Essentials of African Traditional Religions - Lesson 1

Introduction to African Traditional Religion

You will learn the basics of African Traditional Religions, including its definition, characteristics, and historical context, as well as its current state.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of African Traditional Religions
Lesson 1
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Introduction to African Traditional Religion

WM241-01 Essentials of African Traditional Religions

I. Introduction to African Traditional Religion

A. Definition

1. Characteristics

B. African Traditional Religion in Historical Context

1. Historical Overview

2. African Traditional Religion and the Missionary Movement

C. African Traditional Religion Today

  • In this video, Timothy Tennent provides an overview of the definition, characteristics, and historical context of ATR, as well as its significance for missions. Key takeaways include insights into the beliefs and practices of ATR, and the implications of these beliefs for evangelism and outreach.

  • This lesson covers the essentials of African Traditional Religions, including their definition, characteristics, historical context, and current state.
  • In this lesson, you will learn about African Traditional Religions (ATR), including its definition, historical context, distinct features, practices, and role in promoting social justice.
  • This lesson will give you insight into the role of ancestors in Yoruba cosmology, including the significance of ancestor worship and the role of ancestral altars.
  • This lesson provides an overview of the interaction between Christianity and African Traditional Religions (ATR) in Africa, including its historical background, current state, and implications for the Christian mission in Africa.

In this course, you will gain an understanding of the essentials of African traditional religions, their key beliefs and practices, and their role in shaping African societies. You will explore the beliefs in a Supreme Being, ancestors, and spirits, as well as the rituals and ceremonies that form an integral part of these religions. Additionally, you will learn about the ethical values and social structures that emerge from African traditional religions and how they intersect with Christianity. Finally, you will examine the preservation and future of African traditional religions in the face of modern challenges and opportunities.


Dr. Timothy Tennent
Essentials of African Traditional Religions
Introduction to African Traditional Religion
Lesson Transcript



Welcome to the summary lecture of African Traditional Religions. This is a 3-hour summary lecture on the basic components of African Traditional Religions. The purpose of this is to help to orient a person who would like to work in the context of Africa. Africa’s a very large and diverse continent; it’s even larger than North America or Australia. It’s filled with dramatic geographic differences and cultural diversity. There are more than 40 separate nations that occupy the continent of Africa south of the Sahara desert, each with its own history, political situation, numerous ethnic groups and multiple languages that comprise sub-Saharan Africa. And therefore it’s nearly impossible to talk about African Traditional Religion as if it exists as a single coherent body of beliefs and practices which can be identified as “African religion”. So normally we refer to African Traditional Religions in the plural, and it’s simply summarized or written in notation form as “ATR” – African Traditional Religion.

African religions are very diverse. They are as numerous as the ethnic groups that are present on the continent of Africa, and so therefore there’s no single creed or orthodoxy that can easily summarize the belief systems of African religions. On the other hand, the scholars that have attempted to dismiss approaching African religions as if it’s impossible have been nevertheless brought back to the fact that there are a number of fundamental similarities in the structure of indigenous religions in general, and of African religion in particular. And so because of that, it’s become more and more useful in recent days to speak about African Traditional Religions and talk about them in broad ways that would seek to bring together certain coherent structures that make up African religion. Unfortunately, missionaries and the colonialists who came in to Africa originally often portrayed Africans as savages, as backward. Often, regions were denigrated as un-evolved as compared to the west, with no civilizations. They were people that were caricatured as involved in superstition and animism and ancestor worship and so forth, and so there was a sense that it was not really worthy of study such as the higher religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, or Islam. Anthropologists actually contributed to this as well, and oftentimes wrote denigrating studies of these early religious encounters which helped to create false impressions.

But over time we’ve begun to realize that, first of all, you actually have at the basis of even the more “advanced religions” many primitive and tribal beliefs. And some of the factors that underlie African religion have become more appreciated as time has developed, and we’ve been able to learn more about these religions. So part of what we want to do is to redress some of the miscommunications that have occurred about African religion, and seek to develop a way of looking at this which would be coherent.

