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African Religions: History of Study


In his The Invention of Africa (1988) the Congolese philosopher Valentin Mudimbe noted that there is a remarkable continuity in the Western representation of Africa as a place without history and without religion. These images, he argued, played a central role in the legitimization of the Atlantic slave trade and colonization. From Herodotos (c. 484between 430 and 420 bce) to contemporary commentators on world civilizations, these descriptions reemerge in ways that consistently marginalize Africa from the scientific study of world religions. Religious studies scholars continue to think of their departments as focused on Western religions and Eastern religions. A residual category that includes African, Native American, Australasian, and so onuntil recently labeled as primitive but since replaced by more palatable terms such as primal, oral, tribal, traditional, or indigenousremains outside this catholic division and is usually left to anthropologists and rarely included in religious studies departments.

Ancient Considerations

Ancient commentators had some familiarity with Egypt and the North African coastal areas, and these cultures provided influential deities, rituals, and cultic paraphernalia that were selectively incorporated into the religious systems of their Mediterranean and Middle Eastern neighbors. For areas further south, however, fragmentary travelers' accounts, local gossip, and writers' imaginations provided the evidence for often wild descriptions of subhuman communities. Although these images were not universally accepted, they remained extremely influential. Africans were described as exotic and as people without religion in Hesiod's (eighth century bce) accounts of the Semicanes, Capitones, and Pygmies as well as in Alcman's (seventh century bce) account of the Steganopodes, Aeschylus's (525456 bce) account of the Conicipedes, and in many others. Even reports by commentators seeking to provide informed accounts had little use. Herodotus and other Greek writers referred to the gods of the Libyans and attributed Greek names to them, but as Stéphanie Gsell remarked in Histoire ancienne de l'Afrique du nord (19131928), it is uncertain whether these gods were actual Berber deities, gods introduced by Phoenicians, or deities whose descriptions were too strongly shaded by Greek perspectives.

Although the Romans ruled the whole of North Africa for centuries, their interest in the local religions seems to have been as slight as that of the Greeks. According to the North African Latin poet Flavius Cresconius Corippus, writing in the sixth century, the Laguata, a tribe of Tripolitania, adored a god called Curzil, who was the son of Ammon and a cow and who incarnated himself as a bull. Early twentieth-century commentators were tempted to interpret these isolated examples as traces of zoolatry or of totemism.

Arabic-speaking commentators provided descriptions of sub-Saharan Africa beginning in the ninth century, but they tended to concentrate on urban trading areas where Islamic influences were strongest. In the eleventh century, al-Bakri mentioned a mountain community in southern Morocco that he claimed worshiped a ram. He also described urban settlements in Tekrur and Ghana where there were pagan and Muslim quarters, each governed by its own laws. Finally, he visited the kingdom of Mali where he witnessed unsuccessful cattle sacrifices in a rain ritual, followed by a Muslim prayer and an abundant rainfall that led to the conversion of the king. A century later al-Hamawi mentions a Sanhaja Berber group that worships the sun. However, most of these accounts offer far richer descriptions of political organization, trade, and social customs than they do about religion. To the extent that they were aware of local traditions, they classified them as forms of unbelief, akin to the jahilīyah of pre-Islamic Arabia. What Islamic observers persistently demonstrate, however, is the prolonged influence of African religions within increasingly Muslim urban communities within the Sudanic region of West Africa (see Levtzion and Hopkins, 1981).

Accounts of Early Missionaries and Explorers

As the first Europeans to explore the coast of sub-Saharan Africa, Portuguese travelers offered descriptions of African religions beginning in the late fifteenth century. However, many of these accounts reflected European Christian perspectives narrowed by the long struggle against Islam that did not end within Iberia until Portuguese exploration was well under way. The earliest writings that contain some mention of African religions are by Duarte Pacheco Pereira and Valentim Fernandes, which date to the first years of the sixteenth century and focus on the coastal communities of Senegambia and Upper Guinea. Yves Person wrote:

The people paid honour to idols carved out of wood: the chief divinity was called Kru: They also practised worship of the dead, who were embalmed before burial. "It is usual to make a memento for all those who die: if he was a notable person, an idol is made resembling him: if he was merely a commoner or a slave, the figure is made of wood and is put in a thatched house. Every year, sacrifices of chickens or goats are made to them." (Person, 1984, p. 307)

