I have always imagined that Paradise would be a kind of library.
Jorge Luis Borges

So have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?
Saint John, Letter to Galatians 4:16

Freedom of Religion - Freedom from Religion - Freedom of Public Display of Religion and Traditions

We establish no religion in this country, nor will we ever. We command no worship. We mandate no belief. But we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe; all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief.
Ronald Reagan (Temple Hillel Speech, 1984)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Chapter 7: African Traditional Religion

This chapter deals with traditional and ethnic religions of Africa of the indigenous people who originated from the continent. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam has had a marked influence upon the continent since early Christianity spread from Rome to those nations that were under Roman control during the Roman Empire’s eventual collapse. Mohammedism or Islam spread in the 7th century AD and competed with Christianity and Judaism, specifically in North Africa.
Most people have been misinformed about Africans concerning their culture and religion, mostly because of Hollywood films concerning the continent, especially those produced prior to 1960.

The Victorian Age brought about enlightenment of the African religious beliefs, coming more in direct contact with them through colonialism and Christian missionaries. Most Africans are either Christians today or Moslems, with a minority of the African population converted to Judaism with a small population of Hindus. Writers like James MacDonald, who examined traditional African religion as part of their identifying culture criticized European colonialism that coerced or forced Africans to convert to Christianity and westernized them with European clothing.

This section will briefly cover the African traditional religion, not represented of the various religions found in Africa today – the Africa that is south of North Africa.
Traditional African religion has been passed down by oral history, once again because most tribes had no written language. As in most oral historical cultures, the young are expected to respect elders, which is important in order to pass down the history and tradition of the tribe. Traditions today are far different than 100 years ago within the tribal groups due to influence of civilization, Christian missionaries and Moslem people; therefore some customs described are no longer in practice. This is why the study of African religion, as it was before, is shorter than most religion history.
In many circles of thought, as well as anthropological and archaeological evidence presents, Africa is the place of origin of the human species. Latest scientific findings show through examination of mitochondrial DNA testing that the first known humans were from a small population that emerged from Africa about 60,000 years ago. The earliest written religious texts also has been documented as being the origin, as far as monotheistic religion is concerned, as well as the Mother Earth pagan concept that is the oldest of religions. Civilizations that were advanced in Ethiopia and Timbuktu have long vanished, but archaeological records and sites have provided much of the information we have today as any ancient texts preserved. The following paragraphs examine religions south of the Sahara Desert, once called Dark Africa by early European explorers. European explorers and settlers changed much of Africa, as well as the impact of the Arabs in their efforts to expand the slave trade.

Human values are important within an African community and the word for human beings is Bantu, which is the name given to one of the tribes that are discussed that is based upon their language. An individual is muntu and being born to be a muntu is an important event of community life. It is important that every human child have a name at birth and if the child dies at birth before receiving their name – they were only a spirit trying to disguise itself as a human being at birth. People that are different are considered taboo and a threat to the community, which means that those born with deformities and noticeable birth defects, albinos, or children whose teeth did not appear normal. Twins were considered special children blessed by the spirits, believed to be close to the gods. However, in some areas, one of the twins was killed to prevent disaster upon the community. The Baluba people believe that twins were caused by incest.
Initiation was important when a child was born as a human being. The initiation ceremony was known as mukanda and the child was separated from the community until the ritual initiation ceremony was performed, especially from females – even their mothers. During the separation the male child is circumcised and the boy spends several months at camps away from the village, where they are schooled in traditions and practices of the tribe – a sort of indoctrination session. When they return to the village, they are part of the community. These practices, in various manners, are performed in the several tribes of Africa. Females may be separated until first menstruation or just undergo a certain time period of instruction – depending upon the traditions of the tribe.
Uninitiated men and women are not allowed to marry. As stated, some are not part of the community until they are eligible for marriage, especially in the case of females. Marriage is important among African tribes, not to marry and live celibate is unheard of, unless the person is seriously abnormal in some way. Marriage is a community manner, not individual, including decision upon who marries who. And since the purpose of marriage is to have children, to perpetuate the existence of the tribe having children is important in an African community.

