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Traditional African Society


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Title: Traditional African Society

Traditional African Society

1000 different languages 1000 different tribes
Early African Societies
Early African Societies
Anthropologists think that the first humans lived
in East Africa. Over thousands of years, people
spread out over the continent, forming distinct
cultures and societies.
By about 2500 BC many people in these regions
practiced herding and mixed farming.
Stateless Societies
  • Function of mobile population, underpopulation,
    and land as resource
  • Even when dense population, there was no state
  • Hunters valued over warriors
  • Ideal was the large complex household with Big
    Man surrounded by 10-40 people
  • Control happened laterally, not hierarchically
    (secret societies, age-grade societies, ritual
    experts as mediators)

  • What are some characteristics of a stateless
  • Society divided into lineages group traces its
    collective ancestry to a common ancestor
  • Authority is balanced among the various lineages
  • No single group holds a majority of power.
  • Operate through sharing of ideas and possessions,
    and cooperation is how they assume that society
    will operate.

Lineages share power
Elders negotiate conflict
No centralized authority
Age-set system
continued . . .
Characteristics of Traditional Tribal Life
  • Tribes
  • a political group that comprises several bands or
    lineage groups, each with similar language and
    lifestyle and occupying a distinct territory

Common Traits or Characteristics of Traditional
African Tribal Life
  1. The good of the group comes ahead of the good of
    the individual.
  2. All land is owned by the group.
  3. Strong feeling of loyalty to the group.
  4. Important ceremonies at different parts of a
    persons life.
  5. Special age and work associations.
  6. Deep respect for ancestors.
  7. Religion is an important part of everyday life.
  8. Government is in the hands of the chiefs kings.

An Africans Search for Identity
1. Nuclear Family
2. Extended Family
3. Age-Set
4. Clan
5. Lineage (ancestry)
TRIBE (communal living)
Social Structures
  • Common Features
  • Many societies developed village-based cultures
  • At heart, extended family living in one household
  • Families with common ancestors formed clans to
    which all members loyal
  • Age-Sets
  • In some areas, people took part in type of group
    called age-sets
  • Men who had been born within same two, three
    years formed special bonds
  • Men in same age-set had duty to help each other
  • Specific Duties
  • Loyalty to family, age-sets helped village
    members work together
  • Men hunted, farmed women cared for children,
    farmed, did domestic chores
  • Even very old, very young had own tasks elders
    often taught traditions to younger generations

On your Left Side
  • Draw the following pyramid on the next slide and
    add the information to the diagram.

Structure of African Society
  • Tribe- group of people that share language,
    customs, traditions, geographic location
  • Clan- group of related families
  • Extended family- parents, children, aunts,
    uncles, cousins, grandparents (common in Africa)
  • Nuclear family- parents and children (not common
    in Africa )

(No Transcript)
Kinship and Family Ties
How people are related in traditional African
  • Kinship means a relationship that binds two or
    more individuals
  • Blood relative
  • Marriage

What is kinship?
  • Sense of being related to another person(s)
  • Set by rules (sometimes laws)
  • Often taken for granted as being natural rather
    than cultural
  • Cultures define blood relative differently

  • Includes relationships through blood and through
  • Functions
  • Provides continuity between generations.
  • Defines a group on whom a person can rely for aid.

Family Ties
  • Farming and herding societies consisted of
    extended families
  • Kinships created strong bonds and a sense of

Lineage Lines of Descent
  • Lineages
  • Some societies group people in lineagesthose
    with common ancestor
  • Members of a lineage have strong loyalties to one
  • In some African societies, lineage groups take
    the place of rulers
  • These stateless societies balance power among
  • Stateless societiesno centralized system of

  • Means line of descent or family tree

Inheritance and Descent
Patriarchal Male-Dominated societyvery common
in African tribes
  • Descent is traced through male lineage.
  • Inheritance moves from father to son, as does
    succession to office.
  • Mans position as father and husband is the most
    important source of male authority.
  • Example Nuer or Sudan.

Patrilineal Descent
Matriarchal female Dominated societyuncommon
  • Descent is traced through the female line.
  • Children belong to the mothers descent group.
  • The inclusion of a husband in the household is
    less important.
  • Women usually have higher status.
  • Example Hopi.

Matrilineal Decent
  • Found among 15 of all cultures
  • Kinship is traced through the female line
  • Women control land and products
  • Found in the Pacific, Australia, small parts of
    Mediterranean coast
  • Declining though capitalism

Status and Roles of Women
Status of Women
Roles of Women
  • An African woman's roles are as life bearer,
    nurturer, and source of generations.
  • For an African woman in a traditional rural
    community, the chief measure of success in life
    is her ability to bear many children.
  • The very existence of the family and clan depends
    on women's ability to bear children, who will
    provide security for their parents in old age and
    who will continue to nourish the spirits of the
    ancestors through sacrificial offerings.
  • As a result, much African art is directed toward
    encouraging the fertility of women.
  • Many shrines are devoted to spirits that provide
    the blessings of fertility, and these frequently
    contain sculpture and other objects devoted to
    the concept of fertility.

