31 min read


In this unit you will be studying about the religious leaders that exist in the African Traditional Religion. These are the various leaders that see to the smooth running of the affairs of the various religions they upheld. In Africa, three major offices exist: the priest, the medicine-man and the diviner. We will be focusing on these offices in the main body of this unit.


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

  1. identify and describe a priest 
  2. evaluate the functions of a medicine-man 
  3. compare and contrast the person and the functions of a priest and medicine-man 
  4. discuss the role of the diviner as a religious leader. 


3.1 The Priest : 

A priest is one who is especially consecrated to the service of a divinity and through whom worship, prayer, sacrifice, or other service is offered to the object of worship, and pardon, blessing, or deliverance is obtained by the worshiper. In earliest history the functions of priest were discharged by the head of the family; later the office became a public one and the office of the priest became a celebrated central office. As a result of the diversity of language, each locality has a different name for the priest. For example, the Yoruba call the priest, Babalorisa; the Twi say Obosomfo; the Fon use the word Voduno and the Igbo use Atama.

The office of the priest in African Traditional Religion is actually gender free. This is to say that both men and women can hold the office of the priest. Priests may have been set apart from birth or called to the service of priesthood after some time in life. It is important to know however that there are two types of priests in Africa: the lay priests and the professional priests.

The lay priests are the heads of families both male and female who are to exercise the functions of the priest for the family. They officiate at the domestic or the ancestral shrines. By virtue of this office, they approach the ancestors on behalf of their houses or family clans. They are the natural link between the living and the invisible ancestors. Priesthood in this category is not hereditary but is based on age as the most senior member of the family clan automatically takes the position.
The professional priests on the other hand are concerned with the main divinity cults in Africa. Priests in this category are usually set aside from birth or called to the task. Apart from these, there are priests who have inherited the position from their parents. In this case the priest to be

would have been understudying the parent priest in order to learn all the secrets of the cult and at the death of the priest step into the shoes as the next priest. You also have to note that there are communities in Africa where the king is regarded as the deputy of God on earth. In this case, he has the divine right to undertake certain priestly functions. He thus may lead in rituals and ceremonies that involve the whole community.

In most cases where the priesthood is non-hereditary, certain signs are noted from the priest-elect as an indication that a particular divinity has chosen that person as a priest. The signs are usually varied and would certainly include strange behaviours from the person. For example, a priest-to-be can disappear only to reappear on the seventh day. In most cases, there would be no coherent explanation about his whereabouts within those days. When this happens, a diviner is usually consulted to ascertain the truth of the situation. Immediately it is confirmed that the person has been chosen by the divinity as a priest, the installation ceremony would be carried out.

Training of priests in Africa is done through apprenticeship which may last for as long as seven years. The priest-elect is usually affiliated to an older priest when he is young for proper training. While in training, them priest-elect undertakes series of training in occult knowledge as well as proper performance of public rituals. The priest-designate is also during training subjected to strict observance of the taboos of the divinity and of the community; chastity and asceticism becomes the order of the day while there is abstention from certain types of food. Dresses that are used during this period are usually white.

The primary duty of the priest in the African community is that of a mediator. The priest is expected to be in touch with both the divinities and man. The priest is one that is able to hear and speak on behalf of both the deity and man and knows the two intimately. It is the duty of the priest to offer sacrifices on behalf of human beings and also turn to bless them in the name of the divinity.

The priest also intercedes with the divinity on behalf of humanity. The common belief in Africa is that any form of misfortune and pestilence is an expression of the displeasure of the divinities and the continuation of this is an indication of the ineffectiveness of the priest’s mediation between them and the divinities. It is also the priest’s duty to offer up sacrifices, makes prayers and present offerings at the same time. The priest leads the worship during the annual festivals of the divinity. As a custodian of religion and guardian of religious treasures and knowledge, the priest looks after the emblems and symbols of the divinity and sees to it that they are properly kept in the prescribed condition.

It is also expected of the priest to uphold custom and traditional practices related to the divinity. Since the priest is the one in possession of the taboos surrounding the cult of the divinity, it falls on the priest to ensure that these taboos are not just observed but that they are also properly and correctly transmitted.

