Kra Tri – 1

The Universe Has Three Souls
Notes on Translating Akan Culture (1)
By Phil Bartle, Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume XIV, Number 2, 1982, pp 85-114


In learning to think Akan, I began seeing things as “both-and” as well as the previous “either or.” Instead of classifying things as “profane-sacred”, for example, I discovered that there were two kinds of sacred: “sacred/white” and “sacred/black”. Then what I had thought of as “profane” later became, in a sense, “sacred/red.”

I discovered that the universe thus had three elements: two of which contrasted the familiar differences between yang-yin, female male, down-up, or left-right. There was a third, however, which sometimes went beyond, but sometimes was parallel or equivalent to, yet different from, the first two. I saw that the concept of the human individual, too, had this three-fold nature, and reflected the concept of the universe. Or was it that the concept of the world was a reflection of the concept of the individual? I found the symbolic uses of colour categories, red, black, and white, helpful in sorting out these conceptual categories. In looking at either the universe or the individual, not only did I see three colour categories, red, black, and white, but I also saw that each one had a physical or material referent, behind which I could identify a spiritual referent, behind which, with difficulty, I identified an almost unconscious “essence.” At each step, I saw the latter a higher level of abstraction of the former.

Armed with this tripartite model of the threefold individual at three levels, and the threefold universe at three levels, I could understand the tripartite structure of society and culture. The three colours, red, black, and white, were used in rituals to identify situations, to separate categories of behaviour, and to mark stages in recognising changes in status. What follows, then, is an analysis, based on my own bi-cultural experiences, tested in discussions with people of both cultures, of a model. It describes the concept of the universe, and the concept of the individual, both based on three colour categories (red, black, and white), in each of three levels, physical, spiritual, and abstract, and stemming from the symbols of social recognition, ritual, and structure of Akan culture.


First consider the material or physical world. The three colour categories, red-black-white, or left-neutral-right categories, correspond to the three elements land-air-water. Land, or earth, is called asaase, while dirt, clay, or dust is called ndכti. Filth or faeces is efi. These belong to the red or what can be mistranslated as “profane” category. Water, in contrast, called nsu, takes various forms, nsu (river), כsu (rain), lakes and so on, and belongs to the white category. Blue is seen as an intense form of white. The middle category is the dynamic part of the universe: heaven, wind, life, anima, air. Air (mframa) is the medium through which water comes down from the sky to make the earth bring forth as well as the medium of prediction.

“כsu be to a, mframa di kan,
if it is going to rain, the wind will blow first.”
(Prediction). (3)

Behind the physical universe, each part of it, lie the spirits or personalities of each category. Mother Nature is personified as a woman named Asaase Yaa (asaase = earth; Yaa is a name given to all females born on Thursdays). She is the mother of the universe. There are no cults dedicated to her alone, but whenever libations are poured as prayers (mpaebכ means both libation and prayer), She is invoked either first or second. When a corpse is to be buried, a libation is poured on and to Her, begging permission to cut Her skin (dig a grave) that the corpse may be returned to Her “stomach” (same word as womb). She is the grandmother of the ancestors, Mother Earth.

In the middle category is God (כnyame = the shining one, or a contraction of = כnyankopon, from pon = supreme, ko = one, unity, and כnyame) seen as a male born on Saturday (His “day of rest”) and therefore named Kwame. Black or invisibility denotes that He is unknowable or unapproachable; like a chief who must be addressed through the linguists and elders, God is entreated through the gods and ancestors. There is no cult of God, but an כnyamedua (dua = stick, stave, tree) can be found stuck upright in most any older compound. On it is balanced a bowl in which are placed eggs and certain portions of all sacrificed animals. Also, like Asaase Yaa, God is invoked second or first at the beginning of all libations or prayers. For short prayers the specific names of gods and ancestors can be omitted and after calling God, one says, “Me fre baako a, me fre nyinyina, (If I call one, I call all),” indicating the all-in-one unity of God and the other supernatural spirits. In one sense God is the one total of all spirits while in another sense God is a separate, named, identifiable spirit, superior to the others. The ancestors, the spirits of the pre-born, anima of change, and immortality, belong clearly to the black category of the spiritual universe.

