The modern academic study of indigenous African religions began with the publication of ethnographic, missionary, and travel monographs by Leo Frobenius, R. S. Rattray, H. A. Junod, W. C. Willoughby, Edwin Smith, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, John Middleton, Godfrey Liendhardt, Geoffrey Parrinder, and Marcel Griaule, among others. The African scholars Bolajii Idowu, John Mbiti, and Gabriel Setiloane also published works on African religious life and practice. These studies explore religious life and the social history of specific communities. Studies that stress the historicity of African religions draw on oral traditions and archeological records (Terrence Ranger, I. Kimambo, Wim M. J. van Binsbergen, Matthew Schoffeleers, Thomas Blakely, Walter E. A. van Beek, and Dennis L. Thompson).
The encounter with modernity and with other religions such as Christianity and Islam affected African religions in two ways. Positively, this encounter demonstrated that African religions share common features with other religions in the quest for ultimate and communal values. Negatively, the new religions dominated African religions through their massive social services, which they used for conversion. The messengers of the faiths introduced into Africa derided indigenous religions, competed with ritual experts, and were also impatient that changes they demanded in some aspects of African rituals did not take place soon enough. A good example is the case of circumcision among the Kikuyu. Conflicts arose in the Kikuyu area of Kenya because they practiced this rite, and escalated to the point where some mission organizations barred circumcised Kikuyu children from attending schools.
African religions were often seen as preparatio evangelica (preparation for the Gospel), and the encounter with modernity sharply curtailed and stunted the growth of African religions. In response, however, Africans continued to practice their religions. Africans converted to the new religions practiced a bricolage, combining elements of their religion with the new faiths. Africans also used their religious beliefs to confront newcomers. In East Africa, the Nyabingi cult of the nineteenth century, the Maji-Maji movement, the Mambo cult in Kenya, the Mwari cult in Zimbabwe, and the Poro cult in Sierra Leone, all resisted colonial incursion into their territories.
African religions are local faiths and have no sacred book, although scholars have collected texts such as Sixteen Cowries and Ifa Divination (William Bascom) and Texts on Zulu Religion (Irving Hexham). Collections of prayers by John Mbiti and Alyward Shorter, and Marcel Griaule's Conversations with Ogotemmeli, are also rudimentary religious texts. Although there is no uniformity of African religious thought, it is possible to summarize key components of African religious life and history.
Myth and Cosmology
African myths sketch a conceptual world presided over by a divinity that is responsible for the emergence of humanity and the development of a community. Myths provide the legitimacy of local authority, settlement, and social organization, and describe the moral universe of the people. Mythic narratives, which Paul Ricoeur describes as primary language, offer religious perspectives on the past and the present and provide an ethos upon which to construct the future. Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa, Tsonga, and some Sotho myths state that people came out of a bed of reeds. Yoruba myths state that the orishas Obatala and Oduduwa, representing Olodumare, the Supreme God, created the world and humanity. Elsewhere, Sotho myths hold that Kgobe the High God created the world and that his son Kgobeane created people.
Myths also account for the separation of humanity from divinity and place the responsibility for this separation on human beings. The Batammaliba people believe that Kuiye created the world and gave its people all they needed. Unfortunately, humans complained because God did everything for them. Their complaints forced the divinity to withdraw into the sky; as a result, suffering and death entered the human community. Kuiye was compassionate and provided the Batammaliba with rain and other things they needed to survive under their new circumstances. Batammaliba mythology informs the community's sociocultural practice as well as its architectural designs. In addition, mythology provides a religious view of human conflicts and the human family. According to Dogon myths, Amma the Supreme Deity created the world, but Ogo, one of the first primordial persons, rebelled and polluted the world. Amma rescued the creative process by killing Nommo, the twin brother of Ogo, to clean up the chaos caused by Ogo's act of rebellion.
Gods and Spirits
Belief in a High God is widespread in Africa. (Zulu: Unkulunkulu, the Great One, or Inkosi Yezulu, the Chief of the Sky; Yoruba: Olorun, King of the Sky, or Olodumare; Wimbum: Nyui; Igbo: Chukwu; Dogon: Amma.) The Zulus believe that in the beginning Unkulunkulu created people, male and female. He also created people of different colors and gave them their own dwelling places: the whites were to live in the water, and the black people in the land now occupied by the Zulu people. Beliefs about God indicate that God is a transcendent and immanent being who controls the universe and is responsible for all things and all human affairs. In some beliefs, God is an androgynous being. Kuiye of the Batammaliba has both male and female genitals and is called "The Sun, Our Father and Our Mother." In Zimbabwe, Mwari, the god of fertility, also is androgynous. Theologians John Mbiti, E. Bolaji Idowu, and Gabriel Setiloane have articulated African perspectives on God using Christian theological categories.
