- African Concept of God, Spirits and Ancestors
- The Role of God, Spirits and Ancestors
- Responsibility of the Living Towards God, Spirits and Ancestors
All Traditional African Communities believe in a Supreme Being who is the origin and sustainer of all things: He is the creator of the university and all that it contains. All Africans agree that nobody has ever seen God. Therefore, nobody can really describe Him, yet through their religious insights, Africans have formulated ideal about the nature of God. These ideas concern His real being and His activities.
“Traditional religion” refers to African culture that existed in the sub – Saharan Africa. African traditional culture had no scriptures or texts because most of it was oral. It was preserved and handed down from generation to generation-through oral traditions; ceremonies; rituals, and leading personalities.
Africans believed in existence of a supreme being who lived in mountains, clouds and the sky. God was the creator of the universe. In African traditions, religion was integrated in every aspect of life and daily activities. For example, farming activities involved God, spirits and ancestors. People would pray to God, spirits ancestors so as to ask for blessings in order to have a good harvest. Livestock keepers believed that fertility of their animals is a result of the blessings of God. If God was appeased, animals would increase.
Natural phenomena such as thunder, lightning, rain; good harvest, and birth were linked to the Supreme Being and the invisible world. If there were calamities such as drought, disease, famine, and death, it was an indication that God, spirits and ancestors were displeased with humankind. Many communities have invocations uttered throughout the day
God is described with many names, which are God’s attributes. These are among others:
- God is Good – Nearly all-African communities describe God as being good to all people and things. He gives rain, sunshine and life among many other gifts.
- God is merciful- The Akamba refer to God as “God of pity”, the ‘merciful one’. God shows mercy in times of danger, illness, difficulty or anxiety.
- God is holy. He is pure, holy and does not make mistakes. Yoruba call him God who is pure, without blemish. The Kikuyu say God is “Possessor of whiteness” and the Bukusu – ‘master whitewash’. African traditions all approach God with reverence, fear, respect and honor. For example when offering sacrifices, they would offer a one-colour animal either white, black, or brown and not a spotted animal.
- God is powerfule. Omnipotent. God is described as almighty. His power is expressed in natural occurrences like thunder, lighting, earthquakes, rains, and floods.
- God is all-knowing (Omniscient). God knew all things; nothing can be hidden from him. He discerns hearts.
- God is all present (Omnipresent).He is present everywhere in the universe
- God is limitless. God has no limit. He is both very far and very near, beyond and within.
- God is transcendent .God cannot be exhausted by human imagination. He is unexplainable, beyond human experience and understanding.
- God is all understanding
- God is self – existent .He made all things but he himself is not made. He exists on his own. Zulu explain that God is ‘he who is of himself.
- God is a spirit. He is invisible, and everlasting. Shilluk of Sudan refers to him as ‘great spirit’ ‘the formless spirit.
- God is everlasting. God is eternal, never changes, and never dies. The Yoruba call him “the mighty immovable rock that never dies.
- God is God created the creator .The world Kikuyu call him “Mumbi”
- God is just. Kikuyu refer to God as “Mugai” meaning “divider”. ‘One who shares out.’ God judges fairly, punishes those who do wrong and rewards the good with blessings.
- God is the provider. All communities acknowledge that God provides them with everything they have. Africans built representation of the power of God. They identified sites, places and things that represented the presence and power of God. For example things like big trees, thick fore-st, high mountains, unique rock formations and large rivers and animals. In these places they built sites, and shrines. Shrines were regarded as holy and people approached them with reverence Spirits. They were believed to exist between God and human beings in the universe. Spirits were diverse and created by God. Some spirits were dead human beings. Spirits were divided into nature, sky, earth and human spirits that were either long dead (ghosts) or recently dead (ancestors).
- Divinities. These are spirits created by God. They are close to God and act as his agents. They are in charge of natural phenomena like the sun, moon and stars. They are intermediaries between God and ancestral spirits, human beings and other creatures. They reveal God’s plans through diviners and mediums
- Human spirits / common spirits. These are inferior to divinities but higher than human kind. They are remains of human beings after their death. These spirits monitor human activities. Human spirits have lost their names and are not longer remembered by the living. They are believed to live in the underworld, undergrounds, in thick bushes, forests, rivers, mountains, lakes, skies, and caves among other places. These spirits can bring harm to the living if disrespected. They appear to people in dreams or in form of shadows. They can also enter or possess a person and cause abnormalities.
- Ancestors / living dead: These are spirits of the recently dead. They are remembered by the living when children are named after them. They are actively involved in the lives and activities of the living. Their offerings (food or drink) are poured on the ground for them to receive. Ancestors are in a period of transition between the living and the higher categories. They are believed to know the problems of the living and therefore consulted constantly. They are also associated with evil such as revenge for burying them without honor, or not following the instructions they gave before they died or failing to pour them libations. When they are happy with the living, they are a source of blessings. Ancestors who did evil things or committed suicide are forgotten and ignored.
