Africa


Only recently has the importance of sub-Saharan Africa to the history of mindkind's intellectual and cultural development been properly acknowledged. Much of the intellectual richness of the cultures of sub-Saharan societies has been ignored, and lost over the centuries. The ritual knowledge of initiation in most of the African societies has been the main method of transmission of astronomical and cosmological theory. Some of the best known societies in Africa include the Dogon, the Mande, and Bambara peoples. In addition, extensive studies of the Nuer, and the !Kung people have enabled us to glimpse into the world of myth and cosmology.

One of the best sources for information on the myth and culture of sub-Saharan Africa is the book by Yves Bonnefoy, "American, African and Old European Mythologies" (University of Chicago Press). Part of the challenge of understanding the African culture is summarized by Bonnefoy:

"..first, that myth is not organized like a written text whose original version, still unaltered and true must be determined and which is illustrated in some way by material productions. Second, that myth may be transmitted in some way other than through the spoken word...not only masks and statuary but also architecture, music and choreography, and even body markings are related to a coherent system of signs that explicates the meaning of myths according to the particular level attained through initiation." (Bonnefoy, p.115)

Despite these difficulties, several fascinating patterns of astronomical significance are clear in African culture. In western Africa, the number 266 plays a prominent role, and forms the basis of a system of ideographic writing which forms the "basis of knowledge" in the culture. The number 266 corresponds closely to the average time of human gestation, and also may have some significance in correlating with the average time between appearances of Venus. The shrine of Kangaba contains a chamber known as the "vestibule of the master of the sky", or the Mande, in which ritual ceremonies occur every seven years. During these ceremonies, 266 of the symbols are drawn on the walls, and the outside of the building is painted. Within these symbols are included eight signs for the primordial seeds of life, four representing the four elements and four cardinal points, and nine for the eight ancestors of humanity and the Mande shrine.

Other insights into the cosmology of the Africans may be learned from their cosmogenic myths. According to this myth God (Amma or Mangala) created the world from a small seed, which embodied four elements, and which developed into two twins. These twins become separated and one becomes transformed into a fox, and is placed on earth. The other is divided by the creator into sixty six parts, placed in an ark, and develops into the various races of mankind, as well as the most important animal species. The creator then tries again to populate the earth with life.The ark of life was then placed on earth, and brought about the appearance of light, and the motions of the stars.

The symbolism of the above myth is complex, yet mirrors several elements found in other societies. There is an emphasis on repeated creations of the world, the importance of the four cardinal directions is stressed, and the numerological elements all hint at some of the astronomical complexity of the Mayans.

Another example of African astronomy can be found in the Dogon people. They tell of an axis of the universe which connects the Pole star with the stars of the Southern Cross. The two endpoints of the axis are known as the "eyes of God" and these support the world with its 266 stars and constellations. The two other main elements of astronomy concern the sun and Sirius, which are identified with the two twins of creation. These two elements are the objects of elaborate sacrifices which are made to each to keep the universe in order. The Dogon are also known to keep both a lunar and solar calendar, and time their rituals to commemorate the events that led to the formation of the earth and life.

 


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