Little Girls Dolls-Preparing for Role of Adult
  • Like children everywhere, African children play
    with toys that help them visualize their roles as
    adults and teach them the skills of parenting,
    hunting, and farming.
  • At the end of a day of trading and shopping a
    parent may stop at the blacksmith's stall in the
    market to buy a small carved doll with which his
    daughter can play.
  • She may dress the doll in new clothes she has
    made, feed it, and tuck it to bed under a tiny
    blanket in the corner of her room at night.
  • The carved figure is called biiga ("child"), but
    it represents a mature women with developed
    breasts, an elaborate hairstyle, and the
    scarification patterns that mark passages in
  • The doll represents the child, as she hopes one
    day to be.
  • In the same way American girls play with dolls
    such as "Barbie" that represent an ideal or a
    stereotype to which the child hopes to conform.

Initiation into Adulthood
  • Both young men and young women pass through
  • For Mende women, this life passage prepares them
    for life as adult women in Mende society,
    teaching them the skills of child rearing,
    cooking, trading, sex education, and much more.
  • It is especially important as a means of
    communicating knowledge of healing medicines and
    the spirit world from one generation of women to
    the next.
  • At the end of the initiation period the young
    women are ritually bathed, their bodies are oiled
    with cosmetics, they are dressed in their best
    clothing and are presented to the community,
    ready to receive the gifts of potential suitors.
  • Their reintegration into community life is
    accompanied by the appearance of masks such as
    this one, worn by the middle aged women who
    supervise the initiation, and which represent the
    ideals of feminine beauty among the Mende.
  • The Mende are very conscious of personal
    appearance and value a glossy black skin,
    beautiful hairstyles, and a well-fed and
    prosperous physical condition.

  • Marriage customs
  • Many traditional African societies are polygamous
  • Polygamy having more than one spouse
  • Men may only have multiple wives if he can
    support them
  • Bridewealth- payment a man gives a womans family
    before marriage (land, cattle, cloth, tools)
  • Dowry- payment a womans family before marriage
    (land, cattle, cloth, tools)
  • Some tribes allow divorce, some do not

  • Marriage is a key moment that follows immediately
    after initiation among many peoples because both
    events serve to break the bonds of the individual
    with childhood and the unmarried state and to
    reintegrate the individual into the adult
  • Among the Woyo people a young woman is given a
    set of carved pot lids by her mother when she
    marries and moves to her husband's home.
  • Each of the lids is carved with images that
    illustrate proverbs about relations between
    husband and wife.
  • If a husband abuses his wife in some way or if
    the wife is unhappy, she serves the husband's
    supper in a bowl that is covered with a lid
    decorated with the appropriate proverb.
  • She can make her complaints public by using such
    a lid when her husband brings his friends home
    for dinner.
  • The carved figure on this lid represents a
    cooking hearth with a pot on three stones.
  • Divorce requires only the scattering of the
    stones, and it takes three to support the pot.

Bride Wealth
  • It has been argued that such a system commodifies
    the bride and thus dehumanizes her, but others
    also make the argument that the system defines
    her value to the marriage in a concrete way and
    that it contributes to the stability of the
    marriage, because were the marriage to end in
    divorce the "bride-wealth" must be returned to
    the groom's family, and if it has already been
    invested in "bride-wealth" for the bride's own
    brothers this can be difficult indeed.
  • The "bride-wealth" creates a bond between the
    families which forces them to invest in the
    success of the marriage.
  • When there is trouble between husband and wife
    the relatives on both sides intervene to find a
  • The male-female couple from the Dogon people of
    Mali represents the ideal of pairing that is
    necessary for procreation.
  • The linking of the male arm around the woman's
    neck emphasizes the bond that is created by

Becoming a Parent
  • For an adult in Africa success in a traditional
    community is measured by his or her ability to
    find a partner, raise a family, and provide for
    the children that guarantee that the family will
    survive through the generations.
  • Every adult is beset by concerns about the health
    of her children, his ability to secure and hold a
    means to earn a living, about his own health and
    that of his partner, and about the many
    uncertainties that we must confront throughout
    our lives.
  • For a Baule man or woman to fail to marry, bear
    numerous children, and provide for his family is
    considered a serious problem.
  • She may visit a diviner who may prescribe the
    carving of a figure that represents the spouse
    s/he had in the spirit world before birth.
  • The spirit spouse takes possession of the figure,
    and care and attention as well as prayers and
    offerings are lavished on it to please it, so
    that it will permit its real-world spouse to
    fulfill his gender role.
  • This figure pair represents the female larger
    than the male, and so it may have belonged to a
    Baule man.

On your Left Side
  • What is the following primary source saying about
    women in traditional African society?

