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INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF AFRICAN TRADITIONAL RELIGION

By DR. T.F JEMIRIYE of the Department of Religious Studies, University Of Ado-Ekiti, Ado-Ekiti.

I. Introduction:

Traditional religion, especially in Africa, like all other religions of the world, have stories, myths, magic, beliefs, many performatives, lessons to learn, objects of worship, rewards for actions, be such actions good or bad and many other distinguishing properties. All of the African life is religious. From birth to death and within the circle of the living ancestors, the living now and the living future, the unborn generation, life is continuous for the traditional religionist, especially the African. It is within this context that African Traditional religion is always studied.

II. Some Introductory Definitions:

Africa: A continent, of the kind of style prevalent in the place so-called.

African: of relation to, or characteristic of Africa, or its people, geography, etc.

Traditional: Indigenous practices and beliefs, facts, customs, often handed down from generation to generation. May be unwritten or written.

Religion: could be defined simply as a system of faith, belief and worship. It could be defined by its root meaning, etymology, connotation, origin and from many other points of view.

World: the global village, space ship, often planet earth, the universe, sphere of existence, Mankind.

Stories: Accounts of happenings, narratives that serve to bring certain principles of ethics, moral or phenomenological explanations.

Myth: folklore, tale or words put together whose authenticity or correctness cannot be easily verified.

Magic: an act that is not easily explainable to common reasoning, involving mysterious agency or power.

Prayer: Communication, mostly in form of a request from another person, being or body.

Beliefs: These are individual positions on specific topics, issues and events.

Performatives: Actions done as acts of faith, worship or devotion and awe. These sets of actions may include singing, praying, dancing, eating and obeisance of various patterns.

Objects of Worship: This is a term used for a wide range of things. It is often used to include deified objects that are worshipped, substances used in worship of any deity, people involved in a particular worship system, materials involved in whatever form in worship and even designations to worship like food items, colour and such like.

III. The Study of African Traditional Religion

The study of African Traditional Religion (ATR) is very exciting, fascinating, but sadly uncared for and very much unregarded even by the Africans, who very often, out of sheer ignorance, misinformation or naivity have not bothered to know its worth or importance. A book or work on introduction to ATR is therefore an integral foundational requirement for any African, especially in terms of the African root and experience of which the African is an irremovable part.

Study in African Traditional Religion started as mostly a descriptive encounter of observable actions of the African by the foreign observers. The likes of the foreign observers include Bascom, Parrinder and some others. Their works were more descriptive and less analytic. African words, concepts and experiences were adapted as the observers wished. Little could they be blamed as most of the foreign observers lacked the knowledge of the African language, which are often very rich in linguistic and cultural expressions.

The African experiences are usually simply meaningless for their foreign observers! It is not a surprise therefore that the study of ATR suffered various set backs at the initial attempt by scholars to make it a unit of study. It must also be noted that the impact of Christianity, especially with its emphasis of particularity did enormous damage to the study of ATR and to the rightful recognition of the African religious experience. This therefore contributed immensely to the many difficulties besetting the study of ATR. The problems of sources and what could be called the goal of the study of ATR are all within this complex dimension.

III A. Difficulty to the Study of ATR

Bolaji Idowu must be given credit for the pioneering work that he did in this regard. (E. B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, SCM Press Ltd., London, 1976). His discussions of the issues included those problems caused by the “geography” of the continent. These included size of the continent, derogatory appellations, such as “The Dark Continent,” multiplicity and complexity of every aspect in Africa like culture, language, climate and such like.

Idowu also discussed the problems of the consequences of many European settlements that have wiped out aboriginal peoples and obliterated many racial memories. Closely related to the European settlement consequences is the poisoning by introducing –really establishing- “a bit of whiteness” syndrome into the African. The “tattered European dress” started the racial triumph that soon made the impressionable African not only ill-informed about his own cult and its traditions but also that he admired the white man and his ways and would rather forget that he was an African. The young, most informed African would rather become a European (or American by today’s visa lottery deceits of a better life!) a second class slave or citizen without knowing his real African worth.

