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African Traditional Religion: Case study-Nigeria  

Welcome to the world of African Traditional Religions. This LibGuide is created for graduate and undergraduate students in the field of Humanities. It could be used by Researchers who want to know more about African Traditional Religious Beliefs.
Last Updated: May 14, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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Highlights of African Traditional Religion:

Mbari-A place of worship (1904)-sculpted in mud to appease the Alusi (deity) and Ala, the earth goddess, with other deities of thunder and water)."Mbari was a celebration through art of the world and of life lived in it. It was performed by the community on command by its presiding deity, usually the Earth goddess, Ala, who combined two formidable roles in the Igbo pantheon as fountain of creativity in the world and custodian of the moral order in human society."

Religion is a fundamental, perhaps the most important, influence in the life of most Africans. When one speaks of African Traditional Religion, one means the indigenous religious beliefs and practice of the Africans. It is the religion which resulted from the sustaining faith held by the fore bearers of the present Africans, and which being practiced today in various forms and shades and intensified by very large number of Africans, including individuals who claim to be Muslims or Christians.

Africans do not have a word equivalent to the term “Religion”. Religion is talked about in singular term. This is deliberate. Writers are not unconscious of the fact that Africa is a large continent, with multitudes of nations who have complex cultures, innumerable languages and myriads of dialects.

But, in spite of all these differences, there are many basic similarities in the religious systems. Everywhere there is the concept of God, called by different names. There is also the concept of divinities and or spirits, including the beliefs in the ancestral cult. Every locality may and does have its own local deities, its festivals, and its own name for the Supreme Being. But in essence, the pattern is the same. There is that noticeable “Africanisms” in the whole pattern.

There are a number of terms in African language that describe activities, practices, and a system of thought that corresponds closely to what Westerners may mean by religion. African religions are associated with African peoples’ concepts of ethnic identity, language and culture.

They are not limited to beliefs in Supernatural beings (God and spirits) or to ritual acts of worship. Their beliefs affect all aspects of their lives-from farming to hunting, from travel to courtship. Many African religions share many concepts of God. The concepts are: God is creator of all things; God sustains creation; God provides for and protects creation; God rules over the universe; God is all powerful (omnipotent); God is all-knowing (omniscient-knows everything that happens in the world); God is viewed as parents (sometimes as a father and sometimes as a mother); God supports justice; Human-beings cannot directly know God. The encounter of the African culture with Western Civilizations brought with it a new orientation of thought, new world view and new ideologies in various areas of life. Despite the modern changes, the declared adherents of the indigenous religion are very conservative. They resist the influence of modernism heralded by the colonial era, including the introduction of Islam and Christianity, as well as western education and improved medical facilities.


African Traditional Religious Systems:


According to Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (online), religion is defined as the service and worship of God or the Supernatural. It is an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods. Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that aim to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, people may derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. It is a particular system of faith and worship and a pursuit of interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.

African Traditional Religious System:

There are four foundational religious beliefs in the traditional African religion: (1) the belief in impersonal (mystical) power(s). (2) The belief in spirit beings. (3) The belief in divinities/gods and, (4) the belief in the Supreme Being. These foundational religious beliefs are essential to the theological interpretation and analysis of the traditional African religions. Any meaningful and effective Christian approach to the traditional religions began from these fundamentals.

Many religions may have organized behaviors, clergy, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, holy places, and scriptures. The practice of a religion may include rituals, sermons, commemoration or veneration (of a deity, gods or goddesses), sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, initiations, funerary (funeral) services, matrimonial services, meditation, prayer, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religions may also contain mythology- a set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event.

Like most religious systems-Christianity, Islam, Judaism, African traditional religions focus on the eternal questions of what it means to be human? What is the meaning of life?  The traditional African religions seek to know what the correct relations among humans are. What are the relationships between humans and spiritual powers, and the persistence of evil and suffering. They uphold certain types of ethical behaviors. These ideas are expressed in sacred oral and maybe written traditions, handed down from generation to generation through the performance of rituals, including rites of passage (Baum, R. 1999).

The supernatural-God and spirit world are important in African traditional religions and religious beliefs and practice are central to all aspects of life in Africa. Religious beliefs impact the way people live their everyday lives. From what they can eat and what they cannot eat. The way they farm, the way to make clothes, arrange themselves in families, marry, divide works among family members, educate their children, treat illnesses, and bury the dead.

African Traditional religions provide people with what some scholars may call cosmic-view. A world-view can be thought of as a system of values, attitudes, and beliefs, which provide people with a mechanism to understand the world in which they live and everyday events and occurrences.

