Religion: African Diaspora

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Religion: African Diaspora

The term African-derived religions (ADR) is used to identify various religions transplanted to the Americas with the enslavement of Africans. For simplicity, ADR will be used in this entry to denote Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Brazilian religions, whose traditions survived cultural and ideological assault and continued to provide spiritual resources for a civilization rooted in African cosmologies. Wide geographical distribution in the Americas reflects a similar distribution along the coast of West and Central Africa. African-derived religions are both an urban and a rural phenomenon, created in response to the existential realities of slavery and the derision of African spirituality. However, ADR inspired enslaved peoples in Haiti and provided inspiration for their revolution of 1791. ADR survived missionary attacks, ridicule, popular misunderstanding, and attempts to call into question their validity.

George Simpson grouped these religions into five types. First were the neo-African religionsSantería in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico; Vodun in Haiti; Shango in Trinidad and Grenada; and Candomblé in Brazildrew from similar concepts and borrowed practices from Catholicism that reminded them of African realities. The second type were religions influenced by Protestant missionary activity in the region: Cumina and the Convince cult in Jamaica, The Big Drum Dance of Carriacou (Grenada), and Kele in St. Lucia. Third were groups influenced by Pentecostal groups from the United States. Religions that emphasize divination, healing, and spirit mediumship were the fourth type: Umbanda in Brazil, the Maria Lionza cult in Venezuela, and Espiritismo in Puerto Rico. The fifth type was Rastafarianism, a twentieth-century religion with a sociopolitical agenda.

Afro-Caribbean religions trace their origins to Africa.

  • Santería, which is practiced in Cuba and in many parts of the United States, is perhaps the most well known of the African-derived religions. It is also called Regla de Ocha or Regla Lucumi.
  • Regla de Palo, also called Palo Monte or Palo Mayombe, is linked to the religious traditions of Angola, Congo, and Gabon.
  • Regla Arara, also called Gaga, derives from the Dogon people in Mali.
  • Nanigo, also called Abakuka, is associated by practitioners with African thought, beliefs, and rituals.
  • Vodu (Vodun) is practiced in Haiti and in parts of the United States.
  • Kunina is practiced in Jamaica.
  • Winti, practiced in Suriname, is a multinational and multicultural religion that incorporates African, Indian, and Christian traditions.
  • Shango religion, practiced in Trinidad and Grenada, started in 1849, when indentured African laborers brought in from Ijesha in Nigeria began to practice Yoruba beliefs.
  • Kele is practiced on St. Lucia.
  • Drum Dance of Carriacou in the Grenadines, where worshippers dance and communicate with ancestors.
  • The Venezuelan cult of Maria Lionza draws upon spiritism, Amerindian mythology, and shamanism, as well as the Afro-Cuban Catholic tradition.
  • Confa Obeah religion is practiced in Guayana.
  • The twentieth-century Rastafarian movement is not an African-derived religion in the strictest sense, but because it considers the Imperial Majesty of Ethiopia a divine personality, members of its community have strong ties to Africa.

The term Afro-Brazilian religions is used for religious traditions practiced in Brazil.

  • Candomblé is a spirit-possession religion with strong ties to Africa and draws on Catholicism, Pentecostalism, Umbanda, and Brazilian mythology. It began when three women living in BahiaIyá Dêta, Iyá Kalá, and Iyá Nassôstarted a house worship, which they called Engenho Velho. Disputes arose and led to the creation of Grantois and Axé Opó Afronjá. Roberto Motta has argued that Candomblé is being "churchified" through systematization and standardization at different levels and that this is reflected in several discourses and practices seeking to establish which community is authentic, who is the pureza nagô, who is the greatest babalorixá, which group offers the most social services in urban areas, and which theological literature stresses African roots and African memory and values. b. Umbanda grew out of a response to industrialization in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s and spread to São Paulo. Members seek upward mobility, and their leaders are called pai-de-santo and mae-desanto.
  • Macumba, a syncretistic tradition, traces its roots to the Yoruba world. It is a ritual and dancing community led by priests (babalorixa ) and priestesses (iyalorixa ) who provide spiritual and psychological services to adherents.
  • Scholars question the qualification of Batuque as an African-derived religion because it has few African traits and no strong slave tradition in the area of Belem, where the religion is practiced.
  • Shango religions were created in honor of the orisha Shango.
  • Tambor de Mina, also called Nago.
  • Xango in Recife.

Originally, these nondoctrinaire and nontextual religions focused on a rich memory of African deities, rituals, morality, and practices that were passed on to younger generations. There is a wide range of scholarship on these religions, enabling broad descriptions of their spirituality.

