Ọṣun, Aset, and the divinity of motherhood in African thought

Years ago I read Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí’s work on gender in Yorùbá society. I found her work exceedingly interesting.

I was struck by the indigenous conceptualization of Ọṣun (Oshun) as “Oore yeye”, the “generous mother”. I found this quite interesting given that Ọṣun also represents (among other things water and harmonious relations). This made me think about the Kemetic concept of nwn (nun), which is primordial water, as well as ast (Aset), and to a lesser degree mAat (Maat). While I don’t think that Ọṣun is the Yorùbá “equivalent” of these Kemetic concepts (the search for conceptual equivalencies across cultures betrays a number of problematic assumptions about cultural universalism, but more on that at another time), it is interesting that both societies represented these ideas in the form of women.

The critical role of women as the vessels of new life was not lost on the architects of these ancient civilizations. The reproductive and educational roles of women were not just physical or instructional, what we might term “instrumental functions”. In the Yorùbá imagination women were reflective of the conduit of life, the stream of human consciousness from time immemorial to the present, the maintenance of ethical and nurturing relations, and the deep feelings of love that sustain them. Thus the role of rivers, lakes, and streams in sustaining food production systems paralleled the roles of mothers as sustainers of humanity.

This echoes the role of Aset, who was not only the mother of Hr (Heru), but also represented the archetype of human motherhood. Again, this was not simply an instrumental or functional role, but was one that expressed the role of women as carriers of future possibility. In this case Aset carried Heru, who delivered the country from the rule of his uncle stX (Set). Heru represented the triumph of right or righteousness over might. Aset therefor represented the possibility of renewal, redemption from injustice, reclamation of truth, and the forward flow of human society. Again, these are similar concepts. Though they differ in critical ways, they reveal a great deal about the ontology of gender in at least two indigenous African civilizations.

Divinity in African spirituality

African spirituality is obviously an edifice of traditional practices and beliefs, however undergirding this is a conceptual infrastructure that reveals the structural dynamics of African spiritual practices and their social-psychological role.

One of the chief elements of this is the significance of divinity in African thought. African cultures do not posit separations between the sacred and profane, that is between the mundane and the spiritual. These overlap. Some might even argue that they are the indistinguishable.

As such, humans, nature, values, and so on all exist within the realm of the divine. Their sacredness is often attested to in the formation of ritual and beliefs pertaining to them. As such, as Jacob H. Carruthers has attested, there is no fundamental alienation in the traditional African worldview.

The construction of divinity in African culture must be understand as a process which seeks to represent all of the above, not only forces of nature, but also principles and ideals as representations of divinity—or more broadly conceived—as facets of reality itself. Hence African conceptions of divinity reveal a variety of forms as the following examples from Kemet, the Yorùbá, and the Akan demonstrate.

Divinity Manifestations Origin
Asase Yaa Earth Akan
Djehuti Articulate speech and wisdom Kemet
Maat Truth, justice, and divine order Kemet
Nana Adade Kofi Iron, strength, and warriorhood Akan/Guan
Nana Asuo Gyebi The river and cultural reclamation in the Diaspora Akan/Guan
Ogun Iron, warriorhood, and technology Ogun
Ori Human consciousness and personal divinity Yorùbá
Oshun The river, beauty, femininity Yorùbá
Re The sun Kemet
Seshat Writing Kemet
Shango Lightening and thunder Yorùbá
Yemoya The sea Yorùbá

What these examples suggest is that African spirituality reflects concerns with the elements which constituted human life in both its most functional and expansive senses. The need to live in harmony with nature and other human beings, the promotion of positive ideals, and the encouragement of aspiration and productivity are all represented in these and other concepts of divinity. Thus African spirituality is concerned with both issues pertaining to the unseen and immaterial, but clearly to the visible material world as well. In fact, the physical world of utu (humanity) was the arena wherein one’s (spiritual) journey was expressed as captured in the Igbo conception of chi or the Akan concept of nkrabea, both of which refer to the destiny of the human being.

Sources for further reading
Balla, Muriel. 2009. Handbook of Concepts in Kemetic Spirituality. Chicago, IL: Kemetic Institute.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1984. Essays in Ancient Egyptian studies. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1995. MDW NTR: Divine Speech. London: Karnak House.
Kamalu, Chukwunyere. 1998. Person, Divinity, & Nature. London, England: Karnak House.
Karade, Baba Ifa. 1994. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. Boston: Weiser Books.
Opokuwaa, Nana Akua Kyerewaa. 2005. The Quest for Spiritual Transformation. New York: iUniverse.

Cultural hybridity

Cultural hybridity is perhaps an inevitable feature of human cultures in this era. The movement of people, goods, and information over the last five centuries accounts for this. This is no different for African people wherever we find ourselves. This is part of why I argue that cultural purity is an unrealistic striving. It is incongruent with the material condition of humanity. This, whether positive or negative, is simply an extant reality.

