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Traditional Religions in Ancient Africa

Many people in Africa, even since ancient times, practice the religions of Christianity and Islam. There are also people who practice Hinduism.

However, there are lots of local religions too. To this day, around 10 per cent of the population practice other religions.

What religions are there in Africa?

Masques BaKongo

Africa is a huge continent with many varied religious practices. Across lots of religions in Africa but also across the world, there are some common themes.

There are often higher and lower gods, spirits, a practice called divination and traditional African medicines. Ancestor worship is also very common, where you pay respects to your ancestors or the dead.

traditional religions

Here are some of the key themes in African religions. There is some evidence that these beliefs were around in ancient times too.

Supreme God: Among the Niger-Congo speaking people, we believe there was common belief in a supreme God who created everything, along with other spirits and deities.

Religion Feature Image

Nature spirits: There was a belief in many parts of Africa that spirits reside in rivers, lakes and in the forest. They reside in water, animals and the earth.

Ancestors: Ancestors are the people who lived before us. In some parts of Africa, people worshipped their ancestors.

They prayed to them to fix their problems and help them. People would communicate with these ancestors through diviners.

Diviners would use special tools and powers to predict the future or communicate with ancestors.

Igbo medicineman

Offerings: Like many people around the world, people in Africa made offerings to their gods, ancestors or spirits. These offerings could be food or drinks or even animals.

Offerings can also be called sacrifices. We can learn about this through archaeological evidence of burnings, shrines and also burials.

Sangoma reading the Bones

Burials tell us a lot about ancient African practices in general. For example, from looking at Egyptian tombs, we know what animals, foods, gods, rituals and spirits were important to some ancient Africans.

Religious practitioners, or diviners

Shona witch doctor

Many traditional religions in Africa believed in supernatural forces that guided people. The special people that could understand or access these forces have often been called ‘witches’ or ‘witchdoctors’ in the past.

We can call them priests or diviners instead.

Because some of these people healed individuals when they were sick, they could also be called doctors.

the Jhakri culture Sikkim

Predicting the future

Some of religious practitioners could also predict the future. This is called divination. In lots of parts of Africa, there were many ways of telling the future or making predictions.

Some people could use special divination boards with shells or beads on to help them. Some people would toss bones or shells to see how the bones fell and them read them to tell the future.

These same skills might also have been used to predict how someone got ill, how someone died or who committed a crime.

Ancient Christianity in Africa

Bete Giyorgis Lalibela Ethiopia

People may think that Christianity was introduced to Africa in modern times by Europeans but Christianity has been in Africa a long time.

Christianity came to Ethiopia, in Africa, in the fourth century. The church in Ethiopia is called the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (or Tewahdo in Ethiopia).

It is one of the oldest Christian organisations in the world.

Masaba cave shrine

Quiz

What are the main religions in Africa?

Where do nature spirits live?

What offerings might have been made in ancient Africa?

quiz-kids
Who were these offerings made to?

What is someone who predicts the future called?

Ancient Africa

African slave trade

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