Rastafarianism in Jamaica

Jamaica is the home of Rastafarianism, a religious movement spurred by the beliefs of famous Jamaican Marcus Garvey and inspired by an Ethiopianist reading of the King James Bible. Rastafarian beliefs are Christian, with a Jamaican twist.

Ethiopian Prince (Ras) Tafari is at the center of the religion; Rastafarians believe him to be the messiah. In 1932 Tafari was crowned emperor Haile Selassie. Selassie himself claimed lineage from the biblical Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.

Garvey's followers proclaimed him to be a prophet, as he had spoken of an Ethiopian leader who would take control and who would be the messiah. Selassie became their messiah, having ascended to the throne as Garvey predicted.

Ethiopia is associated with heaven on earth, and souls are said to return there after death. Rastafarianism also includes beliefs about the worlds of the living and the dead associating; these stem particularly from beliefs of the now-creolized Obeah and Myal religions on Jamaica.

Beliefs and Believers

Rastafarianism relies most heavily on certain passages from the King James Bible. These texts are read alongside the Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings) of Ethiopia and focus on the child born of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. This son is said to have founded the Ethiopian dynasty.

In more recent years, Robert Rogers, an Anguillan, developed the Holy Piby. Some Rastafarians use this compiled text as their main text, but not all Rastafarians accept this newer version of the Bible.

Without a distinct dogma, most of Rastafarianism is based on each Rasta's own interpretation. To aid in this, informal gatherings, known as "reasonings," can be called. At these gathers, Rastas, who are usually men, get together and discuss the text. "Reasonings" usually include smoking ganja (marijuana) as a sacrament.

Ritualistic possession is found in creole and Hindu religions, both of which were present on Jamaica and influenced Rastafarianism. Rastas see prophets as incarnations of God, and, though they believe in no other deities, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, and Selassie are seen as avatars of God.

Politics and Religion

Jamaica is known for its strong political leanings, and the Rastafarian movement added to the political firepower common on the island. Before Jamaica's independence, Rastas occasionally refused to pay taxes to England, claiming that the island was Ethiopian and thus owed no loyalty to the British crown. Many of these rebellious men were sentenced to years of labor, but others were committed to asylums.

Others made efforts to return to Ethiopia. Emmanuel Edwards "took" Kingston in 1958 in order to wait for ships that would bring them back across the Atlantic. However, Edwards and his followers were disappointed. Other Rastafarians began preparations for guerrilla warfare, even planning to invite Fidel Castro to take over the island from Cuba.

The so-called "yard" Rastas are considered to be the more radical set, and developed after Garvey's lifetime. Dreadlocked hair and red, green, black, and gold clothing make these Rastas easy to identify. Red symbolizes the blood to be shed for their redemption; black represents their race; and green stands for the lands of the motherland. Ganja, sometimes called "wisdomweed," is an important part of yard Rastas' lives. This group also practices I-talk, a distinct manner of speech. Reggae began its association with Rastafarianism at this stage in the religion's development.

Controversial Beliefs

The word "dreadlocks" comes from the feeling that this hairstyle inspired in others. Rastas grow dreadlocks as a symbol of their beliefs, in part following the biblical prohibition of shaving or cutting your hair. Rastas who follow this tradition can easily tell how long another Rasta has worn his hair in such a manner.

Though it is against the law, the rebellious practitioners of this religion may smoke marijuana. Those who do consider it to be the Bible's "holy herb" and take it as sacrament. It is understood to be the key to understanding the universe and God. Indentured servants from East Indian originally brought marijuana to Jamaica.

Some Rastas believe in eating organic food and follow strict dietary requirements which prohibit alcohol and tobacco consumption as well as salt, meat (particularly pork), and most seafood. This strict organic dietary regimen is called Ital. Many Rastafarians prefer to keep their own gardens to ensure that they can adhere to this diet.

Rastafarianism allows its believers the freedom to make their own choices, particularly in how they worship. This means that many do not agree with any of these three activities (wearing dreadlocks, smoking ganja, and practicing Ital), while some agree with one or two, and a few follow all three. It's important to remember that not every Rastafarian is the same.

Religious Culture

One of the most important aspects of Rastafarianism is its strict belief in the word of the Bible. While some followers refuse to cut their hair and instead grow dreadlocks, more widely accepted tenets are also included.

Womens' rights within the religion are drawn most directly from the Bible. According to Rastafarianism, the husband, or king-man, is the woman's path to divine knowledge, because women are thought to be inferior beings. Rastas practice some Old Testament tenants that are also followed by Orthodox Jews. For example, women must wear ankle-length dresses and cover their hair during ritual events. They must also abstain from cooking during menstruation. In certain circumstances, women may be placed in seclusion. However, since the early 1980s there has been a movement advocating for more women's rights.

While certain factors, most notably age, income, and social status, have no bearing on a person's place in the Rastafarian hierarchy, women are expected to live in a submissive role. While they are not prohibited from performing rituals, they do not have a place in the religion beyond a passive one.

African-influenced social structures that developed within Jamaica's Maroon communities played an important role in the structure of Rastafarian Houses, which are the central meeting areas for Rastafarians. Nyabinghi, or just Binghi, are communal meetings that play an integral part of the culture, and usually include reasonings, drum music, and marijuana smoking. Strong Afro-centric community values include an Assembly of Elders, which leads the Houses.

The name of these meetings comes from the cultural movement calling for the deaths for all oppressors, both black and white. Nyabinghi was particularly important because it recognized black oppression of other blacks. These meetings now commemorate the lives and deaths of important leaders, though Obeah and Myal rituals can be seen in parts of these gatherings.

As in many African rituals, drums are important in Rastafarianism. Three drums, the bass, funde, and akete or kete, are played during ceremonies. Bass drums are played with a covered stick and are struck on the first and third of four beats. Both the funde and akete are improvised and are played with bare hands. This drumming style was adapted from the Zion Revivalist drumming and from Buru and Kumina traditions.

Jamaica is the birthplace of Rastafarianism. As a result, Jamaica's many other religious beliefs have played a part in the growth of this one particular religion. Rastafarianism combines many spiritual aspects and political back-to-Africa sentiments with strong Christian beliefs.



Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.