Beyond RastafarI

An Historical and Theological Introduction

by Marzia A. Coltri (Author)
©2015 Monographs VIII, 260 Pages
Series: Religions and Discourse, Volume 56


This book is an invitation to reflect on how a minority culture emerged from within «Third World» liberation movements. It considers not only the historical and cultural journey between Ethiopia and Jamaica, but also the psychological dynamics of subalterns between the East and the West.
In this work, the author discusses the various beliefs and ideologies of the RastafarI movement in relation to Ethiopia, and challenges the RastafarI misogynistic attitude by rehabilitating the position of women within the movement through the figure of the Queen of Sheba.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Interpreting RastafarI identity
  • The RastafarI phenomenon
  • The nature of RastafarI
  • RastafarI and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  • Some specific considerations
  • RastafarI as a new religious movement (NRM)
  • Chapter 2: The East: Locating Ethiopia
  • Are the Ethiopians still pagans?
  • The concept of schism between East and West
  • Rejecting the pagan idolatry: The ‘other cults’
  • Councils and creeds: From Nicaea and Constantinople to Chalcedon
  • Monophysitism versus Diophysitism
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
  • From pre-Christianity to Christianity in Ethiopia
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church: Ceremonies, liturgies, organization and symbols
  • Chapter 3: The link between Rastas and the Ethiopian Christians: The Monophysite doctrine in RastafarI
  • Rasta and Monophysite outlooks
  • The fusion of symbols in RastafarI
  • RastafarI and its connection with the Christian name of Haile Selassie: ‘Lord of Lords and Might of the Holy Trinity’
  • RastafarI: A syncretistic movement?
  • The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo legacy in RastafarI
  • Life and spirituality in the Rastafarian movement: Rituals, symbols and liturgies
  • The symbolism of colours in Rasta thought
  • Festivals in RastafarI
  • Chapter 4: Rasta Talk: A linguistic and metaphysical resistance
  • Concerning word change: The suffix ‘-ism’
  • RastafarI versus Rastafarian-ism: An ethical outlook
  • Changing the meaning of words into the divinity: Who is Ras Tafari?
  • The magic ring or circle of Solomon and the divine mystery of the word Abracadabra
  • Defining Rasta language (Rasta Talk)
  • The speech of RastafarI
  • Rethinking the phrase ‘blackheart men versus white men’
  • The Rasta lexicon or Rasta Talk
  • Chapter 5: Afrocentricity in RastafarI: The origins of the RastafarI movement
  • Changing the context in Rasta Livity
  • Afrocentric theory in Rasta attitudes and behaviour
  • Why Africa? Rastafarian roots and Livity
  • Garvey’s legacy in the RastafarI movement
  • RastafarI consciousness (autocoscienza): Negritude
  • Afrocentricity in dreadlocks
  • Charismatic leaders in RastafarI
  • Chapter 6: Relocating Xaymaca: Cultural stereotypes in confrontation
  • The first forms of domination in Jamaica
  • The earliest phenomena of resistance in Jamaica
  • The first charismatic woman of the Caribbean: Nanny and the liberation movement – The ‘other’ world
  • RastafarI and marronage
  • Emancipation and oppression: A redefinition of the human condition
  • Towards a postcolonial discourse and a redefinition of the oppressed subjects
  • RastafarI versus western hegemony
  • Chapter 7: A woman in RastafarI: Liberation and ethnic-religious creativity
  • The origins of the name of Sheba
  • A pluralistic portrait of a woman: The daughter of Lilith and Isis
  • The Queen of Sheba versus RastafarI patriarchy
  • The Queen of Sheba and the Kebra Nagast
  • The Queen of Sheba’s legacy in RastafarI
  • The image of the Queen of Sheba: Is she ‘black’?
  • Woman’s spirit movement in RastafarI
  • Chapter 8: The Bible and the Ethiopian literary sources
  • The Kebra Nagast and Rastas
  • The contents of the Kebra Nagast
  • The Fetha Nagast and Rastas
  • The Lefâfa Sedek and the Book of Enoch
  • The Rasta Bible (the Holy Piby)
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Sacred Texts
  • General Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

| vii →


This work would never have seen the light of day if it were not for my fateful meeting with two of my supervisors at Birmingham, who left an indelible impression on me. They opened a whole world to me and gave me the freedom to intellectually roam in it. They were Professor Rajah Sugitarajah (now Emeritus) and Dr Garnet A. Parris, who later edited my work for publication. I would like to acknowledge their abiding influence on my academic career and their continued friendship.