These interesting people were brought to my attention when I watched a film while stationed in Turkey made by the British, entitled The Gods Must Be Crazy. They speak an interesting language that is accompanied by clicks and their mellow way of living and looking at life is fascinating.
Bushman tribes are found in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Namibia and Angola. They are, traditionally hunter-gathers and belong to the Khoisan group of people.
Bushmen children have a life of leisure and play and are allowed to be just children, for whom Bushmen adults prize dearly. The adults spend as much time as possible in conversation, joking, music and their sacred dancing. [i]
Bushmen have leadership, of a sort, but most decisions are made by consensus and women are equal in status within the tribal village.
Being hunter-gathering people, they have, in recent times turned to agriculture, and as time goes by the Bushmen will eventually give up their hunting-gathering way of life.
Bushmen View of Creation
In a C.S. Williams paper:

People did not always live on the surface of the earth. At one time people and animals lived underneath the earth with Kaang (Käng), the Great Master and Lord of All Life. In this place people and animals lived together peacefully. They understood each other. No one ever wanted for anything and it was always light even though there wasn't any sun. During this time of bliss Kaang began to plan the wonders he would put in the world above. First Kaang created a wondrous tree, with branches stretching over the entire country. At the base of the tree he dug a hole that reached all the way down into the world where the people and animals lived. After he had finished furnishing the world as he pleased he led the first man up the hole. He sat down on the edge of the hole and soon the first woman came up out of it. Soon all the people were gathered at the foot of the tree, awed by the world they had just entered. Next, Kaang began helping the animals climb out of the hole. In their eagerness some of the animals found a way to climb up through the tree's roots and come out of the branches. They continued racing out of the world beneath until all of the animals were out. Kaang gathered all the people and animals about him. He instructed them to live together peacefully. Then he turned to the men and women and warned them not to build any fires or a great evil would befall them. They gave their word and Kaang left to where he could watch his world secretly. As evening approached the sun began to sink beneath the horizon.
The people and animals stood watching this phenomenon, but when the sun disappeared fear entered the hearts of the people. They could no longer see each other as they lacked the eyes of the animals which were capable of seeing in the dark. They lacked the warm fur of the animals also and soon grew cold. In desperation one man suggested that they build a fire to keep warm. Forgetting Kaang's warning they disobeyed him. They soon grew warm and were once again able to see each other. However the fire frightened the animals. They fled to the caves and mountains and ever since the people broke Kaang's command people have not been able to communicate with animals. Now fear has replaced the seat friendship once held between the two groups. The Bushmen of Africa believe that not only are plants and animals alive, but also rain, thunder, the wind, spring, etc.  …

The largest of all tribes in Africa (estimated at 10-11 million), this tribe is known in legend and lore and in books and films (Zulu, 1964) about Africa.
The Zulu are testament that African traditional beliefs and culture is not as backward as some people think.
Going back in history of Africa more than 100 years ago, before the influence of Christian missionaries, the Zulu religion was primarily concerned with the spiritual world, the Shades. Things important in life are birth, puberty, marriage, death and proper burial, the Shades, or ancestral spirits brood or watch over the living. Brood also means change, as explained by a Zulu man:

It is like this: There is the bride. She is one kind of person. At marriage, when the shades brood she becomes another person. She is now the wife. When they brood again, she changes from the childless to the mother of a child. [ii]
Within the realm of brood Shades, there is good magic and bad magic utilizing divination and herbology that is important in daily life. Positive effects are muthi or umuthi omhlope, such as healing and curing disease;; while black muthi (umuthi omnyama) can bring illness or death. [iii]
Zulu religion has a creator God called Nkulunkulu, which is believed to have developed from Christian influence, and in fact, like Haitian and Jamaican people have incorporated their traditional religion within their adopted religion primarily of Christianity. The Zulu even have their own messiah by the name of Isaiah Shembe, who established the Nazareth Baptist Church.
Zulu diviners claim they can see the world as upside down. While humans work during daylight, the night belongs to the shades, but in the world of the shades, light can become dark and dark can become light. This concept, of course, is due to the fact that Zulu once thought that the earth was flat – which much of the rest of the world thought until Earth’s true shape was discovered.
Because when nightfall came, which was because night reversed with day, the latter being underneath the dark, people were buried at night in order for the dead to find the underworld more easily.
The basic differences between Christianity and primal religion, according to Harold Turner [iv] are that primal religions have:
A number of gods; no revelation through history; efficacy of sacrifice and ritual; mixing religion with magic; and gods and men belong to one cosmic system and depend on each other.
In contrast, Harold Turner wrote:
Christians worship one God with a firm moral character, who freely created the universe out of nothing and is not tied to it, and who has acted once for all to save all peoples.
Despite this sometimes primal religion survives by integration in custom, tradition, and ritual Christianity. Not much different than the Romans adopting ancient Greek mythology and tailoring it for their own purposes, providing the Greek gods and goddesses with Latin names.
J. W. E. Newberry wrote that:
Contrary to popular belief, primal religions are today reviving in many parts of the world. … Arising again like the phoenix from the ashes, tribal peoples are gathering again in their ceremonial circles, remembering discarded teachings, renewing the ancient ways
According to the tribes of the North American Indians, this is the formation of the Fourth World. [v]

