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Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences

Religion in the Ashanti Province of Ghana

Author(s): Ray Y. Gildea, Jr.
Source: Social Science, Vol. 38, No. 4 (OCTOBER 1963), pp. 209-212
Published by: Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41884999
Accessed: 19-02-2017 05:27 UTC

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Religion in the Ashanti Province
of Ghana
Ray Y. Gildea, Jr.
Associate Professor of Social Studies, Mississippi State College for Women

Africa has been repeatedly in the publickeenly involved in the guidance of life.
eye since 1955. After Ghana's independenceEmotion, sensation, thinking, insight,
in 1957, there has been a growing curiositymemory are all processes explained by
among Americans as to the cultural heritagethe activities of the soul. It can ad-
underlying that country's political manifesta- vance one's general welfare and can
tions. In this article the author analyses theextend its protection to an individual's
development of Ashanti's religion, a sig-wife and family. The soul of a woman
nificant aspect of this province's culture. is weaker than that of a man and,
prior to marriage, a girl is guarded
AN ASHANTI absorbed in religion by the father's soul. A soul normally
Jr'^ is also engaged in family life,is found in the body, but it can sep-
economic affairs or political ac-arate itself from it, as in dreams, and
tion. Indeed, the sacred aspects of hiscan venture to distant places.
life are not easily set apart ; however, The second soul is sunsum, the
certain groups of beliefs can be viewed spirit, which serves as an escort to
as mainly religious rather than eco-the soul. Unlike the soul, the spirit is
nomic, social or political and can thusnot restricted to humans. The gods
be treated separately. In reality, thehave a heavy spirit and thus are su-
work and prayers of the farmer areperior to men.3 Certain animals, trees,
integral parts of the same act.1 and rocks have spirits, but the spirits
Most Ashanti have a fundamental are light. Yet, all spirits must be re-
belief in two souls. The first soul or spected.
kra is a superpersonal one investedWhen at a body dies, the spirit van-
the outset in man by Nyame, the ishes, but not the soul. The soul, now
Supreme Creator. Soul is the key to called saman, takes up a new life
conception. It is the soul of the father among the ancestral souls. The jour-
that gives life to the blood of the ney to another life is expressed in
mother. A child is thus created from funeral and burial ceremonies. Most
the blood of the mother and the soul souls make the change gradually and
or life of the father.2 The soul is directly; a few unfortunate ones may
pass through an intermediate state be-
Ray Y. Gildea, Jr., is associate professor of attaining the ancestral world.
studies (geography) at Mississippi State CollegeThe ancestral world is a society
for Women. He received his B.S. degree from Cor-
with an organization like that of the
nell University, his M.A. degree from the Univer-
sity of Virginia, and is currently undertaking a doc- society. It is an invisible com-
toral program in social science education at munity
the Uni- of men that takes part in the
versity of Virginia. He has taught geography visible
at the society of men. The ancestors
University of Florida and Louisiana State University,
are the real owners of property and
and economics and geography at Auburn University.
the custodians of the laws and customs
Among the author's contributions are articles in the
Journal of Geography, Focus , and American of the tribe.4 The
Peoples living men who act
Encyclopedia. as heads of families or chiefs are

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merely representing their riages, the simplicity of the marriage

