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Creation Myths of Ethiopia

By Ayele Bekerie, Ph.D

In northeast Africa, in the land of the source of the Blue Nile, a series of recent paleontological discoveries seem to establish Ethiopia as a key center of human origin. A series of significant evidence have been gathered to locate this ancient country as the center of human beginning.

                For instance, an ancestral human-like female figure named Dinqnesh (also known as Lucy) was unearthed 3.18 million years ago from the afar region of Ethiopia in 1074. Furthermore an immediate ancestor to all modern humans named Idaltu, which is about 160,000 years old, was reported from the same region in 2003. If humanity begins in Ethiopia, then it is quite logical for cultural inventions and expressions, including creation myths to emerge there too. In fact, some observers have characterized Ethiopia as the mother of genesis.

                Human beings have perhaps the longest existence in Ethiopia and this can be attested by the presence remarkably diverse population, both culturally and physically. Ethiopia is a land of at least 87 ethnic or linguistic groups. These groups have affirmed their distinct identities not only by their specific languages, but also by composing m myriad of myths about their origins.

                Creation myths or the origin of the Ethiopians known through oral and written traditions do not, of course include these paleontological facts. The myths were constructed at a much later historical dates.  Their formula begins with the creator of sky and earth, water and fire. The creation to “igzabiher”, the sole creator of earth and sky. Some of the major non-Christian traditions, on the other hand, identify “waqqa, tasa and zar” as their supreme deities residing in the sky and who are responsible for the creation of water.

                Creation myths may have gone through three major phases in Ethiopia. The first phase is when the myths are invented and propagated from generations to generations exclusively through oral traditions. In the second phase, myths are reconstructed and disseminated through visual media, such as writing systems. In the last phase, revealed religion in conjunction with scripts, effectively disseminated myths rooted in the bible.

                An examination of the myths reveals that written myths tend to be a visual representation of myths collected and re-synthesized from oral myths. In other words, the anteriority and indestructibility of oral myths can be confirmed by the fact that the Christian and written mythologies have borrowed some elements from the former.

                Creation, in the oral tradition phase, was almost always perceived in association with the sun, the moon, the stars, the earth, water, trees, or other animate or inanimate objects. For instance, the Oromos believe that they were created from the waters of lake “Hor Wilabo” in southern Ethiopia. As a result the sanctified the lake where it is absolutely forbidden for either people or animals to drink from it. All Oromos pay homage to the lake by sacrificing oxen, heifers, sheep, and goats to it.

                The supreme importance of water can also be seen among the creation of myths of the “kamabatas”, who reside in the southwestern region of Ethiopia. They identify the river’s spirit as “Chanzula”. Among the “Dindiga” of Ethiopia the river and lake spirits incarnate into fish, which, therefore, becomes sacred.

                In both the oral and written traditions, rituals are the primary vehicles through which the knowledge of creation is passed on from one generation to another. For instance, totemic practices are symbolic expressions of ancestral links, and they are practiced at least once a year, by ceremoniously invoking the sacred plants and animals. Ancestral presence is assured honoring animals, such as lions (Gondar, Tigre, and shoa, Northern Ethiopia). Crocodiles (Yamma and Zala, southern Ethiopia), and spider (Wolaita, southern Ethiopia).

                The introduction of monotheistic traditions since the time of the queen Sheba, approximately 3000 years ago, has brought new sense of creation. The story of genesis, for instance, is introduced with significant modifications to satisfy the local conditions. 5500 years before the Common Era, in the Ethiopian Christian tradition, has been declared as the beginning of the world.

                With the introduction of the New Testament, the reckoning of time based on the Old Testament tradition was supplemented with a new set of time reckoning. The biblical tradition of Ethiopia recognize Adam I and Adam II (Jesus) as an eponymous ancestors as a result of the fusion of the biblical traditions with a unique Ethiopian religious experience.

                According to kebra Negest, an authoritative Ethiopian classical work that combines local and regional oral traditions and style and substance that are derived from the old and new testaments, various apocryphal texts, Jewish and Islamic commentaries, and patristic writings, Adam was the first creation of “Igzabher”, the name the Ethiopian use for God.

                To most scholars of ancient Ethiopia, kebra Negest is a myth of the founding of the Ethiopian nation. It is imaginative work that embodies conception of crucial formative events it the national history, perhaps comparable with the book of the dead of ancient Egyptians or the Aeneid of ancient Greece, as a keen observer notes.

                Adam to Noah, there were ten continuous generations. During the time of Noah, three significant branches emerged: SEM, Kam and Yafet. Kam was further branched out into three irreversible ancestral lines, namely Kussa or Ethiopia, Misrai or Egypt, and Libya. Kusa, the ancient name for Ethiopia established an African nation with its own writing system and government. The present day Ethiopia is a direct descendant of the line of kusa without any disruption since the fourth century CE.

