Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Ghana: Our Stories /Our History: The Golden Stool of Ashanti

At that time Dankyera was chief among the Akan States that lie in the dense jungle of West Africa in the bend of the great rivers, between the haunted lakes and toppling crags, country of elephants and antelope, of porcupine and leopard, fertile land when the jungle is cleared, and with streams where the sand is thick with gold dust.

The king of Dankyera was called Ntim Gyakari. He had a clansman who was wise in all the mysteries of the gods, but the time came when he had to flee to a far of place, where he became ever closer to the gods. His name was Okomfo Anokye and he became the greatest of priests and prophets. Above all he came near to the supreme God of the sky, Onyame, who is so great and so hard to understand or think about that no image is made of him, no sacrifice is made to him, who is beyond the thoughts and doings of ordinary people, who instead must intercede with his sons, the lesser gods.

Yet the supreme God, Onyame, had so far deigned to interest himself in the affairs of mankind as to show favour to the Ashanti people. For at the time Kumasi, the great town of the Ashanti, was under the rule of Dankyera and every year the king of Dankyera sent for his tribute, and this was a brass pan filled with gold dust, and also the favourite wife and favourite son of every Ashanti chief. And so great was their fear of the tyrant Ntim Gyakari that this tribute was not refused.

There had been four kings of Ashanti, and the king who ruled now, but always under Dankyera was Osei Tutu. He was a man of great beauty and royal appearance, and as a lad he had been shield-bearer to the king of Dankyera. It was here that he might the wise Okomfo Anokye, who, foretelling the future, helped him in all his doings. For the sister’s daughter of the King of Dankyera loved him, and she it was whose son became heir to the throne.

When this was found out, Osei Tutu had to flee from Dankyera; he went to another court, that of the King of Akwamu, which was then also a strong kingdom, so that in the end he knew much of what lay in the hearts of these kings and their counsellors. And Okomfo Anokye, ever growing wiser in the affairs of prophecy and in the secrets of the gods, watched this young man and was glad when he was chosen from among the old Kings of Ashanti’s nephews-for the succession always lay with the sister’s line-to be the new king.

Now, when he came to the throne, it was clear to Osei Tutu that there was scheming against him in the capital of Dankyera. Ntim Gyakari was jealous of him and wished to destroy him and his people. Secret messengers came and went through the forest paths, quietly, bringing news. It became clear to Osei Tutu that he must prepare for war. He spoke of this, guardedly to his uncles and to the Queen other, Manu, who sat on his left hand, saying little but hearing all. She said to him: ‘There is a wise man, who has helped you before. He will know the minds of the gods on this.’

And so thought Osei Tutu, and he sent word to Okomfo Anokye. ‘Come’! said the messenger who was his mouth and who carried a golden staff whose head was a beast of the forest. ‘Come if the gods allow you.’

Manu the Queen mother knew he would come to the king whom he loved and honoured. ‘ We will make ready for him,’ she said. So she sent out for the plants and animals which will be pleasing to the Gods, and she and her women busied themselves with the necessary rites. Then the king sent out messengers, summoning his people to Kumasi, for he knew in his mind that Okomfo Anokye would in some way have prepared for him a great thing against his enemies.

So for many days thousands of men and women of the Ashanti nation came to Kumasi, all wearing beads and woven or printed cloths and ornaments of gold and copper and brass. Some wore the well prepared skins of forest beasts; some wore kilts of palm leaf fibre; many brought food and drink, driving in sheep and goats or carrying sacks of meal and roots, or great calabashes full of palm wine, and gave them to the king, who was able in this way to feed all that multitude. The lesser chiefs came with their queen mothers, the wise and gentle, who might be delicately marked with fine blue tattooing so that they were perpetually veiled. The drums sounded all day and all night; dancers danced and the dust rose between the thick clay walls of the houses of Kumasi, splendidly decorated with raised patterns, and in the great open space where King Osei Tutu sat with counsellors and drummers and horn blowers, his executioners and his speakers, who when he wished to speak to the people, made themselves his voices.

They carried staves of gold and ivory, splendidly carved into animals and fruits and symbols. But the King Osei Tutu wore the most wonderful golden ornaments; on his fingers were many weighty rings, each made into some figure about which there was a story or saying. His wrists were weighted down by nobbled gold bracelets, so that he must support his hands on the shoulders of his servants. Round his head was a circlet of pure gold, and his sandals were heavy with golden lumps. His chest was bare so that all could see the strength of his breathing, and round his waist was the cloth woven in thin stripes of many colours which proclaimed him as King, just as the cloths worn by his chiefs proclaimed their lineage. His mother, Manu, also wore gold, but her hair was grey and her breasts fallen, for she had borne many children. Yet without her word Osei Tutu would never have dared to come to any great decision.

