The Ashanti of the Gold Coast
Nowadays, the most generally accepted story is that the Ashanti are a part of the “Akan stock” which migrated to the Gold coast, now know as the French Ivory Coast. The Ashanti settled in the forest belt where they found the town of “Kumasi” in about 1665. The clans in this vicinity forms a military confederation against the neighboring state of “Denkera”, to which they were tributary, and defeats it in the “Ashanti-Denkera” war of 1669. Ashanti then becomes a powerful nation which conqers one neighboring tribe after another.
The desire to trade with Europeans on the coast, particurlary in order to obtain flintlock guns and ammunition, lead to wars with the coastal tribes, and eventually with the British who protects them. The most famous of the 8 campaigns fight against the British between 1806 and 1896 are the battle of “Insamankow”, on June 21st 1824, when the Ashanti defeat the British forces, capture and kill the Governor, Sir Charles MacCarthy, and 8 other British officers; The battle of “Dodowa” on August 7th 1826, when the British assisted by allies of the coastal tribes defeat the Ashanti; The invasion in 1874, to which allusion has already been made, and the capture and exile of the king of Ashanti in 1896.
The basis of the Ashanti confederation is military but, in spite of external successes, the available data supports the view that even at the height of her military glory, Ashanti was not a stable nation internally, for the chiefdoms of the confederation were jealous of their regional autonomy. What holds them together is their allegiance to the "Golden Stool" which is the religious symbol of their unity. The strength of the union rested on military power as well as on religious belief.
The many wars and conquests of the Ashanti brought into their midst slaves, captives, and immigrants from different tribes of the Gold Coast. Ashanti religion was very hospitable, and the Ashanti took over the beliefs, the gods, and the rites of conquered as well as those of neighboring tribes; from the Moslim north they bought charms and amulets which were highly prized for the protection they were believed to give in battle. None of these borrowed faiths displaced the fundamental beliefs of the Ashanti. New Gods and faiths are merely additions which were believed to give more power and protection against the spirits and forces of the world.
Today the Ashanti are largely agricultural people, though there is an increasing diversity and differentiation of economic pursuits; there are changes not only in economic activities, but in all aspects of life; for as a result of the long contacts with Europe, 50 years of British rule, the rapid growth of the cocoa trade, developments in education, trade and commerce, and transport, and the introduction of new laws and political ideas, Ashanti is undergoing a social change that may be described as a revolution; it may be asked to what extent all this has affected the cosmology of the Ashanti people.
In recent years Ashanti religion proves similarly hospitable to Christianity. But the world outlook of the Ashanti and their interpretation of the universe is but little affected by the turbulent events of the last three hundred years; they hold very largely to their ancestral beliefs and practices.
The Ashanti’s world of Spirits: To the Ashanti the universe is full of spirits. There is the Great Spirit, the Supreme Being, who creates all things, and who manifests his power through a pantheon of Gods; below these are lesser spirits which animate trees, animals, or charms; and then there are the ever-present spirits of the ancestors, “Nsamanfo”, whose constant contact with the life of man on the earth brings the world of the spirits very close to the land of the living.
The Ashanti conception of a Supreme Being can be gathered from the titles ascribed to him. He is according to the Ashanti, older than all things that lives on earth, “ Asae tere, na Onyame ne Panin”. He is “Onyankopan”, Alone, the Great one; “Tweaduampon”, the dependable one; “Odoankoma”, the Eternal one; “Ananse Kokroko”, the great spider, that is, the wise one; he is also personalized as “Onyankopon Kwame”, the Great one who appeared on Saturday.
According to a well-known myth: ‘ “Onyankopon”, long ago lived very near to men. At that time, His abode is the sky. There is a certain old woman who pound her “Fufu”, a meal of mashed yam or plantain, and, whenever she does so, the long pestle she uses knocks against “Onyankopon”, who lives just above in the sky.So one day “Onyankopon” says that because of what she has been doing he is taking himself away far up in the sky where men can no longer approach him. Whereupon the old woman instructs her children to collect all the mortars they can find, and pile them on top of the other. They do so until they require only one mortar to add to the pile so that it could reach to “Onyanpokon”. As they can not find another mortar, the old woman advise her children to take one mortar from the bottom, and put it on top. The children accordingly remove one mortar from the bottom, and when they do so, all the other mortars roll and fall to the ground killing many people.
The idea of the original nearness of God illustrated by this myth gains support from the Ashanti belief that everyone has direct access to the Supreme Being. This is expressed in an old Ashanti maxim: “Obi Kwan nsi obi kwan mu”, no man’s path crosses another’s, meaning that everyone has a direct path to the Supreme Being. There is another saying: “ Obi nkyere abofra Onyame”, which can mean either, no-one shows a child the Supreme being, he knows by instinct, or, no-one shows the child the sky, by the sky being the abode for Supreme Being. The Ashanti never have special priest for the Supreme Being, though every God, “Obosom”, has a priest.
Outside many house in old Ashanti villages are altars to the Supreme Being which consists of a three-forked stick cut from the “Nyame dua”, the Tree of God, with a basin or a pot, a gourd placed between the forks. Into the receptacle, offerings of food and wine are placed for the Supreme Being. This does not require the offices of a special priest; anyone can place his own offering in the receptacle. Though many of these altars are to be seen in Ashanti villages some 20 years ago, they have now become extremely rare. This, however, has not affected the belief in the Supreme Being. As the myth of the old woman and her “Fufu” proves, the Ashanti have for a long time held the belief that the Supreme Being has removed himself too far for man to approach directly, and can only be approached through intermediary deities. Though Ashanti religious ceremonials concern these intermediary deities and the spirits of the ancestors, the people have a feeling of awe and veneration for the Supreme Being who is high above all deities and who animates them all.
