This continent, this Africa, has a multitude of diverse nations, people, and traditions, and yet there remains a kernel of inherent similarities across the continent. It is accepted today that not only Africans, but the ancestors of all the peoples in the world originated from Africa. And as Africa populated the world, colonialism tried to populate and influence Africa.
It is logical then to assume that by a process of diffusion, and sometimes by force, the African gods, belief systems, myths, and traditions were adulterated by foreign influences. Yet in many instances, Africans saved at least part of their deities and belief systems. Through countless trials and tribulations, some core beliefs and spiritual applications have remained to this day, integrated, and blended — Africanized!
African Gods: Similarities Across Time and Space
Africa is the second-largest continent in the world, and spiritual beliefs are as varied as the many nations that inhabit it — a rainbow continent to paraphrase well-known late Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s “Rainbow Nation” concept of South Africa.
Across the continent, there are several obvious spiritual similarities. One is that there is a belief in one supreme god — one supreme being over all animate and inanimate forms — the earth, the heavens, and the universe itself, in whatever form that concept conjures in any particular culture. This supreme African god also rules over many deities and spirits in the supernatural world.
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The second aspect is ancestor veneration, which goes hand in hand with cultural respect for the elderly. The ancestor concept, taken to its natural conclusion, therefore means that Africa’s people believe in an afterlife. Hand-in-hand with this veneration is the act of animal sacrifice following a death to ease the passage of the dead into the realm of the ancestors.
Most African cultures also hold ritual celebrations for rites of passage: birth, reaching adulthood, and death. An isolation phase of initiation during puberty includes male circumcision, rituals, and the passing on tribal knowledge and secrets to initiates.
Traditional African folklore contains an intrinsic awe and fear of witchcraft. Although outsiders often use the same name (witchdoctor) for prophets, spiritualists, traditional healers, and shamans there is a vast difference between them and practitioners of witchcraft, sorcery, and black magic.
It can further be said that most African countries have managed to Africanize the world religions that were introduced from outside. Before we look into the specifics of some African gods, belief systems, and legends we must look at the traditions from which they grew and the sources of our information.
African Gods in Context
he history of African religion in its entirety depends largely on oral transmissions up to fairly recently. The tradition of oral literature cannot be captured successfully in a written context because African oral literature resembles an animated play rather than a novel. It has to be performed rather than read. Without the assistance of accompanying sound, body language, dance, and facial expressions it loses its meaning, nuance, and clarity.
Except for oral transmission and ritual practices, sometimes conducted in secret after conversion to Christianity and Islam, there are no ancient African texts to guide us. Foreigners, especially firebrand religious outsiders, wrote the history books after countless nations and generations had already passed into dust. With hubris and zeal for their own “civilized” religions and achievements, they communicated African traditions and belief systems that appeared barbarian, savage, primitive, and sinfully superstitious in their worldview.
This was the position they transmitted to the world, with no voice from the people they were writing about. In the name of religion, they committed genocide and other atrocities. Africa’s story resembles that of many indigenous peoples before colonialism, such as the ancient American nations.
The ancient people of Africa did not need to write down what they believed because every group had trained storytellers, who trained the next generation. Like the ancient Jews, they meticulously learned and transmitted their histories and beliefs generation after generation until the outside world interfered. Storytellers were responsible for transmitting history and heritage accurately like ancient priests and scribes from other ancient cultures.
The Many Paths of Oral Transmission
The downside to this system of oral transmission was that when clans broke away, they only carried small kernels of the older histories with them. The ancient Nguni peoples of Southern Africa, for instance, remember that their ancestors came from the “north” and settled around great lakes — the details were lost. From there, tribes split off and spread further south in different waves, each retaining only a portion of history.
As groups split and drifted further south origin stories became shorter, to be replaced by more recent histories. The pragmatic nature of African gods, myths, and legends most probably developed during these times of new experiences.
African gods, belief systems, origin myths, and moral lessons were often taught in parables using animal metaphors. These can be compared to Aesop’s fables. In addition, the origins of everything in the natural world, including the reasons why things are the way they are, were explained through stories.
