Book Excerpts III: The Influence of Ancient Egypt on the Akan of Ghana
We learn from the writings of Manetho (the last known native ancient Egyptian priest and scribe) that prior to the establishment of the First Dynasty, the Shemsu Hor, a group of the Falcon Clan (the Oyoko is of the Hawk, considered cousins to the Falcon family) who had migrated from their original home in the West Delta region, conquered and formed a kingdom in Upper Egypt.
After the decline of Egypt, some of its denizens may have been forced to make a U-turn and migrate “south” to their ancestral homelands and roots. It is highly probable that the people who eventually became the Akan were among those who made this return journey. They appear to have carried with them the knowledge of gold prospecting, weaving, and other crafts that they had acquired from Egypt, as well as from Nubia and the later empires of the Western Sudan.
Bowdich suggests that “The Ashantees and their neighbors must have again been disturbed from time to time, by the several emigrations of the nations of the Mediterranean, whom Buache [Boakye?], in his researches for the construction of a map of Africa for Ptolemy, has at once discovered, by the identity of the names, in the neighborhood of the Mediterranean and south of the Niger.”
According to Meyerowitz prior to the 11th century, the forebears of the present-day Akan of Ghana lived in the “country of the sand” deep in the heart of the Sahara, and that the earliest of these people to dwell in the Tibesti region were the Braun (Brong = Bono?), said to be of Kushite stock. She suggests that Akan states were founded by the Dia, or Za (present-day Oyoko); the Libyan Berbers (present-day Agona), who were originally from western Ethiopia.
Historically, present-day Sudan is part of the region of Kush (a kingdom in Upper Nubia), a crossroads between Egypt and other parts of Africa. The Greeks, (including the fifth-century historian Herodotus), referred to all of the lands between the southern Nile and India as Ethiopia. Biblically, the black “Ethiopians” who lived in the southern belts of the Nile were understood to be descendants of Kush, Ham’s oldest son (Ham was Noah’s youngest son). The equivalent of the name Kush in Akan is Kusi, while it is Kushi in Ga name structure. Of the Kushites, John Taylor’s chapter in the Oxford History of Ancient Egypt describes them as the “southern physiognomies, dark skin-colouring” of ethnic features of the Kushites. And Gerald Massey tells us, “The Cushites were the Black race; and the aborigines of Babylonia were the Black men of the monuments, the ‘black-heads’ of the Akkadian Texts.” We must quickly add here that according to Strabo of Cappadocia, as quoted by Flavius Josephus, “the Jews were originally Egyptians,” a fact supported by Greenberg, who asserts, “Prior to the Exodus, the only land ever really known by the Hebrews was Egypt. It was the only land where the children of Israel were not strangers.”
The similarities between some cultures of the Jews and the Akan were therefore from a common source. Perhaps the most distinctive trait of ancient Egyptian civilization to filter down to the Akan of Ghana was the concept of divine kingship. And Michael A. Hoffman observes, “If there is one aspect of Egyptian culture that attracts the public interest and fascinates laymen and professionals alike, it is the unusual, unique concern shown by the ancient Egyptians for death and burial.” Here Hoffman unknowingly seems to be describing death-related customs in ancient Egypt that were practiced centuries ago by the Akan, and that exist in modified form in contemporary Akan society. Further, the early kings of ancient Egypt, specifically the Falcon kings, had throne names (Fighter, Cobra, Spearer, Scorpion, etc.) which described the feats or attributes of a warrior leader. Present-day Akan kings have similar titles (Otumfuo, Osagyefuo, Okofo, Okyerefo, etc).
As an example of how some contemporary African practices influenced by ancient Egypt seem to have confused Gardiner in his great work, he writes in one spot: “A man named Amenhotpe who had the rank of ‘First King’s Son of Akheperkare’ (this is the praenomen of Tuthmosis I) was not a real son, because both his parents are named; it is of interest to mention him here, since this instance illustrates the principal difficulty in dealing with Egyptian genealogical problems; one never knows whether terms like ‘son’, ‘daughter’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’, and so forth are to be understood literally or not.” Any Akan, or for that matter most any African, would instantly understand Gardiner’s dilemma. A “King’s Son” would not necessary be a blood son of the king. Even in present-day Akan, a servant, an adopted child, or a subordinate who had earned the trust and confidence of royalty could be designated a “King’s Son” and trusted or assigned to an important or sensitive position. Thus, a “King’s Son of Kush”—when Nubia was a province of Egypt—would mean a king’s representative or governor of Kush without any blood relation between the king and the Son.
