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Describe the indigenous religious practices observed by early Africans before contact with Islam & Christianity.

A map of Africa, showing the major religions distributed as of 2008
A map of Africa, showing the major religions distributed as of 2008

Topics on this page

Concept Map and Teaching Resources
Overview of Early African Religious Practices
Importance of Ancestors
The After-Life

Focus Question: What were African religious practices and beliefs before Islam and Christianity?

Concept Map and Teaching Resources


Multimedia.png Listen to Traditional Religions, the fifth programm in the BBC landmark radio series The Story of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie.


  • See also, Religion in Africa from the Exploring Africa Curriculum from the African Studies Center at Michigan State University.

Overview of African religious practices before contact with Islam and Christianity.

MAP.jpgFor more on religious traditions and practices, see AP World History Key Concept 2.1.

Introduction to early African religion

The earliest evidence of religious following in Africa is from Egypt. There, by 3000 BC Africans were already worshiping Isis, Osiris, Ra, and the Amen. Further south, the Kushites also worshiped these gods.

Outside of Egypt, however, the Bantu people of West Africa were more monotheistic. They believed in one god, for example a sun or sky god. By around 1300 BC, the first strains of an interest in monotheism emerge in Egypt with Akhenaten an Egyptian ruler that ruled around 1353 B.C.E. He and his wife were revolutionary in their worship of only one god, Aten, the sun disc god.

Four common traits of early African religious practices

1. belief in a supreme being
2. no written scripture
3. correspondence with higher being in times of need
4. devout connection with ancestors

Female_Rose.png Akhenaten's wife was Nefertiti.
massseal.gifFor more on ancient Egypt, see Grade 7.15.

famous bust of Nefertiti

Polytheism triumphed when Akhenaten died, though, and survived through the conquest of North Africa by the Phoenicians and Greeks, and then by the Romans, each of whom introduced their own gods to North Africa, like the goddess Tanit.

Generally speaking, African religions hold that there is one creator god, the maker of a dynamic universe. After setting the world in motion, this supreme being withdrew and remains remote from the concerns of daily human existence.

Yoruba bronze head from the city, Ife, 12th century
Yoruba bronze head from the city, Ife, 12th century

As a result, people do not ordinarily offer sacrifices or organize a cult around this high god. Instead, they turn to secondary divinities who serve the supreme being as messengers or go-betweens. These secondary divinities are sometimes portrayed as children of the supreme god, but religious teachings also regard them as refractions of a divine being.

A. Sometimes creator god joined by group of lesser gods.
  • Ex. Ashanti had supreme god-Nyame and lesser gods were his sons all with different purpose—rainmaker, one who brings sun.
B. Some felt creator god lived on earth but left disgusted by people's behavior, so people are frequently mindful of actions to please the gods.
C. Communicate with gods with ritual done with a diviner who was believed to be able to foretell and communicate with the supernatural.

Importance of Ancestors

A. Rituals were dedicated to ancestors as they were seen as closer to gods and could influence the lives of their descendants.

Ancestors as Elders in Africa.

The After-life

A. Upon death the soul floats to the atmosphere forever.
B. These souls live as long as descendants perform rituals to them.
C. For more information pertaining to afterlife, burial customs, and early African views and ideas of death visit:

(Spielvogel, 2005)


primary_sources.PNGLINKS to many texts written about the early African Religionsprim.


African myths express values, identify moral standards, and embody profound philosophical reflections. In Africa, knowledge and culture have traditionally been transmitted orally from one generation to the next. The mythology of these oral cultures is embedded within their ritual practices. For example, a myth that recounts a sacrifice as the act that established order at the beginning of time can provide the model for a ritual sacrifice that aims at restoring social harmony.

Early African religion shows belief in different Gods that varied from peoples and regions throughout the continent.
People and Region
Ibo of Nigeria
Mother Goddess
Ruler of the Underworld
Goddess of Fertility
Dogon of Mali
Supreme God
Bushmen of Soutwestern Africa
Creator God
Yoruba of Nigeria
Messenger God
Buganda of East Africa
Creator God
Father of the Gods
King and Judge of the Universe
Buganda of East Africa
War God
Bantu of Central and South Africa
Sky God
Lovedu of South Africa
Rain Goddess
Ashanti and Akan of Ghana
Creator God (associated with the sun and moon)
Yoruba of West Africa
God of War and Iron
Yoruba of West Africa
Sky God
Supreme Diety
** Chart created from information found at:

Creation and Life's Purpose

African mythology and ritual commonly depict the cosmos as an entity with human traits. The human body is thought to be modeled on the structure and dynamics of the larger cosmos, incorporating the same essential elements and forces that make up the universe.

Myths about the cosmos explain the origins of creation and offer insight into the nature of reality. They also address the place and purpose of human existence. According to the Dogon of Mali, the first being was a smith (metalworker) able to transform the elements of earth and fire into tools. When he fell to the earth from the heavens, his formless body was broken into joints, giving him permanent shape and definition. When the supreme being made human beings, he gave them joints as well. The elbow symbolizes the human capacity to work, to be fashioners of the world, like the divinities. The clavicle, or collarbone, is the most important bone in the male skeleton because it resembles a hoe, indicating God’s intention for human beings: to bring together the elements of creation through agricultural labor.


Beck, Black, Naylor & Shabaka, Roger, L., P., & Dahia Ibo (1999). World History. Evanston, IL: McDougal Littell Inc.

Harris, J (1998). Africans and Their History. New York, New York: Penguin Putnam Inc.

Isizoh, C (2006 11 06). African Traditional Religion. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from African Traditional Religion Web site: http://www.afrikaworld.net/afrel/

Mwase, I Kuona, An African Perspective on Religions: J.N.K. Mugambi's Contribution. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from Kuona, An African Perspective on Religions: J.N.K. Mugambi's Contribution Web site: http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Reli/ReliMwas.htm

Robinson, D Saint-Louis: Religious Pluralism in the Heart of Senegal. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from Africa Online Digital Library Web site: http://www.aodl.org/robinson/

Spielvogel, Jackson J (2005). Glencoe World History. Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Michigan State University, Exploring Africa. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from Unit Three; Studying Africa through the Humanities Web site: http://exploringafrica.matrix.msu.edu/students/curriculum/m14/activity3.php

Mami Wata West African & Diaspora Vodoun The World's First Religions. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from Mami Wata West African & Diaspora Vodoun The World's First Religions Web site: http://www.mamiwata.com/index1.html#culture




BBC World Service. "The Story of Africa: Traditional Religions". Retrieved February 18, 2013 from: