The sacred and divine office of king in both classical and traditional African society was and continues to be the most integral cultural, religious, and political institution defining the heart of African civilization. Kings function as conduits between the sacred cosmos of ancestors and spiritual entities and the mundane affairs of everyday human activities. Historically and in many African societies, kings serve as both of head of “state” and head of “church.” Alternatively stated, the role of kingship in African culture fulfills at least four fundamental purposes: leader and arbitrator for family, clan, and nation; ritual specialist and mediator for the spirit world and living community; guardian of cultural legacy and traditions; and upholder and defender of social propriety and justice. Subsequently, kings serve their constituents by representing their traditions, culture, and aspirations as a divine and ethical imperative, and, conversely, they serve the divine through their capacity as high priest and caretaker of the people. After a brief discussion of the importance of kings in contemporary African society, this entry looks at their rich history, their religious significance, and some current monarchies.
Since the end of the colonial era and the rise of secular nationalist governments throughout Africa, the historic power of African traditional kingships has been seriously curtailed. In some instances, such as in Uganda, the revolutionary nationalist government, on acceding to power, attempted to obliterate the office of kingship for fear that kings presented an opposing political force. Today, Ugandan kingdoms like the Bagandan and Bunyoro have been reinvested with their historic cultural and social legitimacy, yet they exercise no legislative power within the political processes of government. Due to the cultural centrality of kingship throughout most African societies, however, countries such as Ghana, Botswana, and South Africa have included a “House of Chiefs” as an advisory body to parliament to function with consultative power.
There continues to be a debate among certain African intellectuals, political theorists, and leaders about the contemporary relevance of African kingship for the development and forward progress of Africa. Some argue that the institution is antiquated and incompatible with the demands of globalization and technological innovation. Others argue that African kingship is indispensable to the social, cultural, and political maturation of African civilization.
What is apparent is that the institution of kingship in Africa is a pervasive and enduring reality that is deeply embedded in the social fabric and cultural memory of African society. Why has the institution of kingship historically emerged as so fundamental to African social, cultural, and political life? Is the institution of kingship simply about adhering to a system of traditional governance, or are there factors of more philosophical and cosmological importance that need to be considered here?
Considering that Africa produced the first institutions of sacred and divine kingship and the longest, continuous established monarchy in human history in the civilizations of ancient Nubia and Egypt, it is reasonable to assert that kingship emerged concurrently with the evolution of African civilization. A brief survey of kingship in ancient Nubia and Egypt provides insight into the philosophical and cosmological underpinnings of kingship throughout African civilization, as well as demonstrates why kingship in Africa emerged as a sacred and divine institution.
Classical African Kingship
Ancient Nubian and Egyptian society and culture was centered on the sacred office of divine kingship. Nubian and Egyptian kings were considered to be divine and the progeny of the divine whose duty it was to establish and restore unity, extend justice, and defend the cosmic and social order. The ideology of divine monarchy posited that the king was the son of the god, a descendant of the Supreme Being, sent to Earth to bring justice to humanity and build temples for the gods.
From before the inception of the unified state in Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia in 3100 BC, divine kingship was preeminent in ancient Nile Valley civilization. The significance of kingship in classical Nile Valley civilization was so central that existence without it could not be conceived and life void of divine monarchy equated to imminent doom and chaos.
The most prominent example of this literary tradition from classical Nile Valley culture is the Prophecy of Nef erti dated to 1938–1909 BC during the reign of king Amenemhet I in the Middle Kingdom. Neferti describes a future of foreign invasion, civil war, religious impropriety, and social decadence, but exclaims that a king from the south, an Amunian and son of a Nubian woman, will rise and restore order in the Two Lands. It is important to note here that this “prophecy” equates restorative kingship with Nubian initiatives.
The Cosmology of African Kingship
Kingship was the nucleus of classical Nile Valley culture, a worldview that some scholars have referred to as cosmotheism. The Egyptian conception of the universe was that of a sacred cosmos that functioned as a “collective agency of various different powers.” The Egyptian sacred cosmos was also “pantheistic” and “polytheistic,” in the sense that it posited an original divine essence of the universe as the embodiment of all of life and that it organized the diversity of divinities into systems of kinship and relationship.
The king's role in this cosmological system was to exercise his authority as a representative of divine power and to perpetuate cosmic order by maintaining justice and fulfilling ritual obligations. This cosmotheistic, relational polytheism that some ascribe to ancient Egyptian cosmic understandings is similar to the philosophy of the African theologian Okechukwu Ogbonnaya's conception of Egyptian divinity as communotheism.
Communotheism asserts that the divine is a community of interdependent, interrelated gods who are united by a common ontological source. Ogbonnaya derives his notion of communotheism from his explication of traditional African concepts of the divine, where the plethora of gods are principally represented as aggregates of families organically linked by their essential nature. Ogbonnaya is not alone in postulating the affinity between classical Nile Valley conceptions of communal divinity and divine kingship and traditional African cosmological formulations of sacred kingship.
Other scholars believed that the ideological sources of kingship seemed to be rooted in African traditions of the greatest antiquity and argued that classical Nile Valley culture emerged out of a remote East African substratum. Many striking similarities between classical Nile Valley kingship traditions and the traditional kingships of the Baganda kings of Uganda and the Shilluk kings of southern Sudan, for example, were highlighted. According to the late Senegalese Egyptologist Cheikh Anta Diop, the concept of kingship is, by all accounts, one of the most significant indications of the similarities between Egypt and the rest of Africa. Diop focuses on the Sed festival, which symbolically portrayed the king as “dying” so that he could be ritually rejuvenated. The king's health and vitality reflected the vigor and strength of his kingdom, and therefore his rejuvenation ritual represented the revi-talization of the state.
According to Diop, similar practices as the Sed festival in ancient Egypt can be found among the Bunyoro kingdom of Uganda and the Hausa kingdoms of Northern Nigeria. The Africanist and ethnolinguist Christopher Ehret argues that Egyptian divine kingship was an offspring of Sudanic Sacral kingship, a tradition that is still much alive in Sudanic Africa today.
There are other similarities in Africa that reflect the role of the king as divine and the chief priest and the leader of the cult. The Oba, king of the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria and Benin in West Africa, represents the tradition of kingship where monarchs are viewed as sacred and living deities participating with the gods and ancestors in a sacred divine community. The role of the Oba among the Edo-speaking people of Nigeria further illustrates the cosmology of kingship in ancient Nubia and Egypt. This tradition of kingship is also evident in the Kuba kingdom of the Congo, where the Nyimi (King) is understood as “a descendent of the creator-god.”
The king as the premiere functionary and leader of the cult is uniquely expressed among the Asantehene (King) of the Asante in Ghana, West Africa. It is the Asantehene that enters the sacred shrine of the ancestors and makes food offerings to the sacred stools of royal ancestors on behalf of the kingdom during periodical festivals called adae. This communal ritual celebrates and reinforces the intimate link between humanity and the spirit world.
In ancient Nubian and Egyptian temples, the most pervasive and enduring literary formula inscribed on the walls was the classic phrase btp di Nisut, translated as “an offering that the king gives.” The Egyptian king (Nisut), like the Asantehene, was always represented either giving food offerings to the various divinities or presenting the symbol for truth, justice, and righteousness, maat.
In both contemporary and classical Africa, the office of sacred and divine kingship epitomizes the union of the mundane and sacred dimensions of life where ancestral traditions and current and future imperatives are negotiated by the monarch in service of family, clan, and nation.
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