Religious Symbioses

African-derived religions are symbioses of African religious and global culture. Their ceremonies provided social revolutionary inspiration in Jamaica and Haiti and inspired the mythologies behind the patron saint of Cuba, Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (the Virgin of Charity of Cobre). ADRs maintain an orientation to Africa, but their ceremonies celebrate the rich diversity of the African community in the Americas. Even Rastafarianism lays claim to Ethiopia's historical and genetic engagement with the biblical world mythologized in the Kebra Nagast. The faithful in ADR evoke a sense of belonging to their particular community similar to the Jamaican yaad (practice), and a sense of being at home.

Gatherings at Catholic churches provided a "clearing" for displaced Africans to occupy, enabling them to catch glimpses of African religiosity. Devotion to Catholicism was mandated by the Code noir of 1685, which required that slaves be initiated into Christianity. The early meetings of ADR were held in cabildos, later called ile ocha (house of orisha ) or casa templo (house temple). Later devotees would point to spirits they served such as Santa Barbara, San Lázaro, and Yemayá.

The patakis (myths) of Africa provided the inspiration that diasporan Africans needed to create a dynamic life that would defy the realities of slave society. The gods of Africa energized lives, inspired celebrations that honored the orishas, and enabled participants to maintain balance and fulfill their purpose in life. Devotees of Candomblé maintained a constant relationship with Africa and organized pilgrimages to Africa. In the early 2000s, followers of African-derived religions serve the spirits and honor their ancestors in colorful enactments of the ceremonies, dances, arts, and rituals of the African diaspora.


African-derived religions worship a divine being and several divinities. The term gadu refers to Winti deities in Suriname. Religious traditions associated with the Yoruba religions call the supreme being Olodumare (Santería, Candomblé, and others). Olodumare is the creator and ruler of all things; he owns character and human destiny. He is also the source of ashe, or divine essence, and all other forces at work in the world. In Vodun devotees serve the Bondye (supreme being), who created the world and maintains balance. Divinity in the Rastafarian movement is called Jah Rastafaria.

Devotees serve the orishas, who manifest divine energy and are considered part of the community. The orishas themselves depend on the members of the community as much as the members of the community depend on them. Vodun devotees serve the loas (lesser deities), also called les invisibles and les mysteres. Among the lwas (spirit intermediaries), Legba is important because he, like Esu, opens the door to divinity, and must receive a share of all offerings.


Ancestors are important in ADR because they link worshipers to the lwas. Devotees affirm: "I believe in the power of ancestors who watch over us and serve us before the lwas; that they must be remembered and served faithfully" (Desmangles, p. 63). A ceremony called retirer d'en bas de l'eau, performed for the dead, allows the soul of the deceased to find peace. This ceremony is considered a third birth for the individual (the first is physical, the second, spiritual) and gives the ancestor a new status and the power to influence life on earth. The ancestors are part of a hierarchy in the spiritual world, but are not considered to be gods.

Spiritual Assets: Ase and Konesans

Two central concepts in some African-derived religions are ase (or axe ) and konesans (connaissance). Ase is the divine force, energy, and power incarnate in the world. Olodumare gives ase to everything, including inanimate objects. Ashe is the power behind all things in the universe. It enables people to find balance in life. The orishas are bearers of ashe. Santeros (Santerían priests) use ase to provide blessing and healing to devotees. "Ashe is a current or flow, a groove that initiates can channel so that it carries them along their road in life. The prayers, rhythms, offerings, taboos of Santería tune initiates into this flow" (Murphy, 1993, p. 131). In Santería, herbs are impregnated with ashe. The color of the Obatala conducts ashe. Part of the Vodun initiation ceremonies gives the priest intuitive knowledge, or konesans, enabling him to understand people, diagnose problems, and perform healing.


Priests and priestesses in ADR direct, guide, and organize ceremonies. These leaders are not as authoritative as in other religions because they are merely conduits of the spirits. Vodun leaders are called oungans (male) and mambos (female) or mäes de santo and päis de santo. A Candomblé leader is called babalorixa (male) or iyalorixa (female). Santería leaders are known as santeros (male) and santeras (female). The orishas select leaders; those chosen for office go through a three-year initiation that culminates in asiento, or hacer santo, when the orisha who called the neophyte is seated. The neophyte is called iyawo (bride). The newly initiated iyawo wears white during the first year. Some santeros may be initiated into the cult of Ifá and receive training from a leader, who imparts a mastery of the texts of divination. Initiation gives the neophyte a new personality as well as responsibility. The rites also link the leader with the first sixteen kings of the Yoruba people.

Divination and Spirit Possession

Devotees seek divine will and understanding through divination, which also serves as means of diagnosing illness and misfortune. A common divination system is the dilloggun, which draws on esoteric texts of the tradition that speak to the problem of the devotee. Guidance is also sought through the oracle.

