God: African Supreme Beings

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African supreme beings are spiritual beings or divinities who are as varied as the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, the world's second largest continent after Asia. Belief in a supreme being is universal among most of the over sixty peoples of Africa. Supreme beings carry a distinct and unique quality in African cosmology as creators with all other supreme attributes in the theocentric universe. The nature, characters, and attributes of the African supreme being reflect indigenous religious orthodoxy prior to the introduction of, and in spite of, the influence of Christianity and Islam, and these qualities reflect the continuing diversity of the African peoples' traditional sociopolitical structures and languages within the current modern nation-states. The African supreme being is usually associated symbolically with the varieties of indigenous cultures of the peoples. The indigenous concepts and conceptions of most African supreme beings have been retained by the adherents of the religions that were introduced into Africa in the ritual practices and the translations of the sacred texts (Bible and Qurʾān) of those religious traditions.

Basic Common Views

The diversity of cultural forms and linguistic differences of Africans, notwithstanding the relationships of African supreme beings to the created order (including the human, spiritual, and other entities), reveal to a great extent a certain uniformity and similarity in the nature, attributes, and powers of the supreme beings.

Mythologies: creation and existence

The different groups of Africa have developed myths around their supreme beings' transcendence and immanence. Africans' perceptions towards supreme beings, though varying from one people to the other, express certain basic patterns that reflect African social organization and hierarchical structures, including relationships between elders and youths and humans' interconnections with natural phenomena. The three interrelated elemental dimensionsthe sky, the earth, and the underworld (beneath the earth)are believed to be peopled by different categories of spiritual and physical beings, and all are connected in certain relational ways to the supreme being.

Most mythic narratives of African peoples hold the supreme being responsible for the creation of their universe, including the earth and sky, human beings, and spiritual beings. In some sense, cosmogenic and cosmological myths serve the social and political functions in the diverse traditional political groups of African communities, particularly the ways in which different ethnic groups came into existence. Most of the myths affirm that the supreme being delegated to lesser spiritual beings the responsibility of creating the local universes of Africa, and the supreme being is always credited with the creation and allotting of what each community considers to be the essence of human beings (including destiny and predestination). Thus, the entire creation is held to be dependent upon the supreme being, who is acknowledged to be at the apex of the cosmic structure. This is the general notion on which rests the concept of an intermediary in African religion, which is also reflected in African social and political setting. Many of the myths are handed down through many generations. They are often told in traditional language by priests of indigenous religious traditions and by elders.

Names: ancient and descriptive

The names of African supreme beings reflect the different African language groups. Within some nation states there are more than 250 languages, as in Nigeria, within others more than one hundred, as in Tanzania, and within some others more than forty, as in Kenya. Most of these names are encoded in etymologies which describe the qualities and functions of such supreme beings. Generally, the names used for the supreme being of every African people are classifiable into two groups: the ancient or primary local names, and the descriptive or secondary names. Ancient or primary names are those that are generally used by older and elderly members of the communities. Examples are Olódùmarè of the Yoruba of Nigeria and Mulungu of the Bantu-speaking peoples of East Africa. Ancient names express the inexplicable nature, character, essence, and attributes of a being who is an almighty, all-powerful, ever-present creator, and who is supreme in all senses of supremacy. The unknowable character of gods' names illustrates power and secrecy beyond human imagination or conception. Although the meanings of the ancient names are not easily explained by common sense or etymological interpretation, due to nonusage over a long period of time, descriptive names have etymologies that express the perceived knowledge and living experiences of peoples in their mundane situations. Furthermore, the etymologies of the descriptive names divulge intrinsic and functional meanings and functional spatial locations which identify supreme beings with the nature of such locations.

The names of the supreme being generally reflect the nature of African universe and sociopolitical structure, and they describe the people's perception of their conditioned environment and the polarity of the supreme being. The names describe the benevolence and activities of the supreme being on the people's life experiences. Both the ancient and descriptive names of the supreme being, however, express an intrinsic reality of the supreme being. It is important to note that each African people also have local names, from which one is adopted for common use by the general public.

Attributes: being and expression

There is a close relationship between the conception of the traditional claims of historic religions and those of Africans concerning the attributes of the supreme being. The conceptions of African supreme beings are similar to those of most Western and Eastern religions with regards to Godly characteristics, which include omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, transcendence, immanence, benevolence, and so on. These attributes express a complex relationship between the supreme being and other entities, human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, visible and invisible, material, and spiritual. However, the degrees by which each African people express their supreme being differ in intensity and quality, and these are expressed in the indigenous names which each African group gives their supreme being. Some supreme beings, and particularly divinities who serve as intermediaries of supreme beings, also exhibit certain human negative behavioral attributes such as anger and fury. These attributes are manifested in such natural occurrences as thunder, storm, wind, whirlwind, thick cloud, running streams, beaming oceans, and so on.