I wish to acknowledge the encouragement of my family in Italy, and to thank them for their support in the pursuit of my interests, even though this meant leaving my home country. Many others, such as Dr George D. Chryssides, Mary Ghali and Richard Gidwaney, have helped along the way and I am grateful for their companionship on the journey. I hope that my contribution to this movement as an Italian woman will be appreciated, and that Rasta women will be able to find their own voice, rather than being given one.

| 1 →


“… It is very interesting how some things come together in life to get a project of the ground. In my case, a family member married a Caribbean woman”. I made a lot of friends in the migrant communities in Italy while teaching them Italian and I developed an interest in Ethiopia and all things African. Some years later I went to Jamaica as part of my quest and developed a love for the island and its people and the Rasta movement. I decided in Italy to pursue this interest as a feminist, but I found little opportunity as most of the writings were in English. I then decided that I would come to the UK and pursue my interest, but first I had to find a recognized way of starting English, enough to study in it to a doctoral level. I managed to do such a course at Birmingham University.

When that step was completed I had to find a tutor to assist me in my quest. I found two tutors, a Professor at Birmingham who taught me about postcolonial theology and at the same time introduced me to a doctor in the Department who became my supervisor for my thesis.

First, he helped me think the idea through and then I passed the introductory essay that was an indication of my ability to study at this level. However, what was important at that time was that Dr Parris was involved in a fifteen-month initiative to get Rastas in the West Midlands working together and the University provided a neutral place for different houses to meet. This gave me opportunities to observe and be involved in celebratory events and seminars with the Rastas for a lengthy period. In the end, things boiled down to their connection to the Ethiopian Church, all things Ethiopian and the place of women in the movement. Dr Parris encouraged me to get involved in his work with Rastafarians and also introduced me to the Rasta poet and author from Jamaica, Yasus Afari. All these people and their experiences helped me to implement this project.

The first connection that was helpful to make between Rastas and the Ethiopian Church was the Monophysite doctrine which helped me ← 1 | 2 → to understand their ability to recognize the nature of Haile Selassie I. To understand this doctrinal link I had to place Ethiopian Orthodox beliefs within the context of the Eastern Orthodox Church and understand the importance of the Councils of Nicea and Chalcedon in formulating the foundational beliefs of the Church. Then, the various written works that were common to Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity followed as they are also embraced within the Rasta movement. I was able to ensure that my perspective as an Italian feminist would challenge the role of women in Rastafarianism and thus the importance of autocoscienzia. This contradiction in the life of the movement with respect to women is highlighted in their celebration of the lives of Sheba, Empress Mennen and Nanny. This weaving of the Rasta story and its link with Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity is important to understand its umbilical link to Africa and particularly Ethiopia is important in this work, yet my abiding concern is that its women must develop their own roles and voices to enable the movement to be truly revolutionary.

| 3 →


Interpreting RastafarI1 identity

On 2 November 1930, in the ancient city of Addis Ababa in the country of Ethiopia, a man named Tafari Makonnen was crowned emperor. That coronation sent a theological shockwave through a rising pan-African consciousness movement a world away in the Caribbean.2

