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RESEARCH TOPIC – CULTURAL ASTRONOMY IN AFRICAN LITERATURE

CULTURAL ASTRONOMY IN AFRICAN LITERATURE

 

ABSTRACT

The sun, Moon and Stars are always available in the sky for man. Man curiosity to know his environment extended to the exploration of these sky entities. In  many communities in Africa, the general life of the people is determined by some mystical symbolism understood and used by them. These mystical symbolisms have information on the solar and astral system buried in them. The practice of relating the heavenly bodies and events on earth and the tradition that has thus been generated is therefore put on the context of African literatures based on a general belief that movements and changes in the heavens are significant to humanity. In this research, we explore and analyze the beliefs, astronomical knowledge and theories of some traditional African people. We also explore how cultural astronomy in African works of art have gone a long way to define African creative literature.

This manifests in circular forms of thought in traditional African artistic expressions such as the architecture, ornaments, ritual dances etc This research work therefore reveals that cultural astronomy in represented is African literature in such a way that it enhances the aesthetic beauty of the literary works.

 

CHAPTER ONE

CULTURE AND ASTRONOMY IN AFRICA

1.1 BASIC CONCEPTS OF ASTRONOMY

A definition of astronomy and cultural astronomy is particularly important for a better understanding of this work, ‘Cultural Astronomy in African Literature’. Astronomy is intimately connected to our ideas of ourselves, our purpose and place in the universe. Celebreand Sariano (7) stress that it is a science that has a universal appeal because it encompasses all fields of human interest and endeavour. It is more than the science of the stars. Nicholas Campion (2) argues that currently it is fuelling myths, beliefs and ideologies as much as at any time in its history. Therefore astronomy as the word applies is the  scientific study of the celestial (heavenly) bodies, and this, to many uneducated majority, is believed to have started with the age of formal learning which came with the Europeans. But history holds it that before the period of colonialism, Africans had practiced astronomy in a well defined manner, that they had studied the celestial bodies for direction and guidance for the purpose of social, cultural, economic and religious beliefs. Johnson Urama in his article  Astronomy and Culture in Nigeria points out that astronomy arose independently in many parts of the world out of a practical human need of calendar, telling time and direction finding and ‘astronomy is a vital part of the culture of mankind’ (Urama 235).

1.1.1 Cultural Astronomy

In an article, ‘Introduction: Cultural Astronomy’, Nicholas Campion believes that cultural astronomy has been said to be the use of astronomical knowledge, beliefs or theories to inspire, inform or influence social forms and ideologies of any aspect of human behavior (Campion xv). Urama (235) is also of the opinion that cultural astronomy can be seen in the interpretation of the worldview, cosmology and creation myths, indigenous lore of celestial bodies, calendars, cycles, seasons and festivals because it focuses on the many ways people and cultures interact with celestial bodies. One may ask, what do people see when they look at the night sky? The answer is as much a cultural as an astronomical one.

This implies that ‘the study of cultural astronomies is concerned with diversities of the way in which cultures, both ancient and modern, perceive celestial objects and integrate them into their view of the world. C. Ruggles & N. Saunders in Astronomy and Culture argue that a society’s view of and belief about the celestial sphere are inextricably linked to the realm of politics, economics, religion and ideology. In this case, cultural astronomy is but part of the wider
endeavor of investigating and interpreting human culture (Ruggles and Saunders 1).

1.3 THE BELIEF, CULTURE, ASTRONOMICAL KNOWLEDGE AND THEORIES OF SOME COMMUNITIES OF AFRICA

 

CULTURAL ASTRONOMY IN AFRICAN LITERATURE

 

Culture is the totality of what is learnt by an individual as a member of a society. That is to say that the totality of all the values, laws, conventions, customs and traditions by whicha society is governed or recognized or known is culture. No society can exist without culture. Human nature is filled with traditions and superstitions connected with the cosmos, therefore, astronomy has its origin in all human traits and curiosity. Felix Chami stresses that the sun
and moon have been used by Africans to regulate their monthly and annual activities sometimes more unconsciously than consciously (Chami129). Astronomical knowledge is therefore passed on as word of mouth in symbolic stories and records of astronomy appear in oral tradition as well as written literary works of Africa. Much astronomical knowledge of African people has been incorporated into their art and architecture.