According to Ashanti belief, the Gods, “Abosom” derive their power from the Supreme Being. They come from him and are parts of him. A God is but the mouthpiece of the Supreme Being “Onyankopon Kyeame”, a servant acting as intermediary between creator and creature. There is a whole pantheon of these Gods, for their number is being added to all the time. Some acquire a country-wide fame for a season and then pass into oblivion; while others, like the “Ntoa”, gods of “Nkoranza, “Wenchi”, and “Techiman”, or the “Tano”, have become tribal gods, having elaborate annual festivals held in their honor.
Of these deities, the most powerful are those that are the spirits of rivers. An Ashanti myth has it that all the rivers, the “Tano”, the “Bea”, the “Bosomtwe Lake” near “Kumasi”, and the mighty sea, are children of the Supreme Being. The latter decides to send these children to the earth so that they might receive honor from men, and in turn might confer benefits on mankind. The Supreme Being himself plans where he send each of his children. The goat got to know of these plans. He and “Bea” are great friends, so he tells “Bea” that whenever their father send for them he should go quickly so that he can arrive before his brothers.
One day the Supreme Being send for his children and “Bea” runs quickly and get there first; so the father assigns to him the cool and shady forest country which have been intended for “Tano”, the favorite son. “Tano” therefore is sent to the grassy plains, and each child in turn is given a place different from the original plan, owing to the goat having revealed the plan to “Bea”. For this reason, all the worshippers of “Tano” as well as those of the other sons avoid the goat as a hateful creature. As the myth indicates, the Ashanti regard the rivers as having spirits which they derive from the Creator, and many Gods are the children of rivers. As a woman gives birth to a child, so may water to a God.
The God requires a temporary abode and a priest. The temporary abode may be a tree, a river or a rock; or a priest might prepare for the spirit of his god a wooden image or mound of mud daubed with blood and placed in a basin and kept in a temple. The God will not always be present in this temporary abode which he enters at will or when called there by the priest.
Rattray tells in detail how the shrines of the Gods are prepared, and how the priests are chosen and trained. Many Ashanti priest claim that they are chosen directly by the spirit of the God he serves. It may be that he goes into the forest and suddenly discovers a flaming stone charged with power, the temporary dwelling-place of a spirit; such is the case of “Di Amono” found at “Gyansoso” near “Wenchi” in 1935; the discoverer becomes the priest of the God who has thus revealed himself. This priest to be, after the discovery, remains in the forest alone for several days, and when found, behave in a most abnormal way; it is thought that he is going mad, until an older priest who is consulted declares that the man is possessed by the spirit of a God. A shrine containing the stone is subsequently prepared, and the novice is initiated into the mysteries of the priesthood so that he can understand and interpret the will of the God that possesses him. A similar story is told of the priest of “Kwaku Fri”, still a powerful God at “Nwoase” where people from all over the Gold Coast come to consult him. The spirit of the God possesses the man who is now his priest while he is away in the forest, where he remains for several days until he is discovered.
The spirit of the God speaks through his priest, sometimes by displacing the personality of the priest, so that he becomes a mere medium behaving and speaking as compelled by the spirit that possesses him. In such instances, a trained spokesman interprets the utterances and gestures of the priest. At the other times the priest may interpret the will of the God through drawing leather thongs, or throwing cowrie shells or sticks, or casting a bone or stone die, or watching the fluttering of a slain chicken and the position in which it comes to rest. The Gods are besought to grant health, or children, or prosperity in business, or protection from misfortune and from witches.
Animals and trees are also believed to have souls, though not all are powerful enough to cause harm to men: but there are some plants and animals that have powerful souls, and these must be propitiated. Thus an Ashanti craftsman will endeavor to propitiate certain trees before he cuts them. He will offer an egg, for example, to the “Odum” tree, saying: ‘I am going to cut you down and carve you; do not let me suffer harm’.
In the same way, the drummer, whenever he begins to drum on ceremonial occasions, addresses the spirit of the cedar tree from which the drum is made, saying:
Spirit of the Cedar tree,
The creator’s drummer announces,
that he has made himself to arise,
As the cock crowed at dawn.
We are addressing you, and you will understand.
A similar invocation is addressed to the Elephant that breaks the axe, because the tense membrane of the drum is made of the skin of an elephant’s ear:
Spirit of the Elephant,
The Creator’s drummer announces,
That he has started from his sleep,
He has roused himself at early dawn.
Below the Gods, “Abosom” are minor deities, “Asuman” that derive their power from the “Abosom”, or from the soul of plants and trees. The “Suman” may be in the form of beads, or medicine balls carried on strings or in a sheep’s horn or a gourd. Some of them are no more than charms or talismans that can be regarded as impersonal forces acting in obedience to secret formulas and operations; the Ashanti themselves, however, believe that ultimately all “Asuman” derive their power from some other supernatural beings. A “Suman” protects the wearer and guards him against harm, or assists him to gain his personal ends, and functions effectively or not, according to the care given to it.
