Vol. 111 (2021)

A Journey into the Country of The Kebra Nagast



By Gerald Hausman

Santa Fe, NM, USA


The Kebra Nagast was a long suppressed and neglected Ethiopian classic, whose title in English means “The Glory of the Kings.” However, although the book was nearly impossible to find for a long time, it was secretly printed in various editions over a period of more than one hundred years.


When I began my version of this work, featuring the stories from antiquity that were biblical in nature, there was only one copy in English at the British Museum. I soon learned that it was translated by Egyptologist and scholar, Dr. E.A. Wallis Budge. In Budge’s 1932 introduction, he mentions that The Kebra Nagast was edited and redacted from the King James Bible, which had originally appeared in 1611. It was supposed to contain many Coptic myths, but alas, they were taken out of the Christian edition.

Budge explained: “The Kebra Nagast is a great storehouse of legends and traditions, some historical and some purely folklore character, derived from the Old Testament and later rabbinic writings, and from Egyptian (both pagan and Christian) Arabian and Ethiopic sources.” Budge further stated that “… the earliest form of the text was written in Ge’ez or Ethiopic and it originally appeared around the sixth century, B.C.”


What I learned in my research was that The Kebra Nagast seemed to be an African equivalent of the King James Bible.


In August of 1872, Emperor John of Ethiopia wrote a letter to Lord Granville of England. He said, “There is a book called Kivera Negust which contains the law of the whole of Ethiopia and the names of the Chiefs and Churches and Provinces are in this book. I pray you find out who has got this book, and send it to me, for in my country my people will not obey my orders without it.”


Sometimes great books fall into the mysterious catalog of ancient myths that are almost untranslatable. Working on my version it became clear to me that the copy that I got from the British Museum contained Old Testament rabbinical texts that were translated from Egyptian, Arabian, and Ethiopian sources.


The mystery of the sacred book’s compilation is still shadowy. But I found out that the principle groundwork of the text probably came from traditions that were current in Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Egypt during the first four centuries of the Christian era. I discovered that the compiler was probably a Coptic priest.


In succeeding centuries the Coptic text was wholly or partially translated into Arabic. During that time when the Zague kings reigned over Ethiopia, the translation of The Kebra Nagast into Amarhic was strictly forbidden. Some scholars have avowed that such a translation carried with it a death sentence. 


I was unable to get a copy directly from the British Museum in 1993 – although today, numerous copies in various translations are available.  Curiously, the copy I worked from came to me from my son-in-law after Hurricane Andrew. By some strange twist of fate, he was exploring a nearly destroyed building when he found a waterlogged copy of this strange document called The Kebra Nagast. There were copious notes in the margin explaining the Coptic nature of the work.

My son-in-law gave me the water-logged manuscript, a faded xerox from the British Museum. Surprisingly, the hand-calligraphed marginal notes were done by a Rastafarian.


Reading, I found out that when God made Adam, he placed a pearl in his body. The pearl, a symbol of divinity, was said to pass from one holy person to another. The mother of Samuel, whose name was Hannah, received the pearl and it was written that it had passed through the body of Solomon and the body of Christ.


It also became clear to me, while I was reading this holy document, that the pearl had entered Menyelik, who was the son of Solomon and the so-called Queen of Sheba, whose name was really Makeda.


One might ask how all of this fits in with Haile Selassie I, the late Emperor of Ethiopia. Once again, the Rasta belief was that Selassie I was a kinsman of Jesus Christ, in the Solomonic line, descending from the House of David.

Haile Selassie I

I knew about this from having lived and studied the Rastafarian faith in Jamaica, but now I learned the divine origin of kings of Ethiopia. This, too, tied in with the myth of succession of the pearl. Many an Egyptian king, for instance, proclaimed that he reigned “in the egg.” This, of course, meant that such kings ruled even before being born.


The 225th heir to the Solomonic throne was Haile Selassie, who even as a child, confounded his detractors by having an unfathomable knowledge of his own lineage. As he matured his knowledge grew astronomically. He read deeply in Coptic literature. He studied Egyptian necromancy. And he knew, almost as if he had lived in another time, the Abyssian deities of Earth, Water and War.


When Haile Selassie I visited Jamaica on April 21, 1966, he was recognized as the long-awaited savior of African people. He was greeted by 100,000 Rastafarians.

Haile Selassie I in Jamaica (1966)

Calabash drums and abeng bullhorns, unchanged since the ancient Ashanti wars, were there to greet this venerable old man. According to author Timothy White, “…the crowd cried with him, many Rastas remembering the biblical passage which said that Christ wept when he beheld the multitudes.” White also mentioned that many Rastas were aware that Selassie’s palms “had the stigmata—the nail prints just like those of the risen Christ.”


