An African Theology: [Onyame], [abosom], and [ak]mfo]] in the Akan Belief System
By
Kwasi Bempong

Transformations in Akan traditional religious belief and practice have not been featured prominently in the enormous body of literature on this Western Sudanic civilization. Attempted here is an assessment of the representation of Akan religion and religious practitioners in that body of literature. This assessment is divided into two sections. In the first section, I lay out the historical contradictions related to Akan religious beliefs. This is first framed as a debate between so-called ‘Western scholars’ and indigenous scholars who both view Akan beliefs in reference to Judeo-Christian beliefs. The former sees Akan beliefs as divergent, while the latter portray those beliefs as more or less analogous to Christianity. The most contentious aspect of the Akan belief-system is the spiritual entity called the ]bosom (pl., abosom) and the priesthood that acts as the intermediary between the abosom and humanity. In contemporary Ghanaian society, the priesthood and the abosom are a part of a modern-primitive, religion-witchcraft dialectic. This is also addressed, briefly, in this section in conjunction with the representations of the priesthood and abosom in the literature and the historical changes they have gone through in Akan culture. Earlier anthropological studies from the twenties1, forties2, and fifties3 have shown a marked increase in the abosommerafo] (executioner priests; sing. ]bosommerafo) and the ak]mfo] and their so-called witch-catching cults. In fact, they appear to have supplanted
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the more ancient abosomfo], who are (were) priests of the Atano abosom centered on the sacred river Tano. Section two continues this theme with a more detailed explication of the priesthood or religious practitioners (as]fo]; sing. ]s]fo) and the abosom. Particular attention is paid to one type of practitioner, the ]bosomfo (pl. abosomfo]), and one type of abosom, Tano. Drum texts, prayers, archaeological data, historical sources, and anthropological data are all used to illustrate the antiquity of the abosomfo] and Tano. This allows for an assessment of the historical changes that have occurred in Akan belief and practice and, consequently a repudiation of the representation of Akan belief as static; an image fostered by contemporary literature. 2
I. A PRIMITIVE THEOLOGY; ONYAMESOM (SERVITUDE TO GOD) The Contradictions Within Contradictions: The Debate Over Akan Religion The Akan, overall, have been the subject of European writers since the late fifteenth century4, Arab since the sixteenth5, and the Islamized western Sudanic Mande probably before the fourteenth century, since the Akan figure in the original 44 tribes that first populated the world in Mande cosmology.6 Although there are studies on almost every aspect of Akan society and culture, the theoretical approach to Akan institutions have been structuralist and mainly concerned with politics and trade7 often excluding the Akan ideological perspective.8 Despite the very noble intentions of Rattray9 and others10, Akan religious ideology either has been ignored or grossly misrepresented as 'fetishism', 'paganism', or 'animism'.11 All of these terms are laden with biases that refuse to grant the Akan belief system legitimacy on par with the beliefs of the Levantine and Asian religious traditions. When aspects of the Akan religion, Onyamesom12, as it will be called here, were encountered that did not figure into the assumptions of some European scholars, those aspects were dismissed as being derivative indigenous creations borrowed from Muslims and/or Christian missionaries.13 A complex power struggle has developed within the debate about Akan religious belief, as within African beliefs in general, between so-called Western scholars and indigenous scholars. Both groups, very broadly drawn here, have as an ideological
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standard the Judeo-Christian concept of deity and religion at the core of their conceptions of Akan religion. It is to varying degrees that this concept is accepted or rejected by either group. The ‘Western group’ favors a view of Akan beliefs that fosters an image of polytheism and ‘ancestor worship’, while the ‘Indigenous group’ favors a monotheistic view. Captain R. S. Rattray, an anthropologist working for the Gold Coast colonial government during the 1920's, stands out as one of the few Western anthropologists who were sympathetic to Asante and, subsequently, Akan culture. He rejected the dissemination of Islamic and Christian ideas into Akan society as an explanation of the complexity of their religion and the dissimilarity of their theology from fetishism and its brethren.14 He was unable, however, to take that final step and accept Onyame as the Akan equivalent for God. Instead, he was inclined to translate Onyame as 'Supreme Sky God' throughout his career, a designation that could not be derived from the etymology of the word grammatically or theologically.15 Onyame, based upon the treatment of this deity in Akan literature, is quite simply God, the creator of the material world, of time, destiny, and the human soul, a theological concept not different from Yahweh or Allah. This conception of deity seems consistent with Akan proverbial expressions and drum texts. Some common bynames, of which there may be one hundred, are: 4
