Family History: Why the Black Family Needs the African Goddess
By Asantewaa Oppong Wadie, Ed.D Presented by Omni-U Virtual University
"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home, a long way from home." Traditional Negro Spiritual Several years ago, I happened upon an article by Carol P. Christ entitled, “Why Women Need the Goddess” which was a revolutionary read for its time (1978). Though not explicitly stated in the article, the audience was understood to be middle-class White women. Ironically enough, the concept of a "goddess" originated among the ancient Ethiopians. The Black family most likely invented this concept because they needed it for their survival. Yet, today most of us live without it. What we do live with, though, is a scourge of physical and mental violence against the Black family and our family members, expulsion from schools, imprisonment, inter-generational poverty, and an abiding sense of cultural loss. As a concerned Black woman, I am always seeking to share the solutions that have helped me. It is in that vein that I share information on the goddess. I am not suggesting that the African goddess is a panacea, rather the African goddess is a repository of wisdom from which we may find something of value- something that might aid us as we struggle to live with dignity as a Black family. Africa has produced hundreds- possibly thousands- of goddesses, each of whom has several avatars. Three is, however, amid the various regional characteristics assigned to each of these goddesses, a common thread of motherhood, compassion, and defense of family, with particular attention to children. Perhaps, the African goddess that has been the most enduring and that best embodies all the commonalities is none other than the Nilotic goddess Aset (called "Isis" by the Greeks). Aset, who originated in ancient Ethiopia more than 5000 years ago, was beloved by her people. She was, also, so deeply loved- and even envied by the Greek and Roman invaders of North Africa- that these invaders made the uncharacteristic move to incorporate the goddess into their own pantheon. The author Eloise McKinney-Johnson states: As little known as it may be, Aset’s devotees really comprised the world’s first international religion. According to McKinney-Johnson: In India, she was associated with Buddha. In China, she is called Kwan-yin and in Japan, she is known as Kwanmon. Aset is the prototype for the Black Madonnas of Europe and South America and her parallels across Africa include Yemaya of Nigeria, Atete in the modern state of Ethiopia, and Mbaba Mwana Waresa in South Africa. Hence, for the purpose of this essay, I will be referring to Aset (aka, Isis) when I say, African goddess. For all the songs and poetry created by Black people, there are about as many on the love of our mothers such as, "Dear Mama" by Tupac Shakur, as there are about the loss of our collective mother (think of the African American spiritual, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child"). As loved and exalted as the Black mother is, it is her name we intone when we mourn the loss of our ‘mother land’, our "mother tongue" and our "mother culture." We live with an emptiness as an African people enduring European world domination. We cannot sing, dance, or party those feelings away. To whom do we turn when we are faced with daily, rude reminders that we are largely unloved and unlovable in this context? It is my opinion that acknowledging a mother goddess, gives us time, space, and occasions to explore and heal those feelings. While the stories of Aset (aka, Isis) are many, she is best known as the skilled, wise queen of the Nile, wife to the great King Ausar (aka, Osiris). They prospered in their rulership and brought remarkable levels of civilization to their people. However, their happiness was interrupted by the King’s jealous, younger brother, Set, who plots, traps, and kills him, casting his body in the Nile River. He seizes the throne and begins a chaotic rule. Like Black people everywhere, Aset is at once faced with terrible loss. She cuts the locks of her hair and descends into mourning. There she remained, but only long enough to realize the truth. Of course, evil cannot be allowed to reign! Of course, the righteous order has to be restored. But what can a dejected queen with no king or kingdom do? Aset decides that the most important thing to do is to search for the body of her husband, perform his final rites, and pass his legacy on to his yet-to-be-conceived son. Her brother-in-law soon learns of her mission, finds the body of the dead king, dissects it, and disposes of the pieces all over the world. Nevertheless, Aset persists in searching for- and finding- each body member and carefully re- membering them together. She re-creates the member that she cannot find and gives the world its first mummified body and resurrected being. Having completed her obligation to the king, Aset turns her attention