Home INTRODUCTION TO AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION GOD IN AFRICA: CONCEPT, ATTRIBUTES AND WORSHIP

GOD IN AFRICA: CONCEPT, ATTRIBUTES AND WORSHIP

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1.0 INTRODUCTION

In the earlier Module you have studied the preliminary issues surrounding African Traditional Religion. This has to do with issues like nomenclature and the structure of the religion. In this module, you will begin to read about the major concepts. In this unit, you will be studying about the concept of God in Africa. To do this, representative groups like the Yoruba, Akan and Igbo concepts will be studied. After this, we will examine briefly the attributes and the worship of God in Africa.

2.0 OBJECTIVES

By the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  1. compare the concept of God among the Yoruba, Igbo and Akan 
  2. discuss the attributes of God in African belief 
  3. discuss how God is worshipped among Africans 
  4. have a representative knowledge of African belief about God. 

3.0 MAIN CONTENT

3.1 Yoruba Concept of God

Though it has often been said that the idea of God among Africans has been influenced by the advent of Christianity, one has to say that this is not completely true as Africans have their own ideas of God prior to the advent of the Westerners. This fact can be corroborated by the names given to God by the various people groups. Let us begin by examining the Yoruba names of God. The Yoruba have three distinct names for God namely: Olodumare, Olorun and Olofin-Orun.

Olodumare is a word that is made up of three clear words: Olo, Odu and Are. Olo in the actual sense is “oni” which because of the beginning of the next word with vowel ‘o’ has to change its form to “o/o”. The meaning is ‘owner’ or ‘Lord of something’. Odu can mean either of two things: main heading or chief or principal heading. This is why a full cell in the ayo board is called ‘odu’. The combination of these two words would then mean “the one who owns the principal thing” which in this case may be authority or power. There is a little ambiguity on the last word. This is because of the presence of the letter `ni. With this, the word could be taken as one word “mare” which will mean “do not go”, hence indicating the unchangeable nature of the Lord. The presence of the same letter ‘in’ could also be taken as a particle indicating “plus” which would then indicate that the one who owns the principal thing and also owns the ‘are'”. Are in this sense would mean the symbol of uniqueness that is on the original crown of the King. If this is the case, as your teacher in this case holds, Olodumare is the name that signifies that God is the Lord and Supreme Owner of everything including all power and authority (as symbolized by the scepter).

Olorun also is a combination of `o/o’ and orun. Olo has been explained as in Olodumare above. The only other word that needs to engage our attention is `orun’ Orun’ is the Yoruba word translated ‘heaven’. The combination of these words will literally mean that God is the owner of heaven. This name depicts the transcendence of God and his sovereignty. The last name which is rare in the common parlance is used more in liturgy. It is called “Olofin-Orun”. With this name, the highest office in heaven is thus given to God. It also has a literal meaning of the one who owns the palace of heaven. Thus God is seen as the Supreme Ruler who abides in heaven.

3.2 Igbo Concept of God

Like the Yoruba people, the Igbo names for God are also indicative not only of their concept for God but also of the attributes of God. The most common Igbo name for God is Chi, a prefix which can be used with various suffixes to indicate the attributes of God. M. 0. Ene, in his article titled “Chi” has this to say:

The concept of CHI, the Supreme Spirit or the formidable force of creation, is common in many religions and in scientific circles. The Igbo religion, Qclinani, is no exception. The name and the nature of the Force differ in many known beliefs. The Igbo ancestors probably preoccupied themselves with the arduous analyses of the nature of Chi. They tried to establish an acceptable notion of the nature of Chi. In the end, they most humbly declared that Chi exists (Chi but to know the nature of di), the Force would be the end of knowledge, hence the name Amaamaamachaamacha. This attribute endures to this day. We know God to exist, but no one really knows the true nature of God. All claims to the contrary are deep delusions.