Elsewhere, Gardiner again faces a cultural conundrum when he points out, “Twice before in Egypt’s earlier history a queen had usurped the kingship, but it was a wholly new departure for a female to pose and dress as a man.” Here also we can solve and explain the riddle by looking at contemporary Akan culture. Not only do Akan queens who assume the kingship dress as men, with male sandals, war regalia et al, but they assume the male equivalent of the female name. If as a queen she was Akosua Oforiwaa, she now becomes king Kwasi Ofori. Maspero tells us that Hapshopsitu (a.k.a. Queen Hatshepsut 1478 – 1457 B.C) who reigned jointly with her father Thutmosis I, later became King Makeri, “and at all public appearances she appeared in a male costume, with uncovered shoulders, closely cut hair, and a false beard.” And Gae Callender writing on another ancient Egyptian Queen Sobekneferu who ruled as pharaoh says “the costume on this figure (Queen) is unique in its combination of elements from male and female dress, echoing her occasional use of male titles in her records.”
As Gardiner explains of ancient Egypt, “In ancient Egypt among officials whose duty it was to look after the king’s own person there were sandal bearers, keepers of the robes and crowns, barbers, and physicians, the last sometimes highly specialized like oculists, stomach doctors, and the like. A host of servants were employed in kitchen and dining-room, and there were also domestics of a somewhat higher grade who kept order at the royal meals.” In a palace of a typical Akan king, there is Mpaboahene (chief in charge of the king’s sandals), Dabrehene/Dabehene (chief in charge of the king’s wardrobe, etc.), Manwerehene (chief in charge of the king’s ornaments etc), Sumankwaahene (the king’s physician), Gyasehene under whom are Soodehene (chiefs in charge of the king’s culinary needs), and other subchiefs.
Interestingly, in ancient Egypt, the term tjaty (gyati?) was used to describe the vizier in charge of running all state departments except religious affairs. In Akan royal structure, the term gyase is used to describe people who run all royal affairs in a king’s palace. The administrative head of a king’s palace is the Gyasehene, who rules over the Gyase people. In the Twi language of the Akan, the suffix ase from the word gya-ase means tail end or bottom end, while the suffix ti or ty of the word tjaty (gya-ti) means head or top end. Gya is fire or hearth, from which every stomach is fed when food is prepared. Thus, Egypt’s Pharoahic head of administration was “head end” (of fire), while the Akan’s “bottom end” (of fire). Similar to the protocol of modern-day Akan kingship, an ancient Egyptian fan-bearer always stood at the right-hand side of a sitting monarch.
In the “Preface to the Phoenix Edition” of Frankfort’s Kingship and the Gods, Samuel Noah Kramer says about ancient Egypt, “As a god, the king of Egypt had absolute power over the land and its people, yet he could not act arbitrarily and capriciously but only in accordance with maat, ‘right order.’ ” Elsewhere Kramer continues, “The king’s death was a critical event in the life of all Egyptians, since it indicated that the powers of chaos and evil had the upper hand in the land, at least till the accession and coronation of the new king.” Both narratives of Kramer are extant in contemporary Akan royalty.
Frankfort describes how, at the Sed Festival of the ancient Egyptians, “[t]he king, enthroned, receives pledges of loyalty, then, again, he descends from the throne, and heading processions whose composition varies according to tradition, goes to pay homage to a god or goddess in the Court of the Great Ones.” This process is reminiscent of current Akan practices where, after the king greets his subjects, they in turn reaffirm their loyalty to the kingship; the king later adjourns to the Stool Room to pay homage to past kings. Remnants of the Egyptian Sed Festival are showcased in several Akan festivals such as Addae, Ohum, and Odwira.
Ritual mock fights at festivals were enacted at ancient Egyptian festivals as at Akan festivals of old between an Omanhene, paramount king, and Krontihene, traditional “owner” of the town. In fact, such an annual ritual fight was religiously enacted in Takyiman. A mock fight is also enacted during the Apafram or Odwira Festival in Akwamufie.
Bowdich writes that in Abyssinia, “they mount an effigy of the deceased on his mule, and parade it about, exclaiming, ‘why do you quit us?’ ” Bowdich then adds, “I never saw any effigy in Ashantee.” However, the practice was there when Bowdich visited Kumasi, the Asante capital in 1817. Akan of yesteryear performed Osenponsoa (a.k.a akukuaa), a process whereby expert women created a replica of a venerated dead person through special clay. The figure was meticulously constructed with clay and fired to be hardened. On funeral day, the image was dressed according to the decedent’s status. For a royal, the Osenpon was paraded in a palanquin with full regalia and honors, including but not limited to gun firing, as would have happened in real life. Because a king never dies, the effigy is kept or maintained until a successor is crowned.
From the Book The Akan of Ghana. Aspects of Past & Present Practices by Kofi Ayim
Available at Amazon.com
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author(s) and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana. Modern Ghana will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."