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Leo Frobenius

Leo Frobenius
Leo Frobenius
Born 29 June 1873
Berlin, Germany
Died 9 August 1938(1938-08-09) (aged 65)
Biganzolo, Piedmont, Italy
Nationality German
Fields Ethnology
Influenced Adolf Ellegard Jensen
Joseph Campbell
Oswald Spengler
Ezra Pound
Aimé Césaire
Léopold Sédar Senghor

Leo Viktor Frobenius (29 June 1873 – 9 August 1938) was an ethnologist and archaeologist and a major figure in German ethnography.


  • Life 1
  • African Atlantis 2
  • Legacy 3
  • African art taken to Europe by Frobenius 4
  • Works 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


He was born in Berlin as the son of a Prussian officer and died in Biganzolo, Lago Maggiore, Piedmont, Italy. He undertook his first expedition to Africa in 1904 to the Kasai district in Congo, formulating the African Atlantis theory during his travels. Until 1918 he travelled in the western and central Sudan, and in northern and northeastern Africa. In 1920 he founded the Institute for Cultural Morphology in Munich. In 1932 he became honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt, and in 1935 director of the municipal ethnographic museum.

In 1897/1898 Frobenius defined several "culture areas" (Kulturkreise), cultures showing similar traits that have been spread by diffusion or invasion. With his term paideuma, Frobenius wanted to describe a gestalt, a manner of creating meaning (Sinnstiftung), that was typical of certain economic structures. Thus, the Adolf Ellegard Jensen, who applied it to his ethnological studies.[1] It also later influenced the theories of Oswald Spengler.[2]

During World War I in 1916/1917, Leo Frobenius spent almost an entire year in Romania, travelling with the German army for scientific purposes. His team performed archaeological and ethnographic studies in the country, as well as documenting the day-to-day life of the ethnically diverse inmates of the Slobozia prisoner camp. Numerous photographic and drawing evidences of this period exist in the image archive of the Frobenius Institute[3]

Frobenius taught at the University of Frankfurt. In 1925, the city acquired his collection of about 4700 prehistorical African stone paintings, which are currently at the University's institute of ethnology, which was named the Frobenius Institute in his honour in 1946.

His writings with Douglas Fox were a channel through which some African traditional storytelling and epic entered European literature. This applies in particular to Gassire's lute, an epic from West Africa which Frobenius had encountered in Mali. Ezra Pound corresponded with Frobenius from the 1920s, initially on economic topics. The story made its way into Pound's Cantos through this connection.

In the 1930s, Frobenius claimed that he had found proof of the existence of the lost continent of Atlantis.[4]

African Atlantis

"African Atlantis" is a now-discredited hypothetical civilization thought to have once existed in southern Africa, initially proposed Leo Frobenius around 1904.[5] Named for the mythical Atlantis, this lost civilization was conceived to be the root of African culture and social structure. Frobenius surmised that a white civilization must have existed in Africa prior to the arrival of the European colonisers, and that it was this "white residue" that enabled native Africans to exhibit traits of "military power, political leadership and... monumental architecture."[5] Frobenius's theory stated that "historical contact with immigrant 'whites' of Mediterranean origin" was responsible for "advanced" native African culture. He stated that such a civilizations must have disappeared long ago, to allow for the perceived "dilution" of their civilization to the "levels" that were encountered during the period.[5]


Due to his studies in African history, Frobenius is a figure of renown in many African countries even today. In particular, he influenced Léopold Sédar Senghor, one of the founders of Négritude, who once claimed that Frobenius had "given Africa back its dignity and identity." Aimé Césaire also quoted Frobenius as praising African people as being "civilized to the marrow of their bones", as opposed to the degrading vision encouraged by colonial propaganda.

On the other hand, Wole Soyinka, in his 1986 Nobel Lecture, criticized Frobenius for his "schizophrenic" view of Yoruba art versus the people who made it.[6] Quoting Frobenius's statement that "I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness,"[6] Soyinka calls such sentiments "a direct invitation to a free-for-all race for dispossession, justified on the grounds of the keeper's unworthiness."[6]

Otto Rank relied on Frobenius' reports of the Fanany burial in South Africa to develop his idea of macrocosm and microcosm in his book Art and Artist (Kunst und Künstler [1932])

