Flag and Flag Planting
The flag is especially significant in the African spiritual system because it symbolizes the connections among human beings and so helps to connect human beings to each other to form communities. It is a marker of remembrance and love. It connects and unites into one community all humans of a particular familial, spiritual, social, political, or even military group: those past (the ancestors), those living (who are in this dimension of time), and those who are yet to come (the unborn). The flag may also connect the members of a community to divinity because, as the divine symbol of a particular community (a family, a clan, a nation), it may also recall and represent a founding ancestor, although it may also represent an animal or an object that equally may embody the principles, vital forces, or soul of the community in question.
The fundamental understandings that instruct flag planting are the interrelation of all beings and things in the cosmos and, as a consequence, the critical importance of humans maintaining their connections with these forces, especially the Creator, their ancestors, with the living and the unborn and with the environment in which they live.
Today, flags are regularly planted in special rituals and ceremonies held within an African spiritual community (e.g., in Vodu, in the Orisha tradition, and, indeed, all over the African spiritual world). Flags are considered symbolic, especially to particular social and religious groups, and may even be held as sacred by some. This entry describes the flag and its use and recalls its long history in Africa.
Description and Use
Flags, standards, ensigns, pennants, and streamers are not always one and the same thing. Strictly speaking, a flag is a piece of cloth that is flown attached to a pole. Its color and/or the representation on it of an animal, a place or an idea, or any combination of these may signify that it represents a particular group of people who have a special relationship to what is depicted. Sometimes one or more long, thin pieces of cloth are attached to the flagpole, mostly below the flag. These are called streamers. If flown on their own (without a flag), they may be referred to as pennants and may carry an emblem.
Many African families and clans, sometimes occupying entire communities and even districts, take their family names from the ancestral person or the sacred animal or object represented and recalled in the emblem and displayed on the flag. The members of a particular group do not eat their representative animal or a particular part of it. If the representative thing is an object, then it must be avoided. Each of these representative animals and objects is taboo to those it represents. The penalty for not respecting this rule may be illness or some other form of punishment to someone, not necessarily the one who made the infraction, but one related to him or her. The practices of species protection, without borders, and of environmentalism in general that were instructed by this worldview are of tremendous importance.
Evidence from the earliest times (e.g., the Narmer Palette) suggests that at first the actual object or body of the animal thus sacred to and representative of the group was placed atop a long pole and carried aloft to represent the group, either permanently at institutions and/or on ceremonial occasions. Whatever the facts, over time, the visual image of the person, animal, or object came to be artistically represented, often stylized, on a piece of cloth, which was then placed at one end of a long pole and flown as a flag or standard to represent the group.
In Kemet (ancient Egypt), these flags, standards, ensigns, pennants, or streamers were flown just outside of buildings that housed representative institutions of the group: the family home, the tomb of a leading ancestor, the shrine of the family, clan, district, and state, or the residence of the nsw: nesu or Pharaoh. On ceremonial occasions (e.g., at the beb sed or rejuvenation and jubilee ceremony of a nsw), the standard or pennants, as well as the shrines, of all the divisions or sections of the greater entity represented by their coming together, were taken to the location of the ceremony. Thus flown together in one place, the flags represented a great demonstration of unity and strength.
When it was decided to write the language of Kemet, the inventors of the nTr: Medew Netjer (hieroglyphs) chose the flag—nTr: netjer (singular); nTrw: netjeru (plural)—as the symbol that in the written language would also represent ideas of divinity and the divine. The significance accorded the flag by the inventors of the Medew Netjer demonstrated the special importance the Kmt(y)w: Kemetyu (the people of Kemet) attached to this object. The sign of the flag is always written first in words containing the sounds it represents irrespective of whether these sounds were pronounced first. This change in the written order of the signs, in general called transposition, indicates that the idea, things, or beings represented by the flag are of the greatest importance, even sacred, and must therefore be shown to be so.
Another type of standard evolved as a wooden framework attached to a long pole and supported an emblematic animal or thing, often a religious object. The inventors of the Medew Netjer deployed the picture of a standard, especially those used for carrying religious symbols, to represent the idea of “religious standard” and related ideas such as the names of particular divinities. The word for standard in the Medew Netjer is iAt: tat. The fact that there is the term iAt sryt, which translates as “military standard,” indicates that different military forces of Kemet and/or parts of that country's army and navy were identified by standards peculiar to them.
- Armah, A. K. (2006). The Eloquence of the Scribes: A Memoir on the Sources and Resources of African Literature. Popenguine, Senegal: Per Ankh.
- Erman, A., and Grapow, H. (1982). Wörterbuch der Aegyptischen Sprache: Vol. I. Berlin: Akademie Verlag.
- Gardiner, A. (1988). Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs (3rd rev. ed.). Oxford, UK: Griffith Institute, Ashmoleum Museum.