African Traditional Religions

African religions

Discover the traditional religions of Africa and its variants in the countries in the Caribbean Sea. African traditional religions help explain many issues and actions in the Continent, in the US, and in the world today.

By Mark D. Harris

Students of religion may know something about the Big 4, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, and other prominent faiths such as Judaism. But few understand folk or tribal religions. Although these faiths vary throughout the world, they are surprisingly united on key truths. Each religion tries to answer key questions of life, including those of existence and purpose. African religions in the 21st century are heavily mixed with Christianity (in the south) and Islam (in the north). About 75 million people in Africa hold primarily to African traditional religion. [1]

The Origins of African Traditional Religions

The Middle Bronze Age (1500-1200 BC) gave rise to revolutions in religion. In the Levant, God delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, Moses received the Ten Commandments, and Joshua conquered Canaan (c. 1300-1400 BC). In India, the Rig Veda, oldest and most important of the Brahminic Vedas, was composed from innumerable source documents. In Persia, Zarathustra wrote the Avesta (c. 1300) and Zoroastrianism became the official religion.

To the southwest in Africa, the Bantu-speaking peoples migrated from West and Central Africa into East and South Africa, bringing competing and complementary genomes, cultures, languages, and belief systems to the indigenous peoples.  This migration had an enormous impact on the people and continent of Africa, including their belief systems.[2] Whole populations of natives were destroyed or replaced. Since stabilizing around 100 BC, Bantu comprise over 90% of the population of most South and Central African nations today. Bantu violence towards pygmy, Khoisan, and Hadza populations, the few remaining pre-Bantu Africans, continues even today.

African traditional religions, of which there are thousands of variants, is heavily influenced by the Bantu. Specifics vary by tribe, there is no known founder, and there is no universally acknowledged holy scripture to enforce conformity of belief. Tribal traditions are paramount and they are passed down by stories, songs, art, maxims, and riddles. A few general principles are broadly accepted.


A Supreme God exists, but he is very, very distant from man. In fact, He is unapproachable, unknowable, and uninvolved in the lives of people. The universe is eternal, or in some traditions hatched from a cosmic egg. Our world is filled with spirits, including our ancestors, minor deities, and demons. They are powerful, benign or malign, and capable of helping or harming people on earth. Spiritual beings called orisha mediate between God and man.

The sacred permeates every area of life, every crisis has a specific cause that is rooted in the spirit world. If you sprain your ankle and your wife burns her hand on a hot cooking pot, a spirit was involved at some level. Maybe the spirit temporarily distracted you and you tripped on a tree root. Maybe a different spirit made a cat run across the kitchen, knocking a pot on to the open fire, which your wife reflexively tried to grab, burning her hand. Followers of African traditional religions do not deny material causes, such as the root and the hot pot, but search for spiritual causes behind them.

Because the sacred is ubiquitous, tribal rites are part of everyday life. Never a day passes when a person does not do something pertaining to religion. Worship is the duty of the entire tribe, and everyone works together on it. In the West, a family may go to church on the occasional Sunday and never help the church in any way. Such a lifestyle is unheard of in African traditional religions.

Commonalities in African Traditional Religions

African traditional Religions have some commonalities. Man has a physical and spiritual dimension (dualism) but he is not made in God’s image. Instead, chiefs and kings are living symbols of the tribe. Sin involves not adhering to social standards and not doing prescribed rituals. Major infractions are failures to uphold relationships with tribe members and the spirit world. Believers in ATR think that spirits are everywhere and, just like people, spirits are prone to punish those they dislike and reward those they like. Departed souls and others in the spirit world need sustenance, honor, and recognition. Living people also need sustenance, honor, and recognition. Upholding a relationship with each being, dead or alive, means providing what they need. If each person in the tribe upholds their relationship with each other and with the appropriate spirits, the tribe will prosper. If not, the tribe will face tribulation caused by the offended spirit(s).

