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Africa Traditional Religious System

African traditional religious system has the following components: A. Foundational Religious Beliefs There are four foundational religious beliefs in the traditional religions: (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 our theological interpretation and analysis of the traditional religions. 1. Belief in Impersonal (Mystical) Power(s) What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in impersonal and mystical powers upon the whole of traditional African life? The belief in the impersonal (mystical) power is dominant and pervasive in traditional African religious thought. The whole of creation, nature and all things and objects are consumed with this impersonal power. This impersonal power is what is known as mysterium tremendous. This same power has been given various names, such as, mana, life force, vital force, life essence and dynamism. In African beliefs, the source of this impersonal or (mystical) mysterious power is not always known, but it is usually attributed to the activities of higher “mysterious” powers, whether personal or impersonal that either generates or deposits such powers in things or objects. The potency, efficacy and the durability of such “inhabited” impersonal powers varies from object to object. Some objects are said to be inherently more power induced or “imputed” than others, that is, they are more naturally endowed with powers than others are. The manifestation and the use of the impersonal powers are related to the practices of medicine men and women, diviners and seers who use natural objects, plants and animals for medicine, magic, charms and amulets. Some specialists belief that mysterious powers embedded in things or objects can be extracted for specific uses. Mystical and mysterious powers can be transmitted through certain object media or by pure spiritual means. Mystical powers can be sent to specific destinations for an intended good or evil. Mystical powers can be contagious by contact with objects carrying or mediating such powers. The impersonal powers can be used for both good and evil. The life of a traditional African with this belief in the impersonal powers is at the mercy of the benevolent or wicked users of the mystical powers at their disposal. This belief is very much reflected in the traditional religious practices and behavior. As stated earlier, the belief in the impersonal (mystical) powers is dominant and pervasive among traditional Africans. This belief has a theological basis. 2. Belief in Spirit Beings What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in spirit beings upon the whole of traditional African life? Traditional African concepts of reality and destiny are deeply rooted in the spirit world. The activities and the actions of the spirit beings govern all social and spiritual phenomena. The spirit world can be divided into two broad categories: (1) non-human spirits and (2) the spirits of the dead. Non-human spirits are regarded in hierarchical order in accordance with their kind and importance, depending upon their power and the role they play in the ontological order in the spirit world (Oji, 1988:17). First in the hierarchy is the Creator, then the deities, object-embodied spirits, ancestors’ spirits and other miscellaneous spirits that are non-human, comprising both good or harmless spirits and evil spirits. Man stands between this array of spiritual hosts in the spirit world and the world of nature (Ikenga-Metuh, 1987:125-144). 3. Belief in Many Divinities African traditional religions in some parts of Africa, have had an elaborate pantheon of divinities. But there are exceptions to this general observation, especially in Southern Africa and some parts of West Africa. Some African ethnic groups do not seem to have divinities, while some were known to have no special shrines or worship places designated to the divinities or to the Supreme Being. However, the Yoruba of Nigeria are known for having several hundreds of divinities. African scholars for the past three decades, have changed certain perspectives and even the definition of African divinities (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). Some African scholars no longer accept the term polytheism (worship of many gods). They prefer the term “divinities” or “deities” to “gods”. The debate on whether African “divinities” were worshiped as “gods” or whether they were only “intermediaries” or “mediators” is inconclusive. Some have argued that “Africans do not worship their divinities nor their ancestors, but God”. In this argument, a view is being held that sacrifices, offerings and prayers offered, are not directed to the divinities or the ancestors, as ends in themselves. We have no intention of discussing this debate here, but simply to mention it in passing. African divinities are many and each has its specific area of influence and control. Some of these divinities were originally mythological figures in some African legends and primordial histories and cosmologies, while some were tribal heroes or heroines. Divinities covering different aspects of life, society and community were usually established, such as divinities of the sea or the waters, rain, thunder, fertility, health or sickness, planting or harvest, tribal, clan or family deities. African divinities took the forms of mountains, rivers, forests, the mother earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, and ancestors. The plurality of the divinities with their