1 }domankoma eternally abundant; fecund creator of all; infinite; absolute; boundless; limitless 2 Onyankop]n supreme embodiment of the shining expanse of the sky; solitary; alone in grandeur 3 Otweaduamp]ng the almighty overseer; the watching one; the dependable one 4 Otumfuo the omnipotent one; the possessor of visionary insight 5 B]reb]re creator; inventor; builder; ‘architect’ of all 6 }b]ade[ the creator 7 Totorubonsu progenitor and bringer of rain 8 Atoap[m final; unsurpassable; beyond which one cannot go 9 }beannye[ uncreated; without beginning 10 T[t[kwaframua enduring forever (outside of time) 11 Br[kyerehunnyade[ knowing all; omniscient.16 The debate is further extended by the bifurcation of the Indigenous group into a ‘comparable monotheism’, as represented by J.B. Danquah and a ‘discrete theism’ as represented by Kwesi Wiredu. Both brands of theism adopt the position that the Akan do possess a religion and the beginning and end of that religion is God and all other practices and beliefs of the Akan (‘ancestor cults’, ‘worship of lesser deities’) fall outside of their respective definitions of Akan religion.17 5
This position becomes untenable when one considers what motivates ordinary Akan when they are engaged in those other practices that are, supposedly, outside of religion. Further, even within the position of ‘discrete monotheism’, there is a contradiction; Onyame is both a universal god and the exclusive god of the Akan. Wiredu disagrees with Danquah’s attempts to rationalize Onyamesom in terms of Greek philosophy and Christianity, which Danquah did without compunction. Essentially, Wiredu asks, do Akan modes of theological thought have to be comparable to Western ones?18 Although both forms of indigenously theorized theisms agree that Onyamesom is a legitimate religion, the ‘discrete’ position asserts, “it is not an institutional religion”.19 …Within Contradictions pt. 2: The agitation of the ‘little gods’. Both the comparable and discrete models of Akan theism agree upon the legitimacy of Onyamesom. Western scholars accept the Akan have a religious system but, overall, in Western scholarship the abosom, ‘lesser’ gods or deities figure very prominently in that view, while indigenous scholars have been noticeably dismissive of any form of deity defined as a god without a capital ‘g’. Therefore, one can speak of two types of contradictions: local and global. The local contradiction stems from the debate amongst Akan scholars about the degree to which Onyamesom should be compared to Christianity or other Western modes of thought. The global contradiction arises from the prominence of lesser gods in Western
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scholarship and the dismissal of such spiritual beings in indigenous theories of Onyamesom. Both the western and indigenous groups have been deeply agitated by the ‘little gods’ (abosom). How these scholars have come to terms with the abosom and the ubiquitous worship of Onyame has been outlined above. The worship of ‘lesser deities’ as attested by Western scholarship and the monotheistic theology as insisted by indigenous intellectuals is a contradiction in the literature that has yet to be reconciled. Praxis versus ideology: the ‘lesser gods’ and the ‘possessed priests’ Onyamesom has nearly become synonymous with practice (good and bad). One will find numerous texts describing at great length what the priests and priestesses do but ignoring the theological structure in which their actions are suspended. Would it ever be enough to describe the Catholic act of Communion; that the wafer and wine represented the body and blood of Christ; without elucidating the theological assumptions that such an act entails? The difficulties ‘traditionalists’, as the practitioners of Onyamesom are known in Ghana, face in today’s society are numerous and will only be highlighted here. In popular media: newspapers, television, music videos, etc., they are the subject of denigration and derision. The representation of traditionalists in Ghana today bear striking parallels with nineteenth and late twentieth century European discourses on African cultures. Among everyday folk Onyamesom is associated with backwardness; it is an aspect of Akan culture that is anti-modern. Most profess that they do not practice it because they believe
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it to be the work of the devil and therefore witchcraft. There is a great deal of talk of (blood) sacrifices and suman (magic charms) in association with Onyamesom. In casual conversations about Akan culture there was a great reluctance to discuss Onyamesom positively. When the speakers were alone with me, they were often somewhat apprehensive to even talk about the abosom, let alone point out an individual who might be a ‘traditionalist’. It is very likely that current attitudes towards Onyamesom have made it difficult to assess who its followers are and how many are currently practicing in Ghana. As the Akan increasingly convert to Christianity, Onyamesom, as their unique cultural heritage is threatened with extinction. The theological knowledge possessed by religious practitioners (as]fo]; sing. ]s]fo), as an institution that maintains the theological/ideological structures of ancient Akan civilization, has not been the subject of thorough investigation. Instead, scholars have opted for in-depth descriptions and surface analysis of the public actions of the priests: the world of action and material. Matter and energy are more prominent in the literature than the mind and spirit of the Akan people. Describing the priesthood, what it does, and the structure of Akan cosmology has been the easy path to follow as regards Akan religious beliefs. It has also been the least insightful as far as deep theological beliefs are concerned because the meaning of those actions and speech has been very rarely contextualized. This surface analysis has homogenized the distinct categories of religious practitioners that exist in the language and in the society of the Akan people, and therefore has obscured an understanding of the progression of religious thought and the ability to trace it over the historical terrain of Akan civilization.
