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African Religions

African Religions

In the religions of Africa, life does not end with death, but continues in another realm. The concepts of "life" and "death" are not mutually exclusive concepts, and there are no clear dividing lines between them. Human existence is a dynamic process involving the increase or decrease of "power" or "life force," of "living" and "dying," and there are different levels of life and death. Many African languages express the fact that things are not going well, such as when there is sickness, in the words "we are living a little," meaning that the level of life is very low. The African religions scholar Placide Tempels describes every misfortune that Africans encounter as "a diminution of vital force." Illness and death result from some outside agent, a person, thing, or circumstance that weakens people because the agent contains a greater life force. Death does not alter or end the life or the personality of an individual, but only causes a change in its conditions. This is expressed in the concept of "ancestors," people who have died but who continue to "live" in the community and communicate with their families.

This entry traces those ideas that are, or have been, approximately similar across sub-Saharan Africa. The concepts described within in many cases have been altered in the twentieth century through the widespread influence of Christianity or Islam, and some of the customs relating to burials are disappearing. Nevertheless, many religious concepts and practices continue to persist.

The African Concept of Death

Death, although a dreaded event, is perceived as the beginning of a person's deeper relationship with all of creation, the complementing of life and the beginning of the communication between the visible and the invisible worlds. The goal of life is to become an ancestor after death. This is why every person who dies must be given a "correct" funeral, supported by a number of religious ceremonies. If this is not done, the dead person may become a wandering ghost, unable to "live" properly after death and therefore a danger to those who remain alive. It might be argued that "proper" death rites are more a guarantee of protection for the living than to secure a safe passage for the dying. There is ambivalence about attitudes to the recent dead, which fluctuate between love and respect on the one hand and dread and despair on the other, particularly because it is believed that the dead have power over the living.

Many African peoples have a custom of removing a dead body through a hole in the wall of a house, and not through the door. The reason for this seems to be that this will make it difficult (or even impossible) for the dead person to remember the way back to the living, as the hole in the wall is immediately closed. Sometimes the corpse is removed feet first, symbolically pointing away from the former place of residence. A zigzag path may be taken to the burial site, or thorns strewn along the way, or a barrier erected at the grave itself because the dead are also believed to strengthen the living. Many other peoples take special pains to ensure that the dead are easily able to return to their homes, and some people are even buried under or next to their homes.

Many people believe that death is the loss of a soul, or souls. Although there is recognition of the difference between the physical person that is buried and the nonphysical person who lives on, this must not be confused with a Western dualism that separates "physical" from "spiritual." When a person dies, there is not some "part" of that person that lives onit is the whole person who continues to live in the spirit world, receiving a new body identical to the earthly body, but with enhanced powers to move about as an ancestor. The death of children is regarded as a particularly grievous evil event, and many peoples give special names to their children to try to ward off the reoccurrence of untimely death.

There are many different ideas about the "place" the departed go to, a "land" which in most cases seems to be a replica of this world. For some it is under the earth, in groves, near or in the homes of earthly families, or on the other side of a deep river. In most cases it is an extension of what is known at present, although for some peoples it is a much better place without pain or hunger. The Kenyan scholar John Mbiti writes that a belief in the continuation of life after death for African peoples "does not constitute a hope for a future and better life. To live here and now is the most important concern of African religious activities and beliefs. . . . Even life in the hereafter is conceived in materialistic and physical terms. There is neither paradise to be hoped for nor hell to be feared in the hereafter" (Mbiti 1969, pp. 45).

The African Concept of the Afterlife

Nearly all African peoples have a belief in a singular supreme being, the creator of the earth. Although the dead are believed to be somehow nearer to the supreme being than the living, the original state of bliss in the distant past expressed in creation myths is not restored in the afterlife. The separation between the supreme being and humankind remains unavoidable and natural in the place of the departed, even though the dead are able to rest there and be safe. Most African peoples believe that rewards and punishments come to people in this life and not in the hereafter. In the land of the departed, what happens there happens automatically, irrespective of a person's earthly behavior, provided the correct burial rites have been observed. But if a person is a wizard, a murderer, a thief, one who has broken the community code or taboos, or one who has had an unnatural death or an improper burial, then such a person may be doomed to punishment in the afterlife as a wandering ghost, and may be beaten and expelled by the ancestors or subjected to a period of torture according to the seriousness of their misdeeds, much like the Catholic concept of purgatory. Among many African peoples is the widespread belief that witches and sorcerers are not admitted to the spirit world, and therefore they are refused proper burialsometimes their bodies are subjected to actions that would make such burial impossible, such as burning, chopping up, and feeding them to hyenas. Among the Africans, to be cut off from the community of the ancestors in death is the nearest equivalent of hell.