No marryd Women, after they are brought to Bed,
lie with their Husbands till three Years are
expired, if the Child lives so long, at which
Time they wean their Children, and go to Bed to
their Husbands. They say that if a Woman lies
with her Husband during the Time she has a Child
sucking at her Breast, it spoils the Childs
Milk, and makes it liable to a great many
Distempers. Nevertheless, I believe, not one
Woman in twenty stays till they wean their
Children before they lie with a Man and indeed I
have very often seen Women much censurd, and
judged to be false to their Husbands Bed, upon
Account only of their suckling Child being
ill.--F. Moore (European trader) on the River
Gambia in the 1730s, Travels into the Inland
Parts of Africa (London, 1738), pp. 132-3.
Becoming an Elder
  • The respect that is accorded both men and women
    who have attained positions of authority and
    honor is made visible among the Dan people
    (Liberia) by the large wooden ladles known as
  • The spoon bears an idealized portrait of the
    owner as a young woman, at the moment she began
    her role as mother and wife.
  • The spoons are carved for women who are
    recognized by other women of a town as the most
    hospitable persons in a community.
  • The spoons serve as symbol of that status and
    are used as a kind of dance wand when the honored
    women dances through the town accompanied by her
    own entourage of women.

Patterns of Government and Economic Structures
Patterns of Government
Economic Organization
  • Most villagers were subsistence farmers They
    produced only enough food for their own needs
    with little or no surplus
  • Fallow allowing the land to regenerate
    important minerals needed to grow crops
  • Land was community property

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Age Grade or Set
Age Set
  • Group of boys or girls born in the same year
  • Go through rituals together
  • Transition into adulthood together
  • i.e. Manhood initiation
  • Circumcision ceremony for boys
  • Scarification- ritual markings for tribe

The Age Grade System
  • What are some advantages of an age-set system?
  • Each member can help others to pass through the
    various stages of life they can also help each
    other obtain the specific individual benchmarks
    of each stage.
  • Teach discipline, community service, and
    leadership all together

Problems of Tribalism Today
Problems of Tribalism Today
1. The tribe is more important than the nation.
2. Communication problems.
3. Inter-tribal warfare ? civil wars.
4. Tribal favorites for government jobs
Breaks down tribal traditions.
Tribal intermingling on the job.
Tribalism problem
  • Tribalism is often a stronger force than
  • Political parties based on tribes
  • Problem of creating nationalism artificially.

African Culture Art, Music, Dance, and
Characteristics of AFRICAN ART What influenced
it most? The environment Environment is
reflected in art and religion It is a blend of
NATURAL HUMAN worlds Nature forces are wild
and uncontrollable Human is predictable and
orderly guided by laws and customs Art,
music, and dance very important to religion.
  • Animals are very important
  • Pieces are more ABSTRACT than realistic
  • GEOMETRIC forms are used eyes, nose, etc.
  • Materials used raffia, leaves, ivory, bark,
    gold, skins, wood
  • Art was used for everyday life activities
  • EXAGGERATED body parts believed to have special
  • Eyes were the window to the soul
  • Head was the seat of the soul
  • Very large eyes, elongated or stretched heads!

African Culture
  • Painting and Sculpture
  • Rock paintings, wood carving, pottery, metalwork
  • Music and Dance
  • Often served religious purposes
  • Wide variety of instruments
  • Integration of voice and instrument
  • Music produced for social rituals and educational
  • Architecture
  • Pyramid
  • Stone pillars
  • Stone buildings
  • Sometimes reflected Moorish styles
  • Literature
  • Written works did not exist in the early
    traditional period
  • Professional storytellers, bards
  • Importance of women in passing down oral

African Griots
  • Musician, Storyteller, Tribal Historian

Griots, pronounced "greeohs", are storytellers of
West Africa who use poetry and rhythm to teach
villagers about their history. Their home is the
territory of the Mandinke people in the country
of Mali where their tradition is alive to this
day. "Griot" is the French term for this class
of musicians the local term is jeli.
African Griots
  • Every king wanted a Griot to recite the history
    of the kingdom, and to pass it down from father
    to son.
  • History wasn't written down everything was
    memorized and recited or sung
  • The Griot memorized the clan's significant events
    such as births, deaths, marriages, hunts, and
  • Ensured the continuity of heritage and culture.

Historical Role of the Griot
  • tutored princes and gave council to kings.
  • used their detailed knowledge of history to shed
    light on present-day dilemmas.
  • would memorize significant events, like births,
    death, marriages, hunts, seasons and wars,
    ensuring that the collective heritage, culture
    and lineage of the clan continued.

Modern Role of the Griot
  • Historian
  • Genealogist
  • Orator, artist, musician
  • Counsellor
  • Spiritual Leader

  • Griots
  • Many early societies did not develop systems of
  • Maintained sense of identity, continuity through
    oral traditions
  • Included stories, songs, poems, proverbs
  • Task of remembering, passing on entrusted to
    storytellers, griots
  • Music and Dance
  • In many societies, music, dance central to many
    celebrations, rituals
  • Carving, wearing of elaborate masks part of these
    rituals as well
  • Early Africans excelled in sculpture, bronze as
    well as terra cotta
  • Traditional music performed with variety of wind,
    stringed instruments

West Africans have preserved their history
through storytelling and the written accounts of
Writing was not common in West Africa. People
passed along information through oral histories,
a spoken record of past events.
West African storytellers were called griots.
They helped keep the history of their ancestors
alive for each new generation.
In addition to stories, they recited proverbs.
These were short sayings of wisdom or truth. They
were used to teach lessons to the people.
Some of the griot poems are epics that are
collected in the Dausi and the Sundiata.
  • Griots were West African storytellers
  • They were highly respected
  • Their job was to remember and pass on their
    peoples history
  • They had to remember hundreds of names and events

Griots Oral Storytelling
  • Tradition passed down by storytelling
  • Two forms of tales
  • Human characters
  • Animal characters
  • Human tales dealt with creation, death, success
  • Animal tales focused on small creatures vs.
    larger beasts

  • Griots passed on more than stories, they also
    recited proverbs
  • Proverbs are short sayings of wisdom or truth

West African Proverbs
  • It takes a village to raise a child.
  • Talking doesn't fill the basket in the farm.
  • Rats don't dance in the cat's doorway.

