Introducing african traditional religion


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    1. An introductory work is never exhaustive. It is not meant to give a comprehensive and in-depth knowledge of the subject under discussion. Rather, it is designed to give a general picture, an overview of the subject and to arouse the interest of the students for future research on aspects of the subject.

The systematic study Of African Traditional Religion (A.T.R.) is a fairy recent one. Most of the originators are still with us. Prominent among them are Parrinder (1954), Mbiti (1956); Middleton (1960) and Lierhardt (1961) to mention a few.

With the pioneering work of these scholars, other scholars have taken up the challenge. Some have dealt on aspects of that religion with particular reference to a culture area like the Igbo of Southern Nigeria (eg. Arinze, 1970; Ifesieh, 1989. Ekwunife, 1990 etc). Others concentrated on this religion as it is reflected on a whole region like West Africa (Awolala and Dopamu (1979), East Africa, South Africa and Central Africa, to mention a few.

In our time, the study is not only gaining currency in the curriculum of religious studies in all tertiary and to some extent secondary institutions of African but all over the world, interest in the study is mounting daily. Nowadays, only very few biased scholars will deny A.T.R. the status of religion as other world religions like Christianity and Islam. It is significant to note that in Nigeria educational system students can now specialize in any of these three major religion of Nigeria at a higher level.

1.2 Definition:

We define African Traditional Religion in two ways: by its essence and by its operation. A definition by essence seeks to unfold the essential religious characters of African religion without of delving into the ways in which it operates in concrete realities even in our time. It is in this aspect that (1987:17) defined it:

….as institutionalized patterns of beliefs and worship practiced by various African societies from time immemorial in response to the ‘supernatural’ as manifested in their environment and experience.

On the other hand an operational definition describes this religion not only from what is distinctively religious about it but also from the way it is practiced and transmitted from generation to generation. This type of process definition was given by Idowu(1973:x), Awolala and Dopawu with special reference to west African Traditional Religion (1979:26) and Ekwunife 1989:29). For example, Ekwunife operationally defined A.T.R. as (1989:29)

…these institutionalize beliefs and practices of indigenous religion of Africa which are rooted in the past African religious culture; belief and practices that were transmitted to the present votaries by successive African forebears mainly through traditional (myths and folktales, songs, and dances, liturgies, rituals, proverbs, pithy sayings and names), sacred specialists and persons, sacred spaces and objects and religious works of art; a religion which is slowly but constantly updated by each generation in the light of new experiences through the dialectical process of continuities and discontinuities.

Form the foregone two definitions, we can now deduce some of the essential characteristics or qualities of A.T.R.

  1. It is an oral religion. This means that it has no formal written scriptures like the Christian Bible or Moslem Kur’an. This oral nature presents some dangers in the transmission of that religion.

  2. It is a complex religion – highly pervasive, what Newell S. Boot often calls ‘this omnipresence of religion’ (1977:1). This presents the difficulty of methodology and interpretation.

  3. It is culture bound – apart and parcel of African culture and ethnic bound – takes the form of each ethnic group and society in Africa. This accounts for varieties in religious beliefs and practices.

  4. It is not a historical religion as Christianity and Islam whose founders were known in time and whose origins were dated.

  5. It is traditional and African as regards time and space.

  6. It is not missionary aggressive as Christianity and Islam.

  7. It is a communal bound religion. Each African traditional community embraces it as a way of life. There is hardly any atheist or radical reformer or revolutionist with an entire different form of religion.

    1. Militating Factors to the Study A .T .R

By factors we mean the difficulties which beset and is still affecting a wholesome study and representation of A.T.R. some of these factors are tied up with the personal and cultural bias of European and American scholars: missionaries, colonialists, traders, travellers and adventurists which span the nature of African Traditional Religion, the geographical and historical fortunes of the continent of Africa as well as the problem of a viable methodology to the study.

