Shabba Ranks
Reggae Dance-hall Singer
Photo Credit: From Album Cover

Sex and Romance in African Traditional Religion

By Grisso*

The following article arose out of a thread on the newsgroup alt.religion.orisha, in which the original poster (pen named "Bucephalus"), sought help with respect to a paper he was writing, on African religion's conception of romantic love, within Cambridge University's History Department. He was seeking, he said, to tie up a few "bibliographic loose ends." At the point where I jumped in to the discussion, it was clear that he, and the group, including another poster, Catherine Yronwode, needed to be set straight on more basic starting assumptions, for example: that in traditional African religion the issue of love was the entirely pragmatic one of obtaining sex from, or power over, another; and that in traditional African culture, women are subjugated ... a commodity to be bought and sold, therefore not to be treasured, nor yearned for, as in the allegedly contrasting European romantic tradition. I took issue with these starting assumptions. Hence this contribution, which I think is substantial enough to stand on its own as a separate article suitable for publication here on Africans Unbound.

After a long hiatus from writing, during which a lot has happened in my life, it seems a good way also to get the ball rolling again.

Oh... and the bombastic Shabba Ranks (see picture), the reggae dance-hall singer, enters as a romantic icon, by equation with King Solomon, he of the biblical Song of Solomon ("I am black and handsome, o ye daughters of Jerusalem"), as they both represent the long-standing African tradition of seduction through song, of which the European troubadour is but a pale, and less successful (hence all the pining, allegedly romantic) imitation. I could have put Barry White, or a score of others, but I choose Shabba, who by his own description, is as "raw as ever". Moreover, I can see him singing the Song of Solomon, as fine an expression of (romantic?) lust as may be found anywhere.


