African Religions: An Overview
African Religions: An Overview
AFRICAN RELIGIONS: AN OVERVIEW
Prior to the coming of Christianity and Islam to Africa, the peoples south of the Sahara developed their own religious systems, and these formed the basis of much of their social and cultural life. At present the indigenous religions, modified by colonial and postcolonial experience, continue to exist alongside Christianity and Islam and to play an important role in daily existence.
African traditional religions are closely tied to ethnic groups. Hence it may be said that there are as many different "religions" as there are ethnic language groups, which number more than seven hundred south of the Sahara. There are, however, many similarities among the religious ideas and practices of major cultural and linguistic areas (e.g., Guinea Coast, central Bantu, Nilotes), and certain fundamental features are common to almost all African religions. Although these features are not unique to Africa, taken together they constitute a distinctively African pattern of religious thought and action.
Except for the most recent colonial and precolonial past, there is little evidence concerning the early history of African religions, especially from the remote Paleolithic period. Because of the conditions of climate and habitation, archaeological remains, such as pottery, stone implements, bronze and stone figures, earthworks, and rock paintings, have been discovered at only a few places in eastern, western, and southern Africa, and the cultural contexts of these finds are largely unknown. It was once supposed that the various contemporary hunting-gathering, agricultural, and pastoral societies in Africa developed from a few basic cultural systems, or civilizations, each with its own set of linguistic, racial, religious, economic, and material cultural characteristics. Thus the early cultural and religious history of African societies was seen in terms of the interaction and intermixture of these hypothetical cultural systems, producing the more complex cultural and religious patterns of today. But it is now recognized that elements of language, race, religion, economics, and material culture are not so closely related as was assumed and that the early cultural systems were too speculatively defined. Hence historical reconstruction on these grounds has been abandoned.
Nevertheless, research has been able to bring to light important evidence concerning the early phases of religion in certain areas. The rock paintings of southern Africa, which date mostly from the nineteenth century but also from 2000 and 6000 and 26,000 bp, appear to represent a continuous tradition of shamanism practiced by the San hunters and their ancestors. Nineteenth-century and contemporary San ethnography suggest that shamanistic trance states, induced by dancing, are the subject matter of much southern African rock art. In trance states, San men experience the presence of a sacred power in their bodies, a power that also exists in certain animals, especially the eland, a large antelope. When this power enters the dancing men, they fall into a state of deep trance, or "half-death," as the !Kung San call it. Trance enables the men to perform three kinds of acts: the luring of large game animals to the hunters, the curing of illness, and the causing of rain by killing of special "rain animals." The rock art painted by the San and their ancestors shows men performing each of these tasks. The visual signs of trance that appear in the art are bleeding from the nose, perspiration, dancing, lines piercing (or extending from) the head, the wearing of caps with antelope ears, and the partial transformation of men into animals, especially antelopes. While manifesting these signs of trance, men are shown bending over people and drawing out illness, shooting rain animals, and luring game by ritual means. There is no indication that the art itself was regarded as magical; instead, the paintings depict the ritual acts and visionary experiences by which the shamans governed the relationships between human beings, animals, and the spirits of the dead. These relationships lay at the core of San society, and the rock paintings may well record practices that date from the earliest times in southern Africa.
When agriculture began to spread south of the Sahara around 1500 bce, an important religious development accompanied the gradual change from hunting-gathering to agricultural economies. This was the emergence of territorial cults, organized around local shrines and priests related to the land, crop production, and rain. These autochthonous cults provided political and religious leadership at the local level and also at the clan and tribal level. In central Africa the oral tradition and known history of some territorial cults date back five or six centuries and have been the key to historical reconstruction of religion in this area.
When ironworking penetrated sub-Saharan Africa in 400–500 ce, it gave rise to a number of myths, rites, and symbolic forms. Ironworking was said to have been brought by a mythic culture hero, blacksmiths were regarded as a special caste subject to ritual prohibitions, and the blacksmith's forge was sometimes regarded as a sanctuary. Iron itself was thought to have sacred properties. Throughout West Africa ironmaking, hunting, and sometimes warfare formed a sacred complex of rites and symbols under the tutelage of a culture hero or deity.
In northern Nigeria more than 150 terra-cotta figures have been found dating from at least 500 bce to 200 ce, the earliest known terra-cotta sculpture in sub-Saharan Africa. This sculpture, known as Nok sculpture after the site at which it was first found, consists of both human and animal figures. Although it is likely that these pieces had religious significance, either as grave goods or as ritual objects (or both), their meaning at present is entirely unknown.
