Black land; Or, reading Egyptian Hermetica & *Mumbo Jumbo* as ‘Afrotopian’ prophecies
Nat Mengist, M.Ed
The old gods of the Black land did not retreat to the heavens — they took refuge underground (you can feel it in the beat). Their immanent rebirth is foretold in vivid detail through the prophetic sermons of Egyptian Hermetists and Ishmael Reed’s 1972 “graphics novel,” Mumbo Jumbo. This liturgical thicket heralds a golden age of African spirit: no mere primitive stupor or arcane whimsey, but a long overdue detaching of the West’s infernal grip on the imaginaries of the world. Deploying the term coined by Senegalese thinker Felwine Sarr, I read these texts as constitutive of an “Afrotopian canon” with the potential to turn back the clock on epistemic enclosure. This premonitory uprising offers us songs of freedom:
‘Mythic forces of time and tempo! Bestow upon us your powers: power to steal back the artifacts of our ancestors; power to return lands to their indigenous caretakers; power to reject the scourges of neocoloniality, racial capitalism, and gendered violence; power to dance to the rhythm of the cosmic funk; and above all, power to fertilize our knowledge of futures — that wellspring of visionary expression and divinatory swagger!’
Please treat my project as a work-in-becoming, primarily interested in Black texts that move to African tempos. In this first iteration of the project, I will apply the concept of “Afrotopia” through a close reading of two prophetic literatures: the Hermetic treatise known as the Perfect Discourse or Asclepius, and the postmodern novel Mumbo Jumbo. This close reading is an effort to illuminate an ‘Afrotopian cannon’ — a liturgical undergrowth with late antique origins foretelling a time of material and spiritual emancipation not only for the Black diaspora, but for the whole world. This essay is also an early attempt to respectfully relocate blackness, indigeneity, and gender as central to both Western conceptions of witchcraft, astrology, alchemy, divination, and other ‘mythic’ practices.
Where are the Black prophecies? On Afrotopia
Before going further, I will take a moment to establish prophecy as a speculative practice of “the undercommons,” as elaborated by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney:
The prophet is the one who tells the brutal truth, who has the capacity to see the absolute brutality of the already-existing and to point it out and to tell that truth, but also to see the other way, to see what it could be. That double-sense, that double-capacity: to see what’s right in front of you and to see through that to what’s up ahead of you. (p. 131)
And with what brutal truths has this essay concerned itself? Today, an ‘Afrotopian prophecy’ must be one that safeguards the futures of those deemed witches while caring equally for practitioners of African traditional religions — one that protects the lives of both cis-gendered women and trans-gendered women while advocating for ecologies of wellbeing, not just healthy societies.
In her 2018 anthology Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women, Silvia Federici makes a critical link between women of color, increasing accounts of femicide, and the exploitation of the southern hemisphere of the Earth:
We are witnessing an escalation of violence against women, especially Afrodescendant and Native American women, because ‘globalization’ is a process of political recolonization intended to give capital uncontested control over the world’s natural wealth and human labor, and this. . . . has been more intense in those parts of the world (sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia) that are richer in natural resources. (p. 50)
Felwine Sarr’s elaboration of “Afrotopia” is one that attempts to “see the other way” in regard to the fate of the African continent, upon which we must imagine and instantiate Black spaces in defense of all who identify as women regardless of their sex assigned at birth or their proximity to Western wealth:
It is by investing in the collective imaginaries, in its own version of human progress, that the West truly won the decisive battle. . . . Today, Africa's task could perhaps be understood thus: in these times of a crisis for meaning within a technical civilization, Africa can offer different perspectives concerns social life, emanating from other mythological universes, thereby continuing to support, promote, and be an exemplary instance of the shared notion for the common dream of balanced and harmonious life imbued with meaning. . . . Afrotopos is the site of another Africa, one whose arrive we should expedite in order to realize its brilliant potentials. Founding a utopia is not at all a question of simply giving oneself over to sugar-coated reveries, but a matter of thinking spaces of the real to bring them into existence by way of both thought and action; it's about recognizing the signs and seeds of the present in order to better nourish them. Afrotopia is an active utopia that takes as its task the cultivation of vast and open spaces of bountiful possibilities order to help them flourish.