From this submission, it is clear that to the Igbo people, the concept of God as Creator and also as one who cannot be understood by man stands out prominent. Two names would be treated here and these are: Chineke and Chukwu. Chineke is a combination of `chi’ and ‘eke’ with a connecting particle ‘n’. It literally means the “Spirit that creates”. It however has about four variant meanings as suggested by Ene. The word “Chineke” can be broken down as follows:

(a) Chi na Eke God and the Creator
(b) Chi na-eke God who creates (God creates)
(c) Chi n ‘Eke God in (the morning of) Creation
(d) God, mother of Creation (God the true Chi nne Eke Creator)

Whichever applies, nothing should detract from the fact that in Igbo belief system, God is the genderless spirit that sits at the summit of the spectrum of all deities and spirits known and unknown. The other common derivative of Chineke is Chukwu. It is the combination of chi and ukwu. Ukwu is an Igbo word which means ‘great’; hence chukwu means the Great Source Being.

SELF-ASSESSMENT EXERCISE 1

Compare the Yoruba and the Igbo concept of God.

3.3 Akan Concept of God

The Akan have a “high” reverence for God and He is commonly referred to as Nyame. Although God is considered omnipotent and omniscient, the Akan have several “praise names” which vary according to His numerous attributes. God is also perceived as an active Being who manifests Himself through what He does. Two prominent Akan names for God also stand out. The first name is Onyame or Nyame. This is a combination of two words, namely nya and me. Nya means “to get” and “me” means “to be full”. Literally, Nyame would then mean “If you get him you are satisfied”. Through this name the Akan belief that God is the dependable one who satisfies all the needs of humanity both physical and spiritual stands out. The second name is “Odomankoma”. This word is also a combination of Odom and Ankoma. It means God is the author, owner and donor of an inexhaustible abundance of things. As indicated earlier, there are so many other names that describe the attributes of God.

3.4 The Attributes of God

While there are local variations, we can identify common elements that define African concept of God’s attributes. People tell countless stories and myths to explain how the world began. First and foremost, this is a created universe and God is the supreme Creator. It is a religious universe, with its beginning in and through God. It is governed and filled by God, and there is no end to it. Of central importance is the creation and sustenance of life, with human life being most prominent. God is the Source and Sustainer of life. This is why the Yoruba call God, Eleda’ (Creator or Owner of Creation); the Akan call God Odomankoma or Borebore which can be interpreted as Creator, Excavator and Originator among others.

To the African, God is unknowable. The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania call God, Engai which can be translated “the Unseen One, the Unknown One”. Likewise, among the Tenda of Guinea, God is called Hounounga which also means “the Unknown”. People affirm that God is invisible, which is another way of asserting that they do not know God in any physical form. Subsequently, nowhere in Africa do we find physical images or representations of God, the Creator of the universe.

Another thought is that God is self-existent. God’s unique nature and essence emerge in such a way as to be distinguished from all other beings. While these other beings are created and dependent on God, God is self-existent. The Zulu of South Africa point this out clearly, when they call God uZivelele, which means “He who is of himself, the Self-existent One”.
God is both distant and near. Despite the fact that he is the wholly other yet individually and collectively, people approach God and have communion with God. They speak of God in personal terms, as: Father, Friend, Giver of children, rain and all good things, God of our ancestors, God of our forefathers and mothers, God of the skies (heavens), Great Elder, Great One, Healer, Helper, Mother, Parent, Protector, Ruler of the universe, Saviour, the Judge of all, the Just One and the Kind One among others. This is an affirmation, that God is personal and unique. The many personal and attributive names of God make this point clear. Other attributes are expressed directly through prayers, invocations and names of people and places.

People also depict God in ethical terms, and express this (as well as other attributes) in different ways, such as proverbs and short statements. For example. The Akan say: “God is not asleep”. This
proverb affirms the belief that God sees and knows everything; and in the case of wrongdoing, the justice of God is unfailing. In another proverb they affirm God’s providence and mercy: “If God gives you sickness, God gives you its cure.” Equipped with such a word of assurance, they take courage in the face of hardships (like sickness, failure or danger). People are convinced that God loves them, and some simply point out that, if God did not love them God would not have created them.

