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African traditional religion

African traditional religions, also referred to as African indigenous religions or African tribal religions, is a term referring to a variety of religions indigenous to the continent of Africa. Like tribal religions from other parts of the world, African religious traditions are defined largely along community lines.

Traditional African religions involve teachings, practices, and rituals that lend structure to indigenous African societies. These traditional African religions also play a large part in the cultural understanding and awareness of the people of their communities.

African Traditional Religion and Language

Most traditional African religions have, for most of their existence, been orally/spiritually (rather than scripturally) transmitted. Thus, linguistic experts such as Christopher Ehret and Placide Tempels have applied their knowledge of languages towards reconstructing the original core beliefs of the followers of these traditions. The four linguistic phylums spoken in Africa are: Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Congo, and Khoi-San.

Afro-Asiatic Spirituality

According to linguist Christopher Ehret, traditional religion among Afro-Asiatic-speaking (Afrasan) peoples was originally henotheistic in nature. In this sense, each clan gave allegiance to the community's own god while still accepting that other gods exist.This tradition is evident today among the Omotic peoples of southwestern Ethiopia (whom Ehret and many other linguists consider to be Afrasan-speaking), as well as Semitic-speaking groups (whose linguistic ancestors migrated from the African continent millennia ago) such as the ancient Hebrews.[6] Each Afrasan clan community was headed by a hereditary ritual leader.With regard to major groupings of the Erythraite peoples and the Cushites, Ehret refers to this ritual priest as the '*wap'er'. The '*wap'er' carried out the traditional spiritual rites for each group, but was by no means a political chief or accorded significant political authority. Rather, the role of the clan *wap'er was to preside over the community rituals directed toward that deity and to act for the community as the intercessor and interpreter of the deity. Ehret states that in the founding Afro-Asiatic spiritual tradition, evil was seen as being caused by petty or demonic 'spirits' that dwelled among humans.

Nilo-Saharan Spirituality

Ehret characterizes Nilo-Saharan proto-religion as follows:

    The early Nilo-Saharan communities, it is thought, held to a nontheistic belief system, similar to that known among a few modern-day Nilo-Saharan peoples, such as the Uduk, whose languages belong to the Koman branch of that family. In this religion spiritual power and spiritual danger do not reside in a deity but are expressed by an animating force. In the modern Uduk language, this force is called 'arum'. It is a force, concentrating in their livers, that makes us and animals alive; it is also the source of our anger, our fears, and our affections. Human beings restrain the 'arum' within themselves through their receptive consciousness, called by the Uduk 'kashira', which is understood to reside in the stomachs. In the modern-day Uduk version of this belief system, there also exists disembodied 'arum.' the residue of lives, animal and human, that have been lived in the past. The 'arum' of people properly buried is reconstituted safely in communities underground. But there are also wandering 'arum', the residuum of people lost in the wild and never properly buried, and of animals killed by hunters. This animating force in its disembodied aspect, when not dealt with through ritual and religious observances, can be the source of danger and harm to people. Its effects, in other words, explain the problem of evil.

Niger-Congo Spirituality

Ehret's analysis of the original Niger-Congo spiritual tradition indicates that it centered around 'spirit' as manifested in various aspects of nature, deities and/or ancestors. This is evident in the following quote:

    Niger-Congo religion recognized a series of levels of spirit. At the apex of the system, but of little direct consequence in everyday religion, there was God as a distant figure, who was the First Cause or Creator...A second kind of spirit dwelled within a particular territory and was believed able to influence events there...But the really crucial spirits for religious observance and ritual belonged to a third category. These were the ancestors.

Evil in this tradition, Ehret states, originated with "witchcraft" executed upon targeted people by other individuals. Tempels supports Ehret's analysis in his assertions (which are also based upon linguistic analysis) that the unifying ideological characteristic of the Bantu language subgroup of Niger-Congo, is the concept of 'force'. This 'force', he asserts, is identical to 'spirit,' 'being,' and/or 'existence' such that it comprises all human-perceived reality.

The concept of 'force' or 'spirit' is also iterated by Karade  and Doumbia and Doumbia in reference to the Sudanic (i.e. areas west of Cameroon and south of the Sahara) Niger-Congo peoples. Karade holds that, in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria, 'force' is called 'ashe'. He asserts that the task of a Yoruba practitioner is to contemplate and/or ceremonially embody the various deities and/or ancestral energies in ways analogous to how chakras are contemplated in kundalini yoga.  In other words, the deities represent energies, attitudes, or potential ways to approach life. The goal is to elevate awareness while either in or contemplating any of these states of mind such that one can transmute negative or wasteful aspects of their energy into conduct and mindsets that serve as wholesome, virtuous examples for oneself and the greater community. Doumbia and Doumbia  echo this sentiment for the Mande tradition of Senegal, Mali, and many other regions of westernmost Africa. Here however, the 'force' concept is represented by the term 'nyama' rather than 'ashe'.

