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The issues of the elements that are common to African Traditional Religion are without agreement. In his survey of the various positions that have been posited by foreign authors, Idowu made an analysis of Talbot, Parrinder and Rattray. Talbot advanced four main elements: polytheism, anthropomorphism, animism and ancestor worship. In Parriender’ s fourfold classification you have belief in a supreme God; the chief divinities; the divinized ancestors and the charms and the amulets. While Talbot’s classifications smirks of racism that of Parrinder is close to the truth. The same goes with Rattray. We will proceed to study these structures accordingly.


By the end of this unit, you will be able:

  1. to identify the structure of African Traditional Religion 
  2. explain and discuss the main elements in the structure of African Traditional Religion 
  3. discuss why African Traditional Religion may not be classified as polytheism. 


3.1 Belief in God

Though we may not be able to talk of a monolithic but a multi-sided concept of God in Africa, you will still see and know that there is the belief in God in African Traditional Religion. You must also understand that the multi-sided concept of God in Africa comes from the basic fact that in each locality, the concept of God derives from the sociological structure as well as the climate of the area. For example, among the Yoruba and the Bini where the society is highly graded and hierarchical,

God is thought of as the Supreme King over a theocratic world while among the Biroin and Tiv such ministerial system is totally absent. Also, in the matriarchal societies of Africa like the Ewe, God is thought of in feminine terms whereas the masculine concept is widespread. The following are however true of the African concept of God:

God is Real

To the Africans God is real. Each people group has a specific name for God in Africa. The name could be unique to God and at times may be used partly by other divinities. When this is done however, it is to emphasize the fact that such beings derived their being from God.

The names of God in Africa are usually descriptive of God’s character and an emphatic assertion that to the African mind God is not thought of in abstract terms. For example, the name Olodumare is used uniquely for God among the Yoruba while among the Igbo the name Chukwu is used. Chukwu is a combination of ‘Chi’ and `ukwu’ which will literally mean the Great Source Being. The prefix ‘chi’ is however used in other people’s names, such as: Chibuzor (God first).

God is Unique; In the African mind, God is he to whom no one else can be compared;be it spirit or human. An Edo mythology is one of such myths that teach the uniqueness of God; it goes thus: Olokun (the goddess of the river, who in Edo myth is an arch-divinity) is the beloved child of Osanobwa (the Edo word for the Supreme Being) and was therefore vested with all the glory and splendour of that position. Olokun was however overwhelmed by the majesty of this position that she challenged Osanobwa to a display of splendour and majesty at an open market space in line with African practice. On the day of the challenge, Osanobwa sent his messenger to tell Olokun that he was ready for the challenge. Olokun dressed up in what she thought to be her best only to discover that her father’s messenger was dressed up exactly as she was. She went back to change only to discover that the messenger has changed to what she had on again. After several attempts, she gave up admitting that she cannot compete with Osanobwa since she could not beat her messenger who turned out to be the chameleon. This myth is one way of saying that God is unique and incomparable.

Another issue that emphasizes the uniqueness of God is the fact that there are no images either graven or in drawing or painting for God in Africa. This is because in Africa, the issue is that no one can be compared with God. The concept of God as king is also another way to emphasize the uniqueness of God. Among the Lugbara, God (Leza) is “the one who does what no other can do”. Another Ruanda proverb says “there is none equal to Imana (God)”.

God is the Absolute Controller of the Universe

In the African thought, God is the absolute controller of everything. He is the source of every power and authority. All other things exist in consequence of him and all events that come to pass come to be because he permitted them to be. In the attempt to express the fact that God is the controller of all things the Bantu of South Africa has a saying that: “Shikakunamo (God) sits on the back of every one of us, and we cannot shake him off’. For the Nuer they believe that Kwoth (God) is the very spirit of the universe and that the universe belongs to him. This belief is the determinant of their attitude to life.

