African Religions

Many people consider African religions to be limited to Animism and Tribal religions. Africa is a vast continent, with many races, but in religion as in other matters the continent is divided at the Sahara Desert. North Africa belongs to the Mediterranean world and the religion of Islam was established there from the seventh century AD. Islam spread only slowly down the eastern and western coasts, and it did not enter the tropical forests and the East African interior until modern times. Christianity held the ancient Coptic churches in Egypt, flourished for a long time in the Sudan, and still survives in Ethiopia as the only African kingdom with a Christian state church. In the last hundred years Christian missions have spread to most African countries in the tropical and South of the Sahara, in the savannah regions and in the dense tropical forests, old traditional religious beliefs survive. These have often unhappily been called fetishist or animist, but they nearly always combine belief in a supreme being with the worship of other gods, cults of ancestors, and magical practices.

The races of tropical Africa are mostly Negro, divided by their languages roughly into Sudanese and Bantu groups. There are also small groups of Pygmies and Bushmen, and in Madagascar the population is chiefly Malaysian in origin, with some Indian and African strains. Over this vast area religious beliefs and practices vary considerably, owing not only to the absence of literature but also to the lack of central organization or missionary enterprise. Negro peoples have important religious beliefs which are comparable in their main themes, but there are many differences between particular places. The Pygmies or Negritos live in the forest regions of the River Congo, and little is known of their languages or social organization since many of them are wandering hunters. They trade with the surrounding Bantu Negroes and many adopt some of their religious beliefs or myths. The Mbuti Pygmies believe in a great being of the sky, lord of storms and rainbows, sometimes called Creator, and envisaged as an old man with a long beard. He is named Tore and not only did he make everything but all belongs to him, so that before hunting he is invoked for food. The Pygmies also revere the moon, and some of them say that it was the moon who molded the first man, covered him with skin and poured blood inside. Another story associates the first couple with the chameleon, a reptile that figures in many African tales. The dominant Pygmy belief is in the god of the forest, who is benevolent, and to whom men pay as much respect as they do to their own parents.

The Bushmen and Hottentots live in southern Africa and were the original inhabitants of the land when the first Europeans arrived at the Cape. Today the true Bushmen (Khoisan) are restricted to the Kalahari Desert and Namibia. Modern Bushmen pray to celestial spirits and tell myths and legends about them. They pay special attention to the moon, which comes into their speculations about the origins of death, a common African preoccupation.

The Hottentots have largely become Christian and most of their ancient religious beliefs have disappeared, so much so that it was once thought that they had no former religion. Their ancient gods appear to have been a mingling of natural forces and ancestral spirits.

In the sub-Saharan and forest areas there are small groups of Hamites (Caucasians, related to Europeans) such as the Fulani of Nigeria, but they are Muslims like the major Hamite groups of North Africa and the Tuaregs of the Sahara. A vast majority of Africans south of the Sahara are Negroes, and they generally have a belief in a supreme being, though their conception of his role in daily life differs according to localities.

In East Africa a common name for the supreme being is Mulungu, a word of unknown origin but indicating the almighty and ever present creator. The thunder is said to be his voice and the lightning his power; he rewards the good and punishes the wicked. From the northern Kalahari through the Congo to Tanzania the name Leza is used, perhaps from a root meaning "to cherish," since he is the one who watches over people, providing for the needy and besetting the wayward. Leza is said to live in heaven, to which humans pray for rain, but finally he is transcendent and incomprehensible. Another divine name is Nyambe, perhaps from a root indicating power, and used from Botswana to Cameroun. A similar name, Name, is used in West Africa alongside other divine names, such as Ngewo the god of the Mende people of Sierra Leone, Amma of the Dogon of Mali, Mawu of the Ewe of Abomey, Olorun of the Yoruba and Chukwu of the Ibo and Soko of the Nupe, all of Nigeria.

Despite the universality of belief in a supreme being in Africa regular worship is not generally given to him. There are no great temples or organized cults for him in most places, though there are a few exceptions. Yet despite this absence of formal worship and temples over most of Africa, the supreme being (or God) is a reality to many people. He is transcendent and there is a popular myth, told from West African to the Upper Nile, which says that he or the sky his dwelling place was once much nearer to the earth.

Africans believe in many other spiritual beings, roughly divisible into nature spirits and ancestors, some of them having both human and natural origins. They are often called children of God, but most receive much more formal worship than he does. Yet it is said that in sacrifices offered to other deities the essence of the gift goes to the supreme being.

There are countless gods, and their cults are particularly well developed in West Africa, and less in eastern and southern Africa where the ancestral rituals tend to dominate. Many of these cults of the gods are declining nowadays but in some places, as among the Ewe of Abomey, they are highly organized and are as yet little affected by Islam or Christianity.

To learn about African Religions you can go to the following links or perform your own research:

http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/

http://afgen.com/atr.html

http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/atr_bibliography.htm
 

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