World Library  
Flag as Inappropriate
Email this Article

African Traditional Religion

Article Id: WHEBN0009132645
Reproduction Date:

Title: African Traditional Religion  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Portugal, Mali Empire, Badimo, Ngoni people, Nzema people, Kpelle people, Sotho–Tswana peoples, Provisional National Defence Council, Sangu people, Loma people
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia

African Traditional Religion

The indigenous religious beliefs and practices of African peoples include various traditional religions.[1][2] While generalizations of these religions are difficult, due to the diversity of African cultures, they do have some characteristics in common. Generally, they are oral rather than scriptural,[3][4] include belief in a supreme being, belief in spirits and other divinities, veneration of ancestors, use of magic, and traditional medicine.[5][6][7] The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural.[7][8]

Traditional African religions have been passed down from one generation to another orally and can be found through art, rituals and festivals, beliefs and customs, names of people and places, songs and dances, proverbs, and myths.[3][4]

While adherence to traditional religion in Africa is hard to estimate, due to syncretism with Christianity and Islam, practitioners are estimated to number 100 million, or 10% of the population of the continent.[9] They are also practiced in the Americas such as the Candomble, Umbanda, Macumba in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba and the United States and Vodou in Haiti and the United States.[3][10]

Classification and statistics lists African Traditional & Diasporic as a major religious group, estimating some 100 million adherents. They justify this combined listing of traditional African and African diasporic religions, and the separation from the generic primal-indigenous category by pointing out that:

the "primal-indigenous" religions are primarily tribal and composed of pre-colonization peoples. While there is certainly overlap between this category and non-African primal-indigenous religious adherents, there are reasons for separating the two, best illustrated by focusing specifically on Yoruba, which is probably the largest African traditional religious/tribal complex. Yoruba was the religion of the vast Yoruba nation states which existed before European colonialism and its practitioners today – certainly those in the Caribbean, South America and the U.S. - are integrated into a technological, industrial society, yet still proclaim affiliation to this African-based religious system. Cohesive rituals, beliefs and organization were spread throughout the world of Yoruba (and other major African religious/tribal groups such as Fon), to an extent characteristic of nations and many organized religions, not simply tribes.[11]

Practitioners of traditional religions in sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries, and were estimated to number about 90 million,[9] with the largest religions in Africa being Christianity and Islam.


West African religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies and/or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by force (or ashe, nyama, etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic or mantric drumming and/or singing. One religious ceremony practiced in Gabon and Cameroon is the Okuyi, practiced by several Bantu ethnic groups. In this state, depending upon the types of drumming or instrumental rhythms played by respected musicians (each of which is unique to a given deity or ancestor), participants embody a deity or ancestor, energy and/or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements or dances which further enhance their elevated consciousness, or, in Eastern terms, excite the kundalini to a specific level of awareness and/or circulate chi in a specific way within the body.[12] When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, culturally educated observers are privy to a way of contemplating the pure or symbolic embodiment of a particular mindset or frame of reference. This builds skills at separating the feelings elicited by this mindset from their situational manifestations in daily life. Such separation and subsequent contemplation of the nature and sources of pure energy or feelings serves to help participants manage and accept them when they arise in mundane contexts. This facilitates better control and transformation of these energies into positive, culturally appropriate behavior, thought, and speech. Further, this practice can also give rise to those in these trances uttering words which, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate or diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions which the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goal.[13]


Main article: African deities

Followers of traditional African religions pray to various secondary deities (Ogoun, Da, Agwu, Esu, Mbari, Thiorak, etc.) as well as to their ancestors. These divinities serve as intermediaries between humans and God. Most indigenous African societies believe in a single creator God (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.).[14] Some recognize a dual or complementary twin Divinity such as Mawu-Lisa. For example, in one of the Yoruba creation myths, Olodumare, the 'Supreme', is said to have created Obatala, as Arch-divinity, who then created humans on earth. Olodumare then infused those human creations with life. Each divinity has their own priest or priestess."[15]