The concept of reincarnation is found among many peoples. Reincarnation refers to the soul of a dead person being reborn in the body of another. There is a close relationship between birth and death. African beliefs in reincarnation differ from those of major Asian religions (especially Hinduism) in a number of important ways. Hinduism is "world-renouncing," conceiving of a cycle of rebirth in a world of suffering and illusion from which people wish to escapeonly by great effortand there is a system of rewards and punishments whereby one is reborn into a higher or lower station in life (from whence the caste system arose). These ideas that view reincarnation as something to be feared and avoided are completely lacking in African religions. Instead, Africans are "world-affirming," and welcome reincarnation. The world is a light, warm, and living place to which the dead are only too glad to return from the darkness and coldness of the grave. The dead return to their communities, except for those unfortunate ones previously mentioned, and there are no limits set to the number of possible reincarnationsan ancestor may be reincarnated in more than one person at a time. Some African myths say that the number of souls and bodies is limited. It is important for Africans to discover which ancestor is reborn in a child, for this is a reason for deep thankfulness. The destiny of a community is fulfilled through both successive and simultaneous multiple reincarnations.

Transmigration (also called metempsychosis) denotes the changing of a person into an animal. The most common form of this idea relates to a witch or sorcerer who is believed to be able to transform into an animal in order to perform evil deeds. Africans also believe that people may inhabit particular animals after death, especially snakes, which are treated with great respect. Some African rulers reappear as lions. Some peoples believe that the dead will reappear in the form of the totem animal of that ethnic group, and these totems are fearsome (such as lions, leopards, or crocodiles). They symbolize the terrible punishments the dead can inflict if the moral values of the community are not upheld.

Burial and Mourning Customs

Death in African religions is one of the last transitional stages of life requiring passage rites, and this too takes a long time to complete. The deceased must be "detached" from the living and make as smooth a transition to the next life as possible because the journey to the world of the dead has many interruptions. If the correct funeral rites are not observed, the deceased may come back to trouble the living relatives. Usually an animal is killed in ritual, although this also serves the practical purpose of providing food for the many guests. Personal belongings are often buried with the deceased to assist in the journey. Various other rituals follow the funeral itself. Some kill an ox at the burial to accompany the deceased. Others kill another animal some time after the funeral (three months to two years and even longer is the period observed). The Nguni in southern Africa call the slaying of the ox "the returning ox," because the beast accompanies the deceased back home to his or her family and enables the deceased to act as a protecting ancestor. The "home bringing" rite is a common African ceremony. Only when a deceased person's surviving relatives have gone, and there is no one left to remember him or her, can the person be said to have really "died." At that point the deceased passes into the "graveyard" of time, losing individuality and becoming one of the unknown multitude of immortals.

Many African burial rites begin with the sending away of the departed with a request that they do not bring trouble to the living, and they end with a plea for the strengthening of life on the earth and all that favors it. According to the Tanzanian theologian Laurenti Magesa, funeral rites simultaneously mourn for the dead and celebrate life in all its abundance. Funerals are a time for the community to be in solidarity and to regain its identity. In some communities this may include dancing and merriment for all but the immediate family, thus limiting or even denying the destructive powers of death and providing the deceased with "light feet" for the journey to the other world.

Ancient customs are adapted in many South African urban funerals. When someone has died in a house, all the windows are smeared with ash, all pictures in the house turned around and all mirrors and televisions and any other reflective objects covered. The beds are removed from the deceased's room, and the bereaved women sit on the floor, usually on a mattress. During the time preceding the funeralusually from seven to thirteen daysvisits are paid by people in the community to comfort the bereaved family. In the case of Christians, consolatory services are held at the bereaved home. The day before the funeral the corpse is brought home before sunset and placed in the bedroom. A night vigil then takes place, often lasting until the morning. The night vigil is a time for pastoral care, to comfort and encourage the bereaved. A ritual killing is sometimes made for the ancestors, as it is believed that blood must be shed at this time to avoid further misfortune. Some peoples use the hide of the slaughtered beast to cover the corpse or place it on top of the coffin as a "blanket" for the deceased. Traditionally, the funeral takes place in the early morning (often before sunrise) and not late in the afternoon, as it is believed that sorcerers move around in the afternoons looking for corpses to use for their evil purposes. Because sorcerers are asleep in the early morning, this is a good time to bury the dead.

