Symbols of Faith

A central symbol for the Rastafari is the lion. One of Haile Selassie’s titles was the ‘Conquering Lion of Judah’. Representations of lions can be seen on Rastafari houses, flags, tabernacles, and artworks. The lion represents the ‘King of Kings’ and the dominant maleness of the movement. The lion is a symbol of strength and vigour. Rastafaris try to embody the spirit of the lion: proud, independent, and strong. The dreadlocks are likened to a lion’s mane, and also to the biblical Samson. Rastafaris sometimes call themselves Nazarites, as they follow the Nazarite vow to remain unshaven, found in Numbers 6:5. Being unshaven is seen as natural and unencumbered. Initially it was a symbol of defiance to Jamaican society that saw long hair on men as a symbol of disorder and degeneration; the dreadlocks said that they were outside Jamaican society. Rastafaris called themselves ‘dreads’, where dread meant power and rebellion. Mid-20th century conservative Jamaican society saw it as unkempt, dirty, and dangerous. Police and teachers used to cut off Rastas’ hair in the 1950s and 1960s. However, following the popularity of reggae music and the spread of Rastafari culture beyond Jamaica, dreadlocks have become a symbol of the Rastafari that presents less of an immediate challenge, having become familiar and to an extent sanitised. Dreadlocks for the Rastafari still symbolise power, with some calling them ‘telepathic antennas’ (Christensen 2014: 71).

Rastafari colours are red, green, gold, and black. Red, black and green were the colours of the Garvey movement. Red signifies the blood of martyrs in Jamaican history from the Maroons to Marcus Garvey. Black is the colour of Africans from whom 98 per cent of Jamaicans have descended. Green stands for the vegetation of Jamaica and signifies hope of victory over oppression. Gold is from the Jamaican flag, a cross over green and black.

Rastas consciously created a new type of language, variously called Iyaric, livalect (rather than dialect), I-talk, ‘dreadtalk’, ‘soul language’, or ‘hallucinogenic language’ (see ‘Expression and Worship’ below). Rastafari viewed English as a colonial imposition of Babylon, but they had lost their original African languages through slavery. Iyaric inverts the English language symbolically, for example ‘oppression’ becomes ‘downpression’ because it drags you down. Rastas strive to use language in a way that unites sound, word, and power, so that words that have a negative valence also have a negative sound, and words with a positive valence have a positive sound. Some individual words are given specific meaning in Rastafari language, for example ‘Israelite’ and ‘Ethiopian’ mean the same thing, referring to a holy people, chosen by God. They use the symbol of ‘the Beast’ from the biblical Book of Revelation for Babylon, which means the oppressive colonial, imperial system of which slavery was a part, and more widely everyone who is not Rasta. Babylon is a general symbol for evil and oppression. The image of the African continent is also a frequent part of Rastafari visual iconography, a symbol of the Promised Land.

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