In 1924, Lafcadio Hearn published an article entitled New Orleans Superstitions, published in Harper’s Weekly, December 25th, 1886. Mr. Hearn had written previous works about Voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica, [Vodun] and although this does not conform to African or Asian religions, the early religions of Haiti and Jamaica were brought from Africa via the slave trade in the Caribbean by the European colonialists (British, Spanish, French and Dutch) that settled there and did not originate there, however it evolved. 
New Orleans in America also had a slave population and Voodoo was practiced there for some time by the slaves brought there to work the plantations until finally it was eradicated by Christianity, so by the time Lafcadio Hearn had written about Voodoo in New Orleans the religion-cult was considered no more. As Lafcadio Hearn wrote in an updated version of the 1886 article in 1924 in his book, An American Miscellany, vol. II, he related his personal experiences concerning those who practiced voodoo, as well as what he had researched. He wrote:
The old generation of planters in whose day Voudooism had a recognized existence--so dangerous as a motive power for black insurrection that severe measures were adopted against it--has passed away; and the only person I ever met who had, as a child in his colored nurse's care, the rare experience of witnessing a Voudoo ceremonial, died some three years ago, at the advanced age of seventy-six. As a religion--an imported faith--Voudooism in Louisiana is really dead; the rites of its serpent worship are forgotten; the meaning of its strange and frenzied chants, whereof some fragments linger as refrains in negro song, is not now known even to those who remember the words; and the story of its former existence is only revealed to the folklorists by the multitudinous débris of African superstition which it has left behind it.
Voodoo, sometimes spelled Voudou or Voudoo, originated in Africa at least more than 1,000 years ago. Despite its ominous sound and what has been ascribed to the religion itself, the word translates from the African language Great Spirit or Creator. The religion evolved over a period of time, originally comprised of ancestor worship, human and animistic, as well as developing the skills to speak to the dead. When the Arabs developed a slave trade for the New World (around 1510), African slaves brought their religions with them. Despite Christian conversion (mostly Catholicism), many retained or mixed in their homeland religions and culture, and such was the case of those who practiced Voodoo. 

