Marvel’s latest superhero movie, “Black Panther,” proves surprisingly religious. Previous films like “Thor” (2011) and “The Avengers” (2012) use the language of “gods,” but this term mostly refers to powerful beings like Thor and Loki — characters as opposed to deities characters worship. “Black Panther” changed that.
Rather than featuring this kind of character based off of a pagan god, “Black Panther” shows main characters praying to religious beings who remained offscreen, or invoking their aid against one another. Below, PJ Media has compiled a spoiler-free set of references for the three beings “Black Panther” characters worship or pray to.
1. “Glory to Bast!”
At the beginning of the film, the old king T’Chaka (John Kani) tells his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) about Black Panther’s home country, Wakanda, in a flashback. After a meteorite made of vibranium — an extremely valuable substance — struck Africa, a warrior shaman had a vision “from the panther goddess Bast.”
Bast is the earlier version of a better-known goddess Bastet, the Egyptian cat-headed goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt, while Sekhmet is the parallel warrior lioness in Upper Egypt. Later, Bast became Bastet, the protector of cats.
In the Marvel comics, Bast is a male god and the son of the Egyptian sun god Ra. He is a member of the “Ennead,” extradimensional humanoid beings worshiped by the ancient Egyptians — so they are similar to the Norse gods like Thor and Loki, who are not strictly gods in the Marvel universe, but rather human-like beings on a higher plane of existence.
References to Bast run throughout “Black Panther.” Main characters greet one another with the statement, “Glory to Bast!” When hoping for a miracle, characters say, “I call upon Bast,” effectively praying to the goddess.
2. Glory to Hanuman!
Wakanda consists of five tribes, one of which is estranged from the other four. The Jabari tribe rejects the rule of the Black Panther (the superhero is also the nation’s king) and they worship a separate deity, the ape god Hanuman.
At one point, the leader of the Jabari tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke), challenges T’Challa for the throne of Wakanda. In declaring his challenge, he declares, “Glory to Hanuman!” In the middle of the fight, he goads T’Challa, saying, “Where is your god now?”
In the Marvel comics, the Jabari tribe worships a gorilla god called Ghekre. They follow the White Gorilla Cult, which contrasts with the Black Panther Cult.
“Hanuman” is the name of a Hindu deity in the epic Ramayana and other Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh texts, notably in the Mahabharata, one of the central texts of Hinduism. His theological origins in Hinduism are unclear, but he has been associated with Indian nationalism, heroic valor, and devotion to his personal god. In later literature, he is the patron god of martial arts, and symbolizes the virtues of self-control and service to a cause. He is portrayed as a monkey.
It remains unclear why the filmmakers chose “Hanuman” rather than “Ghekre” as the name for the Jabari deity.
The contrasting cults of Bast and Hanuman actually reveal something pivotal in the global history of religion: in ancient cultures, and even among dueling cultures today, warriors or conquerors would invoke their god as being mightier than the god of the competing tribe or nation. Throughout the Bible, the Homeric epics, in ancient near-eastern texts, and in tribal societies today, victory in battle has been considered proof that the conqueror’s god is more impressive or powerful than the god of the vanquished. (This is one reason why the survival of Judaism, despite defeats and exiles, is so remarkable.)
When M’Baku taunts T’Challa, saying, “Where is your god now?” he echoes this cultural-religious heritage.
3. “Praise the ancestors!”
Throughout “Black Panther,” characters emphasize the spiritual power of the ancestors, those who have come before. T’Challa and others have visions where they meet dead ancestors in a kind of spirit realm called “the ancestral realm.”
In the Marvel comics, Wakanda’s collective memory is represented by Djalia, a transcendent plane where souls go in a state of “living death.” Journeys to the “ancestral realm” seem similar to this description.
Forms of ancestor worship are common in Europe, Asia, Oceania, and in some African and Afro-Diasporic cultures. Veneration of deceased forebears, complete with prayers and sacrifices, is prevalent among many Africans, even practiced alongside versions of Christianity and Islam.
The ancestors receive more screen time and mentions in “Black Panther” than either Bast or Hanuman. While characters occasionally declare, “Glory to Bast!” and “Glory to Hanuman!”, they frequently invoke the ancestors. Rituals begin with “Praise the ancestors!”
The full prayer for a miracle went, “I call upon the ancestors, I call upon Bast … praise the ancestors!”
In contrast to both Bast and Hanuman, the ancestors actually do appear in the movie, suggesting some kind of spiritual existence beyond death.
The religious depth of “Black Panther” sets the new film apart from the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Aside from one notable line in “The Avengers” (2012) — Captain America (Chris Evans) says, “There’s only one god, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” — Marvel did not often delve into religious matters previously.
The film’s presentation of traditional African religions and the tribal battle invoking separate gods did fall short, however. While traditional religions still hold sway in many parts of Africa, Christianity and Islam dominate the continent, and their absence from this film is notable. In fact, the Nation of Islam blended black nationalism and the religion of Mohammed, and the burgeoning Christian denomination the Anglican Church in North America takes leadership from bishops in Nigeria.
“Black Panther” has a strong anti-colonialist streak (white people are denounced as “colonizers”), so perhaps the filmmakers did not want to introduce Christianity or Islam into Wakanda, since both these religions started in the Middle East and were often introduced to Africans by force of arms (with the notable exception of Christianity in Ethiopia and North Africa). Wakanda is about African identity, and filmmakers might have decided that foreign religions would not emphasize that.
Even so, it did seem odd that Christianity was omitted from the film. An actress reported that the “Black Panther” set “felt almost like church,” and that people were “testifying to God’s miracles” there. Perhaps the Christian faith drove the movie in unseen ways, while the non-Christian elements rose to the surface.
Watch the trailer below.