As I continued my studies I came to understand that Rastafarian Nazarites from the 1930s were members of the present messianic movement of this religion, their spiritual roots dating back thousands of years.


When Haile Selassie I (who was also known as Ras Tafari Makonen) was proclaimed Emperor of Ethiopia in 1930, many Africans, as well as African-Americans and West Indians believed that a new day was at hand. Often friends of ours in Jamaica quoted their birthright as follows: “Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God…” (Psalm 68, verse 31)


As my work progressed over the years, I listened to the words of numerous Rastafarian teachers. Ziggy Marley was one and his sister, Cedella was another. They were the ones who informed me that their father, Bob Marley, said, “Me live in the world but I am not of the world.”


Cedella explained to me, “My father did not work for money or fame, he worked for music.”


Cedella also told me, “My father spoke plain and simple words, the least tricky of all. These came from Proverbs from the Bible and also the folk-sayings of the people of Jamaica.”


Combining the stories in The Kebra Nagast with reflections on them spoken by Rastafarians, I learned that Rastafarian faith was very complex. Haile Selassie I, Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley and The Kebra Nagast are intertwined in the view that “the future is the beginning.” We may not know exactly when, but it is as Bob proclaimed, “…righteousness must someday prevail.”


Reflections on the Folklore of Jamaica

and the Wisdom of The Kebra Nagast


During my off-and-on fourteen years in Jamaica, I met a great many storytellers, all of them, one way or another, Rastafarians. Some leaned toward the weirdly mystical and the magical. Some were figures of Biblical rectitude, people of the red, green and gold cloth who harked back to ancient days. One was an old man who lived in the Berhane Selassie Home for the Aged outside Port Maria on the North Coast.

North Coast, Jamaica

I used to see this old fellow when I took my students on walks and runs. Once I spoke to him rather late in the day when the sun was setting. He was crouched under a water tower that was immersed in fig trees and vines.


“Where are you going?” he asked me.


“Up the road to Firefly.”


I approached him and we spoke a little more. He wore a traditional tam and a woolen cape of Rasta colors.

Gerald Hausman and Roy McKay

By the time I got close to him, I knew he was a mystic man, a blackheart man, a powerful figure from the early movement of the 1930s, or maybe before. He was, as they say, old as the hills.


There was something about him that was unapproachable. But as a story gatherer and teller I was often pretty undaunted. I knew he had a story if only I could get it out of him.


He said, “It a-go-rain.”


I asked him where he lived and he leaned a little with his head pointing toward the house that Rita Marley had bought shortly after Bob had passed. When she and the boys, Ziggy and Steve, left, Rita turned the place into a rest home for old Rastas.


There was a long and palpable silence where the old man seemed to be sizing me up, if that is the way to say it.


Finally, after about three minutes of protracted quiet, the old man said,


David slew Goliath

With a single stone

Samson slew the Philistines

With a donkey jawbone


I nodded, smiled.


He gave me a curious glance, said, “Nothing to smile about.”


Then he added, “It history. A true, mon. Where is your history?”


I tapped my heart.


Then he grinned a toothless grin. “A ting fi smile about fi true. You a Rasta?”


I answered, “How can I prove it?”


He replied, “Your heart say it, not your mouth.”


I looked away and then a magical thing happened. A donkey up in the hills brayed three times.


I started to say something about a donkey jawbone, but when I looked at the man he was gone. He had, quite literally, disappeared. Not before my eyes but almost—he’d made no sound and the limestone rocks upon which he sat would’ve surely made some noise. I looked up and down the road. He was not there. The old one had vanished.


Hours later, when I sat and reasoned with my friend Mackie, I mentioned the strange encounter.


“Him do that all the while. Disappear. That man, nuh ordinary. Him was there when Marcus Garvey get pelted with stones during a speech him give back in the 1920s. The big moneymen pay off the town with a bowl of rice and peas, for each person.”


Mackie added, “You see dat mon again, check him cane. It cover with history, story, legend. But him nuh lean pon cane. No, mon, him lean pon him heart.”


Sometime, later on, I was in Kingston at the Institute of Jamaica Library, and I found in a book the story of how badly Garvey was treated in Jamaica. He was traded and tricked and jailed, but he promised all who saw him outside the jail that the door of that jail would never open again. Legend holds that truth to be the honest truth. I wanted to run it by the old man, but he kept disappearing on me.


One time, before he disappeared, I got a good look at his cane and I saw Marcus Garvey’s face carved on the handle.




I was in Kingston again, this time meeting with Ziggy Marley. When he first saw me, he said, “How the Navajo dem?”