Relationship to spiritual and human beings and other cosmic entities

Cosmogenic and cosmological myths detail different levels of relationship between a supreme being and other entities. The relationship with other spiritual beings or deities is expressed in stories about the creation and maintenance of the universe. These deities in most cases play the role of intermediaries between the supreme being and human beings. As guardian agents of morality, they function to maintain an ontological equilibrium on behalf of the supreme being. Thus, in ritual practices, these spiritual beings who populate the physical universe are popular and influential among human beings but are limited in power. Some of the deities bear the ritual sacrifices to the supreme being as sacred meals of appeasement and restoration. The supreme being has a close relationship with natural phenomena such as trees, oceans and seas, mountains and hills, the sun and moon, rainbows, and so on. Nature and the natural as well as physical locations of these phenomena are generally noted to have an effect on the people's conception and description of the supreme being. Natural phenomena provide avenues for hierophanic appearances (manifestation of the divine) by the deities who manifest aspects of the supreme beings. Some natural phenomena also serve as altars on which sacred meals are displayed as sacrifices for the deities to feed on, and they possibly carry some of the sacrifices to the supreme being. Africans' attitude to natural phenomena and their recognition of the deities as intermediaries between them and the supreme being have strongly influenced the derogatory description of African religious traditions as polytheism and fetishism by early anthropologists as well as missionaries.

The moral aspect of the relationship of the supreme being to the African universe reveals the polarity of the being who is essentially good, and yet whose works of creation directly or indirectly lead to misfortunes, chaos, and crises. The polarity is often explained by the concepts of free will and determinism, by which the supreme being operates in the theocentric universe. This idea is variously expressed in African mythologies that the supreme being creates certain spiritual beings and deities to whom he delegates responsibility for creating other universal entities, including human beings.

In African cosmology, the relationship of the supreme being to human beings is crucial because it has moral implications for human and universal harmony. This is a continual relationship in the interminable process of creation, particularly as it provides for reincarnation, which depends upon the quality of life which an individual person lives as a human being in the universe. As in some Eastern religions, a person who lives a worthy life on earth is accepted into ancestral status, and a person who lives a degenerate life reincarnates into a lesser being such as an animal and plant. Africans do not hold their supreme beings directly responsible for imperfectness in creation, but they do attribute fault and imperfectness in creation to the deities who are involved in the process. African myths attempt to justify deities on the grounds that each represents an aspect of the supreme being, and as such they only serve to check human excesses, bring order to chaos, and maintain an ontological equilibrium in the universe, which has been desecrated by human beings. Thus, human beings are liable for their actions and must accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make in their lives.

Anthropomorphic descriptions

The African supreme being is described in anthropomorphic terms which reflect to great extent human biological and social functions such as fatherhood and motherhood, and human physical and domestic activities and cares. In all, the role of the supreme being is conceived as encompassing both masculine and feminine roles in a gendered African universe. Most African myths reveal that the African supreme being, after the first order of creation, either retreated or traveled to the high heavens where he resides. Such retreat or withdrawal is claimed to be a consequence of human beings' misbehavior or disobedience. It can be argued that, contrary to the unduly negative assessments of Western writers, the withdrawl of the supreme being does not indicate that Africans hold their supreme being as distant and unreachable, for they always acknowledge him, not only through the intermediaries but directly as well.

Supreme Beings in Local Geographical Contexts

The supreme beings selected here for specific discussion do not represent the totality of the conceptions and imaginations of the numerous African groups; instead, they have been chosen because of the popularity that has been accorded them in academic study and scholarly writings and analysis. Secondly, most of them represent large populations of people who have regarded themselves as kingdoms, especially before the colonial partitioning efforts that led to the current modern states. The supreme beings that are discussed here are selected from various parts of AfricaEast, West, Central, and southern Africawhere indigenous cultures still flourish as regards the notion of indigenous African supreme beings: Amma, Nyame, Ngewo, Olódùmarè, Osanobwa, Chukwu, Kwoth, Mulungu, Nzambi, Nhialic, Ndjambi, Ngai, and uNkulunkulu.


Amma is the supreme being of the Dogon people of Mali. The Dogon attributed the creation of everything in the world, including human beings, earth, stars and so on to Amma, the supreme being. However, the myth of these creations is complex and profound. The myth "serves to demonstrate the rich system of correspondences between the natural order, the social realm, and personal life" (Sproul 1979, p. 49).

According to Dogon mythology, Amma created the heavens and the earth. The creation is envisaged in several stages with the use of sacred "word" by Amma. The first stage was the creation of nature, the second was an attempt to redeem human beings. The third creation included the sacred granary (including the world order of creation) and the rum which is a primary method of communication and symbolic of verbal language and culture. Amma exists in the shape of an oval egg with four collarbones joined together to form four quarters. These quarters contain the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

The creation of human beings, summarized by James Thayer, came when Amma placed a seed within himself and spoke seven creative words which caused the seed to vibrate and to extend itself into the image of man. Amma produced a set of male and female twins by dividing the egg into a double placenta that he placed in each of the twins. The twins emanated directly from Amma, and are thus his children. Yurugu, the male twin, due to impatience, broke through the placenta in need of a female. Yurugu did this to replicate Amma's creation. As the placenta tore away, a piece of it became the earth. Yurugu could not find a mate and instead mated with the earth, thereby defiling the earth, which was actually his mother. Amma tried to restore the creation. He made another male twin, Nommo, and then created four other spirits from Nommo. These were the ancestors of the Dogon. Nommo and the ancestors came down to earth on an ark. The ark was filled with those materials that they would need for proper restoration and successful abode in the world. There came light and rain that would purify the earth. It was through Nommo and the ancestors that human beings, animals, and plants were created. The four other Nommo spirits who were created by Amma gave birth to the four divisions of the Dogon and to their social life. Amma transformed Yurugu into an animal, known as "pale fox," that wanders the earth in search of his female counterpart. The diviners use the signs of the "pale fox" that are left on the earth to interpret important events in the life of the Dogon people.