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McCaskie addressed the belief surrounding one category of religious practitioner, the ak]mfo] and their relationship with the spiritual entities called the abosom as constructed by the Asante state. His reading of belief, however, did not directly explore the ideology of Akan religious thought as much as it delineated the role of an interventionist Asante state as sole ‘hermeneus’ of Asante history and, consequently, belief; he states, “belief is an historical phenomenon” in Asante culture.”20 Therefore, in his view: in order to anatomize Asante beliefs, religious expressions, ritual enactments and the rest, they need to be articulated as ideas in direct relation to the historical record concerning the world of state, society, and individual.21 McCaskie has deftly appraised the value of an understanding of belief as a product of the historical record. There is in his assessment, however, an understanding predicated on the isolation of Asante culture from the processual unfolding and evolution of Akan culture, history, and belief. There is no dispute that the Asante state was distinct in degree and in some respect, kind from other Akan polities, nevertheless, it is situated in Akan history and even as it cast itself in the role as the exclusive hermeneus, it was engaged in the hermeneutics of a received religious ideology that preceded it by centuries. The scope of this study, unfortunately, is too narrow to focus, satisfactorily, on the as]fo]’s maintenance of the deep theological structures of Akan civilization. However, the as]fo] are treated as an institution embedded in Akan history (cultural and political); their specific categories are defined and an attempt has been made to elucidate
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the meaning of the as]fo] and the spiritual forces they interact with, within the structuring of Akan belief. In addition, I will attempt to draw attention to how the specific categories of the as]fo], themselves, if read as a series of semiotic codes within the text of Akan culture, speak to a devolution of theological knowledge and practice. From the late nineteenth century, there appeared increasing dissent against the ‘orthodox’ vision of religiosity posited by the priests of the ancient Atano abosom from younger generations of priests (and worshippers) who wanted ‘new gods’ who would aggressively assuage the distress of living in uncertain times. They eschewed long novitiates, the solemnity of the ‘Atanoists’, and the benevolence of Atano. Cults of new ‘killing deities’ brought from the north sprang forth profusely throughout ‘Akanland’ and were lead by the charismatic ‘dancing priests’, the ak]mfo]. These priests, once subordinate to the Atanoists, have seen their numbers and influence increase since the inception of the Asante state, which was co-founded by an ]k]mfo. II. As]fo]: The Priesthood and the ‘gods’ The as]fo] (religious practitioners) can be divided into three general categories: abosomfo], abosommerafo], and ak]mfo], representing the first, second, and third class of the priesthood, respectively.22 The as]fo] mediate for three broad divisions of spiritual entities (abosom; sing. ]bosom) within Onyamesom: Atano, Ewim, and Abo: water, sky, and earth, respectively.23 Each group, however, does not mediate for every group of abosom.
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The abosomfo], the first order of the priesthood, are those who act as mediums for the spiritual entities that originate from water, especially rivers, called Atano abosom, while the abosommerafo] and the ak]mfo], the second and third orders, respectively, are mediums for the Ewim and Abo abosom, which manifest themselves as abrafo]-abosom or executioner abosom. The term abrafo] (sing. ]brafo), is often translated as ‘executioner’, “though they were [in fact] those who saw that laws (mmara) were carried out.”24 The executioners were actually a group called the adumfo] (sing. ]dumfo), the ‘extinguishers’, from ‘adum’, which means to extinguish. In the dialect of the coastal Akan, the Fante, ‘]brafo’ refers to the ]k]mfo’s assistant.25 Punishment and death were meted out by the abrafo]-abosom, while the older group of abosom, the Atano, were deliverers of blessings. Field notes: It is not strictly true that the old gods were regarded as unable to kill, rather [they were] regarded as preoccupied with blessing. The idea that the wages of sin is death and the reward of goodness in long life belongs to all the ancient cults, but in the new shrine cults [it] is the central emphasis.26 Tano; ‘First Son of God’ ‘Atano abosom’ is a plural designation for the abosom that derive from the ancient ]bosom Tano. These abosom are conceptualized as Tano’s ‘children’. There are references to Tano’s (and his children’s) ability to kill in certain prayers to him but they are historical references to the political opponents of Akan kings, who were known to have carried out the actual killing themselves. This is in line with the belief that “in the 11
old days death-sentences were executed by human beings (usually kings).”27 The following prayer is an example: A prayer to Ta Kora (the first ‘son’ of God embodied by the sacred river Tano) The stream crosses the path, The path crosses the stream; Which of them is the elder? Did we not cut a path to go and meet this stream? The stream had its origin long, long ago, It had its origin in the Creator, He created things, Pure, pure, Tano Whom we serve upon Monday. Spirit of the Creator, who sees even though he is not present Nkadomako (a title) who seizes strong men, Guardian spirit of King Ame Yaw iGuardian spirit of the king of Asante, iiYou battled and slew the nation of Nkoranza iiiGuardian spirit who emerges from within the rock, ivYou who slew Adinkira, vKing, whom we bathe with white eggs. You, the one who is the crossroads to the dwelling that is a fearful place viHe who would see you in order to destroy you, With that destruction be not destroyed. Guardian spirit of the Truth, When you speak there is truth in what you say. You, whose sacred bell sounds even to Mecca.viiIf you have gone elsewhere, come hither. Kwampiri (a title), upon whom, when the waters are in flood, we call. Shooting stars, that abide within God You weave a thread (as it were in a loom) across a path stretching afar. Today is a Fofie (sacred Friday) and we desire your presence, So come and listen to what we have to tell you.28 i Ruler of the ancient Akan kingdom of Bono Manso ii King of the Asanteman ( the Asante nation) iii A rival Akan kingdom that bordered both Bono Manso and Asanteman iv ‘the rock’ is a sandstone range in the town Tano Oboase (Tano beneath the rock) about 100 to 300 feet high that lies at a crossroads that leads to the sacred river and to a sacred cave Ame Yaw used for contemplation. This area is the source of the river. v Ruler of the Akan Kingdom of Gyaman in what is now Cote d’Ivoire, who was slain by the Asantehene in 1819; a vassal of Asanteman. vi The crossroads in Tekyiman (the successor state of Bono Manso) that lead to the sacred river Tano and the sacred cave where religious rites are performed. vii In Akan, Mecca is ‘Nyamefrebere’, “the (enclosed) place where God is called”.
