In the early Twentieth Century, a movement developed among black people which sought to fight back against years of imperial rule and oppression of Africans and people of African descent. Ideologues such as the ‘Back to Africa’ black nationalist Marcus Garvey presented a vision for African regeneration in which black people would return to Africa and rule themselves, with the hope of a renaissance of African civilisation and the building of a new pan-African nation. This was a time in which followers of this movement were looking for a great leader who would come and bring these hopes to life. In a similar scenario to that of the Jews of 2,000 years ago, there was a sense that the coming of a messianic figure was at hand. For the followers of the Rastafari religion, the messianic saviour took the form of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia.
On July 23, 1892, a boy named Tafari Makonnen was born in Ethiopia. This boy, who was to be given the religious name Haile Selassie (‘Power of the Trinity’) was raised with a wide ranging education, taking in both Shoan Amharic traditions and Western history, languages and statecraft. At the age of 13, Selassie became Dejazmatch (the Ethiopian equivalent of a Count or similar nobleman) of part of Harage province, and he went on to become Ethiopia’s regent from 1916 to 1930 and Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. Garvey ‘prophesied‘ ‘Look to Africa where a black king shall be crowned, he shall be the Redeemer’ and shortly afterwards, on 2 November 1930, Selassie was crowned as Emperor in an extravagant Cathedral ceremony attended by an international audience of royals and dignitaries. As Emperor, Selassie took on the titles ‘Lord of Lords’, ‘King of Kings’ and ‘Conquering Lion of the tribe of Judah’, titles which were traditional for all Ethiopian Emperors but which he reportedly ‘gloried in’. Selassie had pretensions of being a direct living descendant of the Biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba but was nonetheless an ostensibly devout Orthodox Christian who made no further claims to spiritual power or authority.
As Emperor, Selassie was a moderniser and a reformer, but these reforms largely benefited Ethiopia’s land owning classes and outside his circle of admirers and devotees Selassie is widely regarded as a ‘feudal autocrat’ and ‘a tyrant who enslaved the peasants’ of Ethiopia. In 2000, Ethiopia’s government stated that ‘Selassie’s reign was marked by its brutality and extreme oppression of the Ethiopian peasants’ and spoke of its continuing efforts to trace millions he is believed to have deposited in foreign bank accounts. Selassie ruled over ‘a system that created a small class of wealthy landowners but kept most subjects in abject poverty’ and during a famine towards the end of his reign that killed hundreds of thousands ‘his moral authority was undermined by images of him feeding his pets prime meat while his people starved’.
Selassie’s reign was cut short when Marxist revolutionaries deposed him, placing him under house arrest. He died in mysterious circumstances and many believe he was murdered by his captors. Certainly, his remains were contemptuously and unceremoniously buried beneath a toilet. On November 5, 2000 his bones were finally moved to a tomb in Addis Ababa’s Trinity Cathedral, in an Imperial ceremony presided over by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, although shunned by the Ethiopian government for the reasons stated above.
This very brief overview of Selassie’s life demonstrates a very human ruler, someone who was clearly a fallible character, a man who fell prey to human weaknesses such as decadence, delusions of grandeur, and the desire to subjugate those over whom he had authority. None of this is particularly shocking or unexpected, given the context. For the followers of the Rastafari religion, however, Selassie is a figure of devotion whose hagiography bears almost no relation to the historical figure, and even within his own lifetime Selassie was hailed by thousands as living incarnation of God. Indeed, for Rastafarians, Selassie was, amongst other things, ‘the Almighty on earth in the flesh of Man’, ‘the head of creation’, ‘the God of all ages’, ‘immortal’, ‘omnipotent’, and ‘the world’s greatest political leader of the twentieth century’.
Under the influence of Garvey, many black nationalists in Ethiopia and beyond concluded that Selassie was the awaited African Messiah, the man who had been sent by God to save the black race and lead it into a new era of greatness in the ‘promised land’ of Ethiopia. For Rastafarians, the coming of Selassie is prefigured in Old Testament prophetic texts and amongst the proofs of his messianic and divine status are various miracle stories and tales of Selassie’s unparalleled wisdom. First, there are signs in ‘the heavens’, as we see in Rastafarian accounts of Selassie’s birth and youth. In a typical Rastafarian narrative we read:
His birth had been foretold by astrologers and chaplains. They reasoned that the planets of Neptune and Pluto, would intersect in July 1892 having started moving towards each other 493 years earlier in 1399. This would in turn influence the constellation Leo, that is the house of Judah. They also foretold the great drought that started in 1889 and was broken at the moment of the child’s birth thus confirming his identity and destiny.