The famous bronze heads of Ife, Nigeria, date from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries and may be distantly related to Nok sculpture. The sixteen naturalistic Ife heads were found in the ground near the royal palace at Ife. The heads have holes to which beards and crowns were attached. Each head may have represented one of the founders of the sixteen city-states that owed allegiance to Ife, and each may have carried one of the sixteen crowns. Among the Yoruba, the "head" (ori) is the bearer of a person's destiny, and the "head" or destiny of a king was to wear the crown. The crown was the symbol of the sacred aṣẹ, or power of the king, which the crown or the head itself may have contained. Bronze heads were also made in the kingdom of Benin, an offshoot of Ife located to the southeast, where they served as shrines for deceased Bini kings.
In southern Africa the wall ruins of Great Zimbabwe in present-day Zimbabwe belong to a cultural complex that evolved in the early twelfth century. Great Zimbabwe was the political capital of the Shona kings for two hundred years, until 1450. The ancestors of the kingship seem to have been represented by large, eaglelike sculptures with human characteristics, and these are thought to have been the focus of the royal ancestor cult.
Wherever kingship arose in Africa during the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, it became a dominant part of the religious system. The rulers, whether sacred or secular, generally attained total or partial control of the preexisting territorial cults above the local level. Oral tradition usually records the encounter between the conquering kings and the autochthonous cults, which sometimes put up resistance. This encounter was often memorialized in the form of annual rites that recalled the initial conquest and subsequent accommodation between the king and the autochthonous cults whose powers over the land were necessary fro the welfare of the state. For example, at Ife there is an annual ceremonial enactment of the defeat and return of the indigenous creator god Ọbatala (also known as Oriṣa-nla), and the restoration of his cult in the city. In other cases, the local cults were taken over and grafted onto the royal cult. Thus the Lundu kings took over the preroyal cults of the supreme being in Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique and incorporated their priests and prophets into the royal sphere.
Most kings were regarded as gods or as the descendants of gods and were spiritually related to the fertility of the land and to the welfare of the people. Even in Buganda in central Uganda, where they did not have such mystical powers, the kings were regarded as sacred personages. It has become recognized that the institution of sacred kingship, which was once thought to be derived from ancient Egypt because of some general similarities with sub-Saharan kingships, was independently invented in various places in the African continent, not only in Egypt.
From the seventeenth to early nineteenth centuries, there is evidence of two types of development: an increase in spirit possession and healing cults, generally known as cults of affliction, and an emphasis upon the concept of the supreme being. The emergence of popular healing cults seems to have been linked to a breakdown in local political institutions and to contact with outside forces and new diseases. The well-documented Lemba cult in the western portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which dates from the seventeenth century to the early twentieth century, was but one of many ngoma ("drum") therapies that were, and still are, characteristic of the religions of the Bantu-speaking peoples of central and southern Africa. During the same period, the growing importance of the concept of supreme being appears to have been linked to the enlargement of political scale and to the need to explain widespread social and political changes at the most universal level.
Common to most African religions is the notion of the imperfect nature of the human condition. Almost every society has a creation myth that tells about the origins of human life and death. According to this myth, the first human beings were immortal; there was no suffering, sickness, or death. This situation came to an end because of an accident or act of disobedience. Whatever the cause, the myth explains why sickness, toil, suffering, and death are fundamental to human existence.
The counterpart to this idea is the notion that the problems of human life may be alleviated through ritual action. African religions are systems of explanation and control of immediate experience. They do not promise personal salvation in the afterlife or the salvation of the world at some future time. The promise of African religions is the renewal of human affairs here and now, a this-worldly form of salvation. Through ritual action misfortunes may be overcome, sicknesses removed, and death put off. In general, bad situations may be changed into good ones, at least temporarily. The assumption is that human beings are largely responsible for their own misfortunes and that they also possess the ritual means to overcome them. The sources of suffering lie in people's misdeeds, or sins, which offend the gods and ancestors, and in the social tensions and conflicts that can cause illness. The remedy involves the consultation of a priest or priestess who discovers the sin or the social problem and prescribes the solution, for example, an offering to appease an offended deity or a ritual to settle social tensions. Belief in the perfectibility of human beings is not a part of African traditional religions. Instead, such religions provide the means for correcting certain social and spiritual relationships that are understood to be the causes of misfortune and suffering, even death. They assume that the traditional moral and social values, which the gods and ancestors uphold, are the guidelines for the good life and emphasize these rules and values in ritual performances in order to renew people's commitment to them.
At the theological level, African religions contain both monotheistic and polytheistic principles. The concept of a supreme God is widely known in tropical Africa and existed before the coming of Christianity and Islam. The idea of a supreme God expresses the element of ultimacy, fate, and destiny, which is part of most African religions. As the ultimate principle behind things, the supreme God usually has no cult, images, temples, or priesthood. These are unnecessary because he stands above reciprocal relationships with human beings, on which the lesser gods depend.