|catherine yronwode wrote:
|> Bucephalus wrote:
|> >
|> > catherine yronwode <> wrote:
|> >
|> > > Bucephalus wrote:
|> > > >
|> > > > I'm writing a paper as part of Cambridge University's History
|> > > > department and am at a few bibliographical loose ends,
|> > > > particular regarding African religion's conception of romantic
|> > > > love.  
|African religion has a fully grown and articulated conception of *love*
|that is grounded in *reality*, ie. the reality of who we are as Man and
|Spirit and why we walk the earth in any particular incarnation. For a
|good exposition, see 1) Ra Un Nefer Amen, "An Afrocentric Guide to
|Spiritual Union", and 2) ___, "Metu Neter, vol. I". This
|African-centered conception may or may not bear some resemblance to
|"romantic love"; it is hard to say, since Bucephalus has not said what
|his understanding of the term is. It is important to define terms for
|discussions such as this. European renditions of "history" and
|"anthropology" and "religion" are notorious for taking off from
|conceptually ill-defined or undefined points of departure (for example
|the notions of "civilization" and "paganism" to cite just two) that lead
|to all manner of nonsense dressed up in fake finery. If Bucephalus is
|serious, he would add to his list of readings 3) Marimba Ani, "Yurugu:
|An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior",
|for a good exposition of European intellectual pretension, and often
|outright deceit, when it comes to comparative cultural analysis such as
|Bucephalus is engaged in here.
|> > > > ..................Aside from versions of Oshun/Osun, the entire
|> > > > religious mythology seems devoid of love stories; likewise, the number of
|> > > > 'love spells' to trap men/women in relationships also points at
|> > > > a decentralised, self-centred and almost entirely pragmatic
|> > > > conception of romance as being nothing more than a path to
|> > > > power or sex.
|The religious mythology of the African understands very clearly the
|notion of *love*. The "conception of romance" (European, allegedly), as
|so far undefined for purposes of this discussion, may be another matter,
|although I very much doubt it. When the notion of "romance" is broken
|down, I think one would find that sex, either engaged in or longed for,
|is a large part. For example, does "Lady Chatterley's lover" qualify as
|"romance" in this thus-far undefined European sense?  For certain, pure
|sexual expression is well known to African religious concepts, and in
|fact at a level of sophistication that sees multiple deities involved
|for its full delineation -- at minimum Het-Heru, Herukhuti, and Heru in
|a Kemetic elaboration, or their Yoruba correspondences Oshun, Ogun, and
|Shango. One also could look to the so-called Song of Solomon in the
|Bible, which is as fine an expression of lust as one could find
|anywhere, and which moreover would come close I think to any viable
|definition of the thus-far undefined concept of "romance" (European). I
|say so-called in reference to the Song of Solomon because there is
|plenty of evidence to support the claim that the Song of Solomon is
|really a plagiarism, and the true author(s) are Kemetic, therefore
|African (see 4) Nana Banchie Darkwah, "The Africans who wrote the
|Bible"; see also 5) Gary Greenberg, "The Moses Mystery: The African
|Origin of the Jewish People").
|(( cuts ))
|> I wasn't offended. What i was tryong to dig for was your own definition
|> of "romantic." To me the word -- with its root in the roman or tale is a
|> form of expression more than a definition of an emotion. I believe the
|> emotion can be simulated quite easily through the ingestion of
|> phenyethylamine -- but the form that empotion takes -- the
|> characteristic pining and obsession of European romantic love, is a
|> cultural behaviour-set. In other words, i think that Africans also are
|> affected by phenyethylamine, but the way they express the effect in
|> terms of self-description or story-telling will not follow European
|> models.
|> > More that, because of polygamy and (in the past) subjugation of
|> > women, the ideal of 'one true love' seems to never have naturally
|> > sprung up as an important part of African culture.
|So, the ideal(?) of "one true love" is part of the definition of
|"romance" (European). How does that square with the romantic(?) legends
|of Don Juan, the lover of many women, or of Tom Jones? Perhaps they were
|on a prolonged search for the "one true love"? It might be that polygamy
|is better grounded in the reality of human nature, and perhaps women are
|better served by a polygamous and faithful husband, than a serial
|monogamist, or compulsive womanizer. If so, then perhaps "romance"
|(European) is no ideal at all, in which case, why lament its absence in
|African "culture" (earlier it was "religion", btw -- Bucephalus should
|make up his mind). 
|As to the subjugation of women, this is certainly a false premise.
|European pedestalization of women is no yardstick from which to judge
|traditional African treatment of women to be wanting by comparison. In
|the first place, the pedestalization of women in Europe is a fakery that
|masks what is instead *European* subjugation of women. "Women's lib" is
|after all a European and Euro-American invention; there would be no need
|for lib if there weren't subjugation. Still today, as one small example,
|European women are barred from the priesthood. By contrast, it is
|impossible for anyone who has seen traditional African religion from the
|inside, to suggest the subjugation of women: they not only dominate ATR
|priesthood, they have an exalted place within it guaranteed by the
|Iyami, which any disrespecter of women soon learns. Culturally as well,
|traditional African women have dominated the marketplace, and a
|matrilineal rule of succession and inheritance has been the norm.
|Politically, women in African traditional society have usually served in
|a *constitutional* role, with the Queen Mother playing a major part in
|the selection of the king. The matter is complicated (see for example