Religion is an important aspect of African culture. It defines transcendental belief of Africans in their conception of nature and their relationship to nature. Africans are spiritual beings. Religion permeates most of their lives. They believe that “There is nothing that stands between man and God.” (Jenkins, 1978, p. 22). But African traditional religions can be better understood in the context of their concept of God, ancestral spirits, humanity, as well as good and evil.

Africans ascribe the origin of the world to the creation of God. In this context, God, in various African Languages means, “The creator of the universe.” God is one who never dies, one who lacks the limitations that are characteristics of humans (Mbiti, 1970, p. 45). The categories of male and female do not apply to God. African traditional religious belief see God as immanent and transcendent (Sawyer, 1963).

Nigerians, like most of other Africans, are spiritual people. Religion permeates most aspects of their lives. They believe that, there is nothing that stands between man and God, the creator of the universe. In their traditional religion, the Igbos and Yorubas, two of the three major ethnic groups in Nigeria, are concerned with the origin of humankind and less with that of nature.

Among the Igbos and Yorubas, the belief in the supreme creator who brought humankind into existence, is very strong. Among the Igbos, the Supreme creator is called Chineke or Chukwu. Among the Yorubas of the Southwest of Nigeria, the Supreme creator is called Oluwa, and the Hausa-Fulani of Northern Nigeria call the Supreme creator, Allah, derived from the religion cultural attachment to the Mid-Eastern religious world-Islam. Certain factors underline the traditional religion of Nigerians. These factors include belief in the spirit beings, belief in divinities or gods and belief in Supreme Being (God the creator of the Universe).

Nigerians like other African nations have strong belief in the activities and actions of the spirit beings in the social and economic realms of human existence. To them, the spirit world can be divided into: Non-human spirits and the spirits of the dead. Non-human spirits are regarded in hierarchical order in accordance with their kind and importance, depending on their power in the spirit world. In the hierarchy of the spirit world are: The Creator- Chineke-God and deities, object embodied spirits, and ancestors’ spirits. Human beings stand between the viva of spiritual hosts in the spirit world and the world of nature (Ikenga, Metuh, 1987, p. 127-144).

The Igbo religion essentially is characterized by the presence of numerous shrines and spirits. Individuals have attachments to a number of shrines. They are divided into personal ones, corporate shrines that are associated with social and religious groups. Igbo spirits are believed to provide various forms of protection and assistance. The spirits of the ancestors are very much venerated. They are regarded as intercessors or intermediaries between the living and the gods. They plead to the gods for the needs of the living.

Every community has its own god or divinity whose function is the protection of the community and guarantees that members of the community do not violet cultural taboos like incest, stealing, and murder. In general, there are divinities of the seas, rain, thunder, fertility, health, or sickness, planting, or harvesting. Traditional beliefs of the Igbos or Yorubas, appeal to the different gods for assistance in the particular area of the god’s influence.

Generally, Nigerians’ cosmic view rests on the belief that they can worship, and they do worship, the Supreme God (Creator) and also be henotheists, that is, as they worship the Supreme creator, they also do not deny the existence of other gods. Nigerians have hosts of specialists who are professionals in their various disciplines, such as: Priests of shrines; Diviners; Sorcerers and witches


For the Africans, particularly those in the Sub-Saharan regions, religion is not so much a set of beliefs regarding human existence, but it is the essence of their existence. Unlike the other religions of the world, African traditional religion did not originate from the activities of individuals as is the case with Christianity (Jesus Christ), Islam (Muhammad), and Buddhism (Buddha), Africans believe that they relate to the Supreme creator through “Spirits”.



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African Traditional Religious Shrines

 A shrine is a holy or sacred place, which is dedicated to a specific deity, ancestor, hero, martyr, saint, daemon or similar figure of awe and respect, at which they are venerated or worshipped. Shrines often contain idols, relics, or other such objects associated with the figure being venerated.[2] A shrine at which votive offerings are made is called an altar. Shrines are found in many of the world's religions, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese folk religion, Shinto, and Asatru as well as in secular and non-religious settings such as a war memorial. Shrines can be found in various settings, such as churches, temples, cemeteries, or in the home, although portable shrines are also found in some cultures.

Religious shrines: Shrines are found in most religions. As distinguished from a temple, a shrine usually houses a particular relic or cult image, which is the object of worship or veneration, or is constructed to set apart a site which is thought to be particularly holy, as opposed to being placed for the convenience of worshippers. Shrines therefore attract the practice of pilgrimage.


African Traditional Religious Worshipers.

Sacrifice to the earth goddess for a bumper harvest. Every culture in history has had a belief in the devine and a mythology to explain the world around them. Angry gods and goodesses might be the reason for drough or why illness befell a village.


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