The griot profession is inherited, passed on from
one generation to the next. Griots are very
different from the rest of society, almost a
different ethnic group. They are both feared and
respected by people in West Africa for their
wisdom and talent with words.
Griots have been around for a millennium (one
thousand years). Once, the male griots and
female griottes were historians, genealogists (a
person who traces or studies the descent of
families), advisers to nobility, entertainers,
messengers, praise singers the list goes on.
Today they are mainly entertainers.
In return for their services, griots receive
gifts. There is no set fee. They never know what
they will get. Sometimes a few coins, sometimes a
blanket, sometimes much more.
Good griots must have remarkable memories and be
ever ready to recite or sing long histories,
genealogies, and praise songs. They must also be
musically talented. To become a griot you must
learn genealogies and histories, but not just the
words, also the music.
Training for a griot begins within the family
unit, with boys and girls learning from their
griot parents, and then moves on to a formal
griot school, and then to an apprenticeship with
a master griot.
Both boys and girls can train to be griots,
although griottes may have less freedom to travel
and train because most are mothers. This is the
way griots have always been trained.
Griots hold the memory of West Africa. At the
festival marking the installation of a regional
chief in Faraba Banta in October 1991, griotte
Adama Suso sings and Ma Lamini Jobareth plays the
Griot singer Suso is playing the kora (note his
name on the instrument).
Visitors Written Accounts of Africa
Visitors Written Accounts
  • The people of West Africa left no written
    histories of their own.
  • Much of what we know about early West Africa
    comes from the writings of travelers and scholars
    from Muslim lands such as Spain and Arabia.
  • Ibn Battutah was the most famous Muslim visitor
    to write about West Africa.
  • His accounts describe the political and cultural
    lives of West Africans in great detail.

  • Much of what we know about West Africa comes from
    the writings of Muslim travelers and scholars
  • One writer was Ibn Battutah- he described the
    political and cultural lives of West Africans
  • Europeans learned about Africa from another
    traveler/writer named Leo Africanus

Ibn Battutahs travels
  • Epics are long poems about kingdoms and heroes
  • The Sundiata is an epic about Malis king
  • The epic tells how Sundiatas family was killed
    by a conqueror when he was a boy, but Sundiata
    was spared because he looked weak. As a grown
    man, Sundiata overthrew the conquering king.

Art, Music, and Dance
Through art, music, and dance, West Africans
have expressed their creativity and kept alive
their cultural traditions.
  • Of all the visual forms, the sculpture of West
    Africa is probably the best known.
  • The sculpture is mostly of people.
  • It was made for religious rituals.
  • Artists were deeply respected.
  • Artists carved elaborate masks, which were used
    mostly for rituals as they danced around fires.
  • They wove cloth such as kente, a handwoven,
    brightly colored fabric.
  • Music and dancing were important.
  • These activities helped people honor their
    history and were central to many celebrations.

  • West Africa was famous for its statues made of
    wood, brass, clay, ivory, stone
  • Sculptures of people were often used for ancestor
  • African artists were deeply respected

Pablo Picasso was influenced by African art
Bronze sculpture, Mali, 1500s
Masks Clothing
  • Carved masks of animals used for dance rituals
  • Africans wove special cloth called Kente that was
    used for special occasions
  • Kente cloth is a hand-woven, brightly colored

Antelope mask, West Africa
Music Dance
  • Music and dance were forms of entertainment and
    helped people honor their history
  • Dancing used for celebration at weddings, funerals

Raffia From the Raphia Palm
Nok terracotta and ivory sculptures Nigeria, 1000
BC 500 AD
Ashanti bird mask kept in homes to ward off
evil spirits
Modiglianis style compared to African masks
On your Left Side
  • In a T-Chart, compare and contrast the role of
    the arts in traditional African society to that
    of American society.

Traditional African Religious Beliefs
African Religions
  • African Traditional Religions indigenous
  • Islam introduced to sub-Saharan Africa in 11th
  • Christianity introduced to West Africa in 15th
  • Folk Christian Groups indigenous Christian
  • movements since early 1900s

Africa Religions
  • In Africa the three major religions are
    Traditional Beliefs, Christianity, and Islam.
  • Traditional beliefs may include worship of
  • ancestors,
  • spirits,
  • gods,
  • animals,
  • land,
  • inanimate objects,
  • and/or natural phenomena.

