What Were the Religious Beliefs and Characteristics of Pre-Contact African Religion?

Scholar of African religions Asonzeh Ukah wants to get back to the core of African religion before it became embedded by Judeo-Christian religious perspectives, or, as he writes, to get back to its “uncontaminated state” without the “external influences” of “foreign religions”. Ukah does so in great detail bringing to the forefront several pre-contact African religious beliefs. These include the African cosmovision, the universe of the gods, an African theory of healing, the role of ancestors, and other important details that we briefly consider in this article.

Ukah draws attention to Sub-Saharan Africa before European intrusion that “was made up of well-established, vibrant societies and cultures, different kingdoms of varying sizes and sophistication, rich in civilization, the arts, law, and religious traditions” (1). Essential to this pre-contact African worldview was the interconnectivity of the different spheres of life, such as between the spiritual and the material. For Africans, there was no separation between the religious and the secular as understood in the West since the European Enlightenment period. Rather, religion permeated all of life as its presence could be felt across social, cultural, political, and economic structures and lifestyles.

But what does Ukah suggest is the problem behind historical Western-centric views on religion? He explains that “The reconstruction of African pre-contact religion by Western scholars and Western-trained African – often Christian – scholars has been fraught with difficulties for many reasons such as misinterpretations, eurocentricism, and outright denigration” (2). But a more objective approach to African religions reveals a very different image. An unprejudiced reconstruction of such “cosmovisions demonstrates ordered systems and harmonious wholes in and through which the peoples of Africa generate sense, values, meaning, and belongings and have their being” (3).

A major issue with Western interpretations of African religion is the complications when using the word “religion” to refer to African religious traditions because many African languages lack specific words for “religion.” For example, for the Yoruba, what could loosely translate to the Euro-American notion of “religion” is “country fashion”. Among the Igbo, “ofufere chi”, which roughly translates into the modern notion of religion, means “the worship of gods.” This differs from the Western notion of religion which often sees religion as primarily doing with doctrines and sacred texts. Religion in a Western context is often considered something separate from secular life and as something that is optional rather than essential.

The Three Worlds of the African Cosmovision

The pre-contact religious activities, beliefs, customs, and rituals of Africans were rich and diverse. It contained a variety of practices and behaviors such as prayers, sacrifices, invocations, and moral conduct, all of which are ordered to bring out the three principal goals of life, namely, the blessings of wealth, children, and long life with its corollary of health.

On an African “cosmovision” there are three conceptually distinct but inseparably intimate worlds: the human order (with its social formations); the physical or natural, nonhuman world; and the spiritual universe. These three worlds are interrelated and constitute an ordered, holistic sphere of interactions and powers or vital forces. Ukah explains in detail,

“Their interactions generate a hierarchy of entities or beings and a plethora of rituals, patterns, symbolisms, sacred objects, and persons and religious practices that inform the ways of life and thought patterns of Africans. The understanding of the linkages between these worlds also informs how problems are solved, diseases cured, and resources managed and structured. Traditional conceptions of peace and harmony, for example, emphasize a proper coordination of all three worlds. The human, the physical, and the spiritual are interlinked to provide harmonious environments for the realization of human potentials and goals as well as sustained development. In African worldviews the three worlds interact creatively to produce a harmonious existence” (4).

The human world consists of human beings and their social contexts and environments (community life, family, and socioeconomic and political formations, etc.). The natural world is also important because Africans recognize themselves as being an integral part of the physical, natural world on which they depend for their survival and material sustenance. The natural world also has religious significance because it constitutes a sphere of mediation between the human and the spiritual worlds. Some creatures or natural phenomena are believed to be messengers of specific gods relaying information from one realm of existence to the other.

Third, there is the spiritual world. Associated with this world is the Supreme Being, as well as the divinities, the ancestors (and the unborn, who are reincarnates of ancestral spirits), and other spirit entities, some of which are benevolent and others who are malevolent. The Igbo people of southeast Nigeria conceive of five principal categories of spiritual beings inhabiting the spiritual universe: the Supreme Being (Chukwu / Chukwu abiama / Chineke), deities (mmuo), spirit-forces (arusi), the ancestors (ndichie), and agwu (medicine). Although invisible, these beings inhabit physical, often natural objects such as trees, caves, hills, and water bodies. The ancestors are the owners of the land who inhabit it and sacralize it with their presence and spiritual force.

