Luba Religion

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LUBA RELIGION . The woodlands south of the African equatorial forest have been the homeland of different Luba tribes and subtribes since the first half of the first milennium, according to the latest archaeological evidence. The area stretches roughly from 5° to 10° south latitude and from 22° to 29° east longitude. Most of the peoples living in this region of central Africa share certain cultural traits and a more or less common language. In terms of political organization, however, there are fundamental differences. Four main groups can be distinguished according to political structure. The political centerpiece of the entire region is the ancient Luba empire, situated west of the Kongo River between the Lomami and Lualuba rivers. Political structure in the area of the Luba empire is based on the sacred authority of a paramount chief, an individual who is crucial to the survival of the people and success of the land. Several minor kingdoms derived their structure from the central empire; sometimes these kingdoms were vassals to the larger Luba state. The second group in terms of political structure is best represented by the matrilineal Hemba-speaking groups east of the Lualuba. The Luba Hemba, the most important of the Hemba-speaking groups, were part of the central Luba empire (at least temporarily) and pretended to derive their political institutions from the central royal court. The third group is composed of the western Luba groups that lack overriding political authority: the Luba Kasai, the Bene Luluwa, and the Bakwa Luntu. In contrast to the central and eastern groups, the western Luba peoples constitute a strict segmentary society. The fourth group, known as the Luba Songye, lives in big, well-organized villages on the southern fringe of the forest, north of the central empire. Although the Songye and the central Luba have clearly influenced each other, when the Songye reached the peak of their power as allies of the Swahili ivory and slave traders coming inland from Zanzibar in the nineteenth century, they liked to entertain a sense of superiority toward the other Luba groups. All of the Luba peoples believe in a more or less common origin, more for the sake of prestige than on historical grounds.

Luba Concepts of Body and Soul

The Luba concept of the human being provides an excellent vantage point for understanding their religious worldview. Basically the Luba believe that each human being (muntu ) has a single essence. However, this essence has many manifestations. For instance, empirical reality is the manifestation of a deeper level of being that is tied to the Luba concept of spirit (vidye ). The essential part of each human being is the life shadow (umvwe wa bumi ), the soul (that is, the seat of thinking and feeling). The distinction between physical and spiritual reality, or body (umbidi ) and soul (muja ), is also fundamental to the Luba vision of reality as such. According to circumstances and context, a person's inner spiritual reality, which shows through external appearances and constitutes the human being, can be symbolized in various ways: shadow, life breath, blood, voice, and so on. The two elements (body and soul for the sake of simplicity) are interdependent. Whoever destroys the body also destroys the soulthat is, weakens the whole person until finally the soul departs. Anyone who destroys the soulfor example, by casting a spellat the same time attacks the physical person of the victim. However, there is no special link between body and soul. A slight particle of bodily matter can be sufficient to support and transfer the soul without endangering the life force of the person concerned. If an individual seeks to kill his neighbor and is successful in forcing his neighbor's soul to leave its bodily abode, the neighbor's life is endangered. However, if the same individual performs the same ritual with the intention of protecting his neighbor's life against attacks by evildoers, then the neighbor will feel safe and his life will flourish. The outcome depends upon the intention of the ritual performer. The Luba conception of a human being as a dual entity, coupled with changing modes of interpreting how the body relates to the soul, leads to a wide variety of symbolizations. Hence one hears of hiding a soul in the bush for protection or tying up a soul in the bush to destroy a person or transferring the soul of an enemy into the body of an animal so that this person starts acting like an animal. The soul of a person who dies in a modern city can be buried in ancestral ground by transferring some hair, nail clippings, or some other particle from the dead body to the village.

Unity of Spiritual and Physical Worlds

Anything belonging to the body or having been in contact with it can be used as a reduced and sufficient support for the soul. But conversely, any form of intimate contact with the body impregnates an object, piece of clothing, tool, or utensil with that person's spiritual reality. Getting hold of any such element gives a person power over the owner of the object. Destroying such an object with the intention of harming its owner represents a direct attack against the owner's life. Property, land, crops, dust sticking to a person's body, anything associated with the physical reality of a person is stamped with the owner's personal being. The dirt on a road retains something vital of the people walking over it. A gift is always more than a simple transfer of material objects. This view of reality has a wide range of applications. Principally, it gives rise to sexual taboos and the avoidance of physical contact in certain situations; it also leads to the belief that a blessing can be bestowed by touching a person or that the power of the soul can be depleted by coming into contact with ill-intentioned people.

The unity between humans and their environment manifests itself in a much more complicated way in the patterns of dependence within the human community. The relationship between father and son or mother and daughter seems to be a universal model to express the essence of most relationships (whether the society is matrilineal or patrilineal, the same parent model is usedthat of initiator and initiate). Among the Luba, the chief is seen as the father of his subjects. The parents are spirits in relation to their children while the husband is the wife's spirit as well. The social fabric is rooted in this unified spiritual interdependence. Vital ties between members of the community not only support the essential institution of the social group, that is, the lineage: they are the real substance of group dynamism, group restraint, and group cohesion.

