Cults and Rituals

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Cults and Rituals


Choice and Aims. Whether they practice Igbo , Yoruba, Akan, or other West African traditional religions, believers take part in remarkably similar rituals—just as one finds similar rituals among the many denominations of Christian churches or among the various sects of Islam. During the years 500-1590—and in the present day—West Africans could choose which of the several gods and cults best suited their needs. Thus, even the people of a single culture group might worship different gods.

Choosing a Deity. Believers want to influence the intentions of a divinity in order to secure protection for themselves, their families, and possessions; to obtain blessings of spiritual, emotional, and material plenitude; to give praise and thanksgiving to the gods when such blessings are received; or to appease any gods who might have been offended. A pressing personal or familial need might influence one’s choice of which god to worship. While some gods are considered expert at healing a particular illness, others might be inept at the same job. While one god might be reputed to be especially attentive to prayers and sacrifices, another might be considered intransigent and uncompromising and thus would be chosen only when he or she is considered the only one capable of solving a particular problem. For example, the Igbo lightning god, Amadioha, and the Yoruba lightning god, Shango, are often considered powerful but temperamental deities. While ordinarily kind and gentle, they can be extremely exacting in their demands both on themselves and on devotees who wish to emulate the intellectual and moral clarity with which the gods are associated. Among the Igbo , diviners and healers (Dibia) take as their deity the god Agwu, known as a master or custodian of knowledge. Like Esu among the Yoruba or Ananse among the Akan, however, Agwu is also a trickster god, who can reveal or hide knowledge from those who seek it.

Cults. Other professions also have their own patron gods. Some gods are perpetual patrons of certain trades, so that anyone belonging to a trade guild automatically gives allegiance to its god-protector. Among the Yoruba, Ogun is the patron god of metal fabricators, such as iron smiths, and those whose trades indirectly depend on the use of metal equipment, such as hunters and warriors. Such an allegiance did not require a professional to venerate his patron deity exclusively.

Secret Societies. Throughout West Africa, there are “secret societies” that impart specialized knowledge exclusively to selected members. Unlike cults, these groups have both secular and religious functions.These groups are often custodians of important historical, literary, and professional knowledge that is essential to a community’s understanding of its origins and how it governs itself. Initiations into these “secret” societies are often conducted in monastic seclusion and may include instruction in theology, history, politics, economics, law, medicine, and military strategy. The best known of these societies were founded in the capital cities of Benin, Ile-Ife, Dahomey, Nri, Mali, and Ashanti. Groups such as the Egbo Society among the Efik, the Ogboni among the Yoruba, and the Ngbe (Leopard) Society among the Igbo performed public functions such as collecting taxes, recording titles and deeds, serving as legislative advisers to the king, and sitting as panels of judges or juries. The Leopard Society was renowned for its expertise in mortuary science, its administration of mourning and burial rites, and its ceremonial drumming. The activities of the Egbo Society included maintenance of the Nsibidi (an ideographic form of writing believed to have been secretly learned from the Igbo ), knowledge of which was crucial for clerical purposes such as the keeping of public financial and judicial records, as well as religious practices. The Leopard Society’s symbol is mboko, a Nsibidi sign symbolizing the arrival of death.

Personal and Communal Gods. Some gods, known as chi or ikenga, are personal gods, but most other gods are communal. Thus, a family, clan, or entire ethnic group might have one or several gods that all the members of the group worship, either individually in times of individual need or collectively in times of communal need. In each case sacrifices and intercessions to the gods are mediated by

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priests, who often also know how to practice divination in order to discover the nature of the problem (or blessing) so that the appropriate sacrifices can be made to the appropriate gods.

Gender Influences. Some gods are regarded as either male or female, and therefore often attract worshipers of the same gender. While clerical duties were often—but not necessarily—gender specific, nearly all West African religions did not develop rigid gender roles. Quite often men dress as women to worship a god presumed to have or like feminine attributes; and women dress in men’s attire and play leading roles in the worship of deities believed to be masculine or to prefer masculine attributes.