Within a decade of the arrival of Portuguese explorers at the mouth of the Congo River, Portuguese missionaries joined them and established themselves at the court of the local monarch. Although these missionaries devoted themselves to converting Africans to Christianity and were less concerned with understanding the converts' religious backgrounds, they could not help but observe the similarities and differences between them and the obstacles and the aids in conversion. As a result, they provided richer descriptions of African religious life than their more secular fellow travelers. Some of their writings became widely read and helped to shape European images of Africa and of African religions. One of the most widely read texts was Filippo Pigafetta's Relazione del Reame di Congo (1591), which was based on the notes of Duarte Lopes, a Portuguese merchant who had lived in Congo for many years before being appointed as a papal envoy to the Congo's newly converted king, Alvaro I. This account describes the people of Loango who "adore whatever they like, holding the greatest god to be Sun as male, and the Moon as female; for the rest, every person elects his own Idol, which he adores according to his fancy" (Pigafetta, 1978). The description of the Congo appears to be far more sensational: "Everyone worshipped whatever he most fancied without rule or measure or reason at all" (Pigafetta, 1978). When Afonso I ordered all religious objects (nkisi) to be collected and destroyed, it was reported that "there was found a huge quantity of Devils of strange and frightful shape. Dragons with wings, Serpents of horrible appearance, Tigers and other most monstrous animals Both painted and carved in wood and stone and other material" (Pigafetta, 1978). This is an unlikely collection, judging from what is known of Congo sculpture or African fauna.

By the late sixteenth century, however, one begins to find more empathetic descriptions of African religions. In 1586, for example, the Portuguese author Santos wrote of a Bantu-speaking ethnic group, the Yao of Mozambique, in more favorable terms: "They acknowledge a God who, both in this world and in the next, measures the retribution for the good or evil done in this" (cited in Lang, 1898). This focus on a supreme being who judged the living and determined their afterlife was challenged by later commentators who focused more on ancestral cults. Similarly, Giovanni Antonio Cavazzi's Istorica descrizione de' tre' regni Congo, Matamba Angola (1687) reflects more knowledge of central African religious systems, including an accurate form of the name for the supreme being in the region as Nzambi-a-mpungu. Even his reports, however, retain the derogatory images that suffuse these accounts:

Before the light of the Holy Gospel dispelled superstition and idolatry from the minds of the Congolese, these unhappy people were subject to the Devil's tyranny. [Apart from Nzambi] there are other gods, inferior to him, but nevertheless worthy of homage; to these too, therefore, cult and adoration are due. The pagans expose a certain quantity of idols, mostly of wood, roughly sculpted, each one of which has its own name. (Cavazzi, 1687, p. XX; translated by author)

An early account of Khoi religion was given by Guy Tachard, a Jesuit priest, in Il viaggio di Siam de'padri gesuiti mandati dal re di Francia all'Indie, e alla China. Tachard reports:

These people know nothing of the creation of the world, the redemption of mankind, and the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Nevertheless they adore a god, but the cognition they have of him is very confused. They kill in his honor cows and sheep, of which they offer him meat and milk in sign of gratitude toward this deity that grants them, as they believe, now rain and now fair weather, according to their needs. (Tachard, 1693; translated by author)

Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

Throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, information on African religions remained at these fragmentary and often misleading levels. Reports focused on the peoples of the coastal areas of West, South, and East Africa, which were the areas most visited by European travelers. Amateur observersnavigators, explorers, traders, artisans, and naturalistswrote most of the accounts. They lacked training in ethnographic analysis, the linguistic tools to engage in religious discourse, and the interest in religious issues as the primary focus of their concerns. Christian missionaries, who stayed longer and had an obvious interests in religious matters, came to Africa to revolutionize these societies and often displayed a mixture of contempt or pity for the benighted "heathen." It cannot be emphasized enough that the first attempts at comparison and synthesis in the framework of anthropology or the history of religions were based almost exclusively on information of this kind.

As it became more common for missionaries to spend extended periods working in a particular ethnic community, their reports began to reflect greater understanding of local religious beliefs and more tolerance of local traditions. An example of this can be found in the works of the Italian abbot Giovanni Beltrame (Il Sennaar e lo Sciangallah, 1879, and Il fiume bianco e i Denka, 1881), whose work focused on his evangelization of the peoples of the upper Nile, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Beltrame included, both in the original language and in his translation, the creation song with which the Dinka celebrate the creation of the world by Dengdid or Dengdit (Great Rain). He also reported that the Dinka distinguish between two verbs, cior or lam, which expresses the act of praying to God, and verg, which indicates prayer directed toward a person. His knowledge of the language in which religious ideas were expressed allowed him to discover that verbs related to the supreme being are always used in the present tense. Hence the Christian expression "God has always been and always will be" is rendered "God is and always is"a grammatical detail with significant theological implications. However, when he turns to the neighboring Nuer, Beltrame's knowledge is more limited: "They believe in the existence of God, but pay no cult to him" (Beltrame, 1881, pp. 191, 275).

