Essentials of African Traditional Religions - Lesson 2

African Traditional Religion (ATR) in Practice

In this lesson, you will gain an understanding of African Traditional Religions (ATR). This includes its definition, historical context, and distinct features such as ancestral worship, spirit possession, and divination. You will also learn about ATR in practice, including its worship, divination, and healing practices. Additionally, the role of ATR in promoting social justice, particularly concerning gender, ethics, and political power, will be explored. Finally, the significance of ATR for missions and its future will be discussed.

Timothy Tennent
Essentials of African Traditional Religions
Lesson 2
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African Traditional Religion (ATR) in Practice

WM241- Essentials of African Traditional Religions

I. Overview of African Traditional Religions (ATR)

A. Definition of ATR

1. Distinctive features of ATR

a. Ancestral worship

b. Spirit possession

c. Divination

2. Importance of ATR

a. Cultural identity

b. Daily life practices

B. Historical context of ATR

1. Influence of colonialism

2. Relationship with Christianity

II. ATR in practice

A. Worship practices

1. Ancestral veneration

2. Spirit possession

B. Divination practices

1. Types of divination

2. Role of diviners

C. Healing practices

1. Use of herbal remedies

2. Invoking the spirit world

III. ATR and social justice

A. ATR and gender

1. Women and ATR

2. Men and ATR

B. ATR and ethics

1. Concepts of right and wrong

2. Role of ATR in resolving conflicts

C. ATR and political power

1. ATR and leadership

2. ATR and resistance to colonialism

IV. Conclusion

A. Summary of ATR

B. Significance of ATR for missions

C. Future of ATR

  • 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


African Traditional Religion (ATR) in Practice

Lesson Transcript


It’s important in discussing the cosmology of African Traditional Religion to not simply look at it in a generalized framework, but to see how this actually works out in the real situation of a particular expression of African Traditional Religion. All of the features we talked about are things that find real-life expression. For example, we talked in the last session on the fact that many times in the upper tier of African religion you have a god who is remote or removed from the ordinary lives and religious practices of Africans. So in many African societies the supreme being is concerned with the invisible, ultimate realities, but not the daily-ness of ordinary life.

So this leads to the question: “How did this god become removed from human society?” If you actually look at the cultures, most cultures will have stories that explain how this god got removed from society. For example, I’ll tell one of the more interesting stories from a certain people group called “Krachi”. This is a west African people that is located in the modern day country of Togo, and this is how they explain or put flesh on the general statement that the supreme being is a removed being.

According to their story, in the beginning of days, there was this supreme being known as Wulbari. Now Wulbari is essentially their name for the supreme god. In those days, Wulbari and man lived close together, and Wulbari lay on top of Mother Earth, which is known as Asase Ya. Thus it happened, as there was so little space to move about in, man annoyed the high god, and so in disgust, he went away and rose up to the present place where one can admire him but not reach him. This explains how god moved from the earthly level up to the heavenly level. Now we find out that he was annoyed for a number of reasons. For example, an old woman one time, while making her fufu (fufu would be yams that are pounded and made into food), she’s making fufu outside of her hut one day and she kept knocking Wulbari with her pestle that she used to break up the yams. This hurt Wulbari, and so she persisted, and he was finally forced to go higher and higher out of her reach. Besides that, all the cooking fires that people burned got into his eyes and so he had to go farther away. Another part of the story said that Wulbari was so close to men he made a convenient towel, and people would wipe their dirty hands on Wulbari, and this annoyed him. And so finally he removed himself out of reach of man. Sometimes they say that people would cut off a piece of him to eat at mealtime, and this pained him, and so he went even higher.

