This lecture, "African Religion and Akhenaten," a part of the Comparative Religions Series, was delivered by Uriah J. Fields on November 10, 2006, at the Senior Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. Uriah J. Fields was introduced by Ellen Diming, convener of the Comparative Religions Series.
(Singing "Kum Ba Yah")
Kum-ba-yah, my Lord, kum-ba-yah!
Kum-ba-yah, my Lord, kum-ba-yah!
Kum-ba-yah, my Lord, kum-ba-yah!
O Lord, kum-ba-yah! (Join me)
Kum-ba-yah, my Lord, kum-ba-yah!
Kum-ba-yah, my Lord, Kum-ba-yah!
Kum-ba-yah,my Lord, Kum-ba-yah!
O Lord, kum-ba-yah.!
This is a traditional African song that originated in Angola, and was later translated into the "Pidgin-English" of the West Indies. It simply asks and accepts the Lord's presence anywhere, everywhere. Today, it is sung by people in many parts of the world.
On behalf of the people participating in this Comparative Religions Series, some of you having already participated in discussions on Christianity, Judiasm, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam, I want to thank Ellen Diming, the convener. Thank you Ellen for your generous introduction.
Our subject today is, "African Religion and Akhenaten." In America and the Western World, at large, African religion and African culture have often been considered as primitive, of little value or significance, especially in comparison with other religions and cultures. This exchange will help to illustrate this point: When I was attending seminary, the professor of Missions who had served as a missionary in the Belgium Congo shared with his students this experience he had while in Africa. He said a fellow-missionary chastisingly told some African women that like respectable women they should cover their bare breast. To which one African woman retorted: "Who are you to tell us to cover our breasts when you have your head uncovered?" That exchange may be worthy of scrutiny. (This may bring to our minds the "Janet Jackson Super Bowl media-Government-castigation-bare- breast-feat of a few years ago.) There is a difference between African culture and American culture and the same can be said about African religion and American religion. That does not mean that American culture and religion are better than African culture and religion or visa v. versa.
Some facts about Africa Africa is the world's second-largest and second most populous continent, after Asia. It covers 6 percent of the Earth's total surface and 20.4 percent of the total land area. With some 840.000.000 people, it accounts for more than 12 percent of the world's human population. In comparison, there are 300,000.000 people in the United States.
In this presentation, I propose to give consideration to three wide areas of religious beliefs and practices of the African people. They are: (1) Indigenous African religion, (2) World religions (such as Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism) and (3) New Religious Traditions (African Independent Churches.) However, the primary focus of this discussion is on the Indigenous African Religion. These three wide areas show how we can view African Religion with regard to the past, present and the future of African Religion, in light of recent trends.
Early African History
Ultimately, we are all Africans. Studies of DNA have proven that all human beings are the descendants from a small population, less than a hundred individuals, who emerged from Africa about 70,000 years ago. Some Biblical-oriented people maintain that all human beings are descendants of Adam and Eve and their children, perhaps, excluding their son Abel, who was murdered by his brother Cain. It seems safe to say that all human beings are connected as descendants and family.
Europeans and Western historians have insisted on speaking about Egypt as if she was not a part of Africa; giving the impression that Sub-Saharan Africa and Egypt are not a part of the same continent. This is just one among many historical distortions that have been propagated about Africa. Why? Could it be that those distorting the truth about Africa find it difficult to give Africans credit for their historical achievements, including their great civilizations, and by separating Egypt, where the pyramids still stand, conveys the message "that maybe the people of Egypt were civilized, but not those in the rest of Africa?" Some writings have misled people to believe that Egypt is not a part of the continent of Africa. Africa is one continent, one people, and the traditional religion of Africans is one. The African Religion is no less one religion than the Christian Religion that consists of Catholics and Protestants with each having various orders or denominations. In addition, there are other religious groups and even sects that are considered to be members of the Christian Religion.
In one of, if not the earliest civilization, about 3500 B. C., the historical record opens in Africa with the rise of literacy in the Pharaonic-rule of Egypt. (Civilization maybe defined as a relatively high level of cultural and technological development.)
The Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer officially is believed to have begun around 3500 B.C., and ended 2334 B. C., with the rise of the African Religion.
Akkad. Akkadian, an ancient semetic language of Mesopotamia, was used from about the 28th to the 1st century B.C., and during that period there was a prominent civilization that included Cartage, the Kingdom of Aksum, Nubian Kingdom, Sahel (Kingdom-Bornu, Ghana, Mali and Songhai), Great Zimbabwe, and the kongo.
