African traditional religion

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 African native societies. These traditional African religions also play a large part in the cultural understanding and awareness of the people of their communities.

While each religion differs from the next in many ways, some main similarities exist, including:
* A distant "all god" with intermediaries acting between us and it
* Spirit or god possession
* The gift of offerings and sacrifices to the gods
* The use of altars
* Ancestor veneration/worship
* Community leadership by a divine or semi-divine king or queen

Classification and statistics (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,Fact|date=October 2007 and there are also polytheism and animism. 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.Fact|date=October 2007The 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, as a conception of false gods. 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.)

Practices and rituals

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 belief in hell, purgatory, or anything of the like
*No written scripture (holy texts are oral)
*No prophets
*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, Uida, 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, 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.

ecret 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. 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

;West Africa
*Akan mythology (Ghana)
*Ashanti mythology (Ghana)
*Dahomey (Fon) mythology
*Efik mythology (Nigeria, Cameroon)
*Igbo mythology (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)

External links

* [ 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)
* [ Mami Wata]
* [ Oyotunji Village]
* [ Roots and Rooted] For those that love traditional African Religion


* "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."

Further reading

* 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 Conteporary 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).
*S. Solagbade Popoola, "Ikunle Abiyamo: It is on Bent Knees that I gave Birth" (2007 Asefin Media Publication)

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