Such men are not marionettes underrite and the role that wine plays in
the control of ancestors, but de jure
the ceremony, special religious dances,
are unrestrained and can serve as the purification ceremony, and cere-
good or bad representatives. In monial ablutions. All this evidence is
years, the introduction of Westernalso supported by such similarities as
values and ideals has resulted in lessthe adoption of fetichism without de-
stress being placed on the importance parture from monotheism, reference
of ancestry. Yet, the world of Nyame, to a Redeemer, a traditional twelve-
the world of the ancestors, the world tribe assumption, the raven story of
of man, and the world of nature remainElijah and its counterpart, New Year
one world. festivals, recognized and legal viola-
The origins of soul in Ashanti are tions of tabus, and references to na-
not as easy to interpret. Meyerowitz tural law.
traces the ancestry of the Akan States In describing the origin of Akan
in Ghana to the Niger Bend in the gods, Meyerowitz8 pointed to a histori-
region between D j enne and Timbuktu.5cal and evolutionary pattern consist-
The forbears were ousted from there ing of four distinct cults. In Cult Type
by the Moslems at the beginning of theI the people molded their characters
eleventh century. The Bono people around the akyenaboa or totem ani-
mal, the embodiment of their obosorn
further trace their origin to the Oasis
of Djado, west of the Tibesti Moun- or clan goddess. In Cult Type II char-
tain Range, in the Eastern Sahara. acters were based on whichever of the
Meyerowitz, by comparing the Akan seven planets had supplied their clan
and Libyo-Phoenician concepts and obosorn (now a bisexual sky-fertility
religious beliefs, indicates that the god) with his hra and sunsum. In Cult
Akan civilization is essentially pre- Type III people shaped their traits
Arab north African in character. and behavior according to the planet
Williams traces the Ashanti fore- of their own birthday from which they
fathers back to the ancient Hebrews
had received their kra (now that of a
who came to West Africa as fugitives
maternal ancestor) and sunsum. In
from Jerusalem.6 Ti in the names of Cult Type IV men fashioned their
West African tribes means the men of
characters around the water, river, or
or the race of, which would make lake of their ntoro obosom, a former
Ashanti the people of Ashan. There sky-fertility-clan god, now considered
are two biblical references to Ashan, as their supernatural ancestor in the
a city in the low country of Judah. male line. "Water was chosen because
Further, the principal meaning of the it could be equated with seminal fluid,
Hebrew word Ashan is smoke, and it but the character of the divine water
is used to refer to a burning city or to was determined by the planet from
the destruction of Jerusalem. Wil- whom the god had received his kra
liams also declares that "the Supremeand sunsum."9
Being of the Ashanti is identical with"The result of the Ntoro Cult, based
the God of the Christians, the Yahwehon a paternal group, was to establish
of the Old Testament."7 Certain cul- patrilocal instead of matrilocal mar-
tural elements appear to be common riage. It gave authority to the father
to both the Ashanti and the ancient of the family; the mother's brother,
Hebrews, such as the patriarchal sys-however, remained the real head of
tem, parallel symbolism of authority the family. In the sexual act the father
in stool and chair, cross-cousin mar-identified himself with the god and

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was at the same time the priest to

his limited understanding of the
ntoro obosom. So far only women inscrutable,
had infinite wisdom of a
been venerated as givers of life; nowPublic ceremonies for the
the men claimed equality with them gods are held every nine days.
the same function. The sky-fertility-
All ceremonies have two definite pur-
gods continued to be worshippedposes
agri-: to relieve the fears of troubled
culturally as the givers of life. The who have come to the gods
king and queenmothers remained in- and to make dramatic the
for help,
termediaries between the ancestral
protection that is offered.
Local gods reveal themselves
deities, the moonmother, the sun-god
and the ntoro obosom of the royal line their priests. A candidate for
- through whom life was given priesthood
to the submits himself to a screen-
state."10 ing board of headmen and other
Present-day Ashanti beliefs inpriests.
gods If he passes this test, he serves
center about Nyame. Nyame was the
a training period of three to four
first god, and it was he who created
years. During this time he learns the
Asase, the earth. Asase is represented
theology, the rituals, the songs, dances
by the goddess Asase Yaa through and drumming, the myths, the tech-
whom Nyame created their children,
niques for divining, the diagnoses of
the rocks, the hills, the streams, the
sicknesses, and the prescriptions for
plants and animals, and the super-

