The religions practiced by the majority of people living in Africa are Christianity and Islam. However, there were many traditional religions practiced prior to the arrival of these two religions. Today, around 10 percent of the African population still practice some form of traditional religion.
Although Africa is a huge continent with many different peoples and traditional religions, some beliefs and practices are common through many of the religions. These include:
- Supreme God - Many African religions believed in a supreme god that created the world. Some examples include the gods Oludmare of Nigeria and Katonda of Uganda. In some religions this god may be prayed to for help, but in others the supreme god does not interact with humans.
- Nature Spirits - Beneath the supreme god are a number of spirits who mostly live in nature including animals, water, and the earth.
- Ancestral Spirits - The spirits of dead ancestors often played an important part in traditional African religion. By honoring these spirits, believers hoped that the spirits would help them or would talk to the supreme god on their behalf.
- Sacrifice - Most Ancient African religions offered some sort of sacrifice to their gods or the spirits. This sacrifice varied from small items, like a portion of food or drink, to much larger items like cattle or even human sacrifice.
- Rites of Passage - Traditional religions played an important role in the rites of passage. These included rituals surrounding marriage, entering adulthood, birth, and death.
Many traditional African religions believe in mysterious forces and magic. Priests (sometimes called witchdoctors) could cast spells or provide charms to help people with their illnesses or other problems. Sometimes the witchdoctors used herbs and other remedies to help the sick. They also would tell the future by using magic and "casting the bones" where they would toss bones (or sometimes other items like shells) and then tell the person's fortune from the way the bones fell.
Certain artisans were considered to use magic in their craft. The most powerful of the artisans were the ironworkers. Ironworkers would keep the secret of how they forged iron within their group in order to maintain the mystery and power of their craft.
Traditional rituals and ceremonies played an important part in the community. Masks, drums, chanting, and dancing were often a part of the ritual. Generally the rituals called on the spirits of ancestors or the spirits of nature for help and assistance.
Interesting Facts about Traditional Religions of Ancient Africa
- The people of the Mali Empire believed in a magical force called "nyama."
- The religious beliefs of Africans impacted all aspects of their everyday lives including their food, work, and family life.
- They believed in both good and bad spirits. Good spirits would protect them, while bad spirits could make them ill or make them misbehave.
- In the dry areas of Africa, certain priests would specialize as "rain-makers." They would drive away bad spirits that may have caused a drought and ask for help from good spirits on how they could make it rain.
- Although many Africans today identify with Christianity or Islam as their religion, many of them still participate in traditional African rituals.
- Some traditional beliefs and rituals from Africa spread to the Americas in places like Brazil and Cuba.
To learn more about Ancient Africa:
History >> Ancient Africa