Another aspect of this belief is that it is only God that can give humanity the essential personality that makes them human and he is equally the only one that can determine when that part of human beings returns to him. For example according to the Konkomba, “Ungwin is that part of man which God gives”. There is a cosmogonic myth of the Yoruba people that also teaches that God gives Obatala (the arch-divinity among the Yoruba) the responsibility of moulding the physical aspect of human beings and never questions him on what he does whether they are deformed or whole or different shades of colour. However, for the body to live and become human as we know it is God that puts the spirit or the soul into the physical body that has been moulded.


What do the Africans believe about God?

3.2 Belief in Divinities; In discussing the issue of divinities in Africa one will have to be very careful and even clear issues that could lead to misunderstanding.

  1. Firstly, the existence of divinities is not common to the whole of Africa. In fact as Bolaji Idowu has asserted “West Africa may be said to be the home of divinities”. It has to be noted that even within West Africa, there are different shades of pantheon from the crowded to the thinly populated ones and to the ones with doubtful existence. For example, the Yoruba and the Dinka has a thickly populated pantheon while the Ugandan situation is not clear.
  2. Secondly, there is the issue of polytheism. The question is that does the pluralism of the pantheon suggest the idea of polytheism in Africa? It has been stated earlier however that to qualify for polytheism there has to be the existence of co-eternal and co-powerful gods that does not describe the African situation. At this point we will go on to examine the relationship between the divinities and God in African thought.
  3. In African theology, the divinities were brought into being as a result of things in regard to the divine ordering of the world. For example, Orisanla also called Obatala in Yoruba pantheon is thought of as partaking in the nature of Olodumare (God). Ile is usually referred to as the son of Olodumare or his deputy. This also goes with Olokun in Edo and all Akan divinities are regarded as Onyame’s sons. This is what qualifies them to be called divinities. Thirdly, the divinities are derivatives from God. In other words, they have no independent existence of their own. They are only in existence  due to the being of God. Consequently, they are nothing apart from God. 
  4. Fourthly each divinity has its own local name in the local language of the people. The name is usually descriptive of the functions allotted to the divinity or the natural phenomenon to which it is associated. Among the Yoruba the divinity that is representative of God’s wrath is Jakuta. The same divinity among the Nupe is called Sokogba.
  5. Fifthly, the divinities were brought into being as functionaries in the theocratic government of the universe. Consequently, the divinities are like ministers with their own department to look after and thus act as intermediaries between human beings and God with reference to their particular portfolio.
  6. Finally, the divinities in African belief can be said to be made up of the following categories:

The first set is the primordial divinities. These are the principal who are part of the original order of things.The second set represents those who are conceptualization of prominent attributes of God as discerned especially through the natural phenomenon. The third and the last set are those who are deified ancestors and heroes. The deification usually comes because they have exhibited in their lifetime the attributes of the deities.


Who, according to African Traditional Religion, are the divinities?

3.3 Belief in Spirits

Spirits are apparitional entities which form separate categories of beings from those called divinities. In African belief spirits are ubiquitous.There is no area or object which does not have spirits of its own. For example, we have the spirits that inhabit trees, dwelling areas, heaths and other artifacts. There are spirits which dwells in rocks, mountains, hills and valleys. Generally it is believed that spirits can possess and can be used for either good or bad causes. Though they do not have specific
names except for the generic local names, the following are the various categories of spirits:


The Africans believed that if the dead is not properly buried with the necessary rites, the dead will not be admitted to the abode of the departed ones and will therefore become a wanderer having an aimless haunting existence. Some other groups in addition to this believes that those who did not die naturally (like who died by hanging, drowning or of incurable diseases or during pregnancy) are regarded as accursed and will also becoming wandering spirits. This is also true of those that are considered to have died prematurely. The group also includes those who have been wicked while on earth and have been excluded from the fellowship of the good people.

The ‘Born-to-Die’ Spirits

This group is known among the Yoruba as abiku and among the Igbo as ogbanje. The belief here is that these are spirits of wandering children who find their way into the womb of pregnant women and thus began a cycle of being born to die repeatedly. In most conununities in Africa where this belief is common, it is not out of place to see pregnant women looking for protection against such spirits.

