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Ethiopia: History & Cultures
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Family Paintings & Stories

"Daniel" above is from _Ethiopian Magic Scrolls_ by Jacques Mercier George Braziller, New York, 1979. Wonderful book, but to avoid copyright problems, the rest -- images from my personal collection.


They say that each man is accompanied throughout his life by two angels: an angel of light who will report his good deeds to Michael at his death, and an angel of darkness who will report his misdeeds to Bernael, the archangel of Hell. They have to have big eyes in order to see everything. Do they have faces? Many.
Demons' heads are bigger than angels (in relation to the sizes of the bodies). Pictures of demons tend toward frontal symmetry, images of angels are asymmetrical: face in three-quarter profile, eyes looking to the side, the right hand holding the sword and the left the scabbard. To create movement -- think about it. The displacement (and omitting) of body parts (the process of projection). The imbalance -- think of motion! The possibilities of the image -- not movement through space, but a pulsation of the image from its center to all parts. The optical effects?

So, how to READ the scrolls?
The forms are distinguished by economy of means. Richness is in combination of simple elements. As in physics. Seven colors -- too much? Too many.
Motifs -- repetition. Nature doesn't know repetition, we said. Or the law of repetition is hidden in deep structure?
There are several medias to consider: line, color and signs.
The last, the signs, are the most difficult for a western mind to accept. For example, the pseudo-letters. It is a letter of sign? Both? In what language? The pseudo-letters are there to confuse the demons. Also, acknowledgement of existence of unknown languages. Some forgotten and some secret. Children do the same. Such letters and their appearance belong only to you.

There is a legend to explain this tradition of magic letter-signs.

The Angel Michael had given Solomon a ring engraved with a seal and the secret Name of God -- the same name with which he had conquered Satnael on the fourth day of the creation. At the day of Sheba's departure from Jerusalem, Solomon gave this ring to pass to their future son. (She was pregnant and Solomon was sure that it was a boy. He was told by one of the angels). When Menelik had grown enough to take his trip to Jerusalem, he had the ring which Solomon immediately recognized. This ring given by Angel Michael is hidden for centuries together with the Arch of Convent, which was taken by Menelik from Jerusalem. ....
Can we "read" SECRET messages? You see, they are not necessary for us, but for angels and demons. If we don't understand, they do. Those signs are from another world, we only keep them. This psychology explains why many things can't be changed, they have to stay the same.

More Art Pages

There are many styles of Orthdox crosses in Ethiopia. This one is the Lalibella style.


Texts, pictures and in the between -- ornaments. A triple garment = a triple wall of grace, an image of divine protection. I have to be protected on all possible levels. Against know and even unknown demons.

[The drawing of the mouth as a zigzag line between nose and chin is common in "Book of Protection." To this day I couldn't find an explanation.]

What is known? The scrolls is a style but a combination of two different styles. We know figurative paintings and can easily "read" them. We think that "abstract" art has only artistic significance. Ethiopians understand "abstract" elements as talismanic art. For them a painting of Pollock is an unknown code.

THE TWO STYLES: figurative paintings (se'el) and talismans (talsam) co-exist and influence each other. Talismanic code has to be present within figurative element and vise versa. In scrolls any talismanic sign has to have a recognizable form, and each figure has to have magic connotations. They have to tell a double story -- human and mystical (divine). First (figurative) depicts what has been seen and tells the story of a person. Invisible demons -- non-figurative nature and therefore there is the necessity of copying symbols (secret, hidden) exactly.
There is a formal link between the two.
Geometry: circle and square -- superimposing -- combinations. Rosettes. Line and space. They understood cross as four circles. A flower. Pre-Christian, vegetation gods. Straight line is not fully developed, no architecture yet.
Geometric (style) art. Egypt? Babylon?
Historically, the Canons were developed by many cultures; Horn of Africa is a crossroad of Antiquity. The three directions represent three major influences: Muslim, Christian and Hebrew1/Pagan. (Maybe, better say -- four.) Decorative motifs, religious, talismanic and figurative (the present is always present in reflections on the past).
The roots are obvious, the combination is unique.
I don't know any other Christian church which accepts the pagan symbols in such open forms. On the contrary, the pagan elements were prosecuted, erased or fully integrated. Christ's blood and flesh, which could be traced way back to the very early stages of developing idea of God, the elements transformed through symbolization. Ethiopians keep everything in its original forms, they found the way of making alien elements non-conflicting, they have other means of harmonization.
Thus, talismans; protective scrolls (Muslim stock in addition to pagan tradition), amulets. Each person has to carry them on his/her neck in addition to a cross. A scroll is rolled and placed into an amulet. It has to an industry to provide each member of the society to his own picture. Even today there are the same 250 thousand monks, where the traditional art usually comes from.
Some Freud and Jung: the unconscious must be visualized.
Ayna tela (eye of shadow), one of the spirits (magana). My shadow has its own life. We have relations, and the shadow could leave me to travel in its own world. Also, it could enter my body. Of course, it could be depicted only through talismanic art.