In contrast to the invisibility and remoteness of the supreme God, the lesser gods and the ancestor spirits, which often serve as the supreme being's intermediaries, are constantly involved in daily affairs. Their many shrines, images, and priesthoods make them highly visible and important features of traditional life. They are sources of both protection and harm, depending upon how faithfully they are served. People regularly attend their shrines to pray, receive advice, and make offerings, usually in the form of animal sacrifice. Thus African religions are both polytheistic and monotheistic, depending upon the context. In matters concerning the ultimate destiny and fate of individuals and groups, the supreme God may be directly involved. In matters concerning everyday affairs, the lesser gods and ancestors are more immediately involved.
From the point of view of African religion, a human being consists of social, moral, spiritual, and physical components united together; the individual is viewed as a composite totality. That is why social conflicts can make people physically ill and why moral misdeeds can cause spiritual misfortunes. Rituals that are aimed at restoring social and spiritual relationships are therefore deemed to affect people's physical health and well-being. A person's life is also seen to pass through several stages. One of the important tasks of traditional religion is to move people successfully through the major stages of life: birth, puberty, marriage, elderhood, death, ancestorhood. Each phase has its duties, and rites of passage make sure that people know their responsibilities. In this way people's lives are given shape and pattern. Important traditional offices, such as kingship, chieftancy, and priesthood, are also maintained by rites of passage. Other rituals divide the year into seasons and give the annual cycle its form and rhythm.
Ritual authorities, such as diviners, prophets, priests, and sacred kings, serve a common religious purpose: the communication between the human world and the sacred world. Shrines and temples facilitate this process by linking together the two worlds around an altar. The priest's job is to perform prayers and sacrifices that carry people's desires to the spiritual world; the priest, in turn, communicates the will of the spiritual beings to the people.
Mythology: Creation, Heroes, and Tricksters
African myths deal primarily with the origin of humankind and with the origin of social and ritual institutions. They explain both the structure of the world and the social and moral conditions of human life. Most creation myths posit an original state of cosmic order and unity, and they tell of a separation or division that arose between divinity and humanity, sky and earth, order and disorder, which resulted in human mortality. These myths explain why human beings are mortal by telling how they became mortal. Thus they presuppose that humanity was originally immortal and passed into a state of mortality. The myths usually say that mortality was the result of a deliberate or accidental misdeed committed by a human being, often a woman, or an animal. Although questions of human responsibility are sometimes involved, the underlying meaning is generally that death was a necessary, indeed, a natural, outcome; otherwise, human beings would not be truly human and humanity and divinity would not be properly separated.
Some myths explain the origins and significance of death by showing that it is essentially linked to the agents of human fertility and reproduction: women, food, sexuality, and marriage. The Dinka of the southern Sudan say that the first woman disobeyed the creator god who told her to plant or pound only one grain of millet a day, lest she strike the low-hanging sky with her hoe or tall pestle. When she lifted her pole to cultivate (or pound) more millet, she struck the sky, causing the sky and God to withdraw. Thenceforth, human beings suffered sickness and death and had to toil for their food. In this myth it is a woman's desire for plenty (life), which the Dinka view indulgently, that overcame the original restrictive proximity between humanity and God. The Nuer, who live near the Dinka, say that in the beginning a young girl descended from the sky with her companions to get food and that she fell in love with a young man whom she met on earth. When she told her companions that she wished to stay on earth, they ascended to the sky and spitefully cut the rope leading to the ground, thus severing the means for immortality. The myth reflects the choice that every Nuer woman must make in marriage when she leaves her childhood home and friends and goes to live with her husband. According to the Ganda of central Uganda, the first woman disobeyed her father, the sky god, which caused her brother Death to come into the world and kill some of her children. In Buganda a girl's brother is the traditional agent of marriage and has a temporary claim to one of his sister's children. The myth implies that death is viewed as a necessary counterpart to life, as the mother's brother is a necessary counterpart to marriage and a claimant to one of his sister's children.
Another widely known myth among Bantu-speaking peoples explains the origin of death in terms of a message that failed. In the beginning the creator god gave the message of life to a slow-moving animal (e.g., chameleon, sheep). Later, he grew impatient and gave the message of death to a faster animal (e.g., lizard, goat). The faster animal arrived first and delivered his message, and death became the lot of humanity. In this myth the natural slowness and quickness of the two animals determine the outcome, making death a natural and inevitable result. Other myths emphasize the similarity between death and sleep and the inability of human beings to avoid either. According to this myth, the creator god told the people to stay awake until he returned. When he came back they had fallen asleep and failed to hear his message of immortality. When they woke up he gave them the message of death.
