Ancient African Religions: A Comparison
Africa is an ancient land with an ancient people. It only makes sense that many of its native religious traditions are ancient, as well. While many African nations today have populations that mainly practice Islam or Christianity, there are still plenty of places on the continent where the ancient traditions continue to be practiced. The ancient beliefs of the African people are as diverse as they are, yet there are some similarities to be found in these religions, pointing to an even more ancient common origin deep in time.
Mami Wata is one such ancient African religious tradition. This religion focuses on the worship of a series of water spirits.1 Currently, Mami Wata is mainly practiced in Togo and Benin, though there are some practitioners in the United States. In the Mami Wata tradition, the earth was created by these water spirits. The water spirits take the shape of mermaids and mermen, or half-reptile/half-human creatures. These creatures are believed to have been present on the earth for at least the past four thousand years, although their original home is in the star system of Orion.2 The water spirits are celebrated as having brought divine law to the earth and established not only the laws of nature, but also the moral, political, and cultural, and even economic foundations of human society. According to Mami Wata practitioners, the religion originated in ancient Egypt and the stories of the mer-people was gradually brought down into the rest of Africa and shared with the people there.
The Mami Wata water spirits are considered to be the middle-man (so to speak) between God and humans. This means that by praying to the water spirits, the water spirits will then intercede with God on behalf of the humans doing the praying. There are Mami Wata priests and priestesses in this religious tradition, as well as many shrines that are built that are devoted to the worship of the water spirits. Offerings of all sorts are expected, as the Mami Wata are somewhat demanding spirits, but they are also credited with bringing good fortune to their followers when it pleases them to do so.3 The Mami Wata spirits are supposed to be very changeable, and are easily offended. They will sometimes bring misfortune onto people if they feel slighted in some way, which is why it is so important to the Mami Wata practitioners to continually bring the appropriate offerings to the spirits; it keeps them appeased. However, Mami Wata spirits are also known for their kind and benevolent nature and their positive feelings toward human-kind, and they do, for the most part, want humans to prosper. After all, they brought human moral law to the planet and created the planet in the first place, so they do have something invested in it.
Ifa is another ancient African religious tradition, and, much like Mami Wata, it is still attracting practitioners today. Ifa originated among the Yoruba people of ancient Africa, and it is primarily a means of divination, used as an oracle. Practitioners of Ifa are able to invoke the spirit of Orunmila, who is the deity of ethics, prophesy, and wisdom; practitioners can also invoke the spirit of Esu, who is a messenger to the gods and can help guide the oracle and clarify its messages to the humans who are using it.4 Ifa divination is only performed by an initiated Ifa priest. People who practice the Ifa faith come to the priest to get their divinations. Adherents also pray to the various gods of the Ifa religion, many of which are similar to other ancient African religions. It is important for prayers and offerings to be made to the Ifa gods, in order to keep them appeased and so they will continue to bring good fortune to their adherents (much like in Mami Wata). Part of the job of the Ifa priest is to use the divinations to tell the adherents what the best sorts of offerings are to give to the gods, in order to secure maximum beneficial results for themselves in the things they are hoping to achieve.
In order to perform an Ifa divination, the priest needs palm nuts, a container for the palm nuts, a divination tray, a tapper instrument, and a beaded belt to wear.5 By tossing the palm nuts about in a prescribed way and looking for patterns, which are then compared against pre-set patterns that mean certain things, the Ifa priest is able to determine the best course of action for the person seeking the divination, including what offerings that person should make to the gods.6 There are over two hundred fifty possible patterns that the palm nuts can make as they are tossed from one hand to another during the divination process. Each time a handful of palm nuts is tossed, the priest makes note of where the palm nuts landed, whether any fell out of his hand (those are not replaced), and what patterns the palm nuts made when they landed. As this process continues, the priest makes notes on his divination tray. The divination process finally stops when a definite, recognizable pattern with the palm nuts is achieved.
