Rastafarianism: Movement & Symbols

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, learn how Rastafarianism formed and why certain symbols are associated with it. Discover the deep political and cultural movements involved, the prophesies of one of its founders, and how an Ethiopian Emperor was declared to be God.

Early Black Pride, A New Religion, and More

You've probably heard the name Rastafarian before, but how much do you really know about it? Most likely, you've heard it associated with Ragae music or maybe it brings to mind images of dreadlocks. However, the Rastafarian religion has a much more significant meaning for the people of the Caribbean and the descendants of those brought to the New World as part of the slave trade. Let's start with how Rastafarianism first began.


Rastafarianism began in the poorest neighborhoods of Kingston, Jamaica during the 1920s. As a movement celebrating pride in African heritage, it stood in contrast to the ongoing atmosphere of racism, class discrimination, and systemic poverty and oppression. An important part of the early movement was a desire to return to Africa, a place where many descendants of the slave trade believed they would find prosperity and belonging.

Marcus Garvey

At the root of the Rastafarian movement's origins was the teachings of Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Jamaican writer and activist encouraging belief in black pride and leading a movement to return to Africa. He taught that history was written by those of European descent, those in power who oppressed Africans and the descendants of African slaves. According to Garvey, the only way for Africans and their descendants to view history clearly was to interpret it for themselves, removing the biased and oppressive view of Africans. He also believed that Africans were the lost tribe of the Israelites and a black messiah would come from Africa, a rebirth of Christ, crowned king as a symbol to the world. This led Rastafarians to later declare Garvey as a rebirth of John the Baptist.

Marcus Garvey
Marcus Garvey

Haile Selassie

The movement officially became known as Rastafarians when Ethiopia crowned Haile Salassie as its emperor in 1930. Before his coronation, the prince's name was Ras Tafari, thus giving the movement its name. By believing Salassie as the return of Christ and that Africans were the lost tribe of Israelites, the movement officially became a religion and designated Ethiopia as Zion, a heaven on Earth. Interestingly, neither Marcus Garvey nor Emperor Hailie Selassie (1892-1975) ever believed Selassie was the messiah or a divine person. Garvey openly argued against this belief and the emperor was a lifelong and devout Orthodox Christian who frequently denied Rastafarian worship.

Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia

Different Sects

Much as other religions have different sects or denominations of belief, Rastafarians have three main divisions called mansions. The first sect, the Nyahbinghi, is the oldest sect, named for Queen Nyahbinghi of Uganda in honor of her battle to free her people from colonial oppression. The next Rastafarian sect is the Bobo Shanti. They differ from the other sects by their belief that Prince Emanuel Charles Edwards was also a reincarnation of Christ. They usually wrap their dreadlocks in turbans, wear long robes, and carry brooms as a symbol of their spiritual cleanliness. Finally, we have the youngest sect of Rastafarianism, the Twelve Tribes of Israel founded by Dr. Vernon Carrington in the late 1960s. Known to this sect as Prophet Gad, Dr. Carrington emphasized the belief that Africans were descended from the lost tribe of Israelites by assigning each member to one of the twelve tribes by their month of birth.


Rastafarianism is associated with a wide variety of symbols, representing the members' heritage, beliefs, ritual practices, and bodily customs.

Dreadlocks and Ganja

In popular awareness, Rastafarianism is frequently associated with marijuana, which Rastafarians call ganja, and dreadlocks. Dreadlocks, thick strands of twisted hair, are the most visible features of Rastafarians though the hairstyle is not exclusive to people of their religion. Rastafarians wear them because of biblical passages against cutting hair and the tradition of African priests to wear them. As for ganja, the Rastafarians smoke it during rituals as a means to cleanse the spirit and open the mind. They also use it as a medicinal herb rather than as a recreational drug.

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