| and 6) Chancellor
|Williams, "The Destruction of African Civilization" on the traditional
|African "Constitution"), but it is simply incorrect (as well as bad
|scholarship) to assert blithely that women have been subjugated in
|traditional African culture. 
|> Yes, this is an important part of the picture! The troubadour or
|> minnesinger was a man of lower social status than the usually-married
|> upper-class woman he pined for. In other words, her class stauts was
|> part of the package with regard to romantic love.
|I suspect there is a story here that is not told. There has always been
|an African tradition of seduction through song, and I suspect that that
|tradition was transmitted to Europe from Africa, likely through the
|Moors or the Greeks, or both. Some of that tradition we see in the Song
|of Solomon of the bible already referred to: "I am black and handsome, o
|daughters of Jerusalem...", which has shades of Shabba about it. One of
|my Kongo teachers of African traditional religion told me about a
|tradition in which some men could bring a woman to orgasm by song alone.
|I think it is that tradition that continues with such popular singers as
|Shabba, the reggae dance-hall singer, and Barry White, the R&B singer.
|Whoever wrote, and no doubt sang, the original "Song of Solomon" is of
|the same tradition. My suspicion is that the European tradition of the
|mediaeval troubador, pining for unrequited "romantic" love, is but a
|pale imitation of the earlier, lustier, (and more requited) African
|tradition. Certainly, not only teeny-boppers, but grown women can be
|made to drop their drawers for a sufficiently sweet song, well enough
|rendered. The failure of the European troubador in that respect is no
|reason to exalt that tradition into some sort of fake ideal. From the
|African perspective, the proper response, as always, is to "get real!".
|Take some lessons from Shabba if necessary. Or learn from the
|(liberated) European women who would much rather be made to drop their
|drawers from the sheer seductive power of a song (they descend on the
|Caribbean in droves every year seeking to do just that), than to be
|pedestalized by some fake troubador who can pine unrequited till thy
|kingdom come, but can't otherwise cut the mustard. Come to think of it,
|Elvis Presley and Mick Jagger got the idea...
|> If wives can be purchased, and in multitude at that, there is little
|> left to long for.
|See the movie "Kama Sutra". Here was a king who could have (almost) any
|woman he wanted, certainly any courtesan he wanted. Yet the one woman
|whose *heart* he wanted, he could not have. With disastrous consequences
|for her lover, btw... 
|> One Northern African / Middle Eastern tale presents us with tentative
|> gestures of romantic longing. It is told in the Bible (Book of Genesis,
|> Chapter 29), and is the story of Jacob, who worked seven years to earn
|> Rachel as his bride and was then the victim of a bait-and-switch scam by
|> his prospective father-in-law, who substituted her sister Leah instead
|> -- causing Jacob to work another seven years to get Rachel, whom he
|> really loved. The implication is that *something* motivated Jacob's
|> heroic act of self-sacrifice to achieve his love-goal, but the story
|> never flatly comes out and says that, does it? And it is not Sub-Saharan
|> African, anyway, although the links between ancient Jews and ancient
|> Africans are genetically and culturally sound.
|"Sub-Saharan"? That is another one of those European conceptions that is
|devoid of real meaning. The African people who are called "sub-Saharan"
|today are the same Africans who populated not only the Nile Valley
|during the Old Kingdom (take a look at the profile of the Sphinx, for
|God's sake!, or of the bust of Narmer, the first Pharaoh of the first
|dynasty) but as far away as Japan, and indeed as far away as Tasmania in
|the South Pacific. The genetically proven cousins of the European Jew
|are a "sub-Saharan" (Bantu) people, the Lemba of southern Africa. And in
|"The Africans who Wrote the Bible", Darkwah argues convincingly that the
|Jews of Europe originated from a mixed "multitude" of African tribes
|that seceded in the famous "Exodus" from Ancient Egypt, and that the
|so-called "lost" tribes went into inner Africa. Some of those are the
|Akan, a "sub-Saharan" people found in today's Ghana. They still enjoy
|matzoh, though by the name "matsa". Many of their religious practices
|are right out of Leviticus. And many Jewish family names are clearly
|Akan, for example, Netanyahu (the name of a former Israeli Prime
|Minister) is a combination of two Akan names, Netey and Nyaho. The
|Jewish patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Esau are also Akan names,
|rendered in today's orthography respectively as "Abre ham", "Sakyi",
|"Gyakobo", and "Sau". And no, the Jews were not originally white, or
|even "semitic", before going into inner Africa to become African. They
|were originally black African, and laer became white through
|inter-mingling in Europe. The entire biblical cast of characters
|referred to in the Old Testament were black African, including Joseph
|(Osafo in Akan), Jesus (Ayesu in Akan) and Mary, no different from
|today's so-called "sub-Saharan" African. 
|> > Of course, most of my reading on
|> > the subject has been from British anthropologists who may have
|> > moulded evidence to fit what they hoped to find - I'd like to think
|> > I'm at too early a stage in my research to fall into that trap, but
|> > I see your concerns.
|> It's a trap -- at least you are aware of it, and that's the best you can
|> do, given the nature of the evidence gathered in the past.
|(( cuts ))
|> No problem -- i find this subject of yours -- romantic love in African
|> materials -- to be of interest, despite (or perhaps because of) its
|> scarcity.
|It is a fake ideal, to all appearances spurned even by those who would
|be its beneficiaries, namely Euro women. 
|> cat yronwode
|[trying to "keep it real"}


Email address: grisso@TheAfrican.Com.