Mary and child or Sheba with her son Menelik.


"Characters" (ringed letters) -- the cries of the demons called up by Solomon (the name Solomon in secret language means "Christ"). Solomon-Christ. Only in Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie kept the Zion line. Solomonic dynasty (with some interruptions) is three thousand years old. Through blood line.
(One) scroll for every member of the family.
Guardian Angel, according to name.
His name must be written under -- Tafari.
Why not only a picture but also a text? Russian icons keep writing to a minimum. Catholicism avoids it.
The frontal symmetry: prayer "The Rampart of the Cross." Not the Crucifixion. The three tips symbolize the Trinity. What about the fourth end? Earth? In a prayer -- Amen. Me.
The magic double line. Why double? Line as a separator, a wall? Life of lines within the picture. Meeting, approaching, leaving. A palm?

COSMOLOGY: Astrological sign of the client. Hebrew and Arabic heritage? My sign has to be incorporated into my scroll. This universal connection was forgotten by Christianity, not by Ethiopian Church, which was so tolerant to everything before (past) and around (present). The West got Christianity without connection with Hebrew heritage, especially, the Cabala, the science and magic of numbers.


Cross and circle, that's all what you need to form anything. Find it in every shape. Look for a long time and you'll see them -- the cross and the circle. Don't lose the graphic manner in the pictorial. Repetition and variations.

The eight-pointed star with a face or a name of the client in the middle. Second -- a cipher-talisman. The eight points indicate the four directions of the talisman's protective power. Eight wings (the Apocrypha of Clement, Qalementos).
The four faces represent the cardinal points of the earth.
A "tradition" way of developing the canon (similar to Chinese). Those images are the result of successive modifications made by many generations of copyists. The religious and the curative aims.


"Ethiopian colors" (promoted by Rastafarians) are red, yellow (gold) and green. Almost the three primaries: red, green and blue. Blue has a strange position in Ethiopian color theory.)

Iconography is based on the idea that color is an object in itself (and not a property of light). It doesn't reflect but projects! (Digital nature). Second, color is not on surface, but inner color. According to that kind of vision, if you cut a red apple, it's red inside (that's why it's red outside). Tendency for pure colors asks for a deep color approach. In Russian icon I start with the dark (brown) as a ground to build all other colors on the top of it. Main direction in developing painting: from dark to light.

The additive method in the icon isn't pointilistic but always uses divisionism (lines separate colors). Lines (black) create the know optical effect when a light area next to a dark appear lighter (vibrant icon colors). The bigger dividing line is the brighter the color. Also the divisionism emphasizes the difference between colors making the color story most dramatic. In some way all the colors are accented. This method creates an impression that icon advance; A 2 d image starving for a 3D existence. Not only it's a result of intensity but also of a (high) contrast.
Since colors change dramatically depending on changes in their surrounding colors, icon works the complimentary colors appearing as after-images. We mix colors in our eyes, we are a pallet and the final image. Icon is prepared for a perception, it needs a views to complete its formalization.
[Cultural references: we know that duration of after-image depends upon intensity and time of stimulation and an icon requires not looking but a gaze. That's the most difficult subject to investigate, since we perceive icons not as magic, but secular images.]
Main signification for iconic colors: Black stands for malediction, red for flames, and white for light.
Secondary: blue, green, and yellow (not effective against demons).

From my Russian background (icons) I was prepared for collage in color treatment. You don't mix colors too much, it's a job of one who will see the painting to mix them in his mind. You have to stay with "pure" colors and local zones. You "patch" them.
The Pure (Christian) Colors:
BLUE -- grace or beauty (sky).
YELLOW -- the flesh of Christ (light).