Western education, civil or mercantile service, travelling to various places outside Africa have all done their unrepairable blow to the study of ATR. It could therefore be said that the complex situations make Africa really unknown especially in its cultural resources, religious traditions and understanding. ATR must therefore be carefully explored with devotion and commitment and particularity by the Africans themselves.

III B. The Sources of the Study of ATR:

The greatest and unique source for the study of ATR is oral tradition. The importance of oral traditions cannot be adequately quantified in the study of African Traditional Religion. (Idowu, Ibid, pp. 83-86.) Apart from oral traditions be it by arts, story, songs, tales and drama, festivity, experiential participation is the second source for the study of ATR. This provides a better understanding of ATR as scholars see and know the religion from the inside. The rich mythologies, stories and folk tales can then be understood within their living context.

In the attempt to get to their sources, many foreign investigators used very many wrong terminologies on their observations. These are wrong interpretations rather than problem of sources. Double standards were employed for similar objects, experience and actions. This will not be treated here in detail any way.

III C. The Aim of the Study of ATR:

The purpose of the study is to find out what Africans actually know, believe and think about Deity and the world. It is to find out how the African beliefs have inspired the world views and moulded cultures in general. The study is to eliminate “reading in” what is not in ATR, “read out” what is in ATR. It is to give a critical judgement and interpretation of ATR in truth and as practised. The study is to show that the African religious experience is valid, true and real. Investigators, especially, foreign, should therefore learn to project African Traditional Religion as the Africans themselves say it in their language, culture and all.

This study will now look at four examples within the Yorůbá traditional religious setting as illustrations of African Traditional Religion. They are:

1. Pantheon in Yorůbá Traditional Religious thought
2. Akodi- The example of communal living together that depicts total acceptance.
3. Babalawo or Baba Awo as an illustration in discussing the problems of terminologies
4. Ibura Ojuibo, a contextual phenomenon as an example of a performative religious diagnosis.

IV. Pantheon in African Traditional Religious Thought

Background to Pantheon: Given the fact that pantheon simply means a conglomeration of Gods, who then are these gods? What are their categories, or do they belong to the same phylum? What is the relationship for example, between gods per se and the deified ancestors? What is their number? What is even the relationship between the gods and the Supreme Being?

The paper is also an attempt to resolve the confusion of some scholars, particularly the foreign ones, with regard to the question of the relationship between them and the Supreme Being. The question of their portfolio and their relationship with the devotees is also fully addressed in the paper. The approach here is both phenomenological and sociological.

The Yorůbá Pantheon: The Sociological Basis: Pantheon, as described above, is a community of gods. It is indisputable that Africans believe in God and gods (Divinities). The reason for this is not far-fetched. This has to do with the social setting of Yorůbá. This is what Idowu calls the social etiquette or social pattern of the Yorůbá and Africans in general. I, as a Yorůbá, am fully aware of the social activities of the Yorůbá and I quite agree with Idowu that the Yorůbá conception of the Supreme Being has been a reflection of their social pattern. In Yorůbá social set-uo, for example, it is considered a thing not done (a kii se e – a taboo) for a young one to approach an elderly person when he wants a special favour. Even a child may not go directly to his parents in order to obtain something or to apologise for an misdemeanour. The young one must approach an elder on such occasion through an intermediary, a close associate, an uncle, an aunt, a playmate, or a confidant of one who is being approached. Moreover, it is an observable fact that the Yorůbá do not behave familiarly with their rulers – Kings, chiefs, heads of compounds and so on. They see their ruler through intermediaries such as emese, ilari and some other palace officials. Here the following Yorůbá saying is relevant:

Iro l’a ngbo
Oju ko to Alaafin

We only hear sound
We do not see the Alaafin

This situation can be seen in the various localities in Africa. It is as a result of this fact that God is not approached directly by the Yorůbá and Africans at large. This is a sign of reverence for one who has no equal, no rival, here on earth and in heaven. So, in the religious settings of the Yorůbá, and Africans in general, God is approached through the intermediaries such as gods, and priests.

The gods (divinities) are the intermediaries between the devotees and God, while the priests (Yorůbá – abore) act as intermediaries between the god and their devotees.