The manifestations of such hybridity among our people reveals itself in a myriad of ways–language, religion, music, movement-based practices, and so on. This is what I have referred to as a pattern whereby one will encounter Africans in the US whose cultural praxis spans a range of domains from the African Diaspora to Africa (ancient and “modern”) to India to China and so on.

Tomorrow there is a Odwirafo festival on the South Side of Chicago. This is a traditional festival from the Akan people of West Africa. The subject is healing and the keynote speaker is a long-time Tai Chi practitioner. Tai Chi is a traditional Chinese fighting art. This is a case in point of this tendency towards hybridity.

To use the tools available to you is intelligent. Thus, I think that our people’s embrace of various healing, combative, and other modalities has been intelligent, especially given that our access to traditional African knowledge of these kind remains limited. However, it is incumbent upon us to both maximally use those African knowledges available to us, in addition to seeking and constructing additional knowledge. There are many areas where such a process can be applied.

Naming is one such area. There are no discernible barriers preventing us from using and promoting African names.

Languages is another. There are many African languages that are quite accessible to us. The Swahili language is, by far, the most accessible for Africans in the US, but there are abundant resources for those seeking to learn the languages of Kemet (ancient Egypt), the Akan, and the Yorùbá as well. There is also a growing body of resources pertaining to the Igbo, Kikongo, and Wolof languages. What is required is our resolve to learn, use, and transmit these languages. I would argue that these are more of a problem.

Various movement disciplines are another area open to us. Capoeira and African and African Diasporic dance traditions are readily accessible to us. Fu-Kiau stated that dance is a modality of healing. Therefore, these practices have utility beyond the performative, utility that remains untapped amongst us.

Perhaps the areas of greatest importance however, are those which have been the preoccupations of African intellectuals for over a century–history and critical theory. History is, obviously, an area of culture and is indispensable to our regeneration as a people. By critical theory I am simply referring to the efforts of our people to formulate critical analyses of our condition and solutions to this malaise. Martin Delany, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, Kwme Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop, Malcolm X, Marimba Ani, Frances Cress Welsing, Jacob H. Carruthers and others have offered us rich insights to build upon. In fact I would argue that the study of history and critical thought is necessarily a means to effectively inform our discernment of what non-African ideas and practices may be congruent or non-congruent with the broader and necessary process of Sankɔfa or re-Africanization.

Ultimately, I think that what must be remembered is that we bring an African essence to all that we do. That African essence, when we have studied our history and critical thought and have internalized them, enables us to transform whatever we touch, making it serve our interests.


The orientation towards hyperrelativism (that is, “truth” is whatever I as an individual determine it to be) is deeply embedded within this culture. It is something that classical or traditional African societies would regard as dangerous, corrosive to the social order.

In the context of kmt, truth, or Maat, was exceedingly important. In fact, Maat was seen as order itself. The so-called “Prophecies of Neferti” states: iw mAat r iyt r st.s isft dr.ti r rwty, which I translated as “Maat is in her place, above injustice. Cast out Isft.” isft, or “wrongdoing, disorder” was antithetical to truth. The negation of truth was in fact isft.

The Fulani also address the notion of truth in their deep thought when they state: Ko doole waawi goonga kono ko goonga sakitotoo; which translates as, “Power can overcome truth but it is the truth that lasts.” For the Fulani, like the kmtyw, truth is not ephemeral, not subject to the relativistic nature of fashion. In fact, they posited truth as that which endured, that upon which one should rely and build. On a certain level therefore, one must consider that African notions of truth are predicated on a certain valuing of tradition, and a valuation of tradition as that which truth has established, as we see this in the deep thought of other African people as well.

The Wolof address it this way: Lu bant yàgg-yàgg ci ndox, du tax mu soppaliku mukk jasig; or “Even if a log soaks a long time in water, it will never become a crocodile.” Here they posit that things possess an essential nature, one which is not susceptible to arbitrary change. Of course, things change, but in African cultures, changing circumstances did not necessarily result in the delegitimation of the entire edifice of tradition or traditional knowledge. The Swahili put it this way: Kila kitu chageuka isipoku wa kitu kimoja tu; or “Everything is subject to change except one thing. The leopard cannot change its spots.”

To me this raises pertinent questions about the nature of “truth” and the dangers in failing to apprehend it in African terms. Dr. Mario Beatty says, “In explaining Maat, this means going beyond the definition of it as truth, justice, righteousness, & universal order to provide some sense of what African people meant by these notions because they do not even remotely parallel the Western sense of these terms.” Thus we should be cautious in positing equivalency between African and Western conceptions of truth.

I argue that seeking to grapple with the Western notion of truth may be an exercise of limited utility. Whether we are speaking of hyperrelativism or specious scientism or some other construct, the imperative remains to see the world through African eyes. As Jacob H. Carruthers has stated, “We have been dealing with the alligators, we must now face the possibility that the solution to our problems may require that the swamp be drained. Too few of us have prepared ourselves to deal with this possibility.”