Traditional Religions of Africa
  • Not able to speak with authority about a single
    religion, theology, or ritual system.
  • Few written records oral tradition passed on by
    griots (singing, story tellers).
  • The religious beliefs and customs of one group
    are not universally shared by others.
  • Great variety of beliefs and practices in African

Traditional Religion and Culture
Many early Africans shared similar religious
beliefs and shared common features in the arts as
Traditional African Religion
1. Belief in one remote Supreme Being.
2. A world of spirits (good bad) in all
3. Ancestor veneration.
4. Belief in magic, charms, and fetishes.
5. Diviner ? mediator between the tribe
and God.
Religious Leaders in Traditional African Religions
  • Not a major need for religious leaders many
    activities can be performed by individuals
    offerings of food and drinks to ancestors
  • No complex theology or rituals like in Hinduism,
    Judaism, or Christianity
  • No requirement of a priesthood and temples are
    very rare
  • Some communities in West Africa do have temples
    and altars people trained in African mythology,
    taboos, and rituals to prepare them

African Religions
  • Supreme being had created everything
  • Supreme being was a distant figure
  • Many are monotheistic
  • Oral traditions and myths
  • Ancestors could help or harm them
  • Every object on earth was filled with a living
    spirit (Animism)

  • The term animism is derived from the Latin word
    anima meaning breath or soul.
  • The belief of animism is probably one of man's
    oldest beliefs, with its origin most likely
    dating to the Paleolithic age.
  • From its earliest beginnings it was a belief
    that a soul or spirit existed in every object,
    even if it was inanimate.
  • In a future state this soul or spirit would
    exist as part of an immaterial soul.
  • The spirit, therefore, was thought to be


Animism is the belief that all living and
nonliving things in nature have a spirit.
Animism was the belief system of many early

Animism in early civilizations was often combined
with ancestor worship.
  • Animism dates back to earliest humans and still
  • It can be practiced by anyone who believes in
    spirituality, but does not proscribe to an
    organized religion.
  • Animist gods and beliefs often explain natural
    earthly things.
  • The presence of holy men or women, visions,
    trances, dancing, sacred items and places are
    often characteristic of animist societies.
  • Animism exists in traditional African, Asian,
    American and Aboriginal cultures.

  • Retained tribal ethnic religion of people around
    the world
  • Today, adherents number at least 100 million
  • Animists believe certain inanimate objects
    possess spirits or souls
  • Spirits live in rocks, rivers, mountain peaks,
    and heavenly bodies
  • Each tribe has its own characteristic form of
  • A Shaman tribal religious figure usually serves
    as the intermediary between people and the

The Roots of Religion
  • Animism (Shamanism) - the belief that all
    objects, animals, and beings are animated or
    possess a spirit and a conscious life. Also
    called shamanism because of the prominence of a
  • Such beliefs are common among hunter-gatherers.
  • 10 of Africans follow such traditional ethnic
  • These beliefs are losing ground to Christianity
    and Islam throughout Africa.

Nigerian Shaman

  • To some animists, objects do not actually possess
    spirits, but are valued because they have a
    potency to serve as a link between people and the
    omnipresent god
  • Animism can be a very complex belief system
  • Sub-Saharan Africa is the greatest surviving
    stronghold of animism
  • Along the north edge Islam is rapidly winning
  • Christian missionaries are very active throughout
    the area

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High God and Lesser Spirits
The High God
  • Belief in a Supreme High God who created the
    world and then withdrew from active participation
    in it is common in polytheistic religions around
    the world
  • Belief shared by many African people
  • Most African religions are polytheistic in
    day-to-day practice
  • Beyond all minor gods, goddesses, spirits and
    ancestors, exists one High God, who created and
    in some sense still governs the universe.

High God Continued
  • Most believe that this God is too distant and has
    limited contact with daily operation of human
  • Can be appealed to in times of great crisis
  • Yoruba tribe of West Africa Olorun (High God)
    He assigned creation to his eldest son Obatala,
    who failed to complete the task. Olorun passed it
    on to Odudua, but he failed too. Olorun oversaw
    creation himself by assigning smaller tasks to
    various orisha, lesser deities. Olorun then
    retired to the heavens and has little contact
    with people.

Nuer Tribe of Sudan Exception with the High God
  • Kwoth Nhial (High God) continues to play an
    active role in the lives of humans
  • He rewards the just, punishes the wicked, and
    blesses those who uphold the moral values of the
    Nuer people
  • He loves and cares for His creation and is asked
    for blessing and assistance

High God
  • Most Africans believe the High God is too
    powerful to be appealed to for daily problems.
  • He really isnt interested.
  • Lesser deities or orishas control day-to-day
  • Even Nuer have a host of lesser deities

  • The Lesser Spirits
  • abilities of supreme being (creation), aspects
    of nature (water), historical humans (leaders),
    human activities (agriculture)
  • celebrate through myth, song, prayer, sacrifice,
    possession, gendered, character, food, color,
    altars, images, priests, rituals, daily

The Lesser Spirits
  • Earth, water, and sky contain spiritual life
    similar to human kind
  • Mountains, forest, rivers and streams, many
    plants and animals
  • Storms, lightening, thunder
  • Spirits can be beneficial or harmful
  • They are influenced by prayer, flattery, and
  • They have a direct influence on human life so
    Africans seek to understand them and seek their

World of the Spirits
Dogon Spirit House
Lesser Spirits Continued
  • They can be male or female.
  • Earth is regarded as a mother goddess.
  • Ex. Ashanti prayer for the Earth Mother
  • Earth, while I am yet alive,
  • It is upon you that I put my trust
  • Earth who receives my body,
  • We are addressing you,
  • And you will understand.

