T'Challa, who was long the leader of the African nation of Wakanda, is better known as Black Panther, one of Marvel Comics' most significant black superhero characters. In addition to his role as a superhero, a member of the Avengers, and the leader of his nation, T'Challa is also the leader of the Black Panther Cult, his ancestral religious group. The Black Panther is one of a very small number of mainstream superheroes who serves as a religious leader.
The Black Panther's religion can be classified as African primal-indigenous religion, also known as African tribal religion or African traditional religion. The Black Panther's specific religious beliefs and practices are his own conception of traditional Wakandan religion.
One should keep in mind that T'Challa is a highly educated man, who has earned a Ph.D. in physics after university schooling in America and England. As the heroic Black Panther he has also had numerous experiences both on his own and as an Avenger which have introduced him to many of the amazing realities in the Marvel Universe - extraterrestrial, magical, technological and otherwise. Certainly these experienced have influenced his beliefs as well. T'Challa in many ways can be regarded as a religious conservative, as he continues to honor and subscribe to the religion of his ancestors.
From: Jeff Christiansen, et al., Marvel Encyclopedia Vol. 6: Fantastic Four, Marvel Entertainment Group: New York, NY (2004), pages 39-40:
T'Challa is the son of T'Chaka, tribal leader of the African nation Wakanda, and N'Yami, who died in childbirth... T'Chaka eventually remarried Ramonda, an African-American woman, and T'Challa readily accepted her as his mother.
T'Chaka forged an unwise alliance with Ulysses Klaw, a Dutch explorer who had come to Wakanda to steal Vibranium, its most precious natural resource. Vibranium was mined by the Wakandans from a mound which had struck the nation centuries ago, and the metal proved to possess the ability to absorb impacts and sonics. Klaw slew T'Chaka in the course of his scheme, but the young T'Challa turned Klaw's sonic weapon upon him, exploding the gun Klaw held in his hand. Klaw lost his right hand as a result. With Klaw driven out, T'Challa became prince of Wakanda, but first set off to the outside world, where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics while being schooled in America and England.
Finally returning to Wakanda to rule it, T'Challa won the right to wear the costume of the Black Panther in battle, even though he could have assumed it as T'Chaka's heir. To fully assume his duties, he sought out the heart-shaped herb which granted him animal-like tracking senses and night vision, and also increased his strength. As the Black Panther, he had not only assumed the mantles of kingship of Wakanda, head of the Black Panther Cult, and head of the Wakanda Design Group, but also bore the responsibility to control the use of the sacred Vibranium...
T'Challa's greatest allies in Wakanda are Taku, his communications advisor, his bodyguard Zuri, WKabi, chief of security, N'Gassi, T'Challa's regent, and members of the Dora Milaje ("Adored Ones"), which include Okoye, Queen Divine Justice and Nakia. The Dora Milaje are daughters of rival tribes who have been selected to serve T'Challa as bodyguards and potential wives in order to keep the peace.
...T'Challa remains in America for now, occasionally serving with the Avengers. He has also mentored Kevin "Kasper" Cole, who has become the White Tiger, an acolyte in the Black Panther Cult under T'Challa's guidance.
Of course the word "cult" (as used in the "Black Panther Cult" which T'Challa leads) is used in its traditional sense. That is, "cult" refers to any group of people who have distinct beliefs and practices. With this traditional definition of the word, "cult" also typically has a connotation of a minority religious group, distinct from the broader mainsteam population. This is the same sense of the word used by historians and theologians when they refer to Christianity in the 1st and 2nd Centuries A.D. as a "cult." Etymologically, the word "cult" is the root of words such as "culture" and "cultivate."
In recent years, especially since the 1970s, the word "cult" has come to be used almost exclusively in broader English parlance as a purely perjorative word, meaning essentially "a religious group that we don't like." This use of the word, typified by its use among contemporary Protestant Evangelical Christians, is used simply as an epithet or perjorative word. It is not uncommon for various religious groups (especially Evangelicals) to identify rival philosophies or denominations which they dislike and retroactively assign characteristics of those groups as the "definition" of the word "cult." Obviously this linguistically corrupt usage of the word "cult" has nothing to do with the what T'Challa means when he identifies himself as an adherent of and the leader of the "Black Panther Cult."
From: Jess Nevins, "Black Panther" webpage (http://www.geocities.com/ratmmjess/panther.html; viewed 12 December 2005):
First Appearance: Black Panther v1 #7 (January 1978)
Appearances: Black Panther v1 #7, Black Panther v2 #29, Fantastic Four Unlimited #1.
Years Active: ? to the present.
It was established (admittedly, in what seems to have been an unpublished Conan story) that the lineage of the Black Panther stretches back far beyond T'Challa and even the Golden Age Black Panther, Azzari the Wise (the grandfather of T'Challa). A Black Panther was shown riding with Conan, although I do not know whether it was in a Hyperborean Wakanda or some other land. But if the Black Panther cult was active in 10,000 B.C.E., then presumably it has been active since then.
In the original Black Panther series the history of Wakanda was laid out in some detail; after the vibranium meteor fell, a number of Wakandans mutated into "demon spirits" and began attacking their "friends and neighbors." T'Challa's ancestor, Bashenga (that's him on the left), became the first Black Panther--no date is given for this event beyond it having happened many centuries ago--and closed the vibranium mound to outsiders, forming a cult that guarded it and fought to keep the "demon spirits" from "spreading across the Earth."
