Metaphysical and Moral Ideas in Traditional Religions and Philosophy

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Metaphysical and Moral Ideas in Traditional Religions and Philosophy


Life after Death. Most West African traditional religions teach that there exists life after death. “Spirits” by the Senegalese poet Birago Diop expresses the animist belief that the spirits of the dead remain among the living:

Those who are dead are not ever gone;
They are in the darkness that grows lighter
And in the darkness that grows darker.
The dead are not down in the earth.
They are in the trembling of the trees, 
In the groaning of the woods,
In the water that runs
In the water that sleeps.
They are in the hut, they are in the crowd.
The dead are not dead.

Death may claim the body and disintegrate it into primordial matter, but the soul—and perhaps the mind or spirit, too—is believed to persist either in the land of the ancestral spirits or in an intermediate world of wandering spirits that neither inhabit human beings nor are admitted to the esteemed world of the ancestors. Some ethnic groups, including the Igbo , however, believe that there exists another, invisible, world, the ani mmo where the dead who have lived full life spans continue their lives much as they did in the visible world, practicing the same trades or professions and organizing into societies much like those in which they lived on earth. The peoples of this otherworld are also separated by ethnic groups. Since reproduction is not a viable function in this world, women reunite not with their husbands but with their father’s family. Most Igbo believe that ani mmo is underground, or so far away that it is unreachable by the living, even if one traveled an entire lifetime. As an Igbo told Arthur Glyn Leonard, “We Igbo look forward to the next world as being much the same as this. … we picture life there to be exactly as it is in this world. The ground there is just the same as it is here; the earth is similar. There are forests and hills and valleys with rivers flowing and roads leading from one town to another.” Life in this spirit land is not only comparable but contiguous to the land of the living, with constant coming and going between the two worlds as births, deaths, and reincarnations create a chain of endless traffic.

Ghosts. People who die before their allotted time remain on earth as ghosts. They can talk to people who did not know them when alive, and to these individuals the ghosts seem to be normal human beings. Ghosts may marry and have children, and one may marry a ghost without knowing it. If someone whom a ghost knew before death comes to town, a ghost disappears. When the day appointed by Olorun arrives, the ghost “dies” a second death and goes to heaven.

Reincarnation. Nearly all West African religions include the belief that the spirit of an ancestor can be reincarnated in a newborn child. Such an ancestral reincarnation is believed to occur at the moment of conception, when the spirit of an esteemed ancestor “passes” into the forming child and becomes the child’s soul. If a child is believed to be a reincarnation of an ancestor—either because the child bears a physical resemblance to that person or because a Dibia or Babalawo has learned through divination that an ancestor intends to return to life via the child—the infant is given the same name as the ancestor. Over decades or even centuries, a renowned ancestor might be reincarnated in many descendants. All individuals with the same name in a particular clan are considered spiritual descendants of the ancestor whose name they bear, and they are expected to make annual ritual sacrifices to that ancestor.

The Ogbanje or Abiku. If a woman has several children in succession who die in childbirth, infancy, or childhood, the children are believed to be reincarnations of the same angry ancestor, known as an ogbanje or abiku, who has decided to repeatedly punish the family. A diviner is usually consulted to establish the identity of this ancestor, why he or she is angry and unsettled in the spirit world, and what must be done to stop the cyclical returns. The diviner may also work with other “medicine men” to keep the child alive. Such intervention is often believed to be a strenuous battle because the child, as a spiritual extension of the tormenting spirit, may not wish to stay alive. The doctors may design charms intended to make the ogbanje forget to leave this world. The parents of the ogbanje may also join cults devoted to interventionist sacrifices and prayers meant to protect the ogbanje from its spirit double. If all these interventions fail and the child dies, the corpse is often branded—with a sign on the forehead, a finger cut, or in some other way—in the belief that when the same ogbanje returns it will bear this identifying mark. People also believe that once an ogbanje is so marked, it is more reluctant to return because parents who recognize it immediately will be less susceptible to developing emotional attachment to it and will thus be less hurt by its passing.

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Destiny. According to Segun Gbadegesin, among the Yoruba before a child is born—or reborn—the ancestral guardian soul appears before Olorun to receive a new body, new breath, and a new destiny (iwa). Kneeling before Olorun, the soul is given the opportunity to choose its own destiny. It may choose its fate freely, although Olorun may refuse requests that are unreasonable or are not made humbly. One’s destiny includes the fixed day on which the soul must return to heaven and the individual’s personality, occupation, and luck. Though the day of one’s death can never be postponed, other aspects of one’s destiny may be modified by human acts and by superhuman beings and forces. If an individual has the full support and protection of his ancestral guardian soul, as well as Olorun and sometimes other relevant deities, he or she may enjoy the chosen destiny.

