African Traditional Religion
–Tribes vary in size; few hundred to hundreds of thousands; no easy method to
•A oral tradition
–Myths, legends, folklore, names, riddles, blessing or curses, oaths, spells,
–There is no “systematic theology”
•Art forms; sacred institutions
•Religion is intensely “experiential”
•African do not know how to live without religion
•All of life is ritualized
• One supreme God (WS 69)
• God is real to the people; not a concept
• Names of God are “theophoric” (affirm God’s existence and praise His attributes)
• We give God “names”
– He who thunders from the east
– He who brings the rain
– He who makes the trees to fall, etc.
• A “withdrawn” God
• There is a Supreme God, but the African experience is more on a practical, real
everyday level; a pluralistic world of ancestors, spirits, magical powers, etc.
• Everything was created by God; all things created are necessary to human
– Especially food and water – things most important to people in their daily
• There are many creation myths
• Spirit world is real and very much involved with this life (and people are very
involved with the spirit world)
• All of life is arranged in a hierarchy of souls and powers
– Supreme being
– Nature divinities
– Magical powers
– Daily life is involved with “lesser gods”
• [Experience teaching “resurrection”]
• A dominant thread in the fabric of African myth and ritual is stories of
creation or beginnings, especially of human beings
• The subject of nearly all African mythology:
– How the first people came to be
– How they lived
– What they experienced
• God created humans as male and female; original state was innocent (WS 144a)
• The human being has a body and a variety of souls ( a unit, no conflict, no Greek
• An existence-in-relation (WS 189)
• All of life is arranged in a hierarchy of souls and powers
• The human being is a living force in active communion with other living forces in
• The true concept of being human is lost if the person is considered in isolation
• True individuality and character cannot come in isolation, but from integration
• There is a general African sense that every moment involves transcendental forces
in delicate equilibrium, many of which are more powerful than we are.
• Progressive integration of all roles and responsibilities (WS 238)
• One is not considered a full human being until she/he has gone through the whole
process of birth, naming, puberty and initiation, marriage and family ---- and death.
• We must harmonize with all the forces in the world
forces - person - forces
• These transcendental forces are the immediate focus of belief and practice
• One usually approaches God through intermediaries
• The human being is a microcosm
• The universe was created in the image of the human being
• Greatest evil is death, disease, war, famine, enemies
• There are many myths of “paradise lost” or “withdrawal of God” (WS 144; 660)
• “Death” (spiritual death?) is the human problem; it is the result of human sin
• African thought does not conceive the source of evil to be a fallen spirit like
Satan. Human rebellion disrupted God’s plan for an orderly universe.
• More immediate causes of problems: disharmony with nature, society, and the
powers that be; breaking a taboo; lack of integration; displeasure of the
ancestors; the work of an evil spirit, witch, or sorcerer
• Evil spirits work in groups; and operate according to different age groups
• A witch or sorcerer in an inverted or reverse human being; anti-social and anti-
• Often, black magic or personality is used to harm others
• Even in the worst sorcerer, there is potential for good magic; witches are utterly
evil. They use the power of their personality and operate outside their body.
• A variety of roles for protection
– Witchdoctor, medicine man, priest
• A variety of powers and spells to protect and injure
• The medicine man (often knows the secrets of healing) – a carefully guarded secret.
• The desire for power, safety, protection, and life is the driving force in African
• There are so many ways in which one can get hurt or injured or lose one’s soul or
have it stolen, etc.
• No real concern for personal salvation
• Self-realization (complete maturity=healing) comes through participation in the
socio-cosmic web of relationships first laid down by God and the primal beings.
• Integration is important, not isolation
– [the three blessings allow for full integration]
• The African image of the happy life is one in which God is among the
people, His presence supplying them with food, shelter, peace,
immortality, and a moral code.
• WS 525a
• Self-realization: participation in the socio-cosmic web of relationships
• WS 114; 123; 125; 179; 187; 280; 344; 515***; 626b; 655
• Obey the ancestors
• Honor parents and relatives
• Be loyal and responsible (to the others to whom you are connected)
• Fundamental African values: fertility and enhanced life
• One must avoid breaking taboos or norms (this is a sin)
• Taboos relate to fetishes and charms, witches and sacred kings, priests,
women in childbirth, ghosts, corpses, etc.
• Life rituals: birth, naming ceremony, coming of age, marriage, fatherhood,
advancement to a higher social class; occupational specialization; death.
• The rituals which accompany the major stages of maturation illustrate the ever-
widening circles of the self and its increasing definition.
One’s destiny is to be an “ancestor”
• To be an “ancestor” one must live a good life and have a “good” death so
that they are remembered by their descendants.
• Reincarnation is a frequent belief (one wants to reincarnate or be one of the
“lively dead”), although the dead are feared and their return is often seen as
a threat to the living (han?)
– [the phenomenon of ‘Clophus’]
• Once out of memory, the process of dying is complete, the personal name
is lost, as is the personality, and one becomes an “it.” The worst fate is to
be in isolation, like a wandering ghost, completely cut off from the
• There is little speculation about last things (nature of the after life,
immortality, or final judgment).
• Speculation about human existence is focused on the here-and-now.