The Harari people are an ethnic group residing primarily in the Harari Region of Ethiopia, with a rich cultural heritage that spans over a millennium. Their beliefs, mythology, and rituals are an essential part of their cultural identity and provide a unique insight into their historical development. This article aims to provide an overview of the beliefs, mythology, and rituals of the Harari people, focusing on the deities, their personalities, and stories, along with any unique beliefs that are noteworthy within their culture.

Deities and Their Personalities

The Harari people predominantly practice Islam, and as such, their religious beliefs and practices are largely centered around the monotheistic worship of Allah. However, they also incorporate local customs and traditions into their religious practices, which gives their faith a distinct character. Prior to the spread of Islam, the Harari people followed a traditional African religion characterized by the worship of various deities.

One of the most significant deities in the traditional Harari religion is Aw Barkhadle, a saint-like figure often revered as a mediator between humans and the divine. Aw Barkhadle is regarded as a compassionate, wise, and powerful being, who intercedes on behalf of the Harari people to alleviate their suffering and bring them blessings.

Unique Beliefs and Practices

The Harari people have a number of unique beliefs and practices that set them apart from other Ethiopian cultures. One such belief is the practice of zar, a spirit possession ritual that has been incorporated into the Harari Islamic practice. The zar spirits are believed to be supernatural beings that can cause misfortune, illness, and other calamities if not properly appeased. To appease these spirits, the Harari people participate in zar ceremonies, which involve music, dancing, and animal sacrifices to ensure the spirits' benevolence.

Mythology and Stories

While the Harari people's mythology is deeply intertwined with their Islamic faith, they have preserved several pre-Islamic myths and stories that remain an integral part of their cultural identity. One such story revolves around the founding of the ancient city of Harar, the capital of the Harari Region. According to legend, the city was founded by a man named Abadir, who arrived in the area accompanied by his sister, Faduma. Together, they cleared the land and established the city, which soon became a flourishing center of trade and learning.

Another prominent mythological figure in Harari culture is the hyena, which is often portrayed as a cunning trickster that can shape-shift into various forms. The hyena is featured in many stories and serves as a symbol of resourcefulness and adaptability. In some narratives, the hyena is depicted as a wise and helpful figure, while in others, it is portrayed as a malevolent and dangerous being.

Heroes and Mythological Creatures

In addition to their deities and spirits, the Harari people also have a rich tradition of heroes and mythological creatures. One such hero is Amir Nur, a revered warrior who is celebrated for his exploits in defending the city of Harar from invaders. His legendary courage and skill in battle have made him a symbol of strength and resilience for the Harari people.

Amir Nur
Amir Nur from Hararia Facebook

The Harari people's mythology also includes a variety of supernatural creatures, such as the jinn, which are spirits that can be benevolent or malevolent depending on the circumstances. Jinn are believed to inhabit remote and desolate places, and they can be summoned or invoked to bring good fortune or to wreak havoc on one's enemies.

Hyena in Harari Culture and Mythology

The hyena plays a unique and multifaceted role in Harari culture and mythology, reflecting a complex relationship between the Harari people and this often-misunderstood animal. Unlike in many other cultures where the hyena is typically seen in a negative light, in Harari society, it holds a more nuanced and sometimes positive place. Here are some key aspects of the hyena's role in Harari culture and mythology:

Hyenas as Symbolic Protectors: In Harari culture, hyenas are often viewed as protectors of the city. The relationship between the people of Harar and the hyenas is ancient, with a belief that these animals help to guard the city against evil spirits and bad omens. This protective role is deeply ingrained in local folklore and is symbolic of the coexistence between humans and nature.

Feeding Rituals: A unique aspect of Harari culture is the practice of feeding hyenas. This tradition, where hyenas are fed by hand by certain individuals known as "hyena men," is both a tourist attraction and a cultural ritual. It symbolizes a pact of coexistence and respect between humans and hyenas. The feeding is also believed to appease the hyenas, ensuring they do not harm livestock or people.

Hyenas in Folk Tales and Proverbs: Hyenas feature prominently in Harari folk tales, proverbs, and oral narratives. In these stories, they often embody various characteristics – sometimes they are cunning and clever, other times foolish or greedy. These tales serve as a medium for imparting moral lessons and cultural values.

Symbol of Social and Spiritual Order: The relationship with hyenas in Harari culture can also be seen as a reflection of the social and spiritual order. Hyenas cleaning the city by consuming waste and dead animals is seen in a positive light, as maintaining the cleanliness and sanctity of the city.

Harari Hyena
Hyena from Wikimedia Commons

Ambivalent Nature: Despite their role as protectors and symbols of coexistence, hyenas are also respected and sometimes feared for their wild nature. They represent the untamed and unpredictable aspects of the natural world, reminding the Harari people of the balance and boundaries between human civilization and the wilderness.

Hyenas in Mythology and Superstitions: There are various superstitions and mythological beliefs surrounding hyenas in Harari culture. For example, certain supernatural qualities are sometimes attributed to them, and they are often respected as creatures with spiritual significance.

Cultural Identity: The relationship with hyenas has become an integral part of Harari cultural identity. It represents a unique aspect of the city of Harar and its people, differentiating their cultural practices and beliefs from other regions.

The role of the hyena in Harari culture and mythology highlights a remarkable example of coexistence between humans and a large carnivore, shaped by historical, ecological, and cultural factors. This relationship, blending fear, respect, and reverence, offers a unique insight into how human societies can develop complex and even harmonious relationships with the natural world.