The effect of Yurugu's "incestuous behavior" resulted in darkness, sterility, and death. This was balanced, however, by partial restoration by Nommo who produced light, rain and fertility. Yurugu personifies the night and all those places that are uninhabitable, including dry lands.

Other sets of creation first invented by Amma included the sun and the moon, made through the process of pottery. Dogon myth states that the sun is a pot raised to white heat and surrounded by a spiral of red copper with eight turns. The moon is the same shape, but the copper is white. The moon was heated one quarter at a time. Amma "took a lump of clay, squeezed it in his hand and flung it from him just as he did with the stars. The clay spread and fell on the north, which is the top, and from there stretched out to the south, which is the bottom, of the world, the earth lies flat, but the north is at the top. It extends east and west with separate members like a foetus in the womb. Its sexual organ is an anthill, and its clitoris a termite hill. Amma being lonely and desirous of intercourse with this creature, approached it. That was the occasion of the first breach of the order of the universe" (Sproul, 1979, 5051).

However, the termite hill did not allow the passage, and intercourse could not take place. But Amma is all-powerful. He cut down the termite hill and had intercourse with the excised earth. Subsequent intercourse with his earth-wife was easy. Water, the divine seed, was able to enter the womb of the earth, allowing a normal reproductive cycle that resulted in the birth of twins, two beings. The two beings were green in color, half human beings and half serpents who were called Nummo, two homogenous products of Amma, of divine essence like himself. These beings also produced the pair which were present in all water. The pair became the source of all human actions.

Nyame (Onyankopon, Onyame)

Nyame is the most common and the principal name for the supreme deity of the Akan people of Ghana. The variations of this name among the Ga of Ghana are Nyonmo, Nyama, and Nyam, which have the same basic connotation and meaning. Other common names among the Akan that are related in etymological interpretation are Nyankopon and Onyankopon. Nyame derives from two Akan words, nya, meaning "to get," and me, meaning "to be full" or "to be satisfied." Nyame is thus interpreted to mean "if you possess or get him, you are satisfied." That is, Nyame can be interpreted as the god of fullness or god of satisfaction. The name is also said to be derivable from the root word nyam, which can mean "shining," "brightness," or "glory." In the Akans' worldview, all of these are attributes of the supreme being, but how the idea of the supreme being itself originated is unknown.

The Akan do not possess any systematic account of the process of creation of the universe. There is, however, a strong belief indicated in variants of myths that the creation is credited solely to the supreme being, whatever name it is called. Various accounts specify that the sky was created first, followed by the earth, rivers, waters, plants, and trees. After this came the creation of the first man, called Okane, and the first woman, called Kyeiwaa, as one myth tells. Okane and Kyeiwaa live in a cave. Nyame teaches the couple the names of all things he creates. In all the accounts, Nyame is acknowledged as the author, the creator of all things, hence his praise name Odomankoma and his title Borebore, which means "excavator," "hewer," "carver," "creator," "originator," "inventor," or "architect." The next stage is the creation of the animals. Nyame orders and provides a structure in the hierarchies for and utilities of the human, animal, and plant species. Nyame is also said to have some divinities who are called his children because they derive their essential origin from him. There are many proverbs, songs, and other oratures which support the Akans' belief in Nyame as the creator and author of all that exists, including those essential aspects of human life. In The Akan Doctrine of God, J. B. Danquah records a stanza from the Akan songs (which are usually played with a talking drum) that praises Nyame as the creator: "Odomankoma, / He created the Thing, / Hewer-out Creator, / He created the Thing, / What did he create? / He created Order, / He created Knowledge, / He created Death, / As its quintessence!" (Danquah, 1944, p. 70).


Ngewo is the name for the supreme being of the Mende people of Sierra Leone in West Africa. The derivative of the name Ngewo is vague. The probable etymology claims that the name derives from Ngele-woo, a combination of ngele (sky) and woo (long ago), which suggests "in the sky, from long ago." Another name for the supreme being among the Mende is Leve, which is said to be the much older name that is used almost exclusively by very old people. Leve means "the giver of chicken" or "high one."

As in some other African communities, Ngewo, the supreme being of the Mende is claimed to be the creator of the universe. The Mende conceive of Ngewo in masculine terms, that is, they regard him as their father. He is also described as being "high up," and at the same time ubiquitous. As the controller of the universe, whose ultimate authority is affirmed, the Mende attribute their well-being, victory over their enemies, retribution, and defense to Ngewo.

In their book The Springs of Mende Belief and Conduct (1968), William T. Harris and Harry Sawyerr present the myth of the creative power and activities of Ngewo. The myth tells of a long ago when Ngewo made the earth and all things in it, after which he made a man and a woman. The myth of the creation of the animals that populate the world is a fascinating one. It is claimed that before Ngewo was called by that name, he was once a very big or great spirit, living in a cave that had a door. His power and authority was so immense that all he said would come to pass. There came a day when he said to himself, "I have all this power, why don't I use it? I have lived alone for a long time with no one to talk to and no one to play with." He went to the entrance of the cave and said, "I want all kinds of animals to live with me in this cave." The animals came in pairs. He closed the door of the cave. After some time he called the animals together and gave them the rules that would continue to guide them, the violation of which would lead them to a terrible consequence. The first item of the law was on food. He said, "I will give you anything you want, food and everything else, but you must not touch my own food." The spirit looked at himself, the animals, and the cave, and he said "This cave is too small." As he turned himself around, the cave became very, very big. The animals became happy as their food also increased to the size of the room. Also, the spirit was happy as he had neighbors to talk to and play with.