Divination also tends to play a major role in the process of transmuting negative or confused feelings/thoughts into more ordered and productive ones. Specifically, this process serves as a way to provide frames of reference such that those who are uncertain as to how to begin an undertaking and/or solve a problem can get their barrings and open a dialectic with their highest selves concerning their options on their paths.

Niger-Congo Ceremonies

Niger-Congo 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/mantric drumming and/or singing. 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/ancestor), participants embody a deity/ancestor, energy and/or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements/dances that 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. [23] When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, culturally educated observers are privy to a way of contemplating the pure/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/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 that, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate/diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions that the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goals.

Khoisan Spirituality

In reference to Khoisan spirituality, Ehret asserts that:

    The Khoisan, like the earliest Nilo-Saharans, adhered to a nontheistic religious outlook. Their beliefs recognized the existence of an impersonal condition of spirit, a force that existed outside human beings as well as in some animals. In the thought of the particular Khoisan peoples who have lived in southern Africa since 5,000 BCE, this force could be tapped by means of the trance-dance and used to heal sickness and to relieve social and individual stress and conflict. In this procedure, a person recognized for special religious talents, a kind of shaman whom we may call a trance-healer, dances until he or she goes into a state of trance, which might last for many hours. The trance healers were not full-time specialists...If no trance dance was being performed, and that means the great majority of the time, the healer held no special position and engaged in the usual persuits of everyone else...

Classification and statistics

Adherents.com (as of 2007) 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. (Major Religions Ranked by Size)

Practitioners of traditional religions in sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries, and are estimated to number about 70 million, or 12% of African population, while the largest religions in Africa are Christianity and Islam, accounting for 45% and 40%, respectively. As everywhere, adherence to an organized religion does not preclude a residue of folk religion in which traditions predating Christianization or Islamisation survive.


Monotheism and henotheism are widespread among the African traditional religions,[citation needed] as is polytheism. Many indigenous African societies worship a single God (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai etc.), and some recognize a dual or complementary twin God such as Mawu-Lisa. This they do by paying obeisance to the God through lesser deities (Ogoun, Da, Agwu, Esu, Mbari, etc.). Some societies also deify entities like the earth, the sun, the sea, lightning, or Nature. Each deity has its own priest or priestess.[citation needed] The Ndebele and Shona ethnic groups of Zimbabwe have a trinity - a fundamental family group - made up of God the Father, God the Mother, and God the Son. Among the Fon of West Africa and Benin, God, who is called "Vondu", is androgynous, with both male and female traits.

The Ewe people of southern Ghana have a conception of the high God as a female-male partnership. Mawu who is female is often spoken of as gentle and forgiving. Lisa who is male renders judgment and punishes. Among the Ewe it is believed that when Lisa punishes, Mawu may grant forgiveness. Here we see the complementarity or "supplementarity" (Derrida's term) of male and female that characterizes many of the traditional African religions.

The only example in Africa of a female high Goddess is among the Southern Nuba of Sudan, whose culture has matriarchal traits. The Nuba conceive of the creator Goddess as the "Great Mother" who gave birth to earth and to mankind. (Mbiti, J.S., Introduction to African Religion, Oxford, 1975, p. 53.)

[edit] Practices and rituals
    This article may contain original research or unverified claims. Please improve the article by adding references. See the talk page for details. (March 2008)

Usually, all African traditional religions are considered to be similar by Western people, and are often described as not unlike traditional (pre-Vedic, Vedic, and pre-Abrahamic) religions in most cultures (e.g., Indian, Greek, etc.). 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) and, in some cases, trokosi. The will of God is sought by the believer also through consultation of oracular deities, or divination. In many African traditional religions, there is a belief in a cyclical nature of reality. The living stand between their ancestors and the unborn. Like various other traditional religions, African traditional religions embrace natural phenomena - ebb and tide, waxing and waning moon, rain and drought - and the rhythmic pattern of agriculture. These religions are also not static, not even within their consciousness of natural rhythms. They incorporate the ever-changing actual experience. For example, Sango, the Yoruba god of lightning, assumes responsibility for modern electrical processes. But, these characteristics are only true of some of the traditional African religions.

