Wakanda Wednesdays: Black Panther's spirituality pulls from reality

Contributed by
Jan 31, 2018

The tapestry of African-American religion and spirituality is exhaustively stitched together by both African and European traditions during the era of African enslavement. With their own religious and musical cultures beaten out of them, enslaved Africans were forced to rearticulate the perverse Christian rationale that subjugated them to white masters in the first place. The thought was, if you could convince a slave that their spiritual deliverance was bound up in their subservience to whiteness, you could then hold her and the generations following in that precarious position for the course of their lives.

But the traditions of the motherland are not so easily extracted from the flesh. The crack of the whip and the thump of the Word couldn't steal away all things housed in the spirit of the Black subject. And therefore, despite a kind of acceptance of European religious practice — of sermon, forms of prayer, and heteronormative ideals of family, sexuality, and love — the Africanisms (the call-and-response, hoopin' and hollerin' and the employment of communal dance and drumming) derived from West and sub-Saharan Africa reverberate all across Black spiritual gatherings today.

Because of these enduring practices, all things of matter, of divinity, of personhood and ancestry begin in the spiritual realm.

The wedding of European and African religious tradition makes its way to Black literature largely because the Black Church has prevailed as a creative mythmaking institution since Plymouth Rock landed on us all those years ago. As such, it stands to reason that the first mainstream Black superhero would have a direct yet confounding relationship with both Black and non-Black spiritual practices across its history.

Marvel's Black Panther is teeming with allusions to West African belief systems. Ifa of Yoruba tradition, South American rituals relating to ingestion of powerful fruits, and Christian redemptive parables have littered Black Panther's pages since its inception, making for not just fascinating storylines but a portrait of the ways Black spirituality has been imagined, unique to each author and the changing times.

 

While the degree to which Black and African spirituality is gestured toward in the Black Panther comics is predicated on the persons creating it, each iteration highlights the ways divinity plays a part in Wakandan society. Black Panther's early appearances in Fantastic Four were scarce in their appeal to sanctimony. In fact, the praise of the gods was ancestral. T'Challa retells his story to the FF and only mentions, in passing, that his father T'Chaka is thought of as a king and a god.

A central source of T'Challa's angst throughout his history is the massive shoes he's forced to fill when his father is murdered early on in the story. T'Chaka was an excellent politician, known for his wisdom, high esteem and practicality; qualities that separate him from T'Challa, who is much more emotional in his decision-making as a leader. The distance between them has led to questions of T'Challa's faithfulness to his country and he is more likely to opt against what the consensus might be from the larger polity in service to a larger ideal of peace or unity. While T'Challa would most likely be deified if he were to ever die, the question of his competency as a leader is ultimately tied to his relationship with the "Panther Spirit."

First introduced in the 1988 Hero No More storyline by Peter B. Gillis and Denys Cowan, the "Panther Spirit" inhabits all who are deemed worthy to dawn the Black Panther title. (Reminder: the Black Panther is an office of leadership in Wakandan society that is only partially hereditary. It can be passed down from one generation to the next but it must be earned through many trials and tests of strength.)

Hero No More is the first Black Panther story that sets the Panther Spirit as the crux of its conflict. In Hero No More, the spirit (who embodies a vicious anthropoid Panther) is pretty pissed that T'Challa has been spending so much time in America with the Avengers and ignoring the civil war taking place in Wakanda's neighbor nation, Azania. So, the spirit physically manifests into a murderous monster and attacks the corrupt Azanian officials charged with maintaining apartheid in the state. Having lost favor with the spirit, T'Challa is noticeably weaker, shunned by many Wakandan leaders, and forced to take part in the White Ape Ritual in order to redeem himself.

Credit: Marvel Comics

Harkening back to the origin story of one of Black Panther's oldest adversaries, the White Ape Ritual consists of climbing a dangerous mountain, retrieving a leaf from its tallest tree, and fending off the mythic white ape guarding it. In Wakandan myth, the white ape is the perpetual enemy of the panther. It is the ape that kills the panther day after day only to have it reborn following the next day's dawn. The practice touches on a few of the guiding principles of Wakandan society: animals being the spiritual harbingers of power, death, and reconstitution; physical exertion and sacrifice; and the circuity of karmic reincarnation in physical and non-physical forms.