For the sake of more systemic treatment we will now reflect briefly on these factors under two broad healings: Remote factors and immediate factors.

a ) Remote Factors:

  1. The Trans Atlantic Slave trade:

We cannot decry enough the effects of trans-Atlantic Slave trade which lasted from the 16th to the middle of the nineteenth century. Ayandele sums up the Portuguese economics thrust to the coast of West Africa thus (1966:3):

….At first trade was in sylvan products, but in the sixteenth century, and for over 300 years, ‘living tools’ became the main export of the Niger Delta and provided the wealth upon which the ‘city states’ of Brass, Bonny, New Calabar and old Calabar throve…

The political, social, religious, economic and psychological effects on this nefarious slave trade cannot be overlooked in evaluating the militating factors to the study of A.T.R. At least it created the mid-set for the adverse misjudgement that is encased in the superiority/ inferiority complex-the superior religion being either Christianity or Islam, while A.T.R. is regarded as a worthless religion as the African slave, who, at that time, was also regarded as sub-human beings. It is, perhaps, in a bid to reverse this mind-set about the traditional African culture and religion that made the liberated slave Olardah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa the African, paint a glowing picture of Igbo traditional religion in the 18th century. Reflecting on the concept of God as found among the Igbo he writes (1789:10):

As to religion, the native believe that there is one creator of all things and that he lives in the sun and is girded round with a belt that he may never eat or drink.;…

2. The Darwinian Evolutionary Revolution:

Darwin’s exposition of his theory of evolution in 1859 led some European philosophers Anthropologists and Sociologists to start searching for the original strata of the religion of all mankind. Scholars like Comte Taylor, Spencer and Frazar to mention a few identified it with the so called primitive religion of the primitive civilization like Africa. Thus, the contempt for A.T.R. was situated in history.

3. Prejudice:

By prejudice we mean a deep seated bias towards A.T.R. and its values to humanity. It is this type of prejudice that made the philosopher Emil Ludwing to deny traditional Africans the capacity of forming the concept of one universal God, the creator of heaven and earth. It was this prejudice that led many European and American missionaries and their African allies to declare a unilateral war on their so called ‘pagan’ and ‘satanic’ religion (A.T.R.). Thus, either the tacit blessings and support of the colonial government, they set out to destroy and loot religious treasures in traditional shrines and Temples. Many of these sacred objects and symbols were salted oversea and sold at fantastic amount of money. In Europe they no-longer answer ‘satanic objects’ but rather ‘object of great antiquity’. The economic values of these objects are incalculable.

The effects of colonial and missionary indoctrination on Africans, even today are overwhelming. Idowu sums them up thus (1973:80):

Direct or indirect colonial indoctrination has been so effective in many areas that the aboriginals have come to see themselves as grasshoppers in their won eyes and have become so mortally, despising whole-heartedly their own native cultures and religious values, and ultimately abandoning them and forgetting their basic tenets and practices

4. Ignorance:

The fruit of this entrenched prejudice on the part of initiators of studies on A.T.R. in the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries was ignorance. The sit at home philosophers and anthropologists who depended entirely on materials from travellers, missionaries and colonial officers for their work were guilty of this vice. The result was the labelling of A.T.R with such names as paganism, Satanism, fetishism. Idolatry, jujuism etc.

Later, through the effort of field anthropologists like Evans Fritchard (1950), Godfrey Lierhardt (1961) John Middleton (1960), the cloud of ignorance gradually started clearing. Though these later scholars studied religion as an element within the social structures under study, yet their works yielded objective dividends. Despite these, the general ignorance on the part of European/American populace on A.T.R. still persisted.

b) Immediate Factors:

Immediate Factors Include:

1. Complex Nature of A.T.R.

The religion is complex in all dimensions of African traditional life-sociological, psychological, culture, economical, political and so on. This complex nature of A.T.R. has been underlined in the works of scholars like Mbiti (1969:2); Newells. Booth (1977:1-2) and shorter (1975:39). Even as far back as 1906, the British colonial officer, major. Arthur Glenn Leonard, with particular reference to the Igbo of southern Nigeria made this felling remarks about their religiosity (1906:42); “…. They eat religiously, drink bathe, dress and sin religiously”. No wonder early investigators of this religion found it hard to observe, understand and interpret this religion objectively.

2. Oral Nature of A.T.R. as Opposed to the Religions of Books like Christianity and Islam. This presents the problem of accuracy in the transmission of the religion.

3. Absence of other Established Modern Indices of Religion like big churches, organized centralized priest hood, itinerant missionaries and evangelist and so on.

4. Enormous size of African Continent - which presents the problem of a comprehensive study of the religion with its variable manifestation in different African ethnic groups.

5. Culture Contact-which in some places has either snuffed off the vestiges of the traditional religion or distorted its true image. Indeed from the late 19th century till the present moment, A.R.T. are with the culture that gave birth to it was at the mercy of the modern forces of social change-Christianity, Islam, colonialism and pan-colonialism, western education, modern technology, urbanization and migration. One would therefore, be inclined to agree with Idowu (1973:32-33) that:

This complex situation makes Africa a dark continent: dark in the sense that still to be its cultural resources and religious traditions are largely explored, studied with carefulness and understanding, and the results recorded without prejudice.