natural powers.11 Next Nyame formed

Ceremonies involving both the
man to use things already created. and the ancestors of the Ashanti are
Finally, he established local gods well in
known and amply described. "The
order to protect man. Asase Yaa, like
dominant desire of the people is for
Nyame, receives little specific ritual increase and fertility. They want the
recognition, though her day, Thurs- earth to be fruitful, the women to bear
day, is kept sacred. children, the men to prosper in their
To illustrate the existence of local undertakings. These are desired so
gods in Ashanti, one may consider the that the race may continue. Those who
area around Goaso. Goaso has two
give these things are the gods, the
gods, Nentiya, who originallySupreme
pre- Being, and the ancestors.
sented himself to the people in thethe people come together for
Tano River, and Bonsam, the child theseofceremonies, they express their
a forest god, Sasabonsam. Both solidarity
per- in relation to their chief
form the same tasks, possess similar and his ancestors, on whom their com-
powers, and aid each other in their mon loyalty is focused. Their joint
protective work - they are coequal. participation in these ceremonies
There are no established churches or strengthens their unity and cohe-
cults, no membership drives, and no sion."13 The Adae ceremonies, which
subscription solicitations. The godstake place about every three weeks,
are merely available to those who de- are those at which the spirits of de-
sire to depend upon them and use parted clan rulers are conciliated
them for their specific welfare and for through prayers and libations." Then
the general welfare of Ashanti and there are the Odwera ceremonies,
Goaso. No local god has to justify hiswhich occur during the harvest season
existence to men through his acts be- or periods of crisis, when periodic sac-
cause he was not created by men. rifices are made to the national gods.
"Bonsam's failures are attributed to There are, of course, a number of
a god's partial limitations rather than unique and sedate rituals, including

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sures for spiritual innovations. Social

the funeral15 and yam ceremonies.14
In addition to ancestors control will pass from the family to
and gods,
the supernatural world is theinhabited
state. Disease control will pass
by a variety of spirits - both the hands
andof the gods and practi-
evil. The people of Ashanti tioners
aretonothospitals and medical labo-
preoccupied with fears and ratories. Ancestral beliefs will slowly
tainties; still, pernicious spirits
vanish, andmust
only a few magical devices
be kept under control bywill sumans
linger on.or
Christian ministers will
charms designed to protect still
owner.to speak of Nyame,
Some charms prevent sickness,Nentiya, and Bonsam, and churches
will yet
crop failure, or guard against echo with the sounds of drums
On the whole, charms perform the
and dancing feet.
same roles as gods, except Asase
thatmetetheyase a medan wo - earth,
possess inferior powers. Of I am alive,
course, allI depend on you.18
power is ultimately derived from
Nyame. Notes
Since 1920, Western churches have 1 R. A. Lystad, The Ashanti, A Proud People,
been active in Ashanti, especially the New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University
Methodist and Roman Catholic faiths. Press, 1958, p. 155.
Ibid., p. 157.
(Christian churches are surely not 0 Ibid., p. 158.
disuniting agencies ; in fact, they offer K. A. Busia, The Position of the Chief in the
Modern Political System of Ashanti, London: Ox-
a sense of security, plus opportunitiesford University Press, 1951, p. 24.
to attend many new and modern 5 E. L. R. Meyerowitz, The Akan of Ghana,
schools.) However, most people haveTheir Ancient Beliefs, London: Faber and Faber,
Ltd., 1958, p. 17.
not as yet acquired full membership 6 J. J. Williams, Hebrewisms of West Africa,
in either church because of the ban on New York: The Dial Press, 1951, pp. 24-92.
polygyny and restrictions prohibiting 1 1bid., p. 80.
8 Op. cit., p. 150.
consultations with gods against sor- 9 Ibid.
cery.17 Further, the influence of the"Ibid.
traditional Ashanti religion continues 11 Lystad, op. cit., p. 165.
12 Ibid., p. 177.
and today the people still believe in Busia, op. cit., p. 36.
two souls, revere their ancestors, con- 14 R. S. Rattray, Ashanti, London: Oxford Uni-
versity Press, 1923, pp. 92-120.
tinue polygyny, and are wary of po- 15 E. R. Service, A Profile of Primitive Culture,
tential sorcerers. New York: Harper, 1958, pp. 352-353.
New technologies and social changes10 J. G. Frazer, The Native Races of Africa and
Madagascar, London: P. L. Humphries and Com-
are arriving daily in Ashanti. Modern
pany, 1938, p. 423.
mining operations and costly dams are17 Lystad, op. cit., p. 182.
around the corner, and so are pres- Busia, op. cit., p. 41.

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