I am reading “Afrotopos” as a speculative terrain attuned toward “recognizing the signs and seeds of the present in order to better nourish them” — an open dogma for hastening what Ishmael Reed calls the “spontaneous rising” of the “Black Mud Sound”: that of the Nilotic floodplains that ancient Egyptians referred to as the “black land”:
Silts deposited by the annual floods had created 18,250 km2 of cultivatable land by about 5,000 years ago. . . . In these regions the people and the food-production innovations of the Sahara and the Near East combined to fuel the rise of a unique civilization. (Reader, p. 193)
But why return to Egypt at all? I am not an uncritical apologist for Egypt as the pinnacle of African civilizations, nor as a beacon of anti-colonial liberation — a point on which John Reader is adamant:
The concept of the Nile as a corridor through which the civilizing influences were conveyed to sub-Saharan Africa is the basis of an essentially Eurocentric interpretation of African history, implying that Africans were incapable of developing their own versions of civilization. It has an appealing simplicity, but is contradicted by the evidence. . . . In fact, the relationship between the Egyptians and the inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa never rose above that of the pillager and the pillaged, with sub-Saharan Africa providing whatever trade commodities (including human beings) were currently required for the Nile trade. (p. 195)
Although these exploitative relations cannot be overlooked, we may yet learn from how the ‘Afrotopic’ prophesies in both the Asclepius and Mumbo Jumbo interpret and interrupt the grammars of colonization and racialization respective to their historical eras — in other words, how to “see what’s right in front of you and to see through that to what’s up ahead of you.”
First in the Afrotopian cannon: On the Asclepius
What did the Egyptians of late antiquity see “what’s up ahead” of the Ptolemaic period — a time when indigenous pharaohs had not held power for hundreds of years? In the syncretic spirit of the early common era, mostly Greek and some Latin writings attributed to “Hermes Trismegistus” sprang up throughout Egypt roughly two thousand years ago. The much older Egyptian culture, “instead of being submerged by Hellenism, exercised so strong a gravitational and assimilative pull on it that the product of their interaction was at least as much Egyptian as Greek” (Fowden, p. 14).
This essay leans on Garth Fowden’s social study of Hermetic sermons like the Asclepius, which “contains a memorable and moving account of the total effect of cultural oppression on a traditional society” (p. 38). Fowden reproduces text from the Asclepius prophecy up to the end of Paragraph 25. For the sake of continuity, I read the end of Paragraph 25 and beginning of Paragraph 26 from the Brian Copenhaver translation:
"How mournful when the gods withdraw from mankind! Only the baleful angels remain to mingle with humans, seizing the wretches and driving them to every outrageous crime - war, looting, trickery and all that is contrary to the nature of souls. Then neither will the earth stand firm nor the sea be sailable; stars will not cross heaven nor will the course of the stars stand firm in heaven. Every divine voice will grow mute in enforced silence. The fruits of the earth will rot; the soil will no more be fertile; and the very air will droop in gloomy lethargy."
"Such will be the old age of the world: irreverence, disorder, disregard for everything good. When all this comes to pass, Asclepius, then the master and father, the god whose power is primary, governor of the first god, will look on this conduct and these willful crimes, and in an act of will - which is god's benevolence - he will take his stand against the vices and the perversion in everything, righting wrongs, washing away malice in a flood or consuming it in fire or ending it by spreading pestilential disease everywhere. Then he will restore the world to its beauty of old so that the world itself will again seem deserving of worship and wonder, and with constant benedictions and proclamations of praise the people of that time will honor the god who makes and restores so great a work. And this will be the geniture of the world: a reformation of all good things and a restitution, most holy and most reverent, of nature itself, reordered in the course of time, which is and was everlasting and without beginning (Copenhaver, pp. 82-82).