Hero myths tell how important cultural discoveries, such as agriculture and ironmaking, originated and how major social and ritual institutions, such as marriage, village organization, kingship, priesthood, and cult groups, came into existence. Often the founding deeds of the hero are reenacted in ritual with creative and transforming effect. The hero may continue to live among the people in spiritual form through a priest or prophet and become manifest on important ritual occasions. Many African deities are said to have been heroes who died and returned in spiritual form to serve as guardians and protectors of the people. In Africa myth and history often overlap, and together they form a unified explanation of the world since the time of the beginning.
Another type of myth is the trickster story. Trickster stories range from fable-like satirical tales to accounts of world creation. The trickster may exist only as a character in stories or as an active deity. Whatever the particular form, the trickster image expresses the fundamental ambiguities of human life. The trickster is both fooler and fooled, wily and stupid, maker and unmade. A seemingly misguided culture hero, the trickster introduces both order and disorder, confusion and wisdom into the world. The trickster's comic adventures convey a widely recognized African principle: Life achieves its wholeness through the balance of opposites. The trickster's acts of disorder prepare the way for new order; death gives way to birth. According to the Dogon of central Mali, the trickster god Ogo destroyed the original perfection of the creator god's plan and could only partly restore it. Yet the trickster also helps human beings to discover the hidden dangers of life through divination. Among the Yoruba of western Nigeria, the god Eṣu is both the agent of social conflict and the peacekeeper of the marketplace, as well as the confuser of men and the messenger of the gods. His two-sided nature brings together the gods and human beings in a cooperative manner through divination and sacrifice, which he supervises. The Akan-Ashanti tales about Ananse the Spider in southern Ghana and the tales about the Hare in eastern and southern Africa express profound and ironic insights into the foibles and possibilities of human nature. In general, African trickster mythology expresses optimism about the paradoxes and anomalies of life, showing that cleverness and humor may prevail in a fundamentally imperfect world.
Monotheism and Polytheism
African religions combine principles of unity and multiplicity, transcendence and immanence, into a single system; thus they generally contain both monotheistic and polytheistic aspects. Often there is also the concept of an impersonal power, such as the Yoruba concept of aṣẹ by which all things have their being. In different contexts each of these principles may come to the fore as the primary focus of religious thought and action, although each is part of the larger whole.
As ultimate principles, many supreme Gods are like African sacred kings: they reign but do not rule. They occupy the structural center of the system but are rarely seen or heard, and when they are it is only indirectly. For this reason the supreme Gods belong more to the dimension of myth than to that of ritual. However, the world would cease to exist without them, as would a kingdom without the king. Thus, in many instances the supreme God is the one, omniscient, omnipotent, transcendent, creator, father, and judge. From the time of the first contact with Muslims and Christians, Africans recognized their supreme Gods to be the same as the God of Christianity and Islam. It is not known whether African religions were more or less monotheistic than they are today, although it is certain that African concepts of God have changed over time.
Divinity and Experience
Unlike the supreme beings, which remain in the background of religious life, the lesser divinities and spirits are bound up with everyday experience. These powers are immanent, and their relation to human beings is reciprocal and interdependent. Hence they require many shrines, temples, priests, cult groups, images, rituals, and offerings to facilitate their constant interactions with people.
The gods and spirits are known through personal encounter as living agents who directly affect people's lives. Often associated with elements of nature, such as lightning, rain, rivers, wild animals, and forests, they may be understood as images or symbols of collective psychological and social realities that resemble these natural phenomena in their powerful, dangerous, and beneficial aspects. The most common form of encounter between the human and the divine is spirit possession, the temporary presence of a deity or spirit in the consciousness of a person. Spirit possession may occur in a formal ritual context or in the normal course of everyday life. In Africa, as elsewhere, possession behavior is culturally stylized and highly symbolic. It is neither extremely pathological nor physiologically uncontrollable. It is an integral part of religion and has a well-defined role within it. In some societies possession is regarded as an affliction, and the aim is to expel the intruding god or spirit so that the suffering person may resume a normal life. Once the god or spirit has made the reasons for its appearance known through the voice of the afflicted person or through divination, offerings are made and the spirit departs. Usually the cause is some misdeed or sin that must be redressed through ritual action. In other societies possession is a more desirable phenomenon. People may regularly seek to come closer to their gods, even to identify personally with them, through possession-inducing dances that have beneficial psychological and social effects.
