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 ancestors, 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 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] African diasporic religions are also practiced in the diaspora in the Americas, such as Candomble, Santeria, and Vodou.[3][9]


African traditional religions and Indigenous African religions are both common terms used to discuss the subject of indigenous faiths found within Africa. Each term is debated among scholars. Some challenge the word "traditional" and prefer "indigenous" since traditional can also include traditional African Islam[10] and Christianity, and are established traditions in African societies.[4][11] Some, such as Mbiti, contend that while using the singular "religion" a plural understanding is needed.[4][12] Some suggest that these thousands of "religions" are only differing expressions of the same basic "religion."[13][14] However, many suggest this is problematic as there is no "genetic" relationship between these plural beliefs to create ideological homology, and the observed similarities can subjectively also be found outside of Africa.


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 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.[15] 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.[16]


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.).[17] Some recognize a dual God and Goddess such as Mawu-Lisa.[18]

Practices and rituals

There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21]

For example, in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir the (Star of Sirius).[22] 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.[23]


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.

South African sangoma performing a divination by reading the bones

Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood[24] or performed on the ground (often within a circle). They are classified in two ways:

  • Casting marked bones, flat pieces of wood, nuts, 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 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.

Duality of person and divinities

Most traditional African religions have a dualistic concept of the person. In the Igbo language, for instance, a person is said to be composed of a body and a soul. The Yoruba language includes 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 traditional religious systems have a similar duality, with 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 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, Mbiti, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience. 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.[25]

Sacred places

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


Many traditional African religions have elaborate stories that explain how the world was created, how humans were 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.

Religious persecution

Traditions by region

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

North Africa

Horn of Africa

Central Africa

Southeast Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

African Diaspora


Further reading

  • 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.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  1. Dr J.O. Awolalu, Studies in Comparative Religion Vol. 10, No. 2. (Spring, 1976).
  2. "African religions".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook Of Global Religions. ISBN 0-19-513798-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 S. Mbiti, John (1991). Introduction to African religion. ISBN 0-435-94002-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. An African Story BBC
  6. 6.0 6.1 Encyclopedia of African Religion (Sage, 2009) Molefi Asante
  7. What is religion? An African understanding
  8. 8.0 8.1 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, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World's Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
  9. Anthony Appiah, Kwame; Louis Gates, Henry (2010). Encyclopedia of Africa. ISBN 0-19-533770-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 1000-year cohabitation and the resulting compromises Josef Stamer
  11. Theology of African Traditional Religion, Dr. Oyeronke Olademo University of Ilorin Ilorin, Kwara State
  12. African religions: a symposium Front Cover Newell Snow Booth, NOK Publishers, 1977
  13. African Traditional Religion in Biblical Perspective By Richard J. Gehman, Page 24
  14. Matthew Clarke (2013) Handbook of Research on Development and Religion p 145 (2013) Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, MA, in his chapter "African Traditional Religion" writes: "So what distinguishes African traditional religion? What practices, beliefs and institutions underpin its spiritual cosmology? How possible is it to treat such a diverse and geographically diffuse number of traditions as a single religion, and just how 'traditional' is ATR?"
  15. Karade, B. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, pages 39–46. Samuel Weiser Inc, 1994
  16. Annemarie De Waal Malefijt (1968) Religion and Culture: an Introduction to Anthropology of Religion, p 220–249, Macmillan
  17. Willie F. Page (2001) Encyclopedia of African History and Culture, Volume 1, p55. Published by Facts on File, ISBN 0-8160-4472-4
  18. Peter C. Rogers (2009) Ultimate Truth, Book 1, p100. Published by AuthorHouse, ISBN 1-4389-7968-1
  19. John S. Mbiti (1990) African Religions & Philosophy 2nd Ed., p 100–101, Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-89591-5
  20. John S. Mbiti (1992) Introduction to African Religion 2nd Ed., p. 68, Published by East African Publishers ISBN 9966-46-928-1
  21. Roger S. Gottlieb (2006) The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, p. 261, Oxford Handbooks Online ISBN 0-19-517872-6
  22. Henry Gravrand (1990) La Civilisation Sereer Pangool, PP 21, 152, Published by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, ISBN 2-7236-1055-1
  23. 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
  25. Resolving the Prevailing Conflicts Between Christianity and African (Igbo) Traditional Religion Through Inculturation, by Edwin Anaegboka Udoye

External links