Practices and rituals

There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions.[16] Often, God is worshiped through consultation or communion with lesser deities and ancestral spirits. The deities and spirits are honored through libation, sacrifice (of animals, vegetables, or precious metals). The will of God is sought by the believer also through consultation of oracular deities, or divination.[17] In many traditional African religions, there is a belief in a cyclical nature of reality. The living stand between their ancestors and the unborn. Traditional African religions embrace natural phenomena – ebb and tide, waxing and waning moon, rain and drought – and the rhythmic pattern of agriculture. According to Gottlieb and Mbiti:
The environment and nature are infused in every aspect of traditional African religions and culture. This is largely because cosmology and beliefs are intricately intertwined with the natural phenomena and environment. All aspects of weather, thunder, lightning, rain, day, moon, sun, stars, and so on may become amenable to control through the cosmology of African people. Natural phenomena are responsible for providing people with their daily needs.[18]

For example in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir the (Star of Sirius).[19] With a long farming tradition, the Serer high priests and priestesses (Saltigue) deliver yearly sermons at the Xoy Ceremony (divination ceremony) in Fatick before Yoonir's phase in order to predict winter months and enable farmers to start planting.[20]


Further information: Divination

One of the most traditional methods of telling fortunes in Africa is called casting (or throwing) the bones. Because Africa is a large continent with many tribes and cultures, there is not one single technique. Not all of the so-called bones are actually bones, small objects may include cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood. Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood[21] or performed on the ground (often within a circle) and they fall into one of two categories:

  • Casting marked bones, flat pieces of wood, shells, or leather strips and numerically counting up how they fall – either according to their markings or whether they do or do not touch one another – with mathematically based readings delivered as memorized results based on the chosen criteria.
  • Casting a special set of symbolic bones or an array of selected symbolic articles, e.g. a bird's wing bone to symbolize travel, a round stone to symbolize a pregnant womb, and a bird's foot to symbolize feeling.

In African society, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are generally no prohibitions against the practice. Those who tell fortunes for a living are also sought out for their wisdom as counselors and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.

Duality of Divinities

Most indigenous African religions have a dualistic concept of the person. In the Igbo language, a person is said to be composed of a body and a soul. In the Yoruba language, however, there seems to be a tripartite concept: in addition to body and soul, there is said to exist a spirit or an ori, an independent entity which mediates or otherwise interacts between the body and the soul.

Some religious systems have a specific devil-like figure (e.g. Ekwensu) who is believed to be the opposite of God.

Virtue and vice

Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with the communal aspect of life. Examples include social behaviors such as the respect for parents and elders, raising children appropriately, providing hospitality, and being honest, trustworthy and courageous.

In some traditional African religions, morality is associated with obedience or disobedience to God regarding the way a person or a community lives. For the Kikuyu, according to Mbiti, God, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience. But so could the Devil and its messengers. In indigenous African religions, such as the Azande religion, a person is said to have a good or bad conscience depending on whether he does the bidding of the God or the Devil.

Holy places and headquarters of religious activities

While there are man made holy places (e.g. altars, shrines, temples, tombs, etc.), very often sacred space is located in nature (e.g. trees, groves, rocks, hills, mountains, caves, etc.).

These are some of the important centers of religious life: Nri-Igbo, the Point of Sangomar, Ile-Ife, Oyo, Dahomey, Benin City, Ouidah, Nsukka, Akan, Kanem-Bornu, Mali, and Igbo-Ukwu.


Many indigenous religions, like most religions, have elaborate stories that explain how the world was created, how culture and civilization came about, or what happens when a person dies (e.g. Kalunga Line). Other mythologies are meant to explain or enforce social conventions on issues relating to age, gender, class, or religious rituals. Myths are popular methods of education; they communicate religious knowledge and morality while amusing or frightening those who hear or read them. Examples of religions with elaborate mythologies include the native religions of the Yoruba (see Yoruba mythology) and Serer people (see Serer creation myth).