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The Atano abosom derive their name from the sacred river Tano that flows from the town Tano Oboase in the Bono region of ‘Akanland’, which has been called the “home of the gods”.29 Tano is considered the ‘first son of Onyame’ and, therefore, is one of Onyame's primary and most ancient intermediaries on earth. He is believed to be benevolent and protective30 and is called, among other things, ‘Ta Kora’ and ‘Ta Kese['; ‘Ta’ is a shortened version of Tano, while ‘Kora’ means the mender or the one who repairs, while Kese[ means big. ‘Ta’ is also used to designate Tano’s ‘children’, i.e. Ta Mensa, Ta Kwesi, Ta Kofi. It was noted above that from, at least, the fourteenth century, Akan culture emerged from the Bono Manso region and expanded into the forests and down to the coasts of Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire. The classification of Tano as the senior ]bosom adds further support to the seniority of Northern Akan culture. Tano is a manifestation of spiritual power directly from Onyame. No other ]bosom actively worshipped today has direct divine origins. Tano, itself, has begat numerous manifestations/ ‘children’ throughout Akanland. Although, the structure of worship centered on Tano, and his numerous manifestations, is similar to the structure centered on other abosom, there are significant differences in the furnishings of his temples, temple administration, and the attitudes of his priests towards talismans (asuman; sing. nsuman) and magic (bayi). These differences allude to a type of schism in Akan religious attitudes. Dissent against the ‘orthodoxy’ of the Atano abosomfo] grew considerably during the course of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. They emphasized the uniqueness and superiority of Tano’s relationship with Onyame over that of other (foreign) abosom. They were also disapproving of as]fo] using talismans (asuman) and placing them in the abosomfie; but,
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in the insecurity of the nineteenth century, ordinary folk wanted more than benevolence from their abosom. One of the most often quoted texts is the short stanza that begins the prayer above. It refers not only to the antiquity and the ‘divine purity’ of Tano as ‘Ta Kora’(‘Tano the mender’) but also to humanity’s initial and continued search for the path to God. It is often added to texts that are played for adae and other ceremonies. It was verbally quoted to me just outside the Asantehene’s palace by a young apprentice drummer named Atta Oppong during my fieldwork. It was later played as a part of another text by the young apprentice flutist Yaw Adae. The core of it remains the same with small adjunct phrases at the beginning or on the end. The version below includes both Akan and English translations taken from Rattray’s rendering of the drum text in 1921 on a Wukudae in Tekyiman. Interestingly, the core stanza he recorded was repeated to me verbatim on separate occasions by the apprentice musicians. Asuo atware kwan, Okwan atware asuo yi; Opanyin ne hwane? Ye bo kwan ko to asuo yi? Asuo yi firi tete. Asuo yi firi Odomankoma. Oboo adie. Konkon Tano. Birifia Tano. Wo ko babi a, bra, Na ye [h]we wo kwan. The stream crosses the path, The path crosses the stream; Which of them is the elder? Did we not cut a path to go and meet this stream? The stream had its origin long, long ago, It had its origin in the Creator, He created things, Pure, pure, Tano. Birifia Tano. If you have gone elsewhere, come, [for, we seek your path].31
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The Abosomfo] and the Abosommerafo] The abosommerafo] (the priests of the executioner abosom), the second order of as]fo], are those who are mediums for the Ewim and Abo abosom that originate from the sky and the forest (kwae), respectively. The Ewim (der.? (a)wia, sky + m(u), inside of) abosom were held to be judgemental and merciless forces and often spoken of as executioners ( abrafo] or adumfo]).32 The abrafo] abosom posed the greatest challenge to the Atano abosom but not in the employ of the abosommerafo], who were often cooperative but from the third order of the priesthood, the ak]mfo], that would usurp them both by the beginning of the twentieth century. The Abo (]bo, stone) abosom, though associated with medicine (duru), nevertheless, represented the realm of the uncivilized, chaotic, a place where dangerous and fatal forces resided, against which humankind must be ever vigilant.33 The abosomfo] and the abosommerafo] are both matrilineally derived orders vested in families that were ‘chosen’ by various forms of the Atano, Ewim, or Abo abosom as mediums. The as]fo] usually work out of a temple (]bosomfie) where the shrine (yowa) is kept with its residing ]bosom. As a general rule, each ]bosomfie possesses “a central organization which includes the founder or owner of the shrine or cult [who may or may not be the head priest], elders, the chief priest and his officers.”34 The owner or founder of the temple, if it is not the obosomfo], may be a relative who invested in the construction of the building. The origins of temple building are obscure but abosomfie built in the twentieth century were usually “privately owned and profit-making.”35Prior to this time abosomfie were corporately owned. They received gifts from supplicants but did not impose a profit-making fee schedule on its patrons. 15