What we want to do is to construct an African traditional cosmology. Now let me explain what a cosmology is, as opposed to traditional examination of a world religion. Oftentimes when you look at world religion, you ask questions like: “What do they believe?”; “What are their underlying doctrines?”; and so forth. But in the case of African Traditional Religion, we can’t do this because there are so many different varieties of ATR that are throughout sub-Saharan Africa. So instead, what we try to do is develop a cosmological framework or a theoretical framework that brings together many of the broad concepts and relations that are descriptively present in much of African Traditional Religion. And this allows us to look at it as a structure, and then the particulars can be filled in based on where you are and what you’re looking at.

If you look at African religion region-by-region, generally sub-Saharan Africa is divided into west Africa, east Africa, and south Africa. West Africa accounts for about one-fifth of the continent’s area, but it’s over 120 million people – half of Africa’s population. It stretches from Senegal along the Atlantic coast, all the way to Nigeria, down along the Gulf of Guinea. And west Africa has had a long tradition of trade with Europeans and north African Muslims, and therefore we’ve had a lot of contact with the history of west Africa. And so one of the things we want to do in this study is focus on how ATR, African Traditional Religion has worked itself out in the practice of Nigeria.

East Africa comprises the modern states of Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. There are more than 200 distinct indigenous societies, all with different languages and economic systems and cultures, all very unique. Traditionally, east Africans were farmers and livestock herders. They had a lot of trade with the Arabs along the coast of east Africa, and this is where Islam is actually the strongest, in this area.

In southern Africa, the coast of Africa, you have South Africa itself, you have Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, Namibia – all of these countries in south Africa represent a place where western colonization did in fact put the presence of the west with African societies and cultures. So there are different portions of Africa, and we’re speaking in general terms of the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, and trying to step back into the big picture and create a cosmology which will bring together many of the intellectual religious and cultural structures that make up African Traditional Religion.

In looking at African religion, there are a number of things that we have to look at. First of all, as I said before, we’re going to refer to it in the plural – African Traditional Religions, because there are over a thousand different distinct African peoples with their own religious systems. But we also want to balance that out as E. Bolaji Idowu has said, “There is a common African-ness about the total culture and religious beliefs and practices of Africa.” So from that point of view, it can be spoken of in the singular. So we’re trying to balance these two things out. But certainly there’s no single codified system of beliefs and practices.

But nevertheless, we want to distance ourselves from a number of the terms that have been used. We mentioned earlier how when the missionaries came, they referred to African religion as “fetishism” or as “juju”. Fetishism refers to the use of a natural or artificial object which is believed to have supernatural power or preternatural power to protect or aid its owner. Oftentimes these fetishes would be ritually consecrated or animated by a spirit of some kind. We’ve seen this in films and books about Africa. The term “fetish” comes from the Portuguese word “feitico”, which originated from the Latin “facticius”, which suggests a thing made by art. The term “juju” comes from a French word which is used for a child’s toy doll. As you can see from some of the early reports of Africa, African religion was simply not taken seriously, or it was dismissed wholesale as crude idolatry.

Now while there are certainly magical objects in west Africa, such as charms and amulets which are used, and indeed from a part of the religious complex and can be referred to as fetishes, it’s a very inadequate description or designation for the entire religious system. Generally speaking, early observers of African religious practices all too quickly took appearance for reality, and symbol for the symbolized, and means for the end. So others have suggested terms like “animism”. You often hear a word like “animism” – I think it goes back to the 19th century, with Edward Tyler, who first suggested the term “animism”. Animism comes from the Latin word anima, which means “soul”, and Tyler maintained that belief in spiritual beings or souls was the root of all African religious faith. Because of the general acceptance of the evolutionary theory which dominated the latter half of the 19th century, Tyler’s theory was interpreted to mean that animism gave rise to polytheism, which in turn evolved further to the stage of one supreme god over all other spirits, and this eventually led to the idea that ultimately Trinitarian monotheism was the highest form of religion. Again, this implied that at the bottom of the religious scale was the un-tutored African. His religion lay at the bottom of religious evolution, whereas Islam and Judaism and Christianity were at the top since they’re monotheistic. However this has a lot of problems. Although animism still is in fact present in Africa like fetishism or juju, it is simply inadequate as an all-encompassing expression that is descriptive properly of African Traditional Religion.

