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Describe the indigenous religious practices observed by early Africans before contact with Islam & Christianity.
Topics on this page
Importance of Ancestors
Concept Maps 1 and 2
Creation and Life's Purposes
Focus Question: What were African religious practices and beliefs before Islam and Christianity?
A map of Africa, showing the major religions distributed as of 2008
Listen to Traditional Religions, the fifth programme in the BBC landmark radio series The Story of Africa, presented by Hugh Quarshie
Teacher Lesson Plan on Indigenous Religions and five other topics
Religion in Africa
from the Exploring Africa Curriculum from the African Studies Center at Michigan State University.
Click here for a breakdown of traditional religious beliefs by geographic regions of Africa and a chart of their primary gods
from the Exploring Africa website of the BBC.
Overview of African religious practices before contact with Islam and Christianity
For more on religious traditions and practices, see
AP World History Key Concept 2.1
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
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
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.
Akhenaten's wife was
For 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
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
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:
Concept Map 1:
Concept Map 2:
From the "Exploring Africa" page on Michigan State's site at:
LINKS 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
Ruler of the Underworld
Goddess of Fertility
Dogon of Mali
Bushmen of Soutwestern Africa
Yoruba of Nigeria
Buganda of East Africa
Father of the Gods
King and Judge of the Universe
Buganda of East Africa
Bantu of Central and South Africa
Lovedu of South Africa
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
** 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).
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:
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:
Robinson, D Saint-Louis: Religious Pluralism in the Heart of Senegal. Retrieved February 17, 2007, from Africa Online Digital Library Web site:
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:
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:
BBC World Service. "The Story of Africa: Traditional Religions". Retrieved February 18, 2013 from:
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