Wednesday, February 28, 2024
CommentaryThe Hatata Inquiries

The Hatata Inquiries

Ethiopian intellectual culture surpasses common assumptions, even among scholars who have extensively explored various aspects of Ethiopian society. The cultural and educational institutions are incredibly diverse and comprehensive, leaving those who haven’t attended them unaware of the myriad subjects taught. While these schools are often referred to as priestly, church, or monastic institutions, not all attendees become part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Moreover, it only takes a few years of study to become a priest, earning them the nickname “one-eyed” (and-ayna) due to their focus on a single specialization offered by these institutions.

Many graduates become teachers, poets, painters, singers of religious hymns, or a combination of these skills. Some even pursue calligraphy, mastering the art of writing on parchment and acquiring the knowledge of preparing skins, pens, and ink associated with this craft. However, many individuals feel that such activities offer limited financial prospects, leading them to engage in practices that lie on the fringes or outside the boundaries of what the church deems acceptable within their religious framework.

Consequently, a significant number of church followers blend their Orthodox beliefs with pre-Christian concepts, providing an outlet for church-educated individuals, predominantly men, to cater to people’s desire for more tangible experiences beyond the church’s teachings.

This amalgamation often involves superficial Christian beliefs intertwined with a healthy dose of magic. Consequently, church-educated men employ their skills to imbue a slightly religious touch into people’s yearning for something concrete to anchor their faith. This has led to the production of magic scrolls, which feature religious-sounding words alongside magical illustrations—considered “more powerful than the words,” as I was informed.

Many individuals purchase and wear these scrolls on their bodies, with even students opting for them to err on the side of caution, according to educated sources. Following the prohibition of such “heathen practices” by a zealous Christian emperor, the creators of these scrolls began introducing pagan variants with a religious preface: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, One God.” These scrolls continue to thrive today, and I, myself, have acquired a considerable number of them.

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However, their effectiveness is said to be limited to the person for whom they are specifically written, rendering them ineffective for those who purchase “used” scrolls. Siena-Antonia de Ménonville, a French (originally Swiss) scholar, has extensively interviewed and written about the producers of these “half-Christian” or outright pagan magic scrolls, as well as other non-Christian texts and magical artifacts believed to aid in acquiring wealth, status, love, or seeking revenge against perceived rivals or enemies.

This is a prevalent aspect of Ethiopian spirituality. The 17th century was a period marked by turmoil in Ethiopia. Following the invasion by Muslims under the reign of Emperor Lebna-Dengel (1508-1540), who sought assistance from Portugal, the Muslims were ultimately defeated and expelled from most of Ethiopia. However, the Portuguese and other Catholics remained, exerting a dominant influence on the religious landscape. They employed force in their efforts to convert Ethiopia to Catholicism.

While some willingly embraced the new faith, others staunchly resisted. Confusion prevailed among certain individuals, while others developed their own beliefs or philosophies. Oriental ideas were not unfamiliar in Ethiopia, and many struggled to take a definitive stance. Some rejected all traditional religious notions, while others adopted semi-religious or pagan practices, as previously mentioned. A few individuals rejected the teachings and ideologies propagated by traditional Ethiopian scholars and thinkers, choosing instead to forge their own systems of thought.

One such person was Zara Yaqob, hailing from Aksum in the northern region of Tigray. He encountered opposition to his critical ideas early on and felt unsafe in the environment where he had been educated and had initially begun teaching. Consequently, in order to ensure his safety, he fled south.

For many years, he resided in a cave, where he developed his rationalistic ideas in direct opposition to the teachings he had received throughout his time in religious institutions. He lost his Christian faith and placed his trust solely in the conclusions drawn from his rational deliberations. After some time, he found employment with a prosperous landowner who offered him a safe haven to further develop his ideas. The landowner had a son named Walda Heywat, who became an enthusiastic disciple of Zara Yaqob.

It was Walda Heywat who persuaded Zara Yacob to commit his ideas to writing, while also recording his own practical interpretations derived from Zara Yaqob’s philosophy.