The Earth too has spiritual powers. IT is her spirit that makes the plants grow; she has the power of fertility. She is not a deity, for she has no priests or priestesses, and does not divine. But offerings are made to “Asase Yaa” so that she may help the plants grow, and guard the farmer from misfortune, and the sense of dependence on the earth is preserved in the poetry of the drum language:
Earth and dust,
The Dependable one,
I lean upon you.
Earth, when I’m about to die,
I lean upon you.
Earth, while I’m alive,
I depend on you.
Earth, while i’m alive,
I depend on you.
Earth that receives dead bodies,
The Creators drummer says,
From wherever he went,
HE has roused himself,
He has roused himself.
There are belief in black magic and witchcraft too. The forests are believed to be inhabited by the “Mmoatia”, the little folk, and by forest monsters and witches. It is the little folk that teaches medicine men the arts of healing, and also teaches them black magic. In league with the “Mmoatia” and the witches, “Abayifo”, is “Sasabonsam”, the forest monster that is very hostile to hunters and priests. “Sasabonsam” is covered with long hair, has large blood-shot eyes, long legs, and feet pointing both ways. It sits on high branches of an “Odum” or “Onyina” tree and dangles its legs with which at times hooks up the unwary hunter. Belief in these forest monsters is on the wane, but tales of hunters being taught the arts of healing by the “Mmoatia” is still on, and may be heard in remote villages. Belief in witchcraft is still prevalent.
To the Ashanti, Nature is a world of spirits. It is filled with the spirits of rivers, trees, rocks, and animals and with the malignant spirits of fairies and forest monsters. Yet all spirits are subservient to the Supreme Being, from whom ultimately they all derive their power. Of the wide, wide earth, the Supreme Being is the Elder.
Man and Society in the Ashanti world: According to the Ashanti, man is both a biological and spiritual being. This recognized by the Ashanti myth that human being from the blood, “Mogya” of the mother and the spirit, “Ntoro” of the father. his belief reflects Ashanti social organization. Two sets of bonds, a mother-child bond and a father-child bond, derive from their conception of procreation, and determine two sets of groupings and relationships.
It is believed that the link between one generation and another is provided by the blood which is transmitted through the mother. An Ashanti therefore traces his descent through his mother. The mother-child bond makes him a member of his mother’s kin group. He is a member of his mother’s lineage which consists of all the descendants of both sexes who trace their genealogy through the female line to a common ancestress. This group is a localized group, and belongs to a chiefdom which it regards as its home. It may be so large a group that the members will seldom all meet together except at the funeral of a member of the lineage. Effective Kinship obligations tend to be observed within smaller segments of the lineage; such a segment seldom includes more than 4 generations of uterine descendants of an ancestress, and living together is important for effective co-operation. This is recognized, for in old Ashanti villages the members of a lineage lived close to one another in the same ward. The lineage is also a political unit; the lineage head represents it on the chief’s council. The mother-child bond therefore confers the rights and obligations of citizenship. It also determines a man’s status and his title to office or property, since succession and inheritance are transmitted in the matrilineal line.
The mother-child bond, which makes a man a member of his mother’s lineage, also makes him a member of a wider group, her clan. Every Ashanti lineage belongs to one of the 7 clans, “ Mmusuaban” of Ashanti. The number of clans is sometimes given as 8, but some of the best authorities on Ashanti custom maintain that there are 7 clans in Ashanti and group them as follow: 1, “Oyoko ne Dako”; 2, “Bretuo ne Agona”; 3, “Ason”; 4, “Asenie”; 5, “Aduana”; 6, “Ekuona ne Asokore”; 7, “Asakyiri”.
It is believed that all the lineages of a clan are matrilineal descendants from a single remote ancestress. The clan system is common to all the Akan people, and is one of the most important indices of their cultural unity. No clan members of different local lineages can, however, show their genealogical connexion, or even give the name of the ancestress from whom they claim a common ancestry. The concept is therefore mythical, but it is nevertheless an important unifying myth, for members of the same clan behave towards on another as though they are distant kin. The mother-child bond is therefore the basis of a wide network of relationships. It links a man with his near kins men, his fellow citizens, and with his society, for wherever he travels he finds someone with whom he has lineage or clan-ship ties.
The biological bond has religious significance too. The commemoration of ancestors links lineages and clans and, through the chief, it links the tribe and nation. Ancestor-worship emphasizes the unity of matrilineal ancestry.
The father-child is a spiritual one. Besides the blood which a man inherits from his mother, the Ashanti believe that every man receives a “Sunsum” and also a “Kra”. A man’s “Sunsum” is his ego, his personality, his distinctive character. It is not divine, but perishes with the man. A man’s “Kra” is a life force, the small bit of the Creator that lives in every person’s body. It returns to the Creator when the person dies. It is the Supreme Being that directly gives to a man this spirit or life when he is about to be born, and with it the man’s destiny.
The human being is formed from the blood of his mother and the spirit of the father. An old Ashanti informant explains the latter process by saying: “Sunsum” is that which you take with you to go to the side of the woman and lie with her; and then the “Onyankopn”, the great one, takes his “Kra” and bless your union. You give your “Sunsum” to your child, not your “Kra”. He comes with his own “Kra”. As the Supreme Being gives you a “Kra”, so he gives your child his “Kra”. A child receives two spiritual gifts, a “Sunsum” and a “Kra”. A father transmits his “Sunsum” to the child; this is what moulds the child’s personality and disposition. The Ashanti believe that a child cannot thrive if his father’s “Sunsum” is alienated, and a priest sometimes says of a sick child that he is ill because his father’s “Sunsum” is aggrieved.