6. Language Problem:

The religion is encased and expressed in about one thousand languages of different African ethnic groups. Hence, the difficulty of handling the religion as a homogeneous entity is always there.

To sum up, the factors that militate against a wholesome understanding and presentation of A.R.T. are multiple. Some are remote and some are immediate. Hence, in the light of the above factors, a scholar of A.T.R. should be careful in his choice of adequate methodology in approaching the subject. Above all, he should possess a healthy attitude to the religion. In addition, he should narrow his scope-focus his attention on a limited, familiar geographical area for effective handling. As regards methodology, scholars of A.T.R., nowadays prefer the use of diverse methods for tackling a single subject what a scholar like Benjamin C. Ray (1976:16) calls ‘polymethodic and multidimensional” shorter (1975:53) and Newell S. Booth (1977:10) seem to share the same opinion as B.C. Ray on modern methodological approach to the study of A.T.R. in this regard, we agree completely with this insight of Newells. Booth (1977:10).

To study African religion on its own terms requires that we look at it not primarily as a collection of doctrines and rituals but as a basic attitude towards life which may be overly expressed in a variety of ways. Because of these basic attitudes is the sense of wholeness In life, African religion can only be understood properly through a “wholistic” approach, involving the cooperation of several disciplines.

    1. Sources of A.T.R.

By sources of A.T.R. are meant persons, places, objects, things, concepts, ideals, customs and so on from where students of A.T.R. can derive meaningful information or data for studying the subject.

For a clearer and systematic arrangement we follow Metuh (1987:25-38) in classifying these sources in three groups –Art Forms, Institutions and Oral Traditions. Other scholars Like Idowu (1962: 1973), Awolau and Dopamu (1979) described these sources under the great umbrella of oral traditions. By oral traditions are meant which were handed down from generation to generation by words of mouth and living practices than by formal writing. Children and youths are socialized into these oral traditions by participant observation.

  1. Art Forms Include the Following :

1. Sacred carved or molded image, statues, sacred paintings and figures found in various Africa shrines, Temple and sacred places. Often these are collectively called icons. Icon is used here in the sense depicted in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English

(1964:600) to mean

Image, status ; (Eastern church) painting, mosaic, etc., of sacred personage, itself regarded as sacred (L. f GK eikon (image)

2. African traditional shrines, temples, sacred cult objects like sacred spears, staffs of office, sacred stools and masks objects.

3. Dances, music, signs and symbols found in walking sticks and cloths.

b) Sacred Institutions:

institutions as used here, include any social, political and economic set up which in traditional African society are tied up with A.T.R. such institutions include sacred kingship, the priest-hood, chieftaincy titles and other titles, initiation rites or Rights of passages, festivals, secret societies and so on. These various institutions are usually surrounded and upheld with taboos and other religious practices. A detailed study of some of them could certainly manifest the nature of traditional beliefs, practices and values and how the organizations of traditional societies are rooted in religion.

c) Oral Traditions:

We have already defined what is meant by ‘oral traditions’. Some of these include: myths, proverbs, Liturgies, names organized or systematic recitals connected with the cult of the oracle divinity, prayers, invocations, formulae for taking oaths, blessings and courses, adages, epigram, riddles and other wise sayings.

Many of these oral traditions will help us to understand how the traditional African religionists interpret their world with particular referee to man: their philosophy or outlook on life. Their cherished beliefs and practices, values, taboos and so on. In short they will help us determine the traditional African beliefs about the relationships between the visible and invisible African worlds with the beings in them. We will only discuss four of the oral traditions. Students are advised to read up the rest in any good text book.

1. Myths-sacred stories of origins of all conceivable human realities especially the mysterious aspects of human existence and interactions. Myths also deal with justification of vital human institutions like marriage, sacred Kingship etc.

One should always distinguish a myth from a legend an inspirational story of founders of societies, heroes and saints; and a folklore or folktale- a story told or narrated for entertainment often with moral and religious undertones.


  1. Cosmogonies-myths of creation of the universe

  2. Anthropogonies-myths of creation of man

  3. Myths of the gods and of other divine beings especially their deeds eg. High god theory-withdrawal

  4. The myths of transformation- which narrate the subsequent modification or transformation of the world human condition.