In the white or right spiritual category, there are numerous deities, all born on different week days. While Mother Nature Earth can be seen as the matrilineal grand mother of the ancestors (which belong to the black category), God can be seen as the patrilineal grandfather of the river gods (which of course include the clouds and rain that fill the rivers with water). Other deities animate mountains, cliffs, and caves. The gods are called abosom (bo = rock, strike, from the pre-Akan Guan symbol of priest-chief authority, the rock, and som = support), singular =כbosom. Thus the spiritual universe, like the physical universe it populates, can be classed into three categories, left-middle-right or red-black-white, with the recognition of a totality or unity of the three.

As the spiritual level is a higher abstraction of the physical, a personification of physical elements and forces, so there is a higher level of abstraction, beyond the identification of those spirits or personalities which animate the physical. It is at this third level where language is not adequate for communication. Here the colour categories red-black-white can be used as symbols of some essence which has no name.

In the red, left, or earth category is the essence of fecundity, the potential to bring forth, so long as She is fertilised by white and powered by black. The symbolic uses of the colour red indicate Her further characteristics: seriousness, defilement, and danger. In other words, She has the potential to provide (food, children, and other valuable and scarce commodities) but, just as one must get one’s feet dirty in the mud of the market to become wealthy, so touching Mother Earth is serious; one gets defiled, but wealthy. The proverb “sunkwa (suffer to gain)” illustrates this notion. The close association of women with activities related to this essence illustrates its sociological parallels or its cultural significance. Women bear babies, provide milk, farm the land, cook the food, dig the clay, make the clay pots, and trade food, pots, and farm produce in the market. The proverb, “Fear woman,” completes this description of the red category essence of the universe: fecundity, provision, seriousness, danger and defilement. There is no word that sums all these into one category; we will call it the red essence.

In the white, right, or water category is the essence of fertility, the ability to penetrate and cleanse something that can then bring forth. Rain is the semen of the universe; when it falls on Earth, She becomes fertile. Water baptises. The symbolic uses of the colour white indicates His further characteristics: purity, victory, and joy. In other words, water purifies and fertilises. The main function or activity of the Akan gods is making women fertile. Other activities include the cleansing of evil spirits and curing the results of evil: alcoholism, disease, bad luck, poverty, bad crops, and so on.

The gods belong to the male side of the universe (though some may be female), which is concerned with matters of morality and justice. That is why men sit around drinking palm wine (fermented palm sap called nsafufu, from nsa = alcohol, fita/fufu = white)) discussing court cases and politics while women labour in the fields, kitchens, markets and bedrooms. The rivers, patrilineal descendants of God, are used to cleanse people in a defiled state, and many conservative rural people will refuse to boil their drinking water because the heat will kill or annoy the purifying spirit. As in the other categories, there is no single word that sums up all these in one category: fertility, purity, joy, and victory. White is the essence of the right, up, or male element of the universe.

In the black, neutral, or air category is the essence of power, the ability to put energy and motion into the other two combined. Air and wind are the same word, mframa, in Twi; one is the universe’s substance of power, ability, or anima − its “ether” − the other its motion: you do not feel air unless it moves. Air is the breath of the universe, its tumi (ability), and destiny. “If you have something say to God, tell it to the wind.” (proverb). There is no single word that sums up all the characteristics of the category, but the symbolic implications of the colour black reveal its further properties: invisible, unknown, future, history, change, time, death, dynamics, life, power, rebirth, and energy. It is not the Soul of the universe, but its anima, one of three souls; it is the “breath of life.”

These three categories can be summarised in a paradigm which uses the three colours as identity labels. Red on the left, white on the right, and black, which is beyond direction, in the middle. The three levels of abstraction for each, then, are composed of the physical universe, its spiritual personification, and its abstract or symbolic essences. Those levels of abstraction are not distinct categories in Akan cosmology but separated here for Western interpretation:

Table One
Categories of the Cosmos

Level Red Black White
Earth, Dirt,
Clay, Land, Filth,
asaase, dכte
Sky, Wind, Air,
Fire, Motion,
mframa, humi
Water, Rain,
Rivers, Lakes,
nsu, כsu
Mother Nature
Thursday Earth
WomanAsaase Yaa
Supreme Sky God
Saturday Heavenכnyankopon
Kwame (כnyame)Ancestors
Nananom Nsamanfo
Tutelary Deities
river GodsAbosom (s. כbosom)
Essences Fecundity, Provision,
Danger, Defilement
Seriousness, Dirty
Power, Energy,
Dynamics, Time,
Change, Destiny
Fertility, Joy,
Purity, Victory,


This paradigm is not based all on one informant, but is a synthesis of many ideas learned from numerous priests and elders. If we proceed from this collective model of the universe to that of the individual, we will see certain parallels.