In the explanation given by the old informant, he uses the word “Sunsum”, the personal power, or cast of countenance, or personality of a man. But more often the Ashanti will say that a man transmits his “Ntoro”, spirit to his child. The 2 terms are synonymous. “Ntoro” is a generic word of which “Sunsum” is a specific instance. Just as every Ashanti belongs to a clan, every Ashanti belongs to a “Ntoro” group. The latter consist of a group that share the same spirit; it is a spirit-washing or cleansing-group. A man’s “Sunsum” is a child of his “Ntoro”; and all who belong to the same “Ntoro” are believed to have similar “Sunsum”. Hence it can be rightly said that a man transmits his “Ntoro” to his children.
Owing to the fact that the practices connected with the “Ntoro” have ceased to be generally observed, very few in Ashanti today have clear ideas about it. Though every Ashanti belongs to a “Ntoro” category, there are many who cannot answer correctly the question, What “Ntoro” do you wash?
For the same reason the answers that are given as to the total number of “Ntoro” groupings vary from one locality to another. In Kumasi, a group of experts on Ashanti customs gave the number as seven as follows:
Sub-groups, Adufudee, Akrudee, Asadofee, Aninie.
2.Bosompra: Sub-groups, Aboadee, Ankamadua.
3.Atwide: Sub-group, Agyinadee.
4.Agyaadefo: Sub-group, Nkatia.
Dr. Danquah, after his extensive research into the dual family system of the “Akan”, gives twelve principal “Ntoro” groups as follows:
4.Bosompo or Bosom-Nketea
The constant prefix "Bosom” emphasizes the fact that each “Ntoro” is believed to be under the aegis of a God, “Bosom”. It is also noteworthy that six of these are rivers, one is lake, and one refers to the sea. The Ashanti myth which declares that these are children of a Supreme Being has been narrated above. In the same way that these children of the Supreme Being share his spirit, so the “Ntoro” are children of the rivers from whom they derive their spirits; and in the same way that the “Ntoro is a child of the rivers so the “Sunsum” of a man is a child of the “Ntoro” and shares its nature; thus again, all spiritual power derives from the Supreme Being. As it is the father who is the immediate transmitter of his son’s “Sunsum” from the “Ntoro”, the spiritual bond between father and son is immediate and close.
This spiritual bond is further strengthened by the belief that all who belong to the same “Ntoro” manifest the same characteristics. Each “Ntoro” transmits a particular type of charcter to its members. Thus, Dr. Danquah gives the distinctive character of each the twelve “Ntoro” groups listed above as follows:
1.Bosompra, The Tough
2.Bosomtwi, The Human
3.Bosommuru, The Distinguished
4.Bosom-Nketea or Bosompo, The Audacious
5.Bosom-Dwerebe, The Eccentric
6.Bosom-Akom, The Fanatic
7.Bosomafi, The Chaste
8.Bosomayesu, The Truculent
9.Bosom-Konsi, The Virtuoso
10.Bosomsika, The Fastidious
11.Bosomafram, The Liberal
12.Bosomkrete, The Chivalrous
In addition, each “Ntoro” group has taboos which each member observes; Thus the “Bosommuru” group taboo thew ox, the python, and the dog; the “Bosompra”, the leopard and a white fowl; the “Bosomtwi”, the bush buck, etc... Each “Ntoro” group also has its own sacred day for the purification or washing of spirits.
Another practice which linked members of the same “Ntoro” is the fact that each “Ntoro” have a number of surname which are commonly borne by the members, and one can tell a person’s “Ntoro” by his surname. Examples are:
Bosommuru: Osei, Owusu, Poku, Saakodie, Amankwaa, Safo, Nti, Anin. Bosompra: Dua, Boakye, Boaten, Akyeampon, Ofori, Bediako, etc...
Bosom-Nketea: Duko, Baafi, Adom etc...
Members of the same “Ntoro” also used the same forms of the response to greetings, and again the Ashanti man who know these forms can tell a person’s “Ntoro” from his response to a greeting. For the three groups above, these responses are:
Bosommuru: Akudonro; Aburu;
Bosompra: Aku; Eson;
Bosom-Nketea: Essua; Anyaado;
Thus members af the same “Ntoro” are linked by the observance of common taboos, and the use of common surnames and common forms of etiquette. All these served to strengthen the spiritual bond between father and son. The spiritual nature of the bond between them is again emphasized by the fact that a father is held responsible for his son’s moral behavior, and although a son belongs to his mother’s lineage, it is the father who is liable for any damages that are claimed if his son commits adultery with another’s man wife.
Social values and filial and parental bonds are thus given meaning within the Ashanti system of belief. Man as a biological being inherits his blood from his mother; this gives him his status and membership within the lineage, the clan, and the tribe, and his rights and obligations as a citizen; moreover, as is discussed below, the concept of a life hereafter and of a spirit world, and the consequent worship of the ancestors, provides a religious link and an unbroken continuity with all one’s matriarch.
As a spiritual being, a man receives a twofold gift of the spirit: that which determines his character and his individuality he receives through his father; but his soul, the undying part of him, he receives direct from the Supreme Being.
One part comes via his father from the father’s “Ntoro” which, in turn, receives its spiritual power from one of the river, sons of the Supreme Being. The blood that is transmitted through the mother, the personality that comes indirectly from the Supreme Being through intermediaries, that small bit of the Creator which is in every person’s body and which he receives directly from the Supreme Being, combine to make a man what he is.
