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Rastafari: Understanding Its Origins, Beliefs, and Symbolism

The Rastafari religion is one of the most unique, fascinating, and controversial religions out there. It’s fairly new as it was created as early as the 1930s. It’s also a religion that many have heard of but not many actually understand.

The majority of people are aware of the aesthetics of the Rastafari religion as they’ve seen glimpses of it on TV and on other pop-culture media. However, when you delve below the surface of Rastafarianism, you can find some shocking aspects and the symptoms of Jamaica’s troubled past.

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Here’s a look at the basics of the Rastafari religion and its core tenets.

Ras Tafari – A Unique Jamaican Amalgam of Religious And Political Views

Haile Selassie
Haile Selassie (Tafari Makonnen). PD.

Rastafari has its origins in the philosophy of the political activist Marcus Garvey, born in Jamaica in 1887. He advocated for the self-empowerment of black people. He encouraged black people to return to Africa and to look towards Africa ‘when a black king shall be crowned”.

This prophecy came to pass with the crowning of Ras Tafari Makonnen who ruled Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974, and after whom the religion is named.

After his coronation as Emperor of the country, Ras Tafari accepted the royal name of Haile Selassie I, but his pre-coronation name was immortalized by the inception of the Rastafari religion in Jamaica.

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But what does the ruler of Ethiopia have to do with a religion on an island on the other side of the Atlantic ocean?

To understand that we’ll need to look at what the early Rastafarians actually believed.

Rastafari and Protestant Christianity

The Rastafari religion is a mixture of Protestant Christianity, mysticism, and a pan-African political consciousness and nationalism. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not contained exclusively to Jamaica, as the religion had followers all around the globe. Jamaica was, however, the largest hub of Rastafarians.

The Rastafari religion drew many of its basics from the Old Testament that was taught to the African slaves centuries before the religion’s inception. The Rastafarians believe that they “overstand” (meaning “understand” in the Jamaican lingo) the true meaning of the Exodus story from the Old Testament.

According to their “overstanding”, the slavery of the African people is a great test by Jah (God) and the Americas are “Babylon” to which the African people have been exiled. They believed that all the “downpression” (“oppression”), racial abuse, and discrimination the African people faced is a test by Jah.

The early Rastafarians believed that one day there would be an Exodus from this American Babylon back to Africa and more specifically to Ethiopia or “Zion”.

According to Rastafari, Ethiopia was the main site of dynastic power in Africa and was the country from which all Africans originated. The fact that Ethiopia is located in Eastern Africa and is therefore both as far away from America as possible, as well as closer to the Middle East was also probably not coincidental.

This envisioned and imminent return to Ethiopia was viewed as the “great repatriation” and the main goal of the Rastafari movement.

This is why most Rastas viewed Ras Tafari or His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I as the Second Coming of Christ who had returned to redeem all African people.

Rastafari “Livity” – The Principle of a Balanced Lifestyle

In addition to their religious beliefs, the Rastas also believed in the lifestyle of “livity”. According to this, the Rastas were meant to wear their long hair in its uncombed and natural state. Livity also indicated that the Rastas should dress in green, red, black, and gold colors as those symbolize herbs, blood, Africanness, and royalty, in that order.

The Rastas also believed in eating “I-tal” i.e. a natural and vegetarian diet. They avoid many foods that are noted as prohibited in Leviticus, such as pork and crustaceans.

Many of the Rastafari religious rituals included prayer services as well as the smoking of ganja or marijuana which was supposed to help achieve better “itation” – meditation with Jah. Their rituals also often included “bingis” which were all-night drumming ceremonies.

Reggae music also famously sprung from the Rastafari movement and was popularized by Bob Marley.

The Lion of Judah in Rastafari Symbolism

Rastafari flag

In the Rastafari religion, the Lion of Judah is a crucial symbol, deeply linked with Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, revered by Rastafarians as the divine figure on Earth. Stemming from biblical origins, the symbol represents the Israelite tribe of Judah. However, its meaning broadens within the Rastafari context as Selassie, originally known as Ras Tafari Makonnen, traces his lineage back to the biblical King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, thus linking him to the Tribe of Judah. Consequently, Selassie is known as the “Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah,” which forms part of his full coronation name.