Yellow, a symbol of the resplendent light of God's angels. Russian sky is gold (literary), Ethiopian skies are not blue.

Green madder from a wash of blue over yellow. Simplicity is the only answer to complexity.
Radicalism: Contrasting colors. Conflict, confrontation -- link!

The invisible presence:
A parasite-vegetable (taqatsella) lives on plants. It has to be added to black color. Not only "good" but also "bad" ingredients could be in colors.

Ethiopian history streaches through three thousand years (Remember Solomon and Sheba, 10 century B.C.?)
The Axum period is the most known, the Classical Ethiopia. Here's a b&w image of the Gondar Era.
I like it less, they departure from the icon mentality to incorporate the new European three-dimensional perspective.
This representational technique is good for earthly pictures, not the other world. PLEASE, GO FOR MY GUESTBOOK
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MOVEMENT IN IMMOBILITY: nothing but an intense gaze (Foucault). The spirit of TV.... an empty eye, or no eye? Our version of the Gaze.

A reversal of perception: one sees the eyes, the central element, first, then the face, and finally, the body -- which correspondents to the way a person is seen when very close. Reverse perspective in Russian icons. How the *movement* is created -- displacements through gestures. The abolishing of space! It brings the subject into absolute proximity, the forms are rearranged in a new dynamic perspective. Painting in time! We put them together! Seeing such pictures demons run away. The mouth often is left out, meaning that their power is at an end(?)

Nothing equals the Cross in importance. A cloth, a sign of his majesty in his right hand.

The demon Mazhab, next to Satan -- squared! The four-eyed monster. Oversized hands of yazar-welladj (bastards of zar), long fingers with uncut nails -- and he is with a bird's tail!
Where did I see him? A week ago in Fred Meyers, bank, gas station?
I want the scrolls to be connected with the world I live in. I want my world to be READABLE!
Study, follow the instructions in the awda nagast (treatise of divination) for the skins and texts. I don't know the language. Copy! And you have to work harder to express it in pictures, colors, lines. (Their Ge'ez, ancient Ethiopian language, is full of mistakes too, nobody speaks it anymore.)

I look at my scrolls again.
All of them have NO NECKS! -- WHY?

Psychotic phenomena, they knew it -- depersonalization and of invasion by a spirit (even through several generations of his family). Eyes are in the middle of the face, not at the top, they are the central element! Start with them. Two headed Demon? Not my expressionism but of the subject. Demons attack humans in many guises -- animal, angelic, or human. They can have one or many faces. Two -- to attack the body and the spirit. The seance of evocation, according to legend, ordinary took place on a river bank, and the medium was a child who had not reached puberty. Demon kings are never ugly. Demons on the scrolls drive out the attacker "as a thorn in the foot is removed by another thorn." Demon afraid of his own image, it's in possession of a man. Angel dress up as a demon! A demon has no forms of his own. I portray my hallucinations or visions in my dreams, connecting two world together -- seeing a nightmare again but in a liberating way.

Dreams. Night and day. What do you think our feelings are?
Genies. Everywhere. Angels' play of eyes -- to protect in all directions. In contrast to the wretched earthly demons, who are burdened with flesh, who are slow, and always liable to get drunk at some filthy puddle, the flying in the firmament demons (one third) are the swift and implacable executors of the dabtaras' orders.



I have to re-tune my mind from a reader of written text:


Maybe, xXxXxXx? or ++++++++?

How about # # # # # #?