These gifts, too, define his place in the universe, linking him with the world of nature and of man. All this is what the Ashanti mean when they declare: “ Nnipa nyina ye Onyame mma, obi nye asase ba”. Meaning, All men are children of the Supreme Being, no-one is a child of the earth.
The political organization of the Ashanti: We know that Ashanti social organization is based on the rule of matrilineal descent, and that the mother-child bond makes one a member of a lineage and so of a chiefdom; for Ashanti Division, Chiefdom is an aggregate of social units: the lineage, the village, and the sub-division. A chiefdom is really a combination of localized lineages inhabiting a given territory and forming a political community.
Ashanti political organization is thus based on kinship. Each lineage is a political unit having its own headman who represents it on what becomes the governing body; that is, representation is based on kinship, and each lineage head is a councilor. The lineage head is chosen by the adult men and women of the lineage.
In a similar way, the chief who rules the tribe is also chosen from a particular lineage by the heads of the other lineages. Kin-right and popular selection are thus combined in the choice of a ruler.
An ashanti Division is administered on the basis of organized kinship groups through the lineage, village, and sub-division by a system of decentralization. Each unit is left to manage its own affairs under its own head or council, and to provide such public services as it needed by communal labor. Issues that affects the whole tribe are decided by a tribal council of lineage heads.
The principal administrative tasks are the keeping of law and order, the defense of the tribe from attack by other tribes, the maintenance of amicable relations among persons and groups within the community, and between the community and its ancestors and gods. In the judicial system of Ashanti, the central authority, the chief and his council of lineage heads, takes official cognizance only of offenses which endangered the good relations between the community and its ancestors and Gods, for the maintenance of those relations are deemed essential for the well-being of the community. Other offenses are left to be settled by arbitration, but they could be brought before the central authority by swearing the chief’s oath; that is, by deliberately uttering words that were tabooed; as this constituted a threat to the amicable relations existing between the living and the ancestors of the chief, it has to be inquired into; what is otherwise a private issue is thus brought under the category of offenses which endangers the well-being of the whole community.
This emphasizes the close link that exists in Ashanti cosmology between the world of the living and the world of the spirits. The Ashanti believe that there is a world of spirit, “Asaman”, where all their ancestors live a life very similar to life on earth, and this conception is implicit in Ashanti funeral rites. The dead are given food and drink and gold-dust to help them on their journey to the the world of spirits. Receptacles, bedding, ornaments , and clothing which it is believed they will require in the world of spirits are buried with them, and the newly dead are asked to convey messages to the ancestors.
An ashanti has his ancestors constantly in mind. At meals , the old Ashanti offers the first morsel of food to the ancestors, and pour libations to them daily. It is believed that success and prosperity in this life depend on the favor of the ancestors. At the grave-yard, before the coffin is finally covered, the deceased is addressed by a member of his lineage, as follow: "You are leaving us today; we have performed your funeral. Do not let any of us fall ill. Let us get money to pay the expenses of your funeral.Let the women bear children. life to all of us. Life to the chief."
That prayer expresses the sense of the dependence on the ancestors. They are believed to be constantly watching over their living relatives. They punish those who break the customs, or fail to fulfill their obligations to their kinsfolk. to such people they send misfortune and illness or even death. Stories are constantly circulating in Ashanti villages of deaths caused by the intervention of ancestors, and priests of the Gods also often declare that sickness has been caused by an ancestor because of some guilt or misconduct on the part of the sufferer. On the other hand, those who obey the laws and customs and fulfill their obligations receive the help and blessing of the ancestors. The latter see to it that the crop of such people are plentifull, that children are born to them, and that their undertakings prosper.
Accordingly, each lineage has its blackened stool which is the shrine of its ancestors. On the shrine the head of the lineage at the appropriate seasons offers food and drink to the ancestors, praying that they may protect the members of the lineage, bless them with health and long life, that the women may bear children, and that their farms may yield food in plenty.
Such beliefs and practices give chiefship in Ashanti a special significance. Every lineage is believed to be protected by its own ancestors, but it is the dead rulers, the ancestors of the royal lineage, that guard and protect the whole tribe or chiefdom. In the central rite of a chief’s installation the chief-elect is gently lowered and raised three times over the blackened stool of the ancestor believed to be the founder of the royal lineage.
By this ceremony the chief is believed to have been brought into a peculiarly close relationship with his ancestors. Thereupon his person becomes sacred. This emphasized by taboos. He may not strike or be struck by anyone; he should not walk bare-footed; and, as the drummer regularly reminds him on the talking drums, he should always tread gently; a chief walks gently, majestically, lest he stumble; his buttocks must never touch the ground. The occurrence of any of these incidents would, it is believed, cause some misfortune to befall the community, unless the expected calamity be averted by sacrifice.
An ashanti chief is thus important not only as a civil ruler who is the axis of the political relations of his people and the one in whom the various lineages that compose the tribe find their unity; he is also the symbol of their identity and continuity as a tribe and the embodiment of their spiritual values. An Ashanti chief fills a sacred role as the one who sits upon the stool of the ancestors.