Belief in gods in Yorůbá religion, and in fact, in African religion in general can be said to be a result of the need, on the part of the African, to concretise their system of worship. The popular belief is that God is spirit. He is transcendent, though at the same time immanent. No one has ever seen him. No wonder that no images or symbols are associated with him; whereas the gods are concretised in worship through imaged and symbols in order that the worshippers may satisfy their psychological needs and aspirations. The images and symbols, a means to an end, are elements of objectivity and concreteness employed to give reality and permanence in the hearts of worshippers.

The gods and the question of nomenclature in the Yorůbá traditional set-up

The gods can be regarded as the functional arms of the Supreme Beings. The question now is, what exactly do we mean, in Yorůbá traditional context, by the term of label ‘gods’? What also do we mean by the phrase ‘functional arms of God’? The problem is how to get a consensus on what the gods are to be called in the Yorůbá traditional setting.

Should they be called “Gods” with capital ‘G’1 Imole, ‘mole, orise or orisa2? ‘gods’ with small ‘g’, intermediaries, intermediary gods, divinities or spirits3, deities, ancestors4, mediums, spirits5, nature gods6, nature gods or simply orisa?7 Here, it is to be noted that each of the names listed above leads to different theological positions, thus making the choice of name very important. Bascom’s varied names used for the gods include the following: Ebora, Ebura, imole, orisa8. What should be borne in mind here is that the various terms or names are used by different writers to refer to the objects of worship apart from God. These objects of worship are worshipped and greatly reserved by the Yorůbá.

The terms are generally used interchangeably with little or no fuss. To the Yorůbá, the differences in terms or terminologies do not constitute any obstacle to the understanding of what the terms mean. A way out of the multitude of terms or descriptions with reference to the gods is to view the whole thing performatively or functionally.

In this respect one is able to give a particular term to the gods in term of their function or role within the Yorůbá society. This helps to clarify the shade of interpretations and misunderstandings that have arisen from terminological confusions. Basically, these objects of worship are regarded as intermediaries between man and God (Yorůbá, Olódůmarč). Since most of them have cultic rituals associated with them, they have been commonly called gods.

Categories of the gods

A good number of gods in Yorůbá pantheon and African pantheon in general belong to the a priori order of things – the primordial ordering of things. It is in this connection that Idowu calls his category the ‘divinities of heaven’9 and Awolalu calls it ‘primordial divinities’10 Primordial divinities are believed to have been with the supreme deity long before the creation of the world and that of the human beings.11 Under this category are the following gods: Obatala (Orisa nla), Orunmila, Esu, Ogun, and some others. However, as Idowu rightly observes, tradition may know them when they used to be on earth in human form, their very origins belong to the divine realm which is beyond man’s probing. The story of the heavenly origin and the earthly activities of Jesus can be compared to this situation.

The second category Idowu describes as conceptualization of certain prominent attributes of deity. The category also belongs to the a priori aspect. Sanponna can be rated in this regard. The divinity represents the wrath of the Deity. Another example is the ‘Solar and Thunder’ divinity. According to Idowu, the cult of this divinity is universal and is usually linguistically connected or (confused) with the Deity.12

Another category identified by Awolalu is the ‘personification of natural forces and phenomena’.13 This is basically an association of spirits with natural objects such as earth, river, mountains, wind, sea, trees, noise, illness and a host of others. The degree to which the spirits in this category could be called gods or divinities is really very low. The degree is not of any substantial weight when compared with the first two groups identified above. The entities in this category have been seen by some as objects that remind the worshippers of the spirits behind them. Under this category can be mentioned the following: Earth, Oya, Yemoja, Osun, Ogbese, Elemi, Igede-Ekiti, Olokun, Orosun Idanre, and Olumo Abeokuta.

These objects of worship are really very local and very infinitesimal importance. This makes the deification process almost something that is taken for granted in local community and the exact date for such no one knows.

Thus, it could be said here that the deification of Yorůbá gods in general took informal form, mainly in local communities, over a long period of time.

