2 minute read


AfricaGods And Spirits

Belief in a High God is widespread in Africa. (Zulu: Unkulunkulu, the Great One, or Inkosi Yezulu, the Chief of the Sky; Yoruba: Olorun, King of the Sky, or Olodumare; Wimbum: Nyui; Igbo: Chukwu; Dogon: Amma.) The Zulus believe that in the beginning Unkulunkulu created people, male and female. He also created people of different colors and gave them their own dwelling places: the whites were to live in the water, and the black people in the land now occupied by the Zulu people. Beliefs about God indicate that God is a transcendent and immanent being who controls the universe and is responsible for all things and all human affairs. In some beliefs, God is an androgynous being. Kuiye of the Batammaliba has both male and female genitals and is called "The Sun, Our Father and Our Mother." In Zimbabwe, Mwari, the god of fertility, also is androgynous. Theologians John Mbiti, E. Bolaji Idowu, and Gabriel Setiloane have articulated African perspectives on God using Christian theological categories.

In the divine hierarchy, divinities and spirits are ranked below God. Yoruba divinities are called orishas. God sent the divinities Obatala and Oduduwa to create the world and all things in it. Some of the orishas are divinized ancestors; the orisha Shango was the fourth king of Oyo. The orisha Esu is a trickster who opens the path to other orishas. Esu rewards devotees and also punishes them when they go astray. Orunmila is the orisha of wisdom and divination while Ogun is the orisha of iron and war. The female deity Oshun is the goddess of water and revered as a great mother. Her devotees hold festivals that have become important cultural manifestations in the Nigerian town of Oshogbo.

Evans-Pritchard argued that the Nuer god Kwoth was also a spirit. This theoretical move set up a complicated picture of the nature of gods and spirits. This remains a rich territory for further exploration because Nuer Kwoth is an entity that is both divine and a distinct spirit. Clan divinities among the Nuer and Dinka are believed to have the power to address moral issues and guide interpersonal relationships. These spirits and divinities are all subject to the authority of God and carry out God's will.

Ancestral spirits are also thought to interact with people. People offer sacrifice and pour libations to the spirits to ward off difficulties. Community leaders consult ancestral spirits for guidance; in Zimbabwe, mhondoro spirits helped determine succession to office. Chiefs and quarter heads of the Wimbum generally offer wine to the ancestors before they drink. In addition to ancestral spirits who may bless or punish people, there are hosts of other spirits, who may be mainly malicious. Among the Wimbum, some of these spirits are called nyirr and often bother people at night.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Reason to RetrovirusReligion - Africa - Myth And Cosmology, Gods And Spirits, Religion And Possession, Religious Authorities, Worship Spaces