Worlds of the Living and the Dead

The Luba believe that when people die they go to the invisible world of the dead. This world of the shades, located under the earth, is structured according to the world of the living. There the dead live as they did on earth: in family groups, in villages, with forests and gardens and so on. From the world of the dead, the ancestors watch over their children, contacting the living through dreams, in divination sessions, and by making all sorts of strange and unusual things happen. The dead come back to the world of the living, giving their names to newborn children. The Luba Songye are unique in that they believe in the transmigration of the soul. This soul "seems normally to return three times to earth in a human body and the fourth time in the body of an animal before it goes to Efile Mukulu to remain indefinitely" (Merriam, p. 298).

The dead constantly interact with the living. Their attitude toward their descendants is ambiguous. The living must remember the dead and honor them through the performance of rituals because the survival of the dead depends on the devotion of their relatives. If their descendants neglect to show filial piety, the dead will withhold their favor and show their anger by causing crop failures, disease, bad dreams, and evil omens. Of course, the duty to remember bears most directly upon recently deceased lineage members (deceased parents or grandparents). Those people who have died in the more distant past are referred to as a collectivity under the vague title ancestors ; among this group, only the most important people and former political leaders are directly named.

Beyond the world of human involvement, the Luba have an almost innate idea of the world as a unified whole; transcending the various Luba representations of human institutions is the idea of a creator god. There is only one creator god and he made this one world, man and woman, and nature and all it contains, including the curative qualities of herbs and roots. The creator owns all the worldall the countries, as the Luba say. The human species is one and so the human mind is one; it transcends empirical reality. From whatever angle the Luba look at their world, they always end up, from perception to perception, at the concept of a universal. When the Luba declare, time and again, that vidye udiko (spirit does exist), they mean exactly that: spirit transcends and founds all other reality and, above all, the reality of the ancestors. God is not a sublimation of the idea of the ancestors; on the contrary, the ancestors can exist only because there was first the concept of a creator god. In the old stereotyped prayers God is always the father of all and everything, the one "who carved the fingers in our hands" (or a similar praise-name is used).

Creator God

Human life can only be conceived of as a part of a universal concept of an absolute. The Luba call this absolute Vidye, Mvidie, Efile Mukulu, Maweja, or Mulopo. Usually they use these names in combination with one or more of the praise names that are so abundant in Luba prayers and invocations. Although God is ever present in the back of their minds as the great creator spirit, the Luba do not have shrines where prayers or sacrifices can be offered to God. God is in no placeGod is everywhere. Wherever there is power, there is spirit; be it a mighty tree or a thundering waterfall, the Luba will say here is spirit. From consulting the dead in divination to the ancient poison ordeal, from chasing the rain to stopping the sun from setting, there is one vision at work. Mythic language gives this visible world its true dimension.

It is not as if there was a fundamental opposition between ancestors, lineage founders, and political institutions on the one hand and the creator god on the other. Worship of the ancestors or lesser spirits does not mean that the creator god is consigned to oblivion. Indeed, the ancestors, whatever their status and function, are linked to the supreme being; they are sons of the spirit. Their lives continue to be the existential feeding ground of the living generations. They are heroes, mediators between God and their descendants. At the beginning God worked through agents known as culture heroes who received responsibility for certain domains. These towering figures are the focus of myths and legends. The distinction between culture heroes and ancestors is not always very clear. The Songye developed a well-defined trickster figure in Kafilefile, God's opponent from the beginning. Elsewhere the trickster figure took on less dramatic features.

Medicine, Witchcraft, Sorcery

The Luba believe in a general spiritual force that pervades all nature. Here again, the Songye take an outspoken leading position: "Efile Mukulu is considered to exist in everything, and to be everything, and thus everything is a part of Efile Mukulu" (Merriam, p. 297). This concept might not be as clearly phrased by other groups, but the idea that a shadow or soul operates in everything is present in all Luba thought. This hidden force is created by God himself in the works of God's own hands. It is as if God left something of his own being in all created things, just as humans communicate something of themselves to the things they create and manipulate. To know the name and the inner life force of things, so as to be able to use them safely for the good of humanity, is to know medicine or witchcraft, that is, power based on knowledge and creative skills. For the central Luba, God is Shamanwa (the father of skills). Sorceryusing the forces hidden in things with an evil intention to kill people or destroy thingsis bad. Just as people mold their world by the power of their words and through the skills of their hands, so too they try to master the invisible life force behind all material appearances. They try to get on top of this invisible reality, the hidden forces, to mold them into visible material forms. They give them names and animal or human figures to bring them within the reach of the human imagination, vision, and language. They carve them into stone or wooden statues and so doing, give them individuality, so that they may be talked to, aroused, praised, or even cursed. The world of medicine, amulets, and other ritual objects is the link between spiritual realities and the empirical world.