Mediums, Diviners, and Prophets
Sometimes a divinity may wish to form a special relationship with an individual. The god usually makes his desire known through an illness. Indeed, sickness is sometimes seen as a sacred calling that is manifested in the form of a possession. The cure will take the form of apprenticeship and initiation into the service of the deity, and it will place the person in lasting debt to society. Henceforth, the chosen man or woman becomes professionally established at a shrine and becomes the god's medium, devoted to the healing of afflicted people. He or she treats illnesses and social problems through mediumship séances. Treatment begins with a payment of money and with the questioning of the client by the spirit speaking through the medium. The interrogation is skillful and focuses upon the client's social situation. The remedy usually involves moral advice, herbal prescriptions, ritual actions, and sometimes membership in a special cult group, as among the Central Bantu-speaking peoples. The client himself may already have thought of the diagnosis and of the remedies that the medium proposes, or the séance may reveal new insights and procedures. In either case, the client departs from the consultation knowing that his problem has been expertly investigated and that he has received authoritative advice.
In Africa the distinction between mediums, diviners, priests, and prophets is a fluid one, and transition from one to the other is made easily. Generally, diviners and mediums are spiritual consultants, whereas prophets are leaders of humans. Prophets may go directly to the people with programs for action and initiate religious and political movements. For this reason prophets are often sources of religious and political change. In circumstances of widespread political unrest, priestly mediums may develop prophetic powers and initiate socio-religious change. This occurred during colonial times in East Africa: traditional prophets became leaders of political resistance in parts of Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. In Kenya, the Mau Mau resistance movement was also significantly implemented and sustained by traditional ritual procedures.
A more indirect form of spiritual communication involves the use of divination equipment, such as cowrie shells, leather tablets, animals entrails, palm nuts, a winnowing basket, small animal bones, and animal tracks. After careful interrogation of the client, the diviner manipulates and interprets his material in order to reach a diagnosis. Such systems work according to a basic typology of human problems, aspirations, and casual factors. The diviner applies this framework to the client's case by manipulating a divination apparatus.
The most complex system of divination in Africa is Ifa. It is practiced by the Yoruba of southern Nigeria and in various forms by the Igbo, Igala, and Nupe of Nigeria, the Ewe of Togo, and the Fon of Benin. It consists of a large number of poems that are related to a set of 256 divination patterns. When one of the patterns is cast, the diviner recites the appropriate poems. The poems tell of real-life problems experienced by the gods and ancestors in the past. Without telling the diviner the problem, the client chooses the poem that best fits the situation. The client then asks more questions of the diviner, who makes additional casts of the divination chain, until the client discovers all the potential dangers and benefits destiny holds for the client, together with the ritual means of ensuring the best possible outcome. Like all systems of divination, Ifa's predictions are general and open to interpretation. The value of divination lies not in the precision of prediction but in the decision-making processes that it offers to the client. Divination procedures require the client (and often his or her family) to examine problems fully, to consider alternative courses of action, and to obtain professional guidance. The result is a course of action that is objectively based, divinely sanctioned, and socially acceptable.
Diviners and mediums employ methods of treatment that usually involve a mixture of psychological, social, medical, and ritual means. Many illnesses are regarded as uniquely African in nature and hence as untreatable by Western methods. They include cases of infertility, stomach disorders, and a variety of ailments indicative of psychological stress and anxiety. The causes of such illnesses are generally attributed to social, spiritual, or physiological factors, either separately or in some combination. Typically, a person's problems will be attributed to his or her misdeeds or to the ill will of other people because of the belief in the social source of illness and misfortune. Equally fundamental is the notion that religion concerns the total person, their physical as well as spiritual well-being.
To the extent that European Christianity relates only to spiritual matters, African societies have fashioned their own forms of Christianity whose rituals are aimed at both the physical and spiritual ills of society. These tend to be prophet-led, independent churches that utilize the power of Christian prayer and ritual to heal physiological and psychological maladies, much like the indigenous religions. Islam has been adapted along similar lines. Although Western medicine is recognized and sought after for the treatment of infectious diseases and physical injuries, ritual techniques continue to be used in both rural and urban areas because of African ideas about the social and spiritual foundation of personal health and well-being. Where the two systems are available, people often utilize both. Increased urbanization has tended to break down certain elements of traditional religions, for example, rites for ancestor spirits and nature gods, but urbanization has created its own social, psychological, and spiritual problems for which diviners and mediums have developed methods of treatment.
Ritual: Sacrifice and Rites of Passage
Ritual is the foundation of African religion. To become possessed by the gods, to speak ritual words, to perform offerings and sacrifices, or to make children into adults is to shape experience according to normative patterns of meaning and thereby to control and renew the world. The ritual sphere is the sphere in which the everyday world and the spiritual world communicate with each other and blend into one reality. Almost every African ritual is therefore an occasion in which human experience is morally and spiritually transformed. The two most important forms of African ritual are animal sacrifice and rites of passage. Both follow common patterns.