The ]bosomfo can only be male, though he does have a female counterpart from the same, matrilineal, bloodline called an ]k]mfo baa (baa female/ woman; pl mmaa). The ]bosom, after choosing a family (abusua), is placed within a brass shrine called a yowa, which resembles a basin. The ]bosomfo places the shrine on his head in order to initiate communion or the ak]m-state with the ]bosom. Ak]m refers to the communion between the priest and the ]bosom. Over the course of the last three centuries it increasingly came to mean the ‘possession dance’ performed by the ak]mfo]. The ak]m and the ak]mfo] will be addressed presently. The ]bosomfo's female counterpart, the ]k]mfo baa, may not touch the yowa, for there are strict prohibitions against blood, especially menstrual blood, polluting the ]bosom; however, the ]k]mfo] baa does enter the ak]m-state without contacting the yowa, though only within the confines of the abosomfie or its courtyard, as is the case with the ]bosomfo. Should her male counterpart die the ]k]mfo baa 'inherits' the yowa and the ]bosom. She and the temple administrators will choose a replacement ]bosomfo from her maternal family. The ak]mfo] are able to enter into the ak]m-state anywhere; they are not confined to the abosomfie nor are they restricted by the lack of a yowa. This is another distinction between the abosomfo] and the ak]mfo]. The organization of the abosommerafo] is along the same lines as the abosomfo] with the exception of the yowa, which among the abosommerafo] is replaced in function by a shrine of leather. The title 'abosommerafo]', roughly translates into 'the priest of the executioner spiritual entities’. These killer deities are usually of foreign origin, often procured by ak]mfo] from Ghana’s Northern Territories. Their violent proclivities are in stark contrast to Ta Kora munificence. He does not kill or nor is asked to hate anyone; he 16
punishes by withholding his beneficence.36 A line included in a prayer to him says: ‘wo nno bi, ntan bi, nyina nkwaso.’ ‘you, who do not love someone and hate another, [give] life to all.’37 The Atano obosom that chooses an abusua to vest its power in does so only to empower mankind (adesamma). If the ]bosomfo, as a priest of a higher class, wishes to employ an ]bosom that can entrap those who consciously or consistently harm others or do evil (witches/social deviants), then he will enlist the services of one of the abosommerafo], who serves as a medium of an ]bosom that can punish or kill an offender. The abosommerafo] represent a priestly class that is junior, distinct, and often times complimentary to the Atano abosomfo] class, which is more ancient and most likely responsible for the basic structure of the priesthood. This class of priests and their abosom appear to be an innovation in Akan religious practice. Though their abosom were usually foreign entities with attributes antithetical to the nature of Ta Kora, they were incorporated into an institution that remained conservative in its basic structure and approach to abosom. The abosommerafo] became a ‘vested’ class as the Atano abosomfo] were. They also inherited the Atano abosomfo]’s burdensome ak]m-state restrictions of having to be in the abosomfie, or in the confines of its courtyard, with the shrine on their heads to achieve the ak]m-state. Private and corporate worship is available to each adherent (]somfo). Certain days within the adaduanan traditional time-keeping system are set aside by the ]bosomf] for individuals to visit him for private interviews inside the sanctuary within the temple.38 17
The dab]ne are reserved for corporate worship39, which, in some cases, means an ak]m will be performed. Ak]mfo] The third order of the as]f] is comprised of the ak]mfo]. The ak]mfo] mmaa and ak]mfo] mmarima (female and male ak]mfo], respectively) were essentially attendants (asomfo]) of the abosomfo] and abosommerafo]. They are not members of an abusua chosen to act as mediums for a particular ]bosom and so may enter into the akom-state at any time and at any place, with or without the yowa placed on their heads. They can be fairly independent of an ]bosomfo/]bosommerafo, his temple, and the shrine that houses the ]bosom for whom he is the custodian. Their mobility probably accounts for the ak]mfo] being more widespread than the abosomfo] and abosommerafo]. Unlike the ‘vested orders’ of the abosomfo] and the abosommerafo], who must serve for life, the ak]mfo] can leave the priesthood and cease being as]fo] if they so chose. Their novitiate used to last about seven years in which time the priests of the first order gave them religious and limited medicinal training.40 This is no longer the case; many have little or no training.41 Prior to the twentieth century, it was enjoined upon most novices that they must remain celibate and observe all of the behavioral and dietary restrictions of the particular ]bosom they attended. A novice could not drink any alcohol, gossip, quarrel or fight, pray to his ]bosom to kill anyone (if it was an Atano abosom), attend the chief’s court (meddle in politics) unless summoned nor go out at night and join other young men.42 18