Spirit possession is an important aspect of ADR. In possession, a spirit takes control of a devotee, provides direction, and imparts knowledge. When possessed, "the individual's executive faculties are temporarily placed in abeyance as the deity takes over habitual functions. When the possession is ended the devotee is again himself with ordinarily no recollection of what has happened" (Walker, p. 36). The spirit would also possess devotees who surrender their lives to a deity or spirit. Thus, possession is a moment for submission to the suggestions of the spirit. In Candomblé, possession by the spirit is described as incorporar (to incorporate), pegar (to seize or grab), or manifestar (to manifest). In Winti religion, spirits control the conscience of an individual and reveal things to him. The spirit that possesses an individual might assume one aspect of that person's personality. Some spirits may appear only to certain people. In Trinidad, Ogun appears only to stout women, while Osian, the quiet god of the forest, appears only to slim men and women.

Songs and drum rhythms can invite possession. Possession can also take place during the initiation of a devotee. The drummer often releases the tension of monotony with breaks. Sometimes possession may come through hypnosis, periods of intense stress, pain, fear, or difficulties, which some interpret as a psychodrama or psychotherapeutic event through which the individual works out life's problems as they interact with other people. Possession may be a wild drama during which the possessed speaks on behalf of the deity, or it may end spontaneously, or when the community shifts emphasis to another deity. Possession establishes a spiritual bond, creating a communitas. In possession, liminality replaces normalcy, making room for public excesses that express social desires, and may offer an opportunity for the spirit, who speaks through the voice of the possessed, to criticize unsocial behavior.

Rituals and Sacrifices

African-derived religious ceremonies are a service to the spirits. In the Bembé drum dance of the Santería community, the ceremony is used to communicate with ancestors and summon spirits. Mederick Louis Moreau de St. Mery described Vodun religion as a dance of the Africans in Haiti that summoned the energies of Bondye and his spirits lwas and les morts. The Big Drum Dance of Carriacou celebrates ancestors through the nacion dance and songs. African-derived religious ceremonies also celebrate life, family, people, work, and provide occasion for practitioners to share food, time, and the presence of the spirit. Initiation ceremonies offer opportunities for the faithful to enter different stages of faith and leadership. Some ceremonies include classic ritual stages of separation, seclusion, and reintegration, signaling the birth or rebirth of the initiate into a new role.

Vodun ceremonies take place in the homes of the devotees or in the oum'phor (temple), an enclosed place. A significant ritual property is the poteau mitan, a supporting post that is a symbolic link and path to Ginen (Africa). Other ritual properties include images of lwas, flags, a machete of Ogou that is used for sacrifices, and a drum. Vodun employs four types of initiation rituals: head washing, which feeds the spirit and refreshes the individual; kanzo, a ritual of fire that strengthens the individual; kouche sou pwen, which strengthens the initiate's relationship with the spirit; and giving the ason, or sacred rattle, which qualifies the initiate to heal. Candomblé initiations are presided over by iyalorixa or babalorixa who help in preparing the shrine and the otas (sacred stones) that contain the powers of the orixa. The abia (initiate) is first isolated; then, during the second stage, learns about his or her spirit and the atabaques (drum) rhythms of the spirit. At the final stage, the abia is named and rejoins the community.

Devotees serve the spirits and the ancestors with ebo (offering or sacrifice). The orishas demand services such as feasts, initiations, and purifying baths. Ebo refers to offerings of animals, fruits, and vegetables given to the orishas. Ebo offerings are specific foods preferred by the orishas. Ogun, the divinity of iron, likes red and white roosters; Yemaya, the ocean divinity, likes duck, turtle, and goat. The orishas eat the ashe of the offerings; the rest is then shared among the members of the community. Animals are offered to the orishas because animal blood holds ase.

Religion and Healing

African-derived religious ceremonies double as healing sessions for physical and spiritual ailments, addressing concrete issues of the serviteur such as pain, disaster, loss, economic difficulties, problems in love, unemployment, and providing support to seek chans (luck) and to survive. "Life, in the Vodou view of things, is thus characterized by alternating cycles of suffering and the transient relief from suffering that is called having luck" (Brown, 1991, p. 344). Vodun devotees believe that although magical insects may cause illness, so can bad relationships. Santería devotees also believe that suffering and illness result from bad relationships among good and bad humans, divinities, ancestors, and the orishas. A devotee with difficulties consults a diviner to help determine the cause of his or her suffering and prescribe ways of dealing with the problem. The solution involves restoring broken relationships and finding balance in the community. In Haiti, the mambo works with the people to seek healing. In Venezuela, the curioso, and the lukuman in Suriname practice divination to diagnose problems. Mediums, called buyai, practice healing in Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

Herbalists provide remedies for illnesses. In colonial Brazil, people suffered from banzo, a condition that led to depression and physical deterioration. Its symptoms were alcoholism, use of narcotics, and the eating of dirt. Healers in the African diaspora were called root doctor, weed woman, magical doctor, or the bush doctor, who was also called obeahman. In Brazil, the benzador treated people with St. Mary's herb. In Candomblé, healers also use herbs and sacred leaves.

