How the Old African Religions Were Structured

By Vincent Okungu, African Church Information Service (Nairobi), 11 December 2000

Nairobi—The diversity of cultures in Africa was matched by more or less a corresponding number of religious faiths before the coming of Christianity. But these religions varied in structure and were uniquely appealing to the individual communities. They were not recognised and appreciated for what they were by early visitors to the continent. The rites were considered repugnant.

Just as it is difficult to talk of an African culture, so it is equally difficult to talk of a traditional African religion. Africa of the past Century knew and recognised the supreme God, the creator, whom they referred to with different names.

Africa, with its diversity of cultures, had, before the advent of Christianity, religions each with a different structure according to the individual communities. However, these religions were long branded satanic by those who did not appreciate their significance.

Throughout the continent, there were probably five component elements that went into the making of African traditional religions.

These were/are the belief in God; belief in the divinities; belief in spirits; belief in ancestors; and the practice of magic and medicine. These component elements are not invariably identical in Africa.

Certain elements were more pronounced in certain areas than in others. For example, the case of divinities obtained very conspicuously over certain wide areas while in others it obtained rather tenuously, and still others, practically not at all.

This confirms the slight, if not profound structural differences in the African religions. God, to both the African of the past Century and of today was and is a reality, and each community has a name for God, names which are unique to the deity.

For example, there is the Yoruba's Olodumare and Igbo's Chukwu, meaning great spirit, among others. Still, in many African societies, God is seen as unique, the absolute controller of the universe and the only one.

Scholars such as Idowu Bolaji have described West Africa as the home of divinities, yet there are variations from a very crowded pantheon to a very thinly populated one.

The divinities came into being in the nature of things with regard to the divine ordering of the universe. Orisamla, (archdivinity among the Yoruba) derivation partaking of the very nature and metaphysical attributes of Olodumareny, hence he was known as deity's son or deputy with powers and authority of royal sonship.

This is why the Bahia community compared their cult with Christianity and identified with Jesus Christ. Olokun in Benin is known as the son of the Osanobwa, the son rested with power and majesty of his father.

These divinities, according to some African groups, were bought into being as functionaries in the theocratic government of the universe.

According to Dahomey beliefs, Mawu-Lisa (the arch divinity) apportioned the kingdoms of the sky, the sea, and earth among six of his offspring and to the seventh, Legba (divine messenger and the inspector general).

He assigned the liaison officer between Mawu-Lisa and other offspring, and between the offspring themselves. Such structuring misses in non-West African societies.

Other African societies categorise divinities as ministries each with a portfolio in the deity's monarchical government. The divinities under various genetic names formed the pantheon in each locality.

Over each pantheon was an arch divinity closely linked to the attributes of deity. For example, Orisanla was the deputy of Oludumare, and derived his attributes from those of the deity.

Ala, the arch divinity among the Igbo was variously referred to as the wife or the daughter, or more popularly as the terrestrial expression of Chukwu.

Divinities and ancestors, though came under the general nomenclature of spirits, they formed a separate homogeneity; they were domesticated spirits. But African religious recognised other spirits that inhabited natural objects and creatures such as spirits of rocks, sacred trees, rivers, forests.

These were abstract powers, shadows or vapours, which took on human shape; they were immaterial and incorporeal beings. The Yoruba and the Igbo believed in another curious category of spirits known to them respectively as abiku and ogbanje. These spirits were born-to-die.

There was and still is a belief that these are wandering spirits which specialise in the sadistic mischief of finding their way into the wombs to be born in order to die. The belief the guardian spirit or man's double is also evident in many West African societies.

Known as ori among the Yoruba, chi among the Igbo, kra (Akwapimakan) and ehi (Edo), it means that the essence of man's personality became a sort of split entity which acted as man's spiritual counterpart/double as among the Akan, Igbo and Yoruba, or that the guardian spirit was a separate entity as known in Edo. This double was capable of bringing fortunes or misfortunes to man.

The relationship between the living and the dead in African religious context is important but scholars dispute the word worship as the best term to describe this relationship.

Some scholars insist that the cult of ancestors has no distinct religious significance but the relationship of the living and the ancestors is in a sense of social solidarity, kinship ties, an occasion at least by natural affection and filial piety.

Ancestral spirits were not worshiped. The Swazi addressed them in much the same way as they speak to the living. The Ndembu of Zambia had their religion structured into four components. At the helm of spiritual hierarchy was an otiose high God (Nzambi), creator of the world. He was not worshipped in prayer or rite.

Second were ancestor's spirits (shades) with power to bestow the goods of life on their living kinsfolk or withhold them. There was belief in intrinsic efficacy of certain animal and vegetable substances (medicines) to work good or harm, and at the bottom was the antisocial power of witches and sorcerer, both are the perverted destroyer of life.

The Lozi of Zambia had the supreme creator God, Nyambe/Mulimu, at the helm, followed in power and importance into royal and non-royal ancestors (bulimu in both cases).

At the bottom were the muluti (shadows or spirits). The royal graves and ancestor cult received prayers and sacrifices addressed to the spirits of the ancestor kings.

Though fewer and fewer individuals still practice African traditional religions, it is nevertheless fundamental to note that any religion exists to carry the load of human spiritual, physical, emotional and psychological needs or frustrations. All said, it is the belief in the supreme creator God that gives human life meaning.