“Certainly the idea of the womb as an animal has been widespread among different races of all ages, and it 'furnishes an explanation of (for instance) the second burial custom discovered by Frobenius along with the Fanany burial in South Africa. This consisted in placing the dead king's body in an artificially emptied hull's skin in such a manner that the appearance of life was achieved. This bull-rite was undoubtedly connected with the moon-cult (compare our "mooncalf," even today) and belongs therefore to the above-mentioned maternal culture-stage, at which the rebirth idea also made use of maternal animal symbols, the larger mammals being chosen. Yet we must not overlook the fact that this "mother's womb symbolism" denotes more than the mere repetition of a person's own birth: it stands for the overcoming of human mortality by assimilation to the moon's immortality. This sewing-up of the dead in the animal skin has its mythical counterpart in the swallowing of the living by a dangerous animal, out of which he escapes by a miracle. Following an ancient microcosmic symbolism, Anaximander compared the mother's womb with the shark. This conception we meet later in its religious form as the Jonah myth, and it also appears in a cosmological adaptation in the whale myths collected in Oceania by Frobenius. Hence, also, the frequent suggestion that the seat of the soul after death (macrocosmic underworld) is in the belly of an animal (fish, dragon). The fact that in these traditions the animals are always those dangerous to man indicates that the animal womb is regarded not only as the scene of a potential rebirth but also as that of a dreaded mortality, and it is this which led to all the cosmic assimilations to the immortal stars."

Frobenius also confirmed the role of the moon cult in african cultures, according to Rank:

"Bachofen was the first co point out this connexion in the ancient primitive cultures in his Muttemcht (x86x), but it has since received widespread corroboration from later researchers, in particular Frobenius, who discovered traces of a matriarchal culture in prehistoric Africa (Das unbekanntt Afrika, Munich, 191.3)."

Frobenius' work gave Rank insight into the double meaning of the king's ritual murder, and the cultural development of soul belief:

"Certain African traditions (Frobenius: Erythraa) lead to the assumption that the emphasizing of one or another of the inherent tendencies of the ritual was influenced by the character of the slain king, who in one case may have been feared and in another wanted back again."

"The Fanany myth, mentioned below, of the Betsileo in Madagascar shows already a certain progress from the primitive worm to the soul-animal.2 The Betsileo squeeze the putrefying liquid out of the bodies of the dead at the feet and catch it in a small jar. After two or three months a worm appears in it and is regarded as the spirit of the dead. This jar is then placed in the grave, where the corpse is laid only after the appearance of the Fanany. A bamboo rod connects the jar with the fresh air (corresponding to the " soulholes" of Northern stone graves). After six to eight months (corresponding possibly to the embryonic period) the Fanany (so the Betsileo believe) then appears in daylight in the form of a lizard. The relatives of the dead receive it with great celebrations and then push it back down the rod in the hope that this ancestral ghost will prosper exceedingly down below and become the powerful protector of the family and, for that matter, the whole village.

2 From Sibree's Madagascar, pp. 309 et seq., quoted by Frobenius in Der Seelenwurm (1895) and reprinted in Erlebte Erdteile, I (Frankfurt, 192.5), a treatise which deals principally with the "vase-cult" arising out of the storing of decayed remains in jars (see our later remarks on the vase in general).

"Later totemism- the idea of descent from a definite animal species - seems to emerge only from a secondary interpretation of the soul-worm idea or the soul-animal idea in accordance with a " law of inversion " (Frobenius) peculiar to mythical thought; just as the myth of the Creation as the projection backward in time of the myth of the end of the world is in itself only a formal expression of the principle of rebirth."

African art taken to Europe by Frobenius


Rock carving known as "Meercatze" (named by Frobenius) in Wadi Methkandoush
  • Die Geheimbünde Afrikas (Hamburg 1894)
  • Der westafrikanische Kulturkreis. Petermanns Mitteilungen 43/44, 1897/98
  • Weltgeschichte des Krieges (Hannover 1903)
  • Der schwarze Dekameron: Belege und Aktenstücke über Liebe, Witz und Heldentum in Innerafrika (Berlin 1910)
  • Unter den unsträflichen Äthiopen (Berlin 1913)
  • Paideuma (München 1921)
  • Dokumente zur Kulturphysiognomik. Vom Kulturreich des Festlandes (Berlin 1923)
  • Erythräa. Länder und Zeiten des heiligen Königsmordes (Berlin 1931)
  • Kulturgeschichte Afrikas (Zürich 1933)
  • Erdlebte Erdteile (unknown location or date)


  1. ^ Short Portrait: Adolf Ellegaard Jensen
  2. ^ Leon Surette, The Birth of Modernism, McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP, 1994, p. 63.
  3. ^ Mihai Dumitru, Leo Frobenius în România
  4. ^ "Leo Frobenius", Encyclopædia Britannica, 1960 edition
  5. ^ a b c Miller, p. 4
  6. ^ a b c Wole Soyinka (December 8, 1986). "This Past Must Address Its Present". Nobel Lecture. 
  • Miller, Joseph C. (1999). "History and Africa/Africa and History".  
  • "German Discovers Atlantis In Africa; Leo Frobenius Says Find of Bronze Poseidon Fixes Lost Continent's Place".  

External links

  • Homepage of the Frobenius Institute
  • The German Lawrence of Arabia had much to live up to – and failedRobert Fisk,
  • Leo Frobenius în România
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