However, in truth, the commonalities of African religions are as follows:

    * Belief in a Supreme Being, or Creator, which is referred to by a myriad of names in various languages
    * No written scripture (holy texts are oral)
    * Correspondence with the higher being in times of great need (i.e. natural calamities, unexplained deaths)
    * Having a devout connection with their ancestors

Duality of self and gods

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 that mediates or otherwise interacts between the body and the soul.

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

Virtue and vice

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

In some ATRs, 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 the 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.

Religious offices

African indigenous religions, like most indigenous religions, do not have a named and known founder, nor a sacred scripture. Often, such religions are oral traditions.


In some societies, there are intermediaries between individuals or whole communities and specific deities. Variously called Dibia, Babalawo, etc., the priest usually presides at the altar of a particular deity.


Practice of medicine is an important part of indigenous religion. Priests are reputed to have professional knowledge of illness (pathology), surgery, and pharmacology (roots, barks, leaves and herbs). Some of them are also reputed to diagnose and treat mental and psychological problems.

The role of a traditional healer is broader in some respects than that of a contemporary medical doctor. The healer advises in all aspects of life, including physical, psychological, spiritual, moral, and legal matters. He also understands the significance of ancestral spirits and the reality of witches.


They are believed to be capable of bringing about or stopping rain, by manipulating the environment meteorologically (e.g., by burning particular kinds of woods or otherwise attempting to influence movement of clouds).

Holy places and headquarters of religious activities

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

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

Liturgy and rituals

Rituals often occur according to the life cycle of the year. There are herding and hunting rituals as well as those marking the rhythm of agriculture and of human life. There are craft rituals, such as in smithing. There are rituals on building new homes, on the assumption of leadership, etc.


Each deity has an its own rituals, including choice objects of sacrifice; preference for male or female priest-officer; time of day, week, month, or year to make required sacrifice; or specific costumes for priest and supplicant on ritual occasions.


Some deities are perpetual patrons of specific trades and guilds. For example, in Haitian Vodou, Ogoun, the deity of metal, is patron of all professions that use metals as primary material of craft.


The living often honor ancestors by pouring a libation (paying homage), and thus giving them the first "taste" of a drink before the living consume it.

Magic, witchcraft, and sorcery

These are important, different but related, parts of beliefs about interactions between the natural and the supernatural, seen and unseen, worlds. Magicians, witches, shamans and sorcerers are said to have the skills to bring about or manipulate the relations between the two worlds. Abuse of this ability is widely condemned. Magic, witchcraft, and sorcery are parts of many indigenous religions.

Secret societies

They are important part of indigenous religion. Among traditional secret societies are hunting societies whose members are taught not only the physical methods, but also respect for the spiritual aspect of the hunt and use of honorable magical means to obtain important co-operation from the animal hunted.

Members are supposed to have been initiated into, and thus have access to, occultic powers hidden to non-members. Well known secret societies are Egbo, Nsibidi, Mau Mau, Ogboni, Sangbeto, etc.


Some spirits and deities are believed to "mount" some of their priests during special rituals. The possessed goes into a trance-like state, sometimes accompanied by speaking in "tongues" (i.e., uttering messages from the spirit that need to be interpreted to the audience). Possession is usually induced by drumming and dancing.


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, (eg. 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 elaborates mythologies include the native religion of the Yoruba people, see Yoruba mythology.

Traditions by region

North Africa

    * Berber mythology
    * Egyptian mythology (Pre-Christian)

West Africa

    * Akan mythology (Ghana)
    * Ashanti mythology (Ghana)
    * Dahomey (Fon) mythology
    * Efik mythology (Nigeria, Cameroon)
    * Odinani of the Igbo people (Nigeria, Cameroon)
    * Isoko mythology (Nigeria)
    * Yoruba mythology (Nigeria, Benin)

Central Africa

    * Bushongo mythology (Congo)
    * Bambuti (Pygmy) mythology (Congo)
    * Lugbara mythology (Congo)

East Africa

    * Akamba mythology (East Kenya)
    * Dinka mythology (Sudan)
    * Lotuko mythology (Sudan)
    * Masai mythology (Kenya, Tanzania)

Southern Africa

    * Khoikhoi mythology
    * Lozi mythology (Zambia)
    * Tumbuka mythology (Malawi)
    * Zulu mythology (South Africa)


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