The Guardian-Spirits

The prevalent belief here is that the essence of human’s personality becomes a sort of split entity which acts as the person’s spiritual counterpart. There are the groups that see the guardian spirit as a separate entity entirely. This concept is known as “on” among the Yoruba; “chi” among the Igbo and “ehi” among the Edo. It can either bring good fortune and at times put obstacles in one’s way. It is as a result of this that the guardian spirit is usually appeased.


Discuss the classification of spirits in African Traditional Religion

3.4 Belief in Ancestors

The basis for the belief in ancestors lies in the general world-wide belief that communication takes place between the living and the dead and that the dead are able to be of help or otherwise to the living. Before any elaborate discussion of this topic, you have to note that for the Africans there is a clear cut demarcation between the Supreme Being and the divinities on the one hand and the ancestors on the other hand. To them, the Deity and the divinities belong to the supra-sensible world

while the ancestors are part and parcel of the existence of the living. In other words, the ancestors are related to the living in a way that Deity and divinities are not. The ancestors are still regarded as part and parcel of the family or community they belonged while they were on earth.

The ancestors, though still related to the living are no longer mortals. It is believed that since they have crossed to the supernatural world, they have been freed from all the restrictions of the physical world and can therefore be of help to their kith and kin who are still bound by these physical restrictions. It is also believed that for some reasons they can prove to be against their own family. By the reason of their having crossed to the other world, the can serve to some extent as intermediaries between the living and Deity and the divinities. In this way, they continue their role as leaders of the family —the role they have played while living. This is because while they were on earth they have been the priests or priestesses of the family. You have to note that in Africa, the ancestors are factors of cohesion or unity. For example, the Akan sacred stools are the symbols of national unity. Again when serious disputes are to be settled in the families, the ancestors are called upon and as such it is easier to reach agreements.

Again, ancestors are approached as spirits in cognizance of the fact that they are no longer mortals.

As a result of the enormous responsibilities and the Isis of elevation to a spiritual status, it is not just anybody that can be qualified to be an ancestor in Africa. The following are required for those who will qualify as ancestors:

  1. They must have lived to old age 
  2. They must have had children while on earth 
  3. They must have died natural death 
  4. They must have lived lives that are worthy of emulation 

It has to be noted that the cult of the ancestors in African religion is a means of communion and communication between those who are living and those who have departed the land of the living. The belief in the continued existence of the departed souls is symbolized by various cults such as the Egungun (masquerade), Oro, Mmo and Ayaka. Some of these would be discussed in details later on.


Why do Africans believe in ancestors?

3.5 Belief in Magic and Medicine

It has been universally acknowledged that human beings are aware that they needed to be aided by supernatural powers in order to cope with the complexities, complications and the riddles of their existence. There is the need for succour, deliverance and the mastery of environmental circumstances. To meet the needs of this existence human beings have recognized two principal powers. The first is the divine power which is approached via submission and appeal and the other is the power of the elemental spirits which is approached by harnessing and tapping it to use for their own ends.

In tapping the elemental power, the technique through which the elemental powers can be controlled is sought out. This is what is called magic. You have to note that in Africa, you cannot talk about magic and medicine without talking about religion. As it has been in the ancient world, medicine has been closely associated with religion basically because the priest in most times doubles as the divine healer. For example, among the Babylonians, Ea who is the father of Marduk is the father of all physicians. Medicine in Africa is also seen as having its root in religion. Medicine is seen as having its source in God and operated through a tutelary divinity.

Most traditional doctors in Africa often claim to have been taught the art of medicine by the divinities or in a dream or trance. Some claim to have been carried away by the whirlwind for a period of time ranging from seven days to seven years to be taught the art of medicine.

Finally in Africa, magic and medicine often go hand in hand because:

  1. The same divinity has both magic and medicine under his portfolio. For example, Osanyin and Agwu among the Yoruba and the Igbo respectively. 
  2. The same word is usually used to cover the two phenomenon 
  3. Medicine often involves specifications of time and rituals 


The structure of the African Traditional Religion is fivefold: belief in God, belief in divinities, belief in spirits, belief in ancestors and belief in magic and medicine.


Five main issues made up the structure of African Traditional Religion.


Discuss the relationship between God and the divinities in African Traditional Religion.


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