Atete, Goddess of the Oromo People in southern Ethiopia

You may have read that the Zar religion originated among the Oromo people (also known as “Galla”). Atete is their great goddess. I’m sharing some information I found back in the mid-70s. The source cites are lost, but this is too important to leave out, all the more so because so far I’ve found no other sources offering this level of detail about the Oromo Goddess. I’ve left the account in the present tense even though this veneration has lost tremendous ground in the past century, under pressure from Christianity and Islam.

Oromo woman, possibly wearing a cäle rosary, 1890
Oromo woman, possibly wearing a cäle rosary, 1890

Atete governs the fate of people on earth. She is “power of life, abundance, fortune, wealth,” and Fridays are sacred to her. Women carry strings of specially colored beads (cäle) as a rosary consecrated to this goddess. Groups of women wear necklaces of Atete, hold a feast, and then go to gather herbs. She was originally the Oromo Great Goddess, but even the Christian Amhara have assimilated some aspects of her veneration.

Her feast days are the first of the Ethiopian calendar (a parallel with Isis in Kemet, ancient Egypt, to whom some modern Oromo indigenistas compare her). A great festival and rituals are celebrated every year to honor her, with ritual preparations of steeped barley. On the evening of the festival, women of each household chant invocations over the feast: “Atete Hara, Atete Jinbi, Atete Dula, forget not my children, watch over my husband and my cattle.” Or “My mother, my mistress, please look after me.” Then they burst into the women’s shrilling triumphal cry illi-li-li as they pick up the coffee beans and begin to prepare the drink. On this evening, the woman of the house enter deep trance and speaks as oracles of the zar. The spirits advise the women on the coming year and feast on the food set before them.

The zar (spirit) is passed from mother to daughter; husbands actively try to crush this shamanic tradition. Most zar-doctors are women. [This too has changed, to some extent.] The Gurri was a whirling dance invoking zar, to make them become Weqabi, protective spirits who ride their ‘horses,’ the entranced women.

This fleshes out a bit what several authors have documente about the Oromo origins of the zar religion: that among this people it was connected to indigenous goddess reverence. Not that she was the only spirit, but she is the heart of the religion. Here’s another tidbit from the Amharic side of Ethiopia, whose women massively adopted zar from the Oromo. (Enslaved Oromo women spread the religion into Sudan and Arabia as well, but that’s a much larger subject.)

The earliest known Ethiopian inscriptions are to the goddesses Naurau and Ashtar near Axum. The Ge’ez alphabet is older than Arabic or Greek, and many volumes of a later period fill a large royal library. Ge’ez means “free,” and is a Semitic language. Women of the royal line were called Makeda, like the Queen of Sheba (Sa’ba). One source refers to “The ‘crescent and disc’ of Astarte, a design common to the great fallen monoliths of Aksum, Blemy pottery, and the coins of the kings of Aksum”. [Astarte being the Greek word for Phoenician and Syrian ‘Ashtart, which was ‘Athtar in Arabia.] The Yemenites are the closest linguistic relatives to the Amhara, and since in southern Arabia Athtar was masculinized, I’m not sure that this was a goddess in Ethiopia. It’s possible, however; more to research on that.

More on Oromo, ethnicity, and religion: Ethiopian bloggers weigh in

The Oromo (“Galla”) are a large ethnic group in central and south Ethiopia. They speak a Cushitic language related to Somali, part of the much larger Afro-Asiatic family. They pushed up from southern Ethopia and became the majority population in central and southern Ethiopia. Most of them have converted to Islam or Christianity, although even they retain traces of their old religion, Waaqeffannaa. This means “belief in Waaq,” a supreme god, but they also have an important goddess, Atete, also known by the christianized name Marame. Oromo who adhere to the indigenous religion are now outnumbered by converts.

