Friday, August 19, 2016

God, Divinities, And Spirits in African Traditional Religious Ontology (Excerpt From Nigerian Scholarly Paper)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series that provides excerpts from a 2012 post from the blog "Trip Down Memory Lane"*

Part I provides excerpts from the 2010 paper "God, Divinities and Spirits In African Traditional Religious ontology" by Rev. Emeka C. Ekeke and Dr. Chike A. Ekeopara.

Click for Part II of this post. Part II provides a list compiled by John S. Mbiti of traditional African names for the Supreme Deity.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and religious purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

*Unfortunately, the comment section of every post that I've visited on that Trip Down Memory Lane blog contains extensive x rated spam.

Pancocojams Editor's note: This paper appears to be quoted from Am. J. Soc. Mgmt. Sci., 2010, 1(2): 209-218.

I don't know what that abbreviation stands for.

This excerpt is given without page citations and references.

ABSTRACT: "God, Divinities and Spirits In African Traditional Religious ontology"
by Rev. Emeka C. Ekeke, lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of Calabar, Pmb1115 Calabar, Crossriver State, Nigeria,


Dr. Chike A. Ekeopara, Senior Lecturer, Department of Religious Studies, University of Calabar, Pmb1115 Calabar, Crossriver State, Nigeria.

..."The concept of God, divinities and spirits in African traditional religious ontology has been so misunderstood by many scholars to the point of seeing Africans as people who did not know the Supreme Being nor worship Him. This paper seeks to examine how Africans conceive of the Supreme Being, divinities and spirits. The paper shows that the concept of God is not strange to Africans but in traditional Africa there is no atheist. It sees the divinities as beings who receive authority from the Supreme Being to serve in the unitary theocratic system of government....

Most of those who came to study the religions of Africa were armchair scholars who depended on data from missionaries who themselves concentrated in one community or tribe. They used the scanty information derived from one or two localities in Africa to draw conclusion about the ontology of God, divinities and spirits in Africa. These armchair scholars went as far as believing that the sub-Saharan Africa is one country with one religious belief and practice. This misunderstanding continued until indigenous African scholars like John S. Mbiti and E. Bolaji Idowu, in 1970s and 1980s, set out to refute some of the erroneous claims about African religions. They echoed the fact that “Africans had known God before the missionaries came” (Ray XI). This view gave Africans and their religion, which was battered and shattered by the missionaries who condemned and denigrated their religion, a new hope and integrity.

In this paper, our attention is drawn to the fact that there are realities in African religion which has not
been properly echoed by Africans themselves especially those Eurocentric ones whose religious inclination has blinded them to the fact that Africans are not strangers to the worship of One True God – Supreme Being, who is called by different names in Africa. This paper also shows the position of the divinities and spirits in African religious metaphysics stressing that their belief in these other beings do not in any way contradict their belief in the Supreme Being as some opine. In most of the religions of the world, the concept of the Supreme Being is clearly spelt out just as it is in African religion with the divinities and spirits clearly set forth as messengers of the Supreme Being. This work is therefore focused on showing the place of God, divinities and spirits in African religious ontology.

God in African Religious Ontology: When we refer to the word ‘God’, we are talking about the living eternal Being who is the source of all living and whose life existed from the dateless past. He is self existed and is the one whose power sustains the universe. He is an all-knowing Being who knows and sees all things at the same time without any modern instrument. He even knows the end from the beginning...

The fact that there are no written scriptures by the votaries of African traditional religion, does not in any way mean that the concept of the Supreme Being does not exist in their ontology. John S. Mbiti explains that though the knowledge of God as the Supreme Being is not documented in any sacred book, yet it is “expressed in proverbs, short statements, songs, prayers, names, myths, stories and religious ceremonies” (African Religions and Philosophy 29). This means that for one to understand the concept of God – the Supreme Being in Africa, he has to study carefully the entirety of the culture of the people. This agrees with what Mbiti said, “One should not, therefore, expect long dissertations about God. But God is no stranger to African peoples, and in traditional life there are no atheists” (29). This is further supported by an Ashanti proverb which says ‘No one shows a child the Supreme Being." This proverb means that anyone born in Africa does not need to go to school to learn about the existence of the Supreme Being, but God’s existence is known by all including children...

