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Pan-Esotericism in Africa: Hermetic Roots and Bantu Spiritual Wisdom

The lengthy article in the The Boston Courier of July 18, 1886, in which nearly seventy citizens of Nagapattinam in India penned a letter defending the existence of the Sadhus, of great initiates is a testament of the truth regarding the full ramifications of this elusive history of the mysteries. That people have held personal converse with such individuals precedes any mythical notions we might have about them. The fact remains, as in antiquity, that such schools, orders and even federations exist, and still to this day in whatever form or among whomever they could have survived. The systems of mystical initiation in the Graeco-Roman world are well-known yet still superficially by scholars, since no known, or real detailed writings have been left behind about their inner rites. The situation becomes just as, or more difficult in regards to the history of the wisdom and initiates of Africa, even before the rise of ancient Egypt. 

J.S. Gordon is an author of a book, that is currently being bought up, who consulted theosophical libraries, and provides a great deal of research into the esoteric side of ancient Egyptian culture. I have discussed plenty about Iran, Germany, Central Asia and Tibet, and neglected the Americas and Africa.

In The Robert Bowen Mystery, readers are given the history of theosophist and Religious Studies scholar Patrick H. Bowen’s father, Robert Bowen. Yvonne Burgess explains, that the story of the human race in African myths dates far back before the mythical creation of Adam. This myth is attributed to one named Lord Khem (the African Ham, Cham) also known as ThauThau-Harama (the Greek Thoth-Hermes). Considered a spiritual being, Lord Khem was seen as the son or word of Ptah, according to Dr. Mathole Motshekga. Dr. Mathole Motshekga of the Kara Heritage Institute in Pretoria, South Africa explains in African Identity and Culture: Who We Are, that 

“The primal African religion was also rooted in the solar (Kara) or astral (Saba) systems. Thus the primal African religion was known as Karaism or Sabaism (i.e. the Religion of Light). The Light has always been regarded as the physical manifestation of the Great Spirit that is called God.”

The theology of Kara became Kemetism (or Hermeticism), he argues. The institute in South Africa asserts, that “Karaism is an ancient African theology, dating back to the beginning of recorded history. It was the foundation of ancient African religion and philosophy. Its influence permeates African traditions and cultural history to this day.”

The theology of Karaism taught that God was the Divine Light (Kara), and that this light dwelt within our hearts, similar to pre-Hesiodic myths of ancient Greece.

Mfuniselwa J. Bhengu writes in The Secrets of Ancient Africa, that:

Hermeticism did not disappear from the face of traditional Africa. In his book entitled: “The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland,” Bent observed that the African founders of the Zimbabwe Temple practiced the religion of Light (Karaism) and this God of Light was also called UmbeNyambe or Zambe (i.e. the word of God).”

Yvonne Burgess paraphrasing Mfuniselwa J. Bhengu also argued that these teachings were passed to Greek philosophy, specifically Pythagoreanism. The philosophy of Plotinus, Mfuniselwa J. Bhengu puts forth in his paper, The Secrets of Ancient Africa (on Theosophist Patrick H. Bowen’s interaction with an initiated sage of a brotherhood named the Bonaabakhulu baseKhem), was misrepresented as Neoplatonism. Plotinus (205-270 ce) taught this same doctrine of Kara, as the One Good, or the Beauty, that “represented the spirit or word (Khem) of God (Ptah) upon the Chaos (Nun),” which created the universes and all animate and inanimate things. This principle is the force of cosmic evolution, and the Spirit of the Unknowable. 

Patrick Bowen was a member of the Hermetic Society in Dublin, but later resigned. His father, Robert took Patrick as a young child with him to Africa for a wagon trip through “the wild Bushlands of the Northern Transvaal, Portuguese East Africa and Mashonaland.” Patrick wrote, that he had gained friendship among the Zulus and descendants of the old Bantu people, particularly a class known as the Isanusi, improperly interpreted as “Witch-Doctors.” One of these intimate friends was known by the name Mankanyezi (the “Starry One”).

Robert Bowen was also a theosophist, passionate about Greek knowledge and culture, and knew of Helena Blavatsky, according to Nancy Davis, while recounting her childhood. Nancy Davis explains that Robert was married to an Evangelistical Protestant, who considered H.P.B. to be demonically-inspired. Her grandmother, an ardent Church woman, considered Theosophy heretical, and destroyed all the fragments of Robert Bowen’s writings, which Patrick found tucked away in bookshelves at his old home.

Bowen left Ireland for South Africa when he became involved with the Intelligence Department of the South African Mounted Rifles. His interest in native dialects and modes of thought would become the sum of his later work, where he spent 20 years in Africa. There Patrick met an initiated teacher named Mehlo Moya (the “spiritual eyes”), an Atlas Berber, who brought him into the admission of this teacher’s brotherhood. The initiates of the higher grades of attainment in this order were known as ‘Those who know,’ and at the apex of the hierarchy above these was “The Ancient One.” Patrick Bowen had been permitted to copy and publish three fragments from a document in a secret ur-Bantu language called Isinzu. These fragments, it is written, are a gateway for true aspirants to wisdom, and teach progress and evolution of the Soul, and the pitfalls of a psychic nature. These fragments directly make a connection to an original pan-esotericism, or common origin source of all esoteric traditions. 

Artist. Kudzanai Chiurai, Creation I.

These are the teachings of the Isanusi (spiritual teachers), according to Patrick Bowen, which tell us simply — that individuals have a body, and within that body lies the soul (Idhlozi); and within that soul is a spark or portion of what is called Itongo (the ancestral spirit, or universal spirit of the tribe). One can never know Itongo, except through certain manifestations within the human range of perception.

The Isanusi explained, that the grades of this Brotherhood are as follows: (1) pupil, (2) disciple, (3) brother, (4) elder, (5) master (6) those who know, and the (7) Isangoma. The Isangoma represent the highest condition of development possible to mortals on the physical plane. Then, there are those who belong to the brotherhood of all (a similar concept in Sufism and Druze religion), who are called the Abakulubantu (perfected ones). They are capable of dwelling on earth in physical form by their own will, and for whom the necessity for rebirth has ceased. Bonaabakhulu baseKhem is said to translate in Bantu to the “Brotherhood of the Higher Ones.”

The Elders of this brotherhood teach, that the Itongo is not merely the Spirit of the Tribe (or the ancestral spirit), but is the Spirit within and above all mortal human, as well as all things; and that we are all one in essence, and in the flesh.


Feel free to comment and share or corroborate any knowledge of ancient and modern African spirituality related to these teachings.

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