Moral lessons and etiquette were taught by the elderly folk in an extended family. Respect for elders runs deeply through all African cultures. Elders were the advisors, mentors, and philosophers in their own families and the community in general. Chiefs and kings had councils of elders to advise them.
“African spirituality simply acknowledges that beliefs and practices touch on and inform every facet of human life, and therefore African religion cannot be separated from the everyday or mundane.” Professor Jacob Olupona, Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Harvard Gazette 2015 interview)
Some researchers adamantly reject this view, and compare it to latter-day, and especially diaspora Africans, wanting to create ancient traditions from relatively recent perceptions and research over the last century.
The reality on the ground, however, is that we have no idea how old certain traditions and religious beliefs in African gods and myths are. Storytellers perform a story as they had been taught, and often in the process, additions and changes are bringing the context in line with current circumstances and the understanding of the audience. This process and the repeated development of new dialects make it impossible to accurately trace the age and demographic origin of myths, legends, and African gods.
Ancestor veneration flows naturally from respect for elderly people and their wisdom in African culture. It is usually not practiced as god-worship but is based on beliefs and sometimes the fearful respect of ancestors. Many African cultures believe that these spirits can warn, protect, damage, and influence daily lives.
“Late in the evening I walked down
Down by the river
Plunging my hands in the water
I felt the spirit moving
The spirit of my father protects me
Lyrics from Spirits of my Father by Geoffrey Oryema.”
Ancestor veneration links most of the cultures across the continent even to this day. Officially, African gods and belief systems have been replaced by Islam and Christianity over the past century according to statistics (90%), but it is often an Africanized version that incorporates indigenous traditions, masks, talismans, and amulets.
Ancestors are revered and called upon as higher-level beings and intercessors rather than gods. They are assumed to be ever-present. Service to the ancestors incorporates singing their praises, looking after their graves, and honoring their memory in tangible and intangible ways. The burial of a deceased loved one is seen as preparation for transition to the realm of the ancestors.
The following quote from the late Credo Mutwa, an expert on Zulu pre-colonial beliefs, and a trained, hereditary sangoma, illustrates that the ancestors and the gods are viewed as separate entities.
“Urge the people, oh my son, urge them …… Tell them that a man who tries to live without his ancestors is like a tree struggling without its roots and that a man who is ignored by his ancestors is a disgrace in the eyes of the gods.”
Ancestor veneration is not limited to Africa, but in Africa, it seems that the matrilineal ancestors often take precedence. Other belief systems in which ancestors act as guides, helpers, and intercessors in some form or another include Japanese Shinto, Indian Hinduism, and Roman Catholic practices in reverence of the saints.
Myths and Beliefs of the Dogon People
The astonishing astronomical knowledge and belief systems of the Dogon people, now in Mali, and Burkina Faso, have intrigued scholars ever since they became known. Every 50 years the Dogon celebrate an ancient sacred feast, the Sigi or Sigui, on the completion of a celestial cycle in which Sirius A and its invisible companion white dwarf star, Sirius B circle each other. The Dogon elders told a French anthropologist in the 1930s that Sirius had an invisible companion star. Sirius B was unknown to western astrologers until the late 1800s, and the fifty-year cycle remained unknown until much later.
The Dogon, who maintain that their ancestors came from the stars, also inexplicably knew that Jupiter had four moons, that Saturn had rings, and that all the planets circled the sun in elliptical paths.
The Hogon, a person selected as the main elder or high priest and usually the oldest person in a village or area, was (and still is in traditional villages) the leader and keeper of the sacred mask used in the Sigi ceremony. They believe that Amma, the seat of heaven, created the earth. Later Amma split and brought forth Chaos who came to earth riding down the milky way. Amma then made the Nommos (order) and together with four sets of male/female twins, they came down to earth in boats via copper chains. They became the ancestors of all humans. To this day traditional Dogon descendants honor this event by keeping small boats made of dry leaves and bark in their houses.