Fate and Character. Closely related to the idea of destiny is the concept of individual character, which is supposed to be unchanging throughout life and to account for the person’s fate, his or her fortunes and misfortunes. While some cultures, such as the Igbo , believe that God endows each individual directly with a chi that determines his or her character, other cultures believe that character comes from God in a more indirect manner. Some believe, for example, that “nature” fixes the person’s moral character and that any effort to change it is a waste of time. Among those who believe that character can be altered, the methods for achieving such a goal vary. Some make sacrifices and say prayers. One may also argue with one’s chi. In fact, the Igbo say “onye kwe, chi ya kwe” (if one says yes, one’s chi also says yes), implying that an effort of the will is sufficient to transform the course of one’s life. Other ethnic groups might resort to other methods, such as pharmacology, to reorient a person’s natural inclinations, with the goal of escaping a “bad” fate, or of choosing a better one.

Concepts of the Person. While the Igbo believe that the person as a whole is morally constituted of his chi, they also think that chi needs the tripartite structure of body, soul, and mind (or spirit) in order to function. Like the Akan, who have a similar tripartite conception, the Yoruba believe that a person is a composition also of at least three elements: the most important is the ancestral guardian spirit, which is associated with one’s “head” and destiny and with the belief in reincarnation. The second element is the breath, which resides in the lungs and chest and is served by the nostrils. The breath is the biological essence of the person, the vital force that is responsible for the mechanics of organic life. The third element is the “shadow,” or soul, which has no function during life and just follows the living body about. At death, however, the soul is the part of the individual that travels to the world of the spirits.

Purity of the Soul. For the Yoruba, the ancestral spirit who guards the purity of a person’s soul is associated with the head, where the soul is presumed to reside. It is sometimes spoken of as the ori (head) and as the olori (owner of the head). A lucky person is called olori rere (one who has a good head), and an unlucky person is olori buruku (one who has a bad head). To call a Yoruba olori buruku is regarded as an insult and a curse against him and his ancestral guardian. At the same time, the ancestral guardian is said to remain in the land of the spirits, doing exactly the same things there that the individual is doing on earth, but—except for twins and abiku—the guardian is always an adult. Some Yoruba believe that there are two ancestral guardian souls, one on earth and one in heaven. Others say that one resides in the forehead—which is associated with luck, a part of one’s destiny—while a second resides in the crown of the head and guards against evil, and a third resides in the occiput, facing backward and guarding against danger from the rear and the past.

Dualism. Observing the division of the sexes, the Akan created two corresponding concepts to denote them: ntoro (the male principle of life) and abusua (the female principle). Semen is believed to bestow “male” spiritual qualities. A woman’s blood transmits female qualities. Only the woman’s blood is believed to be passed on to the child. This idea underlies the matrilineal system of descent and inheritance. In traditional religious systems the supreme being is sometimes genderless or double gendered. In some places the most powerful God is considered male, but in others God has a feminine side that counterbalances the masculine.

Virtue and Vice. According to J. B. Danquah, among the Akan of present-day Ghana, where the good of the family is more important than the well-being of the individual, “things that are dishonorable and undignified are actions that in disgracing oneself also disgrace the family, and are therefore held to be vices.” For the Akan “the highest virtue is found in honor and dignity,” and tradition and social taste determine what is right and wrong. Among the Hausa-speaking peoples of Nigeria, a virtuous individual is described as shi mutumin kirki ne (one who has intrinsic goodness), and a bad person is a ba shi da kirki (one who has no kirki). One may also say that one’s people or land is kasar mutan kirki (the land of intrinsically good people). As A. H. M. Kirk-Greene puts it, “The warrior-hero of Hausaland may be seven feet tall, with the heart of a lion and the strength of a bullelephant, of heroic stature at everything, and yet never qualify for recognition as mutumin kirki.” Yet, “another man may earn that very admiration, though he be as modest as an ostrich and meeker than a gazelle.” Goodness is always good, whereas generally admirable qualities such as intelligence, toughness, and cleverness are good only when they are used wisely.

Truth. Like goodness, truth is also universally esteemed. Truth speaking and basing one’s conduct on truth telling are considered of the highest priority in social interaction. The Igbo call a person who is trustworthy “Eji okwu ya erm ife” (one whose word can be relied on). The Hausa have a proverb that says “Gaskiya ta fi kwabo” (Truth is worth more than gold). A goodcommand of language was highly valued among West Africans, probably because most West African cultures did not have sophisticated systems of writing, making the spoken word crucial in many aspects of society. Proverbs were one of the most effective ways to convey complicated ideas in the shortest possible manner.

Generosity. Sharing with others was essential in the agrarian West African societies. A rich person’s sin was avarice. A proverb that was common throughout West Africa says “Avarice is not a trait that calls for honour.”

Patience and Prudence. Many West African cultures have sayings such as “No condition is permanent”; “Whatever the trouble, it always has an end”; and “Whatever you have endured, you will always see one with a worse fate.” All these adages are meant to counsel thevirtue of patience. A person with good judgment and common sense is not only patient but also prudent in the organization of his or her personal life and in dealings with others. The Hausa term mai bankali and the Igbo phrase onye nwere uche describe the prudent and wellbehaved person. Conversely, ba shi da bankali and onweyi uche describe someone who lacks common sense or mature judgment.

Propriety and Respect. A person who has no sense of shame is usually considered lacking empathy and a sense of morality. That person tends to be avoided by others who are more attentive to the feelings of others. A person who is not lacking in shame is able to display propriety and the appropriate level of self-respect and respect toward others.


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