Ifa includes worship of the gods, of course, but is primarily used for divination purposes. The Ifa religion has various gods and goddesses, which is a common feature among ancient and modern African religions. There is also one supreme God, who created and rules over the lesser gods and goddesses. These lesser gods and goddesses can intercede with the supreme God on behalf of humans who ask it; however, these lesser gods and goddesses must feel as though they are getting proper respect from adherents in order to perform this function for them. In order to know how to best pay respect to them, an Ifa priest is consulted, and a divination to determine the desires and will of these gods and goddesses is usually performed.
Finally, Candomble is another ancient African religion that is still practiced today. Candomble migrated from Africa to Brazil in the time period from the mid-1500s to the mid-1800s, carried there by captured slaves who had practiced the religion in their African homes. As a result, Candomble is mainly practiced today in Brazil, though it is of purely ancient African origin.7 Candomble involves the worship of a number of gods and spirits, much like Mami Wata and Ifa. Candomble also believes in one supreme God, known as the Olorun, and it is this supreme God who created the many lesser gods and spirits in the universe.8 Mami Wata and Ifa also believe in a supreme God. There are temples and priesthoods for Candomble spirits, just as in other ancient African religions, and offerings to the gods are expected. In Candomble, each person is chosen by a particular god or spirit at birth, and this god or spirit becomes that person’s patron “saint”.9 The identity of the person’s patron is made known by a Candomble priest in an elaborate ceremony shortly after a person’s birth, much like a baptism.10
There are still dozens of ancient African religions being practiced in Africa and in other parts of the world today. There are also hundreds of African deities that still have recognition and respect among various tribal groups. It can be seen that a common feature of ancient African religions is the belief in one supreme God and many lesser gods and spirits. This points to a common origin of these African religions somewhere deep in the recesses of time. Since ancient Africa was the cradle of human civilization, it makes sense that there was one original religion during the dawn of human history, and that it originated there. As humans branched off into separate tribal groups and migrated away from their original locations, this religion changed and evolved with them.
1. De Vita, Alexis Brooks. Mythatypes: Signatures and Signs of African/Diaspora and Black Goddesses. New York: Greenwood Press. 2000.
2. Gbadegesin, Segun. African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities. New York: Peter Lang Publishers. 1991.
3. Makinde, M. Akin. African Philosophy, Culture, and Traditional Medicine. Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies. 1988.
4. Bascom, William. Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods and Men in West Africa. Indiana: Indiana University Press. 1969.
5. Okpewho, Isidore. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds, Character, and Continuity. Indiana: University of Indiana Press. 1992.
6. Matibag, Eugenio. Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative. Florida: University Press of Florida. 1996.
7. Olupona, Jacob K. African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society. New York: Paragon House. 1991.
8. Landau, Paul S. and Kaspin, Deborah D. Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa. California: University of California Press. 2002.
9. Woodhead, Linda, et. Al. Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformation. California: University of California Press. 2002.
10. Peterson, Richard B. Conversations in the Rain Forest: Cultures, Values, and the Environment in CentralAfrica. Connecticut: Westview Press. 2000.
Bascom, William. Ifa Divination: Communication Between Gods
and Men in West Africa. Indiana: Indiana University
De Vita, Alexis Brooks. Mythatypes: Signatures and Signs
of African/Diaspora and Black Goddesses. New York:
Greenwood Press. 2000.
Gbadegesin, Segun. African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba
Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities. New
York: Peter Lang Publishers. 1991.
Landau, Paul S. and Kaspin, Deborah D. Images and Empires:
Visuality in Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa.
California: University of California Press. 2002.
Makinde, M. Akin. African Philosophy, Culture, and
Traditional Medicine. Ohio: Ohio University Center
for International Studies. 1988.
Matibag, Eugenio. Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural
Reflections in Narrative. Florida: University Press of
Okpewho, Isidore. African Oral Literature: Backgrounds,
Character, and Continuity. Indiana: University of
Indiana Press. 1992.
Olupona, Jacob K. African Traditional Religions in
Contemporary Society. New York: Paragon House.
Peterson, Richard B. Conversations in the Rain Forest:
Cultures, Values, and the Environment in Central
Africa. Connecticut: Westview Press. 2000.
Woodhead, Linda, et. Al. Religions in the Modern World:
Traditions and Transformation. California: University
of California Press. 2002.