varying powers, influence, hierarchy, territoriality, even within one ethnic group or community, says a lot about the African religions, worship, beliefs and practices. This leaves an open door for religious accommodation, tolerance, assimilation and adaptation within the traditional religious thought. The traditional African understanding and the interpretation of Christianity have deep roots in these fundamental beliefs of the African traditional religions. This belief, just as in the case of the previous one, has a theological basis – the plurality of divinities (polytheism). With the introduction of Christianity or other religions, such as Islam, this belief with its worldview may have an added feature and it is henotheism, the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods. There is a possibility that the Christian God who has been introduced, can be worshiped along with other gods. The theological basis of this traditional belief allows it to take place without creating any serious theological crisis in the traditional religion. Plurality of gods or divinities permits plurality of beliefs, practices, feelings and behavior in one religion. This belief also gives room for accommodation, adaptation and domestication of new gods or divinities into the old religion. Other gods or divinities and divergent views and practices can be tolerated without confusion. All these are possible because of the theological foundation of this belief in many gods and also in the hierarchy of gods or divinities. 4. Belief in a Supreme Being (God) What is the influence and impact of this dominant religious belief in one Supreme Being upon the whole of traditional African life? The works of African scholars for the past three decades have established the fact that Africans have a concept of an universal God and the Creator (Idowu, 1962; Mbiti, 1975). Most Africans are in agreement that the traditional Africans do not actively worship this Supreme Being. Idowu calls the Yoruba religion “diffused” monotheism. This means that the Yoruba had originally a “monotheistic” religion, but as the religion gradually decayed over the centuries, the rising proliferation of the divinities were overshadowing the earlier monotheistic beliefs and practices of the religion. Even with this definition of “diffused” monotheism in the Yoruba religion, coupled with similar notions scattered across the continent of Africa, the overwhelming facts do show that, even though Africans generally have an awareness and belief in the Supreme Being, the truth is, this Supreme Being is not known to have been exclusively worshiped by traditional Africans. Instead, the African divinities and the ancestors, who are the lesser beings, have been actively involved in the everyday religious life of the traditional Africans. They directly receive sacrifices, offerings and prayers offered by the traditional Africans. In most traditional African societies, the Supreme Being was not actively involved in the everyday religious practices of the people, but the divinities, the gods and the ancestors were. In some parts of Africa, the Supreme Being is usually mentioned in prayers, songs and in some religious ceremonies. The definition of the divinities or ancestors as “intermediaries” is very weak in the face of the Biblical definition of religions, divinities and gods in general. Traditional Africans believe in a Supreme Being, who is “above the lesser” divinities and the hierarchy of beings. This belief has its profound theological influence upon the traditional Africans. The God who is above the lesser gods, seems “not to be intimately involved or concerned with man’s world. Instead, men seek out the lesser powers to meet their desires” (Steyne, 1990:35). This leads man to turn to the impersonal powers, the divinities, the gods, the ancestors and the spirit beings for help. God is only occasionally mentioned or remembered. How do we define the nature and the structure of the African traditional religious thought? The belief in the impersonal powers is expansive and pervasive. It is also equally true of the belief in the spirit beings. The third component, which is the belief in the divinities or gods, is not as pervasive and expansive as the first two components. Not every ethnic group in traditional Africa has divinities or gods. The fourth component, which is the belief in the Supreme Being, is widely held all over Africa, but this belief does not generate any religious fervor or any intimate relationship with the Supreme Being as with the first three entities. The Supreme Being seems to be far remote or less functional in the traditional African everyday life. The religious activities of the traditional Africans revolve mainly around the first three entities. But these four fundamental religious beliefs do not tell us much about the organization of the traditional religious system. How is the traditional religious system organized around these four components? The basic theological system, which was developed from these four fundamental beliefs, is summarized by Steyne: ” … the world is essentially spiritual and the material and the spiritual are totally integrated. Man needs power from outside himself to control his environment. Life’s purpose is to seek and maintain the balance and harmony that result in success, happiness and security. To do this man must deal with the spirit powers correctly. Thus by rites, rituals and liturgies, he must impress and manipulate spirit beings to produce success, happiness and security” (Steyne, 1990:39).