Traditional African religion

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The traditional beliefs and practices of African people include various traditional religions.[1][2] Generally, these traditions are oral rather than scriptural,[3][4] include belief in a supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of the dead, use of magic, and traditional medicine.[5][6] The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural.[6][7]

While adherence to traditional religion in Africa is extremely hard to estimate, due to syncretism with Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, practitioners are estimated to number over 100 million, or at least 10 percent of the population of the continent.[8] Afro-American religions are practiced in the Americas such as Candomblé, Santería, and Haitian Vodou.[3][9]


An early 20th century Igbo medicine man in Nigeria, West Africa

Practitioners of traditional religions in Sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries, and were estimated to number over 100 million,[8] although the largest religions in Africa are Christianity and Islam.


West and Central African religious practices generally manifest themselves in religious 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 region, 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.[10] When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, practitioners 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.[11]


Followers of traditional African religions pray to various spirits as well as to their ancestors. These secondary spirits serve as intermediaries between humans and the primary God. Most African societies believe in a single Supreme Creator God (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.).[12] Some recognize a dual God and Goddess such as Mawu-Lisa.[13]

Practices and rituals[edit]

Bakongo masks from the Kongo Central

There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions.[14] Often, the supreme 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, cooked food, flowers, semi-precious stones, precious metals, etc.). The will of God is sought by the believer also through consultation of oracular deities, or divination.[15] 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.[16]

For example, in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir the (Star of Sirius).[17] 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.[18]


Main article: African divination
Early 20th century Yoruba divination board

Since Africa is a large continent with many ethnic groups and cultures, there is not one single technique of casting divination. The practice of casting may be done with small objects, such as bones, cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood.

Traditional healer of South Africa performing a divination by reading the bones

Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood or performed on the ground (often within a circle).

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

Virtue and vice[edit]

Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with carrying out obligations of 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 their primary supreme creator, Ngai, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience. Traditionally, as now, the Kikuyu were monotheists, believing in a unique and omnipotent God whom they called Ngai. The word, is related to the Maasai word Enkai, and was borrowed by both the Kikuyu and Kamba. God is also known as Mungu, Murungu, or Mulungu (a variant of a word meaning God which is found as far south as the Zambesi of Zambia), and is sometimes given the title Mwathani or Mwathi (the greatest ruler), which comes from the word gwatha, meaning to rule or reign with authority. Ngai is the creator and giver of all things, 'the Divider of the Universe and Lord of Nature'. He gave birth to the human community, created the first Kikuyu communities, and provided them with all the resources necessary for life: land, rain, plants and animals. He - for Ngai is male - cannot be seen, but is manifest in the sun, moon, stars, comets and meteors, thunder and lighting, rain, in rainbows and in the great fig trees ( mugùmò ) that served as places of worship and sacrifice, and which marked the spot at Mukurue wa Gathanga where Gikuyu and Mumbi - the ancestors of the Kikuyu in the oral legend - first settled. Yet Ngai is not the distant God that we know in the West. He had human characteristics, and although some say that he lives in the sky or in the clouds, they also say that he comes to earth from time to time to inspect it, bestow blessings and mete out punishment. When he comes he rests on Mount Kenya and four other sacred mountains. Thunder is interpreted to be the movement of God, and lightning is God's weapon by means of which he clears the way when moving from one sacred place to another. Other people believed that Ngai's abode was on Mount Kenya, or else 'beyond' its peaks. Ngai, says one legend, made the mountain his resting place while on an inspection tour of earth. He then took the first man, Gikuyu, to the top to point out the beauty of the land he was giving him.In traditional 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 God or malevolent spirits.

In many cases, Africans who have converted to other religions have still kept up their traditional customs and practices, combining them in a syncretic way.[19]

Sacred places[edit]

Some sacred or holy locations for traditional religions include Nri-Igbo, the Point of Sangomar, Ife, Oyo, Dahomey, Benin City, Ouidah, Nsukka, Kanem-Bornu, and Igbo-Ukwu among others.

Religious persecution[edit]

Traditions by region[edit]

This list is limited to a few well-known traditions.

North Africa[edit]

Horn of Africa[edit]

Central Africa[edit]

East African[edit]

Southern Africa[edit]

West Africa[edit]

African Diaspora[edit]


Further reading[edit]

  • Encyclopedia of African Religion, - Molefi Asante, Sage Publications, 1412936365
  • Julian Baldick (1997). Black God: the Afroasiatic roots of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions. Syracuse University Press: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
  • Alisa LaGamma (2000). Art and oracle: African art and rituals of divination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 978-0-87099-933-8. [dead link]
  • Peavy, D., (2009)."Kings, Magic & Medicine". Raleigh, NC: SI.
  • Peavy, D., (2016). The Benin Monarchy, Olokun & Iha Ominigbon. Umewaen: Journal of Benin & Edoid Studies: Osweego, NY.


  1. ^ Dr J.O. Awolalu, Studies in Comparative Religion Vol. 10, No. 2. (Spring, 1976).
  2. ^ "African religions". 
  3. ^ a b Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook Of Global Religions. ISBN 0-19-513798-1. 
  4. ^ S. Mbiti, John (1991). Introduction to African religion. ISBN 0-435-94002-3. 
  5. ^ An African Story BBC
  6. ^ a b Encyclopedia of African Religion (Sage, 2009) Molefi Kete Asante
  7. ^ What is religion? An African understanding
  8. ^ a b Britannica Book of the Year (2003), Encyclopædia Britannica (2003) ISBN 978-0-85229-956-2 p.306
    According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 480,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham, A World Religions Reader (1996) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture (see Amadu Jacky Kaba). The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, (June 2005), discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopediae, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed on figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here,[dead link] as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World's Fastest-Growing Religions,[dead link] Foreign Policy, May 2007.
  9. ^ Anthony Appiah, Kwame; Louis Gates, Henry (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. ISBN 0-19-533770-0. 
  10. ^ Karade, B. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, pages 39–46. Samuel Weiser Inc, 1994
  11. ^ Annemarie De Waal Malefijt (1968) Religion and Culture: an Introduction to Anthropology of Religion, p 220–249, Macmillan
  12. ^ Willie F. Page (2001) Encyclopedia of African History and Culture, Volume 1, p55. Published by Facts on File, ISBN 0-8160-4472-4
  13. ^ Peter C. Rogers (2009) Ultimate Truth, Book 1, p100. Published by AuthorHouse, ISBN 1-4389-7968-1
  14. ^ John S. Mbiti (1990) African Religions & Philosophy 2nd Ed., p 100–101, Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-89591-5
  15. ^ John S. Mbiti (1992) Introduction to African Religion 2nd Ed., p. 68, Published by East African Publishers ISBN 9966-46-928-1
  16. ^ Roger S. Gottlieb (2006) The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, p. 261, Oxford Handbooks Online ISBN 0-19-517872-6
  17. ^ Henry Gravrand (1990) La Civilisation Sereer Pangool, PP 21, 152, Published by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, ISBN 2-7236-1055-1
  18. ^ Simone Kalis (1997) Médecine Traditionnelle, Religion et Divination Chez les Seereer Siin du Sénégal: La Coonaissance de la Nuit, L'Harmattan, ISBN 2-7384-5196-9
  19. ^ Resolving the Prevailing Conflicts Between Christianity and African (Igbo) Traditional Religion Through Inculturation, by Edwin Anaegboka Udoye

External links[edit]