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African Religions

African Religions

  • Second largest continent, made up of 54 different countries
  • 3,000 ethnic & linguistic groups
  • Over 1.1 billion people (2013), about 15% of global population
  • Islam is the largest religion in Africa (45%), followed closely by Christianity (43%) both of which have been in the continent since their birth
  • 10% follow traditional religions
  • A small number of Africans are Hindu, Buddhist, Confucianist, Baha’i, or have beliefs from early Judaic traditions.
  • There is also a minority of Africans who are irreligious or unaffiliated

Prehistoric Background

  • Africa is considered the oldest inhabited territory on Earth, with the human species originating from the continent. Fossils and evidence show human occupation perhaps as early as 7 million years ago.
  • Homo sapiens sapiens evolved approximately 200,000 to 150,000 years ago in Africa, and these first groups of huntergatherers left Africa and populated the rest of the globe approximately 60,00080,000 years ago,
  • In about 3400 BC, the historical record opens in Northern Africa with the rise of literacy in the Pharaonic civilization of Ancient African kingdom of Egypt.
    • One of the world’s earliest and longestlasting civilizations and empires which had varying levels of influence over vast areas of Africa for over 3,000 years (ca. 343 BC)
    • Had a highly developed civilization and complex religion

Transatlantic Slave Trade’

  • The transatlantic slave trade is believed to have forcibly displaced some 12.5 15 million Africans between the 17th and 19th centuries
  • It is estimated over 2 million died on the horrifying Middle Passage across the Atlantic
  • African slaves brought hundreds of languages and cultures with them to the Americas (North/Caribbean/ South), which had a profound influence in this continent

African Influence in the Americas

  • Foods: Yam, watermelon, okra, blackeyed peas, various peppers; dishes such as gumbo, jambalaya, rice pudding, Southern BBQ, “soul food” etc. were all influenced by African cuisine
  • Art/Music/song/dance: in the America’s music became a hybrid of traditions of Europe, Native American, and especially African cultures blues, jazz, calypso, rock, reggae, R&B, soul, disco, hiphop, house, techno, salsa, mambo, tango, rumba, Capoeira all have African roots
  • African influence is so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them
  • Religion: Many African slaves willfully or forcefully converted to Christianity, but also kept some of their oral traditions which influenced Gospel music and preaching in Southern Black churches. Had a huge influence on American Protestantism (especially Pentecostalism) and Catholicism in LatinAmerica
  • Syncretic religions: Vodoun, Santeria, Candomble, Shango, Umbanda, Macumba, Rastafarianism, Ifa, Lucimi, etc.

African Religions

  • There is no one African religion, theology, worldview, or ritual system
  • No single founder or central historical figure
  • Less emphasis on on temples, churches or mosques, and more on natural shrines constructed according to the traditions of the particular geographical area (e.g. mountain, tree, river shrines)
  • No single ordained priesthood: Religious duties are carried out by a variety of religious leaders priests/priestesses, healers, diviners, mediums, seers, rainmakers, elders, rulers etc.

African Religions

  • No single conception of God hundreds of different languages just as many names, concepts and related beliefs and practices associated with deities or gods
  • Because many African religions began in ancient times, few written records exist of early origins or practices
    • E.g. in West Africa oral tradition is passed on by griots (historians, storytellers, praise singers, poets and/or musicians)
  • African religions are often closely associated with African peoples’ concepts of ethnic identity, language and culture and effect all aspects of life.

Common Themes

  • All things in the universe are part of a whole with no sharp distinction between the sacred and the nonsacred.
  • In most African religions there is a Supreme Being, though often seen as a “resting god”
    • Most also have a large pantheon of lesser/intermediary gods and guardian spirits (nature/ancestor etc.) which serve the Supreme Being. It is these “lesser” gods who are engaged with in human affairs.
  • The human condition is imperfect and always will be.
    • Sickness, suffering, and death are all fundamental parts of life. Suffering is caused by sins and misdeeds that offend the gods and ancestors, or by being out of harmony with their traditional society.