In the divine hierarchy, divinities and spirits are ranked below God. Yoruba divinities are called orishas. God sent the divinities Obatala and Oduduwa to create the world and all things in it. Some of the orishas are divinized ancestors; the orisha Shango was the fourth king of Oyo. The orisha Esu is a trickster who opens the path to other orishas. Esu rewards devotees and also punishes them when they go astray. Orunmila is the orisha of wisdom and divination while Ogun is the orisha of iron and war. The female deity Oshun is the goddess of water and revered as a great mother. Her devotees hold festivals that have become important cultural manifestations in the Nigerian town of Oshogbo.
Evans-Pritchard argued that the Nuer god Kwoth was also a spirit. This theoretical move set up a complicated picture of the nature of gods and spirits. This remains a rich territory for further exploration because Nuer Kwoth is an entity that is both divine and a distinct spirit. Clan divinities among the Nuer and Dinka are believed to have the power to address moral issues and guide interpersonal relationships. These spirits and divinities are all subject to the authority of God and carry out God's will.
Ancestral spirits are also thought to interact with people. People offer sacrifice and pour libations to the spirits to ward off difficulties. Community leaders consult ancestral spirits for guidance; in Zimbabwe, mhondoro spirits helped determine succession to office. Chiefs and quarter heads of the Wimbum generally offer wine to the ancestors before they drink. In addition to ancestral spirits who may bless or punish people, there are hosts of other spirits, who may be mainly malicious. Among the Wimbum, some of these spirits are called nyirr and often bother people at night.
Religion and Possession
Spirit possession is a complex spiritual engagement that goes beyond psychological release for marginalized women and occurs in indigenous religions as well as in Islam and Christianity. Yoruba divinities such as Shango, Yemoja, Osun, and Obatala often possess people. In possession, a spirit takes control of an individual for a period of time. Such possession can be sudden and may be induced through music, drumming, or medicines. The possessed individual speaks for the spirit. Illness may indicate the presence of a spirit. Regardless of the duration, possession signifies a bond with the spirit; the possessed are called brides. Such bonds make possession an ecstatic and enjoyable experience. Despite the fact that possession is often described as a marriage between the spirit and the possessed individual, possession remains a symbolic act because there is no physical or genital activity involved, although the sense of pleasure or suffering is real. Possession can also be a violent event, especially possession by the god Shango, who is said to mount a person as a horse. Possession ends when the spirit departs, but the phenomenon of possession remains a constant feature of the spiritual life of the individual. Early literature on the Zar possession cult suggested that Somali women turned to spirit possession to address marginality. Janice Boddy has argued that possession involves several aspects of the human experience. Edwin Ardener argued that Bakweri female cults expressed positive female values. And Michael Lambek has argued that possession should also be seen as a system of meaning that operates within a given culture.
Possession is important because the spirit that controls the devotee communicates messages to the community through that individual. Possession can also be part of what Jean Buxton described as a call to the healing profession and "a diagnostic technique" (p. 297). The possession experience can be a critical moment in creating self-understanding and personhood. It offers opportunities to resolve contradictions within the self and may be an incentive for people to pay attention to public morality. Spirit possession may also reflect disapproval and discontent with certain political agendas, or express a nationalist ideology—an activity noted in the Zimbabwean revolutionary struggle against the white minority rule of Ian Smith. Belief in spirit possession has not disappeared in the wake of Christian and Muslim attacks on it.
Religious authorities range from heads of households who perform family rituals to prophets, priests, and ritual experts. They serve as intermediaries between the spirits and the people, carry out divination to diagnose problems, and supervise the execution of rituals. Divination in Yoruba religion is carried out by a priest called babalawo (a father of secrets) who uses symbols to form a combination of numbers derived from the number 256 that points to a text which provides insights into the problem of the individual. When the diviner has arrived at a combination, he links it to the body of sacred oral verses called the Odu Ifa. The interpretation of a particular odu provides guidance for the solution to the problem.