Family Tradition. History and tradition also play a major role in one’s choice of a god and cult. If one comes from a family that has always been devoted to a particular deity, the youngest members of the family often continue the tradition, especially if the family has experienced some sort of success. Worldly attainments are considered indications that the gods to whom one has professed allegiance have been attentive to one’s needs. It is therefore not only natural but also prudent to continue the same ritual practice rather than risk offending the gods who have helped the family in the past by choosing a different, and perhaps rival, deity or deities. (Rivalries—sometimes for reasons known only to the deities themselves—are not uncommon among West African gods.) A woman who marries into another family may also develop relationships with the gods of her husband. Yet, even after marriage she may be expected to return to her father’s family annually to participate in a festival to the gods of her paternal clan.

Attracting Followers. A god may gain followers by various forms of revelation such as sending a signal to a person in a dream or by troubling the prospective believer until he or she consults a Babalawo and discovers that the misfortune or illness is caused by a god who needs the sufferer’s attention. African traditional religions are not evangelistic, however, in the sense of proselytizing to gain converts.

Ancestral Practices. Ancestor “worship”—or, more accurately, veneration—is practiced in nearly all traditional West African religions. The spirits of the ancestors—especially of those forefathers and foremothers who are believed to have lived exemplary lives, as measured in terms of success in family life, wealth, and longevity—are considered active and functioning members of the community. In a society where individual and collective memory was preserved orally, elders were respected as bearers of the communal knowledge accumulated from a distant past and capable of providing insights into the present and the future. For the ancestors, death was not so much a departure from the world of the living as a change of status within the social group. Their continuing spiritual and emotional relationship to the group is possible because in most African belief systems there is no sharp separation between the dead and the living. In fact, a dead ancestor is often referred to as the living-dead. These ancestors are believed to be in positions of guardianship and authority over the living. They must therefore be treated with honor and respect, an extension of the traditional values of respect for the elders and honoring the wisdom they have gained with age. The living-dead have achieved still more wisdom through association with other spirits in the abode of the gods. Yet, no known ancestral spirit commands as much respect as any of the gods. The power and authority of the ancestors seem to be derived from the gods. That is, ancestral spirits exercise influence within a certain domain (farming, fertility, or the arts, for example) according to, but never against, the will of a god with power over the same domain.

Libation. The living honored the ancestors by pouring a libation (paying homage by giving them the first “taste” of drink before the living consume it), by offering them sacrifices of kola nuts, chickens, goats, or cows (and in some rare but known cases, human beings—usually criminals or condemned war captives), and by thinking and acting in ways of which the ancestors would have approved. The authority of the dead over the living gave cohesion to the kinship group and often functioned as law and moral authority, as well as enforcing social and cultural norms of behavior.

Funeral Drumming. Among all West African peoples, the death of a member of the community is announced by “talking” drums that communicate information such as the name and age of the deceased; the names of his or her parents, children, and next of kin; and his or her village. This information tells the listeners where and by whom the loss must be most acutely felt and therefore those to whom condolence visits are due. The talking drums celebrate the life of the dead, thus flattering and soothing his or her spirit for a safe passage to the realm of the ancestors. Failure to undertake this passage could mean that the departed would remain as an angry or mischievous wandering and homeless spirit to plague its family and community. After firearms began appearing in West Africa in the fifteenth century, gun salutes began to be used when an important person died to warn evil spirits trying to thwart the deceased’s passage to the land of the spirits that the dead man or woman was a distinguished person and should be honored.

Welcoming a Returned Ancestor. Sometimes an ancestor returns to the land of the living through reincarnation in one of his or her descendants. When such an event is believed to have occurred, it is announced by masquerades in which the living portray notable ancestors. According to Chinua Achebe, “The masked spirits who often grace human rituals and ceremonies with their presence are representative visitors from the spiritland and are said to emerge from the subterranean home through antholes. At least this is the story told to the uninitiated.” These masked “spirits” are only symbolic ancestors. “But this knowledge does not in any way diminish their validity or the awesomeness of their presence.”

Magic. Magic was an important element of traditional religions. Magic could be used to do good or harm and was considered effective against or on behalf of the living, the spirits of the dead, and the gods. While sorcery may be considered an intentional use of magic in ways immoral or illegal, witchcraft is usually believed to be beyond the conscious control of the person said to be a witch or wizard.

