Many well-known myths across the world attest that the creation of the universe was undertaken by a singular supreme being who often is male or has been largely characterized as having male attributes. In many of these creation stories, the sun is often considered the physical representation of the genitor god and creator of the universe (Diop, 2019). However, in some lesser-known origin stories, the creator of the Universe is believed to be feminine and her physical representation is in the world is the moon.
A few traditional African belief systems fall under this lesser-known group that attribute the creation of the Universe to a feminine deity. This article shares some these creation stories from West Africa where the creation of the universe is attributed to a genitrix deity.
Nyame Amowia (Akan, Ghana)
The story of Nyame Amowia was introduced in a previous article where her role as the giver of life (souls) was emphasized. However, Nyame Amowia is also the creator of the entire Universe and everything in it. This genitrix deity is also known by different names, most of which indicate some of her attributes, including Amosu, “Giver of Rain”; Amowia, “Giver of the Sun”, and Amaomee “Giver of Plenitude” (Atlanta University Center, 2020). Nyame has been referred to as “the great deity of the Akan; a self-begotten, self-produced, and self-born, [who is] at once both male and female, the Supreme Being” (Danquah, 1952).
According to Danquah (1952), Nyame Amowia separated her masculine and feminine aspects and “crystallized” her spiritual power in her soul which bears her masculine side and is represented by the sun, also known to the Akan as the deity Nyankopon. Nyame herself is personified by the moon and represented on earth by the queen-mother (Danquah, 1952). While there are accounts that stress that Nyame is in fact a male deity, it was worth noting that the belief that Nyame is female gives credence to the fact that the Akan is a matrilineal society.
Nana Bukulu (Fon, Benin)
Nana Buluku is the deity and Supreme Being of the Fon people in who from the modern-day Benin Republic. However, Nana Buluku is not directly involved with the affairs of human beings. She is believed to have created the Universe and put it under the charge of her two progenitors, Mawu and Lisa both of whom are said to have absorbed the nature of the Nana Buluku. Often referred to as “MawuLisa,” these two children of Nana Bukulu lead a pantheon of sky deities with Mawu, embodied as the moon and possessing female attributes, and Lisa, embodied as the sun with male attributes. (Ikenga-Metuh, 1982).
Mawu, the female counterpart of the sky deities, is believed to embody other attributes including fertility, motherhood, gentleness, forgiveness, rest, and joy. It is also this deity who the Fon believe was tasked with creating the world, a task Mawu seems to have carried out singlehandedly. In the narration of the creation myth as described by Ikenga-Metuh (1982), it was Mawu who formed the first human beings from clay and water, however, after creation humans were blind and helpless so Mawu sent Lisa (the sun) to give light to the earth (Ikenga-Metuh, 1982).
Across borders in Ghana, Mawu was once worshipped as the supreme deity among the Ewe people. Mawu was known by herself in this region without her accompanying sibling, Lisa, as was known to the Fon. According to Greene (2002), Mawu’s significance as the supreme being had waned significantly by the 19th century largely because the economic activity shifted from the Ewe region where Mawu reigned as supreme being to other regions of the Gold Coast (Greene, 2002).
Woyengi (Ijaw, Nigeria)
The Ijaw people of modern-day southern Nigeria believe that Woyengi – a name that translates to “great mother” – is the sole creator of the earth. While she is the only deity presented here who has not been associated with the moon, Woyengi is believed to have descended on earth through a bolt of lightning. It is said that she stood on the edge of the universe and observed Earth filled with animals and vegetation but without humans. Using the mud from the earth, Woyengi is said to have created human dolls who were neither male nor female and afterwards, she filled their lungs with the breath of life (Asante & Mazama, 2009).
The Ijaw believe that each doll Wonyegi created was given a chance to choose their gender (male or female), the kind of blessings they wished to receive, and their occupations. Woyengi did not give a chance for the humans she created to change their minds after they chose genders, professions, and material blessings. For this reason, she came to be known as the goddess of destiny (Asante & Mazama, 2009).
Moon as a Symbol of Femininity
The analogy between women (femininity) and the moon is a feature of many cultures across the world. This connection is perhaps prevalent because of how the menstrual cycle often imitates the lunar cycle (Diop, 2019). There is another school of thought that connects the feminization of the moon to various gods of water who are often described as passive and continuous (Diop, 2019). While the latter assessment of feminine gods as passive may hold in some cultures, it is worth noting that there is nothing passive about the feminine deities whose stories have been narrated here. These deities are quite non-passive such that their adherents attribute the creation of the entire world to them.
It is also worth noting that across cultures, some feminine deities have been usurped by masculine gods. This has often led to inaccuracies in the documentation of their stories (Diop, 2019). An example is the story of Nyame Amowia, some accounts this deity (see: Edsman, 1955) ascribe masculine attributes to her, however, the fact that the Akan is a matrilineal group might be what gives credibility to the feminine attributes of this deity.
The gender attributes of deities in African Traditional Religions might seem to be trivial when taken at face value, however, gender, as many of us can attest, often determines status in society, among other profound effects. Now, imagine what assigning gender, or even misattributing it, can do for a god its believers.
- Asante, M. K., & Mazama, A. (Eds.). (2009). Encyclopedia of African religion. Thousand Oaks, Calif: SAGE.
- Atlanta University Center. (2020, July 16). Traditional African Religions: Akan. Atlanta University. Retrieved May 29, 2021, from https://research.auctr.edu/c.php?g=404402&p=2752856
- Danquah, J. B. (1952). The Culture of Akan. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 22(4), 360–366. Retrieved May 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1156919
- Diop, I. S. (2019). African Mythology, Femininity, and Maternity. Springer Nature.
- Edsman, C.-M. (1955). The Sacral Kingship / La Regalità Sacra. Rome, Italy: BRILL.
- Greene, S. E. (2002). Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter. Indiana University Press.
- Ikenga-Metuh, E. (1982). Religious Concepts in West African Cosmogonies: A Problem of Interpretation. Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 13 (1982)(1), 11–24. Retrieved May 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1581115