Common Themes

  • Ritual actions may relieve the problems and sufferings of human life, either by satisfying the offended gods or by resolving social conflicts.
    • Rituals help to restore people to the traditional values and renew their commitment to a spiritual life and community.
  • Human society is communal 
    • Ancestors, the living, the dead, the spirits etc. are all fundamental parts of the community. The relationships between the worldly and the otherworldly help to guide and balance the lives of the community.

Religious Specialists

  • Undergirding many African religions is the idea that a divine energy permeates the universe and it is the religious specialist who can channel or harness this energy in various ways to bring beneficial results
    • In West Africa this force is known as Ashé and is akin to “shakti” in Indian traditions or “chi” in Daoism
  • There are a great  variety of religious specialists who engage with the spirit/divine world and serve numerous and distinct functions for their communities
  • Royalty: In some countries the king/queen is the high priest and spiritual leader of the people in charge of matters of religious and  government affairs.


  • Priests/shamans: men or women who oversees, administers, and coordinates spiritual matters for the community
  • Diviners: unveil the mysteries of the past and future using shells, pebbles, water, bones, animal entrails, and a variety of other objects which they interpret and regard as “mirrors” and windows to the spirit world
  • Mediums those (often women) who get possessed by divine beings and transmit messages from the gods to their community
  • Musawo (Uganda): “a person with a bag” aka a healer/medicine man/herbalist
  • In African traditional societies, most illness/disease (especially mental) is spiritual in nature and thus requires a spiritual remedy
    • caused either by inappropriate behavior (not living in accordance with the values, norms of traditions of the society),
    • by superhuman agencies (harmful spirits) or
    • by extrahuman forces such as magic, witchcraft, and sorcery.
  • Oracles and divination are often used as means of identifying the cause of illness and the illness itself
    • Once illness is identified then healer can turn to the spirit world for help in getting and administering the right medicine, treatments, sacrifices or rituals.


African Spirits/Ancestral

  • African tradition considers spirits to be elements of power, force, authority, as well as the vital energy underlying all existence (e.g. Ashé). There are many categories: 
  • Ancestral Human Spirits Often divided into two groups:
    • The Recent Dead Ancestors: After an elder dies their spirit remains active in the family for many years they can intercede with the gods/spirits on behalf of their communities and even punish family members who engage in inappropriate behavior
    • Spirits of the Long Dead: As time passes, these ancestor spirits are said to gradually withdraw from their communities and are said to live with God.
      • However, some important ancestral spirits (rulers, kings, priests, etc.) may remain actively engaged for generations to promote the longevity of their communities.

Nature Spirits

  • Many African religions believe in the existence and importance nature spirits e.g. spirits that live in the skies, bodies of waters or rivers, rocks, mountains, animals, plants etc. and control these various forces of nature
  • Help to protect people and to provide people with essential items like water and food.
  • In order to guarantee the good will of these spirits, African religions consistently practice rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices that honor these spirits.


Negative Spirits

  • In certain cases, suffering and misfortune of various sorts are believed to be the result of the intervention of disruptive and harmful spirits
    • These can be ancestral spirits who may punish descendants for either inappropriate behavior or not being offered proper respect and libations 
    • Can be nonancestral spirits of the unhappy dead (e.g. ghosts those who passed to early or violently )
    • Can be classes of spirit beings who are inherently disruptive, harmful, or trickster spirits
    • Can be due to human agents such as sorcerers who control spirits

Divine Spirits

  • Deities still of a divine nature, but they are lesser than the Supreme God. They act as intermediaries, and have been delegated by the Supreme God of their particular religious system to be involved in human affairs

Sacrifice & Ritual

  • Rituals are religiously meaningful acts, following strictly prescribed patterns and are the concrete expression of belief.
    • Prayer, music, and dancing are said to enhance the effectiveness of ritual acts
  • Life Rites Pregnancy, birth, naming the child, puberty, marriage, aging, death
  • Communal Rites Rain, planting and harvesting, hunting and gathering
    • Rituals take place during community celebrations and festivals for the purpose of thanksgiving, purification, and communion.
  • Sacrifice is giving up something valuable in order to render homage to some superior being.
    • A gift offered to God or to a superhuman being, as a supernatural exchange, and in return these beings help and protect humans in various ways.

