Cosmology: African Cosmologies

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An account of African cosmologies must first come to terms with a set of issues likely to generate controversy. Foremost has been the scholastic predisposition to regard them as of less interest because of their supposed comparative simplicity and lack of theoretical sophistication in articulating visions of a cosmos generally, even in mythical terms. This is linked to a view of indigenous religions in the African context as anachronisms that are the vestigial remains of cultures whose precolonial authenticity has been in a state of decline for several centuries. Christianity and Islam, on the other hand, are often portrayed as dynamic missionary enterprises, almost inevitably destined to prevail and thereby bring Africa and Africans into the domain of respectably articulated "world" religionsand cosmologies.

To counter these questionable yet still all too common stereotypes it is helpful to begin by pointing out that there are in the early twenty-first century at least eight hundred distinct language cultures in sub-Saharan Africa alone. The time is long past when scholars of these cultures could feel comfortable with cosmological and religious generalizations, supposedly common to all, on the basis of detailed studies of a few. Texts that were for too long taken as definitive accounts of African "traditional" religion are therefore challenged by new generations of scholars who reject the negative value judgments implicitly justified by cosmological paradigms derived from predominantly non-African sources. There is a growing consensus that Africa and Africans must finally speak for themselves, from the standpoints of indigenous believers, rather than defer to the potentially methodologically distorted interpretations of purely academic field-workers.

This means that a substantial body of established scholarly texts is now directly challenged. Cosmological paradigms patched together from such disparate sources as the accounts of explorers, missionaries, colonial administrators, traders, folklorists, anthropologists, historians, and art historians increasingly are deconstructed by scholars of religion with a social scientific predisposition and by philosophers in the African context. This can mean that there are more than ideological motives involved when Africa reclaims Egyptian civilization (cosmology included) as part of its intellectual heritage. This can also mean that pioneering portrayals of African cosmologies, such as Placide Tempels's Bantu Philosophy (a hierarchical, pantheistic, vital force ontology extending from a Supreme Being downward to the lowliest forms of matter) or Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmêli: An Introduction to Dogon Religious Ideas (an elaborate symbolist rendering of a Dogon cosmology and cosmogony that includes and interrelates everything from stellar constellations to the patterns of plowed fields), are coming to be treated as the systematized, empathic renderings of Western devotees and the elaborated images of idiosyncratic sources whose ideas were thereafter presented as if representative of an entire culture.

Consequently noncontroversial accounts of authentically African cosmologiespast or presentare not easy to identify. Nevertheless in what follows attempts will be made to represent contemporary, even if not entirely methodologically compatible, viewpoints on the cosmologies of three African ethnic groups: the Yoruba of West Africa (principally Nigeria), the Maasai of East Africa (principally of Kenya), and the Kongo of Central Africa (principally as located in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire).

Yoruba Cosmology

It has become a truism that more has been written about the Yoruba and their culture than any other in sub-Saharan Africa. Nevertheless this should not be taken to imply that a consensus has been reached about how best to represent Yoruba cosmological beliefs, even if the many accounts of a Yoruba cosmology that have been published might lead one to believe otherwise.

Most of these standardized accounts represent the cosmology as a pantheon. At its head or top is the "sky" god, Olodumare. He "reigns" over the spiritual (orun ) and material (aye ) worlds he ultimately is responsible for creating through many lesser (a step down the pantheon) divinities (orisha ). Olodumare is portrayed as distant from both these lesser divinities and the created world with which they principally interact. The Yoruba have any number of splendid, elaborate myths detailing the story of creation and various encounters between these lesser divinities and between the divinities and the material world, human beings included of course (Courlander, 1973). A step further down the pantheon is reserved for the ancestors (ara orun ), an exceptional few of whom may have been elevated to orisha status, whereas most are in between lifetimes in the physical world. The Yoruba traditionally believe that the individual human "life" consists of an indefinite series of reincarnations within the same family line.