  5. Liturgies –public worship of a religious group.

  6. Names- an important source materials for the study of A.T.R.


  1. Natural names (Aha omumu)

  2. Given names (Aha Okpesi)- given by parents or relations before the ancestral shrine or family shrine.

  3. Praise names- (Aha Otutu)

d) proverbs- sharp-pointed sayings in which are buried ancient African wisdom, beliefs and accumulated experiences of the past.

1.5 The Need for the Study of A.T.R. or the Significance of the Study of A.T.R.

With the success and popularity of Islam and Christianity in some parts of Africa, some students may be doubting the wisdom of studying a religion which is perhaps, doomed to die a natural death in future. For example, in the Nigerian context, Christianity and Islam seem to enjoy Government patronage at all levels of education. A.T.R. is accorded recognition only at the tertiary level. With such an attitude to A.T.R., students at this tertiary level of education would need clear reasons for this study and its inclusion in their curriculum.

We will outline some of these reasons with the hope that students of A.T.R. will supply more to justify the grade of place given to our cherished traditional religion in the university.

1.Anthropological Reason:

The study of anthropology is still one of the important branches of human knowledge. The study of A.T.R. will no doubt help students of Religion and Humanities to re-examine critically many of the past and present anthropological and ethnological works on this religion with a view to shifting the true from false report.

2. Historical Need:

While we admit that from the beginning A.T.R. has no known historical founder as Christianity and Islam, nor recorded historical document, yet authentic history of Africa cannot be written without allusion to its traditional religions. This is because of the pervasive and cultural nature of A.T.R. to study A.T.R. effectively, the researcher will benefit greatly from the findings of Archaeologists, African historians, social anthropologists and ethnographers.

3. Social Need:

Every religion contains certain social values which make for social unity, purposive direction and a measure of social control on the members of that society. In Africa, where the traditional relation was, and is still, to some extent, part and parcel of the peoples life, students of A.T.R. would be interested in unearthing the social values of this religion with a view to enriching the values of modern African society.

4. Dialogue Needs:

In this age, when many imported religions like Christianity and Islam are thriving side by side with A.T.R, students of A.T.R. would be interested in the across-cultural influences of these three religions; their social, political, economic and religious effects on with these religions. Dialogue with A.T.R. implies serious study of its various elements, values and organisations.

5. Personal Need

In this age when many Africans feel lost in apparent two irreconcilable cultures, the study of A.T.R. will. Perhaps, help in the restoration of a balanced socio-religious outlook on life. At least, it may help each person evaluate and appreciate some fundamental traditional values which were formerly and imprudently thrown away in the name of modernization, Christianity and Islam.

6. Foundational Need.

A.T.R is the foundation of all religions in Africa today. By this is meant that it is the first to be planted in African soil before other religions. It has influenced and is still influencing the lives of many Africans either directly or indirectly. African students needs to be conscious of this fact. In addition, they need to study this religion with a view to finding out the sources of its powerful influences on this generation.

7. Cultural Need

African culture as the totality of African way of lives is conceptually and practically impossible without reference to the distant past. Since cultures cumulative, knowledge of African culture partly implies knowledge of A.T.R. which influenced that culture in the past.

8. Educational Need:

A gentleman’s knowledge of A.T.R. will no doubt widen the student’s educational horizon, create room for religious tolerance and dialogue with different religions in Nigerian pluralistic society.


The Problem of Nomenclature in A.T.R.

The problem of nomenclature is the problem of determining a fitting name for describing the traditional religion of Africa. The problem arose as a result of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of A.T.R. by pioneer investigators (ie. travellers, European missionaries, explorers. Traders and colonial their writings a lot of wrong names have been used to describe this religion. Such names include: ‘the High gods of the primitive people’, ‘the withdrawn god’, ‘polytheism’, Fetishism’, ‘Idolatry’, Heathenism’, paganism’, ‘Animism’, primitive’, ‘Juju’, Magic’, mana’ and ‘Ancestor worship’. Many of these names are still influencing attitudes of some scholars and non-scholars towards A.T.R. Even students of A.T.R. are under the spell of some of these biased names.

We have previously examined some of these factors which led to labelling of these wrong names on A.T.R. students of A.T.R. are advised to read and digest those factors once more before reflecting on the problem of nomenclature. Briefly, some of these factors include the biased and prejudiced attitude of Europeans and their allies towards less technological underdeveloped cultures of non-European countries, racial pride, complex by of African religion and ignorance of the true nature of traditional religion to mention a few.

a) The High-Gods of the Primitive People:

This was the term invented by early Western scholars and their votaries to distinguish what they considered to be the gods of ethnic tribes in Africa from the Western Biblical God. In this view, each African tribe has a high god that is different from each other. Thus logically speaking, Christians have their supreme God, Muslims - Muslim God –Allah, the Western God and African –African high gods.