X -- cross. Not just a sign. And "+" is also a cross. "Xx" is a statement. Different form "X+".... They took semiotics very seriously. The sages guessed that semiology is a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology. They knew about structuralism long before Roman Jacobson and Claude Levi-Strauss. If they didn't know about the science of signs, they knew the art of signs, or better say, the life of signs. Interesting, the scroll doesn't separate "Symbolic" and "Indexical" kind of signs from "Iconic." They believed that sign, signifier and signified must be tightly connected. The sign (X) must be highly "motivated"; a signifier (letter X) must be constrained by the signified (concept, the category of "cross"). According to their sensitivity, the sign (X) does not just resemble the signified (cross) but ACTS as such. X on the scroll IS the cross. (It should teach me a lesson about "symbolism"!) The size, position, shape of X change the meaning of cross, there is no "generic" cross, but always one (something we learned from the mechanics of photography). Iconic orientation of scroll doesn't exclude symbolic or indexical signs. In Christian mentality X is inherently connected to Christ (the signified) -- X is an indexical sign of God. The iconic dominance insists on excluding the arbitrary; signs are preceding the real, like souls are the pre-existence of bodies. In their minds signs were active realities because they were intended to operate in non-corporal reality of angels and demons. Something like thoughts and feelings....
The two codes of signs organization (paradigms and syntagms) could be seen on all levels of scroll's construction. Color becomes a paradigm (classification) and we can read any scroll coloristically -- a syntagm is an orderly combination of interacting signs which forms a meaningful whole. They reject so-called "natural" combinations of colors or shapes. They follow the logic of meaning.
"Strange," I said -- colored rings (yellow or red) around eyes. Why?
Possible answer (in many cases we can only try to interpret). Sun is the symbol of Christ. The rising sun is red and symbolizes the Creator. It is invoked to drive demons away.( Remember, that Trinity in monotheism is identical; Christ is a creator.) What is really strange that their "symbolic" logic ends up with full color coordination! How did we manage to give those names (primitive, naive) to such a complicated intellectual concept? It's not as if they didn't know the anatomy, or didn't notice "natural" proportions. An angel with a raised sword doesn't need legs at all, the scroll focused on action -- his right hand is bigger than his left hand. In film we call it a close up. And montage. They did it right there within the same frame!
Sometimes I would stop painting in total desperation -- everything I knew about art, composition, color was wrong! Oh horror! I have to learn everything again!....

The nine tribes of angels: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Thrones, Dominions, Cherubim, and Seraphim. Do they exist?
I stare at the mountain and see no angels, demons, or spirits. It's just a mountain. I can't find those magic forces in the sky. It's just a sky. What do I paint? What do I see? Powers? Principalities? I feel as if I am a video-camera. Somewhere above the door at a 7-11. A human camera. I wish I can trade my scientific empty mind for the world of superstitions. Why should I paint at all? Why should we have art? What for?
It's a miracle that we still have some art.
What was it? Meningitis, they said. What? I should say -- why? Or how?
I have to remind myself about the MYSTERY of life. To focus on what I DO NOT KNOW. On what I WILL NEVER KNOW. What do I know? How much do I know? It's only the tv set who knows everything. Even when they don't know, they investigate. They know that there's an answer for everything -- cancer, disasters, death. In the outer world KNOWLEDGE rules. In my INNER world with feelings and dreams, moods and thoughts this King is silent. The Gods of Science are not interested in my silly insignificant universe. My world is too private to be of interest for anybody. It's just a matter of time before we will know everything!
Somehow I don't believe it. I know that the unknown doesn't shrink no matter how big the Internet gets. I suspect it grows. I think we need the naive pictures and art is better to be primitive in our ever-complicated civilization. ...

The frog, the impure animal, an instrument of bewitchment: chopped fine and mixed with food, frogs re-form themselves in the victim's stomach, causing a gradual debilitation and constant pain. Only water from sacred springs drives them out.... You can't believe in it! Go to your doctor! When you are sad, take some happy pills.... You still don't know who began the drug war? In the primitive world which believed in impure frogs I would do something, there was a lot to do to change my predicaments. In our enlightened age of pain-killers I can kill my fears only with a hammer.

Is it possible to live in both worlds? It is conceivable that the science can leave some room for the art? They, the primitive, who believe in the unbelievable, never the less, built houses, made tools and started what we call a civilization. I suspect that we do not believe that the Greeks REALLY believed in Hercules. We don't! It's an entertainment!
What a sad picture! I don't have to believe in electricity, I KNOW how it works. Does it mean that I should abound the whole system of BELIEVING? Maybe, just maybe, the Greeks got it right because they DID believe in Zeus? In less than a century they introduced such ideas that we live on their power for 25 centuries. We, so proud of our achievements in science, that we forgot that idea of atoms was introduced then, over two millenniums ago. We think that an idea of atomic bomb is really something! But the atomic bomb is the real revolution! What ideas do we have? Oh, zillions! All of them "how-to" applications. Our complex world is rather primitive when it comes to sensitivity of life. Just wait when it will get hyper-complicated in generation or two.
They didn't paint, it was thinking!
Evil spirits assemble to conspire against humans. Always in groups? Sometimes many of them form a new body, a creature which is a sum of many and exists only when they are together. I always thought that different crowds have different spirits, but I didn't dare to make a step to visualize it -- the essence of a crowd at the wedding, funeral or stadium. Intellectually I knew that an individual in the crowd loses his form, but how to see the "soul" of the new creature -- the masses? A dragon? Many Ethiopian monsters are creatures of the moment.
I don't know how to think, because I don't know how to paint my world. I don't understand things. I don't understand television, computers, radio. I know how to operate in this new brave world, but I have no vision of it. I hide my panic, I know that the unknown, even that it came out of my hands, is dangerous -- and could be evil....
Angels break demons in two? To make it easy to fight? How do they do it?
Demons are compositions! They are constructions, they are never whole. Picasso painted them before Derrida named it deconstruction. That's how our world really looks like. They say Picasso was influenced by African Art. Could be. They always believed that the masses -- arms, hands, legs, heads -- are held together by the spirit. Without the soul the part could be thrown together with any order, that's the nature of monsters -- no souls. Looks familiar. Although we could call it "abstract."


