Thursday, October 13, 2011

More on African Monotheism, Lwa, Orisha and Gods

In response to my earlier post on Orisha, Lwa, Gods, Monotheism, Polytheism and Morality, Tesla Quoyle asked:
Is it possible (I have no idea) that African beliefs concerning Olodumare, Mbomba, Nzambi, and presumably other distant Prime Movers, were influenced towards call it "Absentee Monotheism" during the period AD 800-1700? Does evidence exist that Absentee Monotheism was part of African religions prior to the earlier date?

I realize this could prove a touchy subject, but I ask this question even as I feel great respect toward many monotheists and polytheists, both ancient and contemporary. And neither do I believe Africans were incapable of discovering or inventing monotheism quite on their own, nor do I believe either "mono-" or "poly-" morally superior to the other. I see no cause for such feelings of religious superiority, neither on the parts of latter-day monotheists or polytheists, when I read any history of the Ancient World. 
If I'm not mistaken, the Arabic slave trade in Africa began around AD 700 or 800, and by (roughly) AD 1700 the European slave trade was peaking or slowing down. By that end date, a very large bilingual, bi-cultural Creole population had existed in Kongo itself --- (much larger than present-day Congo) for up to two centuries, and many African religions had experienced much European influence.

Before that, Islam had been gaining ground in parts of Africa for a millennium. (Not to mention possible Jewish influences long before that.) Does that evidence for what I just termed the Absentee G-d in African religions exist prior to the earlier date, i.e., approx. AD 800?

Please bear in mind also that absence of evidence does not suggest evidence of absence: if no such evidence survives from those ancient times, it proves nothing. Whereas if the evidence does exist for an ancient and wholly African monotheistic G-d, it would be (to me at least) extremely fascinating.
In search of an answer, I turned to Eoghan Ballard, a scholar of Kongo and Bantu history and culture and an initiate in several of Las Reglas de Congo.  Eoghan replied:
There are a couple of things to note in responding. First, it is impossible to know what religion was being practiced in much of Africa in 800 ce. We have records and more cultural detail for parts of Eastern Africa at that time. Christianity and it is assumed, Judaism were established in Africa before that time. Western and sub Saharan Africa is an unknown. We can speculate, but it is wild speculation. What we can say is that by the time the Portuguese made contact with the Bakongo in the 1490s, a dios otioso was a clearly defined aspect of Kongo religion, and it could be and was classified, apparently by both the Kongo and the Europeans as monotheism. Europeans noted the monotheism of the Bakongo because they were in equal measure pleased and surprised to encounter it. Of course, to me, the more fascinating issue is how many modern Neopagans are really monotheists without realizing it.
And while Ian Phanes found my post "fascinating:"
However, it wasn't really what I was asking about. The people I'm discussing this with are usually pagans, and most of us have read about the role of an ultimate creator above the orisa/lwa, so the God vs. gods issue isn't a problem for us. 
What we find ourselves discussing is whether the orisa/lwa fit into our usual European-derived categories, or if they need to be classed separately.

For example, I typically honor the holy powers as three kindreds: nature spirits who inhabit the living world (the Land); ancestors who inhabit the spirit world (the Sea); and gods who inhabit the shining world (the Sky). The basic tripartite cosmology underlies all of the Indo-European traditions, though this specific formulation is modern. 
I can make arguments for the orisa belonging to each of those three categories. If Osun is the Osun river, is she a nature spirit? If Sango was a human king and became an orisa, is he an ancestor? If the creator made Esu in heaven, is he a god?

What I was hoping you would talk about is your experiences of the lwa and the gods, especially with ritual possession of yourself and those around you. You've met these holy powers face-to-face. You have served as a medium for some of them. Does it feel to you that there is more difference between the lwas and the gods, or within the lwas and within the gods?
In my experience, these classifications are largely human constructs which are set up for our convenience.  This is not a bad thing: we regularly place things in categories so we can work with them more efficiently.  The division between land-sea-sky (inspired by Georges Dumézil and devotees of his tripartite division of Indo-European gods and cultural roles) is certainly workable and has many followers.  But in the end it is a human classification, created by humans for humans.  While one could classify gods according to this system, one could as easily classify them as gods of love, agriculture, warfare, etc. or as Hellenic, Germanic, African, etc. gods.

The problem arises when we begin to assume that these categories are something other than a convenient shorthand.  Instead of becoming a means by which we can begin to study an unfamiliar spirit, they can become pigeon-holes which limit our understanding.   Figures separated by time and distance are all conflated into "love goddess" or "fertility god" roles: instead of dealing with them in their full contradiction and complexity, we distill them down to a single purpose.

You can call Osun a nature spirit if you wish and you won't be wrong - but she is far more than that.  You can call Sango a deified ancestor or a god: the lines between these categories have alwasy been blurry.  And whatever you call Esu, he's certain to come up with some counterexample that will prove you completely wrong.   If you are using these classifications to understand the lwa or orisha more closely - if, for example, you want to explore the history of various honored warrior-kings in order to better understand Sango or if you want to meditate at a river in order to understand that aspect of Osun - there's no problem. But when you start trying to squeeze them into convenient categories, you'll only find yourself growing more frustrated as they refuse to fit into your classifications.

I've found that treating the gods with the same reverence and respect one shows for the lwa or orisha has great benefits and can help you grow closer to them.  I do not know where they all stand on the cosmic hierarchy.  (The closest I've received to an answer is watching Loki and Legba get drunk together and argue about which one was an aspect of the other... ).  In the end, I'm not sure it's important for my purposes.  What's important is establishing contact with the spirits and working with them for the healing of ourselves and our world.