The spirit and the animals usually had a very intimate rapport. The animals usually came to greet him. One day, one of the animals came to greet him. As the animal was approaching him, it smelled some sweet-smelling food, saw the food and took some and ate it. The spirit is very knowledgeable, very strict about his rules, and powerful. The animal mysteriously found itself in front of the spirit. The spirit then said, "What brought you here? You have violated my law." The spirit threw the animal from the cave and said, "You! From now on, your name is cow." Later another animal also ate the food and was thrown out. This animal the spirit named monkey. This continued until all the animals were given different names and were thrown out of the cave. This was the genesis of why and how all animals and men wander around the world to look for this sweet-smelling food.

The first man and woman who were created by the great spirit usually referred to him as Maada-le ("He is grandfather"). One day Ngewo addressed the two, saying, "Everything you ask me for, if you want it, you shall have it." Whenever they needed anything, including food, they went to him requesting, "Maada, give us this, or Maada, give us that." As he gave it, he would say, "In ngee " (Yes, take it.). However, Ngewo saw their constant coming and requesting from him as wearisome and troubling. This made him decide to leave them. He said to himself, "If I stay near these people they will wear me with their requests; I will make another living place for myself far above them." The people went to sleep one night. They woke up the next morning and looked about, but could not see him. As they lifted up their heads, they saw him Ngawongo waa, (spread out very big) which forms another possible etymology of the word for Ngewo, the supreme being.

The spirit decided to go up far above men and animals, where he is sitting, watching to see who will eat his food. This spirit was later called Ngewo. Although this myth does not reveal the beginning of human beings, the Mende hold Ngewo as their creator and controller of their universe. They pray to him. They regard ancestors as intermediaries between them and the supreme being.

Olódùmarè and ĺrun

Olódùmarè is the supreme god of the Yoruba people, a highly urbanized society with large city-state kingdoms in southwestern Nigeria. The origin of the name has been difficult to decipher through etymologies, but Yoruba mythology and conception of this being describe the supreme being as almighty, the first being, and the creator of the world. Olódùmarè is the ancient name of the Yoruba supreme being. The other name that is commonly used and which etymologically identifies the supreme being with the creation and ownership of the universe and close relationship with the sky is ĺrun (one who owns or resides in the sky).

Although Olódùmarè is the creator, he works through hundreds of òrìà (divinities or deities)some myths say 201, some say 401, and some say 601. These òrìà are said to share of the essence of Olódùmarè. After creating the òrìà, Olódùmarè delegates some òrìà to create certain aspects of the universe and some to maintain the universe. This networking by Olódùmarè through the òrìà stabilizes the social and psychological spaces of the human life. Each òrìà has a different elemental province. Prominent among the òrìà who were delegated to create are bàtáálà, ̀rúnmìlà, Odùduwà, ̀un, and Òguń. There are others who manifest aspects of Olódùmarè in the maintenance of morality and orderliness in the world. Èù is regarded as the neutral force who supervises sacrifices; that is, the sacrifices that are prescribed to clients through divination. Èù carries the sacrifices to Olódùmarè.

To create the world, Olódùmarè supplies some dry soil, a five-toed hen, and a chameleon. Olódùmarè gives the dry soil to Obàtáálá to drop on the primordial watery surface in the world. The five-toed hen then spreads the soil on the watery surface. Another version of the myth states that Odùduwà has to complete the creation of the earth because Obàtáálá gets drunk on the way to the world. The five-toed hen does the work. The chameleon tests and confirms the habitability of the now-solid space, and the report pleases Olódùmarè. Obàtáálá is also assigned to mold the human being with clay, and Olódùmarè breathes life into the figure. ̀rúnmìlà is the deputy of Olódùmarè on matters of knowledge and wisdom, which are understood in Yorùbá mythology to be intertwined with the concept of destiny. Destiny is said to be enclosed in the "inner spiritual head," which is molded by another divinity called Àjàlá. Every human being is given or chooses from the many molded heads when coming from heaven. In these heads are contained all that a human being will experience in life. This further illustrates the Yoruba concept of free will and determinism, which holds that God is not responsible for human calamities. Olódùmarè also commands sacrifices to alleviate human sufferings. The way that the interactions of human beings with Olódùmarè and deities are explained is that the deities that are involved in the processes of controlling human beings moderate the activities of human beings in the world. The ordering of sacrifices by Olódùmarè and his deities, and the performance or nonperformance of the sacrifices by human beings, explains the resolution of the complexities and paradoxes of human responsibility in the cosmos. The relationship of Olódùmarè to human beings is a continuous one, as a well-lived life qualifies a human being to enter into the ancestral world.

The nature, character, and emotions of Olódùmarè are manifested through such divinities as Òguń, Saǹgó, ̀un, ya, and several others. The divinities express the fury and anger of Olódùmarè, as Saǹgó does when he draws on thunder and lightning. They also give provision, providence, and protection, as the people demonstrate in thanksgiving with votive offerings in times of plenty and bountiful harvest, and in their prayers and petitions in times of adversity and need.

Osanobwa, or Osanobua

Osanobwa, or Osanobua, is the name of the supreme being of the Edo people of western Nigeria. The name is a contraction of four components: Osa, meaning "the source of all beings"; N'o, meaning "who" or "which"; B ', meaning "carries" or "sustains"; and Wa or Uwa, meaning "the world" or "the universe." Taken together, the name means "the source of all beings who carries and sustains the whole world or universe." To the Edo people, their god is the creator of the world and the absolute sustainer.

