Encyclopedia of Goddesses and Heroines
By Patricia Monaghan
New World Library Copyright © 2014 Patricia Monaghan
All rights reserved.
Among continents, Africa ranks second after Asia in size and population. Africa's size challenges researchers into religion and spirituality, as does the depth of its history. Most scientists agree the human race emerged in Africa approximately 200,000 years ago. All humans descend from "Eve," who lived some 140,000 years ago in eastern or central Africa. Other prehistoric women have descendants today, but "Eve" supplied the DNA of all human mitochondria.
Rivers, deserts, mountain ranges, and rain forests divide Africa into regions reflected in the continent's cultures. Speakers of Bantu languages predominate along the Niger and Congo Rivers, and in some parts of central and eastern Africa. Nilotic groups live in east Africa. In southern Africa's Kalahari Desert live the Bushmen (San), while Pygmy peoples live nearby and in central Africa. In most of eastern Africa, Arabic influence and language are dominant.
Today, most of Africa is Christian or Islamic; thus this section does not represent the spiritual views of a majority of contemporary Africans. Approximately 10 percent of Africans practice traditional religions; although a statistical minority, these practitioners number in the millions. Traditional religions include the Ifá rituals of the Yoruba in western Africa, the most popularly held indigenous religion in Africa today. Smaller numbers follow the religions of the Fon of Benin and the Ewe of southern Ghana. Small numbers practice traditions of the Bushmen and other groups. In North Africa, despite the intense pressure of Islam, some indigenous religious ways can be found among the Berbers of Morocco and Algeria and seminomadic people such as the Tuareg of the Sahara.
Researchers in goddess religion face challenges in Africa because of the influence of monotheistic religions, which arrived with European and Arab colonization. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, missionaries recorded some myths, possibly misinterpreting information provided by African people. For instance, sources describe a "high god" who withdrew from humanity to control life on earth from afar; this god resembles the male god of Abrahamic religions. Yet sources suggest such divinities were originally not only male but female, dual sexed or bisexual, or without gender.
African religions often describe twin primal ancestors, usually a sister and brother. Scholars have written about the importance of twins in African cosmology, but little attention has been paid to specific roles of the male and female twins, who may embody an ideal of cosmic balance. Some cultures show evidence of matrilineality in tandem with patrilineality, although scholars typically elevate the latter.
Most African religions have multiple beings, ranked below gods but above humans. Such a being might be called a "spirit" or an orisha (the latter a Yoruba term). Spirits can be harmful, as with a murdered, and thereafter murderous, ghost. Benevolent spirits include ancestors, who become helpers to descendants. Devotion to ancestors is prominent in many African religions. Because ancestors are both male and female, female ancestral spirits are celebrated with equal rites.
Using "goddess" to describe figures from traditional African religion presents difficulties. Because the Abrahamic concept of divinity is typically abstracted from nature, African religions have been dismissed as "animistic," as though finding divinity in nature is less developed than abstraction. Such attitudes diminish the roles natural powers, including the earth, play in traditional African religions. Additionally, the role of ancestors is not well described with the term "goddess," which can imply an immortal and nonhuman figure. Finally, the distinction between a folkloric or semihistorical figure and a divine one can be difficult to discern; early recorders may have wrongly demoted such female figures, whereas African religion often sees ancestors as becoming godlike figures after death.
African traditional religions are based in ritual and orally conveyed story. Rituals require the artistic efforts of community members. Both women and men typically take part, although the common practice of having secret societies means men and women may not participate in, or know of, each other's rituals. As traditional religions have given way to Christianity and Islam, many women's traditions have been lost.
Traditional religions are not the only ones native to Africa, for Egyptian religion has deep roots and still-thriving branches. Since approximately 10,000 BCE, people have lived along the banks of the Nile. By approximately 6000 BCE, two large civilizations thrived, the Upper and Lower Kingdoms; although they traded with each other, the kingdoms remained separate for almost 2,000 years. Divinities included many goddesses, especially bovine divinities who represented an important resource among cattle-herding peoples.
Egypt was unified around 3000 BCE as the Old Kingdom. The pyramids of Giza were built, indicative of a well-developed religious tradition of caring for the dead. An unsettled period, called the First Intermediate Period, followed but stability returned with the Middle Kingdom (2040 BCE). Around 1650 BCE, an invasion briefly disrupted Egyptian life, but establishment of the New Kingdom (1550–1070 BCE) returned Egypt to Egyptian rule. During the fourteenth century BCE, King Akhenaton declared the land would honor only a male sun god, Aten, creating what was arguably the world's first monotheism. Upon Akhenaton's death, Egyptian polytheism was restored. Although politically Egypt went into decline in 343 BCE, Egypt continued to have religious influence on the lands around the Mediterranean. Under Greek rulership and under the Roman Empire, non-Egyptian followers embraced Egyptian goddesses, including divinities such as Isis. After Christianization, some goddess images survived in a Christian context, so the influence of Egyptian goddesses remains active today. Finally, revivals of Egyptian religion have been prominent in European occultism for centuries.