The first category is that of the deified ancestors and heroes. The cults of Sango, Egungun, Oro, Eluku, Agemo, and to some extent Adamu Orisa, Oranmiyan, Ayelala and some others can be mentioned in this regard. They are known in Yorůbáland as baba dorisa – father turned to deities.14 However, it is to be noted that, more often than not the deification was effected through an absorption of the attributes of certain earlier divinities. In Old Oyo (Oyo-Ile), for example, Sango, the third Alaafin of Oyo and the fourth Yorůbá king, was deified after his death inconsequent of his display of unique power of magic and medicine as well as power and prowess. The theory of deification as put forward by Greek Eubemerus15 in connection with Egyptian and Greek gods is comparable to the thesis here.

The Divinities and their Number

Concerning the number of these gods, no solution is yet available. Here, we are faced with obscurity and mystery. The popular notion is that they are legion. There is, in some cases, not yet a consensus as to the exact number of the divinities. For instance, Yorůbá oral traditions put them variously at 201, 401, 600 or 700.16 However, in Dahomey (Yorůbá: Doomi) and Among the Ashanti of Ghana, there seems to be some attitude with regard to their number. What we are sure of with regard to the situation in Africa in general is that each locality has one or more of these divinities, some of whom act as tutelary deited. Coming to Yorůbá land, we have Obatala (Orisa nla)17, the arch-divinity. He is the deputy of Olódůmarč concerning creative activities.

Next is the Ifa or Orunmila, the deputy of Olódůmarč concerning omniscience and wisdom. Others are Ogun, Sonponna and some others as mentioned in their earlier discussion18.

God and gods: The question of relationship

The question here has to do with the nature, attributes, status and power of both God and gods. Are the gods equal to God? Are they dependent on God or vice versa?

On the question of the relationship between God and gods, Idowu remarks as follows:

The question of relationship between Deity and the divinities defines the place of the latter within the whole system. First 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 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.

Here Idowu illustrates his point using Orisa-nla as the paradigm. Orisa nla, according to Idowu, is a deviation of the very nature and metaphysical attributes of Olódůmarč.

Still on the issue of relationship, Idowu goes on to argue as follows:

The divinities are derivatives from Deity… It is not always that the fact of the derivation can be proved from the linguistic connection between the names of Deity and the genetic names of the divinities. It is generally theologically provable that the divinities have no absolute existence… Because the divinities derive form Deity, their powers and authorities, they are meaningless apart from him.19

In quotation above, the roles of the gods and their nature in relation to the Supreme being are clearly set out. The limits of the gods in relation to Deity are also well borne out in the quotation. Further still, Idowu argues further as follows:

Each divinity has his own local name in the local language, which is descriptive, either of his allotted function or the natural phenomenon, which is believed to be a manifestation or emblem of his being.20

It is also the thesis of Idowu that the divinities were brought into being as functionaries in the theocratic government of the universe.21

The problem we are addressing here has to do with the observation of some writers that the role of God in Yorůbá traditional religion is ‘remote’, ‘aloof’ and ‘unseen’. Here it is to be noted that this observation does not give the correct picture of Yorůbá belief about God. The comments of Benjamin Ray are a testimony here. He observes as follows: “In this respect, Olorun has remained aloof from the course of history after originally delegating the care of the world to the Orisa.22

The observation above has been vehemently criticised by a good number of scholars of African traditional religion. Idowu and Awolalu can be mentioned here. They emphasise the fact that the supreme being is the life giver and maintainer of both the gods and the universe. That God delegates some of the physical aspects of creation to the gods does not imply that he is aboof. It is also to be noted that these gods act only on God’s order.

In this connection, Awolalu remarks as follows:

The divinities act only as permitted by him and they give an account of their activities to Him from time to time. They only act as His functionary and as mediator between Him and His people. Thus they exist for the purpose of bringing the Supreme Being closer to His creatures. In other words, the divinities and spirits do not and cannot occupy the place of the Supreme Being. They constitute a means to an end, not an end in themselves. This is to suggest that all worship, which is channelled through the divinities and spirits goes to the one Supreme Being who is the sole controller and has the final say.23

The description above shows that whatever power, any god might possess is given to such god by the Supreme Being. The implication of this is that the power of the gods is not over against that of the Supreme Being who gave the gods the power in the first instance. The point we are raising here is very important when we consider the duality that is usually presented in the relationship between God and Esu.

