Africa is a vast continent, with many races, but in religion as in other matters it is helpful for study to divide the continent at the Sahara Desert. For centuries the barriers of desert, tropical forest, and sea prevented religions from spreading south. 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 southern regions, and Islam has also made great advances in East and West Africa.
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 (see Introduction), but they nearly always combine belief in a supreme being with the worship of other gods, cults of ancestors, and magical practices. Unfortunately there was no knowledge of writing in these areas before modern times, except among some peoples of the Sudan, and knowledge of the polytheistic traditional religions depends upon the records of observers, mostly foreign, and accounts dictated to them by Africans.
The races of tropical Africa are mostly black, 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. black 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 blackes 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 moulded 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. There are popular songs of joy and praise which have as motif the simple theme that the forest is good. The forest-god is in the trees or the river or waiting silently near his worshipper, and a basket of food is the sign that he has been invoked. There are religious societies, particularly male, which function in celebration of the forest-god and are active at festivals of puberty for boys and girls, with ritual dancing and feasting.
The Bushmen and Hottentots (the latter coming from the mixture of Bushmen with other races) live in southern Africa and were the original inhabitants of the land when the first Europeans arrived at the Cape. The Bushmen came from the north thousands of years ago, passing down through East and Central Africa, where their former presence is attested by rock-paintings in Tanzania, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. Today the true Bushmen (Khoisan) are restricted to the Kalahari Desert and Namibia.
The ancient Bushmen were great painters and engravers on flat rock surfaces, using black, white, red, brown and yellow colours in their pictures. The subjects of those paintings which have survived are largely of animals. They are clearly hunting scenes, which probably had the magical purpose of helping men to kill animals in the chase, as in the ancient European rock-paintings (see chapter on prehistoric religion). Human figures were generally more realistically drawn by the Bushmen than by the Lascaux artists in ancient southern France; sexual differences, ornaments, weapons and hair styles are clearly visible. But, apart from the hunting magic, the paintings reveal little of ancient Bushman religion, and Bushmen have now forgotten both how to paint and how to interpret the ancient patterns.
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. Other natural forces arc personified, and past heroes are glorified, and both are invoked at times, especially when there is need of rain. There are initiation ceremonies for girls, but not so many for boys and circumcision was not an ancient Bushman practice.
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. The great tribal hero was Tsui 'goab, and to him the Hottentots prayed for rain and food, telling legends of his great exploits.
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. The vast majority of Africans south of the Sahara are blackes, 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, Nyame, 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. There are low mud altars for Amma among the Dogon, a number of small temples and pots on forked sticks for Nyame in Ashanti, groves and sacred places among the Kikuyu of Kenya and the Shona of Zimbabwe.
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. Owing to undue human familiarity, usually blamed on a woman, he withdrew to the distance where he now is. Despite his distance he supervises all the affairs of earth; proverbs tell of his providential care, and he is thought to send rewards and punishments. Where there are no temples or priests, ordinary people pray to him in time of need without any intermediary; he is the resort of those who find that all else has failed and the final court of appeal. The name of God comes in daily salutations, common proverbs, oaths and riddles. Many myths are told about him, in which he may have a wife and children, yet he lives in heaven and is supreme. The Nuer of the Sudan have neither prophets nor sanctuaries of God, and make no material images of him, but he is present in the very atmosphere, in daily life and the social order. God is spoken of as spirit, invisible like wind and air, yet though he is in these things he is different from them. He is associated with the sky, as high up, yet he is different from the heavens, storm and rain, since he is everywhere.
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 rather 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.