Prophets speak on behalf of divinity and fight for a just society. Douglas Johnson argues that colonial authorities antagonized Nuer prophets and fostered a largely political interpretation of their prophetic role. However, prophets based their power on the spiritual and moral values of the community: neighborliness, generosity, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. People who practiced these virtues had the divinity in them and thus spoke on their behalf. "Evans-Pritchard identifies the kuaar as a priest who represents men to divinity by invoking the divinity of his flesh, contrasting with the prophet who, inspired by a divinity, represents divinity to men" (Johnson, p. 59). These individuals acquired special abilities to see and know things beforehand; the gift of prophecy made them spokespersons (guk ) for divinity.
Ngundeng was one of these people. He was also called Dengkur and regarded as a prophet of the Nuer people. When he died, British colonial officials reported that people liked and feared him. He was just, helped the poor, rejected killing, and opposed colonial domination of the Nuer land in the Sudan. Prophet Kinjikitile led the Maji-Maji rebellion in Tanzania in 1905, inspired by sacred water (maji ) that he believed would help his people withstand colonial firearms. Past prophets worked on conflict resolution and promoted peace.
Worship takes place in a variety of sacred spaces and at shrines. A. I. Richards listed six types of shrines: personal huts, village shrines, places of deceased chiefs, natural-phenomena shrines, burial places of chiefs, and places containing the relics and paraphernalia of dead chiefs. Drawing on this, Van Binsbergen distinguished between shrines constructed by humans and natural shrines such as trees, hills, groves, pools, streams, falls, and rapids. Dominique Zahan calls these natural shrines of water, earth, air, and fire, "elementary cathedrals." Sacred places associated with water include streams, rivers, lakes, and springs. Those associated with the earth include the ground itself, rocks, crossroads, hollows, hills, and mountains, and those associated with air include trees and groves. In the village of Ntumbaw, the burial groves of chiefs are considered sacred ground, and the current chief enters this sacred place only to communicate with the departed chiefs.
Religious activities also take place in the public square. In Nigeria, Oshun festivals take place in the courtyard of the oba (king) as well as in the sacred grove of Oshun. Worship also takes place in individual homes. Blier argues that the vertical houses of the Batammaliba (which they consider places of worship) are designed to emphasize their belief that God is the highest one and are oriented in an east-west path to face Kuiyekulie, the dwelling place of Kuiye. Other parts of the house point to their sacrificial relationship to Kuiye's providence through human procreation, and to other deities in their religious system.
Rituals and Ceremonies
Recent interpretation of rituals supplements Émile Durkheim's views that rituals are formalized and symbolic rites—controlled and repeated behavior in the presence of the sacred—which enact society's separation of the sacred and the profane. In the work of Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas, rituals constitute a system of symbolic actions that communicate values about society. The Manchester School of Manchester University's Department of Social Anthropology championed a processual view that interprets rituals as a symbolic mechanism in which form, content, meaning, and a dynamic process guides, confirms, and reorders individual as well social experience and practices. Victor Turner argued that in Ndembu rituals and rites of passage, symbols are employed to stabilize individuals and society, create new social locations, and anticipate transformation by establishing a communitas, or fellowship. Jean Comaroff has argued that rituals reenact the historical and social practices of a community.
Rituals give content and meaning to religious life. Life crisis and developmental rituals are transformative and stabilizing. Life cycle rituals such as funerals honor the dead and prepare them for transition into ancestors; ceremonies honoring dead chiefs take on cosmic proportions. The Wimbum people often suspend farm work for the duration of the celebrations. Rituals of affliction are performed to rebuff a spirit that causes illness, misfortune, failure, and barrenness. Certain afflictions may be a call for the afflicted to become a healer or assume an important ritual office. In such a case, the afflicted receives ritual treatment from a specialist and is initiated into the practice. Rituals of rebellion offer opportunities for transformation and the creation of alternative social alliances. Religious rituals also involve propitiation of the ancestors and of gods who have the power to remove afflictions.
Personhood and Morality
Personhood and individuality are recognized in the context of a communitarian ethos. In Yoruba religion, Olodumare creates people and gives each person the opportunity to choose his or her destiny. Individuality is also spelled out in names and in the concept of ori (head), which indicates not only the physical head but also an important part of an individual's nature and character (iwa ). The psychological aspect of the person is inu, and a sense of self is conveyed by the word emi. Yoruba thought stresses the need for individuals to carry out their obligations in order to fulfill their destiny. Such responsibility is not necessarily a set of rules, but entails living one's life in such a way that one's goals and destiny are accomplished. However, there are prescriptions. People are often advised to avoid witchcraft and shun polluting symbols. Evil is seen as any action that distorts interpersonal relations and brings about harmful social developments. Evildoers misuse magic and witchcraft and inflict violence on others, but that does not mean that witchcraft and other forms of powers are necessarily evil. Ritual specialists, such as diviners, help individuals to determine not only the course of their destiny, but also how to act in a way that will allow them to fulfill their destiny.