Ritual Life

Ritual activities such as prayers, invocations, and offerings can be performed by individuals or by officials. Officials derive their ability to officiate from their function and position in the group (e.g., head of the household, leading elder of a lineage, head of a village) or from a special initiation as a diviner and traditional healer. The prophetic type of performer takes over from the official one at particular occasions for a variety of reasons: divination, healing, the cleansing of defiled persons or villages, and so on. These ritual actions take place when the dead interfere with the living by claiming attention or demanding to be consulted; rituals can also be required because the ancestors want to be honored through prayer and sacrifice.

The main characteristic of the duly initiated traditional healer is spirit possession accompanied by prophetic utterances. Diviners and traditional healers constitute a kind of informal guild, one initiating the other, but this guild should not be confused with the secret societies that formerly were abundant in Lubaland. Spirit possession usually occurs at shrines. The shrines themselves consist of tiny huts containing different kinds of receptacles in which simple objects, symbolizing the presence of the spirit during rituals, are placed. Sometimes the shrine is a tree planted to honor an ancestor. Ritual objects, usually receptacles of medicine, can also be placed at the entrance of a village (e.g., hunting spirits) or can be hidden together with special medicine under the roof of the main hut. A man's principal wife will then be entrusted with the keeping of the sacred objects. At certain times standardized rituals take place: first-fruit rituals, fertility rituals at the full moon, rites of passage, burial, and so on. Luba traditional religion forms a well-balanced whole in which the living and the dead can find peace and rest from the anxieties of human existence and through which the Luba find themselves inserted into the universal world of religious quest and spiritual concern.


Burton, W. F. P. "Luba Religion and Magic in Custom and Belief." Annales du Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Sciences Humaines, vol. 8, no. 35. Tervuren, Belgium, 1961. Written by a member of the Congo Garanganze Mission after many years of living and traveling among the central Luba.

Colle, R. P. Les Baluba. 2 vols. Collection de Monographies Ethnographiques, vol. 10. Brussels, Belgium, 1913. Also written by a missionary. Still one of the basic sources, especially for the Luba Hemba.

Göhring, Heinz. BaLuba: Studien zur Selbstzuordnung und Herrschaftsstruktur der baLuba. Studia Ethnologica, vol. 1. Meisenheim am Glan, Germany, 1970. A wonderful synthesis; a scholarly work offering with an extensive bibliography; the indispensable introduction to any further research.

Merriam, Alan P. "Death and the Religious Philosophy of the Basongye." Antioch Review 21 (Fall 1961): 293304. Excellent.

Mukenge, Leonard. "Croyances religieuses et structures socio-familiales en société luba: 'Buena Muntu,' 'Bakishi,' 'Mi-lambu.'" Cahiers économiques et sociaux 5 (March 1967): 694. The thèse de license of a Luba student at the Lovanium University (now Unaza). Outstanding.

Reefe, Thomas Q. The Rainbow and the Kings: A History of the Luba Empire to 1891. Berkeley, Calif., 1981. Essential to any further study of Luba culture. Outstanding.

Theuws, J. A. (Th.). "De Luba-mens." Annales du Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale, Sciences Humaines, vol. 8, no. 38. Tervuren, Belgium, 1962. Göhring called this work by a missionary an "intuitive synthesis." The information is based on prolonged field research in central Lubaland.

van Caeneghem, P. R. La notion de Dieu chez les BaLuba du Kasai. Memoires de l'Académie Royale des Sciences Coloniales, Classe des Sciences Morales et Politques, vol. 9, fasc. 2. Brussels, Belgium, 1956. The best work of a missionary priest who lived for years among the Luba Kasai.

van Overbergh, Cyrille. Sociologie descriptive: Les Basonge. Collection de Monographies Ethnographiques, no. 3. Brussels, Belgium, 1908. Based on early reports of travelers and civil service members. Still worthwhile.

Verhulpen, Edmond. Baluba et Balubaïsés du Katanga. Anvers, Belgium, 1936. A detailed study of Luba groups by a former civil service member. As a first orientation, the administrative information is still useful.

New Sources

Kalulambi Pongo, Martin. Etre Luba au XXè Siècle: Identité Chrétienne et Ethnicité au Congo-Kinshasa. Paris, 1997.

Mudimbe, V. Y. Parables and Fables: Exegesis, Textuality, and Politics in Central Africa. Madison, Wis., 1991.

Petit, Pierre. "Hunters, Mediums and Chiefs: Variations on the Theme of the Luba Ritual Object" in Mireille Holsbeke, ed. The Object as Mediator: On the Transcendental Meaning of Art in Traditional Cultures. Antwerp, Belgium, 1996.

J. A. Theuws (1987)

Revised Bibliography