The term incarnation descends from a Latin action word, incarn, which literally means “embody in flesh.” The term figuratively employs flesh as a manifestation of life and is therefore symbolic surrogation. Incarn, when employed in the resultant term, incarnation, more accurately means “to bring to life.” The manifestation of this concept is widespread in Africa, and documented proof of its anteriority to its use in Latin is resident in the Mdw Ntr (called hieroglyphics by the Greeks) of the Pyramid and Coffin Texts and in the many hieratic scrolls occupying museums throughout the world.
In African religion, there are several varieties of incarnation that share some basic similarities:
- Through incarnation, spiritual forces from ancestors through supreme deities can potentially enter a human being temporarily or for a lifetime.
- Deities and ancestors are allowed to enter and be active in the visible part of the world and return to the invisible part of the world.
- Extraordinary human beings can become incarnated deities.
- Ordinary human beings can become reincarnated ancestors depending on the favorable balance of their conscious behavior in the visible life.
- Human beings and deities do not occupy flesh simultaneously.
Incarnation, in the form divination, is also practiced by African populations that reside outside of the motherland. Such practices are Africanisms that remain with African descendents and neighboring populations impacted by their culture in the Caribbean and South and North America. After a brief look at the puzzle incarnation seems to pose for Westerners, this entry turns to the origins of this concept in ancient Egypt, describing its development there before turning to other expressions of incarnation in African religion.
The Christian Debate
Much discussion on incarnation is framed around the debate within Christology concerning the nature of Jesus as deity, human, or both. African orientations and theologies have avoided this conundrum by making the world continuous, meaning no outside but divided between visible and invisible.
The debate in Christology over Jesus' nature broke down along Northern and Southern orientations. Africans, Asians, and Europeans were on all sides of the belief orientations. Whereas the Christian community stretched across both the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, the Coptic Church, impacted by Nile Valley traditions, refused to consider the son of the creator as a human. Such a discordant and chaotic concept was considered profane for these monophysites, from a culture rich with speculation of spiritual manifestations.
Rulers Embody God
Nile Valley civilizations were acquainted with deity incarnations more than three millennia prior to Christianity. These civilizations had divine rulers who were incarnations of the creator deity, and that deity often became part of the ruler's name. Examples include the following:
- Mena (Menés)
- I establish (transposed as Amn)
- Maat-ka-Ra (Hatshepsut)
- true spirit of Ra-or-Ra's true spirit
- spirit of Aton-or-Aton's spirit
- Born of Ra-or-Ra is born
- this [is the] life of Amen-or-this Amen lives
The name of each of these rulers, with the exceptions of Mena and Akhenaton, was often preceded by the epithet, “son of Ra (God).”
Humans Become Deities
Africans in Nile Valley civilizations were also familiar with the incarnation of extraordinary human beings to the elevated status of a deity—or, in Christian-speak, a “patron saint.” This act is known as deification. Imhotep, the multitalented genius of the Old Kingdom, gained some of the patron characteristics of Ptah and was included in that Ptah's family. In this case, Imhotep became the son of Ptah and Sekmet, replacing Nefertem and adjusting the trinity of Mn-Nfr (called Memphis by the Greeks). Imhotep's incarnation as a holy life in the realm of deities probably owes its existence to the revolutionary social development following the end of the Old Kingdom.
Written records of Kemet's (called Egypt by the Greeks) Middle Kingdom show that mummification was common during that era and represented a distinct break with exclusive royal access of the Old Kingdom. The masses in Kernet employed veneration, prayer, and wise oaths, along with mummification to ensure their incarnation in the next life. The Neb-Ankh and the body contained therein was only returned to the soul after the plaintiff successfully testified that his or her loved actions outweighed the hated actions, making his or her heart as light as the feather of Maat.
Preparation operations for incarnation on a mass level affected the chemical and biological sciences as well as the arts of communication and graphics. Literacy was expanded, and Coffin Texts accompanied the Neb-Ankhs (coffins) of the classes that could afford them. Although material culture may have experienced a revolution, the change in the cosmogony of the people may have been an evolution of a previous development.
Mass access into the next life may have evolved from a deeper African belief that ancestral life is a border realm between the present life and the next life. The Nile Valley concepts of Ba, Ka, and Akh—soul, collective spirit, and divine spirit, respectively—prescribed the type of fluidity to life that made incarnation an expectation. It surely became a preferable expectation to the eternal nothingness that the concept of death evoked. This broad African wisdom probably ushered in the practice of divination and the function of mediums.
Those living in the visibly manifested world communicated with ancestors through a skin—or a body—in this world: the medium. All incarnations required sensory titillation, usually in the form of dance, music, and incantations developed as elaborate processes of divination. Precise methods and training of mediums were required by some diviners, and strict discipline went into the preparation of a person serving in such a role.
Diviners and mediums remain important elements of the religious order in many African societies. The incarnations that they cause are for short durations but are incarnations nonetheless. The medium is turned into a loaner for a spirit from the invisible realm to occupy, enabling the spirit to temporarily manifest itself and connect with this realm of life. The medium's personal soul is invisible during the incarnation because it appears that one soul is to inhabit a body at a time.
There is one final form of incarnation that invokes fear into societies: the incarnation of the disturbed ancestor or evil deity. These incarnations are usually forced onto the reluctant medium or, in the worst-case scenario, reanimate the dead for destructive purposes. This last incarnation is what gave rise to the dreaded Zombie.
- Mediterranean Sea
- Asante, M., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- Kenyatta, J. (1962). Facing Mount Kenya. New York: Vintage.
- Mbiti, J. S. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.