John H. Weeks's writings on Bakongo religion also reflect this deepening understanding. Building on thirty years of mission work in the lower Congo, he describes a religion with a supreme being, Nzambi, and equates this deity with the God of Christianity. He concludes his book with a remarkable declaration of method for someone writing in 1914: "In this statement of native beliefs I have tried to reflect the native mind. It would have been possible to have left out ideas here and there, and to have arranged the rest in such a manner that they would have dove-tailed beautifully, but in so doing I should have given my view of the religious beliefs of the natives, not a faithful account of theirs" (Weeks, 1914, p. 288).

Protestant missionary Henri A. Junod provides another example of this growing body of materials in mission anthropology. Junod lived among the Thonga of coastal Mozambique beginning in 1907, and his writing reflects a growing influence of academic anthropology. By the time he collected his writings for publication in 1927, he had become broadly familiar with theoretical debates within the fields of anthropology and history of religions and had become particularly influenced by evolutionary theory and the comparative method. Having found among the Thonga the coexistence of beliefs in a sky god and in ancestral spirits, he attempted to assess the respective antiquity of these two apparently conflicting concepts. To do so, he compared Thonga religious thought with other groups of southern Bantu-speaking communities. He followed the assertion of W. Challis and Henry Callaway that the Ngoni ancestors of the Swazi and Zulu prayed to a god of the sky before they began to worship ancestor spirits. Although Junod referred to this in evolutionary terms, he was aware that this pattern was contrary to the schemas of orthodox evolutionism. In an appendix to the 1936 edition of The Life of a South African Tribe, he stated that the two sets of ideas could be parallel among the Bantu-speaking groups. At the same time, however, he conjectured, on the basis of psychological considerations, a chronological sequencenaturism, animism, causalism, euhemerismthat partly accepts Nathan Söderblom's hypotheses as stated in his Das Werden des Gottesglaubens (1916). Junod's ambiguous conclusions reflect the case of an experienced researcher trying to combine personally observed realities with the theoretical explanations that dominated the study of African religions at that time.

The decades during which missionaries, merchants, and travelers collected much of the initial information on African religions coincided with the writing of a series of ambitious comparative works that attempted to establish the logical, if not chronological, succession of religious ideas in the world. Some continued to ignore Africa altogether. Thus in The Philosophy of History, Georg Friedrich Hegel dismisses Africa as a land without history, without religion, where superstition reigns: "But even Herodotus called the Negroes sorcerers; now in sorcery we have not the idea of God, of a moral faith" (Hegel, 1956, p. 93). An early prototype of the attempt to include Africa in the evolution of religions was Charles de Brosse's Du culte des dieux fétiches (1760), which compared sub-Saharan African beliefs and rituals with those of ancient Egypt. He adapted a Portuguese term for a highly valued object and created the term fetish which has been applied to African ritual objects ever since. To de Brosse, Africans worshiped fetishes, objects endowed with or containing some kind of spiritual power. This became the model for a type of religion that became known as fetishism. This and other concepts were utilized in Auguste Comte's Cours de philosophie positive (18301842) in which he outlined the evolution of various human institutions, including religion. He understood both fetishism and African religions as the most primitive form of religions.

Evolutionary theory

The rise of evolutionist theories in the human sciences in the latter half of the nineteenth century coincided with a dramatic intensification of European exploration and colonization of Africa. This provided a significant increase in the availability of data from peoples encountered for the first time in addition to new reports concerning those groups known through previous literature. These examples were often used in an uncritical fashion to represent instances of the stages of religion, often referred to as primitive religion: fetishism, ancestor worship or euhemerism, animism, totemism, idolatry, polytheism, and so on. African materials were carefully selected by various armchair theorists to support their particular evolutionary schema, with African religions always assigned a lowly status. It was through these theorists' work that African religious materials became known within the field of the history of religions and among the public at large. African materials play a prominent role in John Lubbock's Origin of Civilisation (1870), Grant Allen's The Evolution of the Idea of God (1897), Robert R. Marett's The Threshold of Religion (1909), and in James G. Frazer's monumental work, The Golden Bough (1894).

Occasionally, Africa served as an example of a higher form of primitive religion. For example, Theodor Waitz's Anthropologie der Naturvölker (18591872) distinguishes between African religions and other indigenous religions. In the second of his six volumes, Waitz concludes:

We reach the amazing conclusion that several Negro tribes in the development of their religious conceptions are much further advanced than almost all other savages [Naturvölker], so far that, though we do not call them monotheists, we may still think of them as standing on the threshold of monotheism. (Waitz, 1860, p. 167)

This stands in sharp contrast to Edward B. Tylor's Primitive Culture, which relied on as broad a base of available sources as Waitz but which was used to support his theory of animism as the origin of religion. To provide evidence for his thesis, Tylor overlooks or underrates documents that did not support his argument. "High above the doctrine of souls, of divine manes, of local nature-spirits, of the great deities of class and element," he wrote, " there are to be discerned in savage theology shadowings, quaint or majestic, of the conception of a Supreme Deity" (Tylor, 1874, vol. 2, p. 332). Tylor quoted extensively from literature on African religions, but he was inclined to lump all "savage" peoples together, indiscriminately speaking of the "lower races" and, at one point of "the rude natives of Siberia and Guinea" (Tylor, 1874, vol. 2, p. 160).