Although RastafarI is often mentioned in African-Caribbean studies in relation to reggae music and the reggae lifestyle, it only entered into the religious discourse of the West towards the end of the twenty-first century. Scholars of world religions have seldom discussed why RastafarI has remained largely unknown in Western academia, and has even been ignored by Africanists. One of the reasons for this marginalization may perhaps be associated with the postcolonial inclination of RastafarI to criticize the West (Babylon), and therefore RastafarI has tended to be regarded from a scholarly point of view as a dysfunctional phenomenon. RastafarI established its alternative cultural and religious link with, and gave voice to, ← 3 | 4 → Africa, particularly, Ethiopia and Eastern Christianity. In the history of religions, Ethiopia appears as one of the most diverse African countries, with a varied interaction of cultures, faiths and languages, and with Judaic, Islamic and pre-Christian elements, due in part to the influences of its neighbours. Ethiopian traditions have played a pivotal role in the postcolonial development of myths and rituals in RastafarI. For RastafarI, Ethiopian Christianity indeed, existed and stood firm outside the European Christian canon, and its peculiarity is reflected in the doctrine known as monophysitism (the unity between the Father and Son, which is characteristic of Eastern Christianity as a whole). RastafarI borrows its definition of God and its beliefs from Ethiopian Christian canons.

Much has changed, however, since the appearance in the USA in recent decades of various publications on RastafarI. Most of the writings focus on anthropology and sociology, which has the aim of analysing RastafarI as a social and political movement within a Western context. It remains the case that the theology of RastafarI is a complex phenomenon which needs both sociological and religious analysis. The goal of increasing the understanding of African and Caribbean religions involves direct cultural interaction in order to establish reliable knowledge of such minority religions. This direct contact is also a necessary premise for university teaching and research. Ethiopian Christianity has often been neglected in scholarly circles for its incapacity to build up strong relations with the West, but in a multicultural context it can offer a contribution to the development of equality in a pluralistic religious world.

This work emerges from research activity in recent years in the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham concerning the analysis of the cultural and religious relationships between Ethiopian Christianity and RastafarI. The aim of the work has been to form a bridge between two different but complementary minority ethnic cultures in the context of world religion, and to produce an original study by engaging with comparative, feminist, critical and post-colonialist approaches in the field of African minority religious studies.← 4 | 5 →

The RastafarI phenomenon

At the beginning of the twentieth century RastafarI originated as a way of life in the suburban areas of Kingston, Jamaica, and then progressively expanded as a trans-cultural and religious phenomenon, which today amounts to more than one million adherents and sympathizers. RastafarI emerged as a liberative3 and post-colonial movement for oppressed people who faced the effects of European colonialism in the Americas and Africa. RastafarI is a group of people (‘Others’) who are critical of theories propounding the superiority of Western culture and power. Rastas challenge colonial contexts (pro-Western Christianity and culture).

RastafarI is a complex phenomenon which cannot be easily examined using conventional methodologies and analytical models. RastafarI is often recognized as a messianic and millenarian movement of Third World protest. As a result, the RastafarI community has been labelled as an ‘escapist movement’,4 a ‘political cult’,5 a ‘messianic movement’,6 a ← 5 | 6 → ‘millenarian movement’,7 and a ‘politico-religious protest movement’.8 It is also defined by social sciences, such as anthropology and ethnography, as a folk religion occurring in ‘traditional societies’ (known also as primitive, illiterate, pre-industrial, tribal and ‘poor’ nations, communities and/or traditions, in contradistinction to ethnocentric, capitalist and urbanized societies).9 In a broad sense, the term ‘traditional societies’ is a secular term which is associated with indigenous religions, and also with subcultures which have inherited a variety of spiritual forces and magical practices from their ancestors. RastafarI thus seems to have incorporated the archetypical myths, symbols and rituals of its African ancestors in order to glorify its African past and to define its identity.

Behind all these provisional and hypothetical investigations, what does ‘RastafarI’ mean in itself? The word ‘RastafarI’ is from two roots. It is formed from the word ‘Ras’ (the Ethiopian royal name) which means ‘duke’ or ‘head’, and ‘Tafari’ (a baptismal name), which means ‘who inspires fear’. So, ‘RastafarI’ became a distinctive word which reveals first a belief in one being (Jah, God), and then the political nature of this god as an ← 6 | 7 → African super-leader. The people who belong to the RastafarI community, known as Rastafarians or Rastas, are followers of Emperor Haile Selassie I (‘Power of the Trinity’) of Ethiopia (1892–1975). Historically, the king of Ethiopia was the Negus Negasta (King of Kings, originating with King Solomon) who took control of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie is now recognized as one of the most important of the African leaders who gave impetus to the Pan-African movements.10 ← 7 | 8 →