Perhaps, certain names of God in African gave rise to this notion. For example, the Mende of Sierra Leone call God- Ngewo which suggests that God is far away; the Nupe used to say that their God (Soko) is far away. The Igbo give God the attribute of Eze bi n’ igwe(He who lives in the sky). However, a careful examination of these names and attributes show that they are ways of expressing the transcendence of God and not his being very far away. In short what these expression mean are that God is supreme. All Africans share this view with the Christians and Muslim.

The notion of the ‘High’ Gods’ of Africa is an academic prejudice and pride. Africans not only believe that God is Supreme but also that he is near and everywhere. Thus the Nupe who sing that God is far away’ equally add that Soko (God) is everywhere- in front and back. The Igbo who give God the attribute of Eze bi n’ igwe (The king who lives in the sky) equally add (Ogodo ya na-akwu n’ani) “whose mighty cloth sweeps the ground” thus God’s transcendence is equally matched by his immanence.

b)The Withdrawn God:

Another term which early scholars used to distinguish the western Christian God from African God is the ‘withdrawn God’.

Certain factors might have given rise to speculation of western scholars on the ‘withdrawn God of African. First, is the evolutionary theory of primitive monotheism of scholars like Andrew Lang and Wilhelm Schmidt. According to this theory, Africans have originally the notion of one true God which later degenerated into polytheistic and Animistic beliefs. The shadow of this belief exists but for the Africans, God is withdrawn.

Secondly, there are certain African myths that seem to convey the idea that God withdraw in the sky far away owing to repeated misdeeds of men on earth. For example, the Yoruba have it in one of their myths that when the sky heavens and the earth were so close, a man with a dirt hand soiled the face of the heavens and God removed they sky heaven far away beyond the reach of man.

Thirdly; there comes the fact that God is not the direct object of immediate or immediate or constant or constant worship by the Africans.

However, against these apparent misunderstanding of African myths and worship, anyone who is well acquainted with African mentality and modes of worship cannot but see the absurdity of the theory of the ‘with-drawn God’. In the first place the myth of the withdrawn sky did not claim that God in withdrawing the sky withdrew himself from the affairs of men. It was the sky that was withdrawn. The attention given to divinities and spirit s in African worship is ultimately give to God , since these created supra human beings have no meaning to the Africans apart from their relationship with God.

Africans believe that God is not only omnipotence, but also omnipresent and omniscient. He is both transcendent and immanent. He is not a withdrawn God but rather a loving, caring God. The Igbo in one of their attributes call Him ‘Nna umu ogbenye’ (Father of the poor ).
c) Polytheism:

Polytheism implies belief in many gods. In practice it connotes (means) the worship of many gods.

The idea of polytheism came from the Greeks pantheon of gods. Ancient Greeks worship many gods and have temples dedicated to these gods. These gods as the Greeks saw them are equal with each other. There is no supreme god, nor any supreme cohesive power among these gods. Each of them possess human passions and vie (compete) with each other sometimes in an abominable manner. Each of them tries to outdo the other. In the Greek pantheon of the gods, Zeus was regarded as the father of the Greek gods who inhabits the sky heavens. Below him are other gods like Poseidon, Apollo, Hephaistos, Hermes, Hera, Demeter, Athera, Artanis, and a host of others. Each god seems to be in charge of one sphere of the Greek cosmos as well as aspects of human life, without claiming absolute authority over others.

Polytheism, therefore, not only implies the worship of many gods but also the absence of supreme cohesive (uniting) power among these gods.

With regard to suitability and unsuitability of this name for describing A.T.R. certain observations need be made:

First, African traditional religion contains elements of belief and worship which seem to portray it as polytheistic. The Africans believe in divinities and accord them a place in their worship. The pantheon of divinities in the traditional African religion are multiple. In so far as worship given to these divinities means worship of spiritual beings who partake in the divine rulership of the world, A.T.R may be said to contain polytheistic element.