As we study these attributes of God in Africa, we must be conscious of this fact that there are no sacred scriptures of African religion for us to consult and know what these attributes are, as one who wishes to study the attributes of God in Christianity or Islam will do. Rather attributes of God in African religion can be found in the songs, proverbs, sayings, recitals and liturgies of so many African people...

(a) God is real to Africans: Africans do not perceive of God as an abstract entity whose existence is in the mind. He is seen and perceived as a real personal entity whose help is sought in times of trouble and who is believed to be the protector of the people. The various names given to God in African attest to this. The fact that God is real to Africans is enshrined in the meaning of the name they call him. The Yoruba of Nigeria call God Olodumare or Edumere meaning “The King or Chief unique who holds the sceptre, wields authority and has the quality which is superlative in worth, and he is at the same time permanent, unchanging and reliable.” Another Yoruba name for God is Olorun meaning “the owner of heaven” or “the Lord of heaven” showing God as the author of all things both visible and invisible.

The Igbo of Nigeria call God by these names Chukwu meaning “Source Being” which connotes “the Great One from whom being originates”. Chineke meaning, “The Source Being Who creates all things”. The Edo of Nigeria knows God as Osanobua or Osanobwa which means “the source of all beings who carries and sustains the world or universe”. Among the Nupe of Nigeria God is called Soko which means “the creator or supreme deity that resides in heaven”. The Ewe and Fon people of Dahomey call God Nana Buluku which means the great ancient Deity. Among the Akon and Ga people of Ghana, God is known by these names: Odamankoma, meaning “He who is uninterruptedly, infinitely and exclusively fully of grace” or “He who alone is full of abundance or completeness” or “He who in His grace has completed everything in heaven and on earth”. Nyame or Onyame meaning “if you possess or get him, you are satisfied” which expresses God as God of fullness or God of satisfaction. Among the Mende people of Sierra-Leone God is called Ngewo which means “the eternal one who rules from above”. (Awolalu and Dopamu 38-43).

These names were not created by Africans after the colonial era but shows how real God is to Africans. If God were not real to Africans how did they manufacture these names and given to the Being they do not know?...

The Kono people of Sierra Leone call God by the name Yataa which means that “God is the One you meet everywhere”. They also call God by another name Meketa implying “the Everlasting One”, “The One who remains and does not die” showing that people of many generations experience God living (Awolalu and Dopamu 52).

There are so many other great attributes of God in African religious ontology which we may not expatiate in this work such as: God is the absolute controller of the universe, God is Omnipotent, Omnipresent and Omniscient in Africa; the Supreme Being is one in Africa; God is good and merciful, and God is Holy. The attributes as enumerated above are not the product of missionary activities or colonial era. They are part and parcel of Africans. Every child born into African culture grows with these concepts of God and he does not need to learn them because they are imbued in their folklores, myths, short stories, short sayings, proverbs, ceremonies and everything around them. These attributes show the place of the Supreme Being in the African traditional religious ontology. No one under any guise should say that Africans did not know God before colonial era or before the coming of the missionaries. The knowledge of God as the Supreme Being in Africa has been part of our culture from time immemorial.

Divinities in African Religious Ontology: The African religions partly recognize a group of being popularly known as divinities. These beings have been given various names by various writers such as ‘gods’, ‘demigods’, ‘nature spirits’, divinities, and the like. Mbiti explains that the term “covers personification of God’s activities and manifestations, the so-called ‘nature spirits’, deified heroes, and mythological figures” (Concept of God in Africa, 117). This belief in divinities is a common phenomenon especially in West Africa, while in other parts of Africa; the concept is not succinctly expressed. This is what Francis O. C. Njoku means when he said, “The phenomenon of belief in divinities is not everywhere prominent in Africa” (125). In West Africa where the concept is clearly expressed, there are so many of such divinities. In Yoruba pantheon, for example, Idowu explains that there are as much as 201, 401, 600, or 1700 divinities (Qtd in Njoku 127). In Edo of Nigeria, Mbiti narrates that there are as many divinities as there are human needs, activities and experiences, and the cults of these divinities are recognized as such. In his words “One [divinity] is connected with wealth, human fertility, and supply of children (Oluku); another is iron (Ogu), another of medicine (Osu), and another of death (Ogiuwu)” (Concepts of God in Africa, 119).