With the submissions so far, it becomes clear that the gods are not equal to the Supreme Being. God is not at all within the rank and file of the divinities. He is not one of them. Rather, the gods are dependent solely on God. They are his functionaries performing one function or the other in the theocratic administration of the world.

Functions on the divinities: A broad Survey

Functionally, the gods are operative both on earth and in heaven. Orisa nla, the arch divinity, for example functioned in heaven and on earth. He was the one, according to Yorůbá oral traditions, employed by God to mould the physical aspect of man. He was also the one charged with the responsibility of creating the solid earth. Orunmila (Ifa), according to Yorůbá oral traditions, operates between heaven and earth. Yorůbá traditions have it that he is usually a witness of human destiny before Olódůmarč. Thus he is usually referred to by the Yorůbá as Eleriipin – the witness of lot. He is regarded by the Yorůbá as the deputy of Olódůmarč with regard to omniscience and wisdom. Evidences of his earthly operations also abound.24

According to one Odu corpus, when Ifa left heaven, his first stopping place was Usi in Ekiti land. Then he moved to Ado, Ilesa and finally settles at Oke-Igbeti in Ile-Ife. His earthly father’s name is said to be one Agboniregun. Thus, we can describe these divinities as gbayegborun – “living on earth and in heaven.” This is to say that, like the Supreme Being the divinities are transcendental and at the same time immanent. However, this thesis should not be taken to mean that they are of equal status with God. As a matter of fact, all beings in heaven and on earth exist in consequence of the being of God.

The functional role of the divinities is two fold. Basically, divinities are messengers and errand runners. They run errands for the Supreme Being them; at the same time human messages are relayed to the Supreme messenger in charge of prayer and sacrifice

The Functional Role of the Divinities in Relation to their Devotees

Basically, the divinities act as tutelary divinities serving as guardians and protectors to their devotees; thus the devotees invoke them, pray to them, offer them sacrifice in order that they may continue to protect them.

However, in all this, the devotees do not usually forget to accord all ultimacy to God. The divinities are invoked by devotees to bless their venture – commercial, agricultural, building and so on. Orisa-Oko can be cited in this regard. Ala in Igbo pantheon is a comparable example. The divinities are regarded as the source of fertility and rain.

At times, devotees could enter into covenant relationship (Yorůbá: majemu, imule) with their tutelary divinities. This is usually done when they are begging for successful in venture. With the accomplishment of the venture, devotees are supposed to fulfil the terms of the covenant. The sacrifice that is usually offered in this regard is the votive offering.25 Here the popular story of Oluronbi who vowed to give her child to the riverine divinity after she had accomplished her project and Moremi who also promised river Esinmirin in Ile-Ife her son, Oluorogbo.26 If she could get rid of the Igbo, the perpetual enemies of the Ife, can be cited.

Africans are very particular about what the future has in stock for them. They want to know this so that they might be able to plan adequately for the future. They are helped in this regard by some divinities. In Yorůbáland, Ifa (Orunmila), the deputy of Olódůmarč as regards omniscience and wisdom, the witness of man’s destiny, is a ready source of help in this regard. Through the phenomenon of divination, the future of the Yorůbá is vouchsafed to them through any of the following modes’ Odu corpus Ikin, and Opele systems.

Some divinities teach their devotees medicine and preparation of amulets in general, Osanyin, the divinity of medicine, can be mentioned here. Some divinities come to the aid of the devotees in times of problems or in connection with one profession or the other. Drivers, hunters and blacksmiths in Yorůbáland, for example, enjoy the patronage of Ogun, the god of iron. Some divinities help his devotees in times of wars.