to raising their son, Heru. In this story, Aset gives us the formula for transmuting- into activism- the sense of loss that we feel. Like Aset, Black people everywhere need to arise and actively seek out the land, language, history, and culture that was taken from us. The search will necessarily be tedious. So much of our human record has been intentionally obscured and stored in places all over the world. Even those pieces of ourselves that we are told can never be recovered- such as the names of our ancestors who were snatched from Africa- must be intuited and creatively imagined so that we might know wholeness. This is the permission that Aset gives us. She is so dear to us because her story so closely mirrors our post-Columbus existence. It is from her lens that we are given hope that things that have ‘fallen apart’ can be re-connected and we can, thus, be restored. In her capacity as a mother, Aset provides a quintessential model of parenting. By far the most ubiquitous image of a goddess is as a mother seated with her child, Heru
( aka, Horus), on her lap. Biblical historians are sure that the image of Mary with the baby Jesus seated on her lap was modeled by Aset and Heru. I am intentionally refraining from referring to Aset as simply a mother. In truth, she is a symbol of good parenting from which the entire Black family might learn. The infant seated on her lap indicates that the child will be her focus as well as the center of the family’s focus, henceforth. Aset’s name literally translates as "throne." Thus, the child who sits on her lap will become a king. It is her duty to ensure that outcome. In her seated statuary, the hair of the goddess is usually braided. This is not merely for design. The hairstyle communicates her willingness to serve and sacrifice for the well-being of the child. Mothers of young children still use braids in this manner, today. It gives them respite from the time usually spent in self-care; time which can be invested in the child. Here are two lessons that the Black family can take away from the seated mother and child: First, for best results, Black children should be the center of the family’s attention. Child-rearing cannot be left to chance. It is the focus of the family that ensures success in child-rearing. Secondly- but equally important- all adults must sacrifice to ensure that the child(ren) reaches his/her/ their highest potential. As the one who will breastfeed the child on her lap, Aset(aka, Isis) is known as "Isis lactans" or “milk-giving Isis.” Her milk is more than just food for the hungry child. It also represents continuity between the ancestors, the older generation, and the child. Her milk was literally called ‘salvation.’ The following was written of her. “Isis has come. She has her breast prepared for her son [Heru] the victorious.” For the Black family, I will liken the breast milk of Aset (aka, Isis) to all the wisdom teachings, stories, songs, recipes, herbal remedies, and heirlooms that were given to us by our forebears. These must be passed on to our children. The school system is not a substitute for this kind of learning. We must give salvation to our children by pouring into them the best of what we have. For as long as we are here, we must be prepared to give to those coming behind us. It is from these lessons that our children gain their sense of royalty. There is so much that the African family can glean from the stories, legends, and images of Aset. Essentially, she is a single mother raising a son after the untimely death of his father. To succeed at this daunting task, it is said that she retreats to marshy swamps with her young son. There they are, away from the immediate harm of his uncle and the distractions that vied for his attention. It is in the swamps that she gives him the rules for kingship and prepares him to re-claim his father’s throne. If we as a Black family believe in our children and want the best for them, we will have to practice some form of retreat. This may mean limiting their internet and television use, pulling them away from toxic companions, and whenever possible, getting them out of cities and into nature where the earth can heal them. It may also involve homeschooling them or some combination of the above. Once we retreat, we feed them and feed them the truth that is in our hearts. That is the way of the African goddess! May we know your maternal protection. Recommended Listening "Dear Mama" Written and Performed by Ancestor Tupac Shakur "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" Sung by Ancestor Odetta Recommended Readings Ancestor Dr. Margaret Taylor Goss Burroughs. "What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black…?"
Ancestor Dr. Runoko Rashidi. Uncovering the African Past: The Ivan Van Sertima Papers. Ancestor Dr. John G. Jackson. Christianity Before Christ. Dr. Authens Asantewaa Oppong Wadie, editor and Ancestor Dr. Bartley McSwine. The Eternal Year of African People.