The Yoruba

  • The Yoruba people (who constitute over 35 million people in total) are an ethnic group of Southwestern and North central Nigeria, Southern and Central Benin and adjoining parts of Togo in West Africa, commonly known as Yorubaland
  • About half of the African slaves brought to the Americas came from this and surrounding regions.
  • The Yoruba tradition has influenced a host of thriving American syncretic traditions such as Santeria (Cuba), Umdamba and Candomblé (Brazil), and Vodun (Haiti, USA) etc.

Yoruban Pantheon – The Orishas

  • At the top of the Yoruba hierarchy is Olodumare, the Supreme Being.
  • Next are the associates and lesser manifestations of God known as Orishas(“unique/special/selected heads”) i.e. divinities, gods, or deities
    • They are either divine beings created directly by Olodumareor great human heroes or sages of the past who were elevated
  • Next are the spirits of ancestors and those of the ordinary dead
  • Below that is one’s ori (inner head), human spirits, and finally nature and animal spirits

Oludumare – The Supreme Being 

  • Olodumare is a transcendent, omniscient and genderneutral creator God deity
  • Olodumare is considered the source of all ashé (power, creative energy, divine energy, vital force) in the universe.
  • Ashé: the lifeforce that runs through all things, living and inanimate; it is the power to make things happen and the link between humans, ancestors, Orishas, and Olodumare
  • Ifa devotees strive to obtain ashé through iwapele or gentle and good character, and in turn they experience alignment with their ori (ones “inner head” or “divine self”), resulting in what some might call “inner peace”


  • Obatala is the eldest of the Orishas and secondincommand after Olodumare
  • His name means “King of the White Cloth,” and he is the embodiment of peace, reason, logic, and diplomacy.
  • He is often called the “Maker” and was given powers to create the physical aspects of Earth and all within it, including human beings.
    • It is said that Obatala created the bodies, while Olodumare breathed life into them.


  • Orunmilla: the Orisha of wisdom, knowledge, and divination
  • The Yoruba believed that Olodumare gave them their destiny or fate (Ayanmo) at creation, which  humans have forgotten through divination by babalawos (priests of Orunmilla) a person can learn about and align with one’s fate
  • Yoruba tradition provides divination in a form known as Ifa, which Yoruba religious devotees consult before undertaking anything important


Eshu – Elegbara (Elegua)

  • Eshu is one of the most powerful and complex of the Orisha considered the custodian of Ashé and contains both good and evil properties. He is often referred to as “The Trickster” or the “Inspector General” who reports to Olodumare on the actions of the other gods and humans
    • He deals misfortune to those that do not offer tribute or act against traditional norms
    • “Divine messenger” carries messages, sacrifices, and offerings from humans to Olodumare
    • God of herbs and medicines
    • God of the crossroads where he introduces chance, accident and unpredictability into the lives of humans & opens doors to wisdom


Other Gods: Ogun and Shango

  • Ogun: god of war, iron, and metallurgy.
  • Patron deity of warriors, hunters, artisans, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, engineers, mechanics, barbers, butchers, truck and taxi drivers, and ironworkers of all kinds.
  • Shango: Orisha of fire & lightning and associated with virility, masculinity, magnetism and war
  • Is considered one of the most powerful and feared orishas
  • Always carries a doubleaxe and wears red (symbolic of fire and power)


  • Yemoja: Mother of the Orishas and the Goddess of the waters, She is considered the protective energy of the feminine force.
  • Oshun: Goddess of fertility, beauty, grace, and wealth.
  • Oya: WarriorGoddess of storms, change, witchcraft, and cemeteries



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