The traditional African religions (or traditional beliefs and practices of African people) are a set of highly diverse beliefs that includes various ethnic religions. Generally, these traditions are oral rather than scriptural,[include belief in an amount of higher and lower gods, sometimes including a supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of the dead, use of magic and traditional African medicine. Most religions can be described as Animism[ with various polyheistic and pantheistic aspects. The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural. According to the author Lugira, "it is the only religion that can claim to have originated in Africa. Other religions found in Africa have their origins in other parts of the world.
Adherents of traditional religions in Sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries and are estimated to number over 100 million.
Although the majority of Africans today are adherents of Christianity or Islam, African people often combine the practice of their traditional belief with the practice of Abrahamic religions. The two Abrahamic religions are widespread across Africa, though mostly concentrated in different areas. They have replaced indigenous African religions, but are often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems.
Followers of traditional African religions are also found around the world. In recent times, traditional religions, such as the Yoruba religion, are on the rise. The religion of the Yoruba is finding roots in the United state among African -American and some others.
Animism builds the core concept of traditional African religions, this includes the worship of tutelary deities, nature worship, ancestor worship and the belief in an afterlife. While some religions adopted a pantheistic worldview, most follow a polytheistic system with various gods, spirits and other supernatural being. Traditional African religions also have elements of fetishism, shamanism and veneration of relics.
Traditional African religions can be broken down into linguistic cultural groups, with common themes. Among Niger-Congo-speakers is a belief in a creator god or higher deity, which is considered by some to be a widespread and ancient feature of Niger-Congo-cultures, along with other more specialized deities, ancestor spirits, territorial spirits, evil caused by human ill will and neglecting ancestor spirits, and priests of territorial spirits.] New world religions such as Santeria, Vodun, and Candeomble, would be derived from this world. Among Nilo-Saharan speakers is the belief in Divinity; evil is caused by divine judgement and retribution; prophets as middlemen between Divinity and man. Among Afro-Asiatic-speakers is henotheism, the belief in one's own gods but accepting the existence of other gods; evil here is caused by malevolent spirits. The Semitic Abrahamic religion of Judaism is comparable to the latter world view. San religion is non-theistic but a belief in a Spirit or Power of existence which can be tapped in a trance-dance; trance-healers.
Some researchers, including historical ethnolinguist Christoper Ehereht, suggest that monotheistic concepts, including the belief in a creator god or force (along with the veneration of many lesser deities and spirits) are ancient and indigenous among peoples of the Niger-Congo ethnolinguistic family (of much of West Africa and Central Africa) and date to the beginning of their history, in a form substantially different from the monotheism found in Abrahamic religions. Traditional Niger-Congo religion also included polytheistic and animistic elements.
Traditional african medicine is also directly linked to traditional African religions. According to Clemmont E. Vontress, the various religious traditions of Africa are united by a basic Animism. According to him, the belief in spirits and ancestors is the most important element of African religions. Gods were either self-created or evolved from spirits or ancestors which got worshiped by the people. He also notes that most modern African folk religions were strongly influenced by non-African religions, mostly Christianity and Islam and thus may differ from the ancient forms.
West and Central African religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by force (or ashe, nyama, etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic or driving drumming or singing. One religious ceremony practiced in Gabon and Cameroon is the Okuyi, practiced by several Bantu ethnic groups. In this state, depending upon the region, drumming or instrumental rhythms played by respected musicians (each of which is unique to a given deity or ancestor), participants embody a deity or ancestor, energy or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements or dances which further enhance their elevated consciousness.
When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, adherents are privy to a way of contemplating the pure or symbolic embodiment of a particular mindset or frame of reference. This builds skills at separating the feelings elicited by this mindset from their situational manifestations in daily life. Such separation and subsequent contemplation of the nature and sources of pure energy or feelings serves to help participants manage and accept them when they arise in mundane contexts. This facilitates better control and transformation of these energies into positive, culturally appropriate behavior, thought, and speech. Also, this practice can also give rise to those in these trances uttering words which, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions which the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goal.
Traditional African religions generally believe in an afterlife, one or more Spirit world, and Ancestor worship is an important basic concept in mostly all African religions. Some African religions adopted different views through the influence of Islam or even Hinduism.
Practices and rituals
There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions. The deities and spirits are honored through Libitatio or sacrifice (of animals, vegetables, cooked food, flowers, semi-precious stones and precious metals). The will of the gods or spirits is sought by the believer also through consultation of divinities or divination. Traditional African religions embrace natural phenomena – ebb and tide, waxing and waning moon, rain and drought – and the rhythmic pattern of agriculture. According to Gottlieb and Mbiti:
For example, in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir. With a long farming tradition, the Serer high priests and priestesses (Saltigue) deliver yearly sermons at the Xooy Ceremony (divination ceremony) in Fatick before Yoonir's phase in order to predict winter months and enable farmers to start planting.
Traditional Healers are common in most areas, and their practices include a religious element to varying degrees.
Since Africa is a large continent with many ethnic groups and cultures, there is not one single technique of casting divination. The practice of casting may be done with small objects, such as bones, cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood.
Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood or performed on the ground (often within a circle).
In traditional African societies, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are generally no prohibitions against the practice. Diviner (also known as priest) are also sought for their wisdom as counselors in life and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.
Virtue and vice
Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with carrying out obligations of the communal aspect of life. Examples include social behaviors such as the respect for parents and elders, raising children appropriately, providing hospitality, and being honest, trustworthy, and courageous.
In some traditional African religions, morality is associated with obedience or disobedience to God regarding the way a person or a community lives. For the Kikuyu, according to their primary supreme creator Ngai, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience.
In many cases, Africans who have converted to other religions have still kept up their traditional customs and practices, combining them in a syncretic way.
Although the majority of Africans today are adherents of Christianity or Islam, African people often combine the practice of their traditional belief with the practice of Abrahamic religions.The two Abrahamic religions are widespread across Africa, though mostly concentrated in different areas. They have replaced indigenous African religions, but are often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems.
Followers of traditional African religions are also found around the world. In recent times, traditional religions, such as the Yoruba religion, are on the rise. The religion of the Yoruba is finding roots in the United state among African American and some others.
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