Other evolutionists such as Lubbock and Herbert Spencer included African ethnic groups in lists of backward societies as surviving examples of a primitive atheism or as having no religious ideas whatsoever. This categorization was refuted in Gustave Roskoff's Das Religionswesen des rohesten Naturvölker (1880) and in Albert Réville's Les religions des peuples non-civilisés (1883). These authors argued that the realities of African religions are far more complex than the label animism would imply. Réville wrote:

Naturism, the cult of personified natural features, sky, sun, moon, mountains, rivers, etc., is general of African soil. Animism, the worship of spirits detached from nature and without a necessary link with natural phenomena, has taken a preponderant and so to speak absorbing role. Hence the Negro's fetishism, a fetishism that little by little rises to idolatry. Nevertheless one should not omit, I shall not say a trait, but a certain tendency to monotheism, easily emerging from this confused mass of African religions. Undoubtedly, the African native is not insensitive to the idea of a single all-powerful God. (Réville, 1883, vol. 1, pp. 18890)

Admissions that Africans had ideas of a supreme being who began the process of creation clearly contradicted the widespread evolutionary theories of the time, but were largely ignored in academic circles in the English-speaking world. In The Making of Religion Lang systematically assembled these reports and abandoned his previous support of Tylor's animist theory. His review of African, Australian, Polynesian, and American sources led him to conclude that the idea of a supreme being could not have been derived from beliefs in spirits or totems. Although Lang referred to Africans as belonging to the "low races" and as the "lowest savages," this did not prevent him from expressing the view that their traditional religion probably began "in a kind of Theism, which is then superseded, in some degree, or even corrupted, by Animism in all its varieties" (Lang, 1909, p. 304).

Lang's belief in the antiquity of African ideas of a high god ran parallel to a similar conviction within a different milieu, in the emerging notion of Kulturkreiselehre (doctrine of culture circles). Wilhelm Schmidt, one of the founders of this school of thought, published an early introduction to his monumental Der Ursprung der Gottesidee at the same time as the publication of the third edition of Lang's The Making of Religion. However, almost a half a century passed before the twelve-volume work appeared (19121955), containing three volumes focused on Africa. Schmidt's controversial thesis of a worldwide primeval monotheism that was corrupted by later trends in successive cultural cycles cannot be fully discussed here. It should be noted, however, that according to Schmidt, the remnants of the world's earliest religious ideas are to be found among people labeled as African Pygmies, whom he considered to be monotheistic and surviving representatives of the world's most archaic, or primeval, culture.

Regardless of one's evaluation of the strength of his theory, Schmidt's presentation of data contrasts sharply with that of his predecessors. Rather than an arbitrary assemblage of data from all sources according to a specific topic chosen by the author, Schmidt systematically collected and grouped data in reference to specific ethnic groups. Whenever possible, a summary of information on the culture and physical environment associated with the community were followed by separate sections devoted to beliefs, myths, sacrifices, prayers, conceptions of the soul, eschatology, ancestor worship, and other topics. Schmidt's materials remain to this day an invaluable quarry of carefully sifted and well-ordered information. The arduous field investigation of nomadic forest hunter-gatherers, including people best known as Pygmies, should also be credited to his influence. He provided strong encouragement and advice to fellow missionaries such as O. Henri Trilles, Peter Schumacher, and Paul Schebesta and kept abreast of their ongoing investigations. The final results of this research were synthesized by Schmidt in 1933 (see Schmidt, 19121955, vol. 3) and eventually published in Schebesta's Die Bambuti Pygmäen vom Ituri (19381950), the third volume of which is dedicated entirely to religion.

During this period in which the quest for the origins of religion dominated research, studies of African mythology began to be published. Alice Werner's Myths and Legends of the Bantu appeared in 1933 and was followed in 1936 by Hermann Baumann's Schöpfung und Urzeit des Menschen im Mythus der afrikanischen Volker. Raffaele Pettazzoni, a staunch adversary of Schmidt's theory of primeval monotheism, also made an important contribution in his four-volume Miti e leggendem (19481963). The first volume remains the fullest and most heavily annotated collection of myths drawn from the entire continent. In his last work, L'onniscienza di Dio (1955), Pettazzoni examines the worldwide distribution of ideas of a supreme being. Working from a nonconfessional perspective, Pettazzoni questioned the possibility that one could ever ascertain the origin of the idea of a supreme whether it was seen as a lord of the animals, a deified ancestor, or a strictly celestial being. He does conclude, however, that many African religions, even in ancient times, had a sky god, whose existence precedes any alien influences of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.