  • In Ghana there is a water spirit called Mami
  • The fishermen
  • consider her
  • so sacred
  • they do not
  • talk about her
  • openly.

  • People believed they had to maintain a favorable
    (good) relationship with the spirits or else
    suffer their wrath (anger).

Water A Sacred Element
  • Water sacred to many cultures.
  • When life depends on water in the form of
    rainfall, rivers, and streams, water takes on a
    life of its own.
  • Africans use water for rituals such as the
    washing of the newborn and the dead.
  • It must come from a source of sacred, living
  • It must not be heated or boiled, or treated with
    chemicals as that would kill the spirit in it.

Ancestor Worship
Ancestor Worship
  • Most commonly recognized spiritual forces in
  • Continue to live on in the spirit world and
    unlike the High God take an active interest in
    the well-being of those who live in the world.
  • Ancestors are consulted before the birth of a
    child, beginning of an agricultural season, prior
    to battle, or political conflicts.
  • In some tribes, no one may eat the first fruit of
    the harvest until it has been offered to the

Ancestor Worship Continued
  • While in China and Japan ancestors are loved and
    respected, in Africa they are feared.
  • They can be capricious (do whatever they want,
    fickle) and unpredictable.
  • Ancestors can do whatever they want.
  • Despite many offerings, they can turn on you or
    the community.
  • May cause sickness, death, childlessness (a major
  • Ancestors more than the gods are the enforcers of
    the moral codes of the tribe.

Ancestor Worship Continued
  • Gifts and sacrifices offered to them
  • Belief that ancestors own the land and its
  • Portion of harvest must be offered to them
  • When animals are born, some must be slaughtered
    and offered to ancestors to ensure their
  • Modern Africans living in cities, return to their
    native villages to offer sacrifices

Diviners and Healers
Diviners and Healers
  • Rooted in Tradition
  • Their purpose was to explain the cause of
  • Experts in herbal medicine
  • Today, doctors study the roots and herbs used in
    traditional African healing

Diviners Communication with Ancestors
  • They can speak to you in dreams
  • They can send signs to you in nature that can be
    interpreted with the help of diviners, spiritual
  • Signs are sometimes interpreted by looking at the
    organs of sacrificed animals
  • Diviners can also contact ancestors for help with
    knowing the future.

  • Causes natural supernatural human-human,
    human-divine, human-natural relationships are
    messed up
  • Divination ritual process, humans obtain
    inaccessible, obscure info. about a clients
    place in religious cosmos
  • Priests handle neutral objects
  • Priests interpret meaning of results
  • (i.e. Yoruba Ifa diviners Orunmila Odu,
  • 16 palm nuts, x8 times, 256 chapters)

African Diviner (Shaman)
Tallensi Tribe Example of Pleasing Ancestors
  • Tallensi man named Pu-eng-yii left his family and
    settled with a rival group to earn more money.
  • Auto accident, serious leg injury
  • Diviner told him that ancestors were angry told
    him that his ancestors had intended to kill him
    but failed to follow through on the plan.
  • Solution He had to make restitution (monetary
    compensation) for leaving his family, severe ties
    with newly adopted family, and return home.

Sacrifices to Please Spirits and Ancestors
  • Pouring our a bit of their drinks or tossing away
    bits of their food (similar to when you drop a
    hot dog at a BBQ an offering to the backyard
  • Simple act that pleases spirits and ancestors
  • Sacrifice of animals for more serious occasions
    dogs, birds, sheep, goats and cattle

Animal Sacrifice and Other Sacrifice to Appease
  • Blood poured out on ground or altar
  • Before a battle or election campaign or when
    theres a serious drought or in times of illness
  • Prior to engaging in a dangerous hunt
  • Ogun Yoruba god of iron. In modern day, he is a
    god of machinery.
  • People who drive automobiles in dangerous streets
    decorate their cars with his symbols

Partaking in the Sacrifice Communion with Spirits
  • After animal is sacrificed, a portion is cut and
    roasted or boiled and offered to the deity.
  • A portion is consumed by those in the sacrifice.
  • This unites them with the spirits.
  • A long tradition with world religions to build
    spiritual bond
  • Consider Christianity and Holy Communion

Rituals and Rites of Passage
  • Organized group activity
  • Relationships among humans, super-humans nature
    give meaning to ritual
  • Rites of passage define social, religious,
    physical identity (birth, puberty, marriage,

Rituals and Rites of Passage
  • Important parts of life marked with rituals
  • Rites of passage regulated by religious
  • Birth of child time for great rejoicing great
    blessing from the world of the spirits
  • Twins not a blessing, dangerous and evil.
  • Sometimes, regarded that women had two men and
    each were the fathers
  • Occasionally, one or both are killed