We also, as we’ll see later on in this summary, find out that we have misunderstood Africa if we think that they do not have a belief in a supreme, single god. The earlier idea was that African Traditional Religions were incompatible with monotheism. Later, a well-known writer named Percy Talbot, who wrote in the 60’s a classic multi-volume work entitled The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, refused to characterize African religion with any one word. He said “Africans combine a belief in the existence of an omnipotent and omnipresent supreme god, with multitudes of subordinate deities.” So here you have the fact that we just simply cannot easily summarize African religion with a single term like “animism” or “animistic” or “primal” or “fetishism” or whatever. So these are some of the challenges that we’ve had.

One of the more creative suggestions that we have come across is one by E. Bolaji Idowu, who I’ve already quoted here, who described African religion as “diffused monotheism”. That is, a belief in a single god in which there exist other powers which get diffused out in to subordinates who serve that one god. But in my view none of these terms will ever be fully adequate to describe the African religious tradition. And therefore a better approach is to construct a broader African religious cosmology which extends beyond any one term.

The fundamental problem with constructing an African religious cosmology is to understand how the one god and the many gods or lesser deities can co-exist in the African context. This is what one finds when you walk into Africa, and this is what the anthropologists discovered early on, and the missionaries. It seemed to be that Africans worshipped innumerable mystical forces, ghosts, ancestors, divinities of various kinds, and yet they seemed also to have occasional references to a supreme god. How can all of these exist as actors or participants in a system that is non-contradictory?

Well, this is achieved when one understands three basic assumptions which I think are characteristic of all African cosmologies. First of all, unlike Christian cosmological thinking, African systems do not recognize a fundamental distinction or clear demarcation between the visible world and the invisible world. To the African, the visible and the invisible – the material and spiritual, the temporal and non-temporal, the sacred and the profane -- all overlap and shade into one another. Now this is important because we have kind of an enlightenment world-view in the west which creates a real firm barrier between that which we can see – the observable world of science (reflective of the world of hypotheses and concluding proofs of those hypotheses), that embraces science -- and the invisible world. The world beyond us is simply put aside as not really subject to our normal societal inquiry. In many ways the Africans inhabit a very big universe, a much bigger universe. We live in the west in a rather crunched-down universe because the invisible world, the spiritual world, has been taken away. And the world of the enlightenment only gives us the world obtainable by the five senses. Of course the Christian world- view comes in and challenges this by saying there is a world beyond the sensory world; the enlightenment world-view is inadequate. But rather than the Christian world-view, in the west at least, obliterating the enlightenment world-view, what we actually found was that the Christian world-view simply adapted the basic enlightenment world-view -- punched a hole in the wall and said, no, there’s a place for prayer for example. You can pray, and God who’s on the other side of the wall can hear us and he can answer prayer through this portal. We even talk about the incarnation, where God transcends this wall of separation in the seen world and the unseen world, and he steps into our human history.

Well that’s fine, that is a Christian adaptation of the enlightenment world-view, and it leaves the basic structure or cosmology of the west intact. In the African context, this is not the case. And it’s fundamental to understand African religions to see that you don’t have the basic western approach which is: Christianity explains that which we cannot see. In other words, it’s like a mirror that gives us a reflection into what’s beyond the wall.

In the African context, the wall doesn’t exist. The Africans inhabit a much bigger universe, and therefore they do not see this clear line of demarcation between the material / the spiritual, the visible/ the invisible, and so forth. So that’s the first big difference between the African world-view and world-views that we are familiar with.