Ak]m; ‘The Revelation’ ‘Ak]m’ is popularly associated with ‘possession’ and the ‘possession dance’ done by the ak]mfo]. This association is so common that it overshadows what is probably its more fundamental meaning derived from the word ‘nk]m’ meaning ‘a prophecy’, ‘a revelation’.43 Although the abosomfo]’s style of worship never took “the form of drama” as did the services of the ak]mfo],44 whose trademark was the dance, they were prophesiers of the first order. The abosomfo] only entered this state within the temple (]bosomfie) or the confines of its courtyard. While much of the literature portrays “the Akan priest [as] a dancing priest”45, this disregards the historical depth of the abosomfo] and shows how the ak]mfo] dominate contemporary knowledge about Akan priests. Although the ]bosomfo does not do the ‘possession dance’ that has become the characteristic behavior of the ]k]mfo, his demeanor while in the ak]m state provides an example of what the ak]mfo] enlarged to produce the fervent ak]m dance. The ak]m is not a ‘possession dance’; it had not been a dance at all; it is communion with an abosom; it is a priest’s revelation given by an ]bosom. The ‘dance’ is a recent descriptive historically speaking. In fact, a priest of Ta Kora, a common by-name for Tano, was seated on his dwa inside the temple during his entire ak]m-state:46Rattray observed “…he began to quiver, every muscle of his body seemed to twitch: his heels worked spasmodically upon the carpet…all the while [he was] slapping the side of the brass pan.”47 Ta Kora then spoke through the ]bosomfo: ‘The man who loves me comes to me, and when he goes away I shall stand behind him and accompany him on a good path that he may go his way. And this one who has come (Rattray), grant him permission to go to my rock [Tano Oboase,
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headwaters of the Tano River] should he wish to go. Let him go and behold the place where I reside [the sacred cave of Ame Yaw and Ta Kora’s abode when he’s not supplicated in the temple]. Should he wish to go to the [River Tano], allow him to go and sprinkle himself with water. Many of my children [followers] say they will go to school, and I do not stand in their path, and say they must not serve [Onyame]. In my own being I am the son of God, and if my grandchildren say that the [white foreigner] loves me and has drawn nigh to me, I shall also stand behind him.’48 The priest, very soon afterwards, emerged from the ak]m “dazed for a few moments” passing his hands over his eyes “like a man awakening from a sleep or trance.”49 The description of that ak]m would be unfamiliar to anyone accustomed to the ak]m of an ]k]mfo. Without drums, singers, and dancing, the ak]m of the Atano abosomfo] compared to that of the ak]mfo] is like Catholic Mass to that of a Baptist Revival. The differences in both action and text are striking and beg for a more thorough examination of the changes that have occurred in Akan worship and the forces that have brought about such changes. Another distinguishing characteristic of the Ta Kora abosomfo] was their avoidance of magic charms (asuman) both on their persons and in their temples. One of Rattray’s informants told him: ‘Ta Kora came from ‘Nyame…and needs no help from ordinary suman,’ said the old priest when I remarked on the lack of these, and he added: ‘Suman spoil the gods, but I cannot stop most priests using them.’ 50 What the old priest meant by ‘spoil the gods’ was never clearly explained by Rattray but it is clear the reliance upon magic charms was not a practice the old ]bosomfo 20
thought was appropriate. By the twenties ak]mfo] of executioner abosom and their use of magic charms were widespread and appear to have been posing a threat to the Atano abosomfo]. By enlisting the services of the abosommerafo], the Atano abosomfo] sought to combat the growing influence of not only the executioner abosom but, also, the ubiquitous ak]mfo], and the rise of witch-catching cults they were beginning to establish. The abosom employed as executioners and later witch-catchers were usually non-Akan in origin but were incorporated into the pre-existing ecclesiastical structure. The abosomfo] sought to address the growing insecurity brought on by the collapse of the Asante state, the imposition of colonial rule, and the cocoa boom51 by extending Ta Kora’s power over punishment and death through the employment of the abrafo (executioner) abosom. Akan society became preoccupied with punishing and killing social deviance, which was, in fact, antithetical to the very nature of Ta Kora and his priesthood, and essentially, the nature of ‘]bosom’ in early Akan theology. In the late thirties and forties, Field observed the abosomfo], were not, as a rule, akomfo practising spirit-possession, but offered dignified prayer and other rites, not only on behalf of the tribe at annual festivals but also on behalf of individual who sought help in sickness or trouble. These old benign gods still exist alongside the new obosom-brafo shrines, but are considered inadequate for modern needs.52 Their perceived inadequacy has nearly driven the abosomfo] to extinction. Since the first quarter of the twentieth century, the ever-diminishing priesthood began to be dominated by the ak]mfo] and the non-Akan abrafo] and witch-catching abosom. One of