On the fortieth day of His life He was baptised according to custom and given the name HAILE SELASSIE which means POWER OF THE TRINITY. At the moment of baptism He became totally aware and although this knowledge faded at the time, it returned as He grew. His teachers were astounded at the depth of his knowledge and standing (understanding) of Incient religious texts. He could also converse with animals; and savage beasts became docile in His presence.
Another account states that:
At an early age, He displayed an exceptional understanding of Ethiopia’s ancient religious texts. In addition, it has been said that he could speak to the animals; He would be seen in the presence of leopards and lions. In His presence, these ferocious beasts were tamed.
And here is a more detailed account, including a miracle story:
The world should know that he is the Almighty, it is prophecised, the prophecy has been fulfilled, open your eyes and look. Haile Selassie from his youth, was a mysterious person who was said to have been feared by priest and other persons working in the palac … Their [sic] is a story about Haile Selassie in his youth, his father & mother was astounded by his vast knowledge and wisdom of and from the bible. They brought in priest to talk with him to ask him where he knew all these things from, Haile Selassie knew books that aren’t printed in the bible, like the 8th, 9th & 10th books of Moses, the Dead Sea Scrolls, he would know line for line. The priests would ask him questions and he would call them to tell them the answer in their ears and the answers he would give would frighten the priests away, and some would never return to see him. At one time their were two priests talking to Tafari, who had claimed he talks to animals and the wild beasts in the jungles of Ethiopia, One of the priests asked Tafari to draw one of these animals, so Tafari requested for crayons and a piece of paper and began to draw it formed into a dove of bright multi-colors and before the priest could question Tafari about the bird on the page he was dumbfounded when he saw it arise off the paper and fly through the window, the two priests hysterically left the palace and never returned.
So, in Rastafarian accounts of the coming of Selassie we find the notions that planetary phenomena indicated the coming of a divine figure, that at the moment of Selassie’s birth a drought miraculously ended, that the young Selassie astonished religious leaders with his wisdom, that the child could converse with dangerous animals, and even that he was able to make a drawing of a bird come to life. There are obvious parallels here with the Jesus story, in which we find a star leading ‘wise men’ (most likely astrologers) to seek out the newly born Messiah, and a child who stunned religious leaders with his understanding (Luke 2: 41-52). The story of the drawing of a bird coming to life also has interesting parallels. In an early (2nd or 3rd Century CE) non-canonical account of Jesus’ youth, ‘The Infancy Gospel of Thomas‘, we find a tale of Jesus making clay birds which he then brings to life, and this story is also repeated in the Qur’an.
For Rastafarians, many aspects of Selassie’s life are found in Biblical ‘prophecy’. So, for example, we find this interpretation of the story of a drought ending upon the birth of Selassie:
The birth of “Tafari” gave back to the land Ethiopia the Divine Blessing as in Genesis 1 v1, “In the beginning God created the Heaven and the Earth.” as in Genesis 1 v2, “…and darkness was upon the face of the water.” The birth of “Tafari” on that stormy night in the year of St. John 16th Hamle 1885 (23rd July 1892) represents the fulfillment of Genesis 1 v2. Lighting and Thunder with Flooding, the Spirit (Tafari) of God moved upon the water. A good “Omen” to Ethiopia.
Further Biblical associations are given with regard to Garvey’s ‘prophecy’ of the coming of a great African king and ‘Redeemer’ and for some he is seen as a ‘mighty Prophet’ and ‘greater John the Baptist’. Likewise, the ceremony in which Selassie was made Emperor is seen to involve the literal presence on earth of the Biblical Samuel:
The Ancient Rites of Anointment performed by Abuna Krilos (The Prophet Samuel returned) 2nd November 1930 on the person of Rastafari. Transfigurated the person to the Eternal Godhead Haile Selassie I “‘Might of the Trinity’; The Christ; The Messiah; The Anointed One”, who has returned to reign as The Lion of the Tribe of Judah; The Root and offspring of King David”, fulfilling Revelation 5 v5.
Selassie’s resistance to Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and his subsequent European exile is reported to have been attended by miracles and to have been prophesied in the Old Testament. According to one tale, ‘While they where launching their bombs at Ethiopia one fell directly by King Selassie’s foot, the King put his foot upon the bomb and said, “This bomb will not go off in my country,” and it never did to this day’. And of the exile we read:
Haile Selassie I, 1936 leaving Ethiopia for Europe and Geneva, and the League of Nations, fulfilled this prophecy of Isaiah, when the King prophecy against the democracy of Europe and predicted the 2nd World War. This fulfillment established Emperor Haile Selassie I as the Prophet.
