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AfricaReligious Authorities

Religious authorities range from heads of households who perform family rituals to prophets, priests, and ritual experts. They serve as intermediaries between the spirits and the people, carry out divination to diagnose problems, and supervise the execution of rituals. Divination in Yoruba religion is carried out by a priest called babalawo (a father of secrets) who uses symbols to form a combination of numbers derived from the number 256 that points to a text which provides insights into the problem of the individual. When the diviner has arrived at a combination, he links it to the body of sacred oral verses called the Odu Ifa. The interpretation of a particular odu provides guidance for the solution to the problem.

Prophets speak on behalf of divinity and fight for a just society. Douglas Johnson argues that colonial authorities antagonized Nuer prophets and fostered a largely political interpretation of their prophetic role. However, prophets based their power on the spiritual and moral values of the community: neighborliness, generosity, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. People who practiced these virtues had the divinity in them and thus spoke on their behalf. "Evans-Pritchard identifies the kuaar as a priest who represents men to divinity by invoking the divinity of his flesh, contrasting with the prophet who, inspired by a divinity, represents divinity to men" (Johnson, p. 59). These individuals acquired special abilities to see and know things beforehand; the gift of prophecy made them spokespersons (guk) for divinity.

Ngundeng was one of these people. He was also called Dengkur and regarded as a prophet of the Nuer people. When he died, British colonial officials reported that people liked and feared him. He was just, helped the poor, rejected killing, and opposed colonial domination of the Nuer land in the Sudan. Prophet Kinjikitile led the Maji-Maji rebellion in Tanzania in 1905, inspired by sacred water (maji) that he believed would help his people withstand colonial firearms. Past prophets worked on conflict resolution and promoted peace.

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