Syncretic Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Amhara peoples, Ethiopia, Christian monks. Photo by Allen F. Roberts.

African adaptations of Islam and Christianity have existed for centuries. Koranic schools across the Sahel train boys and girls to recite scripture and gain entry to the earliest circles of mystical knowledge available through the Sufi brotherhoods of western Africa (see Roberts and Roberts 2003). Islam and African religions sometimes converge, as when Baga masks that once performed in initiation now portray “al-B'rak,” the winged horse with a woman's head that transported the Prophet beyond the seventh heaven (Lamp 1996). Christianity has taken its own wholly African forms as well. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Ethiopia, home to Christians for nearly two millennia. Here we see a young acolyte flanked by monks at a monastery on an island in Lake Tana. The boy holds an illuminated manuscript depicting Biblical scenes in an Ethiopian aesthetic. Through years of intense devotional study, the boy is being initiated into asceticism and the holy practices of the church (see Heldman and Munro-Hay 1993).