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Levi Jordan

The Kongo Cosmogram

The cosmogram is a symbol which is one of many manifestations of Kongo, or Bakongo, culture in the Americas. It is described and illustrated in detail in Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy by Robert Farris Thompson.

In addition to providing a rich source of ideas that help archaeologists begin to understand the material cultures of enslaved African-Americans and African-Caribbeans, this book has also been a source of many primary ethnographic references used by Ken Brown and other historical archaeologists who study African Diasporan peoples. Links are provided within the excerpt below to archaeological interpretations in this web site which have been informed by a better understanding of how Kongo and Yoruba traditions were transformed in the Americas.

The Kongo Cosmogram Yowa, the Kongo sign of cosmos and the continuity of human life

Adapted from a drawing in Flash of the Spirit, by Robert Farris Thompson (p. 109) (30)

See the Kris Brown/Ken Brown paper delivered at the 1998 SHA meetings for some detail on the use of the concepts that follow in interpreting the archaeology of the Jordan Plantation.

From Flash of the Spirit, p. 108-116

Tendwa Nza Kongo: The Kongo Cosmogram

Wyatt MacGaffey, a scholar of Kongo civilization and religion, has summarized the form and meaning of the essential Kongo cosmogram as follows:

"The simplest ritual space is a Greek cross [+] marked on the ground, as for oath-taking. One line represents the boundary; the other is ambivalently both the path leading across the boundary, as to the cemetery; and the vertical path of power linking "the above" with "the below". This relationship, in turn, is polyvalent, since it refers to God and man, God and the dead, and the living and the dead. The person taking the oath stands upon the cross, situating himself between life and death, and invokes the judgement of God and the dead upon himself." [this is taken from a work in progress shared with Dr. Thompson by MacGaffey].

This is the simplest manifestation of the Kongo cruciform, a sacred "point" on which a person stands to make an oath, on the ground of the dead and under all-seeing God. This Kongo "sign of the cross" has nothing to do with the crucifixion of the Son of God, yet its meaning overlaps the Christian vision. Traditional Bakongo believed in a Supreme Deity, Nzambi Mpungu, and they had their own notions of the indestructibility of the soul: "Bakongo believe and hold it true that man's life has no end, that it constitutes a cycle. The sun, in its rising and setting, is a sign of this cycle, and death is merely a transition in the process of change." (Janzen and MacGaffey 1974:34) (49). The Kongo yowa cross does not signify the crucifixion of Jesus for the salvation of mankind; it signifies the equally compelling vision of the circular motion of human souls about the circumference of its intersecting lines. The Kongo cross refers therefore to the everlasting community of all righteous men and women:

Nzungi! n'zungi-nzila.........Man turns in the path,
N'zungi! n'zungi-nzila........He merely turns in the path;
Banganga ban'e E ee!.......The priests, the same (49)

A fork in the road (or even a forked branch) can allude to this crucially important symbol of passage and communication between worlds. The "turn in the path", i.e., the crossroads, remains an indelible concept in the Kongo-Atlantic world, as the point of intersection between the ancestors and the living.

Here is one precise version of the yowa cross:

The horizontal line divides the mountain of the living world from it's mirrored counterpart in the kingdom of the dead. The mountain of the living is described as "earth" (ntoto). The mountain of the dead is called "white clay" (mpemba). The bottom half of the Kongo cosmogram was also called kalunga, referring, literally, to the world of the dead as complete (lunga) within itself and to the wholeness that comes to a person who understands the ways and powers of both worlds.

Initiates read the cosmogram correctly, respecting its allusiveness. God is imagined at the top, the dead at the bottom, and water in between. The four disks at the points of the cross stand for the four moments of the sun, and the circumference of the cross the certainty of reincarnation: the especially righteous Kongo person will never be destroyed but will come back in the name or body of progeny, or in the form of an everlasting pool, waterfall, stone or mountain.