Though these laments give way to a forceful proclamation that old beauties of the world would be restored, this wish is yet to be fulfilled. Here the political and existential stakes of the Asclepius prophecy become clear for Fowden:
The background and implications of this striking prophecy are best grasped if we compare what has happened in more recent history to traditional societies as they first came in contact with Western colonizers. . . . As in the Perfect discourse, so in these doomed societies of the contemporary world, the demise of belief in and worship of the gods is a function of social despair. . . . But be that as it may, the presence of this passage within the Perfect discourse indicates a strain of passionate Egyptianism in the milieu which produced and preserved it. It was a milieu that had long been and, so it seemed, irreversibly Hellenized in its language and thought patterns; but that had not made it a Greek milieu. (pp. 42-44, emphasis original)
Fowden assures us that Thoth survived the epistemic enclosure of pagan societies in altered costume. This knowledge may still offer some relief to descendants of African peoples suffering from the inhumanities of antiblack abuse, incarceration, and genocide in the present moment as it did in 1972:
The Africa that exists and that is becoming is protean. Its reason is plural. It has not disenchanted its worlds. Its spiritual life is still bountiful and flourishing. Africa’s religions, music, art, cities, the continent’s relation to itself, to its body, Africa’s presence within time—all these elements bear witness to the daily self-invention under way. Africa is actualizing its own syntheses of the religious, political, and cultural spheres. The open-air laboratory that Africa constitutes has its foundries working at full speed, feeding them with fuel gleaned from all fields. Nevertheless, Africa must establish durable foundations for its overall stability, prosperity, and future to shine bright (Sarr, p. 23)
Second in the Afrotopian cannon: On Mumbo Jumbo
Mumbo Jumbo responds to the outcry of the Asclepius prophecy through a historically situated and speculatively enriching journey into the Black art scene of the Harlem 1920’s. Although Reed has been accused of misogyny and gender binarism, Kameelah Martin Samuel argues that a closer look at his early work provides a womanist portrayal of feminine power and spirit. Samuel points out that word play and African thought drive the book:
Reed's Mumbo Jumbo occupies a space prone to trickery and allusion; a place where the pieces may not always add up to the reader's expectations. Through his manipulation of language and reliance on an African-based epistemology, Reed's Mumbo Jumbo not only challenges the supremacy of Western culture, religion, and literary tradition, but also opposes the one-dimensional view of women developing out of such tradition (Samuel, 114).
While evaluating Ishmael Reed’s feminist status is beyond the scope of this short essay, like Samuel, my aim is to explore the value of Mumbo Jumbo as a mythic text reflecting historical inequities and while presaging virtuosic potentials.
In order to tell the story of how monotheisms overtook the pagan practices as passed down by a “high up member of the Haitian aristocracy,” PaPa LaBas first remixes the legend of Osiris:
A certain young prince who was allergic to thrones attended a university at Nysa, a town in Arabia Felix (now Yemen). It was a land of dates coffee goats sheep wheat barley corn and livestock. Across the Red Sea were Ethiopia and the Sudan where the young man would commute bringing his knowledge of agriculture and comparing notes with the agriculturalists of these lands. There were agricultural celebrations; dancing and singing, and in Egypt this rhythm was known as the Black Mud Sound. At this time in history those who influenced the growth of crops and coaxed the cocks into procreation were seen as sorcerers (Reed, p. 161).