Okomfo Anokye had spoken to them both, the King and Queen Mother, in the dark of night. He had spoken of a way of overcoming Dankyera, of making the the Ashanti into a great nation, ruler of all the Akan states, trading with the caravans of the north across Bornu and Kanem, and with the new white-faced strangers who were coming into southern courts near the great ocean. Okomfo Anokye had made a dazzling prophecy of riches and power. Manu had agreed first, then her son. They half-knew what was to happen.

And now Okomfo Anokye was speaking to the Supreme Being, shouting, imploring. The blood of sacrifice steamed up, the drums quickened and quickened. A black cloud seemed to gather; first a few saw it, then more, then all. It was blacker than a thunder cloud, but thunder rumblings came from it. And there came a thick white dust, and then falling, slowly, slowly, turning like a seed, came the stool, with its base sending out three branches to support the shaped top. It glinted with gold, yet it was not entirely golden; below the gold it was carved wood. It fell more and more slowly and at last it came to rest upon Osei Tutu’s knees.

The King was a brave man; had he not been bravest of the Ashanti he would not have been the Chosen One. But now he shook a little and he could not put out one hand to touch the thing which had come from deep heaven. He had not foreseen that it would be like this. But Okomfo Anokye , himself also shaking with effort, had made ready elephant hides and cloths and laid them on the ground. He took the golden stool from the king, and set it on the cloths. Then he chose an albino with white skin, pale eyes and reddish hair and sat him down on the stool. He touched this man on the head and it is said that his body disappeared utterly. His soul went into the Golden Stool, in great honour. And ever since that time, no albino has been put to death in Ashanti.

Then Okomfo Anokye spoke aloud to the King and to all the people, saying that now the stool had been given a soul, and that now it had itself become the soul of the Ashanti nation and all their power was bound up with it. So the King and Queen Mother, and each of the chiefs and his queen mother, gave hairs from their bodies and parings from the nails from their forefinger, so that their own souls should become one with this great soul. These were powdered and mixed with water and many other herbs and barks, and some was poured over the stool and some was drunk. And it became clear that all the welfare of the people was in this stool, and if it were ever to be captured or destroyed so also would the Ashanti nation perish.

Nor could any mortal man, not even the King of Kumasi, sit on this stool. In dire need the King must seat himself on his own royal stool, resting his arms on the Golden Stool. ‘And bells you must make,’ said Okomfo Anokye, the prophet and priest. ‘Two of gold and two of brass, and they must hang on the stool. Other things also will hang on it as time goes by. And it must have its own attendants and its own place, where it is greater than any king.’

Now soon enough the Golden Stool showed its power. For Ntim Gyakari, the king of Dankyera, sent his envoy for the tribute. And the envoy came laughing. But no sooner did he come to the first of the chiefs, before ever he had made his way to the King at Kumasi , then this man, the Chief of Juaben, felt the new soul of Ashanti stirring within him, so that he rose up and struck down the envoy from Dankyera.

Every other chief came and touched the blood of the envoy with his finger and swore to fight Dankyera and free the Ashanti nation. Then Osei Tutu set the talking drums to call up the armies and all came in good heart and, carrying the golden stool with them, totally defeated Dankyera. It is said that a hundred thousand of the Dankyera were killed that day and the days that followed, and their country was so plundered and destroyed that it never again became a great power or a threat to Ashanti or the other kingdoms. And further it is said the King Ntim Gyakari was found by the victorious army sitting bound with golden fetters and playing a game on the worri board with his favourite wife. Such was the power the Golden Stool and the benevolence of the great God Onyame towards the Ashanti people that he did not even look up, so at once the two were beheaded and the golden fetters were fastened to the central support of the Golden Stool.

Other kings of Ashanti also made golden ornaments and put them onto the stool, but today it is hidden and there are those who say it is all a story. But this is the truth. For the courage and strength of a nation is a real thing, though it cannot be seen. And every Ashanti knows that somehow, in some way, the Golden Stool has gathered up and strengthened all that is best and the finest out of the past, and if it is kept safe. Will give it back to the men and women of today.

There are several versions of story of the Golden Stool, but this is the usually accepted one. The stool of a West Coast chief is likely to have a soul of its own. It is a scared symbol as well as a royal one.

 

Credit: The above text is taken from ‘African Heroes’ by Naomi Mitchison / Dated:1968

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