Some early cultures of  the people of Africa tried to make sense of what they saw in the sky, and these cosmological ideas are grounded in myths of the people. These astronomical observations were used by ancient people of Africa to reinforce their religious beliefs and they are also linked with ancient culture of the people. They are developed out of the people’s desire to have concrete manifestation of their gods and religious beliefs. In Northern Africa, sky watching plays a major role in agricultural and ceremonial lives of the people. Pyramids built in Egypt are built in such a way that the people will not
find it difficult to watch the sky. The Egyptians are using the knowledge of astronomical events like the appearance of Sirius star to time their farming season because they start farming when the Nile is at its peak in order to enhance easy irrigation. Men gifted in mysticism also see astronomical insights as extremely important success variable in their act and Egypt is known for mysticism.

The appearance of the new moons is also of great importance to them as they use them to know when to perform certain sacrifices. John Fix supports this by saying that “the Egyptians developed and used astronomy entirely for practical purposes, such as developing a calendar to be used for predicting the
Nile flood and in building temples and monuments”; that some temples in Egypt are also aligned with respect to the rising point of bright stars. For instance J.D. Fix in his Astronomy Journey to the Cosmos Frontier points out the temple of Amun-Ra at Karmak was aligned with respect to the rising or setting of the sun at the time of summer solstice He also argues that “it is possible that much of what we usually consider Greek astronomy was based on much earlier work done in Egypt” (Fix 26).

Ka’ba, the cubic structure in Mecca is a central focus in Islam. There is the Qur’anic injunction for Muslims to face Ka’ba while offering their prayers. Qibla (direction to Mecca) therefore became important for the erection of religious structures of traditional Islamic cities. M. E. Bonine shows that in most cases a mosque is a rectangular building which has one of its walls facing in the direction of Mecca. This wall is the qibla wall that contains the mihrab or prayer-niche that indicates this sacred direction for prayer (Bonine 145-146). He also stresses on the relationship between the qibla and urban structure of several principal Tunisian cities, indicating that astronomical phenomena are significant on the Islamic settlement orientation. The same thing is applicable to other Islamic African nations or communities. Their hour and manner of prayers are portrayed in their literary works.

During the Islamic Middle Ages various Muslim scholars devised diagrams of the world divided into various sectors about Ka’ba. Each sector is identified with specific rising or setting of prominent stars or star groups (e.g. the Pleiades) or in terms of the sunrise or sunset at the solstices. The earliest mosque  in Egypt, the Mosque of Amr in Fustat (the predecessor settlement south of the future Cairo), for instance, was built facing the winter sunrise (King
315 – 328). In almost all Igbo areas of Nigeria in West Africa, the Supreme Being “Chukwu” is commonly identified with the sun “Anyanwu”. In Igbo  cosmology the Supreme Being is often described as “Anyanwu Eze Chukwu Okike” which when translated is the Sun, the Lord, the Creator. The Igbo people identifying the sun with their creator, therefore depicts that their lives are centered on the moon, the sun and stars. Even though there were no watches or
clocks in the olden days as we have today, the rising and setting of the sun was used to predict the morning and evening. Also the position of the shadow cast on the people in the sun was used to predict the time.

In Nsukka, a town in Enugu State Nigeria which is a typical Igbo setting almost every household has a shrine of anyanwu in its compound as a round
pottery dish sunk into the ground bottom upwards at the base of an ogbu tree. This shrine is where they worship the sun god Anyanwu and it is called onu anyanwu. Urama (235) in supports this argues that there can be little doubt that this pottery dish there is used as representing the disk of the sun and offerings at the shrine are made at sunrise and at sunset to the sun god. Baths Chukwuezi also stresses that the sun is seen as the harbinger of the day
and night. It regulates when to work and when to rest and sleep. The sun he also says is revered and respected. The sun is feared and regarded as harsh yet the sun is the giver of life and strength (Chukwuezi 213-214). In Igbo traditional societies, people after the day’s activities gather according to their
peer groups to enjoy the full moon and to tell stories. The moon is therefore an important object in Igbo oral literary tradition. The Igbos also use uli sacred writings.