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Field’s informants extolling the virtues of the then new abrafo]-]bosom, Mframa, stated, “Mframa is greater than the old ones [Atano abosom], because Mframa can kill.”53The Atano abosomfo]’s loss of prestige lead to a change in religious practice and a commensurate loss of theological knowledge. The priesthood deprived of its seven-year novitiate and stocked with priests with little or no training could not preserve nor transmit the amount of knowledge the old abosomfo] once possessed. This is most likely the primary reason the religious discourse about ‘traditional religion’ is so densely packed with allusions to witch-craft, possession, and sacrifice. In general, the Akan are now distanced from the texts of earlier Akan theology and are, therefore, unaware of how their ancestors actually conceptualized belief prior to the political and social unrest that gave rise to abrafo] abosom and witch-catching cults. Conclusion Section One reviewed the contradicting representations of Akan traditional religion that began to emerge in twentieth century anthropological literature. In very general terms, I sketched two competing groups: the Western and the Indigenous. Both groups operating on Judeo-Christian assumptions strove to define Akan traditional religion. The ‘Western group’ constructed a belief system that fostered an image of polytheism and ‘ancestor worship’, while the ‘Indigenous group’, defensively, fashioned a view that was decidedly monotheistic. The division of the Indigenous group into ‘comparable monotheism’ and ‘discrete theism’ factions further complicated the contradictions. These ‘local’ contradictions stem from the degree to which Akan scholars believe Onyamesom should be compared to
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Christianity or other Western modes of thought. One of the most contentious aspects of Onyamesom is the worship centered on the abosom (spiritual entities/intermediaries).The Western group presents the abosom and the priesthood seemingly structured around them as primary focus of traditional religion. The Indigenous group, for the most part, dismisses the abosom. Section Two shows that the abosom and their priests, would have indeed commanded a great of attention from both worshipper and researcher during twentieth century and diverted attention from the theistic ideological undercurrent of practice as the Indigenous group so earnestly emphasizes. However, I illustrate how the anthropological homogenization of the religious functionaries masked the historical shift in prestige and in influence on public practice and knowledge. The ak]mfo] dominated traditional religion during the period when anthropological literature on the Akan was burgeoning. For this reason, they were characterized as the prototypical religious practitioners and their related cults and practices as archetypal traditional religion. Indigenous scholars disputed this presentation of Akan belief on shaky philosophical ground and not upon a deconstruction of the archetypes based upon a multidisciplinary and multi-textual reading of the historical record. Tracing the changes within the institution of as]fo], Section Two revealed that it was only the visibility of the ak]mfo] in the field and in the literature that made them seem timeless. Further, this same visibility, coupled with an inappropriate rebuttal, made the Indigenous group’s insistence upon theism seem more defensive than it was. The literature, both ‘Western’ and ‘Indigenous’, presented dichotomies that did not exist in Akan traditional religion historically. Danquah posited Onyame is “the irreducible
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minimum of the Deity idea…the foundation of Akan Deism”54 but the Akan spiritual world is also populated by His/Her children. Equally, the ak]mfo] are an integral part of worship in traditional religion but they are not the sole or even the typical practitioners, historically. The history of this belief system, its practitioners, and its changes as borne out by the archaeological, anthropological, and historical data in conjunction with indigenous texts, clarify the contradictions and reveal Onyamesom to be highly nuanced and multifaceted. 1 R.S. Rattray, Religion and Art in Ashanti, (1927, London), 29-34. One of Rattray’s informants told him, regarding witches, that the abosom would never reveal witches or uncover witchcraft because they were “afraid of bayi (witchcraft) which was more powerful than they”(31). 