Ethnological view

With the European colonization of Africa a new type of literature made its appearance and garnered a central place within the field: the ethnography. Based on the image of the closed society, this type of work often ignored both cross-cultural comparison and diachronic developments. It described many aspects of a single ethnic group, starting with geographical distribution, racial characteristics, and linguistic classification, and analyzed many facets of its social structure and culture, including religion. The early twentieth century produced a far more profound sense of distinctive African cultures and the role of religion within them, although they were often superficial in this area. Many of the authors served as colonial administrators or missionaries, although some were linguists or anthropologists. Not surprisingly, they often stressed the relation between religion and social structure, an approach that became known as social functionalism. The role of religion as a source of political and economic legitimation was often the primary focus. These early ethnographies relied on field research, interviews, and participation observation, although it was rare that the researcher actually spoke the language of his or her host communities. Some of the more important works include Alfred C. Hollis's The Masai (1905) and The Nandi (1909), Diedrich Westermann's The Shilluk People (1912), Günter Tessmann's Die Pangwe (1913), Alberto Pollera's I Baria e I Cunama (1913), Gerhard Lindblom's The Akamba in British East Africa (1920), Edwin W. Smith and Andrew Dale's The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia (1920), Heinrich Vedder's two-volume Die Berdama (1923), John Roscoe's The Baganda (1911) and The Bakitara or Banyoro (1923), and Louis Tauxier's Le noir du Soudan (1912) and Religion, moeurs et coutumes des Agnis de la Côte d'Ivoire (1932). During this period, Belgian scholars under the direction of Cyrille van Overbergh successfully completed a large number of ethnographies, which were intended to cover the whole range of ethnic groups of the Belgian Congo.

The academic merit of these books varied dramatically. In principle, they respect a growing emphasis on treating religion as an integral part of culture. Smith suggested in African Ideas of God: A Symposium : "Sociologically speaking, African religion is one aspect of African culture. No one element can be exhaustively studied and understood in isolation from the rest" (Smith, 1950, p. 14). These studies also provided clear evidence that the religions of preliterate peoples were far too complex to be adequately condensed in a mere chapter of a general monograph. This problem was recognized by experienced writers such as Robert S. Rattray who, having published his classic monograph Ashanti in 1923, found it necessary to supplement it with Religion and Art in Ashanti in 1927, and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, author of The Nuer (1940), later devoted a separate volume, Nuer Religion (1956), to the study of religion.

Before World War II, researchers had been almost exclusively European. The most significant American contributions were Melville and Frances Herskovits's An Outline of Dahomean Religious Belief (1933) and Melville Herskovits's The Myth of the Negro Past (1941). The latter work used anthropological research methods to raise important issues of African influences in the religious life of African diasporas throughout the Americas. He successfully challenged the view that slavery had erased all influences from African American culture, and he brought scholarly attention to the idea that African religions had profound influences beyond Africa itself.

Before the Second World War, few African scholars had written about their own traditional religions. In Facing Mount Kenya (1938), Jomo Kenyatta devoted two chapters to the religion of the Kikuyu or Gikuyu, along with an attempt to explain such controversial aspects of his culture as female circumcision. Here again, however, it was within the context of an all-embracing monograph. The most significant exception was Joseph B. Danquah's The Akan Doctrine of God (1944), which focused entirely on the author's national group, the Ashanti. A more appropriate title for the book would be The Ashanti Doctrine because Danquah was only concerned with the creeds, epistemology, and ethics of his own community and paid little attention to the related, but not identical, systems of other branches of the Akan linguistic group (e.g. Anyi, Baule, Brong, Nzema). Dense with original quotations and filled with subtle and often unusual arguments and comparisons, the book struck a decidedly new note in the concert of previous literature on the subject. It left the reader unsure, however, whether the work sought to present an overview of an Ashanti system of religious thought or was more of a personal philosophical and theological reflection by the author.

Post-World War II Evaluations

In the postwar years a few scholars devised anthologies that collected condensed accounts of several African religions. Well-known examples include African Ideas of God: A Symposium (1950), edited by Edwin W. Smith in collaboration with a group of Protestant missionaries, and Textes sacrés d'Afrique noire (1965), edited by Germaine Dieterlen with a series of essays by lay ethnologists. Amadou Hampaté Ba, a leading francophone African intellectual, wrote a preface to the work. Daryl Forde, director of the International African Institute, assembled a series of essays by leading anthropologists such as Mary Douglas, Jacques Maquet, and the Ghanaian scholar and future prime minister, K. A. Busia. Meyer Fortes and Germaine Dieterlen sought to include a broad range of European scholarship in their edited volume, African Systems of Thought (1966).

