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
Behind each of these three physical elements of the individual there are a series of spiritual personalities or identities which can be seen as parts of increasingly general categories. Behind the flesh and blood is a blood spirit or matrilineal ghost; behind the semen and cleansing fluids is a morality spirit or personality spirit; behind the breath and anima is a destiny soul. Each of these have individual and communal or shared elements, so let us discuss them in turn:
The body belongs to its lineage: so does its “ghost” (saman). When a chief pours a libation on the ancestral stool(s), he is praying to his matrilineal ancestors (Nananom Nsamanfo) and asking them, and, indirectly, God to bring good luck. The word “ghost” is a very poor translation. I prefer to think of saman as “blood spirit” rather than either ghost or soul, because it is different from the other two spirit elements which only together make up an aggregate that might be called ghost or soul but which has no name in Twi.
Each individual is a representative and part of a larger category, the abusua (matrilineage), composed of both living and dead members. When a chief is enstooled, he becomes the living shrine of his own matrilineal ancestors and thus uses the word “I” to refer to what former chiefs have done because he is both a part of and a representation of the whole of his total matrilineage. The fact of their being dead puts them in the power or black category but the fact of their common matrilineal membership puts them in the red category − another reason why both red and black are worn at funerals. In contrast to the usual ritual separation of red and black, they appear together at funerals when a lineage member (red) joins the ancestors (black). The chief is himself, his ancestors, and his lineage, at the same time.
The proverb, “abusua ye kwaem (the matrilineage is a forest),” indicates its dual or multiple nature, difficult to describe in Socratic “either-or” terms. Seen from the outside, the lineage is a unity like a forest but seen from the inside, it is composed of many parts competing for sun and rain. Members of a lineage can trace direct matrilineal links, but beyond the lineage is the clan. The abusua pon (pon = supreme) or clan has an essence or name which is called its ntכn. All the various matrilineages of the Oyoko ntכn, for example, which are found in most Akan states, are considered to be one clan although direct descent lines cannot be traced.
The ideology of brotherhood/sisterhood (nuanom = brothers and sisters) is extended beyond the abusua to the ntכn. The abusua, like the individual, is simultaneously the ntכn and part of the ntכn. Although lineage exogamy (“brothers” cannot marry “sisters”) is practised when descent lines are traced, only public lip service is paid to clan exogamy − a demonstration of the political nature of that “brotherhood.” Even that brotherhood, used for military alliances between matrilineal descent groups, is occasionally breached as during the nineteenth century battles between the Oyoko lineage of Dwaben and the Oyoko lineage of Kumasi, both founding members of the Asante confederation. Marriage and warfare between lineages with the same ntכn is overtly forbidden but covertly practised; members of the same ntכn share the same blood spirit.
Beyond the named unity of ntכn (group of lineages) is a wider group of clans which, for want of a better English word, can be called a phratry. A group of clans can be called nuanom (brothers and sisters) even though restrictions against marriage and warfare do not apply. Thus the Oyoko ntכn and the Adako ntכn are considered to be nuanom, the Dwumina and Asona belong to one category, while the Aduana group in Obo includes the Amoakade and Ada. Each individual matrilineal spirit is simultaneously a separate part of, and a representative of, increasingly wider categories of spirit essences; lineage, clan, phratry. Ultimately all belong to the earth, Asaase Yaa. Mother confers the spirit of brotherhood.
In contrast to the blood, corpus, and corporate group membership received from mother, an individual receives semen from father, which contains very different spiritual characteristics. Again, however, these spirit or soul categories are parts of ever widening general categories: sunsum for the individual, ntrכ for the patrilineal category, and obosom for the deity.
The individual or specific personality spirit inherited from father is sunsum. It is the person’s morality as well as personality. While a mother, for example, is expected to train her daughter in how to behave as well as how to exercise domestic and other skills, if that daughter misbehaves her father is blamed. Training is the father’s responsibility, which is why fathers are expected to pay school fees, an institution alien to pre-colonial Akan culture. Fathers who do not pay school fees justify not doing so by saying that schooling is economic rather than moral, and thus the obligation of a child’s matrilineage, though this argument is scorned by most. The automatic responsibility of training by the father is expressed in the proverb, “Obi nkyere otomfuo ba atono”, (No one teaches the blacksmith’s child how to smith.) Little distinction is made between nature and nurture when the Akan say a child’s morality, training, and personality are the father’s responsibility. All are passed down through the semen as sunsum or spiritual character and reinforced after birth by the spirit and behaviour of the father.
The individual or sunsum spirit must be seen as a representative and a part of a more general category, the ntrכ. This is a concept poorly understood and not recognised by most young, educated and urbanised Akan. It dates to a pre-Akan era when the area was populated by patrilineal Guan clans led by priest-chiefs, and its decline is part of the general Akan expansion and domination by matrilineal inheritance, succession and descent. What remains is a general knowledge of greeting replies each person gets from father. Some elders and priests know that the greeting reply categories come from the patrilineal spirit “clans” of the ntrכ. Where food proscriptions, names of ntrכ belonging to each river god, sacred days, personality characteristics, and expected behaviour are known, it is usually only for each informant’s own ntrכ or god’s ntrכ. No corporate descent groups are formed on the basis of patriliny, and the groups, relegated to a subordinate position because of the expansion of Akan matriliny, (vaguely spiritual categories even before colonial times), are rapidly disappearing. Akan social structure can hardly, therefore be called double unilineal, as some observers (i.e. Murdock) have stated.
When a person greets a friend, that friend indicates his familiarity and recognition by a phrase beginning with “ya,” followed by the appropriate patriline category word (i.e. anyaado, eson, amu, abrau, abiriw). The knowledge of each others’ greeting replies is an important element of etiquette, especially between powerful chiefs, elders, and priests.