But Hero No More also appeals to certain Judeo-Christian parables that resound with disciples in the States, as well. In a remarkable scene, after T'Challa is captured and thrown in prison by the leader of The Supremacists (yes, you read that correctly), General Moorbecx (why, yes, he is named after the species of German shepherd, the Moorbeck, police used to attack Black people), he is visited by the Panther Spirit who scolds him for leaving his people in a state of disarray.

The spirit has embodied their rage and he cries the tears of the people. T'Challa has, what the spirit calls, "the knowledge of the West" to counter a nuclear missile aimed at Wakanda. He then breaks T'Challa's chains, tells him to save Wakanda, and promises to kill him after the task is complete. T'Challa follows the orders, reconnecting him to the plight of his people and miraculously saves Wakanda from certain destruction. He's adored by the people but doesn't win favor with the spirit until the latter tears him apart in battle.

It's not until T'Challa has suffered at the hands of the Panther Spirit that forgiveness is earned and his favor restored.

Credit: Marvel Comics

The scene follows the beats of the imprisonment of St. Peter in the New Testament's Book of Acts. In the Bible, Peter and a few other disciples are healing folks of impure spirits and sickness when priests associated with the Sadducees throw them into a prison out of jealousy. In the wee hours of the morning, an angel appears and frees the men, leaving the prison officials dumbfounded in their wake.

After Peter and the other apostles are found, they are brought to stand trial in front of high court officials who would like nothing more than to kill them. But then a scholar in the crowd argues that if they're sent by God to fulfill His duties, then nothing will stop that from happening — citing cases of similar men causing massive destruction after they're killed, having proclaimed God as their master. So, instead, the men are flogged and end up celebrating the long-standing suffering they went through and the life they were spared in His name.

The combination of ancestral embodiment (the Panther spirit inhabits all those who've adorned the Black Panther title) and Judeo-Christian redemptive narrative here speaks to the ranging influence of both Western and African societies on Wakandan religious practices. Keeping in mind that T'Challa was educated in American schools — he calls St. Peter "a European mystic" in this story — the impact of Christian parables is not only felt in the plot but in the character's internal struggles, as well.

The spiritual aspects of Black Panther only evolved from there. During Christopher Priest's run (1998-2003), the inclusion of characters such as Mephisto — based on the Faustian demon Mephistopheles — only broadened the scope of Black Panther's influences. T'Challa's sister, Shuri, also holds a special place when it comes to the spectral embodiments of ancestors. It was her death and afterlife that first signaled how Wakandans remain connected to their deceased lineage. As a former Black Panther, having taken the reigns when T'Challa was critically injured and out of favor, Shuri's spirit is housed in a separate parallel plane where the former rulers can be accessed for guidance and even battle.

Wakanda's ancestral reconstitution on the astral plane is a huge factor in Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent run, as well. The civil war that erupts in Wakanda after the supervillain Namor almost wipes the country from the map is only quelled when Shuri, Ramonda (T'Challa's stepmother), and a host of previous Black Panthers advise the King on how to offer relief to his tormented sisters and brothers.

It's very easy to observe the grabbag of religious practices and portrayals Black Panther pulls from and believe the creators were making things up on the fly. And, perhaps, there was some of that going on. But the physics of Black Panther's world were set long ago with the deification of King T'Chaka even before the comics' real-life timeline. There was already a method of archiving the nonmaterial flesh whether through remembrance, word, or time-bending reincarnation. Executed with a unique blend of European and African tropes, the religiosity here actually feels like one of the less spectacular aspects of the comic, giving it a grounded reality. It's a reflection of learned human behavior of faith and ritual that existed, however internally, eons before pen was ever put to pad. Everything begins and everything ends with the spirit.