On April 21, 1966, Selassie conducted a State visit to Jamaica, an event that has entered the Rastafari calendar of holy days as ‘Groundation Day’. Selassie’s arrival in Jamaica was met with an extraordinary outpouring of religious devotion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Jamaican Rastafarians had never seen Selassie before, his cult had spread widely among the population, who fervently believed him to be the prophesied black Messiah and incarnation of God. A report from the Jamaican newspaper The Jamaica Gleaner recalls the events of the day, when a crowd of 100,000 gathered to greet their God:
The heat that rose from the tarmac of Kingston’s Norman Manley International Airport was nothing compared to the level of expectation that was seeping through the thousands gathered on the tarmac that 21st day of April, 1966. The day was declared a public holiday in honour of the Emperor and people had started arriving from Wednesday night from places near and far, to form the largest crowd to have ever assembled at the Norman Manley International Airport. They came to the airport any way they could by car, by truck, by bus, by bicycle, by foot. Drum beats and chants were heard almost non-stop, providing an almost hypnotic rhythm. The smell of ganja wafted through the air completing a welcome unprecedented in size and expectation for the Emperor on his first state visit to Jamaica.
Brother George Huggins of Accompong, explained the enthusiastic welcome, “it is hard to put in words what seeing this man, this great man, the Lord of lords, in Jamaica meant to us in the Rastafarian community. We had heard so much about him for so long.” On the tarmac, some waved palm leaves, some red, green and gold Ethiopian flags, and some blew the Maroon cowhorn known as the abeng in welcome. Everyone kept their eyes on the sky wondering when the plane carrying His Imperial Majesty from Trinidad and Tobago would arrive. Rain began to fall and the crowd continued to wait, hoping even for just a glimpse of the plane through the thick clouds that had formed.
When the insignia of a roaring lion and stripes of red, green and gold finally came into view, the rain stopped. People shouted, “See how God stop de rain.” The sound from the crowd was deafening as masses of people rushed to get closer to the island’s distinguished visitor. The crowd simply broke down any barriers that stood in their way in their eagerness to position themselves as close as possible to the “King of Kings.”
Today, the date of this visit continues to be commemorated by Rastafarians, who mark ‘Groundation Day’ with music, chanting, and prayer. As with many other events in Selassie’s life, Rastafarians report miraculous phenomena on that day. For devotees, the ending of rainfall and the emergence of sunshine that occurred as Selassie’s aeroplane arrived is seen as another nature miracle (‘See how God stop de rain’) and there are reports of the presence of doves in the sky and the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy:
On Thursday the 21st of April, at the arrival of our Divine Majesty, there was great signs and wonders in the Heavens. At his arrival the firmament became dark, the sun withdrew its shining and there came out of the Heavens thunder, storms, hails of lightening and great rain appeared in the Heavens; this all happened in a moment; it was a moment of inclement weather. There appeared in the Heavens a flock of white doves, followed by the appearance of the sun in all brightness with the arrival of a plane which landed at the Palisades Airport.
At that hour the weather became serene as before. There were raised up great shouts of jubilation, because the King of Zion had come. Here Psalms 18 is fulfilled, “He Bowed the Heavens and came down and darkness was under his feet, and he rode upon a cherub and did fly upon the wings of the wind. He made darkness his secret place; His pavilion round about him were dark waters and thick clouds of the skies. At the brightness that was before Him his thick clouds passed, hall stones and coals of fire.”
The Jamaica visit also led to the conversion of the wife of reggae star Bob Marley, Rita, to the Rastafari religion, after she claimed to see the mark of the stigmata on Selassie’s hand as he greeted the crowd. For her, this ‘miracle’ was proof that Selassie was indeed the promised Messiah and the incarnation of God.
The hysterical devotion that greeted Selassie in Jamaica was surprising, even disturbing, and he refused to leave the plane for 45 minutes until his safety could be assured. Selassie did not consider himself to be the Messiah nor to be divine. He was a Christian and there are reports that officials turned Rastafarians away from his palace gates for fear of upsetting his religious sensibilities. These facts have had no effect on Rastafarian belief and even Selassie’s death has done nothing to dampen their convictions that he is God and the saviour of Africa. In what is perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the Rastafari belief system, most Rastafarians refuse to accept that Selassie died at all.
In the initial period after Selassie’s death and the throwing of his body into an unmarked pit, Rastafarians maintained that either Selassie was still alive and hidden from view, taking shelter in some undisclosed location from where he would eventually emerge and lead Ethiopia to salvation, or that he had ascended bodily into heaven and would soon return to re-establish his rule on earth. The subsequent discovery of Selassie’s bones and their reinterment has done nothing to disabuse Rastafarians of these notions. The answer is simple: the bones were not his and he is still alive. Just as news of Selassie’s death in 1975 was presented by Rastafarians as ‘a trick of the white media to undermine their faith’, the same is said of his bones. While some Rastafarians attended Selassie’s funeral in 2000, they were simply there to observe the proceedings and were unconvinced.