Witchcraft. While someone claiming to be a witch or wizard may describe in dramatic detail the processes by which they perform acts of witchcraft, from an objective or external perspective these actions do not exist, except as psychic states or mental activities. While some witches may, for example, claim that at night in their sleep they transform themselves into owls or cats and roam about dispensing poisons into the bodies of sleeping victims, there is no way of establishing the credibility of such claims. West African beliefs about witchcraft during the years 500-1590 were quite similar to those of European and American cultures during the same period. The fear of being a witch or the victim of a witch was enormous. Families took great precautions to ensure that a family member did not become a witch or a target of witchcraft. Some people, however, exploited the general fear of witches for their own gain.

Sorcery. In contrast to witchcraft, sorcery is a process through which an individual or group consciously forms and executes a plan to employ magical powers to hurt a real or perceived enemy. While witchcraft relies almost exclusively on beliefs and the psychological effects of fear, claims about sorcery can be objectively and factually investigated. Sorcerers often developed and employed poisons (often manufactured from bark, grass, or the venom of poisonous snakes). While a person could unknowingly become a witch, no one could claim to become a sorcerer unknowingly. In fact, only a person with a knowledge of medicine and pharmacology could plan and execute an act of sorcery.

Healers. Such experts are usually known as “medicine men,” but in fact, both men and women practiced benevolent and malevolent sorcery. Although they were largely viewed as healers who attempted to help their patients, some of them diverted their skills to harm others in pursuit of personal ends or those of the highest bidder, with little regard to the moral intentions of the patron or the consequences of the action. Medicine was sometimes dispensed as charms or amulets, with ingredients such as herbs and sacred objects—including pebbles from the sea or shells or Homs of certain animals. These charms and amulets were believed, when properly employed, to target one’s enemies or to thwart similar charms aimed at oneself. Casting a spell (or curse) on one’s enemy was another well-known method of sorcery. Only an expert at magical procedures was considered capable of activating the supernatural processes required to make a spell work. The psychological methods used by a Babalawo or Dibia to manipulate individuals or groups were also considered magic. This kind of magic might be used to make a person fall in or out of love with a particular suitor, or to convince the group that certain untruths were truths.

Divination. Divination is aimed at truth telling or knowledge acquisition. Truth and knowledge were considered properties of the gods and considered accessible to humans only through the intelligence with which the gods willingly endowed humans. Divination was used by individuals whose profession was the pursuit of disinterested or applied knowledge. These experts were known by various names in different places, including the Babalawo among the Yoruba, the Dibia among the Igbo, and the Aduru among the Akan. These people were often considered medical experts as well, because they typically had knowledge of herbs and the body. The Dibia and the Babalawo were initiated into the service of gods believed to be masters or custodians of knowledge (the Igbo deity Agwu or the Yoruba deity Esu). They were also required to have mastered the science of medicine (Ogwu) and were expected, for a fee, to employ this knowledge in healing the sick or to share their skills with other healers.


Also known as Afa, Ifa is the name of the Yoruba god of knowledge and of the rigidly defined and complex system of obtaining knowledge from Ifa through divination. A person consults Ifa on an occasion when he or she needs to make a significant decision, whether about a personal matter such as marriage or a political enterprise such as war. The Babalawo (“father of secrets”), a diviner and priest, consults Ifa by manipulating sixteen palm nuts, which form a large handful. He begins by holding them in both hands and then attempts to pick them all up in his right hand. If one nut remains in his left hand, he makes a double mark in wood dust on his divining tray; if two remain, he makes a single mark. Four such marks made in a vertical column constitute one half of a figure, and each half has sixteen possible forms. Following the ranking recognized in Ifa, and reading from left to right rather than from top to bottom, these sixteen forms can be presented: 1111, 2222, 2112, 1221, 1222, 2221, 1122, 2211, 1112, 2111, 1121, 1211, 2212, 2122, 1212, and 2121. The second half of the figure, marked in a parallel vertical column, has the same sixteen possible forms; and as they may combine with any of the sixteen forms in the first half of the figure, there are a total of 16 times 16, or 256, possible complete figures.

