African Religious Traditions

African Religious Traditions
African Religious Traditions

Little contemporary written material has survived about religious traditions in ancient Africa, except in inscriptions by the ancient Egyptians about their beliefs and in accounts by Herodotus when he described the religions and folklore of North Africa.

The Egyptian beliefs involved gods and the monarchs as descendants of these deities and their representatives on earth. Many of the Egyptian gods have different forms, with some like Horus and Isis being well known, and changes in weather, climate, and the well-being of the country reflecting the relative power of particular contending deities.

Briefly during the eighteenth Dynasty, the pharaoh Akhenaten (14th century b.c.e.) tried to establish monotheism with the worship of the sun god Aten. The move eroded the power of the priests devoted to the sun-god Amun-Ra, who struck back.

After establishing a new capital at Tel el Amarna, the pharaoh died under mysterious circumstances and the old religion was restored and continued until the Ptolemies took over Egypt in the fourth century b.c.e., which saw the introduction of Greek gods, and later Roman gods when Egypt became a part of the Roman Empire.

Although these concepts started in Egypt, similar ideas, almost certainly emanating from Egypt, can be found in Nubia and elsewhere. At Meroë in modern-day Sudan, there is evidence of worship of gods similar to the Egyptians’. It also seems likely that similar ideas flourished for many centuries at Kush and Axum, the latter, in modern-day Ethiopia, influenced by south Arabia and introducing into Africa some deities from there.

In Carthage many beliefs followed those of the Phoenicians. The deity Moloch was also said to be satisfied only by human sacrifice, with some historians suggesting that one of Hannibal’s own brothers was sacrificed, as a child, to Moloch.

Modern historians suggest that the Romans exaggerated the bloodthirsty nature of the worship of the Carthaginian deity Moloch in order to better justify their war against Carthage and that the large numbers of infant bodies found by archaeologists in a burial ground near Carthage may have been from disease rather than mass human sacrifice of small children.

The kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania to the west of Carthage would have been partially influenced by Carthaginian ideas but later came to adopt Roman religious practices, both becoming parts of the Roman Empire.

Much can be surmised about religious practices in sub-Saharan Africa during this period from the statuary found in places such as Nok, in modern-day northern Nigeria. Their carved stone statues of deities have survived, showing possible similarities with some Mediterranean concepts of Mother Earth. However, it seems more likely that ancestor worship was the most significant element of traditional African religion, as it undoubtedly was for many other early societies.

Human figurines, as the hundreds of carved peoples of soapstone from Esie in southwest Nigeria and the brass heads from Ife are thought to represent ancestors, chiefs, or other actual people. At Jenné-jeno and some other nearby sites, the bones of relatives were sometimes interred within houses or burial buildings. As Islam came into the area, this dramatically changed the religious beliefs of the area.

Islam led to the building of many mosques, with cemeteries located in the grounds of these mosques or on the outskirts of cities. The graves of holy men became revered and places of pilgrimage and veneration. In some places Islam adapted to some of the local customs, but in other areas, such as Saharan Africa, it totally changed the nature of religious tradition.

In some parts of West Africa there was a clash between the fundamental concepts of Islam and tribal customs, but in most areas ancestor worship was replaced by filial respect for ancestors.