That stool, the symbol of his power, is what the famous Ashanti priest, “Anokye”, described as the ‘soul of the nation’. It is the sacred emblem of the tribe’s permanence and continuity. The chief as the occupant of the stool represents all those who have occupied it before him. He is the link, the intermediary, between the living and the dead; for, according to the conception which the Ashanti share with other “Akan” tribes, the dead, the living, and those still to be born of the tribe are all members of one family, and it is the stool that binds that family together.
These sentiments are kept alive in the “Adae” and “Odwera” ceremonies. At the “Adae” ceremonies, the departed rulers are recalled, food and drink are offered to them, and their favors are solicited for the welfare of the tribe. An “Adae” occurs every 21 days, known alternately as “Kwasidae” or “Adae Kese”, and “Wukudae”.
The former, the Great “Adae”, falls on sundays, and the latter on Wednesdays, so that there are 6 weeks between one Great “Adae”, “Kwasidae” or “Adae Kese” and the succeeding Great “Adae”, and 6 weeks between 1 little “Adae”, “Wukudae” and the next little “Adae”. So every third week, on an “Adae” day, wether it is a great “Adae” or a little one, an Ashanti chief officiates before the ancestral stools and prays to his ancestors on behalf of the tribe, asking that the earth may be fruitful, and that the tribe may prosper and increase in numbers.
On the eve of an “Adae” the talking drums announce to the people that the “Adae” falls on the following day. The stool treasurer and the stool carriers will already have secured the sheep and drink that will be needed. Early in the morning, the chief, accompanied by his spokesmen, “Akyeame” and elders, enters the stool-house. As they enter the sacred place, they take their sandals off their feet and bare their shoulders as a mark of respect to the ancestors who are believed to be present where their stool are kept.
The chief then reverently offers drink and meat from a sheep that is slaughtered there to the ancestors. Placing a piece of meat on each stool, he offers the prayer: ‘Today is Adae; come and receive this and eat; let the tribe prosper; let those of child-bearing age bear children; may all the people get money; long life to us all; long life to the tribe."
Then he takes a bottle of rum, pours some into a glass, and letting a few drops fall on each stool he repeats the prayer: ‘Today is Adae; come and receive this and eat; let the tribe prosper; let those of child-bearing age bear children; may all the people get money; long life to us all; long life to the tribe."
When the rites in the stool-house are over, a public ceremony is held. The chief takes his seat in an open space or court-yard, surrounded by his councillors, drummers, and minstrels. Each lineage head or sub-chief, accompanied by his subjects and members of his lineage, ceremonially greets the chief and takes his place in the gathering. There is drumming and dancing in which everyone is free to join. The minstrels chant the traditions of the tribe, and the brave deeds of its departed rulers. The talking drums extol the chief:
We salute you as chief,
We salute you as chief;
Who is a chief?
Who is a chief?
He is a chief who is worthy to be called master;
We extol you,
Man among men,
Hero, royal of royals.
The drums will call the chief the powerful one, the valiant one, the benefactor and mother of the tribe, the defender of his people. The ruling chief may not himself deserve these appellations, but his ancestors did, and it is as their representative that he is thus addressed and extolled. They praise him because as chief he is the embodiment of the highest values of the tribe, the one who sits upon the stool of the ancestors. It is the ancestors who recalled at the “Adae” ceremony; it is they whom the tribe seeks to propitiate in order that it may receive blessing from them.
The “Odwera” ceremony was an annual festival which lasted from a week to a fortnight. Sheep, drink, and first fruits of the year were offered to the ancestors and the Gods. At one of these ceremonies, when yams, eggs, sheep, and drink were offered to a tribal God by the chief, the priest prayed: ‘Drabo (name of God), the edges of the year have met. The chief has given you yams, he has given you a sheep, he has given you eggs, and now he has brought this drink. Let the tribe prosper; may the women bear children; do not let our children die, protect them; those who have gone to trade, may they get money; may there be peace during the present chief’s reign.’
As part of the “Odwera” celebrations, the chief and his people in a long procession visited the royal mausoleum, “Ban mu” and offered sacrifices and prayers there also. At one such ceremony the prayer offered to the ancestors was: ‘ Here is food; all you ancestors receive this and eat; the year has come round again; today we celebrate it; bring us blessing; blessing to the chief who sits on your stool; health to the people; let women bear children’ let the men prosper in their undertakings; life to all; we thank you for the good harvest; for standing behind us well, guarding and protecting us; Blessing, blessing, blessing.’
the “Odwera” is also a time for the cleansing of the tribe from defilement, and for the purification of the shrines of the ancestral spirits and tribal Gods. The rites of cleansing and purification usually took place in a stream where the chief took a ritual bath, and water sprinkled on the shrines and on all who are present, as a symbolic act of cleansing. A piacular sacrifice of a black hen symbolized the removal of all that had defiled the tribe, and the new year begins with a ritual feast which the living and the dead are believed to share. All who partook of this feast are believed to receive strength and health and blessing.
The cycle of rites observed during the “Odwera” portrays all the elements of Ashanti religious faith: the Supreme Being, the Gods, the Rivers, and the ancestors were all propitiated. The offerings of food and drink to the ancestors show how human they are in the conception of the Ashanti, as do the direct simplicity and naturalness of the prayers. The dominant interests of the tribe are also shown in the prayer; these are food, drink, prosperity, and increase those things which are needed for the sustenance of life and the continuity of the tribe. Their preoccupation is with this life, not with the next. They seek aid in order that they may achieve success in this life.