Rituals and Rites of Passage continued
  • In many African societies, including the Ashanti,
    children are not named for the first week of
  • Because of high infant mortality, African tribes
    believe that it may be a trickster god who wants
    to trick people into loving it only to leave them
  • After they make it through a week, then much love
    is lavished on the child

Rituals and Rites of Passage
  • After naming the child, there is a ceremony of
    gently throwing the child in the air and
    introducing it to the moon, which is deity (The
    Gu of the Benin)
  • The Basuto of South Africa say There is your
    fathers sister.
  • Circumcision is sometimes done after child birth
  • Most of the time, it is reserved for puberty

  • Circumcision is a religious requirement for Jews
    and Muslims and is significant to many Christians
  • For Africans, circumcision is reserved for when
    young men reach puberty
  • Severity can vary from a minor cuts that have no
    major threat to genital mutilation which can be
    life threatening
  • Usually no anesthetic

  • The man who performs the ceremony may wear a mask
    representing the ancestors.
  • Represents passage into adulthood
  • Initiate is expected not to flinch or cry out in
  • Female circumcision is practiced in some African
    societies although there is growing opposition
    around the world
  • As with male circumcision, no major medical
    reason for doing it but supposed to control their
    erotic desire

Rituals and Rites of Passage
  • Adulthood responsibilities and privileges
  • Leaving the family home
  • Marriage is very important so is bearing
    children a childless couple will go to great
    lengths to discover why they are childless with
    the help of a diviner
  • Death rituals to make the deceased comfortable
    fear that their ghosts will return to haunt the
    living widows fear that husbands will return to
    cause their wombs to die

Marriage Rituals
  • Virginity is highly prized especially among young
  • Some tribes sew part of the female genitalia when
    the girls are small for the future husband
  • Frequently, husband may not have sexual relations
    with wife while she is pregnant and nursing,
    which altogether may be two years.
  • Polygamy is practiced by elites of many
    traditional African tribes. Several wives and
    separate houses

Rituals for the Dead
  • Africas warm climate ---dead buried quickly
  • Sometimes embalming and mummification
    occasionally offered to hyenas
  • Burial with objects that will make their time in
    spirit world more enjoyable
  • In some African societies, illness, misfortune,
    death dont just happen. Often the result of
    witchcraft or foul play
  • In past, dead were allowed to identify their
    killers. If their hands, dropped as they passed
    someone in the community or if they fell near
    someone as they were being carried, that person
    would have to defend his/her innocence.

Death and World of Spirits
  • Most tribes do not have a system of eschatology
    or concepts of judgment and retribution after
  • Dead simply move into the world of the spirits
    and continue to be interested in the world of the
  • LoDagaa people of Ghana exception
  • Crossing a river with a ferryman (similar to
    Greek idea of River Styx and Hades), easy if you
    were good, difficult and up to three years if you
    were bad, making up for your evil

Islam and Christianity in Africa
Other Religions in Africa
ISLAM ? 25 Nigeria ?
largest sub-Saharan Muslim
  • Religion
  • Indigenous religions tend to be animistic
  • The Introduction and Spread of Christianity
  • Entered northeast Africa around 300 A.D.
  • Coptic Christians - Ethiopia Eritrea other
    Christians in Sudan
  • Dutch brought Calvinism to South Africa in 1600s
  • The Introduction and Spread of Islam
  • Introduced about 1,000 years ago
  • Today, orthodox Islam prevails in most of the
  • Interaction Between Religious Traditions
  • Religious conflict most acute in northeastern
  • Sudan conflict between Muslims in north and
    Non-Muslims in the south

Christianity in Africa
The route of African Christianity
  • Egypt and Libya in the beginning
  • Apollos of Alexandria
  • Others from Cartage
  • Eunuch of Ethiopia, Meroitic Official, a.k.a.
    Kandaka, a Regent to the throne of Candace, the
    Queen of Ethiopia
  • Preservation of Scriptures in Africa, the
    Sinaiticus Texts particularly
  • Bishops such as Clement and Cyril, men of
    Alexandria in Egypt.
  • The Nubians of Sudan and the Coptic of Ethiopians
    are part of Africa Christians heritage.

  • 2 billion adherents make it most practiced in
    the world.
  • Originated in Bethlehem (8-4 BC) and Jerusalem
    (AD 30) with Jesus Christ.
  • Spread by missionaries and the Roman Empire
    (Constantine A.D. 313).
  • It is the most practiced religion in Africa

Islam in Africa
The Coming of Islam
  • North Africa
  • Arab forces seized the Nile delta of Egypt in 641
  • New capital at Cairo
  • Arabs welcome due to high taxes and periodic
    persecution of Coptic Christians by Byzantines
  • Arabs seize Carthage in 690, called Al Maghrib
  • Berbers resisted for many years
  • The Kingdom of Ethiopia A Christian Island in a
    Muslim Sea
  • Axum began to decline
  • Shift in trade routes and overexploited
  • Muslim trading states on the African coast of the
    Red Sea transforming Axum into an isolated
    agricultural society
  • Source of ivory, resins, and slaves
  • Attacked by Muslim state of Adal in early 14th
  • Became a Christian state in mid-twelfth century

Islam in West Africa
  • Along with adopting new practices and ethical
    values, West Africans kept some of their old
    religious practices.
  • Muslim leaders allowed them to continue religious
    traditions as long as they did not contradict
    (conflict with) the Five Pillars Faith.
  • W. Africans continued to show respect for the
    spirits of dead ancestors. They kept their
    belief in spirits who could help those or made
    sacrifices to them.
  • They used amulets, or charms, that they believed
    helped people or protected them from harm.