Two of the contributors to these anthologies were French ethnologists Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, who worked on Dogon religion and the religious systems of other Mande-speaking communities in the West African Sudanic region. The team of Africanists led by Griaule, which included Solange de Ganay and Dieterlen, had been conducting intermittent field research among the Dogon for over fifteen years. Dieterlen had produced, among other works, Les âmes de Dogon (1941), whereas Griaule had already published his monumental Masques dogon (1938) in which he examined the religious symbolism of the masks. One day in 1946 Griaule was unexpectedly summoned by a venerable blind sage called Ogotemmêli and, in the course of a month's conversations, obtained from him the revelation of a whole mythological and cosmological system. The complexity of this system far exceeded knowledge of Dogon thought that had been previously been learned by the team. The ensuing book, Dieu d'eau (1948), translated by Robert Redfield as Conversations with Ogotemmêli (1965), was received in academic circles with a mixture of bewilderment, admiration, and perplexity. Some critics argued that it was inspired by the personal speculations of a single indigenous thinker or, at best, that it was a summary of esoteric teachings that were restricted to a small minority of the initiated. Griaule had foreseen such doubts and had declared in the preface to his book that Ogotemmêli's ontological and cosmological views were understood and shared by most adult Dogon and that the rites connected with them were celebrated by the entire local population. He went further, however, under the influence of the Negritude movement, to argue that many of these concepts would prove to be pan-African and would undoubtedly be shared among the Bambara, Bozo, Kurumba, and other neighbors of the Dogon.

Although Dieterlen's Essai sur la religion bambara (1951) revealed a comparable wealth of symbols, proclivity to abstractions, and original systematization of the universe among the Bambara, there were significant differences between them and Dogon conceptualizations. These differences among communities of the same ethnolinguistic family have maintained independent religious systems. Dieterlen's work, like that of Griaule, demonstrates the advantages of sustained field research over a period of many years. Dieterlen's research produced strikingly different descriptions than Louis Tauxier's La religion bambara (1927) which was published a generation earlier. Aware that these discrepancies might cause people to question the objectivity of the various scholars or the reliability of indigenous informants to be questioned, Dieterlen defended the efforts of her predecessors. She argued, however, that the Bambara distinguish two levels of knowledgeone very public and relatively simple and one more esoteric and more complex. This was implicit in Griaule's work as well. One could use these distinctions to explain the contrasts between different field researchers' descriptions in many other cases. Studies of the Congo, Akan-Ashanti, and Yoruba are examples of what could be a long list.

The work that most stimulated a reconsideration of African creeds in the postwar years was La philosophie bantoue (1945), written by Belgian Franciscan friar Placide Tempels. This book did not merely offer a synthesis of religious ideas and rituals, it analyzed criteriology, ontology, wisdom, metaphysics, psychology, jurisprudence, and ethics. It stressed the idea of a vital force operating throughout the universe, originating in a supreme being and radiating to spirits, humans, animals, plants, and some natural locales. These forces could be benign or hostile and be strengthened or weakened as they constantly influence one another. The idea of the cosmos as a hierarchy of forces, although not unique to Tempels' work, originated in his mission work and in conversations with Luba elders of southeastern Zaire rather than from anthropological sources. He quotes no academic literature other than Diedrich Westermann's Der Afrikaner heute und morgen (1934), in which he found supportive evidence of his theory. Furthermore, Tempels was sure that these concepts were shared by all Bantu-speaking peoples. In the introduction to the French edition, he quoted several unnamed experienced colonialists who had assured him "that he had written nothing new, but rather established order in the imprecise bulk of their own ascertainments based on their practical knowledge of the black man" (Tempels, 1949, p. 25). He also reported a message from Herskovits: "I am interested that so many of the ideas Father Tempels exposes from the Belgian Congo are so close to those that I have found among the Sudanese people of the Guinea coast area" (Tempels, 1949, p. 25). Herskovits's opinion reopened a general and still unsolved question: To what extent are worldviews and fundamental religious ideas common to all African religious systems?

As the colonial occupation of Africa loosened its hold (a slow process that began in the late 1940s and reached its conclusion in 1994), African studies shed some of its colonialist origins and also showed dramatic growth in the United States. Although the study of African religions continued to be dominated by anthropologists, the social functionalist paradigms, so useful to colonial administrators, lost some of their support. The study broadened and began to include increasing number of historians of religion, African historians, and other scholars. As Evans-Pritchard noted in Theories of Primitive Religion (1965): "These recent researches in particular societies bring us nearer to the formulation of the problem of what is the part played by religion, and in general by what might be called non-scientific thought, in social life" (Evans-Pritchard, 1965, p. 113). In cases such as John Middleton's Lugbara Religion (1960) and Godfrey Lienhardt's work on the Dinka, Divinity and Experience (1961), religion was the central topic. In Una società guineana: Gli Nzema (19771978), Vinigi Grottanelli examined the Nzema of Ghana, the southernmost Akan group, whose religious system grew out of a sustained interaction between a newer Christianity and an older indigenous religious system. Grottanelli used what he described as microbiographical accounts to explore the impact of religion on everyday life.