Secondly, since A.T.R. contains in its structure an element of cohesive (uniting ) supreme, supernatural power-God, the religion cannot be strictly described as polytheism. This is because not only do traditional Africans regard God as the creator and ultimate source of everything that exists including the divinities and spirits, but also, without God, the worship given to divinities and other spirits are useless. Divinities and spirits, are in the African perception intermediaries between God and man. They are subject to God’s absolute dominion and authority. Any worship given to them may be regarded as a worship which is ultimately given to God. Hence we may say that with the foregone reflection, we can conclude that polytheism is unsuitable for describing the entire traditional religion of Africa.
d) Fetishism:

This is one of the abusive word (term) used to describe A.T.R. it was invented by Portuguese traders and travellers who visited the West African coats in the middle of the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries. When these foreigners observed certain objects, charms, amulets, mascots and talisman, worn by Africans, and which resemble what they were familiar with in their own country, they collectively called them Feitico or charms.

Feitico comes from the Latin word Factitius, which means “magically artful”. Its English and French equivalents are Fetish and Fetiehe. Since the era of the Portuguese adventure in West Africa, the word fetishism has been used to describe A.T.R. as well as all primitive religion. Fetisism in the real sense of the word means the worship of man made things- things without power and life, things which people mistook for gods.

Our observation is that anyone quite conversant with the religious beliefs and practices of traditional Africans cannot but spot the absurdity of the use of this term for describing the religion. Scholars like Parrinder (1954) and Rattney(1927) have respectively shown the illogicality of such a position. For example Parrinder rightly remarked (1954:14) that:

Now the religion of African peoples is not just the worship of the use of the work of men’s hands. It is know today that no “heaven is his blindness bows down to wood and stone” the “heaven” worships a spiritual being, who may be approached through a material object. But all Africans believe that there are other spiritual forces than those associated with “idols…

African do not worship and are not worshiping man-made objects. Their belief in the supra-sensible world and spiritual beings in ti go contrary to fetish worship in its strict sense. Rather, Africans worship spiritual beings who often take possession of natural objects and act through them. This material object could be destroyed without harming spiritual beings who inhabit them. New objects could be made and consecrated so that they become fitting sacred objects for spirit and divine manifestations.

The only aspect of A.T.R. which may be regarded as fetish is what scholars like Rattray (1927:977) and others called the realm of magic and charm and things that are made with man’s hands. Since charms and medicines are associated with religion in the traditional African set-up, the use of the term fetish applies only to this area of the religion and not to all aspects of it. However, it is equally to be observed that fetishism is a universal experience. It is found in the so called ‘world religions’- Christianity, Islamism, Buddism, Judaism, etc. (Hinduism). Europeans practice magical arts as well as Africans.

Again, one must remark that for the traditional African, fetish charms and medicines are never absolute (i.e. regarded as having supreme power as God). The Igbo experience in this regard seems to speak for the whole of Africa. The Igbo believe and express it that “chi ka dibia” (God is greater than the Herbalist). This means that herbs have limited powers and are never regarded as gods. Rather they have powers put there by the maker to be taped by a sensible wise man for enhancement of life (self-protection and prolongation of life). In this regard, the insight of Awolalu and Dopamu is worth nothing (1979:19):

…A charm in the same that it is a made thing, should not be confused with religion in which man recognises the divine Being, the Determiner of destiny, the spiritual Reality who is not made, and in whom man puts all his hopes and reposes his indubitable confidence.

e) Idolatry:

Idolatry is derived from the Greek word eidolon meaning “image” or ‘phantom’. Generally, idol means “things used to represent other things as symbols or emblems”. It also means a conceptualization, an image in the mind, an idea, a vision, fancy or imagination”.

Later it was identified with that which is false mental conception, a false or unreal, a false god or image of the mind, a false mental conception, a false representation of other things.

Thus, it can be said that originally, idol is used as a representation, or a symbol or an emblem of that which is real to the religious man. It is a means to the worship of spiritual realities in religion and never an end. Idol, therefore, fall within the category of what is known in religion as emblem of that which is real to the religious man . it is a means to the worship of spiritual realities in religion and never an end. Idol, therefore, fall within the category of what is known in religion as emblem of religion or symbols of religion as means they have no separate existence apart from the realities they represent religious worship is directed to these spiritual realities. However, when religious worship is given to an idol as an end in itself i.e without reference to spiritual entity that inhabits the idol, it becomes what in modern language is called idolatry. In this sense, idol id treated as a god.

Idolatry is not a fitting name for describing the traditional religion of African. This is because the religious emblem and symbols found in many traditional African shrines and homes are never treated as gods. Rather they

Are vehicles for the vital contact with emblems or symbols of religious worship may be destroyed, reshaped, or renewed without altering the reality of the spiritual beings they represent.