Consideration of African religions would be incomplete without discussion of the African diaspora. The Arabic slave trade was established before the arrival of Europeans, with attendant forcible conversion to Islam. There are no known Afro-Arabic syncretic religions, as there are Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Caribbean religious paths.
With the enslavement of millions of Africans in the fifteenth through the nineteenth century, people ripped from their religious roots retained and revived their traditions in the New World. Slavery brought Africans into connection with indigenous Americans, some also enslaved, as well as enslaved and indentured Europeans, usually rural poor who sustained pagan traditions. Melded or syncretized African religions are attested as early as the 1500s.
In Brazil, where almost half the population has African heritage, several syncretic religions emerged, followed by millions. Afro-Brazilian religions include Candomblé or Macumba/Quimbanda, both based in Yoruba religion, the latter including European witchcraft practices. In Cuba and Puerto Rico, Yoruba orishas are honored through the practices of Santeria; in Haiti, Voudoun derives from the religion of Benin and from Nigeria. Congo rites are also known. These religions are practiced as well in the United States. Two lesser-known traditions, the West Indian/Jamaican Obeah and the southern U.S. Hoodoo, derive from traditions of African sorcery and magic. In all these traditions, female figures hold power and prestige.
Today, African traditional religions retain the devotion of a significant minority of Africans on the home continent and an increasing number of adherents in diasporic lands. In addition, African spirituality imbues the Womanist movement, which also draws upon Christianity's social gospel. While distinct from feminist spirituality, Womanist theology similarly seeks to empower women through use of female images of divinity.
Abenaa An Akan river goddess, Abenaa ("Tuesday") is associated with gold, brass, and other symbols of wealth. Abenaa protects children and, because she views her worshippers as her children, defends them as adults. (Bádejo 1998)
Abrewa This Akan goddess, possibly identical to Asase Yaa, lived on earth with her children, where they were cramped because the sky was so close. She hit the sky god with her pestle, which forced him to move away. Then god was too far away, so Abrewa had everyone gather mortars, which she piled atop each other. When only one mortar was needed to reach god, the supply ran out. Abrewa moved the bottom one to the top, but the structure collapsed, isolating people on earth. Abrewa disappeared after founding a matrilineal line of rulers from her eldest daughter, Asona. (Ephirim-Donkor)
Abuk Born tiny, Abuk was put in a pot, where she swelled like a bean. When she was grown, the creator god gave Abuk and her mate, Garang, one grain of corn to eat each day. The human race would have starved had Abuk not stolen what people needed. Deng, the rain god, joined with Abuk to bring abundance. They had three children, two sons and a daughter, Ai-Yak; some narratives offer two daughters for the goddess, Candit and Nyaliep, both of whom became divine after drowning.
The frightening Lwal Durrajok appears in a tale wherein Abuk created people from fat she softened over fire. She molded individual people and, after they dried and hardened, sent them across the road that connected heaven and earth. But when she went to gather more wood for her fire, Lwal Durrajok made crippled humans he pledged to fix. Then he boiled a pot of fat, into which he plunged the cripples, who met horrible deaths.
The Dinka, Nuer, and Atuot envision Abuk as the primal woman and divinity of fertility. Her symbols include the moon, snakes, and sheep. In some myths, the name of this goddess is given as Acol. (Burton 1981, 1982a, 1982b; Cummings; Evans-Pritchard; Lienhardt; Ray 2000)
Adoma In Cameroon, this folkloric heroine was an exemplary daughter except she refused to marry. This angered her parents and she became something of an outcast. During a festival across the Mbam River, all the young people set off to enjoy themselves, so Adoma went along. But when they reached the banks of the river, no one would let Adoma ride in their boats.
As she sat there glumly, a crocodile urged her to take his hand and step onto his back. The crocodile took her below the waves and decked her in finery before taking her to the festival. Elegantly attired, Adoma caught everyone's eye, and men competed for her attentions. She refused until she felt like dancing, then took a flute from a bag the crocodile had given her. When she played it, people stuffed money into her bag. As soon as it was full, it disappeared, then reappeared, empty and ready for more offerings. Back in the river, the crocodile counted the money, which had been transmitted to him.
When the party was over, more than one suitor wanted to take Adoma home, but she went back to the crocodile, who once more took her beneath the waves and dressed her splendidly. When the girl returned home, her older sister decided she, too, would gain a fortune, so she went to the riverbank. When the crocodile appeared, she said he was smelly, so he ate her. (Matateyou)
Agbanli In Benin, when a hunter saw the antelope girl Agbanli take off her hide, revealing herself as a young woman, he stole the skin so he could claim her as his wife. Agbanli agreed, demanding only that he keep the secret of her animal identity. The hunter agreed, and Agbanli went home with him.
