trying to stamp out these religions is the fact that, unlike European Christianity which enforces assimilation, (and at times subjugation if we think about things like the prevailing images of white Jesus), pagan religions are specific to the people and tribes who follow them. They serve as markers of identity- identities that European colonialist Christianity has tried for centuries to wipe out. As such, if you understand the pagan religions of your ancestors, you will understand your ancestors better. The attributes of their different gods tell us how they interacted with the world, what they held dear, and what was important enough for them to make libations and prayers for and pass down through the generations.
Issues which apply to all humans, like sex and fertility, will crop up in every belief system. For example, the Norse goddess of fertility/ beauty is Freyja, one of her Celtic counterparts is Danu, in Ancient Egypt it’s Isis, and in Greece, it’s Aphrodite and so on. But different cultures will have various other deities who have dominion over more nuanced aspects of life, aspects that are specific to that culture and that culture alone and that is where the identity of that people lies.
In ancient Greek religion, you have Hera, goddess of the hearth. Whilst some people interpret this to be the home, the hearth is actually a specific part of the home – the fire/fireplace in the centre, that essentially keeps the house running. But this is specific to the cultures that had a need for that house design, and won’t necessarily crop up in the Akan faith. The Greeks also had the god Hymen, one of the gods of marriage, whose absence from the wedding ceremony was said to forecast that the marriage would end in disaster. He later lent his name to that part of the female anatomy (and as you can see that idea later led to the prevailing belief that it is a terrible thing to have an absent hymen at your wedding). These concepts were so crucial to most Greeks that they absolutely had to have deities for them, because if these deities were not respected, the confines of their world and culture would effectively collapse in on them. But I wouldn’t expect to see the same gods in Orisha, Akan or Bantu folklore, at least not in the same capacity, because their values and way of life would have been different.
One of the many attributes of the Yoruba goddess Oshun is hairstyling, specifically braiding and the comb. This is an attribute, which you won’t find in Greco-Roman religion. They may have a goddess of beauty – but the specific quality of hairstyling, the comb and braiding, is an African virtue. Similarly the Igbo religion has the god Njoku Ji – the god of Yam. Yam does not grow in European climates, so again, the veneration of the Yam god, and the provision of Yam as offerings to the gods is specific to African people and is telling of how important the Yam was, and still is, to the lives of the many African’s today. This knowledge may seem like knowledge for knowledge sake, but it shows that these deities are markers of our identities and cultures. It shows how important hair has for us, it was never ‘just hair’ and it is never just Yam, its, very literally part of our existence. In having that knowledge of Oshun, and Njoku Ji, you now know more about what was, and is, important to your ancestors and your tribe, which will strengthen you and your people in the long term, even if that knowledge does not provide you with any immediate benefits or gratification today.
It also serves to bring people together and can bridge the gap between you and other people of African descent, if we allow it. So many people have issues with being aligned with blackness and black culture in the African diaspora. Some people will deny they have African heritage, no matter how black they look. But there are parts of their culture that are unquestionably African, and that can serve as a unifier. As Jumoke Abdullahi says, Brazil, a country a lot of Black people, myself included don’t usually think of when we think of African, has strong links to its Yoruba heritage with gods and goddesses like Ogun/Ogum being spoken about openly. This shows that there is a thread running through the African diaspora, through which we can trace back to the continent, which we can use to spark discussions and find commonality. And of course, it’s not just in spiritual beliefs. Food is a big signifier of African heritage with many countries in the Caribbean having a variation of dishes which are originally rooted in Africa. But unlike the food, the folkloric and spiritual aspects are rigorously denied, which baffles me. So many things which are practised in the African diaspora come from the continent: our festivals, our foods and our dialects – folklore is just another way of illustrating that continuity, why it was essential, and why they felt the need to preserve it.
In Jamaica, the Junkanoo Festival can be traced back to the Kakamotobi in Ghana and is similar in style – though not in purpose- to the Yoruba Egungun Festival. In the American south, the roots of the 2nd line parade can clearly be seen in the Ghanaian tradition of dancing pallbearers. And Anansi– the sneaky spider figure in Jamaican folklore is originally the Akan god of tricksters, knowledge and stories, who is similar to the Yoruba gods Elegua and Eshu, gods of roads, trickery and misfortune. And all of these gods are the root of the current Haitian voodoo god, Papa Legba.
