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The traditional African religions (or traditional beliefs and practices of African people) are a set of highly diverse beliefs that include various ethnic religions.[1] Generally, these traditions are oral rather than scriptural,[2][3] include belief in a supreme creator, belief in spirits, veneration of the dead, use of magic and traditional African medicine.[4][1] The role of humanity is generally seen as one of harmonizing nature with the supernatural.[1][5] According to Lugira, "it is the only religion that can claim to have originated in Africa. Other religions found in Africa have their origins in other parts of the world."[6]


An early-20th-century Igbo medicine man in Nigeria, West Africa

Adherents of traditional religions in Sub-Saharan Africa are distributed among 43 countries and are estimated to number over 100 million.[7][6]

Although the majority of Africans are adherents of Christianity or Islam, African people often combine the practice of their traditional belief with the practice of Abrahamic religions.[8][8][9][10][11][12] The two Abrahamic religions are widespread across Africa, though mostly concentrated in different areas. They have replaced indigenous African religions, but are often adapted to African cultural contexts and belief systems.[13]


West and Central African religious practices generally manifest themselves in communal ceremonies or divinatory rites in which members of the community, overcome by force (or ashe, nyama, etc.), are excited to the point of going into meditative trance in response to rhythmic or driving drumming or singing. One religious ceremony practiced in Gabon and Cameroon is the Okuyi, practiced by several Bantu ethnic groups. In this state, depending upon the region, drumming or instrumental rhythms played by respected musicians (each of which is unique to a given deity or ancestor), participants embody a deity or ancestor, energy or state of mind by performing distinct ritual movements or dances which further enhance their elevated consciousness.[14]

When this trance-like state is witnessed and understood, adherents are privy to a way of contemplating the pure or symbolic embodiment of a particular mindset or frame of reference. This builds skills at separating the feelings elicited by this mindset from their situational manifestations in daily life. Such separation and subsequent contemplation of the nature and sources of pure energy or feelings serves to help participants manage and accept them when they arise in mundane contexts. This facilitates better control and transformation of these energies into positive, culturally appropriate behavior, thought, and speech. Also, this practice can also give rise to those in these trances uttering words which, when interpreted by a culturally educated initiate or diviner, can provide insight into appropriate directions which the community (or individual) might take in accomplishing its goal.[15]


Followers of traditional African religions pray to various spirits as well as to their ancestors. These secondary spirits serve as intermediaries between humans and the primary God, also referred to as the Supreme Deity. Most African societies believe in a single Supreme being (Chukwu, Nyame, Olodumare, Ngai, Roog, etc.).[16] Some recognize a dual God and Goddess such as Mawu-Lisa.[17]

Practices and ritualsEdit

Bakongo masks from the Kongo Central

There are more similarities than differences in all traditional African religions.[18] Often, the supreme Deity is worshiped through consultation or communion with lesser deities and ancestral spirits. The deities and spirits are honored through libation or sacrifice (of animals, vegetables, cooked food, flowers, semi-precious stones and precious metals). The will of the Supreme Deity is sought by the believer also through consultation of divinities or divination.[19] In many traditional African religions, there is a belief in a cyclical nature of reality. The living stand between their ancestors and the unborn. Traditional African religions embrace natural phenomena – ebb and tide, waxing and waning moon, rain and drought – and the rhythmic pattern of agriculture. According to Gottlieb and Mbiti:

The environment and nature are infused in every aspect of traditional African religions and culture. This is largely because cosmology and beliefs are intricately intertwined with the natural phenomena and environment. All aspects of weather, thunder, lightning, rain, day, moon, sun, stars, and so on may become amenable to control through the cosmology of African people. Natural phenomena are responsible for providing people with their daily needs.[20]

For example, in the Serer religion, one of the most sacred stars in the cosmos is called Yoonir (the Star of Sirius).[21] With a long farming tradition, the Serer high priests and priestesses (Saltigue) deliver yearly sermons at the Xoy Ceremony (divination ceremony) in Fatick before Yoonir's phase in order to predict winter months and enable farmers to start planting.[22]

Traditional healers are common in most areas, and their practices include a religious element to varying degrees.


Early-20th-century Yoruba divination board

Since Africa is a large continent with many ethnic groups and cultures, there is not one single technique of casting divination. The practice of casting may be done with small objects, such as bones, cowrie shells, stones, strips of leather, or flat pieces of wood.

Traditional healer of South Africa performing a divination by reading the bones

Some castings are done using sacred divination plates made of wood or performed on the ground (often within a circle).

In traditional African societies, many people seek out diviners on a regular basis. There are generally no prohibitions against the practice. Diviner (also known as priest) are also sought for their wisdom as counselors in life and for their knowledge of herbal medicine.