Reed identifies the “Black Mud Sound” as the original strain of “Jes Grew,” which is a contagious condition that provokes dancing and debauchery brought on by outbreaks of ragtime music throughout the book. PaPa LaBas continues on to say:
The rites associated with Osiris and other pagan gods continue underground. The only remedies the Church knew was to “beat the living shit out of them.” Throwing those possessed by demons into dungeons, burning it out of them. They killed millions of people this way but it didn’t put an end to the dance epidemics, heresies, witchcraft, infidels, and remnants of “pagan” rebellions. Well, if the Church had continued dealing with the foe in this manner, beating people up, raiding their apartments at 2:00 a.m., burning them at the stake, it would have wiped out a good portion of Europe’s population. The rest of the population was being depleted by physical plagues (Reed, p. 161)
But how to challenge these powerful entities and their bad actors, who work behind the scenes to keep Jes Grew from spreading?
For the Mu’tafikah, a racially heterogeneous group working against the white secret-society superstructure, how to “see what could be” became clear in a college Art History course:
The pact we made that day … that we would return the plundered art to Africa, South America and China, the ritual accessories which had been stolen so that we could see the gods return and the sprits aroused. How we wanted to conjure a spiritual hurricane which would lift the debris of 2,000 years from its roots and fling it about. Well, we are succeeding with these raids into the museums, for what good is someone’s amulet or pendant if it’s in a Western museum. (Reed, p. 88)
But can the strategy of stealing back artifacts from the Western institutions that profit off other sacred knowledges bring about a return of the gods? Perhaps a global divestment from the white magic of assimilating all ethnic variation into a blank race might help; more immediately, one would hope to see reinvestment in Indigenous religions, land-based pedagogies, and pluriversal models of governance across the world.
Salso calls for the militant reclamation of African epistemologies:
In order to accelerate the end of one world, to undo Africa’s dependence on the West for its own cultural representation, it is necessary to win the battle of representation through a strategy of subversion and insurrection, leading to the completion and elaboration of Africa’s own discourse about itself. This process takes place by way of the action of once again equipping oneself with the capacity for choosing what one retains of the other in regard to pedagogy and knowledge production in relation to one's own cultural representation. . . . For this to be possible, it is of the utmost urgency to massively invest in the reappropriation of the various forms of knowledge within continental Africa—oral reason and the precolonial library—alongside forms of knowledge coming from the rest of the world. (Sarr, 2019, p. 89)
If the Mu’tafikah’s “spiritual hurricane” is to come — that “restitution, most holy and most reverent, of nature itself” foretold at the end of the Asclepius prophecy — it will be through the resurgence of Black epistemologies, the radicalization of Black futures, and the reparation of Black lands.
Perhaps this confidence in African knowledge is part of why Achille Mbembe posits that “Africa represents strength in reserve for the entire Earth”? In 2020 interview Mbembe proclaims:
Indeed, precolonial African metaphysics as well as Amerindian metaphysics allow us to de-dramatise the human-object relationship. This is especially possible because these metaphysics are less dichotomous than those elaborated in the West, with its dichotomies of nature and culture, subject and object, and human and non-human. (Confavreux, n.p.)
This ‘Afrotopian cannon’ thus far contains two recipes for brews that bubble up from underground, threatening to flood white/Western/colonial/capitalist knowledge with their darkening influence — from the gnostic riches of Thoth-hermes culminating in the “spontaneous rising” of the “Black Mud Sound”. Let the hymns and hip shakes commence!
Confavreux, Joseph. “Long Read | Africa: Strength in Reserve for Earth.” New Frame, July 30, 2020. https://www.newframe.com/long-read-africa-strength-in-reserve-for-earth/.
Copenhaver, Brian P., and Hermes (Trismegistus). Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
Sarr, Felwine. Afrotopia. Translated by Drew S. Burke and Sarah Jones-Boardman. U of Minnesota Press, 2020.
Fowden, Garth. The Egyptian Hermes: A Historical Approach to the Late Pagan Mind. 2nd ed. Princeton University Press, 1993.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Minor Compositions, 2013.
Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of the Continent. Vintage Books, 1999.
Samuel, Kameelah Martin. “RETHINKING ISHMAEL REED’S ‘MUMBO JUMBO’: NEO-HOODOO WOMANIST TEXT?” CLA Journal 52, no. 2 (2008): 111–31.