Religion and Ritual

Religious beliefs and rituals play a central role in the everyday lives of most Africans. Few African societies make a rigid distinction between religious behavior and other forms of social conduct. In fact, most African languages lack a word that could be translated as “religion,” and many of the words associated with the idea have a meaning closer to “custom” or “proper behavior” than to “religion.”

The arrival in Africa of CHRISTIANITY and Islam had a major impact on the development of African religions. Hundreds of millions of Africans now claim one of these faiths as their chosen religion, and Africa is currently the site of a dramatic growth in Christian converts. However, relatively few Africans—even those who identify themselves as Muslims or Christians—have completely abandoned traditional religious beliefs and practices. Most still turn to local gods for help with traditional problems or situations.

Africa: Religion and Ritual


Although there are as many indigenous religions in Africa as there are different societies, these religions share many common features and beliefs. Their beliefs deal with the relation of humans to the divine and with communication between the human world and the spirit world. African religions also share many ideas with world religions such as Judaism and Buddhism. Yet certain aspects of African faiths differ from those of most world religions.

Gods and Spirits

Most African religions acknowledge the existence of a supreme deity who created the world and then, in most cases, retired from dealing with earthly affairs. This deity is usually male and often rules with a female earth goddess or mother goddess. As in the Christian and Muslim faiths, the supreme being of African religions possesses attributes that define him as the opposite of humans—immortal, all powerful, all knowing, and incapable of error. However, while the God of Christians and Muslims is concerned about all humans, the supreme deity of African religions generally cares only for the people of a particular society.

In some African religions, the supreme deity continues to have dealings with humans after creating the world. More often this duty falls to a host of lesser spirits or mystical beings. Generally considered living aspects of the supreme deity, these spirits may hold power over humans, who are usually unaware of them. The spirits have no shape or form and cannot be detected unless they wish to be. They are often associated with a sacred site, which may serve as their dwelling place or shrine. A major distinction from one African religion to another is that each has its own unique set of spirits.

Ancestors are considered a special type of spirit in many African religions, and ancestor worship plays an important role in various rituals. Not all deceased individuals become ancestors. Individuals must be selected for the honor and then receive proper funeral rites. The individuals chosen vary from one society to another but may include men who have fathered children and women who were the firstborn in their families. Meanwhile, Africans offer prayer and sacrifices to ancestors to protect the living and punish those who harm or are disloyal to the family groups or clans of descendants.


All African religions feature myths, which are stories that are used to explain the nature of society and of the universe. Myths tell about the creation of the world, ancestral origins, historical events, and heroes. Many Africans regard myths as representing basic truths, though they may be clothed in fanciful narratives. What matters is that myths help explain the past and present, resolve moral and social issues, and provide a cosmology—an account of the structure and purpose of the universe.

Creation myths are an essential part of African religions. All share a basic pattern: a supreme deity creates the world from nothing, sacred figures appear and use magic or divine power to form society, and then humans appear and create the earthly history of a group. The creation story emphasizes the separation between humans and the divine, which is often represented by the division between the earth and the sky. This separation occurs because of the wickedness of humans, which causes them to break up into many cultures and languages and lose their divine nature.

Other common African myths deal with the relationship between humans and animals and the differences in the natures of men and women. Many of these myths serve to explain and justify the distribution of power and authority among humans and other living things. Like the myths of other cultures, African myths help to explain the world and human society, making the world more predictable and controllable. However, the deeper meaning of the myths may be available only to individuals who have the special training or insight needed to communicate with the world of the spirits.

Evil and Witchcraft

All African religions contain notions of evil, which may take the form of sudden illness or death, unexpected failure, or bad dreams or visions. Believed to originate outside the individual, these forms of evil may affect the body and eventually cause it to break down and disintegrate. The occurrence of evil may be unexpected, may spring from a sense of guilt, or may be punishment for antisocial actions.

Africans use divination to explain and combat forms of evil and to identify its source—either spirits or other humans. The spirit world is usually considered the source of “predictable” misfortune, that is, punishment for misdeeds or the result of personal actions. In such cases, the evil is removed through sacrifice. Unjust or unexplained misfortune is typically blamed on humans known as witches and sorcerers.