2 Field, M.J., Akim-Kotoku: An Oman of the Gold Coast, (Accra, 1948), 172. 3 Field, M.J., Search For Security: An Ethno-Psychiatric Study of Rural Ghana,(London, 1960), passim. 4 Ivor Wilks, ‘A Medieval Trade-Route From the Niger to the Gulf of Guinea’ in Journal of African History, III, (1962),339. 5 Ibid, 337. 6 Wilks, Ivor, 'Wangara, Akan and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, I, The Matter of Bitu’ in The Journal of African History, 1982, 23, 343. They are known as the Tonawa (Tonouwa) by the Mande. 7 Wilks, Ivor ‘The Northern Factor in Ashanti History: Begho and the Mande’ in, Journal of African History, II (1961), 25-34; ‘A Medieval Trade-Route From the Niger to the Gulf of Guinea’ in Journal of African History, III, (1962), 337-341; 'Wangara, Akan and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, I, The Matter of Bitu’, The Journal of African History, 23, (1982), 333-349; 'Wangara, Akan and Portuguese in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries, II, The Struggle for Trade', (1982, The Journal of African History, 23), 463-472; Asante in the Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge, 1989). 8 McCaskie, ‘Komfo Anokye of Asante: Meaning, History and Philosophy in an African Society’, (1986, Journal of African History, 27), 315-339. 9 Religion and Art in Ashanti, (London, 1954). Originally published in 1927. Ashanti Law and Constitution, (London, 1956) Originally published in 1929. Ashanti, (London, 1969) Originally published in 1923. 10 Gyekye, Kwame. An Essay On African Philosophical Thought, (Cambridge, 1987); McCaskie, ‘ Komfo Anokye of Asante: Meaning, History and Philosophy in an African Society’, (1986, Journal of African History, 27), 315-339. Meyerowitz, The Akan of Ghana, (London, 1958);
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Wilks, Ivor, Asante in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge: (Cambridge, 1989); Ray Kea, ‘“But I Know What I Shall Do”: Agency, Belief, and Social Imaginary in Eighteenth-century Gold Coast Towns’, Africa’s Urban Past, (Oxford, 2000). 11 William Bosman, A New and Accurate Description of the Coast of Guinea, (London, 1705); T. Edward Bowdich, Mission From Cape Coast Castle to Ashantee, (London, 1819); An Essay on the Superstitions, Customs and Arts, of Ancient Egyptians, Abyssinians, and Asantees, (Paris, 1821); A.B. Ellis, The Land of Fetish, (London, 1883); Kofi, A.Busia, “The Ashanti”, (London,1954). 12 The term Onyamesom is, among other names, used to denote Christianity also. It is made up of two words “Onyame” the name of the Akan supreme deity, and “som”, which carries the meaning of servitude or worship. Therefore, Onyamesom simply means ‘the worship or servitude to God’. Another term for traditional Akan religion that is more commonly used by the Akan themselves is Ak]m. This term is commonly used in reference to ‘spirit possession’ dances performed by a particular type of priests called ak]mfo]. Ak]m, however, means prophecy or revelation and this definition makes more sense when one considers that some priests entered the Ak]m-state without dancing the dance of spirit possession. Therefore, Ak]m could be translated to mean ‘The Revelation’ or ‘The Prophecy’. 13 Ellis, The Land of Fetish, (London, 1883). 14 Rattray, Ashanti, (London, 1969), 140. 15 Rattray, Ashanti, (Oxford, 1969), 140; Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God, (38-40. 16 McCaskie, State and Society in Pre-Colonial Asante, (Cambridge, 1995), 140. 17 Kwasi, Wiredu, ‘The Decolonization of African Philosophy and Religion’, (2000), 21; Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God Second Edition (London, 1968), 39. 18 Wiredu, ‘The Decolonization of African Philosophy and Religion’, (2000), 21. 19 Ibid. 20 McCaskie, State and Society,107,143. 21 Ibid 103. 22 Dennis M. Warren, The Techiman-Bono of Ghana: An Ethnography of an Akan Society, (Dubuque, Iowa,1975). Unless noted otherwise, this section and its description of the various religious parishioners follows Warren. 23 McCaskie, State and Society, 109-110. 24 Ibid, 277. 25 Ibid. 26 M.J. Field, Search For Security: An Ethno-Psychiatric Study of Rural Ghana, (London,1960), 89n. 27 Ibid, 88. 28 Rattray, Ashanti, 178-179 29 Rattray, Ashanti 172. 30 McCaskie, State and Society, 110, Rattray, Ashanti, 185n. 31 Rattray, Ashanti 182,208-209; Nketia, Drumming, 47. 32 McCaskie, State and Society, 109. 33 Ibid 111. 34 Nketia, Drumming, 91. 35 Field, Search, 87. 36 Rattray, Ashanti 185 n. 37 Ibid, 185. 38 Nketia, Drumming, 96. 39 Ibid, 97. 40 McCaskie, State and Society, 113. 41 Rattray, Religion and Art, 29.
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42 Rattray, Religion and Art, 43 43 McCaskie, State and Society, 290. 44 Nketia, Drumming, 97. 45 Nketia, Drumming, 94 46 Rattray, Ashanti 177, 180. 47 Rattray, Ashanti 180 48 Rattray, Ashanti 181. 49 Ibid,181-182. 50 Rattray, Ashanti, 182. 51 Field, Search, 88. 52 Field, Search, 88. 53 Ibid. 54 Danquah, The Akan Doctrine, 41.
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