It is also expected of the priest to function as a diviner some of the time. It has to be noted that the divinity responsible for the cult of divination is different, when the issues borders on a particular divinity, then the priest may be looked upon to explain the mysteries surrounding the divinity he stands for as a priest. At times also, the priest may have to function as an herbalist or medicine-man.

Apart from this, the traditional religion priest is an important figure in the society. Most of the time, the priest is expected to be present at the cabinet meeting because membership of the community council is automatic. They are sought for as advisors on issues bordering on people’s life vis-à-vis the society. They also settle conflicts and enforce morality in the community.

The priest also features prominently during the installation of a new king for the community. The priest is also expected to officiate and perform the necessary rituals at the death of the king.

In summary, one can say that life in a traditional African setting revolves around the priest as they feature prominently in the social and religious life of the community and of individuals.

3.2 The Medicine Men

Medicine-men abound in the African society and they are called by various names depending on the language of the community. They are also referred to as herbalists and traditional doctors. The Igbo calls them dibia, the Yoruba calls them onisegun and the Twi calls them samankwafo. More often than not, the male sex is predominantly found in this profession but there have been women also that have featured as herbalists. One fundamental belief in Africa concerning the functions of the medicine-men is that all diseases and misfortune and even accidents are caused mysteriously either through the agency of witches, sorcerers and the effect of evil words. As a result, they are to be treated religiously. Consequently, the African medicine-man does not see his art and profession as exclusive of religion as is the practice in the West now. Thus, going side-by-side with the use of roots and herbs is the invocation of religious and mysterious powers. It is in line with this prevalent belief that there must always be at least one accessible and effective medicine-man in every African community.

There is no fixed rule governing the call of the medicine-man. The call may come when he is young and unmarried or in the middle or later stage of life. It is not also out of place to see the medicine-man passing on his powers and knowledge to his children, be they male or female. There are also some that are specifically chosen in mysterious circumstances to become medicine-men. Finally there are those who only feel interested and walk into the field to seek knowledge and are thus initiated. Whichever the means through which they become medicine-men, they are expected to be trustworthy, upright, moral, friendly, willing and ready to serve. They are not expected to charge exorbitantly but remain affordable to the poor.

Before any medicine-man can perform as a professional, he would have undergone training through apprenticeship from older medicine-men. It is during this apprenticeship period that they are taught the medicinal value, quality and use of various herbs, leaves, roots, fruits, barks and grasses. They are also exposed to the values of other objects like minerals, dead insects, bones, feathers, powders, animal excreta and shells among others. They are also taught the causes, cure and prevention of diseases and other forms of sufferings like barrenness, failures in undertakings, poor farm yield and other forms of misfortune. They are also taught how to combat witches and sorcerers and the way they can turn the spirit world into advantageous use in the battle against evil. When the training is over, they are formally and publicly initiated into the guild of professional medicine-men. It is after this ceremony that they are recognized as medicine-men.

Medicine-men are first and foremost expected to combat witchcraft and other forms of social evil. This they do by frustrating their efforts at afflicting people with diseases and at times entering into open confrontation with them.  Since their primary training is the art of healing, they are also expected to be able to unravel the cause of diseases and misfortunes. They are expected to find out who is behind the sickness if it is not caused naturally. After this they are expected to diagnose and apply the right treatment of the ailment and apply a means that will prevent the ailment from recurring. Thirdly, they are also expected to function as diviners. It has to be stated

however that not all medicine-men are diviners but it is expedient for them to be in order to function properly and as expected by the society. By virtue of their profession they are expected to have access to the forces of nature and other forms of knowledge unknown or little known by the public.

Medicine-men also function as aids-giver in that they work to ensure the success of people in their various endeavours. They can provide needed medicine for increased farm productivity, treat impotence and various illness as well as barrenness and pre-natal and ante-natal care. In fact they work to ensure the all round success of humanity.
It has to be mentioned that as it exists in all other profession even to date, there are times that some unscrupulous elements within the medicine-men that uses their knowledge to the disadvantage of others. Usually this is the general knowledge that exists about medicine-men today. But it is professionally unethical for medicine-men to behave this way. In fact, it is believed among the Yoruba as an example that a medicine-man that hurts people will not be prosperous.

