Wallace G. Mills Hist. 316 8 Religion

Religion in Africa

- in this discussion, we mean ‘religion’ in the broadest sense to include all aspects of the supernatural. In addition, we shall include aspects which we usually include under the heading ‘medicine’; this is not too far a stretch because even in our society where we pride ourselves on the ‘scientific approach’, there is a great deal of faith and mystery in medicine.

- it is very important to remember always that Africans believe that everything happens for a reason rather than as a result of chance or coincidence; therefore, in virtually everything where there is no obvious cause (or even if there is some ostensible cause), they look for some sort of supernatural explanation or cause. Supernatural forces are all around and continually impinging upon or threatening the course of one’s life. Thus, a crucial aspect of existence is to manage and control the effects of the supernatural forces as much as possible.

- also, Africans do not distinguish or separate the spiritual and material worlds. The 2 are perceived to be inextricably interwoven. Thus, supernatural forces are perceived to be as real and as inescapable as material elements such as wind, rain and sun.

- there are various levels or elements of the supernatural:

1. Magic and Animism:

- this involves supernatural powers or forces in nature and objects in the environment; some are spirits which have to be propitiated of mollified (in streams & rivers, in trees, etc.—take precautions in crossing rivers or in cutting down trees).

- it also involves supernatural powers or forces (magic) in plants and other objects (bones, parts of animals, etc.).

-various practitioners (doctors) manipulate and use these powers or magic; they can be used for good or evil (good medicine or magic and bad medicine or magic—the latter is witchcraft)

- magic was also used in many societies in the legal system; e.g., oaths for participants calling down serious illness and death on witnesses and their relatives if they were not telling the truth.

- trial by ordeal (poisons etc.) to discover the truth [oaths in our legal system have similar origins].

2 Ancestor Cult

-this is virtually universal in Africa; it is based on the belief that the past (i.e., dead) members of the family have a continuing interest in and have powers to affect the the lives of the living family members.

- while ancestors look out for and provide protections for living family members, they were also concerned that living members pay sufficient respect to ancestors, including performance of rites and ceremonies, providing gifts of food and drink, etc.

- ancestors are also concerned that traditions be observed and maintained.

- if angry and dissatisfied, the ancestors could allow bad things to happen (illness, disease, problems with livestock and crops, etc.) or might even bring them on.

- keeping the ancestors happy required on-going observance of customs and ceremonies; if illness or other bad things happened, failure to observe custom was frequently diagnosed as the cause and required special ceremonies and sacrifices to appease the ancestors.

- also, there was frequent recognition of the ancestors at significant events and ceremonies:

- marriages are very important because it is the institution by means of which the perpetuation of the family takes place through procreation. Marriages themselves were pleasing to the ancestors, but there would also be a number of overt appeals and rituals recognising the ancestors and seeking to ensure their protection and assistance. In patrilocal societies, especially when bride came to homestead of her new husband's family, there were special ceremonies to introduce her to the ancestors.

-at birth or during initiation ceremonies into adulthood, sacrifices and offerings to ancestors were required to help the children to survive or to assist the young people through the ordeals.

- in places were lineages are incorporated and highly organised, the ancestor cult is also more formally organised and may have a ‘house’ which is also a religious headquarters:

- the oldest living relative is often in the position of de facto high priest who goes to live at the ‘house’ of the lineage and is responsible for performing ceremonies, invocations and sacrifices.

3 Ancestor Cult of Royal Clan

- the chief or king is regarded as the ‘father of the people’ (in some societies the people take the name of the chief or one of his predecessors— ‘people of so and so’ as in amaZulu, amaXhosa, etc.)

- the ancestors of the royal clan have an interest in and influence over all the people in the chieftaincy or kingdom; thus, the rites and ceremonies of the royal clan took on many aspects of a national religion.

- the health and welfare of the chief and other members of the royal family affect the well being of all the people and extended to social and economic aspects of general society.

- often the planting ceremonies in the spring and harvest rites in the autumn would be part of the cult of the royal clan because weather, locusts etc. affected all of society and thus were more at the level of the ancestors of the royal clan.

- in Dahomey, the annual ‘custom’ was part of the royal clan’s ancestor cult. The sacrifices there were part of the effort to ensure the health and well being of the king, but also to ensure the prosperity of the kingdom.

4 High Gods

- some societies had little concept of a high god(s), especially as active participants in day to day life of individuals or of society.

- e.g., the Xhosa had stories of a creator (uDawu), but after he finished the creation, he went away; they were rather vague about exactly where he was in the present except that it was a long way off. Certainly, they did not worship or perform any ceremonies to influence or appease uDawu; he had no continuing influence.

- on the other hand, the Kikuyu (in Kenya) did have a god, Ngai, who lived on Mount Kenya (it was in sight of most of Kikuyuland); the Kikuyu looked to Ngai to have fertile crops and gave thanksgiving for harvests. Ngai was concerned about or affected general society-wide matters, and there were periodic and specific ceremonies to propitiate and seek his assistance. The Kikuyu had no centralised authority and therefore, no royal clan with its ancestor cult.

-Ngai was perhaps especially involved with the Kikuyu, but his influence extended throughout the area generally and therefore to some non-Kikuyu. Ngai was more than a tribal god.

- the ‘drum’ cults described in Nkole and other interlacustrine kingdoms fall into this category.

- while most kingdoms had a drum cult, each kingdom had its own drum cult; thus, the drum was a specific deity for the kingdom.

- certainly in Nkole, the drum cult is a national religion because the drum is interested in and takes responsibility for both the cattle-keeping Hima caste and the Iru agricultural caste; the royal clan's ancestors on the other hand are concerned only with the Hima caste.

-even more relevant are the mystery religions in West Africa; these have many similarities to mystery religions of the middle east, one of which is Christianity.

-there were 3 of these in Dahomey. Each was a pantheon of a number of dieties rather than just one and each had its own area of specialty (moon, sun, lightning, etc.). Each had a cult house or temple.

- initiates to one of the religions would undergo an extensive initiation and training (perhaps 9-12 months) usually living in the cult house or temple while being supported by their families. During this initiation, they would be introduced into the ‘secrets’ and mysteries of the cult; these secrets were never to be revealed to outsiders. They were taught special dances and even a special language (at least a body of terms whose meaning was known only to the initiated). At the completion or graduation, initiates would emerge as new creatures, reborn (often given new names).

- after initiation, most returned to everyday life although as full members of the cult, they would participate periodically and regularly in ceremonies; they might even go to live in the cult house for short periods from time to time (like a retreat).

- there were some members of the cult who were full time—instructing initiates and performing rites (including the chief priest or priestess).

-most families hedged their bets by ensuring that some family members joined all sects.

- in Dahomey, the cults do not seem to have posed a challenge to the political power. The king had the right to approve an appointment to be chief priest or priestess of a cult.

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