Virtue and viceEdit

Virtue in traditional African religion is often connected with carrying out obligations of the communal aspect of life. Examples include social behaviors such as the respect for parents and elders, raising children appropriately, providing hospitality, and being honest, trustworthy, and courageous.

In some traditional African religions, morality is associated with obedience or disobedience to God regarding the way a person or a community lives. For the Kikuyu, according to their primary supreme creator, Ngai, acting through the lesser deities, is believed to speak to and be capable of guiding the virtuous person as one's conscience.

In many cases, Africans who have converted to other religions have still kept up their traditional customs and practices, combining them in a syncretic way.[23]

Sacred placesEdit

Some sacred or holy locations for traditional religions include Nri-Igbo, the Point of Sangomar, Yaboyabo, Fatick, Ife, Oyo, Dahomey, Benin City, Ouidah, Nsukka, Kanem-Bornu, Igbo-Ukwu, and Tulwap Kipsigis, among others.

Religious persecutionEdit

Traditions by regionEdit

This list is limited to a few well-known traditions.

Central AfricaEdit

East AfricaEdit

Southern AfricaEdit

West AfricaEdit

African DiasporaEdit

North AfricaEdit


  1. ^ a b c Encyclopedia of African Religion (Sage, 2009) Molefi Kete Asante
  2. ^ Juergensmeyer, Mark (2006). The Oxford Handbook Of Global Religions. ISBN 0-19-513798-1.
  3. ^ S. Mbiti, John (1991). Introduction to African religion. ISBN 0-435-94002-3.
  4. ^ An African Story BBC Archived November 2, 2015, at the Wayback Machine.
  5. ^ What is religion? An African understanding Archived May 21, 2016, at the Wayback Machine.
  6. ^ a b Lugira, Aloysius M., African Traditional Religions (New York: Chealsea House, 2009), p. 36 [in] Varghese, Roy Abraham, Christ Connection: How the World Religions Prepared the Way for the Penomenon of Jesus, Paraclete Press (2011), p. 1935, ISBN 9781557258397 [1] (Retrieved 24 March 2019)
  7. ^ Britannica Book of the Year (2003), Encyclopædia Britannica (2003) ISBN 978-0-85229-956-2 p.306
    According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 480,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham, A World Religions Reader (1996) Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture (see Amadu Jacky Kaba). The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, (June 2005), discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopedias, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed on figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here Archived March 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine, as being an outlier. On rates of growth, Islam and Pentecostal Christianity are highest, see: The List: The World's Fastest-Growing Religions, Foreign Policy, May 2007.
  8. ^ a b Mbiti, John S (1992). Introduction to African religion. ISBN 9780435940027.When Africans are converted to other religions, they often mix their traditional religion with the one to which they are converted. In this way they are not losing something valuable, but are gaining something from both religious customs
  9. ^ Riggs, Thomas (2006). Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: Religions and denominations. p. 1. ISBN 9780787666125.Although a large proportion of Africans have converted to Islam an Christianity, these two world religions have been assimilated into African culture, and many African Christians and Muslims maintain traditional spiritual beliefs
  10. ^ Gottlieb, Roger S (2006-11-09). The Oxford handbook of religion and ecology. ISBN 9780195178722.Even in the adopted religions of Islam and Christianity, which on the surface appear to have converted millions of Africans from their traditional religions, many aspect of traditional religions are still manifest
  11. ^ "US study sheds light on Africa's unique religious mix". AFP.t doesn't seem to be an either-or for many people. They can describe themselves primarily as Muslim or Christian and continue to practice many of the traditions that are characteristic of African traditional religion," Luis Lugo, executive director of the Pew Forum, told AFP.
  12. ^ Quainoo, Samuel Ebow (2000-01-01). In Transitions and consolidation of democracy in Africa. ISBN 9781586840402.Even though the two religions are monotheistic, most African Christians and Muslims convert to them and still retain some aspects of their traditional religions
  13. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica. Britannica Book of the Year 2003. Encyclopædia Britannica, (2003) ISBN 9780852299562 p.306. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, as of mid-2002, there were 376,453,000 Christians, 329,869,000 Muslims and 98,734,000 people who practiced traditional religions in Africa. Ian S. Markham,(A World Religions Reader. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.) is cited by Morehouse University as giving the mid-1990s figure of 278,250,800 Muslims in Africa, but still as 40.8% of the total. These numbers are estimates, and remain a matter of conjecture. See Amadu Jacky Kaba. The spread of Christianity and Islam in Africa: a survey and analysis of the numbers and percentages of Christians, Muslims and those who practice indigenous religions. The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol 29, Number 2, June 2005. Discusses the estimations of various almanacs and encyclopedium, placing Britannica's estimate as the most agreed figure. Notes the figure presented at the World Christian Encyclopedia, summarized here, as being an outlier. The World Book Encyclopedia has estimated that in 2002 Christians formed 40% of the continent's population, with Muslims forming 45%. It was also estimated in 2002 that Christians form 45% of Africa's population, with Muslims forming 40.6%.
  14. ^ Karade, B. The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts, pages 39–46. Samuel Weiser Inc, 1994
  15. ^ Annemarie De Waal Malefijt (1968) Religion and Culture: an Introduction to Anthropology of Religion, p. 220–249, Macmillan
  16. ^ Willie F. Page (2001) Encyclopedia of African History and Culture, Volume 1, p. 55. Published by Facts on File, ISBN 0-8160-4472-4
  17. ^ Peter C. Rogers (2009) Ultimate Truth, Book 1, p100. Published by AuthorHouse, ISBN 1-4389-7968-1
  18. ^ John S. Mbiti (1990) African Religions & Philosophy 2nd Ed., p 100–101, Heinemann, ISBN 0-435-89591-5
  19. ^ John S. Mbiti (1992) Introduction to African Religion 2nd Ed., p. 68, Published by East African Publishers ISBN 9966-46-928-1
  20. ^ Roger S. Gottlieb (2006) The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Ecology, p. 261, Oxford Handbooks Online ISBN 0-19-517872-6
  21. ^ Henry Gravrand (1990) La Civilisation Sereer Pangool, PP 21, 152, Published by Les Nouvelles Editions Africaines du Sénégal, ISBN 2-7236-1055-1
  22. ^ Simone Kalis (1997) Médecine Traditionnelle, Religion et Divination Chez les Seereer Siin du Sénégal: La Coonaissance de la Nuit, L'Harmattan, ISBN 2-7384-5196-9
  23. ^ Resolving the Prevailing Conflicts Between Christianity and African (Igbo) Traditional Religion Through Inculturation, by Edwin Anaegboka Udoye