Remarks on the Pantheons

A critical look at the African belief in the divinities and the theory of Idowu with regard to the nature of African religion in his book, African Traditional Religion, Idowu declares:

The correct interpretation of the position of the divinities is that they constitute only a half way house which is not meant to be the permanent resting place for man’s soul… Technically, the divinities are only means to an end not ends in themselves.27

Not quite far, on page 173 of the same book, Idowu remarks:

The main shortcoming of the divinity system is that it very easily leads itself as a tool to priestcraft…It is also in consequences of priestcraft that the divinities have largely tended to become ends in themselves instead of the means to an end which they are meant to be.28

Here it becomes obvious that, either directly or vice versa consciously or vice versa, Idowu admits God and gods as separate entities in practical religion. It may be true that all utltimacy is accorded God in worship among Africans generally. However, it is to be noted and accepted that there are times when all efforts are concentrated on the divinities that are supposed to serve as a means to an end. It is not clear why Idowu is of the opinion that African religion should be described monotheistic with or without the qualifications – implicit or diffused – after he had accepted that divinities are, at times, turned to ends in themselves. It is to be noted that the word ‘implicit’ is not synonymous with the word ‘diffused.’

According to the concise Oxford Dictionary, the word implicit means ‘implied though not plainly expressed, while the word ‘diffused’ is defined as follows: ‘send forth, spread out (knowledge).’ Moreover, it is to be noted that neither “implicit monotheism” nor “diffused one” would mean monotheism per se which is ‘the recognition or worship of only one God to the exclusion of others’. My view is that we should call people what they call themselves. Actually, in African belief system, there is the recognition of both God and divinities. Thus it will be appropriate to describe the system with a double-barrelled nomenclature, God-gods theism, that is a monopoly theism.

References for Pantheon in African Traditional Religious Thought

1. The symbol of Ogun, for example is iron.
2. D.O. Epega, The Basis of Yorůbá Religion, (Abeokuta, B.B. Ijamide Printers, 1971), p. 23.
3. E.B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion: A Definition, (London: SCM Press, 1973), p. 153.
4. H. Sawyer, God: Ancestor or Creator? Aspects of Traditional Belief in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, (London, Longman, 1970), pp. 40-57.
5. J.O. Awolalu, Yorůbá Beliefs and Sacrificial Rites, (London, Longman, 1978), pp. 20-51.
6. E.G. Parrinder, African Traditional Religion, (London, Sheldon Press, 1969), pp. 43-54.
7. M. Oduyoye, The Vocabulary of Yorůbá Religious Discourse (Ibadan, Daystar Press, 1972), pp. 21-29. It is also to be noted here that Oduyoye’s list of the orisa is different from Epega’s in terms of connotation.
8. W.R. Bascom, The Yorůbá of South-western Nigeria, (New York, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 77.
9. E.B. Idowu, op. cit. pp. 153-154. The divinities are those Lucas calls major divinities. J.O. Lucas, The Religion of the Yorůbás, (London, Hall, 1948), pp. 69-116).
10. J.O. Awolalu, op. cit., pp. 20-33.
11. Ibid. p. 20.
12. E.B. Idowu, op. cit. p. 172.
13. J.O. Awolalu, op. cit., p. 43.
14. Most of these gods are listed by many writers. For the ones listed here, J. O. Awolalu, Ibid., pp. 45-51. Also, D.O. Epega, Op. cit. pp. 24-25.
15. E.B. Idowu, op. cit., pp. 35-37.
16. Ibid. p. 172.
17. Orisa-nla, the Arch-divinity is called various names in Yorůbá places. In Ibadan, for example, he is referred to as Orisa-Ogiyan; in Ifon, he is Orisa Olufon.
18. J.O. Awolalu, Op. cit., pp. 30-33.
19. E.B. Idowu, op. cit. p. 169.
20. Ibid.
21. J.O. Awolalu, op. cit., p. 170.
22. Benjamin C. Ray, African Religions: Symbol, Ritual and Community, (New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, 1976), p. 55.
23. J.O. Awolalu, op. cit. p. 50. Also, E.B. Idowu, op. cit., pp. 71-106.
24. Ibid. p. 76.
25. For further details, see E.B. Idowu, Olódůmarč: God in Yorůbá Belief, (London, Longman, 1962), pp. 80ff.
26. Ibid. pp. 206ff.
27. E.B. Idowu, African Traditional Religion, op. cit., p. 171.
28. Ibid., p. 73

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