These writings  are mystical symbols and these mystical symbols are used to adorn the walls of houses in the form of the moon, the sun and the stars. They also have mystical symbolism understood and used by ‘dibias’ – traditional medicine men who have specific role to play using astronomical insights because they are gifted in mysticism. The sittings of the moon or rather the positions of the moon in the sky; are also used in Igbo society as signs to predict the future. The Igbo week is a time period of four days. These days are Eke, Oye, Afor and Nkwo. The week is called ‘Izu’ or ‘Nkwizu’. Seven of these Igbo week make the Igbo calendar month which is a lunar month of twenty-eight days. This Igbo calendar is even named after the moon – onwa. J.A. Ume stresses that “during this period of twenty-eight days, the moon comes out and shines for 14 days and goes in for 14 days” and that “The four
phases of the moon are of great importance to Igbo Dibia’s works particularly the new moon (onwa ofuu) and the full moon (onwa kpolu oku). Certain sacrifices or ogwu are made when the moon is waning, some when it is waxing and some when the moon has gone in (i.e., moonless nights or period)”. (Ume 43) The moon also influences various activities of the Igbo people as the various phases of the moon have different significance.

All the Igbo calendar months have activities ascribed to them. For instance, the third month is the period of planting though if the rain comes early,
planting could start in the second month (Chukwuezi 213). These celestial entities – the sun, moon and stars are in the sky or heaven which is
called ‘Igwe’ in Igbo language. There is one Igbo adage which says that ‘Igwe ka ala’ literally transmitted as heaven is higher than the earth. This saying clearly places the heaven high in Igbo custom Heavenly entities are also placed high in Igbo customs and so they are revered and respected.
The stars which are called kpakpando in Igbo language are also admired by the people. Shooting stars have social significance for the Igbo. They believe that when a shooting star appears in the sky an important person – probably a king is dead or about to die. It is also believed that shooting stars are associated with good omens, that is, something good is about to happen (Chukwuezi 214).

The Yorubas who are the people that inhabit the western part of Nigeria also have much astronomical knowledge and some of these learning are incorporated into their art and architecture. They have the belief that the whole people of Yoruba originated from the sun god (Abanuka 81). A good number of their myths and folklores are about the sun, moon and the stars. The traditional Yoruba society’s culture is rooted in myths, therefore, the moon, sun
and stars as natural phenomena are very important to the Yoruba society because their myths are deeply rooted in much sacrifice to the Yoruba gods. The phase of the moon, the rising and setting of the sun and the appearance of certain stars determine the kind of sacrifices to be made and when they will be made. As different cultures have different interpretations of some behaviours of the moon, sun and stars, the people of East Africa also rely on the sky entities for ordering events of their lives. In the eastern part of Tanzania inhabited by the Wahehe of the mountains who speak the dialects of Kisungwa, Kikami, Kiyenga and Kihafiwa, the occupations of the inhabitants are mainly peasant farming, animal husbandry and hunting, and so the people
examine the sky and the ways they visualize the sky are shown through their beliefs and astronomical practices.

This is seen in their lores of celestial bodies and seasons. Sun watching plays a major role in their agricultural and ceremonial life. There are also specific
stars that are believed to direct the hunters in the forest. Chami (129) presents the Eastern and Southern Africa cultural lives: they have a widespread painting/engraving of sun/moon discs. He points out that the Muslim communities of the Swahili people of Tanzania are known to have used celestial bodies as calendar for religious, sailing and other economic purposes. The Mwaka Kogwa festival, he also says, heralding the beginning of the New Year, is one of the activities related to the calendar. He also highlights that the Chaga of Kilimanjaro hold their sun-god Iruwa as the highest god – Mungu: That the Bible has been directly translated into Kichaga language among the Lutherans and the translation of ‘God’ in Bible as Iruwa – the sun-god of Chaga
people is because the sun is believed to have ruled and created the world and the moon has always been viewed as the sun’s concert.

From the beliefs, cultural astronomical knowledge and theories of some African communities that are discussed it is obvious that man’s curiosity to know about his environment extended to the heavenly bodies – the sun, moon and the stars. Therefore African communities just like the whole face of the universe experience astronomical practices in different ways and forms. Most of these ethno-astronomical views are revealed inthe folklore, ancient architecture, religious practices, traditional poetry and art works of different ethnic groups. This antiquity determines the special place which astronomy has
occupied in the history of human culture. Astronomical science therefore is seen having originated in a much earlier period of human history than other natural sciences and these archeo-astronomical practices serve as basis for the modern astronomy.

 

CULTURAL ASTRONOMY IN AFRICAN LITERATURE

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