Now the point of this story is to explain: How did a god, who was close to us and who is the creator, who fashioned us – how did he get removed from us? Now often when Christians come into a society and hear a story like this, the tendency is to quickly dismiss it as rubbish, as ridiculous fanciful stories that should not be given a second thought. But if you look at all the stories, not only here among the Krachi in Togo, but amongst many of the people groups throughout sub-Saharan Africa, what you’ll discover is that most of these stories all underscore a basic point, and that is this: God was once near to us. Something transpired between God and man which offended the relationship -- which broke the relationship -- and caused a separation between god and man. We are now lacking harmony, we are in disharmony because we are separated from God, and this harmony needs to be restored. That is the actual basic bottom line of these stories, and that of course is the bottom line story of the Christian gospel, that God did in fact come down. He walked with Adam in the cool of the garden, but through human sinfulness that relationship was breached, and Adam was cast out of the garden, and that fellowship with God was broken. And now we live in this perpetual state of disconnectedness with God, and the need for restored fellowship and communion with God. And the whole gospel is about how this restoration takes place – how we are reconciled to God morally and ethically and relationally. And so in some ways, one has to see that these stories in the various mythologies in African religion underscore certain true observations about the human condition and why things have gotten the way they have.

So now let’s look more particularly at the Yoruba people group. The Yoruba is a great example to look at, because they’re one of the largest religious groups in Africa. There are over 20 million Yoruba in west Africa. They’re located primarily in southwest Nigeria. They’re also found in Ghana and in Togo, and in other parts of west Africa. They’re also important to study because their religious system has survived remarkably well into the modern world. Islam and Christianity have come into Nigeria, along with modern urbanization, technology, wars, coups, and problems – but despite all that, there has been a sustained perseverance of the African Traditional Religion amongst the Yoruba that is quite important.

So let’s take our three levels that we’ve already explored and see if we can see how this works itself out amongst the Yoruba. At the highest level, the Yoruba posit a god, a supreme being known as Olodumare. Olodumare is the chief source of power. Like we saw in the general structure, Olodumare is also remote, and is never approached directly. The second level of power in the Yoruba cosmology is represented by a group of non-human divinities known as Orisa, and they also have a group of human but divinized ancestors. So in that sense the Yoruba traditional religion represents kind of a classic example that fits perfectly with the traditional structure of ATR. Together, the Orisa and the ancestors are the major focus of worship and ritual activity amongst the Yoruba. Finally, at the lowest level, the third level – the Yoruba embrace a wide array of ritual powers, the most prominent of which is known as “Ifa Divination”. Divination is extremely important amongst the Yoruba, and divination is used to link the worshipper and the Orisa or the ancestors. So what we’ll do is we’ll look at each of these more carefully and demonstrate how it all actually works in this overall African religion amongst the Yoruba.

At level one, we mentioned we have Olodumare, who resides as a supreme being over the Yoruba. For the Yoruba, Olodumare is the unique, supreme and omnipotent god. The name Olodumare is an important name to break down its meaning to get a feeling for it. The prefix “Ol-“ means “owner of” or “lord of”; the second part, “-odu-” is a bit more obscure, it depends on various ways you might pronounce it what it means, but it probably means “master” or “head” (at least it carries the idea of authority). Another way it could be translated – it could mean a large pot or container, the idea being that this god has great capacity. So “Olodu” means “supreme head”, as one who has authority, or one who contains the fullest of attributes. The final ending “-mare” is an adjectival ending which means “one that does not move about or wander”. So the idea behind the term “Olodumare” is that Olodumare is stable, is unchanging, he is permanent, and he is reliable.

So many times Olodumare is used regularly for what we would use the word God. Don’t forget that in English the word “god” itself is from Germanic origins, from the word “Gott”, and even for Muslims “Allah” has an origin that pre-dates the rise of Islam. So it’s not unusual to find a name for god that is retained and used by people as a word for god. So you often have Christians who refer to God as Olodumare, even though this is a term unfamiliar with the west. In fact when I was actually in Nigeria, I once asked a Yoruba Christian why Christians adopted the traditional name for God. He responded and said, “Olodumare IS God. Olodumare is the mighty one who lives in heaven.” He rejected the lower, second tier of all the Orisa and we’ll look at in a minute the divinities, but he didn’t want to reject the idea of a supreme god. So in this case, when this happens in Africa, you’ll find that the missionaries had very different approaches to this.

When they came into Africa, and they finally discovered that there was this highest tier, Tier 1, the supreme being, many missionaries, because the supreme being was connected to this second tier of divinities and ancestors, they rejected the whole thing and usually imported some foreign word for God, a word like Jehovah or some other word they brought into Africa from the outside. But other missionaries, on the other hand, retained the traditional word for god, but then filled it with Christian meaning. So in this case, you would say that Olodumare IS the supreme creator god. He is the mighty God – there were no particularly negative associations with Olodumare in African religion, so they used it and they went on to say Olodumare had a son. His son was the Lord Jesus Christ, and the whole gospel gets unfolded from that point.

