Beliefs about Natural Phenomena

“Modern superstition is symbolism in its state of dotage, when it cannot remember what the types originally meant.” – Gerald Massey, Natural Genesis, 1:50


In the early development of man, natural objects were employed out of necessity to represent and convey ideas, because primordial man had to represent the unknown through the known. Early man, limited in verbal intelligence, made use of his natural environment to communicate his thoughts. He carefully observed his natural surroundings and imitated sounds and actions of nature, such as lightning, wind, fire, and water. These were elemental forces. He thought of some natural phenomena such as day and night, lightning, thunder, and floods as driven by an unseen power (spirit) that had the potential to alter man’s life or destiny. He initially treated such “incomprehensible” occurrences with awe. They later became sacred for propitiation. In this context, man appreciated and preserved that which sustained his life. Later he attempted to define and understand what was above him in the heavens. Thus, abstract expression represented his thoughts and feelings, and the unknown was represented by known images or ideographs. He pictorially formulated the environment in his mind, and depicted it in shapes and forms. Primitive man treated these natural phenomena as sacred, and honored them through symbolic depictions.

For example, wild pigs in ancient Egypt were sacred because they were one of only a few creatures that could devour venomous snakes. Poisonous snakes have the capability to decimate both human and livestock. Consequently, one who killed a pig in ancient communities could bring wrath upon oneself. The pig thus, by virtue of being able to kill man’s most potent enemy, became sacred, even a savior. Such an animal was used by a homogeneous group as a symbol to express an abstract idea, in this case, survival. Further, ancient Egyptians drove pigs out onto the grain fields to trample the planted grains deeper into the soil to prevent birds from eating them, and thus sustaining mankind. In Akan legend, in comparison, we learn that a pack of wild pigs, kokote, led fleeing Akwamu warriors across the Volta River to safety from certain massacre by a pursuing enemy. The pig therefore was venerated and became sacred to the Akwamus.

Supposed spirits of elemental forces such as Mother Earth, represented by various forms of animal and plant life, were venerated, invoked, and propitiated, but not worshiped. Akans also invoked spirits of ancestors, believed to be still living in the invisible world, for assistance and guidance. In antiquity, a tree that produced food, shelter, and clothing became the Mother of Life because it sustained life for mankind. Conversely, poisonous trees were known as Trees of Death. They too were reverenced or even feared for their diabolical power to kill or maim. Because earlier man was wholly surrounded by nature, outstanding natural objects such as trees, rocks, stones, mounts, hills, etc. epitomized sacred groves rarely visited by mankind. The objects themselves had no spirits in them; rather, they figuratively symbolized sacred points of worship. The Akan bosom, literally meaning “stone worship,” originated from this representation. The motif appears in many other historical contexts, including the Bible. God commanded Moses to take off his sandals for the earth he was standing on was holy ground. The ground was made holy by virtue of God’s presence, not because

God had sought to speak to Moses on ground that was already holy. Jacob planted a stone, poured a drink on it, and called the place Bethel (Genesis 35:14-16). The legendary Akyem Abuakwa king Nana Ofori Panin (mid-17th to early 18th century)–with no prior knowledge of Jacob’s episode–entreated his nephew Safori to plant a stone in Akuapem and never to return to his own land till the stone “grew” (see also 1 Samuel 7:12). Consistent with this, the Ten Commandments were given to Moses on a mountaintop; Ishmael was called the Son of the Mount because Hagar, his mother, was Mount Sinai (Galatians 4:25-26); and Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1).

Out of these natural phenomena was mythology born, and from it evolved religion, an unseen, non-physical system, yet nonetheless a system that could make or break a people. Its beliefs and practices, albeit changed over the centuries, offer glimpses and traces of a people’s ancient roots. To the initiate, mythology is best understood, not in historical terms, but rather as a careful observation of nature’s organic sequence in the scheme of things. Attempts to rationalize mythology into historical reality by those who know nothing of natural development have created confusion in the minds of many.

For the early man, breath was considered the earliest form of spirit. Later, water became the most important sustenance of life and therefore the spirit that symbolized life. The use of water in African rites can only be understood through knowledge of ancient beliefs. Water, as embodied by the nearby river, was the spirit that symbolized life and must therefore not be defiled. Fishing was done at certain times and the river propitiated on special occasions. In Akan tradition, a dying person is given water as the final rite of passage into the spirit world. Water is the medium through which the spirits and gods are reached.

Libation, utilizing liquid as an offering for invocation, is the most ancient mode of prayer. There are different forms of libation. People of the black race of the ancient Persians under King Cyrus were known to utilize drink offering in their religious rituals. Wilkinson, citing Herodotus, tells us of ancient Egyptians that “their sacrifices commenced with a libation of wine, and some was sprinkled on the ground where the victim lay.” In Pharaonic Egypt (where libation was represented by the image of a vessel with water spouting out), inundation of the Nile and its subsequent land fertilization (for cultivation) was a natural libation when the shoots of the papyrus plant sprouted. Consequently, the first fruits of the land were celebrated in festivals, a theme that carries through events such as the Ohum Festival, which some Akans of Ghana observe. In Akyem, Ohum is celebrated when the tender shoots of the palm tree are able to be pulled from the plant.

Commissioning a ship by breaking a bottle of champagne against its hull is a libation rite that still persists. Placing flowers on the graves of the dead–a concept originally European in nature but now popular in most African cultures–is a mode of libation. The “holy” water (popularly known in West African Christianity as “Florida Water”) that a Christian minister sprinkles on congregants before Mass and the water that an African priest, the Okomfo, sprinkles on people connote the same symbolism. Close parallels can be drawn between Christian baptism and African traditions using water as a symbol of completion of a maturation process, for instance the rites of river immersion practiced by Nganga (ritual experts) in the Congo. Blood was among the earliest of fluids to be used for libation. Manetho tells us that three men used to be sacrificed each day to Hera until Amosis stopped the practice. It must be borne in mind that blood was the lifeline of the spirit; therefore, offering blood signified sustenance of the spirit, and the more the better. The symbolism of blood as spirit is enacted in Christian Communion, where the flesh and

blood of Jesus are partaken in remembrance. According to Maspero, in Egypt “human sacrifice was in their eyes the obligatory sacrifice, the only one which could completely atone for the wrongs committed against the godhead; man alone was worthy to wash away with his blood the sins of men.” Human sacrifice in Egypt (including slaves sacrificed at tombs to serve their departing masters) continued until Roman times, especially in the Middle Kingdom.

A. J. Spencer, referring to the subsidiary graves of tombs of ancient Egyptian kings, writes, “these were burials of servants of the kings, killed to accompany their master.”

 It is probable that, by the time Amosis stopped the practice of human sacrifice, some, including the ancestors of the Akan people, had already left Egypt for the south, carrying their human sacrifice custom with them.

Human sacrifice, once extensively practiced among the Akan, was meant for the spirit of the sacrificed to

accompany the dead (royal) to perform the earthly functions for his/her master in the spiritual world.

It had nothing to do with the bloodthirstiness that early Europeans erroneously attributed to the Akan. As a matter of fact, the Akan on special occasions had to sacrifice their dearest and closest on matters of national or personal importance.

From the book “The Akan of Ghana. Aspects of Past & Present Practices” by Kofi Ayim, page 8 (Published 2015) Available @

Posted by on Sep 13 2020. Filed under Artcultainment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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