At the heart of symbolism

African wisdom

Olokun head (British Museum, London)

The four ways of the being....

In Africa, words that are able to be translated by the word symbol are numerous and cover various semantic zones. Nevertheless, they all evoke a crossing point between the visible and the invisible worlds, the manifested and the non-manifested worlds, the world below and the world beyond. The relationship between these two worlds is in the hands of a mediator or wise being.

The true Wisdom does not refer to a human knowledge, but a supra-human, metaphysical Knowledge. As the wise has access to the Knowledge, he is at the closest of the source, the primordial Principle at the origin of the manifestation of everything in this world. As he is at the top of the spiritual order, he finds his reflection at the bottom of the physical order of which the ordinary being constitutes the most manifest representative. In this sense, we can say that the extremes are touching or, more exactly, joining each other. Sometimes, the wise descends the degrees separating both orders, takes the outer appearance of the ordinary being and, through his presence only, incites the other beings to start their inner journey in accordance with their capacities.

This is why the wise can take on various appearances, proper to the terrestrial world. In the Taoist tradition for example, he sometimes likes to merge into nature or the crowd so as to be totally unnoticed. However, he may also endorse the behavior of a more or less extravagant, even ridiculous being. In other traditions, African notably, the wise likes to conceal himself under childish, absurd or incisive features as in the following lines:

The one who knows and the one who does not know

  • The one who knows
  • And knows he knows
  • Is a wise being
  • And has to be followed.
  • The one who does not know
  • And knows he does not know
  • Is a seeker
  • And has to be guided.
  • The one who knows
  • And does not know he knows
  • Is a sleeper
  • And has to be awakened.
  • The one who does not know
  • And does not know he does not know
  • Is a public danger
  • And has to be killed.