The traditional Berber mythology is the ancient and native set of beliefs and deities developed by the Berber people in their historical land of North Africa. Many of Berber ancient beliefs were developed locally while some other ones were imported or influenced over time by contact from other African mythology such as the Egyptian religion along with external forces from Phoenician mythology, Judaism, Iberian mythology, and the Hellenistic religion during antiquity. The most recent influence came from Islam, and Arab mythology, during the medieval period. Some of the Berber ancient beliefs still exist today subtly within the Berber popular culture and tradition.
- 1 Funerary practices
- 2 Cult of the dead
- 3 Ancient Berber tombs
- 4 Megalithic culture
- 5 Egyptian-Berber beliefs
- 6 Phoenician-Berber beliefs
- 7 Greek-Berber beliefs
- 8 Roman-Berber beliefs
- 9 See also
- 10 References and notes
- 11 External links
Archaeological research on pre-historic tombs in Northwestern Africa shows that the bodies of the dead were painted with red ochre. While this practice was known to the Ibero-Maurussians, this culture seems to have been primarily a Capsian culture. The dead were also sometimes buried with shells of ostrich eggs, jewelry, and weapons. Bodies were sometimes placed on one side and folded, while others where buried in a fetal position.
Cult of the dead
The authors of the book The Berbers stated that the cult of the dead was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Berbers in antiquity. Pomponius Mela reported that the Augelae (Modern Awjila in Libya) considered the spirits of their ancestors to be gods. They swore by them and consulted them. After making requests, they slept in their tombs to await responses in dreams.
[..]They swear by the men among themselves who are reported to have been the most righteous and brave, by these, I say, laying hands upon their tombs; and they divine by visiting the sepulchral mounds of their ancestors and lying down to sleep upon them after having prayed; and whatsoever thing the man sees in his dream, this he accepts.
The worship of saints still exists among the modern Berbers in the form of Maraboutism, which is widespread in northwest Africa, especially in Morocco. The Berbers worshipped their kings, too. The tombs of the Numidian kings are among the most notable monuments left by the Classical Berbers.
Ancient Berber tombs
The tombs of the early people and their ancestors indicate that the Berbers and their ancestors (the Masyle and Capsians) believed in life after death. The prehistoric men of northwest Africa buried bodies in little holes. When they realized that bodies buried in unsecured holes were dug up by wild animals, they began to bury them in deeper ones. Later, they buried the dead in caves, tumuli, tombs in rocks, mounds, and other types of tombs.
These tombs evolved from primitive structures to much more elaborate ones, such as the pyramidal tombs spread throughout Northern Africa. The honor of being buried in such a tomb appears to have been reserved for those who were most important to their communities.
These pyramid tombs have attracted the attention of some scholars, such as Mohammed Chafik who wrote a book discussing the history of several of the tombs that have survived into modern times. He tried to relate the pyramidal Berber tombs with the great Egyptian pyramids on the basis of the etymological and historical data. The best known Berber pyramids are the 19-meter pre-Roman Numidian pyramid of Medracen and the 30-meter ancient Mauretanian pyramid. The Numidian pyramid in Tipaza, is also known as "Kbour-er-Roumia" or "Tomb of Juba and Sypax" mistranslated by the French colonizer as "Tomb of the Christian Woman". was indeed mislabled, as the Tomb held two berber kings and were not of Mauretanian race. The surrounding tombs holding the wife of Juba and many berber warriors.
Saint Augustine mentioned that the polytheistic Africans worshipped the rocks. Apuleius stated as well that rocks were worshipped in the second century A.D. The megalithic culture may have been part of a cult of the dead or of star-worship.
The monument of Mzora (also spelled as Msoura) is the best known megalithic monument in northwest Africa. It is composed of a circle of megaliths surrounding a tumulus. The highest megalith is longer than 5 meters. According to legend, it is the sepulchre of the mythic Berber king Antaeus. Another megalithic monument was discovered in 1926 to south of Casablanca. The monument was engraved with funerary inscriptions in the Berber script known as Tifinagh.
They begin with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and throw over their house: this done, they kill the animal by twisting the neck. They sacrifice to the Sun and Moon, but not to any other god. This worship is common to all the Libyans.
Tullius Cicero (105-43 BCE) also reported the same cult in On the Republic (Scipio's Dream):
When I (Scipio) was introduced to him, the old man (Massinissa, king of Massyle) embraced me, shed tears, and then, looking up to heaven, exclaimed I thank thee, O supreme Sun, and you also, you other celestial beings, that before I departed from this life I behold in my kingdom, and in my palace, Publius Cornelius Scipio ....