Religion and Art
Engelbert Mveng once described black art as "a cosmic liturgy and religious language." African art is primarily the expression of the artistic and aesthetic imagination of individual artists. However, some works of art carry religious meanings. Festivals often incorporate artistic celebrations because artistic work on materials such as musical instruments, regalia, and head-dresses enhances these events. Art objects often point to spiritual and ancestral power. Works of art may be representations of gods and spirits. Art that has religious significance empowers people to live balanced lives and to fulfill their obligations to others. According to Robert Farris Thompson, Yoruba arts are avatars of ashé (divine energy) in ceremonial bowls, staffs, and iron sculptures. "A thing or a work of art that has ashé transcends ordinary questions about its make up and confinements: it is divine force incarnate" (p. 7). Furthermore, Suzanne Blier argues that bocio sculptures, which have been described as "fetishes, idols, gris-gris, devils, ill-formed monsters, villainous maggot, and marmouset (grotesque form) … function in conjunction with … vodun energies … they are … closely identified with vodun power, religious tenets, and philosophy" (1995, p. 4–5).
African art often depicts sacred kingship. Palace construction and royal regalia employ motifs of temple construction. Artworks often convey a sense of security in the community, which can be inferred from the masking tradition that uses reversal to hint at the presence of ancestors and spirits among people, demonstrating a power that can drive away evil. Blier argues that the etymology of the word vodun "constitutes a philosophy which places a primacy on patience, calmness, respect, and order both in the context of acquiring life's basic necessities and in the pursuit of those extra benefits which make life at once full and pleasurable" (1995, p. 40). Bocio sculptures also provide protection from witches.
Art celebrates divine beauty and character. Batatunde Lawal argues that Yoruba aesthetics reveal outer and inner beauty of character and the joy of life, which endears an individual to others and to Olodumare. Artists thus possess iwapele (gentle character) in the manner of the Orishanla, divinities of creation and the primordial artist. Yoruba artists have depicted aye, the world of the living, and orun, the other world, in a spherical carved gourd. Divination trays are often elaborately carved to depict the wisdom of Orunmila, the divinity of divination. Gèlèdé headdresses often feature masks that represent "priests and priestesses to recognize publicly their contributions to the spiritual well-being of the community" (Lawal, p. 212). Rosalind Hackett argues that African art focuses on and shapes an individual's understanding of humanity, destiny, death, procreation, secrecy, power, divinity, spirits, and healing. Ritual art objects such as initiation stools, divination materials, staffs, and musical instruments express religious ideas and elevate spiritual life and experience.
Death and the Afterlife
Ancestor veneration suggests that, contrary to Mbiti's thesis, speculation about the afterlife is strong in African religions. Death rituals, offerings, and pouring of libations to ancestors all point to life beyond the grave. Yoruba proverbs state that life here on earth is transitory; the world is a marketplace and heaven is one's home. All people who die go before Olodumare and Obatala to be judged for their actions here on earth. In Manianga thought, moral and upright people go to Mpemba, the world of the ancestors. Evil people are prevented from entering Mpemba and are barred from meeting and staying with ancestors.
The Future of African Religions
African religions are alive in the early 2000s but often continue to be described, erroneously, as animism. Indigenous religions face prejudice from other religions—converts to Islam and Christianity still call African religions paganism. Hackett has argued that indigenous religions are being revitalized through the universalization, modernization, politicization, commercialization, and individualization of religious ideas and practices. African religions have a future for many reasons. First, these religions articulate worldviews that continue to provide a basis for morality, supporting what Laurenti Magesa has called "the moral traditions of abundant life." Second, African religions are linked to royal authority, influencing the selection and installation of royals and their system of governance. Third, celebrations and rituals will keep indigenous religions alive. Fourth, the need for healing will keep African religions alive. Fifth, the survival of African religions in the diaspora is testimony to their staying power. Sixth, the scholarly study of African religions could contribute to their survival. Growth depends upon how practitioners address issues in daily life. African religions have always paid attention to individuals and the community; such attention in the twenty-first century could have a positive bearing on a contemporary society in need of revitalization.
See also Ancestor Worship ; Animism ; Arts: Africa ; Humanity: African Thought ; Immortality and the Afterlife ; Masks ; Oral Traditions: Overview ; Personhood in African Thought ; Philosophy, Moral: Africa ; Ritual: Religion .
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