The Egyptian civilization of the Nile began around 3200 B.C. and ended around 3343 B.C., about three centuries before A.D.
Development of African Religion
Africans developed religious practices that served their particular lives and needs were based, to a great degree, on the natural environment that they inhabited. African Religion differs from religions such as Judiasm, Christianity and Islam in a number of ways. Judiasm is also an ancient religion. African Religion has no single founder or central historical figure such as Moses, Jesus, or Muhammad. This is also true of some other religions, including Native American Religion, Shinto and Taoism.
Traditional African lore has always been passed down orally. There is no written set of beliefs, no "holy book," such as a Bible, Torah, Koran or Bhagavad Gita. Among African people, community, culture, and religion are tightly bound together. Even though much of Africa was isolated from the rest of the world, the areas along the coasts developed important cultures. As earliest as 3200 B.C., Egypt was a flourishing empire with a highly developed religion. The pyramids, spiritual oases, are most visible and lasting testimones to African's spiritual lifestyle and cultural achievements.
Even though African Religion is one, there are a variety of African religious rituals, myths, beliefs and deities. Despite these things and different practices among Africans they share with each other and with most other faiths the goal of guiding individuals safely through the passages of life, from birth and puberty, marriage and maturity, to death and ancestorhood. They provide a way for the people who follow them to be in touch with the spiritual that is within themselves and in the universe.
Again, I want to emphasize that despite the diversity in religious practices of Africans, African Religion is one. Africans believe in a Supreme Being and they point to the same understanding. They are faith-based and have their myths , legends, stories and proverbs, There are myths about creation and the fall of humankind. It is conceivable that some other religious faiths, including Christianity, have borrowed from them the creation myth. One African creation myth that comes from the Yoruba people of Nigeria in West Africa says: In the beginning the world was a watery, formless Choas that was neither sea nor land, but a marshy waste. Above it, in the sky lived the Supreme Being, Olodumare (Olorum), attended by other gods, including Orisha Nla called the Great God. Continuing this myth says, that the making of the earth took four days. On the fifth day Orisha Nla rested from his work. The Yoruba people traditionally have a four-day work week and rest on the fifth day in memory of creation. (I surmise that many Americans would opt for that length work week that ends with a rest-day on the fifth day.)
The Supreme Being
In African Religion, the Supreme Being reigns as God in Heaven. In most traditions, he is not involved in the day-to-day affairs of human beings. This function he delegates to the less important gods of African belief who occupy the spirit world. It is worth noting, by comparison, that in the Christian faith some Christians identify with angels seemingly more than they do with God or Jesus insofar as personal contact with deity is concerned. In the African world spirits are everywhere, in persons, trees, rivers, animals, rocks, mountains, automobiles, and even in airplanes and personal effects. These spirits communicate their wishes, demands and the like. Then there are the spirits of the departed. The spirits of the dead are part of the spirit world. Some are ancestors, and others are the spirits of the ordinary dead, that is, the dead of the community who are neither ancestors nor identified as outstanding or important members of the community. Africans do not worship their dead ancestors, as many people have been led to believe. To the contrary, they venerate and respect their ancestors.That is quite different from worshiping the dead. (Veneration means to love, to regard with reverential respect or admiring deference). In African religious belief, when a person dies his or her soul separates from the body and changes from being a soul to being a spirit. Becoming a spirit is a social elevation and signficant achievement. What was human becomes superhuman. At this point the spirit enters the state of immortality which is a more noble state than mortality People expect ancestors to be unceasing guardians of the living. Senior family members speak prayers at the burial conveying this message. This is one such prayer, I quote:
"Your children whom you have left here,
You should order money for them,
You should send them children,
You should send them everything
That is used in the world. ...
As they have lived to do this for you
Let their children live to do it for them.
As you looked after your children
When you were in the world,
So you should look after them
We might say their requests here are a high order. Their God or less important gods of African Religion are as near to them as their family, friends and neighbors.
Rites and Ritual in African Religion
For African people, belief without ritual action, often accompanied with drama, would take away much of religion's natural power. There are rites of passages, Rites of passages are rites that have to do with the human life cycle. They are practices, customs, and ceremonies that people perform to move people smoothly through stages of life from beginning to end. These stages include birth and childhood, puberty and initiation, marriage, aging and death.
Sacred Space and Mystical Forces
Some places where the rites and rituals of African Religion are carried out are African sacred space. Some of these places are constructed specifically for religious purposes, but others are natural places in the environment where people come together for ritual purposes. These are sacred places that would normally be regarded as nonsacred but which may on occasions serve as ritual spaces. These are often homes in which senior family members may officiate as ritual elders.