Taking yet another step down the pantheon, one enters the physical world, where human beings as well may be rated or ranked on one of seven different levels, depending on their talents and abilities (Hallen, 2000). Events within that world are frequently attributed to the activities of the lesser divinities, and therefore it is of critical importance that there be an avenue or pathway of communication between the spiritual and physical worlds, which is provided by the agency of the diviner (babalawo ). The underlying system of divination is known as Ifa and consists of an intricate and extensive body of oral literature to which diviners refer when providing information to their clients (Abimbola, 1976). In this Yoruba pantheon there is no personified force of evil, especially one comparable to the Christian or Muslim Satan or devil. Therefore on the level of humanity, individuals usually bear the ultimate responsibility for their immoral (not "evil") behavior, especially when such behavior manifests a publicly identifiable pattern (Hallen, 2000; Olupona, 2000, p. xix).

Beginning in the latter part of the twentieth century, this model of a Yoruba cosmology was challenged by a number of scholars who saw it as a distorted overviewthough it may contain many accurate elementsof a still vital cultural tradition. The distortion is due primarily to the imposition of something like a Greek or Roman spiritual and physical pantheon on a cultural context, where it is out of place because it misrepresents the ways in which people in that context relate to and act out their views of the cosmos. These scholars pointed out that religion and its component cosmological beliefs in Yoruba culture are not the product of a "received" body of doctrine, as is the case with Christianity and the Bible or Islam and the Qurʾān (Olupona, 1991). There is also no prophetic figure corresponding to Christ or Muammad. In addition the qualitative distancing between the spiritual and the physical introduced by such a hierarchical model does not do justice to Yoruba sensitivities about such relationships. In fact the spiritual is not somehow "up there." It too is "here," constantly intermixed with the so-called physical realm, even if from a different dimension that involves having recourse to specialized techniques (ritual ceremonies, divination, dreams, and offeringsa more interculturally neutral term than the implicitly pejorative "sacrifices") to communicate and interact with it (Soyinka, 1976).

Doctrine or Ritual?

Jacob K. Olupona's 1991 Kingship, Religion, and Rituals in a Nigerian Community, a study of religion in the Yoruba cultural context, stands out as designed specifically to accommodate a religion and view of the cosmos that does not arise from a body of received doctrine. This shift in the religious substratum is more revolutionary than it might at first seem. In received religions a body of religious doctrine forms the bedrock, whereas rituals and ceremonies are treated as comparatively peripheral and therefore of secondary importance. Now the converse becomes the case, and what was peripheral becomes the bedrock. This also serves to redeem the intellectual character of Yoruba indigenous religion by suggesting that it has never been done justice in conventional fieldwork studies, because again the basis on which it was approached was skewed so as to favor doctrinal-based religions as paradigmatic. Therefore a religion that expressed itself principally via ritual ceremonies did not receive the methodologically specialized treatment it deserved. This could also help to explain the persistent concerns of academic field-workers to construct a systematized pantheon of Yoruba spiritual and physical elements, because the cosmology then could be reconstituted (even if misleadingly) in a discursive format that imitated the architectonics of doctrinal-based religions.

Yet another negative consequence of the pantheon approach is that it gives the impression that the same religious and cosmological views are shared by all Yoruba. But as Olupona points out, it is the Yoruba themselves who acknowledge that they are divided into different cultural groups, and each of these groups can in turn be subdivided into its constituent elements (e.g., individual cities and towns). Therefore one sensible way to reestablish a basis for a systematic approach to assessing the possible universality as well as the potentially culturally relative meanings of myths, ritual ceremonies and their cosmological portents would be to begin on a microcosmic levelwhat myths are told and how rituals are enacted in a particular city or townbefore proceeding to hazard generalizations about some sort of Pan-Yoruba religion or cosmos.