Interestingly, ….. has made the point that whenever missionaries chose the indigenous name for God in their ministries, those are the places where the church is growing the fastest in Africa. And as you probably have heard if you’ve read a book like Philip Jenkins’ book, The Next Christendom, or his more recent book entitled The New Faces of Christianity, these books explore the dramatic growth of Christianity outside the western world, and Africa is gaining around 24,000 new Christians every single day. Well if you look at Africa, this 24,000 is not evenly dispersed throughout the country, but is in fact quite surprisingly different based on where you are in the continent and the background of the people. So … argues that wherever the missionaries chose to utilize and adapt the traditional name for God, and fill it with Christian meaning – those are the places, amongst those peoples, where Christianity is growing the fastest. And where foreign terminology was brought in, that’s where Christianity’s growth has been retarded.

So this is a very important point, and you can see amongst the Yoruba where the gospel is spreading quite rapidly in Nigeria, that this may be at least in part because some Christians continue the use of the word Olodumare to describe the word for God. Another term that is used in Nigeria for this supreme being is simply the term “Olorun” which means “Lord of Heaven”, and it’s also used by the Yoruba, though it’s often more of a generic use, like the word “lord” is in our society, as opposed to Olodumare, which is more of a personal name that is used.

So, this is important. I think we have to remember, as I said earlier on in the summary, that the supreme being in Africa is something that is very important to recognize as something that is present in African religions. People tried to find its source in Islam and other things, but they finally realized in fact that it is related directly to the indigenous practices in African religion. We’ve also had an opportunity now to talk to a number of African Christians to see how they regard Olodumare, and if they would advocate the continued use of this [name]. One famous scholar has argued that Olodumare should not be abandoned because he was not a member of this lower pantheon. And yet, because people do not erect temples to Olodumare, they have not associated negative principles with Olodumare, and therefore he can be used without any problem.

Now moving to the second level of African Traditional Religion in the structure amongst the Yoruba is this level two which of course has two parts, the divinities and the ancestors. Let’s begin with the divinities. Amongst the Yoruba, the divinities are known as “Orisa”. This is a large pantheon of divinities with various focal points of power. The first focal point of power is a group of non-human mediators between Olodumare and the worshippers. These Orisa are really divinities as I said in the sense that they extend the power of Olodumare to the worshipper and they communicate back up to Olodumare the thoughts and the prayers of the worshippers. Now, to make them only messengers or conduits of power is to underestimate the central role that the Orisa play as the focal point in Yoruba worship. Therefore, it’s better to understand them as divine agents who ultimately are accountable to Olodumare and are allowed to share in his knowledge and his power. And they really are the main focus of worship amongst the Yoruba.

So this is essential -- in fact one of the famous stories told in African religion is when the Orisa all got together and decided that because they were the focus of religious power in Nigeria amongst the Yoruba, that they didn’t need Olodumare – that they were independent of Olodumare. According to a very ancient Yoruba hymn, the story goes that 1700 Orisa gathered together to conspire against Olodumare, and to challenge his absolute authority and power over everything. They confronted Olodumare and demanded that he step down and retire within 16 years, so they could take full control of the earth. (And by the way, 16 is a very important number in Yoruba religion – everything is based on 16 – the earth started with 16 people , and there’s always 16 involved in everything, and so it makes sense that they would demand that Olodumare step down within 16 years so they could take control of the earth.) Olodumare, who is of course fully aware of the plot, agreed on the condition that they first take charge for 16 days. The Orisa of course agreed, and as soon as they left the presence of Olodumare, he turned off all the cosmic machinery of the universe, and everything came to a standstill. The Orisa were quickly overwhelmed, they were confused, they were powerless, and they had to return to Olodumare embarrassed and humiliated, and they had to, with hat in their hand, ask for forgiveness because they had challenged the supreme authority of Olodumare. They pleaded for his mercy, and of course Olodumare was rather amused by the whole challenge. He forgave them and once again he, you might say “tuned the universe back on” again. He opened the wombs of women and he made the crops to go and the waterfalls to flow, etc., and they all departed singing a song which is still sung today. The translation is “Olodumare is the unique king.”