Hierarchy means the order or ranking from the highest to the lowest of created beings. At the top is
Animals and Plants
God is the creator. The Akamba community believed that God whom they called Mulungu created man and woman. He then tossed them to the earth. The Luhya claim God created them from the black topsoil hence their skin complexion.
God is the source of life and giver of life. Barren women pray to God to ask for children. Human beings depend on God for life, rain, air, and sunshine.
God is the provider. He gave domestic animals to human beings for their use. Domestic animals have many uses such as repayment of dowry, food, and sacrifices to God, payment of a fine by an offender.
Many wild animals are used in folk songs and tales to discourage coward-ice, and laziness
God is a protector of human beings from evil.
God is the giver of moral laws and a judge of people
God offers solutions to man’s problems through mediums, and prophets
God gives power to the specialists such as medicine men, women and priests.
God punishes people for wrongdoing
Wild animals such as hyena are used in folk stories to discourage cowardice. Stories of tortoise illustrate the importance of being slow but sure. Snakes in some communities such as the Luhya were not killed.
The community believed snakes were immortal ancestors coming to visit the living.
Plants were used as food for people and animals. Trees were used for fuel and building materials. Some trees were used as sacred places of worship.
Non-living things such as the rain, rocks, and rivers had a religious importance. Rain is seen as a blessing from God. When rain fails, diviner/rain maker was consulted .Rocks, and mountains were believed to be dwelling places for the living, the dead and the spirits.
The spirits were viewed as neither good nor evil. Human beings feared them. Their roles were many.
- appeared in dreams especially to diviners, priests, medicine men and women, and rain makers to relay information
- Were consulted by religious specialists to find the cause of a problem in a given situation.
- Were bad (naughty) spirits, which disturbed people. African commu-nities believed that bad sprits could call out one’s name but on turning there’s no one.
- Were manipulated by some human beings to cause harm to others
- Relayed God’s messages to human beings.
- Sometimes possessed a person causing the person to be sent away from the village to the forest, or away from home.
- acted as intermediaries between humans,’ divinities and God
- Appear to families in dreams and visions.
- Give family instructions .i.e. what should be done.
- Rebuke those who fail to honor them and warn them of impending punishment
- Act as mediators between the living and God.
- Enquire about family affairs as they considered as members of the family
- Request for sacrifice of an animal which is slaughtered for them
- Cause illness or mental disturbance to members of a family if they are disregarded or disobeyed.
- Preserve the culture of a community
- Welcome those who die to the spirit world.
Responsibilities of living include
Human beings are expected to worship God, spirits and ancestors and show reverence and respect or veneration to God. They are also expected to (i) pray (ii) sing and (iii) dance.
Worship. This is our major responsibility as God expects us to meet and communicate with the spiritual world and God. There are several ways of worshipping God. These include among others:
Sacrifices include shedding of blood of animals and birds. Offerings are in the form of foodstuffs, milk, water and honey. God was worshipped because He is recognized as the absolute owner of life and property. We also worship God in order to
- invoke Him for special blessings
- Thank Him
- express our personal fellowship and communion with God
- avert or prevent evil. Evils bring about epidemics, famine, floods, and drought.
Africans worshipped God through singing, dancing, clapping of hands, drumming, and use of musical instruments.
Prayers were accompanied with sacrifices or offerings. Community leaders prayed to God, spirits and ancestors.
Invocations are shortened form of prayers
e.g. “Help me oh God” ‘Oh great God”. These are prayers at the spur of the moment. They are few words full of meaning and calling for help from God.
An elder or older person gave blessings. It is believed that the person blessing the other one is doing so on behalf of God.
Africans treated their ancestors with great respect and honor. They for example worshiped ancestors daily. Worshipping included placing food or pouring libation of beer, milk, water and honey for the spirits. As this act was done, they uttered words to accompany the offerings. Libations were done daily by some communities.
Ancestors were honored by:
- Mentioning their names at prayers was offered to God.
- Naming children after them.
- Inviting them to participate in family ceremonies and rituals. For exam-ple during birth, and initiation.
- Maintaining their graves well.
- Giving the dead a decent burial
Diviners and mediums talk with ‘spirits”. To do so, they sit quietly in a place; singing, dancing and clapping their hands. As they dance, sit and sing, diviners lose their senses and get possessed by the spirit. The spirits speak give them messages for individuals and communities. Spirits communicate on issues such as:
- Lost property
- Revealing by name the enemy in the society
- Making demands on the living
- Giving advice
- Giving warnings on impending danger and
- Making promises to bless a family or clan. Spirits that possess mediums are not harmful.
There are bad evil spirits harmful to people whom they possess. Some evil spirits cut themselves; others throw themselves into a fire, river, and lake.