Dissimilarly Similar: Pentecost 151-153
Pentecost #151 – One and Many
It is time again to answer some questions and comments. Thank for you all of them! First, this Pentecost has been a time to explore the mythologies of the world, the various spirits mankind has believed in since the beginning. I elected to do this journey into these stories because Pentecost, in the Christian religious tradition, is a season dedicated to the Holy Spirit. Just as we deliberated the religions of the world last Advent, this exploration is not about converting but about educating and acquainting. Secondly, to those who have enjoyed reading about these stories, I give a most heartfelt “thank you”. Thirdly, someone mentioned that one would have to be crazy to believe in these deities, in any deity. That is certainly your right to consider and hold that attitude. I remember once, as a teenager in school, we had a marching band practice at the end of the day. Suddenly the skies opened up and we were instantly drenched. We had been going over the formations of a new program so no one had their instruments. Since we were out there without the need to scurry to take the musical instruments to safety, we simply began to frolic in the rain. A passer-by saw fifty or sixty kids in a field by the school running around and called the local law enforcement, describing our play as “crazy”. Sometimes what some consider being full of joy appears as insanity to others. It is all about context and perspective.
Along those same lines is the African Nilotic word “Jok”. For the ancient cultures of Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan, Jok embraced their concept of the divine spirit. Like anything that has been around since antiquity, Jok has other variations such as Jwok, Juok, Joagh, Joghi, and Joogi. Jok has also been defined in different ways, again depending on the time period, perspective, and context of the one developing the dictionary or translation.
Throughout time, the many words used as synonyms for God (Who remembers which discussed all of these?) have been widespread and varied. For some Jok implied the one deity of the Abrahamic faiths, the one we call God or Allah. For others, Jok means spirits, gods, or even devils. Mankind has a plethora of contradictory ideas regarding spiritual beings.
For the people whose language was Nilotic, Jok was the word that means the unified spirit of God and the lesser gods. Jok was personal and interpersonal, local and omnipresent. Interestingly enough, the same might be said of mankind. After all, there are people right next door to me and people on the other side of the world, all over the world in fact. There are people I know intimately and people I do not know. What is important is to remember that, in spite of our differences, we really are one people, many races but all the family of mankind.
Pentecost #152 – Equal and Different
The Kikuyu tribe has their own word for God – Ngai. A Kikuyu is a fig tree which is a fertility symbol in both Africa and Asia. The Kikuyu tribe lives on the slopes of Mount Kenya, a culture that goes back several centuries at least.
The Kikuyu believe that everyone has a spirit which is called ngoma. The ngoma is said to become a ghost after death, a spirit that can become quite persistent in avenging any wrongs suffered during life. Burial rituals differ for village elders and lesser members of the clan. Their myths tells of certain trees which are said to be favored by these spirits and food offerings are often placed at the based of the trunks to appease.
The Kikuyu believe that Ngai will punish those who fail to keep the faith. Similar to the Roman god Jupiter, they believe Ngai strikes down the unfaithful with lightning. Many Kikuyu also believe in predestination, which is to say that a person’s live is preordained before their birth.
The god Ngai has a name from the Bantu language which translates as “the Apportioner”. Their myths tell them that part of creation was the dispersal or apportioning of Ngai’s gifts to all the different nations on earth. The Kikuyu people received the skill and implements needed for successful agriculture and they are a farming community. There are today approximately six million Kikuyu in Kenya which makes them the largest ethnic group in the country. They call themselves Agikuyu, a variation of the native pronunciation “Gikuyu”. Gikuyu translates as sycamore tree and “agikuyu” means children of the huge sycamore.
The Kikuyu have adapted throughout time. In the 1800’s their music became influenced by European composers. More recently cinema and food production have gained prominence in this culture. The Kikuyu believed that Ngai equally distributed gifts of life to all people. These gifts were equal yet different. Many might see a tribe living on a mountainside and think “What could they know?” To me, this culture has had things and life figured out lone before most of us did or do. They continue to believe in their myths while moving forward to the future. Whether you are on a mountain slope or living in the middle of a bustling city, it is not a bad way to life.
#153 – True Riches
While early missionaries to the African continent seemed to catalogue hundreds of “heathen gods”, the cultures of Africa have been mostly monotheistic. What they also have, though, is a deep reverence for and belief in ancestral spirits. African mythology is reflected not only in the masks of various cultures but in other artwork and their music. The masks often reflected supposed faces of various spirits. Even the fabrics were dyed to reflect mythologies and beliefs.
What is especially nice is that many of these myths have survived and are given life today. They are reflected in the smiles of Africa’s children and tribal hospitality. All too often we overlook the joy in religion and spirituality. The true riches of the world’s mythologies are in the joyous living they encourage.
It may seem that as a native of Louisiana, adopted as an infant, who grew up to become an internationally acclaimed make-up artist Kevyn Aucoin would have nothing in common with African mythology. However, Aucoin’s philosophy of life really illustrates a recurring theme found in African mythology. “Today I choose life. Every morning when I wake up I can choose joy, happiness, negativity, pain…To feel the freedom that comes from being able to continue to make mistakes and choices – today I choose to feel life, not to deny my humanity but embrace it.”
Each sunrise brings each of us a new day, a new chance to embrace life and live. Whether a farmer on the slope of a mountain in Kenya or a worker on a tomb in the Sahara, African myths not only tell the story of the cradle of civilization, they tell of the riches of life.