In connexion with the role of the ancestors, it may be added that the Ashanti believe that the land they inhabit belongs to the ancestors, and that the living have inherited from them only the right to use it. They in turn must hand it on to their children. Hence the inquirer is often told, ‘The land belongs to the stool; or the land belongs to the chief’. They both mean the same: the ancestors own the land. the stool and the chief are their symbols.
Thus in the Ashanti conception the ancestors sustain the tribe. They have given them the land; they watch and protect them, and send them the things they need. In the ceremonies and prayers described above, the reverence of the Ashanti for their ancestors and their sense of the dependence on them are apparent. The ceremonies by which these sentiments are given expression persist in the face of the revolutionary changes taking place in Ashanti today. The strength of an Ashanti chiefdom is founded on the belief in the ancestors, and the sentiments of unity and solidarity associated with their worship.
The contemporary Situation in the Gold Coast: The preceding sections have shown that Ashanti cosmology is predominantly animistic. Though, according to Ashanti belief, the Supreme Being is remote, he is nevertheless conceived as a spirit and a person; the Gods, his children, are also spirits animated by the Supreme Being, temporarily inhabiting a tree or rock or river or shrine; men are endowed with blood and a twofold spirit: first, the man’s own personality, second, his soul; the latter lives on after death in the world of spirits whence the ancestors watch over the living and protect and guard them. Animals and inanimate objects too have spirits, and are to be propitiated according as their spirits are conceived to be strong and potentially harmful or not.
The universe of the Ashanti is largely a personalized universe, and their behavior towards the supernatural conceived in animistic terms is the same as their familiar behavior in normal human relationships and intercourse. Attention has been drawn to the characteristic naturalness and simplicity of Ashanti prayers. As accounts given above have shown, the Ashanti employ the techniques of prayer, sacrifice, taboo, and divination. The Gods are treated with respect if they deliver the goods, and with contempt if they fail; it is Supreme Being and the ancestors that are always treated with reverence and awe, a fact which an onlooker who has seen Ashanti chiefs and elders making offerings or pouring libations to the ancestors can hardly fail to observe. The Ashanti, like the other “Akan” tribes, esteem the Supreme Being and the ancestors far above Gods and amulets. Attitudes to the latter depend upon their success, and vary from healthy respect to sneering contempt.
The use of charms and amulets which are believed to work automatically, provided the correct procedure is observed, testifies to the belief in impersonal power; but animistic beliefs and ancestor-worship dwarf the importance and the exercise of impersonal power. The Supreme Being, the Gods, and the ancestors leave little place for it. This is the more so because of the ceremonialism that has grown round ancestor-worship. It has been noted that every 21 days there is the celebration of an “Adae” in which all the people join. An “Adae” is marked not only by prayers and sacrifices, but also by pomp and pageantry, and group dancing and singing. This is a potent means by which belief in the presence and power of the ancestors is constantly renewed and strengthened. The ceremonies are a binding force for the group as a whole, as well as a means of keeping the belief in the ancestors fresh and strong.
Mention has not been made of the existence of totemism in Ashanti, because the evidence available is too scanty for its nature to be defined with satisfactory clarit. Totemism applies to a wide range of behavior and belief, as far as West Africa is concerned. Rattray judged from the taboos observes in connexion with the “Ntoro” divisions that one aspect at least of the “Ntoro” is totemistic. Such evidence as is available shows that the relationship between man and the totem is of the respect for services rendered kind. The totem animal is not eaten or killed, because the myths tells how particular animal befriends the ancestors and helps them during a critical period of their history, either to obtain food, or to escape from a pursuing enemy tribe.
The myths recorded by Rattray belongs to this class; he wrote: It has been seen that the “Ntoro” is considered as being instrumental in the conception of the embryo in the womb. A further proof that this is the belief is given in the following myth, a translation of an account in the vernacular, giving the origin of the first “Ntoro” ever bestowed upon man, to “Bosommuru ntoro”,
Very long ago one man and one woman come down from the sky and one man and one woman come up from the earth.
From the sky God, “Onyame”, also comes a python, “Onini”, and it makes its home in the river now called “Bosommuru”.
At first these men and women does not bear children, they have no desire, and conception and birth are not known at that time.
One day the python asks them if they had no offspring, and on being told they have not, he says he would cause the woman to conceive. He made the couples stand face to face, then he plunges into the river, and rising up, sprays water upon their bellies with the words “kus kus”, and then orders them to return home and lie together.
The woman conceives and brings forth the first children in the world, who took “Bosommuru” as their “Ntoro”, each male passing on this “Ntoro” to his children.
If a “Bosommuru ntoro” man or woman sees a dead python, they would never kill one, they sprinkle white clay upon it and bury it.
“Agyinadie ntoro”, this “ntoro” is supposed to have been given to man in a somewhat similar manner, by the crocodile.
“Bosomtwe ntoro”. This “ntoro” is supposed to have been given to man by “Twe”, the anthropomorphic spirit God of the lake.
“Akankadei ntoro”. “Nyame”, the sky God, very long ago sent down a dove to the earth to a certain man and woman there with his blessing and a promise of children. The Ashanti say that persons of this “ntoro” are to be distinguished by their peaceful natures even to this day.
The Ashanti observe taboos and avoidances not only with regard to the “Ntoro” but also with regard to certain curative medicines and charms. A priest may forbid a patient to eat certain foods while undergoing treatment, or touch certain things, and may prescribe a long list of ‘hateful things’, “Akyiwade” which may refer to conduct as well as food and drink. As the practices connected with “Ntoro” taboos have become obsolete, it is difficult to obtain information that will enable the nature of Ashanti totemism to be clarified. In discussing the contemporary situation it is correct to say that totemism does not count either for practical purposes or in matters of belief or conduct.