Every religion creates room for the use of emblems, images and symbols in worship. Some religions minimize their use. Others make use of them in a big way. Idolatry as an emblem or symbol of religion is an element of A.T.R. as well as all religion. However, because of the derogatory (unsuitable meaning) sense attached to this word in reference t A.T.R., we completely discourage its use in any form.

f) Heathenism

Heathenism originally is a sociological word. It comes from Germanic word ‘health’ meaning a waste land where people of dubious characters live. A heathen is someone who lives in a waste land and behaves in a wild way. It was a bias word used to distinguish an enlightened country gentleman from an uneducated, unenlightened rural dweller.

Then this sociological term entered into religious language it was use to described one who is not a Christian. The developed races of the world used it to describe the religion of the less developed countries including Africa.

The term from its origin to its current use is full of prejudice and bias. It is used for making social distinction and for mockery. It is therefore most unacceptable Africa.

g) Paganism

Paganism is another sociological word which has found its way in the religious language. It came from the Latin word Paganus meaning a village dweller or a country man. As a derisive (or mockery) word, it is used to distinguish between the enlightened or civilized or unenlightened or backward.

In religious language, the word pagan is identified with the religion of the so called ‘primitive people’.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary ed. By H.W. Fowler & F.G. Fowler (1964:872) define pagan as

“Heathen of unenlightened (person)….

Pagan (pagan n country district,…

AM) sense ‘heathen’ in Christian

Here pagan is identical with heathenism. Awolalu and Dopamu (1979:21) had an additional dictionary meaning of the word thus: “acknowledging neither Jehovah, Christ nor Allah.” Thus the word from the beginning is used in a derogatory or contemptuous or mockery way. Muslims use it to distinguish a Muslim from non-Muslims. The people of Europe and America and all civilized nations of the world use this mockery term to distinguished between the religion of the civilized ‘world’ and the religion of the uncivilized race of the world.

The term is unacceptable on two counts. First, there are many people in the so called civilized world who neither acknowledge Jehovah, Christ nor Allah and still are not called pagans.

Secondly, it cannot be applied in any way to the believers of A.T.R. this is because Africans not only believe in one supreme God but also worship Him, though frequently through lesser spirits.

h) Animism

Animism was a theory proposed by E.B. Tylor in the 19th century to describe all primitive religions. It is the doctrine of souls, spirits and spiritual beings. Animism is belief in spirits that have separate and separable existence.

For Tylor, animism originated from primitive man’s experiences of dreams, death, visions and swooning. The primitive man’s incapacity to give a scientific explanation of these realities gave rise to the presupposition that spirits have separate existence and can inhabit animate and inanimate matters.

Animism is not to be identified with animatism where the active attributes of life, personality and intelligence are ascribed or given to inanimate objects.

The belief in the existence of spirits that are separable and have separate existence and which often inhabit material things is a universal experience of mankind. That is why all religious groups practice dedications, consecrations of things to the deity or invisible. Hence, Tylor defined religion as belief in spiritual beings.

In Africa, animistic beliefs are given practical expressions through dedications of sacred animals, sacred trees, sacred stones, sacred rivers, sacred hills and sacred spots to spirits. The spirits are approached or worshipped through these sacred objects. However, it is to be noted that to the Africans, these spirits are not tied to these objects. Objects may be destroyed but not the spirits. The spirit can refuse to operate through these objects.

Animal is unsuitable for describing the traditional religion of Africa because it is not something confined to Africans. It is a universal belief and applied to religions.

i) Primitive

The Concise Oxford Dictionary (1964:96) define primitive as:

“Early, ancient….; old-fashioned, simple rude; uncivilized or of rudimentary civilization; original, primary…….”

Hence, we may say that as applied to the traditional religion of Africa, the religion is shown as the earliest and most crude form of human religion. In other words, with this term African traditional religion is regarded as most uncivilized religion of the world in contrast to the civilized religion of the world like Christianity Islam and Buddhism to mention a few. In the view of the upholders of this term the words that could be used to quality this religion are crude. Primary, ancient, unchanging, simple and old fashioned.

The unsuitability of this term as applied to A.T.R. cannot be overstressed.

First, It is a well known fact, confirmed by modern scientists that the human world with the man in it has passed the stage of the primitive world. There is no race that is still under the primitive era, Every race no matter how minimal, has advanced intellectually, spiritually, technologically and economically.