The Lion of Judah, often featured in Rastafari art, flags, and regalia, symbolizes the strength, majesty, and resilience of Africa and its people. It underscores the faith’s focus on African empowerment and redemption, and validates Haile Selassie’s divine status. This symbol provides Rastafarians a sense of pride and connection to a royal heritage, key aspects of their belief system. Interpretations of the Lion of Judah can vary among Rastafarians, but it remains a potent symbol of African identity, resistance against oppression, and spiritual devotion.

Early Teachings of Rastafarianism

As the Rastafari religion is practiced across the world, there is no single creed or dogma on how it is supposed to be practiced. Nevertheless, many of the early rituals and beliefs were rather similar and were unified in their pan-African patriotism and anti-White sentiment.

A big part of the early Rastafari religion was built on the people’s anguish over what the European settlers and slavers had done to them and were continuing to do via segregation and rampant discrimination (of course it was also characterized by a positive affirmation of African identity and heritage).

Many authors have tried to sum up the different Rastafari early teachings but the widely recognized “most accurate” summation is that of the famous Rasta preacher Leonard Howell. Accordingly, Rastafarianism encompasses the following:

  1. Anti-white sentiment.
  2. The superiority of African people/The people of Africa are God’s chosen people/The people of Africa will eventually rule the world.
  3. There should and will be revenge on white people for their wickedness and sins toward God’s chosen people./White people will one day become the servants of their former slaves.
  4. There will be negation, persecution, and humiliation of the government and all legal bodies of Jamaica.
  5. Haile Selassie I will one day lead all black people back to Africa.
  6. Emperor Haile Selassie is God, Christ reborn, and the ruler of all African people.

Haile Selassie I – The Black Messiah

Haile Selassie, or Tafari Makonnen as was his birth name, was born on July 23, 1892, in Ethiopia. He was emperor of Ethiopia between 1930 and 1974 before eventually passing away or “disappearing” on August 27, 1975.

His main accomplishments as the country’s leader were that he steered it toward modernism as well as to the political mainstream after World War II. He brought Ethiopia into the League of Nations as well as the United Nations. He also made the country’s capital Addis Ababa a significant center for the Organization of African Unity, i.e., today’s African Union. One of his first acts as the emperor was to write a new constitution and to limit the powers of the Ethiopian parliament.

A progressive leader, Ras Tafari was also the first Ethiopian ruler to ever go abroad. He visited Jerusalem, Rome, London, and Paris. His functional rule of Ethiopia also started before 1930 as he was regent of Zauditu, the daughter of the previous emperor Menilek II, since 1917.

When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Haile Selassie led the resistance personally but was forced into exile in 1936. He recaptured Addis Ababa in 1941 with both Ethiopian and British forces.

These and his many other acts as regent and emperor of Ethiopia are what led to his cult status among the pan-African people across the globe, causing them to declare him “a messiah to all Black people”.

The 6 Basic Principles of Rastafari

Over the decades, the Rastafari religion slowly started to stray from its hateful beginnings. This was a slow process that is still ongoing. A marker of this progress are the 6 basic principles of Rastafari as summed up in Leonard Barrett’s 1977 book The Rastafarians, The Dreadlocks of Jamaica.

Here we can still see quite a lot of the original loathing toward the white race but in a somewhat less aggressive manner:

  1. Haile Selassie I is the Living God.
  2. The Black person is the reincarnation of ancient Israel, who, at the hand of the White person, has been in exile in Jamaica.
  3. The White person is inferior to the Black person.
  4. Jamaica is hell; Ethiopia is heaven.
  5. The Invincible Emperor of Ethiopia is now arranging for expatriated persons of African origin to return to Ethiopia.
  6. In the near future, Blacks shall rule the world.