The sacrifice of animals and the offering of vegetable foods accomplish a two-way transaction between the realm of divinity and the realm of humanity. The vegetable offerings and animal victims are the mediating principles. They are given to the gods and spirits in return for their favors. Animal sacrifice is especially prominent because the life of the victim and its blood are potent spiritual forces. By killing the victim, its life is released and offered to the gods for their sustenence in exchange for their blessings, especially in the case of human life that is threatened. The act of sacrifice may also transfer the illness to the animal victim, which thus serves as a scapegoat. An animal may also be sacrificed so that its blood may act as a barrier against malevolent spiritual forces. Fowl, sheep, and goats are the most common sacrificial animals; cattle are frequently sacrificed among pastoralist peoples. Animal victims usually possess certain characteristics of color, size, shape, and behavior that make them symbolically appropriate for certain spiritual beings. Through invocations, prayers, and songs, human desires are made known, sins are confessed, and spiritual powers attracted to the sacrificial scene. Generally, the ritual word performs a dual function: it says what is desired and helps to bring about the desired through the power of ritual speech.
Sacrifices are performed on a variety of occasions in seasonal, curative, life-crisis, divinatory, and other kinds of rituals, and always as isolable ritual sequences. Sacrifices that involve the sharing of the victim's flesh confirm the bond between the people and the spiritual power, to which a portion is given. Purifications may also be performed so that the participants may be cleansed of the potent sacred elements of the sacrifice. Major sacrificial rites usually have the following structure: consecration, invocation, immolation, communion, and purification. At the social level, sacrifices and offerings bring together individuals and groups and reinforce common moral bonds. Fundamentally, blood sacrifice is a reciprocal act, bringing gods and people together in a circuit of moral, spiritual, and social unity. In this way sacrifice restores moral and spiritual balance—the healthy equilibrium between person and person, group and group, human beings and spiritual powers—which permits the positive flow of life on earth. As a sacred gift of life to the gods, sacrifice atones for human misdeeds and overcomes the human impediments to the flow of life; thus it is one of the keystones of African religions.
Rites of passage possess a threefold pattern consisting of rites of separation, transition, and reincorporation. Their purpose is to create and maintain fixed and meaningful transformations in the life cycle (birth, naming, puberty, marriage, death, ancestorhood), in the ecological and temporal cycle (planting, harvest, seasonal change, lunar and solar cycles, new year), and in the accession of persons to high office. Without these rites there would be no significant pattern to traditional life and no enduring social institutions.
The important phase in these ceremonies is the middle, or liminal, period of transition. In this phase people are morally remade into "new" social beings. Newborn infants are made into human persons, children are made into adults, men and women are made into husbands and wives, adults are made into elders, princes are made into kings, deceased persons are made into ancestor spirits. Seasonal transtions are also marked and celebrated in this way. Thus the old year is made into the new and the season of drought is made into the season of rain.
This remaking of persons and time involves the symbolic destruction of the old and the creation of the new. It is a dual process of death and rebirth, involving symbols of reversal, bisexuality, disguise, nakedness, death, humility, dirt, intoxication, pain, and infantilism. These symbols of ritual liminality have both negative and positive connotations representing the paradoxical situation of the womb/tomb—the betwixt and between period when people are neither what they were nor what they will become. In the liminal stage, people are momentary anomalies, stripped of their former selves, ready to become something new. Similarly, the time between the seasons and the time between the years belongs neither to the old nor to the new but to both. The transition phase is a time out of time, when the usual order of things is reversed or suspended, ready to become reestablished and renewed. During the Apo new year's ceremony of the Ashanti, people openly express their resentments against their neighbors, chiefs, and king in order to "cool" themselves and rid society of its tensions, which may cause harm before order is restored and the new year begins.
The most fundamental rite of passage is that which initiates the young into adulthood. In this way a society not only moves its young into new social roles but also transforms them inwardly by molding their moral and mental disposition toward the world. A period of instruction may or may not be part of this process. A Nuer boy simply tells his father that he is ready to receive the marks of gar, six horizontal lines cut across the forehead. His socialization is already assumed. In many West African societies the rite is held in the confines of initiation groves where the initiates are given intensified moral and religious instruction. These rites may take place over a period of years and are organized into men's and women's initiation societies, such as the Poro society among the Senufo of the Ivory Coast, Mali, and Upper Volta. By means of stories, proverbs, songs, dances, games, masks, and sacred objects, the children and youths are taught the mysteries of life and the values of the adult world. The rites define the position of the intiates in relation to God, to society, to themselves, and to the world. Some form of bodily marking is usually done, and circumcision and clitoridectomy are widely practiced. The significance of bodily marking varies. Among the Gbaya of Mali, the initiates are cut slightly on the stomach with a "mortal wound" to signify their "death" to childhood. Generally, the marks indicate that the transition to adulthood is permanent, personal, and often painful and that society has successfully imprinted itself upon the individual.