Another stereotype of Africa's indigenous societies that must be challenged is the idea that they are static, oriented exclusively toward "traditions" inherited from the past and therefore resistant to change. For what Olupona finds in present-day Ondo is indeed a "traditional" culture but one that is changing to adapt to and come to terms with present-day realities. In religious and cosmological terms, the introduction of Christianity and Islam has had the most profound consequences. But the institutions of indigenous Ondo religion, most importantly as personified by the town's traditional ruler or king (Oshemawe ), have recast the annual cycle of public ritual ceremonies involving the king so that they serve a civic as well as a religious function. In other words, indigenous religion in the Ondo Yoruba context is now sustained and perpetuated by the wider social and cultural contexts with which its rituals, ceremonies, and myths have become intimately associated. Indeed Olupona goes so far as to speak of a civic dimension to these public ritual ceremonies that complement the viewpoints of those (Christians, Muslims, and so on) who have no reason to view them in more conventionally religious terms.

What this means is that the annual cycle of religious ceremonies can now also be regarded as occasions in which the entire townindigenous practitioners, Christians, and Muslimscan all actively participate in some form or other because they serve to renew and to energize the Ondo cosmos in the most general terms (Olupona, 1991, p. 21). Effectively the king has supplanted the Supreme Being as the principal agent of that cosmos. Yet his status as an orisha or divinity as well as a temporal ruler instills these proceedings with a spiritual force that attracts the participation of other, purely spiritual orishas : the ancestors, the chiefs who rule under him, and the body of the townspeople. Rather than the townspeople factionalizing along religious lines, this localized, revisionist role of the king and the ritual ceremonies with which he is involved have enabled the town to retain a robust sense of unity. Olupona suggests that this might not have happened were it not for the fact that Yoruba religion can be so eclectic and that this eclecticism can in large part again be attributed to the fact that the religion is not based on a fixed body of doctrine or dogma, cosmology included.

Maasai Cosmology

The solitary Maasai warrior (moran ) fashionably festooned with ochre and a red tunic, standing on one or two legs with spear or staff upright while guarding a grazing herd of cattle, has become one of the Western icons of sub-Saharan Africa. The once mighty Maasai military confederation, thanks to colonialism and the rise of independent African nation-states, has been compelled to recast itself as a nomadic, pastoralist society devoted primarily to raising the cattle their myths tell them were originally a gift from God (Nkai).

There is considerable controversy as to what their religious and cosmological beliefs may have been in the past. But Paul Spencer's 2003 study, Time, Space, and the Unknown: Maasai Configurations of Power and Providence, written essentially from a structuralist viewpoint, sets out to document them in the present. This contemporary Maasai cosmology effectively reflects their current lifeworld, a term that is understood in phenomenological-hermeneutical circles to refer to a socially constituted, everyday, cultural universe. This means that the views attributed to them about space and time and the cosmology of which they are constituent elements are said to arise from the world the Maasai inhabit as empirically firsthand.

Although the Maasai are nomadic, they are said to have a refined sense of spatial orderwithin certain empirical limits. This extends from the precisely detailed layouts of their huts and homesteads to the uninhabited grazing lands for their herdsstill sometimes referred to by those who write about Africa's cultures as the "bush." By day the bush may constitute an environment that offers obvious benefits and usually identifiable dangers, but by night it becomes a place where many natural and supernatural hazards (sorcery among them) may victimize the unwary, so that it is primarily groups of moran who may on occasion undertake ritual ceremonies there in relative safety.

By the early twenty-first century the pastoral Maasai consisted of sixteen separate but federated territorial groups. Although there must obviously be a sense of spatial identity arising from the territory of the federation as a whole, the individual Maasai is said to more or less view the space that is within his or her ethnic domain as the one that is truly privileged to him or her. What lies beyond is the relatively unfamiliar, though there is acknowledgment of an other, hidden dimension to a space of indefinite, also supernatural, extension that cannot be known in straightforward empirical terms.

