African – Etymology

Africa’s origin is steeped in mystery, effectively carried along the generations by those who valued their heritage and desired to continue the legends and tales that defined their culture to such a significant extent. The origin of its very name is filled with intrigue and presents many different theories.

“Afri” was associated with the Phoenician afar “dust” and was used as the name for the society of people living near Carthage (an ancient city near Tunis) in northern Africa. Their existence was first noted during the Punic Wars (between 264 and 146 before our Common Era or BCE). These three wars were the largest of their time, fought between the Roman Empire and Carthage. They were a battle over space between the well established Carthage and the ever-expanding Rome. Rome was ultimately victorious. When this happened, Carthage became the capital of the Roman province of Africa (which was, in part, made up Phoenician Ruins of the coastal section of Libya). The Roman suffix to denote a country was “-ca” and this was thus added to “Afri”. The Arabians of that time converted this name to “Ifriqiya” in Latin. In Algeria, this name still exists, as is evident by such areas as Ifira and Ifri-n-Dellal.

Another theory is that the word originates from Berber, a group of languages spoken in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt, as well as parts of Niger, Mali, the Sahara and northern Sahel. The Berber word “ifri” means “cave” and is thought to have referred to the numerous cave dwellers (or cavemen) of the time. These North African folk were called Garamantes in Greek, although the name they bore for themselves remains unknown. This society boasted an efficient underground irrigation system and left many valuable rock paintings that revealed their way of life and values.

Flavius Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived and worked in the first century of our Common Era. He hypothesised that the name “Africa” originated from the grandson of Abraham, recorded in the Hebrew scriptures of the Christian Bible at Genesis 25:4. This grandson, Epher, and his descendents invaded Libya (according to Josephus).

Joannes Leo Africanus, on the other hand, suggested that the Greek work phrike (φρίκη), meaning “cold and horror”, was prefixed by “a-” to indicate its opposite; i.e. “without cold and horror”. This would create the name to define this warm and inviting land. Africanus was a historian and Arabic diplomat that lived between 1488 and 1554 and used this nickname in much of his writings. However, his birth name was Al Hassan Ibn Muhammad Al Wazzan.

Another interesting theory was established by Massey in 1881. The Egyptian term “Ka” referred to every person’s energy, a non-fleshly double that defined your being (much the same as the Christian term, soul). The “opening of the Ka” then referred to the mother’s womb or the child’s birthplace and was held as a very special and honoured concept. The Egyptian word “af-rui-ka” literally means “to turn towards the opening of the Ka”, and recognises Africa as the birthplace of their earliest ancestors.

The theories outlined above are only some of those held by esteemed historians and archaeologists. Africa boasts a reputation of unanswered questions, lending it an air of intrigue on many different levels. No one name could define this continent in its entirety and no one definition could do such diversity justic.