Persons, Ancestors, and Ethics
African concepts of the person, or self, share several characteristics. Generally, the self is regarded as composite and dynamic; it consists of several aspects, social, spiritual, and physical, and admits of degrees of vitality. The self is also open to possession by divinity, and its life history may be predestined before birth. After death, the self becomes a ghost, and in the course of several generations it becomes merged with the impersonal ancestors. Each of these aspects and potentialities of the person, sometimes misleadingly described as multiple souls, is important in different contexts and receives special ritual attention.
In West African societies, the success or failure of a person's life is explained by reference to a personal destiny that is given to the individual by the creator god before birth. A person's destiny stems from a family ancestor (usually a grandparent) who is partly reborn in the person at birth and serves as a spiritual guardian throughout life. Although destinies are largely predetermined, they are also somewhat alterable for better or worse by the gods, witches, and guardian ancestors. To realize the full potential of one's destiny, frequent recourse to divination is required to discover what destiny has in store and to ensure the best outcome. Successes and failures in life are therefore attributed both to personal initiative and to inherited destiny. After death, this immortal aspect of the personality returns to the creator god, ready to be reborn in the same lineage group. In societies where the concept of destiny is absent, the most important life-determining principle is the person's inherited lineage component, and it is this that survives after death.
The human personality is also permeable by divinity. On ritual occasions the consciousness of an individual may become temporarily replaced by the presence of a spiritual being. Often the personality of the god resembles that of the individual, and professional mediums may have several gods or spirits at their command. These are said to mount "on the head" or "on the back" of the medium. Almost everyone is susceptible to spirit possession of some sort, and when controlled in a ritual manner it has therapeutic effect.
At death, new problems of social and spiritual identity arise. When a family loses one of its members, especially a senior male or female, a significant moral and social gap occurs. The family, together with other kinsmen, must close this gap through funerary procedures. At the same time the deceased must undergo spiritual adjustment if he or she is to find a secure place in the afterlife and remain in contact with the family left behind. This is accomplished by the construction of an ancestor shrine and sometimes also by the making of an ancestor mask and costume.
Almost every family and village has its ancestor shrines, and every town its heroes who founded and protected it. From the beginning, the ancestors helped to create the world; they gave birth to the people, led them to their present homeland, created agriculture, established social rules, founded kingdoms, and invented metalworking and the arts. Their deeds laid the foundations of African myth, history, and culture. Whether the ancestors lived in the remote past or in more recent times, they are regarded as immortal spirits who transcend historical time. Through spirit possession and mediumship rites, the ancestors continue to communicate with their living descendants, who seek their help in the affairs of everyday life.
The carved images of the ancestors are not intended to be representational or abstract but conceptual and evocative. By means of stylized form and symbolic details the image conveys the characteristics of the ancestor and also helps to make the spiritual reality of the ancestor present among the people. Thus the carved ancestral icon enables the world of the living and the world of the living dead to come together for the benefit of human life.
The relationship between the community of the living and the spirits of the dead, sometimes misleadingly called "ancestor worship," has powerful social and psychological dimensions and plays a vital role in almost every African society. This is especially true in small-scale stateless societies in which sociopolitical rules are almost entirely governed by a descent system. In such societies ancestors are the focus of ritual activity, not because of a special fear of the dead or because of a strong belief in the afterlife, but because of the importance of the descent system in defining social relationships. In larger polities the royal ancestors often become the gods of the state. Superior to living kings and elders, the ancestors define and regulate social and political relations. It is they who own the land and the livestock, and it is they who regulate the prosperity of the lineage groups, villages, and kingdoms. Typically, when misfortune strikes, the ancestors are consulted through divination to discover what misdeeds have aroused their anger. The ancestors are also regularly thanked at ceremonial feasts for their watchful care, upon which the welfare of the community depends.
Not everyone may become an ancestor. Only those who led families and communities in the past as founders, elders, chiefs, or kings may serve in the afterlife as the social and political guides of the future. By contrast, ordinary people become ghosts after death. Such spirits require ritual attention at their graves, but they are finally sent away to "rest in peace," while the more positive influence of the ancestors is invoked generation after generation. The more recent ancestors receive the most frequent attention, especially at family shrines. Such ancestors are not worshiped in either a devotional or idolatrous sense but are honored and prayed to as the senior leaders of the living community.