Time in the Maasai cosmos is said to be most importantly determined by the cycle of ritual ceremonies that take place every fourteen to fifteen years and govern groups of males' progression through childhood to moran status and finally to that of elders who are entitled to marry and settle down (nomadically) in an individual homestead, raising families and building up herds of cattle. The model of time is said to be lived by the individual Maasai, so it is not so much cyclical in nature as it is spiral. This is because the individual lifetime progresses through the cycle of ritual ceremonies only once as it advances from childhood to elder status, even if the ceremonies continue to be performed for other individuals and groups. Consequently the Maasai are said to be a "very age-conscious people" (Spencer, 2003, p. 15). Although the moran may be more vigorous physically, the elders govern and determine the ritual cycle. Therefore their status in the community is, in the end, supremeas a source of both political stability and morality.

The elders, as those who control the timing and organization of the ritual ceremonies, are also looked to as those best qualified to deal with the wider, spiritual dimensions to the Maasai cosmos (Spencer, 2003, p. 65). They determine when the offerings are to be made to Nkai to ensure his continued providence, because he is said to be ultimately responsible for everything that happens in the Maasai world. But although Nkai may have once been in close contact with the Maasai, for example, when he first provided them with cattle, he has since withdrawn in a manner that makes it difficult to determine whether and why fortune or misfortune will affect a particular individual's lifetime. And that lifetime constitutes everything that the individual has to look forward to, because the Maasai are said not to believe in an afterlife and therefore in any forms of ancestral spirits.

When the Maasai feel the need to turn to a higher authority than the elders for guidance or counsel, they turn to diviners (il-oibonok ). The oracles used by qualified diviners are said never to lie, but it can also prove difficult to get them to give a clear and unambiguous diagnosis of the underlying problem. The most prominent lineage among families who claim to have special powers in this regard are the Loonkidongi, who trace their origin back to Kidongoi, a boy with extraordinary powers who is said to have come down from the sky. Within the ranks of diviners, the most powerfulcommunally announced and acknowledgedare said to be analogous to prophets in that their powers to "see" the truth about any situation are held in awe and are believed by many to be infallible. These are the specialized professionals to whom even the elders turn when faced with a delicate or difficult situation.

Spencer's (2003) account of Maasai cosmology contains several recurrent themes that suggest it may have more in common with that of the Yoruba than originally thought. He remarks repeatedly on the Maasai inability or unwillingness to elaborate many of their most important cosmological beliefs. With reference to any subject beyond the immediately empirical, words or phrases such as "reticence," "beyond human comprehension," "dimly perceived," "unknowable," "avoid the topic," "enigmatic," and "reluctant to elaborate" pepper his text. Yet when it comes to descriptions of the ritual ceremonies in Maasai culture, they are said to be elaborate and even "flamboyant." Therefore one cannot help wondering whether this is another example of a religion and cosmology that is based on and expressed by its ritual ceremonies rather than a body of received doctrine. If this is the case, it would explain the Maasai inability to elaborate on their religion and cosmology in discursive fashion and therefore make efforts to get them to do so of indeterminate value.

Kongo Cosmology

The traditional cultures of Zaire were subjected to one of the most disruptive forms of colonialism when that nation was part of the Belgian Congo. Therefore what is truly remarkable about modern-day Kongo cosmology is how many of its precolonial elements have survived, even if the institutions and agents through which they are expressed have been dramatically transformed. Even though colonialism did not directly suppress Kongo cosmology at the local, village level, what this perhaps testifies to is the passion, the depth of feeling and commitment on the part of the Kongo to their indigenous religion and cosmology.