The gods may be distinguished according to their location in the regions of sky, earth, water and forest. There are very few references made to the sun, because in the tropics the sun is always present and oppressive and does not need to be induced to shine. There are a few moon cults, particularly in connection with ceremonies for babies, which are shown to the moon as a sign of blessing. The great gods of the sky are the storms, because of the fierce tornadoes which sweep across the tropical regions. One of the most notable deities is Shango of the Yoruba of Nigeria, who was the fourth king of the capital town of Oyo. He ascended to heaven by a chain, and became identified with the storm. This double function assured his popularity both as national- and storm-god, and many towns still have temples dedicated to Shango, with priests who impersonate the god at festivals and carry imitation axes to symbolize thunderbolts and lightning.
The spirits of the earth are associated with agriculture and many other sides of life. Asase Yaa, Mother Thursday, of the Ashanti, has no temple or regular worship, but work on the land is taboo on Thursday and at ploughing and harvest times libations and first-fruits are offered to her as the Earth Mother. Among the Ibo the earth-spirit Ala is the most popular deity of all and the greatest power in social life. There are countless temples, with life-size images of Ala with a child in her arms like a madonna, and regular sacrifices are offered. On special occasions new houses are erected for Ala, with clay images of many other creatures, divine, human and animal, brightly painted, but the Earth Mother is always the central figure. Ala is guardian of morality, and is particularly important as custodian of the dead since they are buried in the earth as in her womb. Other earth-spirits are associated with hills, rocks and special places of power, like Mount Kenya, "mountain of brightness". The importance of the earth apperas again in social groups and secret societies, which use symbols of the earth in their rituals.
Water-spirits are believed to dwell in springs, wells, streams, rivers and the sea. Olokun, the god of the sea at Benin, is thought to be a great king who lives in a palace under the waters with his soldiers and mermaids, and at times it was said that he tried to conquer the earth by a breat flood. Peoples who live along rivers or by the sea have many tales of the spirits there and they make sacrifices to propitiate them. On the Upper Niger people that have been under the influence of Islam for centuries still perform dances every week, in which the spirits of the waters (the Zin, perhaps from the Islamic jinn) are believed to enter into their devotees. In is often in conjunction with water-spirits that cults of sacred snakes occur, especially the python, and there are temples for their worship on the Atlantic coast, at Whydah and the Niger delta.
Spirits of the forest are less easily described and worship may only occur in occasional offerings of food placed in front of trees and rocks. Hunters seek to propitiate the spirits of the wild and learn from them the secret lore which makes for success in the chase. They also become weathermen and claim to be able to bring or prevent the rain. In the forest many uncanny spirits are said to dwell: those who have died without proper burial, monsters, fairies, and the ghosts of twins which are like red monkeys. Twins are regarded with awe everywhere: in some places they used to be neglected or killed because they would bring misfortune; elsewhere images were made of them and twin pots outside the doors of their houses had small offerings placed in them.
The gods play a large, part in the traditional religious life of many West African peoples, -with their temples, festivals and priests, but there are also powerful cults of the dead. In East and South Africa the latter were the dominant feature of religious life. Everywhere belief in the survival after death is unquestioned and many rituals are performed. There is a first funeral a day or so after death, because corpses do not keep in a hot climate, but a second burial ceremony weeks or months later brings all the relatives and friends together, and rites are enacted to give final rest to the deceased and to make sure that the person does not return as a wandering ghost. The head of the family addresses the dead one by name, some belongings arc buried with the body, and food and drink may be laid regularly at the grave. Stools which were used in life often represent the dead and offerings are laid or poured upon them at intervals.
The dead provide a powerful sanction for social life, since generally people fear them more than the gods. The dead are the heads of the family and clan, they know their children, and now that they are out of the body they have additional powers. That the dead arc seen in dreams is taken as proof of their survival and presence. They make known their will through dreams and visions, or in messages to mediums and special people. Accidents and disease may be attributed to their stern rule, though cures can be effected by pacifying their anger.
The dead are concerned with family life, and especially with the birth of children through whom they may be reincarnated, or some portion of their spirit or their name passed on. Family property belongs to the ancestors and they must be consulted if there is any question of renting or selling it; this consultation is done by casting lots or throwing nuts on the ground and deducing a reply from the pattern that they form. The crops and harvests are ancestral interests, and so is the weather that makes crops grow; therefore the dead are implored for rain in family prayer or great tribal ceremonies.