And that right there is the crucial part- the concept of roots. White western education seeks to teach us that our history began when they came and civilised us. And as much as some of us and our parents might think these stories are nonsense, there is so much wisdom in knowing them. It teaches us and our children that we had a civilisation (for how can you have such a complex web of oral historical and literary culture if you are uncivilised), beliefs, thoughts, a way of communicating with our surroundings, and rich traditions and heritages long before Europeans landed on our shores. We are a part of a much bigger fabric of blood history that didn’t start when the white man arrived, and they most certainly did not encounter us sitting in bushes and grunting into the mud. These stories also gave us strength when we were in subjugation – Anansi took on a heroic quality when he came to Jamaica because it was told that he used to trick the slave masters, thus allowing slaves to escape or be set free. The continuous telling and retelling of these stories enabled us to retain our will to survive. And whether you think it’s all an Anansi story (pardon the pun) that sense of continuity; of being more than a descendent of slaves, a title that was forced upon us, not one which we were born to, is one that we can’t afford not to give our children.
And if you still think that folklore and mythology are unimportant, ask yourself this – how did a small island, that was essentially at the ends of the earth when the Romans first landed here, come to have an empire that covered half of the globe? It was by believing that ‘Great’ Britain was the successor of the Roman empire and by using Roman as well as its own Celtic, and Brythonic folkloric figures to promote and justify its own image of greatness, both at home and abroad. They took on all of the ideas of Pagan Rome, and by proxy Greece, and fashioned themselves in the images of the great Greco-Roman mythological and quasi-mythological figures, despite being staunch Christians, because they believed themselves to be the inheritors of something immense that stretched back into pre-history. Thus there is no reason for black people, even very religious ones, to shy away from this part of our history and not see ourselves as the heirs of cultures that were equally rich, complicated and significant- even if they were different.
We happily watch, read and talk about Greco-Roman mythology and even Norse mythology (think Marvel’s Thor), but we know nothing about our own and care to know nothing, writing it off as something tainted. But if you can talk about Zeus or Thor without being disgusted, then you can speak about Nyame and Ogun. Because we don’t need a black Venus, we have Oshun, we don’t need Athena we have Orunmila, and we need to cherish that.
I have spent all of my academic life searching for that continuity. That’s probably why I love hearing from people who are into their culture and folklore, no matter what it is and being proud of their history because, for me, your history is what makes you. I was drawn to Classical studies, because, academically, it was more readily available to study, but also because it crossed over with Lebanese culture and beliefs in places, so for me, there was a sense that I had some sort of a connection to it. As for my black side, I settled on Ancient Egypt and continue to be struck by it. But as fascinating as Ancient Egypt is, my mother’s family weren’t taken from East Africa, they were taken from West, and, for all of my readings on Russian, Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman and Persian mythology my reading on West African folklore is woefully dismal. Books just aren’t as readily available on these subjects, and that needs to change.
And after everything I’ve said, you may still be thinking to yourself – I have God, I don’t need this. But ask yourself, if you’d had knowledge about the powerful Oshun god when you were young, would that have changed your perception of the continent, West Africa and yourself?
Not wanting to know about it, claiming it’s all voodoo or claiming – as I heard someone actually say to me, that there is ‘no evidence that my ancestors believed in it so why should I look into it?’ is ignorance at its finest.
Get your facts straight, voodoo is an amalgamation of West African Voudon, a separate form of spirituality from the traditional West African religions, and Catholicism. So it had to have developed after religions like Akan or the Orisha, so there’s no way that these religions could be voodoo.
Secondly – there is no 100 per cent guarantee that your lineage believed in the Orisha or Akan religions. But these cultures were mostly oral – not much was written down, so what does survive are the things that were important enough to be repeated over and over again throughout the generations. If enough people in a tribe thought that these ideas were important enough to be passed down over centuries, what makes you believe that your lineage was so ‘noble’ as to be exempt from this ‘idolatry’ and or ‘sheep’ mentality?
You aren’t exempt from idolatry now. You idolise, Fendi, Gucci, those who wear them, and every piece of new trending gossip of the people around you- and you pass that around to the people you know -so why is it so outlandish that your ancestors may have believed in and repeated the ideas of the people around them?
And why be ashamed of it?
You’ve allowed the ideas of white Christianity to ruin your opinion of your own heritage. It’s a sad world we live in when a black person can read about Zeus and cheer when he defeats the Titans – his own parents – or marries his sister, but gets vexed when someone tells them there is a good chance that their ancestors worshipped Oshun – a figure who, whether real or not, actually helped your ancestors, either from your direct lineage or your tribe, make sense of the world around them and brought them pride. You now shy away from learning about her because the white man has taught you that if it isn’t Christianity, it isn’t right.
I don’t believe in the Orisha or the Akan faiths, but I understand that there is a good chance that my ancestors did, as a result, I want to learn more about these forms of spirituality, not because I wish to pay libations to Asase Ya, but because I understand that my ancestors loved her enough to base their life around her and therefore she was a part of them, making her a part of me – whether she is directly involved in my current life or not.
Don’t allow western education to tell you that your history and the convictions of your ancestors were all witchcraft, superstition and fantasy – do your research and find out for yourself.
And even if your research comes up wanting, it’s a part of the fabric of your history, whether you like it or not – and you can only become stronger by knowing it.