African people feel the power and energy of the spirit world that is around them. They recognize spirits as neither superhuman or simply human but is somewhere between, perhaps, a "little lower than angels," in Christian thought, but higher than man. These mystical forces include magic, witchcraft, and sorcery. Like spiritual forces, they affect people's lives and the lives of their community.
African Religion in Today's World
With the exception of Judaism other religious faiths had virtually no impact upon Sub-Saharan traditions. That is, they had no permanent incursion into the region until the 19th and 20th centuries when European colonialism, accompanied by Christianity and the Islam expansion from the Arabian peninsula significantly impacted the total live of Africans. Islam had entered Sub-Saharan Africa in the 7th century but it was not until it encountered, more correctly, confronted, Christianity, did it increase its influence in Africa. The crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries were a bloody religious war between Muslims and Christians. To put it midly, the presence of outsourced religions to Africa have changed dramatically the religious practices of indigenous Africans.
Today about 35 percent of Africans practice African Religion. In some areas, such as Liberia that number would be as high as 70 percent.
Within the last 100 years in Africa's indigenous religion has declined under the influence of colonialism, Western exploitation and acculturation and proseylizing by Islam and Christianity and, to a lesser degree, by some other religions, that include Buddhism. In the African Diaspora, mainly in the Americas, African-developed belief systems are in a state of impressive growth. Syncretization is most notable in areas of the Catholic faith - celebration of spirits, votive offerings and other practices found parallels in ancient traditions. The Santeria in Cuba is another example. Another strand of spirituality in the New World is known as Kongo, Palo, Maombe, Ubranda and by other names. Rastarianism has gained acceptance, particularly in the Carribbean and West Iindies.
It is clear that the people of Africa had well-developed religions before any other religions, perhaps, with the exception of Judiasm, that may have orignated at the same time as early African Religion. Religion played a large and fervent role in their lives. Unfortunately, we do not know enough about African Religion as it was in the days of the slave trade and before. Only recently has African religion become a serious subject for study. Early students of African culture tended to see only what they wanted to see - exotic ritual and mysterious rites that meant nothing to them. I am reminded of the time I was present for a Snake Dance held on the Hopi Reserevation in Arizona nearly twenty years ago. For Native Americans this was a spiritual event, sacred, and saturated with purpose and meaning, but it was observed that for nonNative Americans attending the event it was merely a festival or carnival.
The Future of African Religion
I believe this statement by Aloysius M. Lugira speaks succinctly and accurately to the matter of "the future of African Religion." He writes, "Colonial administrations in Africa called Africans "This incurably religious people." Are Africans really "incurably religious?" Certainly, most Africans seem to exhibit an inborn spirituality. African Religion is deeply embeeded in their being. Thus, as long as African people uphold their Africanness, respect their heritage, and update it to meet the circumstances of the changing world, African Religion is assured of a future."
Africans, like other people, irrespective of their religions, do not know what the future holds but they know Who holds the future. If history teaches the human race anything it is replete with lessons of humans' inability to know or fathom apart from knowing by faith Who holds the future, what the future will be. Knowing what the future holds is for the Infinite Mind, not finite minds."
AKHENATEN: THE SON OF ATEN
Amenhotep IV, the golden eagle, king of Egypt, the only one of Ra, son of the sun, beloved of Amen-Ra, was born at Thebes circa 1388 B.C. The name Amenhotep, in Greek Amenophis, means "the peace of Amen." This king was the only surviving son of Amenhotep III and his consort Queen Tiy. The childhood of the young pharoah seems to have been a continual struggle against the limitations of health, which afflicted so many of his dynasty.
The prince was united in marriage with an Egyptian girl named Nefertiti at and early age. She was of noble birth, the daughter of a prince named Ay. Shortly after his marriage his father Amenhotep III died in his early fifties, leaving the crown to the thirteen-year old invalid who already showed a strange tendency to visions and dreams. He declared that the religions of Egypt were corrupted and that spirutality had even disappeared from the temples. Amenhotep IV was nineteen years old when he finally broke with the priesthood of Amen. Soon afterward he broke with the old hierachy. He changed his name and set up his own faith. Amenhotep IV is a name rooted in the faith of Amen therefore it was no longer appropriate for a ruler who had withdrawn his allegiance to the old order. The name which he chose and, by which he is now remembered was Akhenaten, which means "Aten is satisified."