The importance of the dead is seen in the countless masks, which are some of the most important contributions of Africa to world art. If there are no scriptures of the ancient religion, yet in the many carvings and sculptures there are expressions of religious faith. Nowhere does this appear more strikingly than in the wooden masks which represent ancestors, animals and other powers. Sometimes the masks are naturalistic, calm or fearful, but often they have abstract designs which show that the dead are beyond human imagination. There are many regular ceremonies at which masked figures appear and represent the living dead, speaking in guttural tones, and giving messages and warnings to their relatives.
Initiation ceremonies are held all over Africa in order to introduce young people to adult life and the teachings of the fathers. Secret societies, such as the male Poro and female Sande in Sierra Leone and Guinea, have this purpose. Young people undergo trials of endurance, receive traditional information in sexual and tribal customs, and learn the secret of the masked figures, before returning to normal life as full adults.
There were great rulers in parts of old Africa who centralized the power of society, from the Zulu and Swazi, to Buganda, Benin and Ashanti. Some of them, like the Rain-Queen of the Lovedu of the Transvaal, were believed to be immortal and the royal line was passed down through sacred rulers who did not die but 'went elsewhere'. Yet even the most powerful were rarely absolute and they could be dethroned if they violated the tribal customs. Other societies, like the Ibo, Nuer or Shilluk, had no real rulers and were loose federations of families.
African religion has been compared to a pyramid, of which the top is the supreme being, the sides are nature gods and ancestors, and at the lowest level are magical beliefs and practices.
Magic is of many kinds and it may be considered as personal or social, good or harmful. Magical objects are made by specialists, medicine-men or magicians, and they are thought to possess both material and spiritual powers. They protect the wearer in amulets, necklaces, bracelets, rings and girdles. Others are used to protect houses, crops and property. Social magic protects the village or calls down rain on the crops. The good magician is respected and works in public, but the evil magician is feared and operates in secret. The latter prepares harmful potions, or even plain poisons, and he is punished if his evil work is discovered.
Divination is a popular form of magic, a kind of fortune-telling. There are many systems, of which the Ifa oracle of the Yoruba is famous, using 256 figures marked on a sanded board and interpreted by expert diviners. Elsewhere, as in Mozambique or Lesotho, strings of shells or bones are cast on the ground and an answer is deduced from the forms that appear.
Witchcraft is widely feared, but it is distinct from sorcery or harmful magic. The witch, generally thought to be a woman, is believed to fly at night from her sleeping body and feed on the soul of her victim, who thereupon sickens and dies. A witch-doctor claims to discover witches, by ordeals and poisons, and to release the captive soul. Some of these witchcraft beliefs resemble those of medieval Europe, and it cannot be too strongly stated that there is no evidence for the existence of either witches or witch-craft, they are the product of tensions and fears clothed in gruesome fantasy.
Much of African traditional religion is declining and disappearing before the advance of modern education and commerce. Two great missionary religions, Christianity and Islam, have made powerful inroads into African life in this century. Christianity now claims over 160 million followers in tropical and southern Africa, and there are over 130 million Muslims. Not only foreign missions but many new African Christian prophets and their societies have taken over much of the traditional religious life.
Old gods and their temples have gone, but magical superstitions are more tenacious and will long remain. The Supreme Being of traditional Africa is assimilated to the God of Islam and Christianity, and rituals for life after death are transferred to the memorial services and ornate tombs of today. There are said to be six thousand Christian sects in Africa, and they represent both the diversity of the old cults and the religious energy and zeal of African life. The parallel rapid spread of Islam into the tropical areas shows also that the new religions have adapted themselves to the African climate of thought, in which all life is seen to have a purpose and to give responsibility to men under the rule of the Supreme Being.