It has often said that Ashanti religion has no ethical content. If this means that the Ashanti do not aspire to grow like the Gods, then it would be true. The Ashanti do not seek identification with the Supreme Being or the Gods; their emphasis is not on becoming, and therefore there is little emphasis on morality. But the Ashanti have concepts of right and wrong, of acceptable and unacceptable behavior, culturally define in terms of their own life and belief and, a has been apparent in the brief accounts given, the ancestors and Gods punish those who violate the traditionally sanctioned code, and reward those who keep it. Within their own culture, then, Ashanti religion is ethical. it will be seen from their prayers that the Gods and ancestors are expected not only to see that the crops grow, that children are born, that the members of the tribe prosper, that they succeed in their trading ventures or wars; but also that proper behavior is rewarded and offenses are punished. The Ashanti conception of a good society is one in which harmony is achieved among the living, and between the living and the Gods and ancestors, a fact that is thrown in bold relief in their judicial system.
There are both Christian and Moslem converts in Ashanti today. The system of belief in a Supreme Being and a pantheon of Gods, in animated nature, and in ancestors is not an inhospitable one. Nevertheless, Christianity has been a source of conflict in Ashanti. The nature of the conflict is thus explained in an official report on Ashanti 1905: The tendency of Christian converts to alienate themselves from the communities to which they belong is very marked, and is naturally resented by the chiefs who claim their hereditary right, in which they are supported by Government, to make the converts in common with their fellow tribesmen obey such laws and orders as are in accordance with native custom, not being repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience.
The Christian converts refuse to perform the ordinary services to their chiefs, on the grounds that being Christian they could not take part in ‘fetish observances’.
In 1912, a committee consisting of the Governor of the Gold Coast, the Chief Commissioner, three other officials, and representatives of the Missions then working in Ashanti, Wesleyan, Basel, and Roman Catholic, attempt to resolve the conflict by ruling that: No Christian shall be called upon to perform any fetish rites or service, but shall be bound to render customary service to his chief on ceremonial occasions when no element of fetish practice is involved.
The committee further suggests that an effort should be made to draw a distinction between fetish and purely ceremonial service.
The value of these injunctions may be seen from the account of the Ashanti world view given above. The ceremonial occasions when the services of the Christian converts are required can not be purely ceremonial. The convert may indeed be required to do no more than carry a chair or an umbrella or beat a drum; but the occasion may be the celebration of an “Adae”, when the people express their sense of dependence on the ancestors, and pray to them for food and health and children and prosperity.
Though Christianity wins many converts in Ashanti, this fundamental conflict remains. The chief in Ashanti fills a sacral role. Ancestor-worship provides a unity between the political and religious authority of the chief. The Christian churches seek to oust the chief as the religious head of his people; but the office of chief is not, in the Ashanti conception, divisible into secular and sacred, or political and religious, so the conflict remains unresolved. The ceremonialism connected with ancestor-worship has made it a resilient force which Christianity has not assailed. Many Ashanti Christians join in “Adae” celebrations with their fellow countrymen and share the sentiments that the ceremonials keep alive: a sense of tribal unity and continuity, and a sense of dependence on the ancestors. This aspect of Ashanti life has suffered little change from the impact of European civilization and thought.
Nor, so far as can be ascertained, has the Ashanti world view changed. It is a commonplace to describe Christianity in Ashanti and the Gold Coast generally as a thine veneer. The description is not inaccurate or superficial if it means that the people have not taken over the concept of the universe and of the nature of man within which Christianity finds its fullest meaning. The Ashanti Christian most probably still accepts the view of the universe and of man that has dominated Ashanti thoughts for generations. It is part of his cultural heritage., and he has taken it on, as he has done other aspects of his culture, without much difficulty, and without subjecting it to critical analysis. To most Ashanti people the world is ruled from afar by a Supreme Being who is all-wise, all-powerful, etc... the creator of all things; below him are lesser spirits, born of the Supreme Being, but closer to men; nearest of all are the ancestors of whom he is reminded daily by speech and action.
The Ashanti concept of man has not changed either; the observance of matrilineal descent, the definition of a man’s status and role, and his political and legal rights and obligations, through his membership of his mother’s group give the color of truth to the myth about childbirth; While a man’s relations with his father, the latter’s moral responsibility for the child, and the part he is customarily expected to play in his marriage, together with all the evidence of daily speech and practice justify the father-child myth that it is the father’s “ntoro” that gives his son his personality. Moreover, Christian teaching has confirmed the Ashanti conception of the soul. The bible teaches that God made man in his own image. Long before the Ashanti know the Bible, they believe that the Creator give a bit of his spirit to everyone whom he sends to the earth, and that with the gift of that bit of his spirit , the man’s soul, is bound up that man’s destiny, what he was to become and to do in the world.
On the social level, and in certain details of conduct, Christianity is influencing Ashanti society; but in matters like birth or funeral rites, where questions of the interpretation of the universe come in, the influence of Christianity is slight; for the Ashanti to a large extent still retain their own interpretation of the universe and of the nature of man and society; and the difference between this and the European interpretation of the same phenomena constitutes the fundamental conflict between the Ashanti and the European way of life.