Now I just mention in passing that this has been beautifully written about by Paul Hiebert, who wrote in his article, and later placed in his book on anthropological reflections on missionary issues *[sic.], where he talks about what he calls “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle” . And what he points out is that the enlightenment world-view in the west created what he calls the “excluded middle”, in a sense that we had a scientific world-view that accepted all of the things of the sense-world. We had a Christian overlay that gave us a strong sense of heaven, of God, eternal life, of the life to come – the eternal verities of the Christian faith we all accepted. But we didn’t have a way of really dealing with the spiritual interaction in this world on this side of the enlightenment wall. He calls this the flaw of the excluded middle. Things like demons or spirits that are just normal in African cosmologies are alien to the western world-view. Even Christians, if someone is sick, we go to the doctor; we don’t think about casting demons out of people. So these are real differences, where thankfully we’ve had some correctives in Pentecostals and other more recent Christian groups that have tried to bring in a larger world-view. But certainly traditionally, in the Christian world-view in the west, we did not have this kind of open frontier approach that you find in Africa between the visible and the invisible world, where spirits and deities and God all interact in a very dynamic way.

The second fundamental difference between the African and the western world-views is that fundamental to the African world-view is the belief in the hierarchy of power and being. For the African, the universe is filled with various levels and sources of power and energy. Now the Greco-Christian cosmology is far more static, as we already saw in the last point -- far more radically demarcated and predictable. The African cosmology is essentially dynamic, with various levels of power and being and vital interaction with one another, and with humanity. So things are done with levels of power. This affects even the more practical considerations of life. In our society, we want to portray the idea that even important people, even powerful people are very approachable. You approach people directly, you speak to them directly; you don’t go through intermediaries. If we want to ask a father for his daughter’s hand in marriage, we go directly to the father. But in African society, everything is done through intermediaries. So if you wanted to discuss the possibility of a marriage arrangement, you would go through a wide range of people in order to finally get back the answer, rather than going directly. Everything is done through intermediaries. So this creates a sense that intermediaries are necessary for conveying power, and we’ll see this is very important – it has implications, for example how the incarnation is understood in the African context.

Thirdly and finally (and these are just some general observations about the different cosmologies), Africans believe that the world was created in a spiritual harmony or equilibrium between all the forms of creation and the sources of power. So all of African religion involves in some way rituals designed either to maintain this harmony or in some cases to restore this harmony back to their society. There are innumerable African stories and myths which are told which talk about how the world got off kilter, how things got out of harmony, and why certain rituals are being used to get things back. Now this is important because many times in the west we think of religions in terms of belief systems. So we will often ask the question: “What does a Hindu believe about God or man, or sin, or whatever?”; “What do Muslims believe about salvation?”; and so forth. With African Traditional Religions you must be much more careful about speaking about belief systems in the same way, because Africans will actually tolerate quite a wide variety of beliefs as long as it supports the same rituals or certain rituals or ritualistic explanations of why this is being done or why this is being believed. And so there’s a little more flexibility regarding the role of beliefs and how that functions with the larger structure of African religion.

So keeping these observations in mind, we should posit in our minds basically three levels or three tiers of power which are generally characteristic of African religion. At the highest tier, Tier 1, resides a supreme being who oversees the entire cosmological system. Now I want to stop right there and say that in the early missionary encounters with Africa, many of the missionaries did not believe that the Africans worshipped a supreme being, and so they came back and said they were polytheistic, that is, they believe in many gods rather than monotheistic belief in one god. However, this supreme being as they studied more and learned to understand the African system more, was a kind of a distant figure, a deus otiosus, a person, a deity who is beyond us. And because this deity was beyond us, he didn’t come into the normal rituals and daily practices that were often so present in African religious daily life and activities. So many people believed that the Africans didn’t have a belief in a supreme being, but instead, when they came into contact with Islam or Christianity, they discovered that they believed in one supreme being, and they adapted this and kind of shoved it into the back door behind their normal beliefs. But a well-known African scholar named John Mbiti did a study of African gods – this is found in actually several of his books, but one is entitled Concepts of God in Africa – and when John Mbiti studied, he wanted to particularly look at African traditional religious practitioners in tribes that had not received either Christianity or Islam, and look at them and see if in fact they had a belief in a supreme being. He found that frequently they did. And so it’s now widely believed that Africa generally did not develop a supreme being as some kind of later development, after its encounter with Christianity or Islam. Instead, we should see at the top tier a supreme being, but this supreme being is frequently a distant figure, maybe associated with creation or some kind of larger power to keep things in order or in harmony, but is not the focus of the daily religion of Africa. That occurs on the second tier.