I told him they were fine and he told me to follow him, which I did. We were at his father’s house on 56 Hope Road, the same place where Bob was shot and lived to tell the tale.


The reason Ziggy asked about the Navajo was because our daughter, Mariah, had given him a copy of my audio book, Navajo Nights. In those days I was recording Navajo storytellers and the tribe had given approval for radio station KTNN to play them on the air.


Ziggy was sitting in the old swinging chair that Bob used to use when reasoning with the Rasta brotherhood. He looked, in that moment, so much like his father that it was eerie. The chair, at this time, was not supported by two chains fastened to a tree limb. It was stationary, as was Ziggy. All but his flashing smile.


We conversed for a while in the shade of the almond trees and then Ziggy had to go to soccer practice, and I wandered out of the yard and almost bumped into that historic figure, Georgie, the one who long ago “make the fire light” as Bob wrote in the song No Woman No Cry.


Georgie was in the mood to talk and tell stories and I remember that he wanted to speak about “energy.” How the vibes of sea and air and human transport on boats was affected by inner energies – the kinesis of human life and environmental conditions. So he spoke about how a seagull might fly from shore, alight upon a fishing boat, and then return to land, changed by the changing atmosphere. He went on like a professor, urging me to understand that our lives were exactly like this kinetic interchange of sea air and land air. “You need to know this,” he whispered.


I left Kingston that day thinking about the old man of the mountain in Port Maria and Georgie, the professor of the sea, as well as so many others. Jamaica is a veritable storybag, I said to myself, as the bus I was riding in swayed and bumped and I hung onto a strap as all the standing passengers did, realizing that life in back country Jamaica was a bus ride through the portals of time, “sweat and grit and sufferation” as some Rastas say. “Hang on SloopySloopy, hang on”. I heard that old McCoys hit in my head as we chunked along the Junction Road back to the Jamaican “roots culture” where I was an English teacher.




Some months later I was on another little mountain. A storyteller by the name of Morris Oliphant was telling me about his uncle whose nickname was Samson because of his great size and strength. The story he riveted me with was like something out of The Kebra Nagast.


Samson, in the story told by his nephew, was strong enough to lift a field-plow by the handle, but being a Rasta, he had long dreadlocks and one day they got caught in a threshing machine and “eaten up.”


This was Samson’s only vulnerability. The story proceeded biblically. Samson is robbed one night and defends himself against three crooks who have guns. After dousing his lantern, two shots come out of the darkness. Samson feels the sudden bullet chip his ear. One of the crooks jumps him, but he manages to throw him to the floor and stomp him, while a second man jams his pistol into Samson’s mouth. Samson bites down on it while with his other hand he grabs his machete and swings it fast enough to slice the third man. That is when the mouth-jammed gun goes off, throwing Samson to the floor.


“All in all,” Morris says, “my uncle came out all right!”


“How is that possible?” I asked.


“The bullet in the mouth knocked out a bad tooth had needed extraction. Another bullet, fired at random, fixed Samson’s sciatic problem. He often said, ‘Bullet in the backside better than an operating table.’”


I asked Morris, “The moral is?”


He laughed. “Keep no lock upon your money, only upon your head, and look out for threshing machines.”


In The Kebra Nagast there are stories and images of the same disparity, life lessons from another world, another time, which, when you think about it, hasn’t changed much since Jesus had locks and walked on water. We see in this great book hawks and angels and hawks that are angels. We see men and women with open eyes whose greatest passion is towards compassion. Jamaican myths seem to echo this sublimity, and they enforce the teaching of “livity”– life lived to the fullest.

Uton Hinds, Gerald Hausman and Fire (Rasta Preacher)

One night we go under a bridge where a firelit Nyabinghi ceremony is talking place and we hear a man saying words of wisdom from an old song by the Ethiopians:


I was born in the ghetto, grew up in the ghetto

Learned that the cow jumped over the moon

And that the dish ran away with the spoon.

Where is I culture, where is I culture,

Where is I culture?


I am thinking that we are all strangers in a strange land wondering where we came from and where we are going. Yet it is books like The Kebra Nagast that teach the parables of beauty and resilience and pure “Inity” as they say in Jamaica.


And it happens, I think, on the bus, on the mountain, under the fig trees, and almond leaves, beneath the water tower, over the hill and the dale of back country Jamaica where the well-spring of love surfaces in the most unlikely places.


But, most of all, it happens in the telling of tales on the long road that brings us back into innocence.   


(Jamaican Photos: credit Lorry Hausman)


Gerald Hausman



Gerald Hausman is an award-winning author & storyteller and a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine. He is the Editor of The Kebra Nagast edition discussed in this column.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.