The creation account of the Edo people states that Osanobwa commissions two divinities who share some part of his essence as the "source being" to perform the creation of the earth. Osanowa is commissioned to create human beings and to continue to control the house or the township, whereas Osanoha is delegated to create animals of the bush and to rule over the place. Osanoha soon becomes jealous of Osanowa and plans to destroy his work. He builds a house and stores all kinds of diseases therein. When the creations of Osanowa, men and women, come from heaven down to earth, Osanoha causes a downpour of rain. The people look for shelter from the rain, and the only available place they find is the house built by Osanoha in which diseases are concealed. Unaware of the consequences (unfortunately for them), the people take shelter in the "disease" house of Osanoha, and this is how people carried various diseases into the world. This myth traces the origin of humans and animals to the supreme being as the source being.

Chukwu, or Chineke (Igbo of eastern Nigeria)

Chukwu is the supreme being of the Igbo people in the eastern Nigeria. He is also called Chineke. The two names are commonly and interchangeably used in all parts of Igboland, although it is asserted that the names stem from different areas. Etymologically, chi in Igbo language can mean "source being" or "the source of being." It can also mean "spirit." Both Chineke and Chukwu are composed of chi, which has been accepted as the generic word for god; Chineke is Chi + na + eke, the "source being" + "that/who" + "creates," and Chukwu is Chi + Ukwu, the "source being" + "great," "immense," or "superlative." Chukwu, then, means "the great source being." Obasi is another, ancient name of the supreme being of the Igbo, but it is no longer in common use.

Chukwu is said to live away in the depths of the sky, but he is not really so distant, as he takes much interest in the affairs of human being. He is the creator and organizer of the universe. The Igbo people do not have any systematic account of the creation of the world, though the Igbo myth of creation states that Chukwu created the nature deities such as Anyanwu (Sun), Igwe or Amadioha (Sky), Ala (Earth), and so on. These deities are considered to be essential descendant powers of Chukwu; for instance, Anyanwu (Sun) is considered to be the son of emanation of Chukwu. Deities serve as messengers of Chukwu and usually are delegated to supervise different parts of the universe. The deities serve as the mediators between Chukwu and human beings. Chukwu creates a human spirit and gives him a chi (spirit that creates), which determines and dispenses the destiny of a person and protects and guards him. Chukwu controls the material world, offers the world new crops, and organizes the universe through the deities. For instance, it is Igwe who comes in the form of rain to fertilize Ala, his wife, to produce crops for human beings. Igwe also manifests the power and anger of Chukwu in thunderbolts and lightning to discover and punish undetected criminals.

It is important to note that there exist personal, family, and public altars of the supreme being among the Igbo, in contrast to most other African societies. People offer direct and regular sacrifices to Chukwu, as well as to deities in his behalf. Chukwu has several cult symbols, such as a tree planted in front of one's house. At the base of this tree is left broken pots and plates. P. Amaury Talbot succinctly describes the shrine of Chukwu thus: "The most common symbol of Chukwu is Ogbu, cotton, or Awha (or chi) tree, or sapling or a post, some four to six inches high, usually accompanied by round or flat stones, and a pot or pots, containing water and sometimes yellowwood, eggs, phallic chalk-cones round stones and palm-wine" (Talbot, 1926, p. 41).

Mulungu (Bantu and Sudanese of East Africa)

Mulungu is the chief god of most Bantu-speaking peoples of East Africa: the Yao and Zimba of Malawi and Mozambique, the Kamba of Kenya, and the Gogo of Tanzania all recognize Mulungu as their supreme being. Also, the Swahili-speaking peoples of East and Central Africa use Mungu as the name of the supreme being. Variations of this name are Muungu, Mungu, Murungu, and Mvungu. Mulungu and its variations are claimed to be found in more than forty Bantu languages. It is said that Mumbi, which derives from a verb meaning "to create" or "to bring into existence," is an old name among the Bantu. These variations, which supposedly are due to different intonations by the several peoples, could be seen as insignificant in terms of the meanings and conceptions of the supreme being. Mulungu is a word of unknown origin, but it indicates the almighty and ever-present creator.

Mulungu is strongly associated with celestial phenomena, as the sky is said to be his abode, the thunder his voice, and the lightning his power. He rewards the good and punishes the wicked. As an instrument of displeasure and punishment, he uses drought. The common myth revolving around Mulungu relates to the creation of the world, the origins of death, the separation of heaven and earth, and the origin of man. Like most African creation myths, the Yao myth states that only Mulungu and the animals existed in the beginning. There was a day when chameleon, one of the animals, was fishing. He suddenly found in his net a pair of human beings, whom he referred to as unknown. He took the man and the woman to Mulungu, who instructed him (the chameleon) to take them out of the trap and put them down on the earth to grow. This was the first pair of human beings. Mulungu commanded the chameleon to raise the people and teach them the things they would begin to do including the ability to create fire. However, these human beings could not control the fire, and it raged across the earth and drove Mulungu away into the heavens through the rope which Spider spun for Mulungu. Mulungu still interacts with human being in their day-to-day affairs, however, particularly when human beings violate moral order. Mulungu is by nature benevolent. Although no formal cult is made for Mulungu and prayers are rarely directed to him, he is ruler and judge, omnipotent and omnipresent. Prayers are directed to lesser spirits who dwell on the earth to solicit and ensure their benevolence.