The Dogon people teach initiates on the verge of adulthood the secret knowledge of their religion, history, myths, and legends. In religious and other ceremonies different kinds of masks play a primary role. Only people who stayed relatively isolated, like the Dogon, during and after colonialism, retained some portion of their ancient rituals and beliefs.
Myths and Legends of the First People in the South
Long before the Nguni people moved south in several waves, the San and Khoikhoi people had been moving across the vast expanses of Africa to the tip of the continent. The San were hunter-gatherers, and the Khoikhoi were predominantly herders, although it is speculated that the middens along the southern coasts are Khoikhoi seafood gatherers. DNA confirms that the San are from the oldest branch of our human genetic heritage.
Apart from today’s San legends, their fantastic and very ancient rock art left a trail of their movements, and insight into their worldview and beliefs. Animism, similar to other ancient hunter-gatherer societies, permeates the San culture. People who believe all things have a soul instinctively live in harmony with nature.
Rock carvings and paintings are spread over the entire southern part of Africa. Although in many cases they depict only animals, it is believed to have been an expression of worship and rituals at sacred sites. Rock art and dance bridges the divide between the physical and spiritual world — the living and the ancestors, African gods, and other spirits.
Myths of the San
Rituals based on San myths and legends include dancing, singing, and clapping by the performers and audience. Legends and everyday activities, like hunting, are acted out around campfires, mimicking deities, animals, humans, objects, and actions to explain the natural world.
The Great Fish River Canyon, for example, was formed when a python, fleeing hunters, burrowed through the landscape to escape. Fire was given to humans by the clever and crafty praying mantis.
He noticed that the ostrich’s food smelled different. Watching carefully, he saw that the ostrich took a glowing object from under his wing which he applied to his food before eating it. He stole some of this fire and also gave it to the humans. From that day, it is said, the ostrich did not fly in fear that his fire would be stolen when he lifted his wings to fly. Thus, both the myths of how humans received fire and why the ostrich does not fly are acted out in one story.
Ancient Namib Desert Legends
The oldest desert in the world (according to National Geographic), the Namib, spawned its own geomorphological phenomena. Among these are strange circles that appear and disappear over long fifty-year cycles. The Himba people built a myth around it that explains that it is the tracks of their supreme god, Muruko. Others tell tales of an underground dragon that makes the circles through the breath of his nostrils, and still, others tell stories of spirits dancing in the night.
The thousands of rock art engravings and paintings often in caves or under overhangs, are interpreted as religious and ritualistic symbols. Ancient inhabitants from between 6,000 – 30,000 years ago are thought to have implored the spirits and African gods through this medium inter alia for fertility, rain, healing, and blessings for the hunt.
African Gods: Myths and Legends at Risk Today
The peoples of Africa lived in harmony with the natural environment, similar to that of ancient native Americans and Australians, in ancient times. With the wonderful technology, inventions, new ideas, and religious doctrines that foreigners brought through trade and colonialism also came the destruction and greed of fortune hunters and industrialization.
We should not be under the impression that Africans did not contribute to destruction, participate in the enslavement of other Africans, and at times exploit natural resources. But at the same time, traditional belief systems and values were kept precious and safe by a core of the peoples across the vast continent.
Part of the problem of cultural loss includes the loss of religious and African art objects that acted as reminders of history and prompts in ritual ceremonies and worship. Sadly, in modern times there also appears to be diminishing respect for the wisdom and guidance of older generations.
Nuclear family units have largely replaced traditional extended families where the older folk taught the children from a young age. Most naturally and gently children were taught about the environment, religion, values, history, and tribal culture by the most natural teachers — the older folk. At the same time, it allowed old people to live useful lives when their physical strength diminished, surrounded and cared for by family.
What remained is an amalgamation of vastly different values and belief systems, keeping what is convenient and often lucrative, rather than what is naturally ethical and meaningful. Countless habits, African gods, African myths, and African legends that sounded ridiculous, superstitious, and scientifically unacceptable to religious and academically trained minds have thus been lost forever.