The second tier is often, though not always, bifurcated between a group of non-human divinities and a cult of human but divinized ancestors. Now it’s important to recognize that in this second tier, I particularly used the word “divinity”. In African religion you must distinguish between the term “deity” and the term “divinity”, because in the west, we often use the word divinity or deity almost interchangeably because we’re in a context where monotheism has been dominant. But in this case, we’ll refer to “deity” as that supreme being who occupies the highest tier, and as I mentioned before because there are hundreds of versions of African Traditional Religion in the world, and in sub-Saharan Africa, then of course we have to leave this as a generic supreme being but realize that it will be fleshed out in a particular form, in a very personalized form in the particular theologies of the local tribal religions. So for example later on we’ll look at how this works out in Nigeria. In Nigeria they call the supreme being Olodumare, and Olodumare represents the supreme being at the highest tier. That’s their deity.

A divinity is another spiritual power, oftentimes non-human though sometimes in some cases the ancestors can evolve into these non-human figures. But this person, this divinity would be a lower expression of God’s power. And so therefore divinity and deity are separate in Africa. You’ll find for example that many African Traditional Religions are monotheistic and poli-divinistic simultaneously. That is to say they have a supreme being, but they have multiple deities that serve in a subsidiary way that serve the supreme deity. That’s what Idowu refers to as “diffused monotheism”. He was trying to find a way to capture the one and the many in the African context. On one hand, there’s one god at the highest tier, but he expresses himself through many second-tier deities known as divinities. You also have in this same second tier oftentimes ancestors who have been divinized. These are people that have lived on earth as humans, were honored by their people, and then they died and they entered into this pantheon of ancestors which we’ll say more about later.

The third level in African Traditional Religion is the earthly tier, which is the functionaries who are responsible for maintaining the harmony, balance, and order in the African traditional system. Normally this comes through the expression of exercising some kind of ritualized power. So in other words you basically have mediators such as priests or sometimes chiefs or what used to be called “witch doctors” (we’ll call these “herbalists”), mediums, diviners, prophets – these are all people that are exercising ritualized power in order to keep the system in harmony. They’ll make sacrifices, they’ll offer chants and so forth, and this is the general structure of the African Traditional Religion. This is a basic cosmology. They often will refer to the supreme god as a sky god because the sky god is the one who often dwells in a remote place and is often associated with creation, and then you have the ancestors and sometimes spirits (we’ll call them divinities here) that often serve in this functional capacity. Then in the third tier you have these mediators.

And then of course beneath the third tier, even though it’s not actually part of the formal structure of African Traditional Religion, you realize there are actual people that also function in various ways in worship and sacred acts of ritual practice. And even nature itself is part of this ongoing continuum. So what you should envision is a spectrum that does not have clear demarcation, and sometimes the categories can become confused or overlap. It starts out with the supreme god at the highest level -- the supreme being or creator, and shades down into the pantheon of divinities, which would include sometimes a hierarchy of divinities, some that are more powerful than others and so forth, and would include also in that same level potentially a pantheon of human but divinized ancestors. And then that shades down once again into various functionaries – mediators, priests, and so forth, herbalists, that mediate this power. And that shades down into humans and also nature itself. And so you should always view this kind of shading going on.

Now before we look at the actual example of how this might apply in different parts of Africa, (we’re going to begin by looking at west Africa and give you an example with the Yoruba religious cosmology in west Africa) I want to, before we get into that, clarify a few terms that are often used in African Traditional Religion.