Oromo people are often referred to as “Galla,” but Ethiopian sources say that this name really designates indigenous religion. An Ethiopian blogger explains the distinctions: “Galla, like the terms Amara [Amhara] and Muslim refers to faith and not to race. Therefore, an Ethiopian is traditionally called Amara if he is a Christian, Muslim if he is of the Islamic faith, and Galla if he practices the traditional Oromo faith or is an animist.” [“Call Me By Name: A small talk with Debteraw, VIII” by Wolde Tewolde, alias Obo Arada Shawl]

In the Comments of the same Debteraw blog, Daniel adds (April 15, 2007): “To many of us who have grown up in the ‘Atete’ culture knew how the ‘Atete’ goddess cuts across ethnic lines. Those of us who still recount the ‘Atete’ ritual might not miss the mantra-like recounting of the ‘Gondare Sifa’.” [Not sure what this is, but I’m guessing that it’s a Christian litany, since Gondar was the imperial capital of the Amhara.]

Daniel sees “the ‘Marame’ goddess and the ‘Eme-Birhan’ i.e. ‘Mariam'” as belonging to a related cluster of Ethiopian folk goddesses (Mariam=Mary, so we see how the Ethiopian Goddess came to be linked with the Christian one). He also compares “the Amhara and Oromo peasant hut design and how they reflect female figurines,” and talks about “the matriarchal-paganism of the ‘Galla'” which was displaced by “the patrilineal androgenic God figure of the northerner.” [This is overstating the case, as you’ll see from my previous Note about an Oromo woman’s article on indigenous patriarchy and women’s resistance to it.] However, the Oromo religion does retain aspects of very old female potency. Numerous sources show Atete morphing into Mariam / Marame through Christian influence.

There’s a larger feminist issue here: patriarchal systems are commonly described as “egalitarian,” when in fact what is being described is a lack of class ranking / hierarchy. For example, look at this: “The Galla of Ethiopia are generally represented as an egalitarian people.” The author goes on to cite the Gada system, in which an all-male assembly elects its own leaders. That is the criterion for “egalitarian.” (See the next post for more perspective on male dominance in the Oromo family.) Further, class ranking has in fact intruded, as  monarchies supplanted the Gada councils over the past 200 years). [Herbert Lewis, “A Reconsideration of the Socio-Political System of the Western Galla.” Journal of Semitic Studies, Vol 9, 1964, p 139 (139-143)]

An Ethiopian evangelical scholar gives more detail about the Atete ceremonies, although the article comes from a Lutheran conceptual framework that treats the indigenous religions as demonic. [Amsalu Tadesse Geleta, “Demonization and Exorcism,” thesis at The Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology.] I’m going to quote from this essay in spite of the very negative Christian bias and stereotypical terms (“cult,” etc.), because it does offer some valuable information, even if we have to read through the bias:

“Atete is a fertility cult in honor of the spirit of motherhood in Oromo tradition. The cult is known as conversion zar among the Amharas of Ethiopia. There is a similarity of practices between Atete and Conversion Zar. The preparation is the same. The main difference is that the conversion zar is practiced among the Amharas whereas Atete is practiced among the Oromos. Atete is a non-violent female goddess mainly connected with fertility. Women who seek supernatural help to become pregnant and bear healthy children are the main adherents.

“The clients of this cult are women. A girl will take over or be possessed by her mother’s ayana (spirit). Her ayana normally possesses or visits her once or twice a year. She spends her day preparing things that are needed for the ceremony. She has to prepare herself wearing special clothes (often of the opposite sex), putting on beads and ornaments, perfumes and carrying a whip, steel bar or an empty gun. Green grass (reed from river side) is spread on the floor as a sign of ceremony or anniversary.

“Different types of foods like porridge, butter, lemons, dadhi (honey wine, yellow in color), farso (home made beer), and coffee is prepared before the ceremony starts. There might be some more sacrifice prescribed by ayana on its previous possession. So chicken, sheep or goat of certain color is offered as a sacrifice and perfumes or different spices are presented as an offer. If the spirit is pleased by the offerings and the preparation it occupies her. People know that she is possessed when she starts yawning, stretching the whole body here and there, salivating, and becoming drowsy. Her body wavers, and she also cries, speaks as if she is in dream alone. She often falls down and covers her face with her dress.

