Although the Caribbean has been, since the earliest days of European conquest, nominally Christian, the black power movements of the early 1900s helped launch a completely different kind of religion. Based on Christianity and the King James Bible, Rastafarian beliefs also include the worship of Ras (meaning Prince) Tafari of Ethiopia.
This movement began in Jamaica, though it has since spread throughout the Caribbean, in fact, practitioners can be found around the globe. It began in 1932 when Ras Tafari became Emperor of Ethiopia. Crowned Haile Selassie, the religious movement begun by Marcus Garvey still bears his princely name.
Selassie, however, was not just any man. He claimed lineage from biblical times, saying he was the descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But Garvey's followers believed he was even more. Having proclaimed Garvey a prophet, his followers concluded that Selassie was the messiah that Garvey had foretold.
Although most beliefs are considered Christian, the Rastafarian movement associates Africa with heaven. Believers are said to return to Africa after their death, though the precise manner in which this occurs is not stated - some see it as a spiritual movement, while others feel it is almost like reincarnation. However, the Rastafarian movement also draws from Creolized Jamaican beliefs in Obeah and Myal, spiritual practices that associate the world of the living with the world of the dead.
The Rastafarian movement in Jamaica, like most movements on the island, became linked with politics. Rastas would refuse to pay taxes to the British crown, claiming that the island was not British, but instead Ethiopian. These rebellious believers were sentenced to years of labor, or committed to asylums.
In 1958, one leader, Emmanuel Edwards, "took" Kingston, and followers waited with him for ships to appear to return them to Ethiopia. They were, inevitably, disappointed. However, some such disappointed Rastas began preparing for a guerrilla attack and planned to invite Cuba's Fidel Castro to take over the island.
However, "yard" Rastas were the more radical sect. They wore their hair in dreadlocks, and wore the colors of Rastafarianism: red for the blood to be shed for their redemption and freedom, green for the vegetation of the motherland, black for their race, and gold. They also smoked "ganja" (marijuana), also called "wisdomweed" as part of their religious practice. I-talk, a particular manner of speech common to Rastafarians, and the association with Reggae music also came during this time.
The King James Bible is read with the Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings) of Ethiopia in the forefront of one's mind. It focuses on the child born of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, who is said to have founded the Ethiopian dynasty. However, in more recent years the Holy Piby, a newer version of the Bible compiled by Anguillan Robert Rogers is their main text.
This newer Bible inspired "reasonings," informal gatherings where Rastas (usually men) gather to smoke marijuana and have discussions about the meanings of the text and how they relate to their religion and life. There is no distinct dogma because of this, and one's own interpretations play a large role in the life of a Rastafarian.
In part due to Hindu and Creole possession religions' influence on Rastafarianism, prophets are seen as incarnations of God. Although they believe in no other deities, they see Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Selassie as avatars of God (Jah). However, Trinidadian Rastas, whose beliefs are more closely associated with Creole Orisha rituals, do believe in other spirits and ritual possessions.
Jamaica's Maroon communities, with distinctively African-influenced social structures, played an important role in designing Rastafarian Houses. Communal meetings, called Nyabinghi or Binghi, are an integral part of the culture. During these meetings, there is often ritual smoking of marijuana, drum music, and "reasoning."
Nyabinghi was originally the name for a cultural movement calling for the death of black and white oppressors. This was important because it recognized the role of blacks in the oppression of other blacks. Such community meetings now are held on important occasions, including the life and death of Selassie and Garvey. Vestiges of Creole Obeah ceremonies are still present in these meetings, while the belief in magic certainly wavers.
Drums also play an important role in Rastafarian ceremonies. The bass drum is struck on the first and third of four beats, but muffled on the third; funde drum plays a steady beat in one-two format; and the akete or kete is improvised. The bass is played with a covered stick, but the funde and akete are played with bare hands. These are adapted Zion Revivalist drums, which were modified from Myal practices. Buru and Kumina drumming traditions are also modified.
Community values are Afro-centric in basis - an Assembly of Elders leads the Houses. Although age, income, and other social factors have no bearing on the hierarchy in Rastafarianism, women hold a distinctly lower place in the community. Women are not prohibited from taking part in Rastafarian rituals, but their role is one of submission, particularly outside the home.
Women are considered to be inferior beings and receive full divine knowledge through their husband, or king-man. Conservative Jewish practices are similar to the codes under which Rastafarian women must live: ankle-length dresses must be worn in public, dreadlocks must be covered during ritual events, and they are not allowed to cook while menstruating. The women may also be placed in seclusion in certain circumstances. Since the 1980s, a movement for more women's rights has been taking hold, though this has not increased their religious role.
Dreadlocks are the subject of much curiosity but simply began based on their shock value. Dreadlocks were seen as emblematic of Rastafarian beliefs, and the style follows biblical admonitions against cutting hair or becoming bald. Therefore, it is also an easy way to tell how long a Rasta has followed in the tradition.
Marijuana, called ganja, is considered to be the Bible's "holy herb" and is taken as sacrament by many Rastas. This is against many laws, even in Jamaica, but the practice is said to be the key to understanding the universe and God. It was brought to Jamaica by indentured servants from the East Indies.
Rastafarians also emphasize organic food and eating. Often preferring to keep their own gardens to stop chemicals and machines from becoming a part of their food production, some follow the strict dietary code called Ital. This code even limits salt from their diets but also prohibits alcohol, tobacco, meats - particularly pork - and most seafood.
Though these cultural standards are agreed to by many Rastafarians, it should be noted that not every Rasta will have dreadlocks, while some do not follow Ital eating, and others do not smoke marijuana. Much like the belief system, the decision to incorporate these items into a lifestyle varies by individual.
This summary barely scratches the surface of this rich religion. However, those who are interested can certainly find more to learn about Rastafarians and their fascinating beliefs.
Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.