East African Religions: Ethiopian Religions

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Situated in the northeasternmost part of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is populated by three major groupings of people. These groups speak languages classified as being related to three branches of Afro-Asiatic: Cushitic (e.g., Agaw, Bilen, Sidama, Oromo), Semitic (e.g., Amhara, Tigriňa, Tigre, Gurage), and Nilo-Saharan (e.g., Majangir, Berta, Gumuz, Koma). Linguistic affiliations roughly correspond with religious observances. Centuries ago Cushitic- and Semitic-speaking Ethiopians were converted to Christianity and Islam but they still retain some traditional beliefs and practices. The traditional religious observances of the Nilo-Saharan peoples have been among the least influenced by Christianity and Islam. Cushitic religious traditions, principally those of the Agaw, profoundly affected the beliefs and practices of Ethiopians on the central plateau.


Inhabiting the northern and central plateaus in the region of Gonder province, the Agaw form the linguistic and cultural substrate population of the Semitic-speaking Amhara and Tigriňa. Their most northerly relatives, the mainly Islamic Bilen, are sedentary and engage in agriculture, as nearly all Agaw do. Three Agaw groupsthe Qemant, Kwara, and Falasha (the last sometimes called Ethiopian Jews, who practice a pre-Talmudic form of Judaism)live west of the Takkaze River and north of Lake Tana. Other Agaw groups live south of Lake Tana in Agawmeder and Damot. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Agaw were estimated to number about 490,000.

The Qemant, who have a mixture of traditional and Hebraic religious beliefs, live in dispersed settlements that are defined by sacred groves, the abodes of culture heroes called qedus. Sacred groves, a feature widespread among other central Ethiopians, are the loci of all major religious ceremonies. Among the Qemant, these ceremonies are conducted by officiates (wambar ) who hold the highest political and religious offices and belong to the Keber, or superior moiety. Keber moiety members trace their ancestry to the pure Qemant; all other Qemant belong to the Yetanti moiety. Both groups disdain manual labor other than agriculture. At the apex of the priesthood, the wambar are assisted on ceremonial occasions by higher and lower priests, who ritually sacrifice on behalf of the community a white bull or white sheep as an offering to the male high god, Mezgana, who is believed to reside in the sky. After performing purification rites, priests and laypeople fast from the eve of the ceremony until the sacrifice the following morning. Worship of jinn at their natural abodes is also held to regulate rain, restore fertility, and rid the community of pests and disease.


The over twenty million Oromo, representative of the southern Cushitic, stretch from the southern tip of Tigre to Harar, then south to the Tana River in Kenya, and as far west as the tributaries of the Blue Nile. Their cultural life is varied, ranging from the seminomadic pastoralism practiced by the southern Boran, who have resisted conversion to Christianity or Islam, to the sedentary agricultural life of the Macha of western Shoa province. Shoan and Wollo Oromo long ago abandoned their traditional dependence upon cattle, a cultural transformation coinciding with their gradual acceptance of the religious beliefs and practices of the agricultural and Christian Amhara and Tigriňa near whom they settled. By the close of the twentieth century, few traces of indigenous Cushitic rites existed among the Muslim Jimma Oromo, most of whom had become devout followers of the Tijānīyah order of Islam.

Macha, Boran, and Guji Oromo, with slight variation, all share in common the Kallu institution, which Karl Knutsson describes as a social bridge between humanity and divinity. Through the figure of the Kallu, a ritual expert, a person's wishes are carried to divinity; this dignitary also constitutes the channel through which divinity's will is passed down to humanity. Moral rules of conduct are made manifest in the Kallu's daily behavioral and ritual performances associated with divinity. Macha manifestations of divinity find expression in the belief in Waka (sky or god); Atete, a female deity; and ayana, or divine agents. Kallu rituals, performed in groves of tall trees, incorporate sacrifices for rainmaking or ceremonies in honor of Waka. Possession by ayana spirits at regular intervals gives the Kallu man or woman a wider sphere of influence and power as a ritual clan leader.


Inheritors of the monophysite doctrine of Christianity (which became the official religion of the old Aksumite kingdom in about 350 ce), the Semitic-speaking Amhara and Tigriňa, inhabit large areas of central Ethiopia. The provinces of Gonder, Shoa, and Gojam, and the district of Lasta in Wollo province are the traditional homelands of the Amhara, estimated at the beginning of the twenty-first century to number almost twenty million. Tigriňa mainly inhabit the province of Tigre, their homeland, and more are dispersed throughout several districts in highland Eritrea. The Tigriňa people numbered over four million at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

The Amhara-Tigriňa have no cult associated with their supreme being and creator god, Egziabher (the god from across the sea). Predating the transplantation of Christianity, the Amhara-Tigriňa worshiped good and evil spirits who were associated with trees, fountains, and animate and inanimate objects. Nowadays, extreme devotion is expressed to the Virgin Mary (Maryam), who is believed to dwell in such sacred natural areas as high mountains, springs, and groves of sycamore trees. Sacrifices and cult activities take place in sacred groves, though the church (bet kristyan ) is the principal seat of religious worship. Dedicated in the name of a patron saint, the church is the focal point of the parish, the largest local, social, and political subdivision. At services, only the priest and deacons (and formerly the king) may enter the sanctuary, which is completely hidden from the view of the communicants. Priests and laypeople alike observe strict fasting laws throughout the year and always before major religious festivals. Before a modern system of taxation was introduced in this century, church and state administration was supported by an elaborate system of tithing in labor and kind, made possible by a surplus economy based on extensive agricultural production.