There were some Latin inscriptions found in Northwest Africa dedicated to the sun-god. An example is the inscription found in Souk Ahras (the birthplace of Saint Augustine; Tagaste in Algeria) written as: Solo Deo Invicto. Samuel the Confessor appears to have suffered from the sun-worshiping Berbers who tried unsuccessfully to obligate him worshiping the sun.
In Awelimmiden Tuareg, the name Amanai is believed to have the meaning of "God". The Ancient Libyans may have worshipped the setting sun, which was impersonated by Amon, who was represented by the ram's horns.
The Ancient Egyptians were the neighbors of the Berbers. Therefore, it is sometimes supposed that some deities were originally worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians, and the Ancient Libyans (Berbers) as well. The Egyptian-Berber deities can be distinguished according to their origin.
Cow's flesh, however, none of these tribes (Libyan, and Massyle Tribes) ever taste, but abstain from it for the same reason as the Egyptians, neither do they any of them breed swine. Even at Cyrene, the women think it wrong to eat the flesh of the cow, honoring in this Isis, the Egyptian goddess, whom they worship both with fasts and festivals. The Barcaean women abstain, not from cow's flesh only, but also from the flesh of swine.
Osiris was among the Egyptian deities who were venerated in Libya. However, Dr. Budge (in addition to a few other scholars) believed that Osiris was originally a Libyan god saying of him that "Everything which the texts of all periods recorded concerning him goes to show that he was an indigenous god of North-east Africa, and that his home and origin were possibly Libyan."
The Egyptians considered some Egyptian deities to have had a Libyan origin, such as Neith who has been considered, by Egyptians, to have emigrated from Libya to establish her temple at Sais in the Nile Delta. Some legends tell that Neith was born around Lake Tritons (in modern Tunisia).
It is also notable that some Egyptian deities were depicted with Berber (ancient Libyan) characters, such as "Ament" who was depicted with two feathers which were the normal ornaments of the Ancient Libyans as they were depicted by the Ancient Egyptians.
Amun as a common deity
The most remarkable common god of the Berbers and the Egyptians was Amun. This god is hard to attribute to only one pantheon. Although most modern sources ignore the existence of Amun in Berber mythology, he was maybe the greatest ancient Berber god. He was honored by the Ancient Greeks in Cyrenaica, and was united with the Phoenician god Baal due to Libyan influence. Some depictions of the ram across North Africa belong to the lythic period which is situated between 9600 BC and 7500 BC.
The Massyle's also worrishiped Ba'al Amon, the Chaoui tribe was named after the horn of Ba'al. Queen Daya of Aures was said to pray to her god of war, and carry its bull head with her into battle against the Arabs, as told by the Romans. The most famous temple of Amun in Ancient Libya was the temple at the oasis of Siwa. The name of the ancient Berber tribes: Garamantes and Nasamonians are believed by some scholars to be related to the name Amon.
The Phoenicians were originally a Semitic people that once inhabited the coasts of modern Lebanon. They were seafarers and they founded Carthage in 814 BC. They later gave birth to the so-called Punic culture which had its roots in the Berber and Phoenician cultures. Some scholars distinguish the relationships between the Phoenicians and the Berbers in two phases:
Before the Battle of Himera (480 BC)
When the Phoenicians established in Northwest Africa, they stayed in the coastal regions to avoid wars with the Berbers. They maintained their deities which they brought from their homelands. The early Carthaginians had two important deities, Baal and Astarte.
After the Battle of Himera
Carthage began to ally with the Berber tribes after the battle of Himera, in which the Carthaginians were defeated by the Greeks. In addition to political changes, the Carthaginians imported some of the Berber deities.
Baal was the primary god worshipped in Carthage. Later, Baal was united with the Libyan/Berber god Amon to become Baal-Hammon. Depictions of this deity are found in several sites across northwest Africa. The goddess Astarte was replaced by a native goddess, Tanit, which is thought to be of Berber origin. The name itself, Tanit, has a Berber (Tamazight) linguistic structure. Feminine names begin and end with "T" in the Berber language. Some scholars believe that the Egyptian goddess Neith was related to the Libyan goddess Tanit (Ta-neith). There are also Massyle and Phoenician names that apparently contain roots from the god Baal, such as Adherbal and Hannibal.
The ancient Greeks established colonies in Cyrenaica. The Greeks influenced the eastern Berber pantheon, but they were also influenced by Berber culture and beliefs. Generally, the Libyan-Greek relationships can be divided into two different periods. In the first period, the Greeks had peaceful relationships with the Libyans. Later, there were wars between them. These social relationships were mirrored in their beliefs.
Before the battle of Irassa (570 BC)
The first notable appearance of Libyan influence on the Cyrenaican-Greek beliefs is the name Cyrenaica itself. This name was originally the name of a legendary (mythic) Berber woman warrior who was known as Cyre. Cyre was, according to the legend, a courageous lion-hunting woman. She gave her name to the city Cyrenaica. The emigrating Greeks made her their protector besides their Greek god Apollo.