Modern Rastafari Beliefs

Ever since the early 70s (coinciding with Haile Selassie’s death in 1975), Rastafari beliefs began to increasingly change. One of the first major steps was Joseph Owens’ 1973 book The Rastafarians of Jamaica and his vision of a more modern Rastafari approach. His writings were later revised by Michael N. Jagessar, in his 1991 book JPIC and Rastafarians. Jagessar helped form and push an even more contemporary Rastafari belief system.

These new ideas and others like them were eventually accepted through most of the Rastafari believers. Today, most Rastafari tenants can be summed up as follows:

  1. The humanity of God and the divinity of man. This refers to the continued reverence of Haile Selassie I. Even today, he is still viewed as a living God by the Rastafarians. Like Christians, they place an emphasis on the idea of God revealing himself as a living person. Furthermore, most modern Rastafarians believe that Haile Selassie never really died. Most mention the events of 1975 as his “disappearance” and not his “death”.
  2. God is found within every man. Another similarity with Christianity is that the Rastafarians believe God makes himself known in every person’s heart. There was only ever one man who was truly and fully God, however as Jagessar puts it: There must be one man in whom he exists most eminently and completely, and that is the supreme man, Rastafari, Selassie I.
  3. God in history. The Rastafari religion makes a point to always interpret every event in history from the lens of the key Rastafari views. They interpret every historical fact as an example of God’s omnipotent workings and judgment.
  4. Salvation on earth. The Rastafarians don’t believe in a celestial or otherworldly notion of heaven. For them, Salvation is to be found on Earth, namely in Ethiopia.
  5. The supremacy of life. The Rastafarians revere all nature but put humanity on top of all nature. For them, every aspect of humanity is to be protected and preserved.
  6. Respect for nature. This concept is clearly seen in the Rastafarian food laws and their vegetarianism. Even though they emphasize the sanctity of human life, Rastafarians also respect the environment and all the flora and fauna around them.
  7. The power of speech. Rastafarians believe speech is a special and supernatural power that God gave to people. To them, speech exists to allow us to better feel the presence and power of God.
  8. Evil is corporate. To Rastafarians, sin is not just personal but also corporate. The Rastafarians believe that organizations such as the International Monetary Fund are objectively and purely evil. This belief likely stems from the view that such organizations are responsible for Jamaica’s fiscal problems. Essentially, Rastafarians view them as examples of the white man’s sins.
  9. Judgement is near. Like followers of many other religions, the Rastas believe that the day of Judgement is drawing near. It’s not clear exactly when but sooner rather than later, the Rastafari will be given their due and their repatriation will be complete back in Ethiopia.
  10. The priesthood of Rastafarians. Rastafarians believe not only that they are God’s chosen people but that their task on Earth is to promote His power, peacefulness, and divine message.

Another key piece to understanding the puzzle of contemporary Rastafarianism can be seen in Nathaniel Samuel Myrrell’s 1998 book Chanting Down Babylon. In it, he points out how the Rastafari idea of repatriation has changed over the years:

…brethren have reinterpreted the doctrine of repatriation as voluntary migration to Africa, returning to Africa culturally and symbolically, or rejecting Western values and preserving African roots and black pride.

Wrapping Up

As a fairly recent movement, Rastafari has grown and garnered much attention. While it remains somewhat controversial, the religion has changed and some of its beliefs have eroded over time. While some Rastafarians still hold the belief that white people are inferior to black people and that in the future, blacks will rule the world, most believers focus on equality, peace, love, and multi-racialism.

 To learn about Rastafari symbols, check out our article here.

Affiliate Disclosures

Yordan Zhelyazkov
Yordan Zhelyazkov

Yordan Zhelyazkov is a published fantasy author and an experienced copywriter. While he has degrees in both Creative Writing and Marketing, much of his research and work are focused on history and mythology. He’s been working in the field for years and has amassed a great deal of knowledge on Norse, Greek, Egyptian, Mesoamerican, Japanese mythology, and others.