Nzambi (whose nickname is Mpungu) is the supreme being of the Bakongo people, a native tribe of the lower Congo River area. According to the Bakongo, Nzambi is the creator of men and all other things, including traditional medicine, which the people believe was given to the first inhabitants at the time of creation and passed on from generation to generation. The medicine is to be used for good, as expressed in their common saying that "if he had not given us our fetishes (sic ), we should all be dead long ago." Nzambi is the sovereign master. He is inaccessible and unapproachable. He is believed by the people to have placed human beings here on earth, and he can take them away. As the creator, he is involved in the birth of every child.

Nzambi is invisible and very powerful. He watches a human being, searches him or her out everywhere, and takes him or her away, inexorably, whether young or old. Among the laws of the Bakongo are nkondo mi Nzambi (God's prohibitions), the violation of which constitutes a sumu ku Nzambi (sin against Nzambi), and an ordinary sanction of this is a lufwa lumbi (bad death). Thus, at the moral level, Nzambi is responsible for punishing violators of his prohibitions.


Nhialic, otherwise known as Jok ("spirit" or "power") is the supreme god of the Dinka people, a group numbering nearly four million in the southern Sudan region. Nhialic, which means "that which is above [in the sky]," is regarded as the greatest of the powerful and unseen superhuman forces and powers. He is referred to as creator and father. He is the giver of rain from the sky, where he resides. He is also described as the first ancestor of the people.

According to the Dinka myth of creation, Nhialic created the first people, whom he placed in a world of darkness. Nhialic was originally close to human beings, for the earth and the sky were very close to each other. Human beings could ascend to Nhialic freely by climbing a rope that connected them. Nhialic gave Garang and Abuk, the first humans, all the things that they wanted. Nhialic, however, gave instructions on how they should conduct themselves, including how much they could eat, where they could go, and the nature of human interpersonal relationships.

But one day, Abuk, the first woman, took a pestle to pound millet. Unfortunately, as she raised up the pestle she struck Nhialic, who then withdrew from the people by cutting the rope that connected him with them. This is what caused the separation of heaven and earth, and it marked the end of the golden age of Nhialic's direct protection of man, thus introducing work, suffering, and death.

Another version of Dinka myth states that the separation of heaven and earth was caused by Nhialic's refusal to yield to Aruu (Dawn), one of the ancestors, to make an opening in the world for people to see, so Aruu split the world in two with an ax, and the sky and the earth were divided to allow light to appear.

The influence of Nhialic on human lives is immense and noticeable, always affecting them for good or ill. Nhialic dispenses punishment to the wicked. Life and health are thought of as gifts attributable to Nhialic. The Dinka, who are mostly hunters, fishers, and subsistence farmers, make regular votive offerings to Nhialic in appreciation for recovery from illness, relief from famine, and success in hunting.


Kwoth, the supreme being of the Nuer of Republic of Sudan, is the concept on which the people's religion and worldview is centered. The etymology of Kwoth is taken from such actions as "blowing the embers of a fire; blowing into the uterus of a cow, while a tulchan is propped up before it, to make it give milk; the blowing out of air by the bulyak or puff fish to blow on fire, to blow the nose, etc." (Evans-Pritchard, 1967, pp. 134135). Evans-Pritchard claims that the Nuer conceive of Kwoth as being a pure spirit, a creative spirit. Basically, he is identified as Kwoth nhial, or Kwoth a nhial, meaning the spirit of the heavens or the spirit (who is) in the heavens. As the creator of material and nonmaterial entities, including custom and tradition, Kwoth is the first cause who provides the final explanation as an expression of ultimate rationality. That is, the meanings and origins of all that exist in the world are traced to him. Kwoth is both remote and far. He is both within and above the world. Although his exact nature is difficult to explain, he is said to be ubiquitous, and this is explained from the point of view of wind or air being present everywhere. He is comonly addressed as gwandong, a word that has been translated as "grandfather" or "ancestor," but which literally means "old father."

Kwoth plays a part in social and personal life. He judges human conduct, sanctioning right conduct and condemning wrong behaviors. Kwoth does this by rewarding a "righteous" personone who does not violate the taboos of the landwith the good things of life. On the other hand, those who violate the taboos are inflicted with sickness. The gravity of the sickness is said to be the consequence of the seriousness of the taboo on the social order.

It is noted, as Evans-Pritchard remarks (1956, pp. 4849), that the influence of Christianity and Islam on the Nuer does not affect their conception and perception of Kwoth. The Nuer hold the view that Kwoth is the same supreme being as the Christian and Muslim God, only called by different names and communicated with in different manners. But the Nuer have a different attitude toward Kwoth when compared with believers in the Christian and Muslim God. They regard Kwoth as their father and friend, even though he punishes human beings.

The Nuer offer both public and private prayers. Apart from the corporate expression of belief in the reality of this supreme being, particularly in ritual prayers, individual dependence on God is expressed in spontaneous prayers, sometimes spoken aloud and sometimes unspoken. Evans-Pritchard's perception of the people's dependence on Kwoth is that of an "intimate, personal, relationship between man and God. This is apparent in their habit of making short supplications at any time. This is a very noticeable trait of Nuer piety." (Evans-Pritchard, 1956, p. 317).