3.3 The Priests and Medicine Men Compared

Despite the similarities in the functions of these two seemingly indispensable religious leaders in African Traditional Religion, they are quite different personalities. In this section, you will learn the differences between the two of them and they are as follows:

  1. The priest is more functional in the various social gatherings of the society than the medicine-man. 
  2. The priest lives within the society at a place in time while the medicine man more often than not is itinerant. 
  3. The priest has an established shrine while the medicine-men have none. 
  4. The medicine-man carries both the knowledge and power of spiritual and chemical substances while the priest may be limited to spiritual powers alone. The priesthood is an institution while the medicine-art is a profession. 
  5. The medicine-man operates empirically using substances that can be seen accompanies with words, but the priests operates dogmatically. He is more of a teacher of doctrines. Despite all these differences, they both use their knowledge for the blessings of humanity.

3.4 The Diviners

As their name implies, diviners are concerned with the art of divination. Divination is the art of attempting to foretell the future or reveal the mind of the divinities or spirits and revealing of the unknown. As had been stated earlier, the diviner more often than not can be a priest or a medicine-man; but it is possible for a medicine-man or a priest not to be a diviner. This is why it is necessary to treat the diviner as a separate religious leader in African Traditional Religion.

In the African society, divination is the means through which various problems facing both the society and individuals are solved. It is thus a key provision in African religion and a widespread practice from community to community. Mother factor that fans the embers of divination is man’s natural inclination to know the future and the will of the divinities. Diviners are also contacted when articles are stolen and needed to be found; when spouses are to be chosen; and when the society wishes to embark on war among others. Though there are many systems of divination, the most prominent of them is the HU system of divination which can be found among the

Yoruba, the Eon, the Ewe, the Bini and the Ishan. Other methods include divination through stones, sands, gourds and palm reading. Divination can also be done through forming or seeing images in pots of water, listening and interpreting sounds and clairvoyance.

Though it is sometimes hereditary, the choice and training of diviners depends on the will of the person. As a rule, any male or female who is interested can enlist for training to become a diviner. Anybody of any sex or age can enlist to be trained by going to an older diviner as an apprentice. During the period of apprenticeship, the trainee learns the name, signs and symbols of divination figures, the proverbs and stories connected with these figures and the practice and the rites of the cult of divination. To mark the end of the training, there is usually a ceremony to which all other diviners are invited. It is after this that the graduate can begin to practice.

Like medicine-men, the main function of the diviner is to act as an intermediary between humanity and the supernatural world. In most cases, the diviners act on the initiative of their clients and not of theirs. They also seek out hidden knowledge and pass them on to the people that need the knowledge.
Furthermore, they interpret the mysteries of life and convey the messages of the divinities and the Deity to the people. They are also involved in the settlement of disputes and act as seers by uncovering the past and the future so that people can live meaningful lives.


The three offices discussed above formed the main leaders of religion in the African Traditional Religions. Each one of them in their offices contributes to both the socio-religious well being of the African communities. They are specialists in their own field which though may overlap in functions but all have clearly defined roles.


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

  1. In African Traditional Religion, the religious leaders are the priests, the medicine men and the diviners. 
  2. The priests are those who are consecrated to the service of the divinity and through whom worship is offered. 
  3. The medicine men are herbalists and traditional doctors 
  4. In Africa the use of roots and herbs goes hand-in-hand with the invocation of religious and mysterious powers for healing.
  5. The diviners are those who are concerned with the art of  divination. 


Discuss the role of the priest and the medicine-men in African Religions.


Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 ultimate source to all your educational info resources and project materials of various discipline.


All research courses listed on our website is for educational and  Research  purpose, Locate your course title and access the research  materials. 

 The research courses comprises of two categories.  Note: success occur when opportunity meets preparation…go for success, go for the feature, study to show your self approve. 



VISIT FOR Available project topics and materials / view departments

  • research materials

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • marketing-research

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • research-methodology

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
Load More Related Articles
  • research materials

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • marketing-research

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …
  • research-methodology

      THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also

research materials

  THANKS FOR VISIT TO PROJECTandMATERIALS  Not just projectandmaterials but the no.1 …