As Wyatt MacGaffey (1983, 1986) states, it is the abstracted academic study of select behavior and beliefs that transforms things that are lived realities, that are literally worth living and dying for, into "subjects" like "African cosmology" or "African traditional religion." Therefore to reinvent them it is necessary to put them back into the wider social and cultural contexts of which they are intrinsically and dynamically constituent. Kongo cosmology and religion are also said to be expressed primarily via myths and ritual ceremonies, and the two combined create a distinctive cosmology. In Kongo cosmology the universe consists of the land of the living (nza yayi, "this earth") and the land of the dead (nsi a bafwa ), which are separated by a body of water. Interaction between these two realms is vigorous and constant. Unlike the Yoruba, the Kongo do not believe in reincarnation or, like the Maasai, that there is no afterlife. The individual dead (bafwa ) remain in the world of spirits, of whom the most powerful is Nzambi Mpungu, not a prominent figure or causal agent in the indigenous Kongo cosmology but later conscripted by missionaries to serve as the Christian "God." Yet it is the land of the dead that is regarded as the primary source of power (kindoki ), so ritual interaction with it is assigned a high priority for maintaining order in both their land and that of living human beings. Other inhabitants of the land of the dead that are important as sources of power are the "nature spirits" (bisimbi ), who are attended to by priests (banganga ) on behalf of local communities.

Although this basic model has been somewhat degraded by the hostile onslaughts of colonialism, missionary Christianity, and even the bureaucratic institutions of an independent Zairewhich all recast it as pagan superstitionit has managed to survive in revitalized form in that country's African Christian churches. In Kongo cosmology myth and ritual correspond to the words and actions used to maintain order and to control and to exercise power in and between the lands of the living and the dead. Because the land of the dead is regarded as the major source of such power, it is the human agents who interact with it via rituals that play the most prominent role in the cosmology. Before colonialism these were said to have been the chiefs (mfumu ), priests (banganga ), witches (ndoki ), and magicians (nganga ). The former two were associated with those who exercise their powers in a socially benevolent manner, whereas the latter two were thought susceptible to a degree of individualized self-interest that might result in the victimization of their fellow human beings.

The onset of colonialism, missionary Christianity, and then the nation-state led to the abolition of chieftaincies as independent political agencies and of diviners as independent spiritual agents, for reasons that should be obvious in an arena where power itself was being contested. Although missionary Christianity sought to fill the resultant spiritual vacuum, it was the rise of independent African Christian churches, most notably that of the self-announced prophet Simon Kimbangu in 1921, that provided a politically correct institutional home and outlet for the framework of a Kongo cosmology that had endured in the hearts and minds of the people. In this contemporary adaptation the church-based prophet (ngunza ) assumes the role of the priest-diviner, and the various rituals as modified (principally by the removal of traditional ritual objects) now provide the same high-priority servicesmediation with the dead, protection against witchcraft and sorcery, explanations of past misfortune or fortune, and projections of the same with regard to the futureas before. For example, it is noteworthy that interactions between the Kongo and Europeans, such as the slave trade and colonialism, are now regarded as periods during which the Congolese people generally were victimized by European witchcraft. Therefore one point of MacGaffey's (1983, 1986) texts is that the phenomenon of Kimbanguism is indisputable evidence that an indigenous cosmology, expressed principally by myth and ritual ceremony rather than by doctrine, can survive sustained, deliberate attempts to extinguish it and can reemerge and refashion itself, so as to structure and inform a new social institution that will provide it with the public forum it fully deserves, in fact demands.


Africa's indigenous religions and cosmologies are neither dying, nor are they operating as anachronisms. They have proved themselves capable of adapting to changing circumstances over which they may have little or no control. Furthermore African cosmologies are diverse, and therefore it is best to avoid unwarranted generalizations about their common characteristics or attributes. This also means that cosmologies expressed via myth and ritual ceremonies have their own integrity and should not be regarded as the products of cultures that are somehow less sophisticated. The religions with which they are associated, Africa's indigenous religions, should therefore be accorded the same respect and integrity as the so-called, self-designated world religions. Last but far from least, there is the as yet unresolved issue of whether African-inspired Christian churches are best regarded as a further manifestation of Africa's indigenous religions.


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Cosmology: African Cosmologies

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