The large wild animals -- lions, leopards, elephants, buffalo -- are the mounts or the property of zar spirit and saints. The old Abyssinian saint, desert monk, Abba Samuel, lived with animals, learned their language, understood their masters, and became an Abyssinian saint. They, the Ethiopians, believed that it is possible to receive a promise of protection for anyone who invokes his name.... I live among the machines. The large animals are around, we call it traffic. I lived inside the beast I call "home" -- full of hidden life and dangers. What do I know? How to fix the fusses? Is it enough to understand my position, my situation, myself?
Water demon -- ganen. Did you see him? God of the house -- yabet amlak. They are the same today and always.
The Qalementos says: "There are angels who have many eyes and many faces...." According to the esoteric book known as the _Mysteries of Heaven and Earth_, angels have eight wings: "With two wings they cover their faces; with two more they cover their feet; with two more they hide their hands; and with two more they hide their penises."
Oh, you, cursed (fallen) flying angels. . . . Did I see them? Do I see them?
The skin painting had to be approved by the Addis Ababa museum to be taken through the customs. Esther brought it fully rapped in brownish paper covered with the official seals. There were many more hours of work ahead. Is it finished?...
I know about my sins. Any serious gallery would consider this style as the "folk" and too "literaturish" -- a real fine art should be concerned with art. Special techniques, personal styles, you know. Professional painters come with their own canons. Cubism, Blue Period, or Photo-realism. I like it. Modernism was first love, my middle school crush. I too wanted to express myself, to give MY vision to the world. It took me many years to understand why the icons are never signed by the artist. They say, because of the holy subjects, or because they are, after all, nothing but copies. I like to believe that VISION is never MINE. It could be "channel" through me the way I transport the feelings through colors. Less and less I want MY presence on my canvases.
I had a friend who was an artist in Moscow. In New York he began to paint icons for money. Now he has his church in New Hampshire. Father Andrey still does paint. His icons, not his paintings. He doesn't say that he studies art. I think he does.

In my next life I will write a book about Ethiopian pictorial history, history in pictures. Living next to Muslim and Pagan worlds they recorded the past in a unique combination of texts and illustrations. The Russians didn't invest themselves in such books, which were a part of every prosperous home. Like icons. Is it a comics idea? Reading and looking.

From Addis Ababa Tribune (Aug. 1997):

	To preserve Ethiopia's important historical and cultural
heritage an ambitious project for the microfilming of Ethiopian
manuscripts was initiated in 1971. Based on a partnership between
the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Government, later
represented by its Ministry of Culture, and St John's University
in Collegeville, Minnesota, it led to the establishment, in 1973,
of a Ethiopian Manuscript Microfilm Library, generally referred
to by its initials, EMML.The last volume to be published to date,
Volume X, has reached manuscript number 5,000, and there are many
many more microfilms for which catalogues have still to be
catalogued. It is, however, deplorable that actual microfilming
by the EMML ceased some years ago, and the authorities concerned,
as far as we are aware, do not seem to be giving the matter the
serious attention it deserves.
	Microfilming, of Christian manuscripts, has also been
carried out, on a smaller scale, by other institutions, most
notably by UNESCO. (History of Ethiopian Religious Art and
Manuscripts, 3. Artistic Developments of the Past, and the Crisis
of the Manuscript Today. Dr. Richard Pankhurst)

Continuation of Stories of Magic Scrolls is on page 21
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