A Sudanese Rastafarian who had settled in Ethiopia told the BBC:
Haile Selassie is King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and the conquering lion of the Tribe of Judah. He is everything to us Rastafarians and we will never accept that he is dead.
A Rastafarian leader from Trinidad and Tobago claimed:
We do not believe that he is dead. We communicate with him in spirit daily. Haile Selassie is very much alive.
Rita Marley agreed:
Rasta people will be all loving his Imperial Majesty, Emperor Haile Selassie I. There is no end of his reign.
From 1933 onwards, inspired by the black nationalist and Afrocentric philosophies circulating at the time, key Rastafarian founder Leonard Howell started to preach the doctrine that black people are the true biblical Israelites, that Haile Selassie was the Messiah, and that blacks would head to Ethiopia, which was seen as a black equivalent of the Holy Land. Drawing on the ideology of Garvey and books such as The Holy Piby (which ’emphasizes the destruction of white “Babylon” and the return of the Black Israelites to Africa which is the true Zion’) and The Royal Parchment Scroll of Black Supremacy, Howell put together a book titled The Promised Key (1935), setting out the ideas that would form the basis of the Rastafari belief system. As we have seen, this is built on a foundation of a bizarre mix of decontextualised Biblical passages and prophecies, plainly fanciful and unhistorical notions regarding Haile Selassie, and secular black racialist positions. The Rastafari view of the Bible and the history of the Israelites is, from a scholarly point of view, completely absurd. The ancient Israelites were the Semitic forefathers of the modern Jewish people, not black Africans, and none of the prophecies in the Bible pertaining to the messianic age have anything to do with the people of Jamaica. Likewise, YHWH (Yahweh), formerly mistranslated as ‘Jehovah’ (and entering Rastafari as ‘Jah’), is the sacred name of the Jewish God, not the name of any African deity. This is hardly a controversial position. Similarly, from a perspective grounded in historical fact, rather than bizarre hagiography, almost every single statement made by Rastafarians regarding Haile Selassie is bogus. The Rastafarian version of Haile Selassie is a literary fabrication, and Selassie did not endorse any of the notions about him promoted in Rastafarian belief.
While a strained interpretation of the Bible forms a key part of the Rastafari theology and also religious practice (the wearing of dreadlocks is, for example, ostensibly grounded in the Nazarite vow of Numbers 6:5), Hinduism also, surprisingly, had an important influence on the evolution of Rastafari. In the period 1845-1917, more than 2,000 Indians came to Jamaica as indentured servants, bringing with them their religious beliefs and cuisine (this is the origin of Jamaican dishes such as ‘curry goat’). These Indian workers introduced ganja to Jamaica, which they used for spiritual and medicinal purposes. This use then entered into Rastafarian practice. Many of these Indians also practiced vegetarianism as part of their religious worldview, and this then passed into Rastafari in the form of the ‘Ital‘ vegetarian (or vegan) dietary requirement.
Leonard Howell was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Hindu indentured servants. Joseph Hibbert, another founding father of Rastafari, stated that Howell’s notion of Haile Selassie as a divine figure was as much grounded in Indian notions as it was in supposed Biblical prophecies, for ‘after learning about the Hindu God incarnates Rama, Krishna and Buddha, Howell was convinced that every nation had their own God’. When Howell published The Promised Key, he did so under the pen name G.G. Maragh (the ‘GG’ meaning ‘Gong Guru’). ‘Gong’, a title used by Howell, was an abbreviation of ‘Gangunguru’, a combination of the Hindi words gyan, gun, and guru, meaning ‘wisdom’, ‘virtue’, and ‘teacher’. Maragh, meanwhile, translates as ‘great king’ or ‘king of kings’. Bob Marley’s nickname ‘Tuff Gong’ is derived from Howell’s use of the term. So, just as the Bible was appropriated and mangled to become a ‘black’ book, Hindu beliefs and practices, and even Hindi words, were taken out of their original context and given a new ‘black’ identity.
The black people of Jamaica suffered centuries of cruelty and abuse under slavery. Ripped from their homelands and forced to labour for the benefit of Western overlords, it is hardly surprising that their sense of having a religious and cultural identity of their own was greatly eroded. In a post-slavery context, the rise of an ideology aimed at creating black identity and fostering black pride is entirely understandable, and justified. However, the Rastafari faith is ultimately a deeply unsatisfactory attempt at constructing a black philosophy, for the simple reason that it was so transparently constructed through a process of appropriating the religion and culture of other ethnic groups, for its use of a frankly absurd Biblical exegetical method, and for its complete misrepresentation of the historical reality of Haile Selassie.
Note: Part of the above text was originally published by the website Butterflies & Wheels under the title ‘Against Mythicism: A Case for the Plausibility of a Historical Jesus’, and was republished in 2010 by Think: Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.