The Supreme Being and the Gods 

Many Africans believe in a world of gods, deities, and spirits. There is God or Supreme Being, as well as deities or divinities, ancestral spirits, human spirits, ghosts, and other nonhuman spirits. The number of gods and divinities differ by society. The Supreme Being, Ukah explains, is of obvious importance in the African religious worldview,

“The Supreme Being is the creator of all that exists except Her-/Himself. The existence of God among Africans is not a question of philosophical articulation or refinement, but of a fundamental experience of spiritual, moral, and mystical existence. The Supreme Being administers the natural and human realms through the mediatory functions of arch-deities and deities and other spiritual agents who interact with humans through a wide array of instruments and structures such as rituals, sacrifices, songs, dances, prayers, and invocations” (5).

African religions contain a large number of deities and divinities who are agents of the Supreme Being and act as messengers or ministers with the purpose of carrying out the commands and orders of the creator. Among the Yoruba people, these beings are called Orishas and each has its own cult community, shrine, or temple, and priesthood and cult emblem(s).

For the Igbo, the spiritual beings are organized into two principal categories: the sky-deities and the earth-deities. The sky-deities revolve around the Supreme Deity who inhabits the sky or heaven; these deities include the thunder deity, the sky deity (Igwe), and the sun deity (Anyanwu). The latter (Earth deities) rotate and function according to the order of Ala, Great Earth-Mother.

The Ancestors

As Ukah notices, one cannot understand the religious dimensions of an African worldview without understanding the role and place of ancestors within it. Ancestor veneration demonstrates a strong belief among Africans in an afterlife and indicates the prominent role spiritual beings have in the African worldview. So central has ancestor veneration in the African worldview been that many have mistakenly thought that Africans worship the ancestors.

Ancestors are believed to be close to God and are therefore ascribed superhuman qualities. To become an ancestor, the individual must not only die but also satisfy prescribed social, ritual, and moral conditions. This includes living a long and morally exemplary life worthy of emulation. This individual must also not have any illness such as leprosy, must not commit suicide or die because of an accident. Such an ill fate is considered the consequence of divine wrath.

It is also possible for the deceased individual to fail to become an ancestor and end up a troublesome, malignant wandering spirit. Such is the destiny of those who die childless and/or buried without appropriate funeral rites. Burial rites are essential for attaining the status of an ancestor because they enable passage from one state of life to another. Victims of an untimely death are excluded from ancestorhood. Whether one becomes an ancestor can also depend on gender. For example, among the Igbo, being a male is a necessary condition.

Ancestors have an important function. They provide moral guidance, instruction, maintain social cohesion, ward off evil, and reward good behavior. They are also feared for their anger and ability to justifiably punish wrongdoers.

Religion as Healing 

According to Ukah, “Healing is the restoration of a disharmonious relationship between an aspect or aspects of life to a harmonious balance. It is not simply the elimination of disease or physical “inability to function in normal activity” but the restoration of a disturbed cosmic/spiritual/metaphysical order either as it relates to an individual or to a family or a whole clan” (6).

One is said to be ill when his productive capabilities suffer as a result of unemployment, hunger, strained human relationships, infertility, and so on. These ailments require healing intervention and often, although not always, are believed to be the working of evil and malicious spirits and individuals. According to Ukah, there are two major causes believed to be behind ill heath: primary and secondary causes. The former includes supernatural and psychological explanations. For example, the guilt resulting from the contravention of communal norms may predispose an individual to ill health because the balance existing in the cosmic order has been broken or disturbed.

Secondary causes include natural causes such as, for instance, an understanding that eating a rotten fruit can result in an upset stomach. According to the Yoruba, there are small organisms called kokoro that can infiltrate fruits and grains, thus corrupting these items. Eating such infected items is considered to make one ill. Other secondary causes include the anger of the gods and ancestors, evil spirits, witches, sorcerers, as well as inherited psychiatric illness like psychosis or insanity, and breached ritual or moral norms of a community.

Importantly, as should be clear, it is incorrect to think that Africans attribute all illnesses and diseases to the activities of supernatural beings. When the individual does become ill, the illness afflicts not only the body but the whole person, which means that healing is directed to the whole person as well.

For many Africans, medicine and healing are inextricably related to divination and sacrifice. Medicines are drawn from nature such as from certain roots, herbs, and animal parts that are mixed and activated through ritual invocations, libations, and sacrifices, then applied as the solution to a variety of human problems. Animal blood is believed to contain power to satisfy the gods and bring about that which supplicants request or desire, in this case the restoration of health and harmony in an individual or in the community.

References

1. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. “Religion in the Pre-Contact Old World: Africa”. In The Cambridge History of Religions in Latin America, edited by Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Paul Freston, and Stephen C. Dove, 47-61. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 47. 

2. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 48.

3. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 48.

4. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 49.

5. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 50-51.

6. Ukah, Asonzeh. 2016. Ibid. p. 56.

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