The Spread of Islam in West Africa
  • Traders Bring Islam to Ghana
  • Between 639 and 708 C.E., Arab Muslims conquered
    North Africa
  • They wanted to bring W. Africa into the Islamic
  • Initially the king of Ghana did not convert, nor
    did the majority of the people.
  • But the king did allow Muslims to build
    settlements within his empire
Islam in Mali
  • The tolerance shown by Muslims toward traditional
    religious practices helped Islam to spread.
  • Early leaders of Mali accepted Islam, but they
    didnt follow all of its teachings.
  • In 1312, a new leader, Mansa Musa, took over in
    Mali. He became the first West African ruler to
    practice Islam devoutly.
Islam in Mali
  • Under the rule of Mansa Musa, Mali became a major
    crossroad of the Islamic world.
  • Musa made a hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca
  • His caravan was described as a lavish display of
    power, wealth, and unprecedented by its size and
  • Included in his caravan was
  • 500 slaves, each carrying a 6 lb. staff of gold
  • Caravan of 200 camels carrying
  • 30,000 lbs. of gold
  • Food, clothing, and supplies
  • Because of this impressive display, Mali gained
    acceptance as an important empire

Islam in Songhai
  • In the 1460s Sunni Ali became the new ruler of
  • He built a powerful army that enabled Songhai to
    break away from Mali and eventually conquer it.
  • Early Songhai rulers didnt seriously practice
  • Under the leadership of Askia Mohammed Toure, a
    devout Muslim, rigid controls were set to ensure
    Islam was being practiced properly.

Changes in Africa due to Islam
Change 1 Succession
  • An important change in government was in how
    people chose their next leader, or line of
  • Traditionally succession to the throne had been
    matrilineal the right to rule was traced
    through the womans side of the family
  • After the arrival of Islam, succession became
    patrilineal the right to rule went from father
    to son.

Change 2 Structure of Govt
  • Muslims believed in a highly centralized
    government, which was different than traditional
    African society
  • After conversion to Islam, West African kings
    sought more control of local rulers
  • Rulers adopted titles used in Muslim lands, such
    as emir and sultan

Change 3 Adoption of Shariah Law
  • Customary laws of Africa usually
  • were enforced by chiefs or kings
  • didnt give physical punishments
  • Werent written down
  • Guilty person paid injured party with gifts or
  • Family or clan of guilty person could also be

Shariah Law
  • Laws were written
  • Muslims believed that shariah came from God
  • Administered by judges called qadis
  • Cases were heard in a court
  • Witnesses called
  • Ruled on basis of the law and the evidence

Change 4 Emphasis on Education
  • Muslims highly value learning encouraged people
    to become educated.
  • Timbuktu
  • Became famous for its community of Islamic
  • Contained several universities
  • Schools were set up to educate children in the
  • Schools run by an imam (scholar)
  • Basic subjects included studying the Quran,
    Islamic studies, law, and literature

Change 5 Arabic A New Language
  • In West Africa, Arabic became the language of
    religion, learning, commerce (business), and
  • Arabic became the language of TRADE and
  • West Africans continued to use their native
    languages in everyday speech.
  • Scholars used Arabic to begin to write about the
    history and culture of West Africa.
  • Arabic allowed rulers to keep records and to
    write to rulers in other countries.
  • Using the common Arabic language, West African
    traders who spoke different languages to
    communicate more easily.

What was written about?
  • Described how people used animals, plants, and
    minerals to cure diseases.
  • Discussed ethical behavior for business and
  • Told how to use the stars to determine the
  • They recorded the history of the Songhai.
  • They wrote about Islamic Law

Change 6 ArchitectureMosques in West Africa
  • Traditionally, West Africans built small shrines
    to the forces of nature. As they converted to
    Islam, they began to build mosques (Muslim house
    of worship).
  • The mosques that were built blended Islamic
    architectural styles with their own traditional
    religious art.
  • For example, the minaret (tower) of one mosque
    was designed to look like the symbol of a Songhai
  • Mosques in West Africa used the materials that
    were available in the local area.

Islamic Invasions
Change 7 Decorative Arts
  • West Africans adopted the use of calligraphy and
    geometric patterns in their decorative arts.
  • Arabic calligraphy was used to decorate costumes,
    fans, and even weapons.
  • West Africans adopted the dress of Arabic robes
    using decorative textiles and clothing and
    everyday objects like stools, ceramic containers.
Extent of Islam (Fig. 6.25)
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