Divinities have been grouped into two major groups namely: the Principal Divinities and Minor Divinities.

Principal divinities are regarded as part of the original order of things. Njoku sees these as being “co-eval with the coming into being of the cosmos” (126). They include such divinities as Sango or Amadioha – thunder divinities for Yoruba and Igbo; Ani or Ala – earth divinity among the Igbo, Aje in Idoma land and other solar divinities....

Nature of Divinities: There are two major schools of thought as regards the origin of divinities in African
religious ontology. The first school of thought is led by John S. Mbiti. He argues that divinities were
created by the Supreme Being. He explains that divinities “have been created by God in the ontological category of the spirits. They are associated with Him, and often stand for His activities or manifestation either as personifications or as the spiritual beings in charge of these major objects or phenomena of nature” (African Religions and Philosophy 75, 76). By this view of Mbiti and his group, divinities are under the Supreme Being in the order of things. They can also be seen as manifestations of the characteristics or attributes of the Supreme Being.

The second school of thought, championed by E. Bolaji Idowu, argues that divinities were not created but were brought out into being. In his words, From the point of view of the theology of African traditional religion, it will not be correct to say that the divinities were created. It will be correct to say that they were brought into being, or that they came into being in the nature of things with regard to the divine ordering of the universe (169).

This view of Idowu may correspond to the Christian theology about the divinity of Christ. Christians believe that Christ was not created but came out (brought forth) from the Father and so shares almost all the attributes of the Father. This is why he is called the Son of God. In the same way, Idowu applies the same theology to the divinities. He explains that Orisa-nla (the arch-divinity among the Yoruba) “is definitely a derivation partaking of the very nature and metaphysical attributes of Olodumare” (169). This is why the Yoruba people call him “Deity’s son and deputy, vested with the power and authority of royal sonship “(169). In Benin of Nigeria, Olokun the arch-divinity is regarded as the son of Osanobwa, which means a son vested with power and majesty by his father. Among the Akan people of Ghana, all their divinities are regarded as sons of Onyame. Idowu therefore argues that “it is in consequence of this derivative relationship that these divine “beings” are entitled to be called divinities or deities” (169).

A careful look at these two schools will show that Idowu was applying the Christian theological principle to African traditional religion by declaring that the divinities were not created just as Christians believe
that Jesus Christ was not created. Chike Ekeopara lays his weight behind Idowu by declaring that the divinities were not created and adds “Divinities are brought into being to serve the will of the Supreme Being” (19). There is an agreement among scholars that divinities are divided into two groups. One group being spirits and the other group being human beings of the distant past, who, by their heroic activities where deified. Our argument here is that if all divinities were not created, it means that those heroic human beings of the distant past who were deified were not created.

This will run contrary to the general belief of Africans concerning the Supreme Being whom alone has no beginning and no ending in African religious theology. If the divinities are said to posses the same uncreated nature, then there must be equality between them in some sense. But we have submitted in this paper that in Yoruba of Nigeria, the name Olodumare, a name given to the Supreme Being, means a king or chief who wields authority and is “unique”. This uniqueness means one of his kinds.

None is comparable to Him. He is unchangeable and reliable. It therefore follows that if God is unique then every other creature must be different from Him. They are regarded as divinities. Their being called divinities is because they are sometimes the personification of the natural forces or the manifestation of the Supreme Being. This researcher therefore, agrees with John S. Mbiti that divinities “have been created by God initially as spirits… [and] are largely the personifications of natural objects and forces… of the universe” (Introduction to African Religion, 66)...

Nature of Spirits: Spirits are nondescript, immortal and invisible entities. This is because they do not
posses material body through which they could be seen but they may incarnate into any material thing in order to make themselves seen for any reason or purpose. People have however experienced their activities and many folk stories in Africa tell of spirits described in human form, activities and personalities, though sometimes, these descriptions are exaggeration created by the elders to teach special lessons. Since they are invisible, these spirits are thought to be ubiquitous, so that a person is never sure where they are or are not (Mbiti, African… 79)...