The Greeks of Cyrenaica seemed also to have adopted some Berber customs and intermarried with the Berber women. Herodotus (Book IV 120) reported that the Libyans taught the Greeks how to yoke four horses to a chariot. The Cyrenaican Greeks built temples for the Libyan god Amon instead of their original god Zeus. They later identified their supreme god Zeus with the Libyan Amon. Some of them continued worshipping Amon himself. Amon's cult was so widespread among the Greeks that even Alexander the Great decided to be declared as the son of Zeus in the Siwan temple by the Libyan priests of Amon.
The ancient historians mentioned that some Greek deities were of Libyan origin. The daughter of Zeus Athena was considered by some ancient historians, like Herodotus, to have been of Libyan origin. Those ancient historians stated that she was originally honored by the Berbers around Lake Tritonis where she has been born from the god Poseidon and Lake Tritonis, according to the Libyan legend. Herodotus wrote that the Aegis and the clothes of Athena are typical for Libyan woman.
Herodotus also stated that Poseidon (an important Greek sea god) was adopted from the Libyans by the Greeks. He emphasized that no other people worshipped Poseidon from early times apart from the Libyans who spread his cult:
[..]these I think received their naming from the Pelasgians, except Poseidon; but about this god the Hellenes learnt from the Libyans, for no people except the Libyans have had the name of Poseidon from the first and have paid honour to this god always.
Some other Greek deities were related to Libya. The goddess Lamia was believed to have originated in Libya, like Medusa and the Gorgons. The Greeks seem also to have met the god Triton in Libya. The Greeks may have believed that the Hesperides was situated in modern Morocco. Some scholars situate it in Tangier where Antaeus lived, according to some myths. The Hesperides were believed to be the daughters of Atlas a god that is associated with the Atlas mountains by Herodotus. The Atlas mountain was worshipped by the Berbers and the Canary Islands represent to many the daughters of Atlas.
After the Battle of Irassa
The Greeks and the Massyle began to break their harmony in the period of Battus II. Battus II began secretly to invite other Greek groups to Libya, Tunis and East Algeria. The Libyans and Massyle considered that as a danger that had to be stopped. The Berbers began to fight against the Greeks, sometimes in alliance with the Egyptians and other times with the Carthaginians. Nevertheless, the Greeks were the victors.
Some historians believe that the myth of Antaeus was a reflection of those wars between the Libyans and Greeks. The legend tells that Antaeus was the undefeatable protector of the Massyle. He was the son of the god Poseidon and Gaia. He was the husband of the Berber goddess Tinjis. He used to protect the lands of the Berbers until he was slain by the Greek hero Heracles who married Tingis and fathered the son Sufax (Berber-Greek son). Some Massyle kings, like Juba I, claimed to be the descendants of Sufax. While some sources described Antaeus as the king of Irassa, Plutarch reported that the Massyle buried him in Souk Ahras. In Greek iconography, Antaeus was clearly distinguished as being different from the Greeks in appearance. He was depicted with long hair and a beard that was typical for the Eastern Massyle.
The Romans allied firstly with the Massyle against Carthage. They defeated Carthage in 146 BCE. But later, they also annexed Massyle to the Roman Empire.
The Berbers fought against the Romans and Byzantines. They had war deities such as Gurzil and Ifri. They honored the war goddess Ifri or Ifru who was considered to be the protector of her worshipers and was depicted on the Berber coins, and seemed to have been an influential goddess in North Africa. Pliny the Elder mentioned that nobody in Africa decided to do anything before prior invocation of Africa (The Latin name of Ifri). This goddess was represented in diverse ways on Massyle coins from the first century BCE. When the Romans conquered Northwest Africa, she appeared on the coins of the Roman states in North Africa.
Gurzil was a bull-shaped war god who is identified with the son of Ammon. He was taken by the Berbers to their battles against the Romans. Corippus mentioned that the chef Laguatan's (Or Luwata as it was known to the Arabs) Daya took her god Gurzil into her battle against the Byzantines and Arabs. Daya was an Eastern-Numidian Berber tribe Massyle ruler and a high priestess of Awras (Aures) mountains in modern-day Algeria. She was betrayed by the Iznagen Berbers and killed when they sided with the Arabs.
Another feared god was Saturn. He was said to have communicated with believers in dreams, and the Massyle venerated him with human sacrifices. Tertullian wrote that children were openly sacrificed to Saturn in Africa. Historians believe his cult was closer to that of Baal-Hammon than that of the Roman Saturn.
When a native Massyle called Septimius Severus became Roman Emperor in c.e 193, the cult of Tanit was introduced to Rome.
References and notes
- by Réné Basset (in French)