A Babalawo can arrive at the same 256 figures more quickly by a single toss of a chain of eight half seed shells, but this method is considered less reliable. He holds the chain in the middle and casts it on the ground so that four half seed shells fall in a line on each side. A seed falling with the concave inner surface upward is equivalent to a double mark. Having arrived at the correct figure, the Babalawo recites a verse associated with the particular figure that is relevant to the client’s problem. The verse prescribes a sacrifice that will ensure a desired blessing or avert an impending misfortune* During apprenticeship, a Babalawo must memorize more than a thousand Ifa verses, at least four for each of the 256 figures, and he continues to learn new verses from his colleagues throughout his life. A Babalawo can also answer “Yes* or “No* questions by making two tosses of the divining chain and observing which has the higherranking figure. Babalawo are consulted not only by worshipers of Ifa and the other deities but by Muslims and Christians as well.

source : William R. Bascom, Ifa Divination Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1969), pp. 4, 40-42.

Masquerades. Among the Yoruba and Igbo , there are various forms of masquerading, including the Egungun, Gelede, and Epa. In general, masquerades such as the Egungun (literally “bone” or “skeleton,” that is, a man risen from the dead) are ceremonies that pay tribute to the god Amaiyegun, who is believed to have taught humans how to protect themselves from Death by wearing masks and other costumes that disguise their humanness. The Egungun masquerade has a hierarchy. The “elder egungun” is a person from the oldest age grade and may perform duties such as the execution of legal orders. The “trickster egungun” entertains spectators. The “children of egungun” are teenagers. Women may participate in Egungun rituals only if they are clothed as males. They are not supposed to know the identities of the masqueraders, and even if a woman recognizes her husband or son, she is not supposed to reveal such knowledge to others. Whereas an Egungun ceremony may require absolute secrecy about the identities of the masqueraders, Gelede and Epa are less serious about hiding the participants’ identities and are generally more playful. Gelede and Epa masqueraders may wear costumes that expose some parts of their bodies, including the face, arms, or feet.

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Possession. Possession is believed to occur when a nonancestral spirit or a deity enters a person’s head, thereby taking control of the body. Such a person is spoken of as a “horse” or “mount” of the possessing spirit or deity. The spirit or deity may speak through the mount’s voice and thrash around in the person’s uncontrollable body, pleading for some form of attention or demanding a sacrifice, while predicting curses and evil that may occur if its demands are not met. At other times, however, the spirit or god may announce blessings and good fortune that will come to the mount or the initiates of a god. Not every deity “mounts” its adherents, and some do so only at special festivals where a “mouthperson” has been chosen and prepared ahead of time for being possessed. This preparation may take the form of fasting for several weeks or eating a special diet, abstaining from sexual intercourse, or shaving of one’s head (to “clear” the head so the god can “mount”).

Prayer. There are many forms of prayer, including prayers of praise, supplication, propitiation, and repentance, as well as pleas for intercession. For each deity there are usually prescribed liturgical hymns and chants that priests or other followers of a god must recite during a ritual. Drums are also used to summon the gods and ancestral spirits. Morning and evening are the usual times for prayer. A particular day of the week may also be dedicated to prayers to a specific god.

Sacrifices. Today, and for the most part in the past, sacrifices are ritualized. Even when a ritual is called a “human” sacrifice, a person need not be killed. Instead a symbolic execution is enacted. In some cases such rituals are reenactments of what is believed to be an actual sacrifice of a human ancestor in the mythical past. Among the Akan it is believed that when death strikes a member of the royal family, the “bones” of the dead are restless and hungering for life until appeased by the shedding of blood, the symbol of life. Therefore, Death must be fed the blood he wants quickly, before Death strikes another member of the family or clan. In most cases a cow, a goat, or a chicken is slaughtered to appease Death.

Oracles. Usually consulted only in times of crisis (as when a decision has to be made about waging a war), an oracle is a powerful spirit housed in a shrine, usually a grotto, far from the living quarters of a community. An oracle is considered an impartial spirit and trusted ancestor able to ascertain the truth and the best course of action. For example, if the oracle rules that the cause is just, war may be prosecuted with the implicit understanding that victory is likely. If the oracle determines that the reasons for war are unjust, however, victory is not guaranteed, and even if the war is won, the people who initiate it may bring a curse on their descendants. An oracle may also be consulted in order to determine guilt or innocence in disputes among individuals. Once again the oracle, unlike human judges, is considered impartial. The priest who speaks for the oracle is usually removed from the lives of ordinary people in the community. A person of upright character, he or she is often unmarried or a widow or widower. Moreover, the oracle is believed to “choose” its priest, not the other way round.


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