Myths of African Traditional Religions
Religion creates a significant part of African life. Many traditional African religions are based on guiding principles that are unfathomable to foreigners, more specifically those with interests such as historians and scholars. This lack of knowledge as well as understanding of essentials has led to burgeoning of myths on African Traditional Religions (ATR).
Many Western historians and scholars have a result perpetuated many of the ARRs myths. Sometimes misrepresentation lack understanding of traditional African religious practices a fact that made the historians and scholars to record misleading details on ATR thus, leading to growth of religious inaccuracies.
Similarly, few Africans had published accurate ATR representation books while the published have not been circulating according to reports by historians and scholars. Therefore under such circumstances, true ATR representation has been a daunting task leading to widespread ATR mythology. However, what are some of the myths and real practices that have overshadowed the myths?
Commercialized by E.B Taylor, an English anthropologist and propagated by other scholars, the first myth considers ATR as animism. The animal that Africans worshipped according to Taylor had the ability of leaving one body and taking over other bodies such as men and things. This anima also according to Taylor had the ability to live after death.
The theory of Taylor further regarded the African religion as quite primitive because ATR faithful believe in presence of spirits in every object. As a result, it leads to increase in plethora of spirits (Johnson, 2004). Therefore, the theory bundled all ATRs as one primitive appearance and nature thus, inferior to other religions including Christianity and Islam.
Even so, while it can be true that some ATRs make reverence and reference to things, such as belief in sanctity of rivers and trees, it would be right to bundle all ATRs as animistic. Besides all religions have astonishment and orientation to the spirit world. Christianity denotes the existence of God in the trinity of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Additionally, in relevance to Christianity, God is spirit and should as a result be worshipped in truth and spirit. Animism is therefore part of religious following to define summarily ATRs as animistic would as a result be very wrong (Awolalu, 1976, p. 8). In line with the thoughts of Taylor, ATR as animism is the fact that Africans are polytheistic. Their belief in many spirits as revealed by their belief in spirits existence in every object in every object as a result hurls Africans to an abyss of holy aboriginality.
However, this is a wrong ATR connotation because believers have a Supreme Being to whom is given all reverence. Polytheism also offers the same rank to all worshipped gods in such a setting. ATR on the other hand also has divinities that do not match Supreme Being in file and rank.
The divinities are consequently represented by items and have traceable origins. ATR faithful are also aware of divinities limitations, a fact that is not true of the Supreme God who is not represented by anything and owes his existence to nobody (Awolalu, 1976, p.9). There have also been constant debates on the existence of religion in Africa before missionaries work in the continent. Many of mythical contention have also been in the effect that European missionaries brought about the knowledge of God to Africa as well as religion.
This kind of contention strikes off the fact that Africans did not have religious belief and knowledge in God before arrival of European missionaries (Johnson, 2004). This construct is false entirely since Mbiti contends that many people in Africa were already aware of existence of God and referred to him as Ngai, Mungu and Unkulunkulu among others (Johnson, 2004). In this case therefore, the argument is that missionaries did not bring God to Africa, instead God brought them to Africans.
Further ATR myths have also referred to the religions as heathen, paganism and magical. In essence, these were mainly western scholar’s constructs as a derogatory reference to ATR as a representation of the people’s cultural backwardness. The terms were also largely used in the colonial period.
However, the words used in ATR reference were not true because Africans were already aware of religion and believed in the Supreme Being. The fact that heathen and paganism refer to people with no religion, and nobody worshipped false gods, strikes off heathen and pagan titles because they believed in Supreme Being and divinities (Awolalu, 1976, p. 7). Western scholars had in many cases referred ATR to as a form of idolatry worshipping only objects including rocks, sun, wood and trees.
While idolatry means worshipping false gods or unnatural beings, ATRs worship the objects mainly as symbols and emblems and not as means to themselves. The worshipped objects as a result, have meanings beyond themselves. In this regard therefore, Africans worshipping piece of wood will not in any case despair if the wood gets lost based on the fact that wood is just a being’s representation and is served as a solid personification of goddess that is represented in its presence (Awolalu, 1976, p. 8).
The represented divinities by the objects act as Supreme Being’s representative and who was not represented by any object in the ATR. Therefore, the ATRs are not certainly idolatrous.
With such uniformed details, therefore, there was wide assumption that all ATRs are primitive and same in their nature. Even so, the construct is false because all ATR belong to a specific group of individuals where all ATRs evolved. While there are similarities in the manner and place of worship in reference to Supreme Being and divinities, each ATR within its center had a signature of practice and belief ascribed only by a group of people.
A person therefore had to be born within a people to undertake and comprehend the people’s religious practices. Each group of individuals as well as tribe had their religious form over time in response to various life experiences and situations. This falsifies the myth that ATRs were founded by one person and ascribed to a single Holy text. The ATR ascription as primitive in regards to Western racial pride set their civilized culture while that of Africans was rudimentary and simple because (Africans) had not gotten used to the Western way of life (Awolalu, 1976, p. 6).
In bringing modernization and Christianity to Africa, many westerners had the notion that conversion from ATR would follow similar process as that in western religion. This conception followed the same path that claimed that all ATRs are the same. Even so, ATRs have a lot more deeper roots in a personal’s tribal setting thus making it hard to ease in implementation of other cultural and religious beliefs that are far eliminated from personal traditional beliefs (Johnson, 2004).
The cultural ATRs embodiment further discusses the difficulty in adoption of ATR by people in Europe and America because of the most significant beliefs and ideas inATR are alien in regards to their geographical and alien environs. Since ATRs are culturally dependent, the society played a very crucial role in propagating them. Even though Westerners revealed the idea that ATRs operated at a personal level, the society created focal ATRs beliefs and practices.
Therefore, the society played a crucial unifying factor to the dreams and beliefs of a person (Johnson, 2004). This explains further why Africans in slavery maintained their traditional religious practices. The myth that Africans in diaspora experienced slavery erased their ATR ties and holds no water to Africans because they continued with their practices through the 19th and 20th century. The same ATR effect remains solid even in their modern Christian worship (Johnson, 2004).
Additionally, ATRs carried African people embodiment. Lack of proper understanding of the embodiment led to creation of myths plethora in regards to ATRs. Many of the myths were however driven by superiority complex of the westerners in relevance to what they considered the ‘’burden of the white man’’ to modernize Africans.
Even so, theologians of African descent including Mbithi shed more light on ATR thus, changing the Western ATR dialogue into a more objective one with relevance to practices, beliefs and purpose in the lives of Africans.
Awolalu, J. O. (1976). What is African Traditional Religion? Studies in Comparative Religion, 10(2)
Johnson, K. (2004). Understanding African Traditional Religion. Thinking About Religion, 4. Retrieved from http://organizations.uncfsu.edu/ncrsa/journal/v04/johnson_understanding.htm