The summit of the pattern symbolizes not only noon but also maleness, north, and the peak of a person's strength on earth. Correspondingly, the bottom equals midnight, femaleness, south, the highest point of a person's otherworldly strength. [See "curer's cabin" and "Ken Brown Interview" for more].

Members of the Lemba society of healers had initiates stand on a cross chalked on the ground, a variant of the cosmogram. "To stand upon this sign,: Fu-Kiau Bunseki tells us, "meant that a person was fully capable of governing people, that he knew the nature of the world, that he had mastered the meaning of life and death." He thenceforth could move about with the confidence of a seer, empowered with insights from both worlds, both halves of the cosmogram.(50)

Drawing a "point", invoking God and the ancestors, formed only a part of this most important Kongo ritual of mediation. The ritual also included "singing the point". In fact, the Bakongo summarize the full context of mediation with the phrase "singing and drawing [a point]: yimbila y sona. (51) They believe that the combined force of singing Ki-Kongo words and tracing in appropriate media the ritually designated "point" or "mark" of contact between the worlds will result in the descent of God's power upon that very point....

...The cosmogram of Kongo emerged in the Americas precisely as singing and drawing points of contact between worlds. On the island of Cuba, when Kongo ritual leaders wished to make the important Zarabanda charm (Ki-Kongo, nsala-banda, a charm-making kind of cloth), they began by tracing, in white chalk, a cruciform pattern at the bottom of an iron kettle. This was the signature (firma) of the spirit invoked by the charm. It clearly derived from the Kongo sign except that the sun disks were replaced by arrows, standing for the four winds of the universe (52)....

...One of the major functions of the cosmogram of Kongo, to validate a space on which to stand a person or charm, remains in force in certain Afro-Cuban religious circles.[see the section of the "Ken Brown Interview" when he speculates that Levi Jordan imported slaves from Cuba].Kongo-Cuban priests have said "All spirits seat themselves on the center of the sign as the source of firmness" (52). Songs (mambos) are chanted, as in Kongo, to persuade this concentration of power upon the designated point. Kongo-Cuban priests activated old, important charms by singing-and-drawing a sacred point. They chanted sacred texts in Spanish and creolized Ki-Kongo while lowering a charm from the ceiling of a shrine to a chalked sign drawn upon the floor....

...In Rio de Janeiro, where there was a heavy importation of Kongo and Angola slaves, we meet simple cruciforms, chalked on the floor of shrines and altars, that have become complex signs fusing diverse Kongo, Yoruba, Roman Catholic, and other references. These signs comprise the blazons of the spirits honored in Rio de Janeiro macumba, a mixture of Kongo, Yoruba, Dahomean, Roman Catholic, Native American, and Spritualist allusions...

...As time passes, the ancient cruciforms are complicated by aspects borrowed from the iconography of the Yoruba and enriched by the attributes of Roman Catholic saints identified with Yoruba deities...

...Most pontos riscados, traced in chalk on shrine floors or in sand on the beaches at Ipanema, Copacabana and elsewhere in Rio, became fleeting signs of spiritual invocation and encounter. But some were permanently rendered. The collections of the Rio Museo de Policia include a calabash drinking cup (see below), richly lacquered black, which is incised with the ponto riscado of Pai Vehho, a black Kongo ancestor of special power and insight. His ponto warns the world that no one except a person in his spirit, or an appropriate officiant, can use this cup. The ponto, essentially a Latin cross within a Star of David within a circle decorated with six minor stars, compares interestingly with the "sung point" for the same spirit...this [sign] captures a complex history of cultural contact and experience in a form of geometric thought. The blending has carried us far indeed from the Kongo and from the Kingdoms of the Yoruba, but without their encounter in the richest minds of Rio this sign might never have been invented.

a picture of the calabash drinking cup described above. See Curer's Cabin for a picture of a carved buttonfound there, that has the same Star of David carved on one side.


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