Bashenga wore the attire of a (stereo)typical African native, but with a black panther cowl which covers the top of his head, rather than his face, ala Hercules and the hide of the Nemean Lion.
Note: In v1 #7 T'Challa noted that his family had "never been known to die in bed," which to my eyes implies that there's a lineage of Black Panthers that have always been active.
Note: The preceding story was contradicted by Fantastic Four Unlimited #1, which portrayed "Chanda," T'Challa's grandfather (his other grandfather, perhaps?), as founding the Black Panther role during World War Two. The story also implies that the Wakandans originally came to Wakanda because of the vibranium mound. I don't really see how these two stories can be reconciled without a lot of heavy lifting, so I'm going with the original story, which I find preferable in every way. However, Bob Harras has definitively stated that Wakanda did not get involved in the events of World War Two, so the story in Fantastic Four Unlimited #1 is invalid.
Later Note: Black Panther v2 #29 showed T'Chaka, the father of T'Challa, encountering Captain America (I) in Wakanda.
From: "List of Superhero Religions" discussion board, started 14 March 2006 (http://s8.invisionfree.com/Superdickery_Forum/ar/t2607_0.htm; viewed 24 April 2006):
Ununnilium - March 14, 2006 06:55 AM (GMT)
Black Panther Cult? Sheesh. But reading the site, I see where it's from. Etymology is fun!
From: "X-Men religious affiliations" thread started 1 June 2002 on rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks newsgroup (http://groups.google.com/group/rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks/browse_thread/thread/78e6830d00083d2f/102a03cd2dab9fda; viewed 13 June 2006):
From: Patrick McClue
Date: Sun, Jun 9 2002 3:47 am
...To add to that, are the Wakandans Muslim, Christian, or do they worship other gods? Being isolationists, I doubt they would adopt foreign religions. If we can accept an African nation that is technologically more advance than other nations in the Marvel world, and that they might have their own religion, I don't see why Marvel's Africans must be either Christian or Muslim.
Date: Sun, Jun 9 2002 8:45 am
I believe most fall into the worship of the Panther god. There is also the marginalized Cult of the White Gorilla. Their xenophobia would tend to discourage the entrance of missionaries from elsewhere.
Date: Mon, Jun 10 2002 1:18 pm
re: "marginalized Cult of the White Gorilla"
How marginal are they? T'challa's main man was always wearing a big white gorilla skin around his shoulders. Or was T'challa just including him to get his religious diversity quota in?
From: Luis Dantas
Date: Sun, Jun 16 2002 5:21 am
re: "How marginal are they?"
Very much indeed. At least according to an early Jungle Tales story featuring Black Panther, Hawkeye, Black Knight and then-new Avenger, the Vision.
A year or so later McGregor wrote a tale (on the same book) where a real White Gorilla was T'Challa's main foe as part of his fight against Erik Killmonger. It implied that the WG cult was very much a dangerous and secretive religion.
re: "was T'challa just including him to get his religious diversity"
Possibly. But I don't remember that suit - is it a cape or a full-body suit? I think this may be significant, and a cape could be taken akin to Hercules wearing the Nemedia Lion's skin, as a sign of conquest rather than homage.
From: "Islamic super heroes: Are there any?" forum discussion, started 23 August 2005 on "Comic Book Resources" website (http://forums.comicbookresources.com/archive/index.php/t-76010.html; viewed 28 May 2007):
08-23-2005, 10:06 PM
Well, anyways, I was thinking of an idea for a UN-sanctioned super hero team with represenatives from different countries, and one of them is a female telepath from Turkey... named Sultana. And I suddenly realized that for the life of me I can't think of a single Muslim super-hero from either Marvel or DC.
So, are there any? And please don't turn this into a political debate.
08-23-2005, 11:18 PM
...Never really thought about it before but I would venture that perhaps T'Challa being African would stand a good chance of being Muslim since that is tha major religion there.
08-23-2005, 11:20 PM
Maybe in northern Africa but IIRC [if I recall correctly] Wakanda is in Southern Africa.
08-23-2005, 11:23 PM
And, IIRC [if I recall correctly], the National religion of Wakanda is the Panther god (or something along that line, I know its a pagan religion at least.)
Which would be why the Vatican sent Black Knight to invade it with Klaw and Bartoc and...
I'm sorry, I cant continue, my head would explode from the rage.
From: "New Joe Fridays: Week 49" forum discussion, started 1 June 2007 on Newsarama website (http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=114952&page=5; viewed 8 June 2007):
06-03-2007, 04:58 AM
You brought up the issue of comic-book stereotypes and religions. Since I study religion (all kinds, really) this is something I've thought about a lot.
First the issue of stereotypes in general: The first major black Marvel characters were the Black Panther (Phantom/Tarzan-like jungle lord with a name that may or may not have predated the American political party by that name), Luke Cage (1970's blacksploitation character), Falcon (sidekick with a criminal past), and Storm (African princess modeled after Lt. Uhura). Throw on the Arabian Knight (actually an Egyptian, he had a scimitar and flying carpet), Shamrock, Batroc ze Leaper, and every German except Nightcrawler. I see all this as stemming not from maliciousness, but from the tendency of comic books to deal in stock characters, as a kind of shorthand. Later attempts improved with time, for the most part, though new characters have always had greater difficulty gaining a foothold...