Ndjambi is the supreme being of the Herero of the Bantu tribe of southwest Africa. He is also known as Karunga by the Ovambo, the neighboring tribe of the Herero. Ndjambi is said to reside in heaven. He is principally regarded as the giver of rain, and his voice is claimed to be clearly heard at the rising of the clouds. There is a great reverence for the name Ndjambi, which is not expected to be uttered. His most striking attribute is kindness, and human successes, achievements, and blessings are attributed to him. However, the worship of Ndjambi is not given any cultic form.


Ngai, sometimes written as Mogai, is regarded as the supreme being, the Creator, and the giver of all things to the Kikuyu {Gikuyu}, Masaai, and Kamba peoples of the Kenya Highlands of East Africa. Ngai's abode is the sky, but his special dwelling place on earth is Mount Kenya, called Kere-Nyaga (mountain of brightness). People face the mount whenever they pray, asking their ancestors for any kind of help. He also visits several places on earth where he makes a temporarily abode. These places are regarded as resting places of Ngai whenever he comes to carry out a "general inspection" among his people. During such inspection tours, he brings blessings and punishment to people, according to their behavior.

Unlike the supreme being of many other African communities, Ngai is approached with prayers and sacrifices that are traditionally offered to him on those special places where he is said to dwell. Certain big and large trees, which are regarded as sacred, are often chosen as places of prayer and sacrifice to Ngai. There are also four sacred mountains at the four cardinal directions of Kenya. Prayers and sacrifices are offered, particularly in moments of communal crisis and disaster, such as drought and epidemic, and for communal needs, such as planting, harvesting, and rites of passage. Prayers are usually accompanied by offering and animal sacrifice. Home-brewed beer and milk are offered to Ngai. These are consumed by the elders, prepubescent children, and postmenopausal women who attend the sacrifice, and a portion is burned on the fire for Ngai.

Ngai is invoked by chiefs or elders on behalf of the community or, in extreme cases, for personal need or distress. Ngai is approached only after lesser spiritual powers, including the ancestors, have been tried and found wanting. This level of relationship reflects the traditional social and political hierarchical structure and pattern of the Kikuyu society when societal problems or disputes are being resolved.


The development of uNkulunkulu as a supreme deity among the Zulu people, a large ethnic group in South Africa, is shrouded in mystery. The name uNkulunkulu, from the Zulu language, is a contraction of words in which a superlative adjective is repeated: uNkulunkulu translates as "great, great one" or "old, old one." However, from what one can infer from the Zulu traditional myth on the development of the name, uNkulunklulu appears as a mystical figure. He is also called Mvelinqangi, meaning "the first outcomer." The Zulu regard Mvelinqangi as the ancestor of all. Although one oral tradition identifies uNkulunkulu with uThlanga, who is at the same time a man and a woman, the most common myth among the people holds that he is the first man. This myth suggests that uNkulunkulu appears from, or is created by, the breaking off of reeds, or that he comes out of, or breaks off from, a bed of reeds.

UNkulunkulu is "the first outcomer" human being, "the first man," and "the ancestor of all," and all humans are said to be derived from him. His status as the supreme deity and creator among the Zulu may have been occasioned by the influence of Christian missionaries' search for an equivalent of their biblical God; otherwise, uNkulunkulu is merely an early ancestral figure of the Zulu. However, there have been no known descendants from oral histories, narratives, and communal or corporate rituals from which uNkulunkulu could be traced. The Zulu believe that uNkulunkulu is the creator of human beings, that he gives them their social institutions such as marriage and chieftainship, and that he gives them spirits, diviners who would reveal the hidden things of the past and future, and doctors who would treat various diseases among the people.


Although there is universality of belief in a supreme being among most African peoples, it is correctly asserted that there is no formal worship accorded the being and no organized cults or great temples built for him in most African communities. However, most popular myths about the supreme being express that he is a reality to many people. Most of the myths state that the sky is his dwelling place, which was once much nearer to the earth. Generally speaking, the worship of the supreme being is done through his many intermediaries, who bear aspects of his nature and characters.

Because the supreme being of most African communities is claimed to have his abode or seat in the sky, individual

and communal prayers are offered to him facing the sky or a special place considered to possess his divine presenceusually "high up." Generally, no temples are built or priests specifically initiated to serve in the worship of the supreme being. Ubiquitous in nature, no permanent settlement is constructed for him, nor is he localized. Thus, to the Africans, the sky is the face of God. However, among the Ashanti of Ghana there are temples of Nyame where priests serve as attendants, and the Dogon have group altars for Amma, at which the village chief officiates. A few other African peoples have cults for their supreme beings where they organize special and communal ceremonies. At crucial moments and times of crisis when deities or ancestors who serve as intermediaries fail, appeal is made to the supreme being, who is regarded as the highest authority. Certain symbols are also used to depict the characters of God and to express the people's need for such symbolic intervention at moments of need.

Early Studies and Contemporary Appropriation/Adoption

Much has been documented and cited of the impressions of explorers, anthropologists, and Christian missionaries of Africans' conceptions and perceptions of their supreme beings. Notable among early non-African commentators and writers on African religions include David Livingstone (18131873), Henry M. Stanley (18411904), Emil Ludwig, and Leo Frobenius (18731938). Their works represent the wide range of misconceptions about African religious worldviews, particularly the idea of the supreme being. These misconceptions later formed the basis for, and were propagated in, the scholarly works of Sir James Frazer (18541941), Émile Durkheim (18581917), and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl (18571939). The effect of the misconceptions on early African converts to Christianity were immense, for the Africans internalized the obnoxious labels of paganism and heathenism. The labeling came from Christian evangelists who demonized aspects of African indigenous cultures and practices (e.g., food and fruit items, music and drums, dress and dressing patterns, indigenous rites of passage) that were associated and connected with the Africans' ideas, beliefs, and worship, particularly regarding the worship of a supreme being.