Akhenaten chose for his capitol, a place located about a hundred and sixty miles up the Nile from Cairo. Here he built the city of Khut-en-Aten - the Horizon of Aten. He proclaimed, "For it was Aten, my father, that brought me to this City of the Horizon." His new city with its Temple to the Formless One, being at last inhabitable, Akhenaten took up his residence there in the eight year of his reign.
In the early period of his developing religion he described God as "the Heat which is in the Aten." His unfolding consciousness brought a fuller realization, and he gave a new definition: "the effulgence (radiant splendor) which comes from the Aten." The change indicates definitely a deeping spiritual understanding and an increasing grasp of the mystical factors of a unique and transfroming theology.
Akhenaten issued an edit that the name of Amen be erased from every inscription in Egypt. Scarcely a statuette remained in honor of Amen. Apparently, he realized that only by the most drastic steps could his reformation be accomplished before his life ended.
He was about twenty -six years old when his fifth daughter was born. But in the fourteenth year of his reign a sixth daughter was born and the following year a seventh daughter completed his family. He died without a male heir.
The last two years of Akhenaten's seventeen year reign may be regarded as a period of discouragement. The faith he founded was not strong enough to withstand the ever-present priesthood of Amen. Egypt and the rest of the world were not ready for his love. It was the Hittite invasion of Syria that prepared the way for the end of his reign. His cities were conquered. The strain of these troublous times destoryed what little health remained to the pharoah. With the collapse of his empire, Akhenaten died. On the front of his coffin he is called "Akhenaten, the Beautiful Child of the Living Aten, whose name shall live forever and ever." He was considered to be the only child of Aten.
The Religious Teachings of Akhenaten
The second millennium B.C. was a period of extreme religious obscurantism. The Jew appropriated his own peculiar god as the Lord of Israel and the gods of Egypt were the guardians of th Egyptians, but had no place in their hearts for other races. India still paid homage to its ancient tribal dieties, worshiping spirits of fire and air.
It was against the conceputualization of a tribal god that Akhenaten hurled the strength of his conviction and faith. To him there were no longer gods of Karnak, gods of Luxor, gods of Thebes. To him there was no longer Jehovah, Adonis or Amen-Ra. There was one God, and though his names were many his essence was indivisible. Akhenaten found the spirit that dwells in the innermost and rules the furthermost.
As a symbol for his religion Akhenaten chose the shining face of Aten -- the solar disc. The effulgence of the Aten he represented by rays flowing in all directions from the solar face. Each of the rays ended in a human hand to represent the active power of the light, and in some cases these hands held the "crux ansata," the symbol of the giving of life. The whole figure represented the hand of God in all things. "Give me Thy hands!" cried Akhenaten in his religious ecstacy. The young mystic, his hands in God's hands, walked with God.
It seems correct to say that Akhenaten was the first human being who realized the Fatherhood of God and Brotherhood of Man. When he refused to send armies against the Hittites he made the supreme sacrifice of his empire and his life, fully convinced that a God of love desired that men should live together in peace. He then made another great discovery. He discovered the secret to living the Aten.
The Temple of the Formless One, the Universal God, with its rays and hands, fell in ruin. He was opposed to elaborate ceremonial and all the complicated machinery of the priestcraft. He worshiped Aten. He offered prayers to the Aten. In his mystical joy the king had to sing, and his very song was a ray of light singing to the Aten. But always he was honoring an ever-present spirit, the absence of which was unthinkable. And his words were beauty, harmony and life.
The spirit of the Aten brought with it the greatest art of the Egyptians. For the first time the sculpturing and painting became alive. He elevated the normal circumstances of life to a new standard of significance. He found more God in every aspect of life. The Aten is everywhere present mingling with all things on equal terms, loving the least with the greatest, seated at the poor man's table as surely as at the feast of princes. The Aten was in the slave, and made even the humblest serf a participant in divinity.
He believed that those who died departed not from the Aten but remained in it forever.Therefore there could be no hell, for hate and suffering and doubt had no place in a universe full of love and truth. He believed that those who died lived in a misty world beyond. But in that world also rose the sun of truth, and the souls of the dead turned up their faces to the light while the countless hands from the rays of the Aten lifted each and sustained each with the ever-living law.