So, this is really the thing to recognize – the difference between the deity and a divinity. The Orisa have very important powers. They have delegated powers to oversee things like crops and safety in travel and successful delivery of babies, and so forth. But they do not have any independent power separate from Tier 1, the supreme deity. That’s part of these levels of power that we talked about. Now in this actual pantheon of divinities that are known as Orisa in the Yoruba pantheon, there’s no consensus as to how many are actually there. Some traditions claim that there are 201. Others claim that there are over 1700. However, I think it’s best to see that what you find in many of the traditional religions is that though there are various numbers, there’s really a relatively small group that are able to achieve the focus of daily worship in a place like Yoruba-land. People cannot worship 1700 different deities, so it’s a bit like India, which has millions of different gods. There, people generally practice Bhakti, where you actually devote yourself to a particular god or goddess. In a similar way, though there are potentially hundreds of Orisa, there’s widespread agreement among scholars in Yoruba that there are five Orisa which are particularly revered and have shrines throughout the country. Let me just briefly survey these five to give you a good feel for the kinds of ways that these divinities function in African Traditional Religion.

The first and most important Orisa is known as Orisanla. This is a supreme divinity (not deity) of Yoruba-land. His name means “great” or “arch-Orisa” – “arch-divinity”. He is often referred to in Yoruba theology as the offspring of Olodumare. Now that’s obviously very important for Christian theology. That’s why I’ve used as an example the Yoruba, because there are so many interesting parallels where one has to address the gospel to the situation. So here’s a situation where they have a divinity who is considered to be the offspring or the son of Olodumare. According to Yoruba legend, Olodumare designated Orisanla with a task of bringing order to the earth. At the time, the earth was like a big wasteland. There was no solid ground, and Orisanla was given a snail shell filled with soil. He was given a pigeon and a hen, and he was sent down. Orisanla poured out the soil, and the bird scattered it about until the earth was formed. And the original place where this solid ground appeared was called “Ife” or “Ilife”. This is the most sacred city of the Yoruba. This is linked to the origin of creation. According to their legend, Orisanla brought the first 16 people to this position, this place, to populate the earth. And this begins in Ilife (sometimes it’s just simply called “Ife”). That’s a really important point, because if you go to west Africa, you’ll find that Ilife is one of the most important central shrines of Yoruba-land. They also were told in other parallels that these 16 humans that were brought were, according to tradition, lifeless – had no power. And so, even though Orisanla made the human forms, Olodumare had to breathe life into them. So this again shows you how in the African Traditional Religions you have on one hand deities that perform amazing powers, amazing deeds in society, (they’re revered, they’re worshipped, they’re acknowledged), but at the end of the day, there’s always that sense that the final authority rests with the supreme god. Orisanla could create the human forms, for example, but he could not create life itself.

The second major Orisa is known as Oduduwa. Oduduwa is a very interesting Orisa and plays a very prominent role in the early creation myths of the Yoruba. Now, one of the myths says that when Orisanla left the presence of Olodumare to create the earth, he became very thirsty on his way down (remember, he was given the hen and the various things to create the earth with). So they say that he became thirsty and ended up getting drunk and fell into a deep slumber. And so you can see that their view of god is a bit different, or these intermediaries at least can easily get drunk, or whatever. So, after some time passed, and the world was not created, according to this particular version of the myth, Olodumare became worried and sent Oduduwa, this other Orisa down to find Orisanla .When Oduduwa found Orisanla sleeping, he took the materials and it was actually Oduduwa who created the solid earth himself, and so he therefore pre-empted Orisanla’s place and thereby upstaged him in ritual importance.

