Apotropaic Ethiopia: Early Examples of Spiritual Protection from Christian Africa

Vincent Reed a specialist in wood restoration and conservation travelled to Ethiopia in Africa, as a member of an official ICOMOS (The International Council on Monuments and Sites) delegation, to visit the ancient Christian Churches and investigate their structure, fabric and historic features, as well as the historic timbers used in their construction, design and decoration.

Whilst exploring these ancient structures, Vincent was amazed at the age of the buildings and their surviving stone, timber, carved and painted attributes.

As well as looking at the many aspects of these religious buildings, Vincent noticed and photographed many different apotropaic or spiritual protection marks and devices. He knew from the buildings he had worked on in the United Kingdom, where he had come across many examples of witch marks, that a lot of these protection marks and devices, possibly outdated those we see evidence of in the UK today.

Vincent considered the historic ramifications of what he had identified, and how far back in time some of these protective symbols might extend, and even the connotation that some of these symbols, often found in UK and European medieval churches, could possibly predate Christianity.

Ethiopian Christianity and its denomination as the ‘Ethiopian Orthodox Church’ came to the ancient African nation from Egypt and its Coptic Church. It is one of the oldest forms of Christianity in the world. Ethiopia was also the first country to accept Islam as a religion. Prophet Muhammad, his family and followers, sheltered in Ethiopia while they were being persecuted by the Arabians. The country also had a Jewish queen in the 10th century, and is home to the Black Jews, who claim they are a lost tribe of Israel and descendants of Solomon.

We will also have heard about Ethiopia’s most famous queen, the Queen of Sheba, who is recorded within the Old Testament as visiting Jerusalem, and meeting King Solomon, who it is said, fathered a child with her, who became King Menelik, the first Emperor of the Ethiopian Empire, and the beginning of its line of Emperors, who all claimed they were descended from Sheba and Solomon. The country itself is one of just a few, mentioned many times in the Old Testament.

Ethiopia also claims that the Ark of the Covenant, which houses the Ten Commandments, given to Moses by God, is housed in a church in Aksum.

Vincent’s observations suggest a possible link between Christian Africa, the Holy Land and Europe. If these similar and same protective symbols exist in Ethiopia, on buildings and their parts, of which some date to the early medieval period, then we must ask how have they travelled so far?

Did Europe copy these practices from their exploits in the medieval Crusades, bringing back their forms and usage, and was that link forgotten over time? And if so, does that mean that many of these protective symbols had existed in the Holy Land and other early Christian centres, for them only to be destroyed in some cases due to the aftermath of the Crusades, with only the remotest reaches of countries like Ethiopia, having them survive the world’s timeless conflicts, wars and religious iconoclasts?

Undoubtedly some of the designs and decorative panels Vincent photographed in these early Christian Ethiopian Churches will be unique to the African country, and most likely not found elsewhere, although there certainly seems with some of the geometric patterns, a link to other early medieval cultures, like the knotwork patterns of the Celts, Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, as well as with Islam too.

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As part of the delegation, Vincent visited the following sites in Ethiopia:-

1. Abuna Aregawi timber church; 6th century AD; Debre Damo; this church was visited on the 23rd January 2019.

2. Tcherqos rock-hewn church; 8th century AD; Wukro; this church was visited on 23rd January 2019.

3. Tcherqos Agabo timber church; 8th century AD; Tigray; this church was visited on 24th January 2019.

4. Debra Selam Mikael timber cave church; 8th century AD; Tigray; this church was visited on 24th January 2019.

5. Mikael Imba rock-hewn church; 8th century AD; Tigray; this church was visited on 24th January 2019.

6. Yimrahanna Kristos cave church; early 11th century AD; Lalibela; this church was visited on 25th January 2019.

7. Makina Medhane Alam cave church; 12th/13th century AD; this church was visited on 26th January 2019.

8. Lideta Maryam cave church; 13th century AD; Gennata Maryam; this church was visited on 26th January 2019.

9. Beta Giyorgis (Church of St. George) rock-hewn church; 12th-13th century AD; Lalibela; this church was visited on 27th January 2019.

