You may be surprised to learn that Ethiopia and Ethiopian are not native African names. It comes from Greek Αἰθίοψ (Aithiops), meaning charred/ burnt face. It was a common Mediterranean belief that skin colour was determined by climate, ‘black’ being a result of overcooking in the sun so to speak. They also reckoned curly/ kinky/ woolly hair is caused by the same. However, this could be seen as negative (due to living at an “extremity of the world”) , or positive. Homer described Ethiopians as pious and divinely favoured while Herodotus called them the most attractive people in the world.
In English it can also be spelt Aithiopia or Aethiopia. For this post I’ll use Aithiopia for the ancient Greek usage, and Ethiopia for the modern use.
Aithiopia was first coined by ancient Greek writers to mean the east-central African region that they believed was the cultural and ethnic predecessor of Kemet (ancient Egypt). In other words, the ancient Egyptians were DESCENDANTS of ancient Eafricans like Ethiopians & Somalis!
Yep, I can buy that.
According to them, Aithiopia was an empire situated between Ta-Seti in Lower (north) Kemet and the confluence of the White and Blue Niles. Centuries later the name became synonymous with a much larger region that included present-day South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Central African Republic, and Chad.
The Kemetics, before Greek influence (invasion), knew the region as Kush (yes, the Biblical Cush/ Kush). The Buhen stela (currently housed in the Florence Museum), which dates from the reign of Sety I (1294-1279 BC), refers to the place as “Kas” and “Kash.” Kush is also mentioned as “KSH” in other texts dated between 1550 – 1069 BC. It’s possible that this was what ancient Ethiopians called it too, bu don’t quote me on that.
One should note that ancient Greeks like Herodotus occasionally called other people Aithiopian, i.e. the straight-haired “Asian Aithiopians”.
(See here for more possible examples)
As a side note, the country has also been known as Abyssinia, latinised from Arabic al-Ḥabash, possibly from Amharic ḥabesha which according to some means mixed. Others, however, contend that it’s a Sabaic Arabic term that means slave.
Most people may find it shocking/ offensive that Ethiopians might be ‘grey’, but there is some evidence for it:
- Some Ethiopian groups, most notably Amhara & Tigray-Tigrinya, are often (but not always) considerably lighter skinned than their other countrymen like the Oromo, Kunama, Afar, Irob, etc. Could that be the cause of the current genocide against Oromo, as well as why some “habeshas” don’t consider themselves ‘black’?
- Some of their biblical artworks depict themselves as damn-near ‘white’. (Please note I said some, not all)
- I have heard the claim that the biblical queen of Sheba’s marriage to king Solomon made them light-skinned. In the Kebra Negast her name is Makeda. Her ‘blackness’ is unquestionable but his ‘whiteness’ isn’t explicitly clarified, just assumed.
- Greek writers like Ptolemy & Pliny made occasional references to Leucaethiopians (‘white’ Ethiopians). No explanation is given for their existence, leading modern researchers to speculate if they were absorbed foreigners or albinos. They may even just be light skinned without foreign ancestry, as many Africans today still equivocate ‘white’ and light skinned. Maybe the Greeks were doing the same?
Why is the country now known as Ethiopia? Because of Christianity, specifically the conversion of king Ezana of Axum (320s – circa 360AD). He thus became Axum’s very first Christian monarch. Ever since the Solomonic line came to power (descendants of Makeda & Solomon, including Haile Selassie), Ethiopia has never been ruled by anyone but Christians – even though the country as a whole is mostly Muslim according to Ethiopians I’ve spoken to.