The southernmost speakers of Semitic Afro-Asiatic, the Gurage inhabit the region in Shoa province where Lake Zeway and the middle course of the Gibbie River form, respectively, the general east and west boundaries. The Shoan Oromo live to the north, and Sidama groups stretch across the southern flanks of Gurage territory. Language and dialectical differences sharply demarcate the largely Christian and Muslim eastern Gurage from the adherents of traditional religion, which is still observed among some western Gurage. These western Gurage numbered about 250,000 at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The cultural life of the western group is dominated by the cultivation of Ensete ventricosum, more commonly known as false banana, a food staple consumed in great quantities on all religious or ritual occasions.

The remote supreme god of the western Gurage figures less prominently in religious beliefs and practices than do lesser deities, on whom major cult activities center. Guardians of the shrines dedicated to the lesser deitiesWak, the male sky god; Dämwamwit, the female deity; and Božä, the thunder god (all of whom reside in sacred groves where the great annual festivals are held)exercise quasi-political and judicial roles in their spiritual capacity and sanction the authority of secular leaders. The annual festival of the female deity gives women ritual license to shed their customary subservient role and abuse menfolk verbally.


Nilo-Saharan peoples, such as the Majangir, Anuak, and Nuer, occupy western Ethiopia, mainly along the Sudan border. In the early twenty-first century, the hunting and trapping Majangir were estimated to number about 28,000 people. They live on the southwestern edge of the Ethiopian plateau in dispersed homesteads adjacent to forest areas, which they exploit for game. The material culture of the Majangir is as simple as their political and religious organization; the ritual expert (tapat ) possesses characteristics of both shaman and priest, exercising quasi-political, chiefly duties. He derives his power mainly by control over spiritual sanctions, the threat of which is sufficient to maintain peace and order.

See Also

Aksumite Religion.


Gamst, Fredrick C. The Qemant: A Pagan-Hebraic Peasantry of Ethiopia. New York, 1969. A brief, informative ethnographic account of social organization and religious ritual life of descendants of the proto-Ethiopians.

Knutsson, Karl Eric. Authority and Change: A Study of the Kallu Institution among the Macha Galla of Ethiopia. Göteborg, Sweden, 1967. An analysis of ritual and cosmology in the political organization of sedentary Oromo. A comparison is made of form and variation of the Kallu among other Oromo groups.

Legesse, Asmarom. Gada: Three Approaches to the Study of African Society. New York, 1973. A detailed analysis of the cyclical Gada age-grade system of the pastoral Boran Oromo of southern Ethiopia.

Levine, Donald N. Greater Ethiopia: The Evolution of a Multiethnic Society. Chicago, 1974. A bold, imaginative examination of the principal linguistic and sociocultural factors accounting for the shaping of modern Ethiopia.

Shack, William A. The Gurage: A People of the Ensete Culture. London, 1966. A comprehensive analysis of social and religious organization set against the cultural background of the food quest.

Stauder, Jack. The Majangir: Ecology and Society of a Southwest Ethiopian People. Cambridge, U.K., 1971. A model study of small-scale social organization of a hunting and gathering people.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. Islam in Ethiopia. London, 1952. Reprint, Totowa, N.J., 1965. The definitive study of the history and institutions of the Islamic peoples of the Horn of Africa.

New Sources

Aspen, Harald. Amhara Traditions of Knowledge: Spirit Mediums and Their Clients. Wiesbaden, Germany, 2001.

Eide, Øyvind M. Revolution and Religion in Ethiopia. Stavanger, Norway, 1996.

Ghebre-Ab, Habtu, ed. Ethiopia and Eritrea: A Documentary Study. Trenton, N.J., 1993.

Mengisteab, Kidane. Ethiopia: Failure of Land Reform and Agricultural Crisis. New York, 1990.

Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. Music, Ritual and Falasha History. East Lansing, Mich., 1986.

Yamauchi, Edwin M. Africa and Africans in Antiquity. East Lansing, Mich., 2001.

Zegeye, Abebe, and Siegfried Pausewang. Ethiopia in Change: Peasantry, Nationalism, and Democracy. London, 1994.

William A. Shack (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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East African Religions: Ethiopian Religions

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