The sufferings and misfortunes brought by the gods and ancestors are punishments aimed at correcting human behavior. By contrast, the sufferings and misfortunes caused by witches and sorcerers are undeserved and socially destructive; they are unequivocally evil. The African concept of evil is that of perverse humanity: the human witch and sorcerer. The African image of the witch and sorcerer is of humanity turned against itself. Witches act only at night, they fly through the air, walk on their hands or heads, dance naked, feast on corpses, possess unsatiable and incestuous lusts (despite sexual impotence), murder their relatives, and live in the bush with wild animals. This symbolic imagery is consistent with the sociological characteristics of the witch: disagreeable, ambitious, lying, and envious.
Accusations of witchcraft and sorcerery therefore function as a means of social control. In the past accused witches and sorcerers were forced to confess or were killed or expelled from society. Witchcraft accusations also enabled quarreling members of the same lineage to separate from each other and establish their own residences, thus restoring village order. For the most part witchcraft accusations in Africa flourished in contexts where social interaction was intense but loosely defined, as between members of the same extended family or lineage group. In such cases witchcraft was sometimes thought to be an inherited power of which the individual might be unaware until accused. In other instances it existed in the form of deliberately practiced sorcery procedures, so-called black magic, which was effective at long range and across lineage groups. Whether deliberate or not, the witch and the sorcerer were regarded as fundamentally antihuman and thus as principles of evil in a world governed by fundamentally moral and social forces.
Shrines, Temples, and Religious Art
Shrines and temples serve as channels of communication with the spiritual world, and they may also serve as dwelling places of gods and spirits. Shrines may exist in purely natural forms, such as forest groves, large rocks, rivers, and trees, where gods and spirits dwell. Every African landscape has places of this kind that are the focus of ritual activity. Human-made shrines vary in form. A simple tree branch stuck into the ground is a shrine for a family ghost among the Nuer. A large rectangular building serves as the ancestor stool chapel among the Ashanti. Whatever its form, an African shrine acts as a symbolic crossroads, a place where paths of communication between the human and spiritual worlds intersect. If the shrine serves as a temple, that is, as the dwelling place of a spiritual being, it is built in houselike fashion, like the "palaces" of the royal ancestors in Buganda. Such shrines usually have two parts: the front section, where the priest and the people gather, and the rear section, where the god or spirit dwells. An altar stands between the two and links them together.
Shrines and temples often contain carved images of gods, spirits, and ancestors; indeed, such images sometimes serve as shrines themselves. Carved figures may function as altars for communication with spiritual beings and as physical embodiments of the spirits themselves. The Baule of the Ivory Coast carve figures to represent the spiritual spouse who everyone has in the otherworld before being born into this one. The human-shaped figure becomes a shrine through which the spirit may be propitiated. The Dan-speaking peoples of Liberia and the Ivory Coast carve wooden masks to represent and to embody forest spirits so that they may appear before the people of the villages.
More generally, African ritual art, including masks, headdresses, sacred staffs, and ceremonial implements, is fashioned according to definite stylistic forms in order to express religious ideas and major social values. The carved chi wara antelope headdress of the Bamana of Mali represents the mythic farming animal, called Chi Wara, that originally showed the people how to cultivate, and the antelope shape of the headdress expresses the qualities of the ideal farmer: strength, industriousness, and graceful form. Male and female headdresses are danced together, while women sing songs to encourage the young men's cultivation groups to compete with each other for high agricultural achievements. The Gẹlẹdẹ masks of the Yoruba honor the spiritual power of women, collectively known as "our mothers." This power is both creative (birth) and destructive (witchcraft). The Gẹlẹdẹ mask depicts the calm and serene face of a woman and expresses the feminine virtue of patience. The face is often surmounted by elaborately carved scenes of daily activity, for the spiritual power of "the mothers" is involved in every aspect of human life.
African traditional art is primarily concerned with the human figure because of the anthropocentric and anthropomorphic character of African religions. As has been seen, religion in Africa deals with the problems of human life, the causes of which are seen to be fundamentally human in nature. Thus social conflict produces illness, human misdeeds cause the gods and ancestors to bring misfortune, and the gods themselves are essentially human in character. African thought typically conceives of the unknown and invisible forces of life by analogy with human realities that are both knowable and controllable. Hence African sculpture represents the gods, spirits, and ancestors in a basically human form.
Affliction, article on African Cults of Affliction; Central Bantu Religions; Drama, article on African Religious Drama; Iconography, article on Traditional African Iconography; Khoi and San Religion; Kingship, article on Kingship in Sub-Saharan Africa; Music, article on Music and Religion in Sub-Saharan Africa; Nuer and Dinka Religion; Tricksters, article on African Tricksters; Witchcraft, article on African Witchcraft.
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Benjamin C. Ray (1987)