I mentioned earlier this term “herbalists”, and I said this was in place of the term “witch doctor”. One of the problems that we found in the early observations of African religion which we alluded to was they observed that magic and sorcery and witchcraft was often practiced by these people in the third tier of African religion (these priests). And so these were named “witch doctors”; they’re often sometimes called “medicine men”. So these figures became almost mythically viewed in the western literature that more or less summarized western Africa and other parts of Africa, and their traditional religion. So what we are trying to do in this case is to acknowledge the fact that we do have people, and most traditional communities in Africa have resident experts who are experts in divination, in rituals, and the performance of magic. When they function as single individuals, we usually call them “healers”, or sometimes they’re called “shamans”. Now “shaman” is a word which comes actually from Siberian culture, and a shaman is someone who manipulates the spirits, and the spirit can sometimes possess them and animate the shaman, and can even speak through them. So this shaman figure is used quite a bit in these societies. The medicine man or the healer, as the name implies, usually seeks to heal diseases in the community, and then he’ll come to them and they believe that their illnesses are caused by the cause of some spiritual power. This is another real difference between African society and western culture. When we get sick, even devout Christians that get sick, we assume that the reason for the sickness is naturalistic, so we go to the doctor, we get medicine that will manipulate the antibodies or other sources of the disease that need to be destroyed in our body with various medicines. In the African culture, it’s more natural to assume that the reason is spiritual, and therefore you go to a healer that will conduct rituals or chants, or use these fetish objects or whatever is necessary in order to deliver you from this spiritual problem.

Another term that’s used a lot in African religion is the phrase “rites of passage”. Every religion of course has important rites of passage. We have this in Islam, we have this in Christianity, we have this in Judaism (Judaism has Bar Mitzvahs, Bat Mitzvahs where men and women will go into accepting the yoke of the Torah and the responsibilities of Jewish life). This is normal in many parts of the world. This is also true in the African Traditional Religion. Normally, when you are born, that is considered a rite of passage, and there are certain kinds of religious activities and rituals and magic chants and various things that are done at the time of birth to protect the child from spiritual danger. Sometimes the ceremony, even though it’s associated with birth, may wait for weeks or months or even as long as a year after the birth to make sure that the child is going to live before they perform this rite of passage for the birth. So this is one of the rites of passage.

Another rite of passage is the transition from childhood to adulthood, and this tends to be very important in many of the traditional cultures in Africa. It may involve some kind of ordeal or some kind of torture; it may involve special marks being placed – tattoos and various things – in order to identify that the person is now an adult, and will accept the full responsibilities of adult work in their society.

Another rite of passage is marriage. Marriage is very important in all cultures, but certainly in the African culture there are different kinds of emphases in marriage, but the wedding is a very important legal and social event, and it involves certain kinds of rites of passage and rituals that are practiced during that time.

Another rite of passage of course is death itself, and so when a person dies, there are certain rituals that are performed that will carefully convey this person into the unseen world and to the world of the spirit world, and there’s all kinds of elaborate funeral preparations that are often done in African societies.

Another term that’s often used is the term “taboo”. Something that’s a very common aspect of traditional religions is the recognition that some objects carry spiritual power, and therefore should be forbidden in some ways. The word “taboo” is a word that’s often synonymous with our word for “forbidden”. Usually it’s in the context of moral issues. There are certain things which you should not do that are considered to be taboo – that would create chaos in the society. In “taboo”, the meaning, though, is beyond simply a word for “forbidden”. In taboo, it can mean also that a physical object, a person, or a place, can not only be forbidden, but may carry spiritual powers that one has to manipulate ritually. And it can create great problems if you don’t do that. So this is something that is part of the fetishes or ritual objects that are manipulated in African society.

So another term that’s often used in African religion is the term “totem” – you’ve often heard of totem poles and totem links that are used in native traditional cultures. Well you should always view African religion as divided into multiple tribes and clans that practice various religious activities. And so in many African societies your genetic descent is very important, and your clan’s relationship to other members of the clan is very important. This is part of the way a lot of rituals are done, based on your age and your relationship to other people in your clan, and this is laid out through a totem, which is a way of showing the relationship of different people to other people. They’re often commonly misunderstood as idols, but they actually should be viewed as a pictorial genealogy which describes someone’s spiritual and sometimes physical descent. And so these are found in many parts of African society. They’re a very important part of record-keeping, and keeping clear who belongs to who and where they’re from.

So at this time we’re going to examine a particular example of this in the Yoruba religious cosmology in African religion.


*Hiebert, Paul G. , Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, 1994.