The ntrכ, where understood, are described as the “children” of the abosom (gods) and there is an obvious association between patriliny, purity, and fertility. With each ntrכ come various food proscriptions based on the avoidance of pollution. The concepts of sunsum, ntrכ, and abosom respectively are nesting spiritual categories of increasing generality and communality. Busia (1963) wrote of ntrכ being children of the abosom but went on to write that one asks another’s category with the question. “Wo guare ntrכ ben? (which ntrכ do you wash?).” The question is no longer in use. In Kwawu, instead, one asks about another’s greeting response by using the verb da (lie, position, sleep) while in Fante one used the verb gye (receive, get).
Only a few old priests, priestesses, and elders of those I interviewed recognised that these refer to ntrכ patriline categories, although it is generally understood that one gets one’s greeting reply from one’s father. There is a another variation, the connection of which is recognised by few, and that is honhom. The honhom is a spirit of a deceased person, the sunsum, after it is released from the body but before it travels to Asamando (land of saman or blood spirits). An honhom can, at its own funeral, possess one of the mourners so as to leave a few last minute messages or to accuse some one of being responsible for the death. These related and nesting generalities of moral and personality spirits belong to the male side of the individual: the personification of semen, spittle, body fluids, bones and fertility.
While the first two come from mother and father down descent lines, the third comes directly from God. Just as God gives and takes away a person’s breath, so S/He gives and takes life. This characteristic is personified in nesting time destiny spirit categories. To understand them we begin with the verb kra and see how it is extrapolated in the spiritual sense.
The verb kra in Twi implies three things: (a) saying goodbye, (b) receiving or giving a message at parting, and (c) receiving or giving a goodbye gift, whether for one’s self or to take to some one else.
There is no equivalent verb in English. When a person is born, God will “kra” that person, giving an nkrabea (n = plural prefix, boa = some thing) or personal destiny spirit. Akan people speaking English translate “okra” as “soul” but it is a spiritual destiny category which unites with the combined blood and semen spirits at the lime of birth and the first breath. Birth days are not celebrated annually, but every week, and the week day on which one is born is called one’s כkrada (כkra day). Older and more wealthy people can afford to hold their own כkrada as a Sabbath, avoiding work, getting up early to pour a libation to a personal כkra and nkrabea. The nkrabea is the goodbye gift of God to each person at birth.
The destiny soul of each person is not a predetermined set of occurrences as would be expected in a Western scientific cosmology. It has personality. It is spiritually organic and, like a person, can be bribed, cajoled, and influenced. If one does not treat one’s כkra properly, it will become dark (כkrabiri), and bring bad luck. Just like a person whose face becomes dark (the idiomatic way of saying “angry”) the כkra will be annoyed at being neglected. Bad luck may mean dying early or by an undesirable type of death, as well as being attacked by witchcraft, illness, infertility, or poverty. If honoured, respected, mollified, praised, and given drinks, the כkra will bring good fortune.
These akra destiny souls are not only separated individual spirits. There is a notion of shared destiny in that all persons born on same week day are considered nuanom (brothers and sisters). Twins are considered sacred: female twins becoming wives of chiefs and male twins becoming chief’s elephants switch bearers (no one may disobey someone holding the elephant tail switch, because the holder bears the chief’s command). People born on the same day are not forbidden to marry, nor do they share food proscriptions (as those in the same matrilineages or patricategories would) but destiny brotherhood is expressed in everyone being named according to the weekday of birth.
The Akan usually call Europeans Kwasi (male Sunday) or Akosua (female Sunday) because, from their fifteenth century arrival on the Gold Coast, most Europeans avoided work on Sundays and usually went to their shrines to perform rituals every Sunday. Each day of the week itself is thought to have a collective destiny spirit, the name of which is usually by subtracting the suffix da (day) from the Twi weekday word. The spirit of dwoda (Monday), for example, is Adwo. As noted above, all the spirits have day names, even Mother Nature (Thursday) and God (Saturday). When a child is born, it is not considered human until each day spirit has seen it and not claimed it − thus naming and outdooring are not done until after a child is at least a week old.
In the tripartite model of the universe described above, each of the three categories, female, dynamic, and male, had a physical manifestation, a spiritual anima (or personage), and a set of essences or characteristics. The same can be said about the tripartite concept of the individual, but those essences, unnamed in Twi per se, comprise the structure of the culture and the relationships between individual and society. Every individual is thought of as composed of each of the three elements, each of which has a different origin. From the red, female, blood, and ghost category comes one’s membership in a corporate descent group, potential succession to office, inheritance of property, and access to land.
It corresponds most closely to the economic, material, and to some extent political military, dimensions of culture. From the black, dynamic, breath, and destiny category comes one’s animation, political power, history, past and future, and ritual time. From the white, male, semen, and spiritual category comes one’s personality, morality, fertility, and purity. The aggregate of these essences constitute the culture of the Akan within each person.
As with the model of the universe described above, the three elements of the individual can be summarised as a paradigm. The distinction between levels of abstraction is based on Western rather than African distinctions but close enough for general validity.
Categories of the Person
|Blood = bogya
body = fun
|Breath = humi
Life = tumi
|Semen = hoaba
Spit = ntesuo
|Mother (at conception)
|God (at birth)
|Father (at conception)
|Individual = saman
Lineage = abusua
clan = ntכn
|Individual – כkra
Destiny – nkrabea
Patriline = ntrכ
Power, Time, Ritual, Political
This paradigm, too, is a personal synthesis of concepts described by many informants, and tested again by asking older priests and elders. From it, however, one can interpret much of the behaviour ideas, and responses, in short the culture of the Akan, from the point of view of a western outsider. It is to those cultural extrapolations of individual and cosmological concepts that we now turn.