Majority of people in Africa believe that spirits dwell in the woods, bush, forest, and rivers. Others hold that spirits dwell in mountains, hills, valleys or just around the village and at road junctions. Spirits are in the same environment with men. This means that man has to try in one way or the other to protect himself
from the activities of the spirits knowing that the spirits are stronger than him. He uses the various means available to him such as magical powers, sacrifices, and offerings to appease, control and change the course of their action.

Man’s Relationship with Spirits: A further study of the activities of the spirits shows that they may cause
terrible harm on men. This they do through causing madness or epilepsy and other terrible sickness. In some cases they may possess people causing them to prophesy. Mbiti explains that “During the height of spirit possession, the individual in effect loses his own personality and acts in the content of the ‘personality’ of the spirit possessing him (African Religions… 82). The spirits may chose to drive the person away making him to live in the forest. It may give the person information for the larger society in the case of a prophet or soothsayer. When spirits possession is noticed, the traditional doctors and diviners may be called to exorcise that spirit from the person thereby setting him free from his captor.

Among the disastrous spirits that rule in African society is the spirit of witches. To Africans this spirit is real, active and powerful yet very dangerous and disastrous in its actions and activities....

African concept about witchcraft consist in the believe that the spirits of living human beings can be sent out of the body on errands of doing havoc to other persons in body, mind or estate; that witches have guilds or operate singly, and that the spirits sent out of the human body in this way can act either invisibly or through a lower creature an animal or a bird (African Traditional Religion… 175,176)...

Another concept of spirit that is prevalent in Africa is that of the guardian–spirit or man’s double. The
belief here according to Idowu is either that the essence of man’s personality becomes a sort of split entity which acts as man’s spiritual counterpart or double; or that the guardian-spirit is a separate entity.

The Africans believe that man has a guardian spirit which if it is good, works to bring prosperity and good
luck to its double but if the guardian spirit is not in good state, it will rather bring obstacle to the ways of its double.

This spirit is known by many names in Africa. Yoruba people call it ori, Igbo people call it chi, while the Edo people call it ehi. It guards one’s steps leading the one to his/her destiny in life. In most cases, it is this spirit that helps to wade off evil spirits that may want to derail the individual from achieving his ultimate in life. This is why most Africans will make sure they sacrifice and appease their guardian – spirit whenever they want to take any important decision or they want to go on a journey. What we are saying here is that in African traditional religion, the place of spirits is very prominent. This does not mean that Africans are Pantheist but it only means that they recognize the role spirits are playing in human life either positively or negatively and they try to keep them at bay using tools available to them such as magic, divination, exorcism, prayers, sacrifice and others.

We have submitted in this work that the Supreme Being has a strong place in the African ontology. He is regarded as an uncreated, self existent, unchanging, and reliable Being whose power transcends all powers. He is seen as the Creator, Omnipotent, Omniscient and Omnipresent Being who is immortal and directs human affairs. In Africa, He is worshiped in most places without a temple and without an image attributed to Him because He is beyond human understanding and is unique showing that there is none like Him.

This Supreme Being according to African ontology has so many deputies who work with Him in the unitary theocratic governance of the universe. These deputies are regarded as divinities. They are functionaries and ministers whose duties are to carry out the full instructions of the Supreme Being. They do not have absolute power or existence. This is because their lives and existence is derived from the Supreme Being. They are created beings and so are subordinate to the Supreme Being in all matters. They can also be regarded as manifestations of the attributes of the Supreme Being. Africans have temples and shrines dedicated to these divinities even though they are seen as intermediaries between men and the Supreme Being.

There are also the spirits who are either created as a race of their own or as the ultimate end of men who died on earth. Some of these spirits cause havoc on humans and so man uses many methods or tools to wade them off. The belief in guardian-spirit is also prominent in Africa.

We are therefore of the view that in African traditional religious ontology, God-Supreme Being, divinities
and spirits exist and play crucial role in that mode of existence which they belong and on humans on earth."

This concludes Part I of this series.

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