In some communities children and unmarried adults are not allowed to attend the funeral. During the burial itself the immediate family of the deceased is expected to stay together on one side of the grave at a designated place. They are forbidden from speaking or taking any vocal part in the funeral. It is customary to place the deceased's personal property, including eating utensils, walking sticks, blankets, and other useful items, in the grave. After the funeral the people are invited to the deceased's home for the funeral meal. Many people follow a cleansing ritual at the gate of the house, where everyone must wash off the dust of the graveyard before entering the house. Sometimes pieces of cut aloe are placed in the water, and this water is believed to remove bad luck. Churches that use "holy water" sprinkle people to cleanse them from impurity at this time.

In southern Africa the period of strict mourning usually continues for at least a week after the funeral. During this time the bereaved stay at home and do not socialize or have sexual contact. Some wear black clothes or black cloths fastened to their clothes, and shave their hair (including facial hair) from the day after the funeral. Because life is concentrated in the hair, shaving the hair symbolizes death, and its growing again indicates the strengthening of life. People in physical contact with a corpse are often regarded as unclean. The things belonging to the deceased should not be used at this time, such as the eating utensils or the chairs the deceased used. Blankets and anything else in contact with the deceased are all washed. The clothes of the deceased are wrapped up in a bundle and put away for a year or until the extended period of mourning has ended, after which they are distributed to family members or destroyed by burning. After a certain period of time the house and the family must be cleansed from bad luck, from uncleanness and "darkness." The bereaved family members are washed and a ritual killing takes place. The time of the cleansing is usually seven days after the funeral, but some observe a month or even longer. Traditionally, a widow had to remain in mourning for a year after her husband's death and the children of a deceased parent were in mourning for three months.

A practice that seems to be disappearing in African urban areas is the home-bringing ritual, although it is still observed in some parts of Africa. A month or two after the funeral the grieving family slaughters a beast and then goes to the graveyard. They speak to the ancestors to allow the deceased to return home to rest. It is believed that at the graves the spirits are hovering on the earth and are restless until they are brought homean extremely dangerous situation for the family. The family members take some of the earth covering the grave and put it in a bottle. They proceed home with the assurance that the deceased relative is accompanying them to look after the family as an ancestor. Some Christian churches have a night vigil at the home after the home-bringing. The theologian Marthinus Daneel describes the ceremony in some Zimbabwean churches, where the living believers escort the spirit of the deceased relative to heaven through their prayers, after which a mediating role can be attained. The emphasis is on the transformation of the traditional rite, while providing for the consolation of the bereaved family. This example shows how these churches try to eliminate an old practice without neglecting the traditionally conceived need that it has served.

These burial and mourning customs suggest that many practices still prevailing in African Christian funerals are vestiges of the ancestor cult, especially the ritual killings and the home-bringing rites. Because a funeral is preeminently a community affair in which the church is but one of many players, the church does not always determine the form of the funeral. Some of the indigenous rites have indeed been transformed and given Christian meanings, to which both Christians and those with traditional orientation can relate. Sometimes there are signs of confrontation and the changing and discontinuance of old customs to such an extent that they are no longer recognizable in that context.

African funerals are community affairs in which the whole community feels the grief of the bereaved and shares in it. The purpose of the activities preceding the funeral is to comfort, encourage, and heal those who are hurting. Thereafter, the churches see to it that the bereaved make the transition back to normal life as smoothly and as quickly as possible. This transition during the mourning period is sometimes accompanied by cleansing rituals by which the bereaved are assured of their acceptance and protection by God. Because the dominance of Christianity and Islam in Africa has resulted in the rejection of certain mourning customs, the funeral becomes an opportunity to declare faith.

See also: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Buddhism; Chinese Beliefs; Hinduism; Immortality; Islam; Mind-Body Problem; Philosophy, Western


Anderson, Allan. Zion and Pentecost: The Spirituality and Experience of Pentecostal and Zionist/Apostolic Churches in South Africa. Tshwane: University of South Africa Press, 2000.

Berglund, Axel-Ivar. Zulu Thought Patterns and Symbolism. London: Hurst, 1976.

Blakely, Thomas, et al., eds. Religion in Africa. London: James Currey, 1994.

Bosch, David J. The Traditional Religions of Africa. Study Guide MSR203. Tshwane: University of South Africa, 1975.

Daneel, Marthinus L. Old and New in Southern Shona Independent Churches, Vol. 2: Church Growth. The Hague: Moulton, 1974.