It seems correct to say that Akhenaten was the first pacifist, the first realist, the first monotheist, the first democrat, the first heretic, the first humanitarian, the first internationalist, and the first person known to attempt to found a religion. He emerged as one of the most remarkable characters that have ever been born into the world. He was a prophet, teacher of truth and sincerity, a seer, a philosopher, a reformer, a great poet, an architect and a lover of music. In all history and romance , there is no man who loved a woman more devotedly than Akhenaten loved Nefertiti. His position as ruler, his religion, his honors - all he shared equally with her. "My great wife, Nefertiti," as he called her. For the first time in history, three thousand years ago, a government was run on the principle of Love. Indeed, it was not his principles, but the lack of principle in his enemies that destroyed him. Yet, even today, he lives. But he was too great for his own day, and although more than thirty-three hundred years have passsed he is too great even for this modern world. Christianity has not accomplished fulfillment of his dream. Jew and Gentile, Mohammedan and Brahman, have not yet found the common denominator, and millions of earnest Christians worship a God of whims and tyrannies, a petty despot or paper tyrant in the heavens. How many centuries must pass before his children will have the wisdom and courage to sacrifice life, wealth, and power to the spirit of love that pervades every atom of the universe?
Hopefully this exploration of African Religion and the life and faith of Akhenaten, who lived more than thirteen hundred years before the incarnation of Jesus, will challenge each one of us to share this message with others and resolve to let God be God in the Eternal Now.
(Singing "Let Us Explore All Religions")
Let us explore all religions, Let us explore all religions
Let us explore all religions. They celebrate our hope.
They all reveal God's love for us. They all reveals God's love for us.
They all reveal God's love for us. They celebrate our hope.
They all contain wisdom and knowledge. They all contain wisdom and knowledge
They all contain wisdom and knowledge. They celebrate our hope. (Join me.)
Let us explore all religions. Let us explore all religions
Let us explore all religions. They celebrate our hope. (3x)
A UNIVERSAL PRAYER FOR PEACE
The Formless One is God of all or not God at all.
O gracious God, Creator, and Universal Father, we pray for peace.
We thank You for Akhenaten who was born in Africa circa 1388 B.C., and became the first enlightened man of recorded history, the first monotheist, the first pacifist, the first democrat, the first humanitarian, a philosopher, refomer and lover of music. He taught us how to practice peace.
His given name Amenhotep, in the Greek, means "the peace of Amen." The name which he chose was Akhenaten which means "Aten is satisfied." On the front of his coffin he is called "Akhenaten, the Beautiful Child of the Living Aten." Aten is the Father of Mankind. Unlike Moses whose God was the God of Israel, Akhenaten's God was the universal God and the father of all people. More than a thousand years before Jesus was incarnated he taught that God loves everyone, that humans should love each other and live peaceably with all people.
In all history and romance there has never been a man who loved a woman more devotedly than Akhenaten loved Nefertiti his wife. He shared with her fully, his religion, his honors and his life.
Akhenaten abandoned cultural beliefs, rejected traditions, and forms of religion that did not conform with the Formless One. He was the King of Upper and Lower Egypt and ran his Government on the principle of love. Akhenaten was the champion of peace par excellence. He taught that no longer was God to be considered as Jehovah, Yahweh, Adonis or Amen-Ra, but as the One Universal God.
O Universal Father, with the knowledge Akhenaten gave to history more than three thousand years ago we can now envision and imagine ourselves practicing peace. We can emulate him and be the people who promote peace and love.
O God, make us instruments of your peace. Help us to reject those things that do not make for peace such as war, traditions, beliefs, race prejudice and form religion. Grant that we see others as You see them and love them as You love them. Let us be aware that Aten is in the slave and that the humblest serf is a participant in divinity. Let us love powerfully.
O Universal and Loving Father we know that we are your children, that You make no distinction for family, class, or achievements, that You are present and mingling with all on equal terms. In this time, when religious strife and wars prevail, grant that all people will receive afresh Akhenaten's message of peace and give all to love.
Grant that we humans be the song of peace and a world symphony, that sings enthusiastically and resoundingly the rhapsody of peace.
This is our prayer in the name of the One Universal God.
And so it is. Amen.
SOME CALL IT ET CETERA; I CALL IT GOD
Some call it et cetera ... et cetera ... et cetra.
I call it God ... God ... God. The Creator of the
created, observing His own handiwork said,
"And it was good ... very good." Masters
mastering themselves: Jesus, Moses, Buddha,
Mohammed, Akhenaten, Zoroaster, Confucius;
Sacred Books: the Bible, Torah, Koran,
Bhagavad Gita; Faiths: Christianity, Judiasm,
Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam; The spiritual
essence within every man that transcends all
Faiths and engenders meaning in living;
Some call it Religion, I call it God.
Send corespondence to:
Uriah J. Fields
P. O. Box 4770
Charlottesvile, VA 22905
Copyright 2006 by Uriah J. Fields