Further readingEdit

  • Encyclopedia of African Religion, - Molefi Asante, Sage Publications, 2009 ISBN 1412936365
  • Abimbola, Wade (ed. and trans., 1977). Ifa Divination Poetry NOK, New York).
  • Baldick, Julian (1997). Black God: the Afroasiatic roots of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions. Syracuse University Press:ISBN 0-8156-0522-6
  • Barnes, Sandra. Africa's Ogun: Old World and New (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989).
  • Beier, Ulli, ed. The Origins of Life and Death: African Creation Myths (London: Heinemann, 1966).
  • Bowen, P.G. (1970). Sayings of the Ancient One - Wisdom from Ancient Africa. Theosophical Publishing House, U.S.
  • Chidester, David. "Religions of South Africa" pp. 17–19
  • Cole, Herbert Mbari. Art and Life among the Owerri Igbo (Bloomington: Indiana University press, 1982).
  • Danquah, J. B., The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, second edition (London: Cass, 1968).
  • Gbadagesin, Segun. African Philosophy: Traditional Yoruba Philosophy and Contemporary African Realities (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).
  • Gleason, Judith. Oya, in Praise of an African Goddess (Harper Collins, 1992).
  • Griaule, Marcel; Dietterlen, Germaine. Le Mythe Cosmogonique (Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, 1965).
  • Idowu, Bolaji, God in Yoruba Belief (Plainview: Original Publications, rev. and enlarged ed., 1995)
  • LaGamma, Alisa (2000). Art and oracle: African art and rituals of divination. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. ISBN 978-0-87099-933-8. Archived from the original on 2013-05-10.
  • Lugira, Aloysius Muzzanganda. African traditional religion. Infobase Publishing, 2009.
  • Mbiti, John African Religions and Philosophy (1969) African Writers Series, Heinemann ISBN 0-435-89591-5
  • Opoku, Kofi Asare (1978). West African Traditional Religion Kofi Asare Opoku | Publisher: FEP International Private Limited. ASIN: B0000EE0IT
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. African Traditional Religion, Third ed. (London: Sheldon Press, 1974). ISBN 0-85969-014-8 pbk.
  • Parrinder, Geoffrey. "Traditional Religion", in his Africa's Three Religions, Second ed. (London: Sheldon Press, 1976, ISBN 0-85969-096-2), p. [15-96].
  • Peavy, D., (2009)."Kings, Magic & Medicine". Raleigh, NC: SI.
  • Peavy, D., (2016). The Benin Monarchy, Olokun & Iha Ominigbon. Umewaen: Journal of Benin & Edoid Studies: Osweego, NY.
  • Popoola, S. Solagbade. Ikunle Abiyamo: It is on Bent Knees that I gave Birth (2007 Asefin Media Publication)
  • Soyinka, Wole, Myth, Literature and the African World (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
  • Alice Werner, Myths and Legends of the Bantu (1933). Available online at
  • Umeasigbu, Rems Nna. The Way We Lived: Ibo Customs and Stories (London: Heinemann, 1969).

External linksEdit