“She may jump and run away and climb trees, not coming down until people beg her. Others stand on glowing wood or eat embers. She may cut herself with a knife, or crush pieces of glass and eat them. She speaks in a strange voice, often using a language understood only by the zar themselves. She may sing a song reserved for the occasion, or dance a peculiar dance associated with a particular ceremony. She acts very differently from normal strength, voice, activity, etc. which signify that the spirit has possessed her.

“This possession may last from a few hours to two or three days. The main function of the gathered spectators throughout the ceremony is to appease the ayana, sing songs, clap, dance and beat a drum, and beg the spirit not to hurt her. [This last may again reflect the author’s Christian bias] Geleta goes on to say that “In contrast to Atete which is dominated by women, seer zar is man’s zar.”

So we see repeated several shamanic themes: special ritual dress in accord with the spirits, trance states, falling to the ground, covering the face, imperviousness to fire or blades, supernatural strength, spirit languages, special songs for certain spirits, and not least in this case, involvement of ancestral spirits inherited matrilineally. The climbing up into trees (or onto roofs) also occurs with new shamanic initiates in Zambia and other African countries.

Another interesting aspect of Geleta’s article is that it plainly states the equivalence of indigenous Oromo religion with Zar. We’ve already seen one author make the case for an Ethiopian origin for Zar, which is backed up by other experts, and here that idea receives further support from a hostile witness.

Two short mentions of Atete appear in Literatures in African Languages, ed. B.W. Andrzejewski et al, Cambridge University Press 2010.

J…lq…b… b…rsisa [characters won’t reproduce] an Oromo textbook published in 1894, contains legends, proverbs, and oral poems; “there are even some hymns to Atete, the goddess of fertility.” [B.W. Andrzejewski, “Written Literature in Oromo,” p 409]

“Atete, also called Maram [that is, after the Christian goddess Maryam or Mary] is the goddess of fertility worshipped in some regions of Ethiopia by the adherents of the traditional Oromo religion.” [B.W. Andrzejewski, “Oral Prose: the Time-Bound Stream,” p 415]

Other present-day testimony comes from web sites on Waaqeefannaa (indigenous Oromo religion):

“Based on the story of Irreechaa, the Oromo started celebrating Waaqayyoo beside Odaa tree, which was for the first time planted by Atete as a symbol of Ora-Omo (resurrection of Ora, who raised from death to celebrate the reconciliation with his murderer, with his brother Sete). [Here referring to Kemetic Ausar and Set] Since then, the other Cushitic nations also celebrate this event either under a tree (Odaa) or beside a statue of stone (like beside the Axum Obelisk) or beside a temporarily planted Demera as it’s now done almost all over Ethiopia. [This caught my interest because of the megalithic statues and standing stones in southern Ethiopia, and the symbolism of a plant or tree which recurs on many of them, which is repeated on female belly tattoos among some indigenous Ethiopian peoples.] Interesting is to observe this relation between Atete’s original plant as a symbol for the resurrection of Ora with the Oromo’s Odaa tree, lately replaced by the statue of Agew’s (Tegaru’s) Axum Obelisk, which is now further replaced by Demera, to be planted only temporarily during the transition time from a winter (darkness, unsuccessful, death) to a spring (a new start of light, a new start for success, a new start of life) every year. Knowingly or unknowingly, all Cush nations, including those who claim to be Semites (Tegaru, Amhara, Gurage, Harari, Argoba, etc), celebrate Irreechaa, which is the celebration of Ora’s resurrection. That is why Irreechaa is actually the holiday for all Cush nations, including those who deny their origins and try to identify themselves with Semetics (with David, with Solomon, with Arab, etc).

[from “Merry Irreechaa! Both ‘Land to the Tiller’ and ‘Self-Rule of Nations’ are Irreversible Victories” September 18, 2010  By Fayyis Oromia] (Videos of Irreechaa ceremonies can be found on Youtube.)

The same author assimilates Atete to Isis in other articles:

© 2010 Max Dashu