Meaning of Nyankopon and Nyame

The spirituality of Africans and their knowledge about God far predate the coming of the Europeans to Africa1. AKan people of Ghana’s name for God is [O]nyankopon or Nyame. The origin of the names remain obscure and the meaning too remains controversial as well. Ephirim-Donkor’s discussion with Rattray, Danquah and Ellis, postulates the name to mean the Lord of the Sky, Ultimate Friend and Blazing One. Ephirim-Donkor rejects the latter2; and I don’t subscribe to it neither.

Etymologically, it is quite unfortunate that the oral tradition fails to offer clues. However, it is not completely lost in the Akan linguistic. The various arguments seem to support that Nyankopon means “The One Supreme Sky God”. “Nyanko” is often associated with the sky. There are many Akan terms which denote this conception. For example: Nyankonton (rainbow) literally means “Arc of the sky” or as it is in French “Arc-en-ciel”. Again Nyankonsuo (rain water) literally means “Water from the sky”. There is a great caution here. The Akans understanding of the sky, in this sense, transcends beyond the elements of the sky (sun, moon and stars). To the Akan, the “Sky God” lives beyond. He is not in matter. He created all things and He rules all things. Since His place of abode is unknown, the eternal sky becomes the general notion. Probably this is the reason why Akans say: “Obi nkyere akwadaa Nyame”, meaning “Nobody teaches the child to know God.” As a child lies on the back, the sky becomes the child’s worldview. This conception can be sustained because Akans believe that God cannot be reached by men. Therefore, the anyame “gods”, considered as representatives of Nyankopon, become the intermediaries to reach the thoughts of the divinities. So God, the highest spiritual being in the Akan religion, is out of the reach of humanity, yet omnipresent because of His sunsum (power) in creation.

Akans often use the name Nyankopon interchangeably with the distinctive Nyame3, Akans generic name for the deity. The designation of Nyame to God perhaps evolved from “nyame” or “anyame” (gods) to disintegrate God from polytheistic association. This transformation is a contextual phenomenon which parallels the Greek exaltation of the word kurios (Lord) which is designated to Jesus Christ. Thus in Akan, we have “Anyame mu Nyame” (Lit. God of gods or The Supreme God). The contextual transformation became very instrumental in the lute against polytheism in the African Traditional Religion within the quarters of Christianity in Africa. For more discussion on the Akan God see Akan Christology: An Analysis of the Christologies of John Samuel Pobee and Kwame Bediako in Conversation with the Theology of Karl Barth4. Nyankopon therefore seems to have been transformed from Nyame (God) kro (One unique), pon (Great or Supreme) thus “The One Supreme God”. His name often comes with other appellations such as “Nana-Nyankopon” (The Great Eminent God), and “Oboadeɛ Nyankopon” (God the Creator).

  1. Kwame Gyekye, An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 222-223  
  2. See Anthony Ephirim-Donkor, African Religion Defined Book Cover African Religion Defined: A Systematic Study of Ancestor Worship Among the Akan, Seond Edition. Lanham: University Press of America (Rowman & Littlefield Group), 2013, pp. 38-40  
  3. Akans spell Nyame with the capital N in order to distinguish God from other gods  
  4. Charles S. Aye-Addo, Akan Christology: An Analysis of the Christologies of John Samuel Pobee and Kwame Bediako in Conversation with the Theology of Karl Barth. Eugene, Or: Pickwick Publications, 2013, pp. 5-21  
Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi

Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi

Pastor/PhD Student
I am a Seventh-day Adventist pastor designate for the Adventist Fellowship Geneva in Switzerland, and studying for a PhD at the University of Geneva.
Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi
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Clifford Owusu-Gyamfi