                According to Kebra Negest, Noah died 2600 years after creation. The name Ethiopis began with the house of Kam, which was the third or fourth generation since Adam. Ethiopia has four different names: Kam (the whole continent of Africa), Kusa, and Saba, and Ethiopis. These names were derived from former kings.

                Ethiopia ruled 2800 years before the Common Era. When the prophet Moses wrote the five books of Genesis, he wrote about Ethiopia, which was derived from king of Ethiopis. The bible identifies the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and the river source is called Ghion (Genesis 2:3). 

                Perhaps the most popular mythology of origin is the legendary story of the queen of Sheba, also known as Makeda or Azeb. In the Ethiopian tradition, the legend survived through oral traditions, including a pictorial representation of the story in 44 framed pictures. The traditional paintings are very common. The painting depicts the life of Makeda, Queen of Ethiopia, in a panel that has 4 rows and 11 columns, hence 44-framed pictures.

                Once upon a time, according to the Tegaru tradition, Ethiopia used to be ruled by zendo or Dragon like animal called Agabos. The people used to offer Agabos king large quantities of sweet beer and milk and, reluctant to say, eldest daughters. Our heroine, Makeda was thus tied to a tree as an offering to Agabos. At the same time four saints were underneath the tree for its shade when they felt teardrops up and saw a crying girl who was urging them to flee before Agabos made a meal out of them. One of the saints, Abba Mentelios, killed the Agabos and with his cross and freed Makeda. Unfortunately some blood from the dragon spilled on one of Makeda’s heels and turned into a donkey’s hoof. When people saw the dead Zendo, they made Makeda their ruler.

                One of the first acts as a leader was to find a cure for her deformed feet. Disguised as a men, Maked and a female official left for Jerusalem to visit the wise king Solomon who was reputed with superb medical skills and wisdoms. As soon as she arrived at King Solomon’s court her deformed foot recovered its natural form. Solomon invited his guests to a big feast at which the guests ate little. This made Solomon suspect that his guests might be women.  Two beds were made for the guests in the Solomon’s bed room, and honey was kept in bowl. Solomon caught both women eating honey, and slept with both of them. Makeda became the mother of menelik I (the founder of the solomonic dynasty) while her companion became the mother of the ancestor of the zagwe dynasty.

                The story is modified over time and often reflects the influence of given era. The tegaru version is perhaps the most recent, for it is constructed in the context of the adoption of Ethiopian Christianity in the 4th century of the Common Era (AD914 to 1268). For instance, in other versions of the story, the father of the Queen of sheba killed Agabos and was crowned king and later succeeded by his daughter.

                In the holy bible, the queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem with precious gifts with the aim of testing the wisdom of King Solomon. The king gave answers to all her questions and he also impressed her with her wealth. She told him that all that she heard about him was more than true and Israel was blessed because the lord has chosen him to execute justice and righteousness. She returned to her land after giving the king 120 talents of gold and after her gave her everything she desired.

                In the holy Qur’an, the most popular version in Yemen, Solomon was in his court among his subjects. Among his birds, he could not find his favorite bird known as hoopoe. When asked where it was, the hoopoe informed the king that it was in the kingdom of Saba. There it found a woman ruler with a magnificent throne. He invited the queen to his place and asked her to submit to Allah, instead to of worshiping the sun-god. When she entered the palace, which was paved with slabs of glass, thinking she was walking over water, the queen lifted her skirt and exposed her legs. She apologized for her indiscretion and submitted fully to Allah. It is clear that myth is significantly modified to fit into an Islamic tradition.

                According to Kebra Negest, the only source of the love story between Makeda and King Solomon, the Ethiopian empire started with the union of Makeda and Solomn, the Ethiopian empire started with the union of Makeda and Solomon as well as  the transfer of  the ‘Ark of Covenant’ from Jerusalem to Aksum. Menelik brought the Ark and established what is referred to as the Solomnic Dynasty. He was the first king of the dynasty and the late Emperor haileselassie I was the 225th and, for now the last ruler of the dynasty. Yeshak is believed to be the compiler of the Kebra Negest in the 13thcentury of the Common Era when the Solomonic Dynasty was restored by Emperor Yukno Amlak.

                Both Ethiopia and Yemen (South Arabia) claimed Queen of Sheba. In Yemen, she is called Bilquis. It is possible that she may have ruled both lands from Aksum, which controlled the trade routes along the red sea until the rise of Islam in the region.

 


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