Religious persecution

Adherents of traditional African religions have been persecuted, e.g. practitioners of the Bwiti religion by Christian missionaries and French colonial authorities, as well as some members of the present Gabon government.[22] Countering this, the Republic of Benin holds international Vodun conferences annually.

Traditions by region

This list is not exhaustive, and is limited to a few well-known traditions.

North Africa

West Africa

Central Africa

East Africa

Southern Africa

See also


  • Information presented here was gleaned from World Eras Encyclopaedia, Volume 10, edited by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure (New York: Thomson-Gale, 2003), in particular pp. 275–314.
  • Baldick, J (1997) Black God: The Afroasiatic Roots of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Religions. New York: Syracuse University Press.
  • Doumbia, A. & Doumbia, N (2004) The Way of the Elders: West African Spirituality & Tradition. Saint Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications.
  • . Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia.
  • Ehret, Christopher, An African Classical Age: Eastern and Southern Africa in World History, 1000 B.C. to A.D. 400, page 159, University of Virginia Press, ISBN 0-8139-2057-4
  • Karade, B (1994) The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. York Beach, MA: Samuel Weiser Inc.
  • P’Bitek, Okot. African Religions and Western Scholarship. Kampala: East African Literature Bureau, 1970.
  • , Volume 1, Issue 4, 1998

Further reading

  • Encyclopedia of African Religion, - Molefi Asante, Sage Publications, 1412936365
  • Julian Baldick (1997). ISBN 0-8156-0522-6
  • West African Traditional Religion Kofi Asare Opoku | Publisher: FEP International Private Limited (1978), ASIN: B0000EE0IT
  • John Mbiti African Religions and Philosophy (1969) African Writers Series, Heinemann ISBN 0-435-89591-5
  • Wade Abimbola, ed. and trans. Ifa Divination Poetry (New York: NOK, 1977).
  • Ulli Beier, ed. The Origins of Life and Death: African Creation Myths (London: Heinemann, 1966).
  • Herbert Cole, Mbari: Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo (Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1982).
  • J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, second edition (London: Cass, 1968).
  • Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dietterlen, Le Mythe Cosmogonique (Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, 1965).
  • Rems Nna Umeasigbu, The Way We Lived: Ibo Customs and Stories (London: Heinemann, 1969).
  • Sandra Barnes, Africa's Ogun: Old World and New (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
  • Segun Gbadagesin, African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).
  • Judith Gleason, Oya, in Praise of an African Goddess (Harper Collins, 1992).
  • Bolaji Idowu, God in Yoruba Belief (Plainview: Original Publications, rev. and enlarged ed., 1995)
  • Wole Soyinka, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
  • E. Geoffrey Parinder, African Traditional Religion, Third ed. (London: Sheldon Press, 1974). ISBN 0-85969-014-8 pbk.
  • E. Geoffrey Parinder, "Traditional Religion", in his Africa's Three Religions, Second ed. (London: Sheldon Press, 1976, ISBN 0-85969-096-2), p. [15-96].
  • S. Solagbade Popoola, Ikunle Abiyamo: It is on Bent Knees that I gave Birth (2007 Asefin Media Publication)
  • David Chidester, "Religions of South Africa" pp. 17–19


External links

  • African Religious Beliefs
  • Afrika A website with extensive links and information about traditional African religions
  • Asomdwee Fie, Shrine of the Abosom and Nsamanafo A Traditional Akan Spiritual Shrine
  • Baba Baba'Awo Awoyinfa Ifaloju, showcasing Ifa using web media 2.0 (blogs, podcasting, video & photocasting)
  • Roots and Rooted For those that love traditional African Religion
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.

Copyright © World Library Foundation. All rights reserved. eBooks from World Library are sponsored by the World Library Foundation,
a 501c(4) Member's Support Non-Profit Organization, and is NOT affiliated with any governmental agency or department.