Rituals enable the serviteur to relate to a cosmic system, draw strength, and deal with evil. Because an inner miracle may take place in the individual, what happens may not be seennevertheless, a miracle strong enough to alter the circumstances of the serviteur is believed to occur. Priestesses may also diagnose a problem. Treatment may include, in the case of broken relationships, binding two dolls together. Other treatments involve preparing special food to calm a restive spirit, and giving healing baths using a mixture of herbs and perfumes. In Suriname, meki wan sweri is a healing technique in which a winti-man discovers the wishes of Winti and contracts to fulfill those desires and become well.

Religion and Gender

Women have been active in African-derived religions from the beginning; some of them are leaders. Women were at the fore-front of the establishment of Candomblé and in the early twenty-first century women have great responsibility in the estimated 2,000 terreíros in Bahia. Members of the Sisterhood of Our Lady of the Good Death (a group in the Barroquinha church) and Iyalusso Danadana and Iyalusso Akala (a woman of Yoruba background) played key roles in the formation of the religion. Gender equality remains an issue where traditions still give men ritual privileges exclusively. For example, in Regla Conga the title tata nganga is reserved for men. Women can attain it only in the postmenstrual years. In Regla de Ocha, or Santería, women do not have access to the divination system of the babalawo (priest). Patriarchy exists in the Rastafarian movement: women do not participate in reasoning sessions. There are resources in some ADR that offer opportunity for a reconstruction of gender relations. Female deities such as Yemaja and Oxun, and the androgyny of Oxala, could be explored as a basis for more egalitarian relationships in African-derived religions.

Religion and the Arts

The arts are integral to the expression of African-derived religions and include chants, dance, rituals, ceremonies, feasts, altar construction, cloth work, beadwork (collares de mazo ), ritual coverings (bandeles ), carvings, paintings, and sculptures. The arts bring cosmology and ritual into the quotidian and the ceremonial without losing the profundity of their contextual (and contested) referential meanings. The visual arts come in a variety of media and colors; the drums and divination tools are constructed from a variety of colorful materials. Artistic objects ground ashe in the individual and the community.

Artistic representations of the orishas depict their ashe as well as their ewa (beauty). Orisha art is ohun oso (adornment/ornament), attractive, and calls attention to the gods. Ase is often depicted as a bird. Carved ornaments depicting the orishas are often placed on the altar and fed with food and blood to give them ashe. Altars are constructed and decorated with the colors of a particular orisha to depict a divine throne of glory. Art objects also depict the priests and priestesses who go between the orishas and the community. The visual arts create a congenial atmosphere for worship. Vodun flags greet the deitiesa sign of respectand invoke the presence of the spirits. The vévé blazons drawn with powdered substances on the ground depict a cosmic connection with the gods and goddesses at the top. In Haiti, artistic representation depicts the virtues of self-restraint and steadfastness.


During their complex history, devotees of ADR have faced a number of challenges. First, Christian missionaries condemned their practices as heathen and demonic. Second, devotees of ADR faced legal challenges: legal restrictions were placed on meetings in Jamaica in 1781, 1784, and 1788. Further restrictions were placed on Obeah practices in 1808, 1816, and again in 1826 and 1827. Legislative acts restricted Africans from preaching and teaching in their assemblies. In Haiti, Catholic priests taught in catechism classes that Vodun was from the devil, the houngan a servant of Satan, and their sacrifices sinful. Laws were passed to restrict dancing by Winti devotees. In Paramaribo, the faithful could hold only four ceremonies per year. Rastafarians suffered persecutions on several occasions. In 1960, Claudius Henry was arrested and charged with treason. In 1966, the police destroyed the Back-O-Wall compound, one of the slum areas of Kingston where many Rastas lived on the pretext that the destruction was part of a cleanup campaign, and in 1978, police removed some Rastas from Heroes Park in Kingston, Jamaica.

African-derived religions continue to face difficulties because of their practice of sacrifice. In a recent case, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prohibiting the offering of sacrifices violates the religious freedoms of ADR devotees. African-derived religions continue to grow because they are the celebrations of a world in which the power and benevolence of the gods continuously employ ashe to create and shape human destiny. ADR celebrate family, community, and the blessings of life, and offer ways to understand the world and to deal with adversity. These religions offer hope to their devotees that the gods can and do transform, and help make this complex world beautiful.

See also Africa, Idea of ; Ancestor Worship ; Communication of Ideas: Africa and Its Influence ; Communitarianism in African Thought ; Immortality and the Afterlife ; Personhood in African Thought ; Religion: Africa ; Ritual: Religion .


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Religion: African Diaspora

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