When M.J. Field wrote that Akan society is a “guiltless” society, she implied that fault or guilt was not internalized by any individual. 4. Someone found guilty of being evil or committing a crime will not admit personal guilt yet still confess that the accusation is correct. The usual interpretation of this is that the guilty individual blames his crime on being possessed by an evil spirit but his inner “self” remains pure. This explanation does not go far enough. The so-called “guiltless” trait is a product of the convoluted and multidimensional Akan ideas of self or personal identity. In Western societies there is a common notion of one body and one soul which separate at death. Again we have a Socratic “either-or” bipartite distinction. A complexity confusing to Western logic is the Akan notion that a thing can be both a whole and a part of the whole at the same time […].

Historians despair when interviewing a chief who uses “I” to talk about what he did last year, and “I” to talk about what his ancestor did a century ago − more frustrating since years are not named or numbered. Oral traditions are even more difficult to sort out when chiefs who fought in some wars, or remembered for some incidents (that can be dated by European documents), are sometimes given their predecessors’ names, for the same reasons, when those stories are retold. The explanation for this is that a person sees himself simultaneously as an individual and as a representative of increasingly larger categories of “soulness” or communal identity. This is more emphatic for an enstooled elder or chief who is considered the human shrine or vessel of his own ancestors.

To understand this, let us proceed from the concept of the physical self, with its three categories red-black-white, to the personification of those three categories, of spirit or self, and on to the three abstract concepts, souls or soul elements, implied by each. The red physical element is female. Blood and flesh come from mother from the time of conception. The foetus feeds on the mother in the womb, drinks her milk after birth, and eats the products of her farm and kitchen. Whether male or female, his body comes from his mother, belongs to his mother’s (thus his own) matrilineage, and is ultimately sent back to the great Mother: Earth. The spilling of a lineage member’s blood is abhorred, because it is the common blood of the descent group. A royal or chiefs lineage formerly would try to ensure that even if a lineage member is found guilty of a capital offence, the execution would be done by neck wringing. Less powerful lineages would not be entitled to that option. Since colonial days, chiefs’ courts have not had the authority to execute, but the elders tell this to emphasise the importance of blood to the lineage. They say “abusua baako ye mogya baako, (one matrilineage is one blood).”

Members of a lineage are encouraged not to quarrel or compete for the same food or desired item, and this communal ideology is symbolised by crossed crocodiles with one stomach and two heads with mouths that should not fight for food that ends up in the one stomach. Lineage members who disagree in private, are encouraged to close ranks and co-operate when faced by a common foe from outside the lineage. The “corpus” of body and blood belongs to the corporate descent group.

At conception, a person receives semen (hoaba). By this medium a child receives fertility and cleanliness. Cleanliness in a spiritual sense is morality […] while fertility is closely linked to personality. These characteristics are passed down through the male line only. After a child is outdoored, and named by its father (who alone has that right and duty), the child’s father’s father will spit in the child’s mouth, as a form of prayer, to fortify that white spiritual fertility, the semen. When a person seeks a blessing from father’s father, the old man will comply by spitting on that person’s head, child or adult. The white fluids, and the morals, fertility, and personality they carry, come from one’s father and only through the father’s line. The strength of one’s (white) bones has the same origin.

In contrast to blood and semen that a child receives at conception, the breath of life it receives from God comes at its time of birth. The day of birth is remembered weekly rather than annually, and is reflected in the “day name” or “soul name” of each person. Breath (humi) is the sign of anima, ability or life (tumi) in the individual and although invisible it is represented by !he colour black, and links together dynamics and air as in the physical universe. Death means that God removes that breath and life. God does not take the corpse which belongs to the matrilineage that sends it on to Asaase Yaa, the land, to be buried. Closely associated with the animating power and breathing given by God at birth, is the plot of life or series of events in which the individual participates, the destiny mentioned below.

Part 2



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2 thoughts on “Kra Tri – 1

  1. Emma's Cup October 19, 2015 at 8:23 pm Reply

    Great pic, 7M. I should come up with a poem for it. Let me ponder it a bit.

  2. thesevenminds October 20, 2015 at 5:15 pm Reply

    It took me a while to find a suiting pic, but I was pleased to be patient enough to find it. It is Benin art, I will restore the link.

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