How in the twentieth century could the Ethiopian Christian emperor Ras Tafari become a new incarnation of Jesus Christ (a black Christ or avatar for Africans) in the Caribbean? For the RastafarI movement, Haile Selassie is the Messiah who returned as the incarnate Logos (the One Being) in the persona of His Imperial Majesty (HIM) Haile Selassie I to save all Africans from their long exile (slavery) caused by colonialism (‘western European imperialism’).11 RastafarI looks critically at the misdeeds and atrocities of the past, and attempts, as a form of resistance to rectify these, and in the process aims to give dignity, and self-worth and freedom to a subjugated people. RastafarI is born thus as a social and dynamic movement with a multiplicity of faith positions (from paganism, the Nicene Creed, Ethiopianism, Garveyite ideas, to Afrocentric Christianity)12 in reaction to subjugation by the colonial and missionary presence in the New World, from Christopher Columbus onwards, which was the cause of the genocide of millions of the indigenous population, both original Arawaks and Caribs in the Caribbean and later the Africans who came as slaves to the Caribbean. In doing so, RastafarI posits and locates its own Afrocentric ideology, which on the one hand absorbs some features of Ethiopian Christianity, and on the other hand develops a new spirituality (livity). As a result, RastafarI combines Ethiopian Christianity with Caribbean indigenous religions such as Obeah, and other tribal minorities. In this way RastafarI expands a new theology of liberation within the Jamaican context. In this sense, RastafarI has expressed its desire and search for the definition of a true religion and God. Thus RastafarI, like any other Third World indigenous religion, makes visible in the most concrete way ← 8 | 9 → its tenacious resistance, in the form of Haile Selassie I (the African living God), to Western hegemony in the defeat of Italy after Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935.

The nature of RastafarI

RastafarI is not easy to define. It has sometimes been called Rastafarianism, but this word has a pejorative tone and is inappropriate to Rastas. RastafarI has a more sophisticated meaning which, in theological discourse, we have never considered. Thanks to their Ethiopian legacy – through the Monophysite doctrine – Rastas make, represent and portray their livity (spirituality), and talk of and interpret God. The metaphysical concept of monophysitism relates to the figure of Haile Selassie I, the Second Messiah. Equally, RastafarI extends and amplifies the liturgies, spiritualities and symbolisms of Ethiopian Christianity and culture.

Thus what transpires in RastafarI is the interconnectivity with the Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, a Church of non-western origins.13 The purpose of this analysis, which is essentially rooted in a comparative study, is to trace the link back to its ancient origins, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, and the related pagan and Judaic traditions. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is thus for Rastas the home of one of the most important traditional African Christian theologies, and it has restored the movement to its original vision as a liberating and independent force. What this volume tries to do, as a final sociological concern, is to revise and deepen our understanding of how subordinated people achieve their resistance to the dominant, hegemonic ideologies of the West, or Babylon. There are still no scholarly works which have attempted to make direct comparisons between the RastafarI movement and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo ← 9 | 10 → Church. However, we can find cultural and historical links between the RastafarI movement and Ethiopian Tewahedo Christianity. For example, Emperor Haile Selassie I believed that Ethiopians are the descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.14 Therefore the major focus of this work is to show how Rastas regard their movement, arrive at their beliefs (the way in which they see and communicate with the divine), and also interpret or recount their myths. All Rastas know their ‘myths’ and beliefs come from Ethiopia.


VIII, 260
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (March)
Queen of Sheba Sheba Rasta Xaymaca Ethiopia
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. VIII, 260 pp., 7 coloured ill., 5 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Marzia A. Coltri (Author)

Marzia Anna Coltri, a native of Verona, Italy, is lecturer in Christianity at Christ College London through Canterbury Christ Church University. She holds a Laurea Magistrale in Philosophy and in 2012 received a PhD in minority African religions from the School of Philosophy, Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, UK. Her areas of expertise are African Theology, Feminist-Womanist Theology and Critical Philosophy. She is part of the Scientific Committee of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (F.O.B.) and she is a member of the British Association for the Study of Religion (B.A.S.R.).


Title: Beyond RastafarI
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276 pages