The Pygmy prayer-hymn is a clear confession of the eternal nature of God with many attributes about God. They pray-sing:
In the beginning was Khmvoum (God)
Today is God,
Tomorrow will be God.
Who can make an image of God?
He has no body.
He is as a word that comes out of your mouth.
That word! It is no more,
It is past, and still it lives,
So is God!

According to Mbiti: The overall picture of God is that of One who is above gender classification, neither male nor female. To grasp some aspects of God, people find anthropomorphic concepts useful and, according to the situation, may speak of God in male or female terms. They express their belief in and awareness of God through prayers, invocations, sacrifices and offerings, praise songs, and dedication of children to God. In some areas priests and priestesses officiate at religious ceremonies, pray on behalf of their communities, and pass on the theological, philosophical, and practical knowledge of their religion.

SELF-ASSESSMENT EXERCISE 2

Citing various examples, discuss the attributes of God in African Traditional Religion.

3.5 Worship of God among Africans

The acts of worshipping God vary from society to society. It includes Sacrifices and Offering, Prayers, invocations, blessing and salutations, expressions of worship, religious intermediaries and specialists, and the occasion and place of worship. These have sought to address the issues of what, when, how and where on the worship of God in the traditional society. Let us look at two different approaches to the worship of God in the African society:

The Yoruba is a typical example of an African society with no organized direct public worship of God. It has to be said however that elaborate indirect worship and private worship abound. Since the divinities are regarded as the messengers of Olodumare, the Yoruba belief is that once these divinities have been worshipped and sacrificed to, they in turn will transmit what is necessary of the worship and sacrifice to Olodumare. This is because as it is known and accepted in their socio-political environment, the King cannot be approached directly except through the various ward chiefs who formed the King’s cabinet.

However, outside ritual contexts the Yoruba recognize Olodumare’s readiness to intervene in human affairs and do make direct appeals to him. This is done especially in periods of personal crises and oppression or injustice. Redress is sought mostly in the courts of Olodumare.

The form of direct worship of Olodumare that is common among the Yoruba is that of pouring libation of cold water and praying with kola in the centre of a circle drawn with white chalk. This is reportedly done by a priest in the palace of the Ooni (King) of Ife on a daily basis while individuals can carry this out on instruction from the oracle. However as Bolaji Idowu opines, this direct worship of Olodumare is dying out gradually.

The Akan is a typical example of an African society with elaborate public worship of God. According to S. R. Rattray, the Akan has shrines, temples and priests that are dedicated to the service and regular worship of Onyame Almost every Akan compound has an altar for Onyame at which private devotions and daily offerings are made to God. The private altar is made of a forked branch of a tree called God’s tree. A basin or pot is placed in between the branches and it contains an axe called God’s axe that is used to bless the members of the house. Apart from these, private altars are also what is called the personal altars. The weekly worship of God among the Akan holds on Saturday which is known as Onyame’s day.

SELF-ASSESSMENT EXERCISE 3

How do the Africans worship God?

4.0 CONCLUSION

As we have stated earlier, it would amount to ignorance to say that Africans do not have an idea of God, prior to the coming of the Europeans. As you have seen above, the Africans have their belief about God that is akin to what we might have learnt in systematic theology. Though, these are not written down, but the names given to God and even their children express these truths about God. Manner of worship may also differ from locality to locality but all the same God is being worshipped.

5.0 SUMMARY

The following are the major points that you have learnt in this unit:

  1. Among most African people groups, God is seen as the source of all things. 
  2. The socio-political organization of the African society goes a long way to determine the worship op God. 
  3. There is the indirect worship of God, which is more prevalent. 
  4. There is the direct worship of God. 

6.0 TUTOR-MARKED ASSIGNMENT

Discuss the worship of God in the African Traditional Religion.

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