So when I was in Nigeria, one of the things I did when I was studying this, was that I decided to actually go an interview one of the highest priests of the area – a priest very near to Ilife. And I asked him about these two different versions of the creation story. And he became somewhat upset, and he said that outsiders have made up this alternate story to make fun of Orisanla, or to get him demoted to a lower level. He was very upset that this story continues to be told about Orisanla getting drunk on wine and becoming unable to perform his duty. But it is important to notice, though, that there are different versions of this, and you’ll find numerous shrines to Oduduwa throughout the world of the Yoruba. In fact if you go to the famous Obafemi Awolowo University, formerly the University of Ife, in Oyo state in Nigeria, there’s a very large carved statue of Oduduwa which stands in the main hall, right there in the shadow of Ife.

The third major Orisa is known as Orunmila. Orunmila is a very important Orisa in terms of daily religious life and practices of the Yoruba. It is the belief of the Yoruba that while the Orisanla is the deputy of Olodumare, or the son of Olodumare, in his creative functions and even executive functions, Orunmila essentially is the diffusion of Olodumare’s omniscience and wisdom. Orunmila is thought to have knowledge of every person’s destiny and is therefore very important in the divination rites known as Ifa. This is practiced throughout west Africa, but is very strong amongst the Yoruba. Orunmila is essentially the patron Orisa of the Ifa rite – the divination rite, and is very strong amongst the Yoruba people. So we will say more about this when we speak about the divination rites.

The fourth major Orisa is a rather complex figure known as Esu. Esu is also an extention of Olodumare’s power. In that sense we keep the basic theme of diffused monotheism. However, Esu is unlike the other Orisa in that he has no separate shrine or worshippers like the other Orisa, but he’s included in all the others. Esu is more like, maybe we would say like an inspector or someone who examines things, who regularly reports to Olodumare on people’s deeds and whether they’re worshipping things correctly, or whether they’re doing the sacrifices correctly, or whether they do the divination correctly, and so forth. Thus, the attitude of the Yoruba to Esu is one more of fear and dread, because he’s the one that sees what you’re doing and reports and carries those reports to Olodumare. He also can be feared because he is considered a trickster or a mischief-maker, and sometimes he has association with evil. And because of that, some of the early missionaries and Bible translators identified Esu with the New Testament devil or Satan. But actually in the Yoruba belief system, Esu does not embody in quite that way, nor does he stand in opposition to Olodumare. He actually is the one who reports to Olodumare on a regular basis.

The fifth and final Orisa which we will explore is known as Ogun. Ogun is important in this study because Ogun represents the dividing line between the Orisa and the ancestors. So if you look at all of these, they all represent certain things about African religion which are very important, and one of the things that they show you is that there’s this kind of this fine line between god and the divinities – between deity and divinities, and eventually humanity. So you have the god’s power being diffused into the divinities, and the divinities shading over in the ancestors, so some of the ancestors have actually become divinities, and all this. So that’s one of the big, mega-observations that you should make about how the African Traditional Religion actually works. But also there are so many interesting parallels that come out, like Olodumare having a son in Orisanla, who actually is the one who creates the world. We also learn about the idea of alternate stories – you don’t have a set canon with set stories that are agreed by all. But you have differences, and Oduduwa brings that out quite well. Orumnila, this idea of knowing one’s destiny – clearly you see a dispersion of Olodumare’s knowledge. And it’s the same way with Ogun. Ogun is considered to be a human ancestor who achieved the high status of being an Orisa. So here you have a blending from human to the divinities. Ogun is widely thought to be the first king of Ife, and is now considered to be the Orisa in charge of metals, tool-making, war, and so forth. Ogun appears in Yoruba mythology as a pioneer with a great machete, clearing the way for the divinities to come. Part of the legend states that when the Orisa arrived on earth to govern the earth and extend Olodumare’s power, they couldn’t get through because the bush was so thick. So Ogun led the way by clearing a path with his machete. So therefore for some Yoruba this gives Ogun a position of supremacy, because he led the way for the Orisa – they couldn’t be here without him, and I must admit when I was spending time amongst the Yoruba, even though this Yoruba is in many ways a transitional figure to the ancestors, I think I heard more people refer to Ogun than any other Orisa. Very popularly held, and the word “Ogun” in the legend carries the idea (the meaning of the word: “one who makes the way smooth”, making the way smooth for the deities). The abode of Ogun is both in heaven and in the earth. So again he spans both worlds and therefore is kind of a bridge figure between the non-human Orisa and the human ancestors which we will now give our attention to.