As the general trend of academic interests shifted from an abstract theological to more socially grounded and psychological context, attempts to make worldwide comparisons of religions and to ascertain the relative age of religious conceptions were gradually abandoned. Increasingly, they have been replaced by detailed studies of specific symbols, rituals, or concepts. Divination, in particular, has retained the attention of anthropologists. Victor Turner's Ndembu Divination : Its Symbolism and Techniques (1961) as well as a number of later works and William R. Bascom's Ifá Divination (1969), which examines the Yoruba divination system, are valuable contributions. Philip Peek's edited anthology African Divination Systems (1991) brings together a number of recent studies that reflects the influence of semiotics, the anthropology of knowledge, cognitive studies, and cross-cultural psychology. New work has also focused on the idea of sacrifice, which has been the subject of five consecutive issues of the series "Systèmes de pensée en Afrique noire" (19761983).

Areas of Growth

One of the more popular areas of late twentieth-century growth in the study of African religions, however, comes from the domain of art history. A new emphasis on field research in that discipline encouraged the production of new studies of African art focused on the symbolic meaning and ceremonial use of masks, figurines, and other ritual accessories, which have shed an indirect light on vital aspects of African mythology and religious rites, particularly those of West and central Africa. Dominique Zahan's Antilope du soleil (1980), on antelope figures in the sculpture of the Mande-speaking peoples of western Sudan, is an important example. Works by the art historian Robert F. Thompson and his students have established clear linkages between African religious art and religious artifacts in the diaspora throughout the Americas. In Art and Religion in Africa (1996) Rosalind Hackett has presented a broad overview of the religious significance of African art within the continent.

Another area of dramatic growth has been in the works by African theologians seeking to outline the foundations of an African spirituality that engages in a sustained interaction with the relatively newer traditions of Christianity and Islam. Works by John Mbiti, such as African Religions and Philosophy (1969) and African Concepts of God (1970), have had an enormous influence among scholars, missionaries, and the general reading public. E. Bolaji Idowu's specific work Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (1962) and his overview African Traditional Religion (1973) have enjoyed similar influence. Both authors have emphasized ideas of a diffuse monotheism and the profound similarities between African traditional religion and the Abrahamic religions. Mbiti has suggested that African religions lack only a sense of future time and a messianic expectation, which can be met through Christian teachings.

The Ugandan poet and scholar Okot P'Bitek has been sharply critical of these approaches, however, suggesting that what these African theologians are really doing is trying to smuggle Greek metaphysical debates about monotheism and polytheism into an African religious context. P'Bitek argues in African Religions in Western Scholarship (1970) that debates about monotheism and polytheism are wholly irrelevant to the day-to-day religious experience of most African adherents. Rwandan scholar Alexis Kagame has applied Tempels' Bantu philosophy to neighboring communities. Kagame's La philosophie bantu comparée (1976) provides far more detailed references of a Bantu-speaking ontology. ʾWande Abimbola's series of books on Ifá divination among the Yoruba provide one of the very few scholarly presentations by a priest of this method of divination that is practiced in West Africa and widely within the diasporas of the Americas. His most notable work is Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus (1970). Jacob Olupona's Kingship, Religion and Rituals in a Nigerian Community (1991) presents a phemenological study of ritual life in the Ondo Yoruba city-state.

One of the most dramatic developments in the study of African religions was its discovery by the burgeoning field of African history. Although African history initially focused on the history of Europeans in Africa, a form of imperial history, beginning in the 1950s an increasing number of historians turned to the history of Africans. Quickly recognizing the inadequacy of colonial archival and European traveler and missionary accounts, they used oral traditions and field research to attempt to reconstruct the history of African societies that incorporated internal perspectives. Leading this wave of a new African history was the Belgian historian and anthropologist Jan Vansina. Still, it was not until the late 1960s that African historians began to write on the subject of African religious history apart from the history of Christianity or Islam in Africa. Terence Ranger and I. Kimambo's collection of essays on African religious history, The Historical Study of African Religion (1972), pioneered this new field and inspired a host of other studies. Utilizing oral traditions and participant observation, historians and anthropologists began to write histories of entire religious systems, of cults of the supreme being, of healing cults, and of territorial cults. For example, Dutch anthropologist Matthew Schofeleers wrote a series of works on the history of the Mbona cult in Malawi. Douglas Johnson's Nuer Prophets is a history of prophetism. Johnson and David Anderson have collected a series of historical accounts of East African prophets in their edited anthology Revealing Prophets (1995). In Shrines of the Slave Trade (1999), Robert Baum relied on oral traditions and travelers' accounts to examine the history of Diola religion in southern Senegal during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. He examined the history of specific spirit shrines that were created to assist in the regulation and containment of Diola involvement in the seizure and sale of captives in the eighteenth century. He also sketches out how such involvement affected concepts of the supreme being, lesser spirits, and the nature of local priesthoods and councils of elders. Iris Berger's Religion and Resistance (1981) examines the history of female spirit mediums in the interlacustrine region of East Africa.

