Africans rely heavily on the use of symbols to communicate ideals and universal understanding of our connection to all living kingdoms. Africans believe that all life is one and a manifestation of the One Creator. Ancient Egyptians (Kemetians) stressed the divine in animal manifestations. Animals were featured in variation, such as the animal-headed human, the human-headed animal, as well as the combination of multiple animals in one form. Africans also believe that because the Creator positioned humans at the center of the universe, animals are designated as servants of human beings and, as such, are to be used by them as they deem fit. The African relationship with animals clearly demonstrates the African profound understanding of and connection to the natural world. This entry looks at animals in African ritual and mythology; it also explores the use of totems and the meaning of specific animal symbols in ancient Africa.
Ritual and Sacrifice
Animals played a role in daily living, economics, and a multitude of other ways in African life. Within this hierarchy of life and balance of order, animals were created with purpose, by God, and as needed by humans. Animals are used for fundamental survival, as well as for spiritual and religious purposes. Animals are used in stock-keeping rituals where people basically slaughter animals for food. There are rituals associated with this process because they usually bless the animal to remove any ill intentions and promote clean consumption.
Animals are also used in many regions of Africa for cultural purposes. For instance, animal skins are used to wrap corpses while hides and tusk are used to make musical instruments. Additionally, animal's blood is used as food without the need to kill it. For instance, in Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Namibia, rituals accompany the preservation of the animal and the people because the animals are allowed to live.
It is a widely held belief that the killing of an animal may spare individual as well as collective lives. In that context, animals are thus slaughtered in an effort to safeguard the community. It is also a consistent understanding that the life of the animal is passed onto the people to which they are closely connected, to strengthen and protect them. In this respect, both wild and domesticated animals are sacrificed. The most typical of domesticated animals used in this process are sheep, goat, cattle, dogs, and fowl. Wild animals are used in rain-making ceremonies, as well as to chase away epidemics and public danger and to purify the environment.
Animals are also used in traditional medicine and ritual ceremonies as homage to God and as a way of soliciting his or her help while connecting to the realm of spirits. Animal's blood is used in libations or as an offering to the ancestors, as well as to fortify the soil and make it more fertile. For medicine men, the reliance on animals is critical to the prevention and treatment of disease.
Myths and Totems
In conjunction with breeding, domestication, hunting, and labor, animals are symbolized in myths that have shaped African people's reality and further defined their relationship with the universe. In many African cultures, animals are particularly featured in cosmogony myths because they exemplify the ability to convey sacred power and messages. In myths, animals are also known as totems and play a key role in identity construction of individuals, clans, and ethnic groups. With the origins of humankind in Africa, this same mode of expression is attested in many other cultures, as revealed in daily communication, such as with oral and literary traditions.
Their connection to the natural world motivated the ancient Africans to identify themselves with animal totems that best fit or embodied the power or ability of that particular animal. The ancient Africans paid their respect to and held animals in high regard because they believed that specific animals possessed certain characteristics or features of the gods who revered them. It was one of the ways that the divine could manifest itself for human perception and understanding.
The animals chosen as totems reflected the Africans' understanding of themselves and their connection to nature. Africans also regarded animals as an archetype or aspect of an incarnate god. The animals were not god, but a representation or aspect of it and similarly associated with the Ba (spirit/soul) on Earth. Their high esteem for animals went so far as to be associated with divinity. Gods and human beings in the future life had the ability to shape-shift or transform into any animal or other life form (for that matter) whenever they desired. It is this intimate respect that led them to mummify and treat the body of the deceased animal like that of a human body for the same purpose of afterlife and immortality. This philosophy is directly tied to their understanding of god and the mobility of the soul after death.
Among the many animals respected by ancient Africans, of particular significance was the scarab or dung beetle because it represented, in allegorical terms, the soul's journey. The scarab is symbolic because of its connection to the human kingdom. For instance, it is born in water, also known to the ancient Africans as the universal life force and substance of Earthly life. It is also a symbol of purification or cleansing and balance. The scarab's process of procreation is also of interest because it is orientated by light and follows the movement of the sun. It fundamentally represents the importance of the soul moving toward the light—that is, moving toward higher consciousness or awareness.
Finally, the scarab always creates a ball of dung in a perfect sphere, much like our own planet and other celestial bodies, and buries it in the Earth for 28 days, the exact cycle of the moon and female menstrual cycle. The scarab beetle reminds women and men to adhere to the natural laws of nature as it works diligently at maintaining order. The scarab was associated with the solar god of resurrection Khepri, who was also connected to new life and creation, Amen.
Another animal worthy of note is the dog or jackal as represented by Anubis, whose ears are erect and open. This is linked with the jackal's clairaudient ability to hear beyond the capabilities of the human ear. Next is the serpent or uraeus, usually depicted on the front of the king's crown symbolizing upright readiness and an enlightened soul. The cobra is also associated with the fertility goddess, Renent, depicted nursing children and protecting the pharaoh.
Ancient Africans also connected closely to birds such as the stork, which symbolized the Ba or Soul as well as the falcon or hawk. Because of the protective powers it possessed, it was linked with royalty and seen as the guardian of the ruler and furthermore associated with the Solar God, Horus. Similarly, the ibis or akhu bird was considered an aspect of the soul as was represented by Tehuti, the god of knowledge. As in the case of Tehuti, more than one animal is often connected to one deity, and the same can be said of Amun and his personification as the ram and goose. The ostrich is yet another bird that was associated with Maat, the personification of order, justice, and balance. Another animal of equal importance is the cat as personified by Bast, also connected to the sun god, Ra.
Furthermore, the lion is one of the most well-known examples as depicted on the head of the sphinx. The lion personifies the rising and setting sun, guardian of the horizon. Lions are also linked to solar deities and many pharaohs, as well as Sekhmet, who possessed the head of a lioness. The lion of Judah is also a prime example because it symbolizes rulership and ferocity.
- Budge, E. A. W. (1978). Egyptian Magic. Secaucs, NJ: Citadel Press.
- Dunard, F., and Zivie-Coche, C. (2004). Gods and Men in Egypt: 3000 BC to 395 CE. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University.
- Gadalla, M. (2001). The All Who Are the One. Greensboro, NC: Tehuti Research Foundation.
- Mbiti, J. (1975). Introduction to African Religion. Nigeria: Heinemann Educational Books.