The term was invented by western scholars and their allied to describe with contempt the religion of the culture of those races whom they considered to be technologically, intellectually, spiritually and economically inferior to their own. As a prejudiced word, it is unacceptable.

Secondly, A.T.R. is never a static religion as we are meant to believe by this term. Rather it is a religion that changes with time in the light of environmental experiences of its believer. The up-dating is done though the processes of continuities and discontinuities.

j) Juju:

This is one of the most biased word that has been used by believers of the so called ‘world religions’ to describe A.T.R. Even today, most Christians and Moslems in Nigeria found this word popular.

Originally, the word came from the French word ‘joujou’ meaning a little doll or a small toy made like a human being.

Perhaps, Christians found this term suitable for describing A.T.R. because of some of the biblical teachings on idolatry (cf.n40:18-20; 44:9-17; Jer 2:27-28; 10:1-5; Wis 13:10-19; ps 115; 4-8, 19; Rom 1:18-21) or idolatrous worship of the so called heathen world.

However, European scholars and writers have used this pejorative word to describe A.T.R. without agreeing on the precise meaning to attach to the word. While some would associate it with the gods of that religion, others like Talbot would confine it to the minor deities of the religion, still others would prefer identifying it with the fetish, magic, medicine, images and symbols of African religion. Even today, many Africans call African medicine and magic-juju.

The use of this term for describing A.T.R. is inadmissible for at least two reasons. First, since juju is a toy or doll, Africans do not worship toys which are meant to be used for playing purposes. The emblems of A.T.R. are symbols of spiritual entities or realities and never toys. Even those aspects of the religion -medicine and magic- that are regarded as juju by some people are never in reality regarded their users as toys. Rather, they are charged with power which comes from spiritual beings. It is this power that renders them effective for human use.

Secondly, since A.T.R. is anchored in the living God, the divinities and spirits, juju cannot be the right word for describing it.

k) Mana:

Mana is a Melanesian word. It was borrowed by anthropologists to describe a kind of mysterious impersonal power which pervades the whole universe and which is regarded by the generality of men especially among the so called primitive societies with dread and awe. Mana is always associated with power, with extraordinary, with the mysterious, the wider, the supernatural and beyond the power of the senses to detect or mind to grasp.

Some scholars associate it with African medicine and magic. For example Farrow, S. S. (1926) and Lucas, J. C. (1948) who wrote respectively on Yoruba religion identified it with Oogun – “Magic” or “Medicine”.

Other scholars identify it with the impersonal force that controls the African world.

We reject this term because A.T.R. is built upon belief in and worship of personalized spiritual beings like God, divinities, spirits and so on. Africans have explicit concepts and terms for describing these realities. These should ge use and not the impersonal word –Mana.

Ancestor Worship:

From the time of the English scholar Herber Spencer (1832) who propagated the theory of Ancestor worship as being the origin of human religion, some Western scholars have described A.T.R. in terms of ancestor worship.

In this view, the gods, divinities and spirit of A.T.R. are nothing but divinize human beings (ancestors).

We cannot deny the reality of ancestor veneration in the belief and practice of traditional African people. However, ancestor veneration is only an aspect of the totality of African Religion. A part cannot be identified with the whole. It is just an element in the traditional religion. In importance, it does not take rank above other elements. Hence it is not a fitting word for describing that religion.

Most Current Terminologies:

Having discussed most of the terms we have considering as unsuitable in grounds of bias, prejudice, inaccuracy, misrepresentation of facts and realities, we now reflect briefly on most acceptable terms.

In recent times certain terms seem to have won universal acceptance among scholars of the traditional religion of Africa. These terms are: ‘ African Traditional Religion (in the singular) and “African Religion (in the plural).

The choice of these terms were, perhaps, motivated by the search for the distinctive mark between the traditional religion of Africa and other historical imported religions which are now par and parcel of African life in modern times.

While accepting the reality and fittingness of these terms, scholars are still debating whether this religion should be called A.T.R. in the singular or African Religion in the plural (problem of one and many A.T.R.). while a scholar like Idowu (1973:104-105) insisted on a singular term for the religion on account of what he considered to be common unifying factors in the religion-i.e God and common Africaness; Mbiti (1969:If) opted for the plural terminologies for qualifying the religion. His main reasons were that traditional Africa was composed of multiple isolated (independent) ethnic groups with different religious beliefs and practices.

Whatever way we look at it, students should be aware that ‘A.T.R’ or ‘African religions’ are two valid ways of respectively describing the traditional religion of Africa. They are the most common acceptable terms at the moment.

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