Reflecting the growing interdisciplinary nature of the study of African religions, the most important theorist to emerge in the postcolonial era was the British sociologist Robin Horton, who taught for many years at the University of Calabar in Nigeria. He wrote three seminal essays: "African Traditional Thought and Western Science," "African Conversion," and "On the Rationality of Conversion," all of which were published in the journal Africa. In his essay on African traditional thought, he argued that it resembled Western science in its reliance on paradigms that sought to explain the world. He argued that African systems of thought relied on a personal idiom of explaining, predicting, and controlling events in their world. By the personal, he meant spiritual beings and forces that controlled, or at least influenced, world events. He demonstrated that, like science, African traditionalists continually tested their explanatory models, finding explanations for failures and reinforcement of their tenets for their successes.

In his two essays on conversion, he argued that there was a basic African cosmology consisting of a supreme being and of lesser spirits. Furthermore, he suggested that the supreme being was primarily concerned with the macrocosm, the wider world beyond the villages of rural Africa and the natural forces that shaped the lives of everyone. The lesser spirits, on the other hand, actively intervened in the microcosm of village and family issues. He concluded that because Africa was overwhelmingly rural and local in its orientation African religions primarily focused on the microcosm. Thus, local spirits assumed dominance in ritual life and were the primary guardians of morality. Finally, he argued that European colonialism broke down this localism, creating a need for a macrocosmic focus and greater attention to the supreme being. What proved most controversial, however, was Horton's suggestion that African religions could evolve their own focus on a supreme being, although many found this focus by converting to Islam or Christianity. Other critics thought that he overstated the rural and local nature of precolonial Africa and that there was an implicit evolutionary theory in his work that suggested that polytheism was not suited to a modern, macrocosmic world. Still, his work, more than that of any other theorist, demonstrated that African religious thought was rational, systematic, and empirical and that African traditions were capable of significant internal change. Horton's theories profoundly influenced the current generation of scholarship on African religions.

In the area of African ritual studies, Victor Turner's use of structuralism, semiotics, and performance studies enriched his analysis of the ritual process among the Ndembu of Zambia. He approached African rituals as dramatic performances, structured around a series of binary oppositions that were ultimately overcome in the course of the ritual. Influenced by the field of semiotics, he discussed the multivocality or polyvalent quality of symbols, which allowed often disparate ideas to be linked and their contradictions overcome in the course of the ritual event. Building on Van Gennep's tripartite structure of initiation rituals, Turner focused on the second, or liminal phase, and the experience of what he called communitas, a sense of oneness among a group of initiates in which external distinctions were abandoned. This produced what he termed an anti-structure, which was a vital way of immersing new initiates and renewing for elders the fundamental experiences of religious life.

A new area of scholarly investigation has been the relation between African healing systems and African religions. Beginning with such pioneering works as Margaret Field's Search for Security (1960), researchers have sought to understand the therapeutic qualities of African healing rituals. Field compared the work of Akan priests of the obosom spirits in Ghana with the work of the psychotherapists of the West. In his Man Cures, God Heals (1981), Kofi Appiah-Kubi offers a comparative study of Akan traditional and Akan Christian healing practices. John Janzen and other anthropologists studied a shrine of affliction, known as Ngoma, which has spread throughout southern and eastern Africa. Paul Stoller has conducted similar research in the Islamic and Songhai religious milieu of Niger.

With the growing emphasis on field research in the study of African religions, it is not surprising that later twentieth-century research has shown a strong influence of reflective anthropology. This approach abandons the idea of an invisible ethnographer and recognizes that researcher and informant, researcher and host community create distinct forms of social relations that influence the types of data collected. Most field research accounts now include a description of field research methods and the way that researchers helped to create distinct fields of interaction with host individuals and communities. Works such as Paul Stoller's In Sorcery's Shadow (1987) and Wim van Binsbergen's "Becoming a Sangoma" (1991) crossed the traditional borders of academic scholarship and entered into the experience of practitioners of the religious rituals that they studied. By doing so, they allowed their readers unparalleled access to the lived world of African ritual by people who shared the culture and training of scholars of religion in Europe and America.

See Also

Ancestors, article on Ancestor Worship; Animism and Animatism; Anthropology, Ethnology, and Religion; Cosmology, article on African Cosmologies; Dogon Religion; Evolution, article on Evolutionism; Study of Religion, article on The Academic Study of Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa.


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