10. Beta Madhane Alem (Church of the Saviour of the World); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

11. Beta Maryam (Church of Mary); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

12. Beta Masqal (Church of the Cross); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

13. Beta Danagel (Church of the Virgins); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

14. Beta Mika’el (Church of Michael); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

15. Beta Golgotha (Church of Golgotha); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

16. Beta Emmanuel (Church of Emmanuel); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

17. Beta Abba Libanos (Church of Father Libanos); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

18. Beta Merkurios (Church of Mercurius); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

19. Beta Gabriel and Beta Rafa’el (the twin churches of Gabriel and Raphael); 12th-14th century AD; Lalibela.

Beta Giyorgis Rock-Hewn Church, 12th-13th Century AD, Lalibela

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After returning from Ethiopia, Vincent was intrigued by what he had witnessed and scoured the internet for information on some of the protective marks he had seen. He came across an interesting and comprehensive article upon protective marks in the UK, titled ‘Protective Devices, Apotropaic Symbols and Witch Marks; on Historic Buildings; with examples from Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, 2018’ (link @ https://sites.google.com/site/charlesfaireyhistorian/publications/protective-devices-apotropaic-symbols-and-witch-marks), and decided to contact the author, Charles E S Fairey, to see if he could help interpret and present his findings from Ethiopia.

After Vincent and Charles made contact and shared information concerning the early Christian protective symbols, they decided together, that it would prove very informative and interesting to share what had been found and the interpretation thereof, with the general public and wider apotropaic world, by creating a website about them.

This culminated in what you see here: ‘Apotropaic Ethiopia: Early Examples of Spiritual Protection from Christian Africa’, which classifies each type and symbol of protective device/ mark, with the interpretation thereof, and the wider implications of what each might represent, suggest and mean.

The examples found in Ethiopia, some of which are also found in Europe and in the UK, also show us the universal application of ‘warding off evil’ through time, as a central theme across cultures, and especially of those cultures which are Christian. It speaks of the superstitious past and how those worries extended across all people of all nations, throughout time.

They also help us to contrast and compare the similarities or differences between apotropaic devices between the two Christian countries, as well as in some cases in Ethiopia, reminding us of what we have lost due to the outlawing of Catholicism and its richly decorated, embellished, and iconic churches, priories, abbeys and cathedrals, and the destruction of such buildings during the Reformation, Puritan iconoclasm, and whitewashing of interiors throughout the UK.

These examples of spiritual protection in Ethiopia also serve to show us how different countries followed the Christian faith, and how it has ascended through time, by following a path from today, going backwards to the beginnings of Christianity, perhaps showing our modern minds, the shared faith, symbolism and lineage, of the Christian ‘waye of life’, experienced by differing countries and cultures, through time.

It opens our minds to our shared worldly heritage and religious and spiritual thoughts, and possibly makes us realise that we are a communal people, all hoping to live together, and ascend in being, spirit, soul or even just learning and wisdom, whatever denomination of Christianity we follow, or whatever different faith we follow, or even if we follow no faith at all.

A nice warning to those who think superstition and folklore beliefs is nonsense, to our modern day minds, comes from the celebrated author and photographer, late Sir Simon Marsden, who popularised ghostly and haunted locations across Britain, Ireland, Europe and Russia, in his best known works, with his eerie style of haunting black and white photographs, is:-

“At our peril, we ignore the beliefs of souls who have gone before us…”

Sir Simon Marsden, ‘Ghosthunter’ documentary, Granada TV, May 1992

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Please feel free to explore this website’s pages to learn about each type of apotropaic device, with photographic evidence and the interesting journey from discovery to interpretation.

Select the following links to view other articles about apotropaic marks and devices:-

‘Protective Devices, Apotropaic Symbols and Witch Marks; on Historic Buildings;
with examples from Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire’ by Charles E S Fairey, 2018

@ https://sites.google.com/site/charlesfaireyhistorian/publications/protective-devices-apotropaic-symbols-and-witch-marks

‘Apotropaic Identification’ by Charles E S Fairey, 2018-2019

@ https://sites.google.com/site/charlesfaireyhistorian/publications/apotropaic-identification

‘Witch Marks – Part 1’ by Vincent Reed, 2017

@ https://www.vincentreed.com/witch-craft-marks/

‘Witch Marks – Part 2’ by Vincent Reed, 2017

@ https://www.vincentreed.com/witches-marks-pt2/

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Also as an added bonus, we have included a page on some of the early Ethiopian Christian art which was found in the churches visited, and some information about them.

by Charles E S Fairey and Vincent Reed, 2019

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Mikael Imba Rock-Hewn Church, 8th Century AD, Tigray

Beta Giyorgis Rock-Hewn Church, 12th-13th Century AD, Lalibela

Debra Selam Mikael Timber Cave Church, 8th Century AD, Tigray

Abuna Aregawi Timber Church, 6th Century AD, Debra Damo

Tcherqos Rock-Hewn Church, 8th Century AD, Wukro

Yimrahanna Kristos Cave Church, Early 11th Century AD, Lalibela

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