Despite books and films depicting bloody rituals, devil worship [Theistic Satanism], evil spells and curses and the creation of living dead individuals called zombies, the general population of those who practiced Voodoo did so to use the magic and the supernatural world to heal and to become part of the spirit world they must enter after death.
Most of the slaves procured by Arab slave traders were captured and/or kidnapped from the West Coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea area, mainly because it was close to where the slave ships from Europe and the Americas would come to pick up a load of slaves to sell on the market. Sometimes tribal war produced slaves for the Arab slave traders, like tribes in Dahomey, where in 1729 the Dahomey tribe conquered the Ewes tribe and sold war prisoners to the slavers on the coast or directly to slave ships, exchanging for European goods. Both tribes practiced snake worship and some priests found themselves on slave ships heading for the New World
The word Vo-Du actually comes from the Dahomey tribal language. Among these trade centers were colonies of the Caribbean Islands to work the plantations and who were forced to become Catholic Christians. However, many did not want to forget their heritage, customs and religion, so they secretly kept the ways, in this case, Voodoo.
While spirits are important, those who believed in Voodoo worshiped one Supreme Being who ruled over all within the universe. Offerings were not uncommon to either the Supreme Being or the spirit deities (Loa) that involve themselves in human affairs.
Traditions and rituals are passed down by those called a Griot. Ifa is a system of divination. Voodoo on the Spanish islands of the Caribbean was known as Santeria, worship of the saints and other islands, including New Orleans on the American coast it remained to be called Voodoo. While Mr. Hearns wrote that the Voodoo religion was dead, it still remained becoming a secret religion because of prejudices against them,  and today, in New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, there are about 15% of the population that practices some version of Voodooism. Modern Voodoo has evolved, for example Spiritualist Reverends and Mothers  have established their own churches, previously ritual gatherings occurred outdoors or at a designated meeting place; Hoodoos are those who work spells and elements of witchcraft and occult have been intermingled with original Voodoo rituals and doctrine.
Voodoo is still practiced, in the ancient sense as a religion in Haiti and Jamaica. There they profess their faith to one god, Bondye and also hold importance spirits called Loa that interact with the living. Healers use herbs, faith healing methods intermingled with modern medicine. Priesthood of Voodoo can be man (Houngan) or woman (Mambo). [vi]
Primary Voodoo is Rada the family loa and Petro, from the Congo, utilizes black magic with the aid of angry or evil loa. It is Petro that has provided the negativity towards the Voodoo religion and depicted in films as deathly curses, creation of zombies and sexual orgies.
The following are terms used in Voodoo religion:
Hounfo: the parish or region of a Houngan or Mambo’s influence.
Govi: a small earthen bottle where the gros-bon-ange (spirit) of dead ancestors is placed in order to rescue it. A year and a day after a person dies their relatives recall the gros-bon-ange, the ritual consisting of sacrificing an ox.
Serviteurs: Practitioners of Voodoo.
Ason: Magic rattle of the Houngan or Mambo.
Lave Tet: An initiation ceremony consisting of washing the head of a serviteur after they have been mounted (sexually) for the first time.
Kanzo: Initiation ceremony for those who have promoted into a higher level of Voodoo practice.
Taking of the Ason: Final initiation ceremony of a Houngan or Mambo.
Verve: Ceremonial drawings, usually using flour, depicting the various loa.
Peristyle: Voodoo temple, which are small buildings.
Poto Mitan: The center pole in a Voodoo Peristyle that represents the center of the universe and in ceremony people dance around this pole.
Les Invisibles: all spirits.
Les Mysteries:
1 – the loa.
2 – Sacred knowledge called konesans.
Crossroads: A place where two worlds (earth and spirit) meet.
While the Voodoo claim a central deity, there are those of the spiritual world (loa) they pay homage to:
Legba: An old man who is the gatekeeper between the spiritual world and world of living – world of earth and world of the Invisibles. Legba is the origin of life. The sun is one of his symbols, but he also is the source of regeneration, so the phallus is also his symbol.
Kalfu: The Petro, dark side, of Legba. He is the spirit of the night, originating in darkness. The moon is his symbol and considered a dangerous loa to conjure.
Papa Ghede: Loa of death and destruction. He is also the lord of eroticism.
Dumballah: A father figure represented by a snake and a source of peace and tranquility.
Agw: Sovereign of the seas, especially honored by those who live by the sea.
Ogoun: A warrior who involves himself in politics and considered a violent spirit to deal with.
Erzulie: Earth Mother, spirit of the goddess of love and muse of beauty, whose identity was transferred to Mother Mary when Haitians and other Voodoo followers converted to Christianity. She is a loved loa that can read the future in dreams.
Much of the French language is used in Voodoo because of the ancestors being slaves to French colonists.

Phenomenology of Religions, its chapters, annexes and appendices are protected under US and international copyright laws - please respect that. Linked/Sourced excerpts may be used if author is identified and linked. No commercial reproduction may be produced without the express permission of the author. Unless otherwise identified, photographs/images are public domain or the property of Keith Allen Lehman.

[i] WikipediaBushmen Society.
[ii] Christianity and the Primal Religions; Eerdmans’ Handbook to World Religions; Harold Turner; p. 163.
[iii] WikipediaZulu Mythology.
[iv] Eerdmans’ Handbook to World Religions, Chapter Entry; p. 164.
[v] Phenomenology of World Religions, Chapter 5: Religion-Culture of the Americas.
[vi] Introduction to Voodoo in Haiti; Bob Corbett, March 1988.

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