The hunter's primary wife did not take kindly to the stranger. Every day they argued, and every day the woman said something that showed the hunter had not kept his promise. Finally she revealed to Agbanli where her antelope skin was hidden. The girl reclaimed it and returned to the forest.
Later, the same hunter tried to shoot Agbanli in her antelope form. She gestured until he recognized her. Having overheard birds talking about how their excrement, mixed with water, could turn an animal permanently into a woman, the hunter used that magic on Agbanli. Now a woman forever, Agbanli returned to the hunter's home, after she had extracted a promise she would no longer be tormented by the senior wife. (Feldmann 1963)
Aje The Yoruba goddess of wealth often appears in the form of money. At time's beginning, she was a five-toed chicken, scratching the earth's hard surface until it became rich soil. In her honor, women leaders are called Aje, a word sometimes translated as "witch," which indicates womanly power, especially in market economics or trade. (Beier 1980; Olupona; Sekoni)
Ala The most popular divinity of Nigeria's Igbo people is earth mother Ala, creatrix of the living and queen of the dead, provider of communal loyalty and lawgiver of society. She is guardian of morality, on whom oaths are sworn and in whose name courts of law are held. Among her powers is fecundity; she is a benevolent deity, celebrated in the New Yam festival. Ala's shrine is at the center of a village, where people offer sacrifices at planting, first fruits, and harvest.
As part of Ala's role as maintainer of order, she is the goddess who punishes misdeeds and transgressions against custom. Army ants, who serve the goddess, attack those who break such rules. But first they appear in nightmares, so the wrongdoer might rectify his or her behavior. (Jell-Bahlsen 2008; Cole; Ford; Iloanusi; Jones; Mbon; Parringer 1967, 1970; McCall)
Alyett The Nuer ancestral mother was born from a tree near the Guoal River, called the "river of smallpox" due to the nearby prevalence of the disease. At the beginning of every rainy season, cattle and other animals were sacrificed to Alyett at her sacred tree. (Burton 1981)
Amokye Among the Ashanti, Amokye guards the entrance to the otherworld. As she welcomes recently deceased women, she demands payment from the beads bedecking their burial garments. She is variously imagined as a genial old woman, sympathetic to the newly dead, and as a crone who sets obstacles in the way of arrivals. (Ford)
Andriana The mythology of Madagascar has much in common with that of Indonesia, despite the island's location beside Africa and the presence of many Africans there. The islands were settled relatively late, between 350 BCE and 500 CE, by seafarers from Indonesia. At around the same period that Indonesians were settling the island, Africans speaking a Bantu language arrived. Later, Arabs moved there from the north. The mythology of Madagascar is thus richly derived from multiple sources.
Among important mythic figures are the Vazimba or Andrianas, water spirits who lurked around marshes and streams. One of the most prominent was Andriambavirano, "Princess of the Water," who originally lived in the sky. Curious about humanity, she turned herself into a leaf and dropped into a lake. A prince locked the leaf in prison until Andriambavirano reappeared as a goddess. The children of the prince and the goddess became heroes and heroines.
Ranoro is the most renowned spirit woman today because of her connection with the important Antehiroka clan. When their ancestral father happened upon Ranoro, he immediately proposed marriage to her. She demanded her new husband never use salt or even speak the word. When he forgot, Ranoro leaped into the water, never to be seen again.
Another Andriana was beautiful long-haired Rasoalavavolo, who lived underwater and answered prayers for children if offered smooth stones and silver jewelry. Some Andrianas bore the name Ra-mitovi-aman-dreniny, "the likeness or equal of her mother." They also went by the name of "green princesses" for their long green hair, light-green skin, and mirror-like eyes. (Graeber; Ottino; Radimilahy; Silbree)
Ara The Ekoi sky maiden Ara was given to the earthly god Obassi Nsi, while that god's son went to heaven to live with Ara's family. Ara arrived on earth with many slaves, for she was not used to working hard. But Obassi Nsi demanded she carry jars of water long into the night and otherwise perform menial labor. He starved her, he humiliated her in front of his people, and he made her sleep with goats. Ara rebelled. Sent to gather water, she sat down by the side of the stream and refused to return. When she saw a rope hanging from the tree, she climbed it back to heaven. Furious, her father, Obassi Osaw, sent her to her mother, Akun, who tended her wounds and dressed her in finery. Then Obassi Osaw sent for the son of Obassi Nsi and cut off his ears in punishment for what Ara had suffered. Weeping, his tears mixing with those of the wronged maiden Ara, the boy ran back to earth. Their tears were the first rain to fall. (Radin) (Continues...)
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