African indigenous religions

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

African indigenous religions include many spiritual elements of fetishism, animism, totemism, worship of ancestors and chieftaincy.

About 15% of Africans practice these religions. Mostly each ethnic group has unique religious beliefs.

Common features of most African religions include the idea of a creator God (demiurge) as the source of the universe, a lack of mythological ideas, disbelief in hell heaven and purgatory, and the idea of the afterlife. Also, all African religions lack material carriers of divine law (for example, holy scriptures and prophets).

An important element in many religions is occupied by African masks and figurines. They are used for burial, scaring away evil spirits, and also during hunting.

African indigenous religions

Indigenous religions of African countries can be divided into several groups according to similar features and characteristics.

Religions tending towards christianity

Many African people practice Christianity and other world religions.

Most of the representatives of the Akan and Zulu religions identify themselves as Protestant Christians or Catholics. Their beliefs are syncretic. Therefore, in addition to traditional African religions, they include elements of Christianity. There are also Sunni Muslims among the Akan.

In the pre-colonial periods, animistic beliefs and ancestor worship were dominant factors in the Zulu religion. Initially, the Zulus worshipped the highest heavenly spirit, Unkulunkulu, who influences the natural elements. At that time, it was believed that the spirits of their ancestors acted as intermediaries between people and more important spirits (such as Unkulunkula).

A small number of Congo people share the religion of Christianity. Through the work of missionaries in the 19th century, the Igbo people who lived there converted to the Christian religion while continuing to practice traditional beliefs.

Modern adherents of such mixed religions believe in the existence of a supreme god who created all living beings on Earth. Each nation has its own name for a god (or several deities) and an idea of the characteristics of the supreme being.

Most modern African Americans are Protestants. Over time, African spiritual traditions began to join with Christian ideas. The largest Protestant denominations are Baptists, Methodists, and Pentecostals.  About 5% of African Americans are Catholic. Of the total number of adherents of Jehovah’s Witnesses, they make up almost 22%. Islam makes up a small part of the African American religion.

The fon and ewe religions are the basis of some african spiritual systems

The Fon and Ewe are the main ethnic peoples around whom some of the traditional African beliefs were formed. Some representatives of the two neighboring nations converted to Christianity and Islam. Christianity was brought to the Ewe people by colonial merchants and missionaries. The group, however, continues to practice traditional rites and rituals of their ancestors.

The religion of sheep – Voodoo (Vodun) has become the traditional belief of the Ewe people. This term was borrowed from the language of the Fon people and is translated as “spirit”. The pantheon of this religion revolves around the supreme god Mavu, his son Legba, and intermediary spirits. The Supreme God created many lesser deities who serve as guides and forces that influence man’s fate.

This idea is reflected in the theology of Mawu-Lisa (Goddess and God) of the Fon religion.

The Yoruba religion has some similarities with the beliefs of the Fon and Ewe. They borrowed ideas from the Voodoo religion and other practices of these peoples, but at the same time, they believe that all people have “Ayanmo” – destiny. Each person is supposed to unite with Olodumare – the divine creator and source of all energy. Every person on Earth should try to achieve perfection and find his/her destiny in Orun, the spirit realm of those who lead good lives.

According to the Yoruba religion, Olodumare the “state of existence” is all-encompassing, genderless and the protagonist of creation.

Also, beliefs mixed with elements of Catholicism, Voodoo, and other African syncretic religions have developed among the Yoruba people. These are called Santeria (“saintly”). Most of the followers are those who have registered as Catholics or are hiding their religious affiliation. It is impossible to calculate the exact number of Santeria adherents.

As a result of the spreading of slavery and forced baptisms in Cuba, three main directions emerged from the traditional religion of the Yoruba people, which formed the basis of Santeria. These are

  • reverence for orisha (an entity that has the ability to reflect some of Olodumare’s manifestations),
  • Ifa oracle,
  • ancestor cult.

The development of Santeria was also influenced by spiritualism, in particular the spiritualism of Allan Kardec. The most important elements of Santeria are divination (oracles Obi and Ifa), initiation rites, mediumship and sacrificial offering.