In all African societies, WITCHCRAFT AND SORCERY usually express jealousy and hatred between rivals, and it is assumed that the victim and evildoer know one another. Remedies for the problem are based on this rivalry and may include forcing the accused person to withdraw the evil or misfortune. The evildoer may be punished or even killed, especially if accused of witchcraft or sorcery on many occasions. Frequent accusations against an individual are usually a sign of a long-standing unpopularity in the group. Belief in witchcraft and sorcery occurs among urban Africans as well as among rural folk.


Contact and communication between the living and the nonliving are at the heart of almost all African religions. Communication between humans and the spirit world can be led by human intermediaries—such as priests, diviners, or prophets—in the form of prayer, visions, prophecies, and sacrifice. It can also be initiated by spirits through possession of humans.

Sacrifice and Rituals

Sacrifice is a way to purify the community or an individual through ritual. Often performed on a regular basis, sacrifices are usually conducted to remove contamination caused by existing conditions. The most common regular sacrifices are rites of passage, which are rituals performed at important moments of transition in a person's life.

African rites of passage usually occur at birth, marriage, and death; on initiation into SECRET SOCIETIES (often associated with reaching a certain age); and on achieving an important position such as that of king or priest. In rites of passage, the person being initiated is typically separated from the everyday world both physically and symbolically. This period of seclusion, which may be long or short, is marked by symbolic reversal of the normal order—such as wearing forbidden clothes or eating forbidden foods. It may also involve performing actions such as wild dancing or working oneself up into an ecstatic state to show closeness to the source of divine and spiritual power.

In addition to regular sacrifices, special purification sacrifices can be performed at any time to heal individuals struck down by sickness, physical or psychological harm, or moral impurity. Such sacrifices often include killing and feasting on an animal that is blessed and identified with the person for whom the sacrifice is being performed. Slaughtering and cooking the animal carries away the person's sin or sickness. By eating the animal's flesh together, the community symbolically renews the communal bond that was disrupted by the pollution of the affected individual.

Possession and Divination

Communication between the living and nonliving may also occur through possession, a condition in which a spirit or ancestor takes control of a living person. Possession is seen as a mystical link between the person being possessed and the spiritual agent that takes control. When a person with no special religious status is possessed, it is seen as a sign that he or she has been chosen by the spirits and linked to their world. Individuals with professional skill or knowledge may be able to convince a spirit to possess them through dancing, hyperventilation (becoming dizzy by rapid breathing), or the use of drugs. Although either men or women may be possessed, the majority who reach this state are women. Well-known examples include the bori cult of northern Nigeria and the zar cult of northeastern Africa, in which women possessed by spirits form cult groups around the particular possessing spirits. The possessed person often does not recall the experience. As with sacrifice, one effect of possession is the purification of the victim and a change of status, such as being removed from certain family or social obligations.

Another form of communication with the spirit world is the practice of divination. Diviners, the men and women who perform divination, are believed to speak for spiritual forces. They may explain past misfortunes or foretell likely future events. Many diviners act as mediums, communicating with spirits through possession or trance. The mediums often wear clothing or eat foods that symbolize the “wilderness” that is the source of their special knowledge. Other diviners interpret physical signs, such as animal tracks or the arrangement of items in a basket, as spiritual messages. A type of divination called oracle consultation is sometimes used to determine guilt. In consulting an oracle—usually a material object or a place thought to contain spirits—the diviner asks it to respond to a series of yes-or-no questions to reveal a person's guilt or innocence.

Religious Reform

African history is filled with the appearance of prophets who have come from outside the community to reform or reshape a society and its religion. The upheaval caused by European colonization of Africa inspired many prophets who promoted political as well as religious change, including some who led their followers into battle for independence. In recent times, prophets have drawn heavily on ideas and symbols from Islam and Christianity. Many prophets have founded new Christian churches that focus on African concerns, including healing, well-being, material success, and long life. Others have merged ideas from indigenous and foreign faiths into religious groups that are unique to Africa. (See also Death, Mourning, and AncestorsDivination and Oracles; Healing and Medicine; Initiation RitesIslam in Africa; Masks and Masquerades; Mythology; Prophetic Movements; Spirit Possession; Taboo and Sin.)