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African Religions

African Religions


Traditional Beliefs. Most Africans came to the American colonies as slaves from the western areas and held a variety of religious beliefs. There were some common patterns, however. Africans believed in one High God, who created the world. He was often associated with the sky and remained somewhat uninvolved in the lives of humans. Lesser gods and ancestral spirits, however, were actively involved with the daily lives of individuals and the society. Groups of gods were associated with natural phenomena, such as thunder, earth, and especially water. Gods of nature resided in trees, hills, and animals. They were as kind, cruel, arbitrary, or willful as humans and had individual personalities and preferences. Humans had to maintain proper relationships to them by establishing shrines, wearing certain colors, eating particular foods, and conducting religious ceremonies that pleased them. Ancestral spirits were more varied and personal. Whether they had lived long ago or recently, they were honored as the founders of villages and kinship groups and served as custodians of culture and laws and as mediators between humans and the gods. It was within their power to grant or deny fertility and health to their devotees. They were reincarnated in one of their descendants, but their souls returned to the High God after that human died. Elderly people were revered, in part because they preserved the memory of the dead and in part because they were chronologically closer to the ancestors. Burial rites ensured that the dead entered the spirit world and did not linger in the natural world as restless and malevolent ghosts. Funerals were long affairs. After death the ancestors demanded offerings of food and drink in ceremonies of varying degrees of complexity. Priests served as mediators, able to read the fates of individuals, to divine the wills of gods and ancestral spirits, and to identify all manner of witchcraft. They prescribed the charms and amulets which were charged with magical power to protect and help humans as well as those natural herbs and roots which promoted healing. Priests also conducted the religious ceremonies devoted to the individual gods and ancestral spirits. Interwoven with these rituals was a vibrant pattern of musicdancing, drumming, and singing.

Islam and Christianity. Some Africans were practicing Muslims and Catholics when they came to America. The trade networks of northwest Africa brought the Islam religion, which drew on Judeo-Christian roots but viewed Jesus as only a minor spiritual leader and Mohammed as its greatest prophet. Muslims followed the teachings of the Koran, observing dietary restrictions and praying in the direction of Mecca five times a day. The Portuguese explorers converted some to Catholicism. Many Africans blended these religions into their traditional belief systems. To them, God and Allah were just different names for the High God; Mohammed, Mary, and Jesus served the intermediary function of their lesser gods, and the Catholic saints were uncommonly similar to their ancestor spirits. The importance of water in their religious ceremonies prepared them for the sacrament of baptism. The magical power of charms was easily viewed in the donning of crosses or scraps of Koran parchment to protect oneself in battle.

Conversion. In the American colonies Africans were unevenly dispersed. The relatively small numbers in the northern colonies often blended into households and adopted the variety of Christianity practiced there. Puritans, as might be expected, were particularly anxious to convert their charges and enforce Christian mores, but this concern transcended denominations. The tobacco and rice colonies of the South had more Africans where concerted efforts at proselytizing occurred, particularly in the eighteenth century by the Anglican-supported Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (S.P.G.). It was created to bring salvation to those with the least prior access to the Scriptures. Some slaveholders were reluctant to expose their laborers to a religion that proclaimed the equality of all humans before God, in the fear that those who were baptized would claim that they were now free. One of the most effective missionaries in New York City lost his appointment when he was blamed for a 1712 slave uprising. The S.P.G. established schools to train blacks for the ministry so that they would proselytize among their own people. The most famous of these schools was in South Carolina and lasted over twenty years. Other denominations became more active during the Great Awakening, and Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist evangelicals sought to awaken blacks as well as whites and encourage all of them to found churches. The Presbyterian Samuel Davies was particularly assiduous and successful in Virginia in midcentury.

Blending of Tradition. Africans selectively adopted Christianity by modifying its theology and practices to include elements of their traditional regions. They sought conversion when the spirit of God entered their souls, much as it did during ancestral reincarnations. Satan was just a malevolent lesser god and needed to be held at a safe distance through the use of charms and the intercession of more friendly, ancestral spirits. Enslaved Africans related best to the Old Testament where God remained with his chosen people during their slavery in Egypt and delivered them to freedom. The image of water figured prominently and assumed the near-magical powers assigned to it in Africa. They created families of nonrelated kin to provide protective ancestral spirits and encouraged the fertility that would provide those spirits with human forms for reincarnation; they revered the elderly, and they followed the elaborate funeral rituals and grave offerings that marked religious practices in their homeland. They endured the stilted, silent, and formal services in European churches and then met in separate services at night which were much more participatory. Percussion and musical instruments provided the backdrop for their traditional singing, dancing, and shouting. Preachers from among their ranks performed all of the roles of priests, although some of their duties as root doctors and charm creators passed to others. Not surprisingly, Africans responded to the evangelicals of the Great Awakening, for their practice of extemporaneous praying and preaching, open-air meetings, and verbal participation were much more congenial to the African traditions.


Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975);

Mechal Sobel, The World They Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987);

Peter Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1974).

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