The Rastafari

by Maria Baptist

Buried Cities and Lost Tribes Spring 1997


The Rastafarian movement gave first appeared in the early 1930s. Rastafarians were followers of Marcus Garvey who worshiped the Almighty in the person of Haile Selasssie. Rastafarians worship Haile Selassie, former emperor of Ethiopia, under his precoronation name Ras Tafari. They consider the former Ethiopian emperor to have been a divine being, the Messiah, and the champion of the black race. Rastafarians consider themselves to be the ancient Hebrews who were exiled in Babylon. Rastafarian lifestyle includes dietary rules, often vegetarianism, the wearing of uncombed locks and beards, and the smoking of ganja.

Many Rastas outlaw the combing or cutting of the hair, "citing the holy directive in Leviticus 21:15: "They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any cuttings in their flesh (White 12)". These long, thick, strands of hair are called dreadlocks. Rastas often compare their dreads to that of a lions mane, which also happens to be the symbol of Haile Selassie."Children often pull on a man's dreadlocks to make sure he is real.They are feeling the person out, making sure he/she is not a negative or weird person (McDaniel A1)".

The Rastafarians formulated a strict set of dietary and hygienic laws to accompany the religious doctrine. They shun the ingestion of alcohol, tobacco, all meat, especially pork, as well as shellfish, scalefish, snails, predatory and scavenger species of marine life, and many common seasonings like salt.In short, anything that is not "ital," a rasta term meaning pure, natural or clean, is forbidden (Chevannes 204). The rejection of the pig can be found in the importance of this animal in traditional life. The wild pig was for many years during slavery the only important source of food for the runaway slaves. Rastafari reject the pig, probably on the same basis that many of them also reject saltfish because it was one of those foods associated with slavery. For most Rastafari, the sight of a pig rummaging through garbage on the streets of the slums, or at the dumps in competition with the flies, is revolting.

Fear of contamination from the pig is extended to Rastafari fear of contamination from the dead. Rastafarians believe that they will never die as long as they remain true and faithful to Selassie. When death does come, "it is always explained away by saying that the subject had departed from the chosen path of Rastafari, had violated some divine precept, and was therefore struck by the mighty power of Jah (Selassie) (Chevannes 203)". It does not matter whether death is by accident, sickness, or by the agency of man. Rastafarians therefore do not even attend funerals.

An important contribution to Rastafarian culture is the smoking of ganja. Smoking ganja is a ritual celebration called a "duty (Chevannes 199)". Before a Rastafari sets out on a journey he performs a duty. Journeys begin with a ritual smoking and prayer in the yard of departure. The chillum pipe used in these rituals should not be called a pipe, but a cup or a chalice because Deuteronomy and other sections of the bible in speaking of sending up incense to Jah were referring to the herbs. If members of the group are smoking their own spliffs, they are put out or laid aside when the chalice is ready to be lit. One of the members prepares the herbs, cutting it up, dampening it with a few drops of water, and mixing in the tobacco from a cigarette (Rastas say the tobacco cuts down on the harshness). Caps are removed from their heads as they are about to set fire to the herbs. Everyone is silent and in prayer as the chalice is passed around counterclockwise. Journeys are taken quite seriously, if a Rasta were to stub his toe of his left foot at the start of a journey, which is a sign of bad luck, it would be enough to cause him to turn back and start again.

Rastafarian women are usually segregated from the men, particularly if they are menstruating, which Rastas regard to be an unclean state. Women's role in Rasta life is clearly a restricted one. They are child bearers, fire builders, cooks, and honored servants. They wear no make up or fragrances. They are not allowed to draw from the chillum. "Their dress must be modest,as dictated by Deuteronomy 22:5: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God. Rasta women's heads must be covered as calls for in I Corinthians 11:5-6: "For every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven. For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn, but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered (White 225)."

Like all cultures, Rastafari is a conflicting package of faith and rules. Many outsiders ridicule the groups belief that the late Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the Messiah who came to Earth to reunite Africans. That,of course, is where faith comes in, just as for many non-Rastafari there are beliefs there are stories like the loaves-and-fish or weeping statues.You believe it or you don't. Those things are pretty much besides the point, as far as most Rastafarians are concerned. They are not worried about converts as long as people hear their message, which is much more concerned with worldly ideals such as peace, justice, and freedom.


Chevannes, Barry. Rastafari: Roots and Ideology. Syracuse University Press, 1994.

McDaniel, Douglas. The Phoenix Gazette. "Indians Inspired By Reggae Beat Rasta Music Takes Root On Reservations". May 29, 1995.

White, Timothy. Catch A Fire: The Life of Bob Marley. New York: Holt, Reinhart, and Winston, 1983.

 

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