We see this thought in Jonah 1:5-16. In the mind of the sailors, who were probably Egyptian, Jonah’s God was angry with him. The whole crew was at risk of death, so Jonah’s sin was not only against him but against them all. It did not matter if Jonah’s God was an ancestor, a deity, a demon, or something else (ʼĕlôhîym, el-o-heem’; gods in the ordinary sense, angels, godlike ones, God). All that mattered was that Jonah had offended something with the power to harm them. The sailors did everything they could to placate the spirits that they knew, but failed to calm the storm. Only by a human blood sacrifice, the most extreme kind, Jonah’s death at sea, could the spirit’s anger be abated. Jonah had sinned against this spirit by neglecting the relationship and sinned against the community by bringing disaster upon them. Note also that the sailors did everything they rationally could to save themselves and the ship. They struck the sails, threw out cargo, and appealed to their gods simultaneously.

In African traditional religions, salvation focuses on the present world rather than the world to come. People want help with day-to-day trials, not cosmic wars. Salvation comes from magic, special ceremonies, sacrifices, tribal medicine, and items (talisman, amulet). An amulet may protect a young mother from the “evil eye” of an old woman who wishes to hex the baby. Local herbs may heal someone sick from a cold, or at least help them feel better. In extreme cases, such as with Jonah, one would be sacrificed to save many.

After death, some tribes believe in reincarnation, in which the human spirit passes into another human body. More commonly, adherents to African traditional religions believe that after death, the person’s spirit (and invisible body) migrates to the spirit world. A river exists between the land of the living and the abode of the dead, which is a common theme in world religions (cf. Jordan River, Styx River).

Specifics in African Traditional Religions

  1. The Yoruba religion is mainly practiced in West Africa. The river goddess Oshun is a focus of worship.
  2. The supreme deity for the Akan people is Nyame, and spider god is Anansi.
  3. Ancestor worship is characteristic of many traditional African religions, but especially among the Vodou tribes.
  4. The Ifa people use cowrie shells for divination.
  5. The Kemetic people worship the sun god Amun-Ra.
  6. Sango is the deity most associated with storms (thunder and lighting)
  7. The supreme deity is sometimes called Olodumare.

Caribbean Religions

Caribbean religions such as Rastafari (1900s), Santeria (1500s), Umbanda, and Voodoo, are a mix of African traditional religions with Catholic influences from Spain, Portugal, and France. The slave trade was a major factor in mixing these influences, and consequently these Caribbean religions tend to be about oppressed opposing oppressors. Counter-cultural politics, the sanction of revolt, racism, and dealing with slavery are larger themes than eternal salvation, philosophy, and traditional theology.

In Rastafarianism, for example, knowledge comes from group insight, aided by Ganja marijuana. God (Jah) is black, the Israelites were black, and whites are inferior to blacks. The late Ethiopian Emperor Halle Sellasie (1892-1975) was the savior of blacks and a direct descendent of Israel’s King David.[3] Ethiopia is heaven on earth and Jamaica is hell. There is no afterlife.

In Santeria, Olorun is the supreme God but is unapproachable. Spirits called Orishas are His emissaries, ruling over the forces of nature and human lives, but must be sustained by humans offering animal sacrifices. Twelve levels of hierarchy, from high priests to commoners, comprise the religion. In Umbanda, Ogun is God, but many deities exist. Revelation came to the Red Race of the Tupy lineage in ancient Brazil.  In Voodoo, priests and priestesses have authority rather than a holy book. They serve as magicians, doctors, confessors, advisors, and story tellers. They perform rites, make potions, and cast spells.


Bantu influences shaped African traditional religions for more than a millennium. Christianity emerged, and began to impact the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Six centuries later, Islam emerged and thundered into Africa with blood and iron. As Christianity and Islam spread, African traditional religions morphed into more syncretistic versions. Eventually, Caribbean versions emerged. With their proximity to the United States, its power and its culture, Caribbean variants of African traditional religions have an outsized impact on the world around.

Followers of Christ must use the truth of Christ to shape the thinking of believers in African traditional religions toward knowledge of the True God, the God of the Bible. Our work should be carried on a wave of prayer. The Lord has built bridges from real Christianity into the hearts of these people. We need to use them.


[1] H Wayne House, Charts of World Religions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006).

[2] Technically, Bantu is an artificial term for African peoples who speak Bantu family languages rather than the name of a distinct people group. However, since European philologists popularized the term in the 19th century, it has become useful.

[3] Hallie Selassie ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974. He claimed to be the direct descendant of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Selassie led Ethiopia to oppose European colonization and during the failed Italian invasion (1935).

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