Traditional religions of the african peoples

Some African peoples have preserved ancient ideas about the role of God in shaping the world. The brightest and most extraordinary ideas can be found in several movements:

  1. Bantu mythology is a system of beliefs and legends about the Bantu people from different parts of Africa, who believe in the existence of a supreme god. According to various myths, the supreme being is associated with the sky and is given different names. The Bantu do not describe God as the Creator of everything, since they believe that the Universe is eternal and has no beginning.
  2. Bushman mythology is an archaic system of legends characterized by the anthropomorphizing of nature and totemic ideas. The central figure of most of the Bushman tribes is Tsagn (praying mantis). He combines many roles including totemic cultural hero, demiurge, progenitor, patron of tribal initiations, and mythological trickster. The latter is understood as a deity, spirit, man or anthropomorphic animal that does not obey the general rules of conduct.

According to myths, natural phenomena, heavenly bodies, and animals used to be members of the “ancient people” who inhabited the country before the Bushmen. Often, the creation of the world, along with Tsagn, is associated with these “ancient people”.

  1. The Dinka religion (mythology) is the traditional pagan belief of the Dinka people, along with Christianity and animism. According to its ideas, the Supreme God Nhialic, who is the god of the sky, rain and fertility, created the world and constantly controls the fate of every person, plant and animal. The Dinka people believe that the first people (Garang and Abuk) were created from fat by the deity in the guise of the heavenly bull Dengdit. Njalich severed the rope that connected heaven and earth.
  2. The Serer religion (“the way of the Divine”) is a collection of original religious beliefs, practices and teachings of the Serer people from Senegal in West Africa. These traditional religious practices include ancient chants and verses, worship and offerings to deities and spirits (pangul), astronomy, initiation rites, medicine, cosmology, and the Serer history.

The Serer people believe in the supreme deity Roog (or Rog) and the existence of other, lower gods and goddesses, as well as supernatural spirits and genies. Roog is neither a devil nor a genie but the Lord of creation. The Serer tradition includes different dimensions of life, death, space and time, communication with ancestral spirits and cosmology.

Another African traditional religion, Bwiti is noteworthy. It is based on eating the sacred Iboga plant, which causes particular visions. The bark of the Iboga root, which is considered a psychoactive plant, is consumed. Visions caused by the plant’s influence, according to the adepts, are the central experience in comprehending the essence of the Bwiti religion. Therefore, the spirit of Iboga is the main component of the religion represented by a pair of male and female ancestors.  These ancestors are considered the bearers of fundamental wisdom.

Afro-brazilian religions

Bwiti is practised by the Babongo, Mitsogo, and Fang tribes. This religion combines elements of animism, ancestor worship and Christianity.

Afro-brazilian religions

Afro-Brazilian religions are associated with many spiritual aspects of being.


Candomblé is based on African animism and worshipping the Orisha spirits associated with the elements, as well as various kinds of human activity. Candomblé was created in Brazil by African slaves. This religion is based on the following beliefs:

  • the Orisha belief of the Yoruba people,
  • the Voodoo belief of the Ewe peoples and their background,
  • the Nkisi belief of the Bantu tribe.

Candomblé adepts call themselves “the people of the saint”. The cult is different in each region depending upon the names and functions of the pantheon deities, and the musical language of ritual drum rhythms and sacred languages.

The main ceremony in Candomblé is a ritual dance to the accompaniment of specific national instruments – the atabaque and kashish. It is a circular dance of samba de roda, which, as a result of numerous repetitions, sends the dancer into a trance. It is believed that such a state symbolises the introduction of one of the Orisha deities and helps to communicate with God and purify the soul.

The Candomblé religion is mentioned in many novels including “Foucault’s Pendulum”, “Jubiaba”, “Captains of the Sand”, “Dead Sea”, “Miracle Shop” and “The Disappearance of the Holy”.


Umbanda is a Brazilian syncretic religion that combines Catholicism, Allan Kardec’s spiritualism and Afro-Brazilian traditions. This religion was formed as an independent movement in 1920.

Most of the Umbanda practices are based on the indirect worship of the Orisha deities. These spirit entities are divided into lines and groups, ruled by certain Orisha spirits. Umbanda adherents distinguish seven lines corresponding to the same number of Orishas (groups of spirits united by archetypes).

There are several types of Umbanda:

  • esoteric,
  • classic,
  • eastern,
  • white.

Zelio de Moraes is considered the founder of classical Umbanda.

Despite the significant number of believers who practice world religions (Christianity and Islam), African indigenous traditions are not inferior in their importance. Unusual initiation rites, the existence of secret societies, playing traditional musical instruments (drums), holding festivals with dancing and wearing masks continue to be important elements of African civilization.