Sir Samuel Baker, in his lecture to the Ethnological Society of London in 1866 (as cited in Eric O. Ayisi's An Introduction to the Study of African Culture ), said that "without any exception, they [the Northern Nilotes, and indeed Africans in general] are without a belief in a supreme being. Neither have they any form of worship nor idolatry nor is the darkness of their minds enlightened by even a ray of superstition" (Ayisi, 1980, p. 72). Leo Frobenius, in The Voice of Africa (1913) made a similar submission, while giving credence to Islamic civilization in Africa: "Before the introduction of a genuine faith and a higher standard of culture by the Arabs, the natives had neither political organization, nor, strictly spoken, any religion, nor any industrial development" (p. 1f). The often and popularly cited questions of Emil Ludwig (cited by Edward Geoffrey Parrinder in African Traditional Religion ) strongly expressed the same negative impression when he exclaimed "How can the untutored African conceive of God? How can this be? Deity is a philosophical concept which savages are incapable of forming" (Parrinder, 1962, p. 9).

However, African indigenous scholars and a few non-African scholars of African religions who have taken painstaking steps to study African traditional religion have challenged the misleading and erroneous assertions of the early scholars. The symposium African Ideas of God was an excellent exploration and breakthrough exercise that established the fact that most African peoples have had a belief in a supreme being as part of their worldview and religious praxis. Since 1950, when the symposium was published into a volume, many books and several articles have been written by African authors in support of the African belief in a spiritual being. Most prominent among these scholars are E. Bolaji Idowu, John S. Mbiti, Edward Geoffrey Parrinder, J. Omosade Awolalu and P. Adelumo Dopamu, and Jacob K. Olupona. They observed that long before their contact with Europeans and Arabs, Africans had developed a variety of distinct social institutions, political structures, cultures, and languages that were a product of their indigenous religious worldview, which had its basis in the belief in a supreme being. Understandably, however, the uncodified form of religious doctrines as well as the practical expression of religious life of the Africans (which developed from the respect and humility with which African sociopolitical and civil life is built) did not allow the early observers to objectively assess Africans' perception of the supreme being.

Conversion to Christianity and Islam, and the civilizing and proselytizing effects of this conversion, contributed to the demonizing process of African concepts of the supreme being, though it also strongly supported the view that Africans had, and still have, a belief in one supreme being, as can be seen in indigenous translations of the Bible and the Holy Qurʾān. These sacred texts use any or all of the indigenous names of African supreme beings described earlier as ancient or descriptive. For instance, among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, the Bible uses the word "Olórun" for God, "Olúwa" for Lord, and "Olódùmarè" for Almighty; the Yoruba version of the Qur'ān uses "Olórun" for Allah, and Olórun is found in day-to-day usage. Despite the deep-rooted seating of Islam among the Swahili people, Mulungu and its dialectal variations (Murungu, Mluku, Mulunguo, Muunguo) are used, and the indigenous names for the supreme being are mostly used instead of Allah. Mulungu is also adopted as the Christian equivalent for God.

With the emergence of the group of independent churches in Africa, there has been a heightened level of appropriation and adoption of indigenous belief systems and Christian tradition. The reason for this is that these churches operate within the indigenous worldview and religious sensibility, using indigenous languages that are full of metaphors and colors that appeal to people's imagination and sensitivity.

Scholars' use of the incorrect nomenclature to describe and define African supreme beings can be seen as a consequence of a lack of adequate knowledge of Africans' worldviews and languages. Early scholars had described these supreme beings as deus absconditus (withdrawn god) and deus otiosus (lazy god), both of which leave the world of human beings after creating the world. Polytheismanother term used by early Western scholars and early scholars on African religious traditionsis obvious in African religion, but it does not erode the position of the supreme being or African belief in it, because the supreme being is regarded as the finality of their life in thought and expression. Most African peoples regard their supreme being as the source being, creator, preserver, sustainer, and chiefas a sort of creative energy, the first ancestor who supervises all human and spiritual affairs and who operates a systematic structure. The supreme being is associated with lesser deities, ancestors, spirits, human beings, and natural phenomena. He involves all in the creation, maintenance, and administration of the universe. The African supreme being's association with other spiritual beings, human beings, and natural phenomena, and his involving them in the maintenance and administration of the universe, provides a complexity in the comparative analysis of the definitions and attributes of the African supreme being with the Christian-Muslim God. While Africans have a strong conception of the supreme being, they use a different definition and different attributes, which are directed toward finding meanings to, and explanations of, events, and toward seeking control over human affairs. The processes through which explanation, prediction, and control of human affairs are sought and achieved are explained by the practical involvement of human beings and spiritual agents responsible to the supreme being, who has the ultimate control of the universe.

The current shift in African beliefs and religious conceptions about the supreme being shows the dynamic nature, resilience, and integrative capability of African religion and culture to adapt, adopt, and appropriate other traditions. This ability is found both within and outside Africa, in places like Europe and many parts of the Americas, such as Cuba and Brazil, where African religious traditions have made inroads and are flourishing.

See Also

African Religions, overview article; Cosmology, article on African Cosmologies.


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David ÒgÚngbilÉ (2005)