Together, these two books or “inquiries” (hatata in Geez) introduced something profoundly groundbreaking to Ethiopia and, in many aspects, to the wider world. Due to their divergence from Orthodox Church teachings, their writings circulated in only a limited number of copies among Ethiopians who dared to study and, perhaps, share such perspectives.

In the centuries following their creation, the two treatises or inquiries penned by Zara Yaqob and Walda Heywat garnered attention when Italian Catholic priest Giusto da Urbino obtained or commissioned copies of the texts. He later sent them to France, where they caused a stir after initially lying unnoticed in a library for half a century.

However, an Italian scholar named Conti Rossini, who had developed a strong admiration for Mussolini and embraced Fascist ideology, embarked on a painstaking and biased effort to discredit the authenticity of the inquiries. Rossini argued that they were forgeries created by Giusto da Urbino, despite the priest’s limited study of Amharic and even less exposure to Geez, the language in which the treatises were written.

Rossini’s claims were implausible, as it would have been humanly impossible for Giusto da Urbino to achieve fluency in Geez within such a short period, even with the assistance of an Ethiopian scribe. Sadly, many scholars, who should have known better, uncritically accepted Rossini’s baseless assertions. The controversy stirred by Rossini’s claims continues to persist, although it is nonsensical and devoid of evidence.

Several Orthodox Ethiopian scholars, who may not necessarily share the ideas presented in the Hatatas, have made significant scholarly contributions to affirm the Ethiopian authorship of the inquiries.

Notable figures such as Alemayyehu Moges, Getatchew Haile, and the Canadian-Catholic-turned-Ethiopian Claude Sumner have further developed these arguments, successfully refuting the objections raised against Ethiopian authorship. Numerous scholars with a deep understanding of Ethiopia have joined in this effort, bolstering the case and demonstrating that the arguments against Ethiopian authorship lack substance. Nonetheless, occasional objections still arise from time to time.

Now, a new translation of the Hatatas has emerged, distinct from previous versions. This translation draws on two slightly different versions of the inquiries, which do not significantly alter the ideas or concepts contained within the Hatatas that we are familiar with. However, the translation itself is meticulous and accurate, deserving recognition as a final and authoritative rendition. Ralph Lee and Wendy Belcher undertook this translation, with the assistance of several individuals knowledgeable in the Geez language, including Ethiopians themselves.

Prior to the publication of the translations, Wendy Belcher provides a comprehensive introduction that meticulously examines and refutes all objections raised against Ethiopian authorship of the Hatatas. This critical scholarly investigation is the most thorough to date, effectively addressing and dismantling the arguments put forth against Ethiopian authorship. The level of detail and analysis presented in Belcher’s work is exceptional and leaves little room for further substantiation of the insubstantial objections.

The prevailing Eurocentric perspective on the history of philosophy has often portrayed Greece as the birthplace of modern philosophy, with subsequent elaboration, development, and maturation occurring predominantly in Europe over the past few centuries. Many introductory courses in the history of philosophy perpetuate this biased narrative and many are led to believe just that.

However, the book begins with a significant and valuable preface by Dag Herbjørnsrud, a Norwegian philosopher who has made significant contributions in challenging this common and regrettable shortsightedness.

Herbjørnsrud’s preface highlights the international development of philosophy and the contributions made by African and Asian philosophers, whose ideas often predate or run parallel to European contributions. It is essential to recognize ourselves as members of universal humankind when considering the evolution of philosophical ideas.

This book is a valuable resource that should be studied by those interested in the history of philosophy. It aids us in broadening our perspectives beyond the limitations we have become accustomed to, recognizing that Europeans are not the center of the world but rather participants in the broader human experience. All individuals can mutually inspire and enrich one another’s ideas and attempts to understand ourselves.

(Reidulf Molvaer, is an author of several books on Ethiopia. He can be reached at:  [email protected])

Contributed by Reidulf Molvaer

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Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.


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