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What Neo-Pagans Can Learn from African Traditions and Deities

Author: Helena Domenic
Posted: July 11th. 2010
Times Viewed: 7,328

I have been interested in the deities of Africa for a very long time, from my own lifelong relationship with the Goddess Isis to my later study of African art and subsequent scholarship in African religious arts. Africa is an enormous continent and to adequately address all of its deities would require a book and a college level curriculum study. For the purposes of this article, I will be discussing the Gods and Goddesses of several West African peoples, and I would urge my readers to consider this information but a fraction of what is possible in this area. My hope is to whet your appetite and give you ideas and resources to begin your own study into Africa and its deities. I also hope to present a tradition that is a living tradition, not a revival – and one that we as Neo-Pagans can learn from.

In the Neo-Pagan community, it is fairly easy to find information on the African Diaspora religions of Voodoo, Santeria and many other permutations of African belief that made its way into the New World. For the most part, these belief systems have a Christian overlay. I became interested in looking at African religion prior to its arrival in the Americas and subsequent hybridization with Christianity. Africa has had an undisputedly fraught history, struggling with the colonization, colonial attitudes, and the slave trade on the one hand along with geographic and natural disasters such as famine, desertification, and disease. Traditions are dying out or in some cases have been suppressed.

In other cases, there are belief systems that arose out of colonial contact with Europeans – to the point where it is difficult to distinguish where European influence begins and African syncretization takes place. This article is the result of my own research and efforts to find information on African deities that did not possess a colonial overlay. Having said that, I am always impressed and amazed with the way in which many African cultures adopt outside deities or create new hybrid forms, such as Mami Wata.

Once again, I am reminded that these are living traditions from which we can learn much. It should also be mentioned that not only are these traditions living, we should also keep in mind the oral nature of these traditions. Not only is there no one central text to be followed, there are no ancient texts – nothing like the Mabinogion, ancient Greek or Roman writers, or the Norse sagas to act as a guide to the various mythologies and beliefs. Although this can make research challenging, it should also be noted that this does not hold African practitioners back from continuing these traditions and expanding upon them as they see fit. I have heard many stories of how when Jesus was introduced to African priests, his statue was simply added to their shrines as another deity or spirit to aid and help. I’m not suggesting we go to that extreme, however I am always impressed with the ingenuity and creativity of African practices in creating what is needed and what works for them.

Although there are many differing ethnicities and traditions in Africa, there are some similarities in their belief patterns. One of these is that there is usually one large ‘Creator’ type God at the head of the pantheon. Many scholars consider Africans to be monotheistic because of this concept. However, there are a myriad of spirits and demi-god types that may under Neo-Pagan terms fall more accurately into our definition of deity. For example, amongst the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin, Oludumare (also known as Olorun) is the supreme creator god, and under him are huge arrays of beings known as the Orisha. The Orisha are the beings for whom the Yoruba actively make ritual, beings that they worship, make offerings to, and to whom the Yoruba pray. Oludumare is considered to be too far off and removed, whereas the Orisha actively engage in the everyday lives of the Yoruba. Other tribes also have a similar belief structure.

Amongst the Dogon, it is the creator god Amma who is seen as the supreme being who created Nommo, the first living creature on Earth. After Nommo was created, he went through several transformations and became the Nommo – twins who rebelled against Amma. Amma destroyed them in order to save the rest of his creation and scattered the parts of the Nommo around the world. Wherever the body parts fell, the Dogon erected special Binu shrines.
Amongst the Asante, the most important god is the creator deity Nyame. (Interestingly, many Asante who have converted to Christianity have assimilated the name Nyame for the Father God) . Nymae is an omniscient, all-powerful sky god who has many spirit assistants – and it is to these assistants that the Asante pray.

Another commonality is the importance of twins. The Yoruba have the highest incidence of twins of any other people in the world, with a birthrate of 45 per 1000 births. (Matte, U; MG Le Roux, B Bénichou, JP Moisan and R Giugliani, 1996, pp. 431 - 437) . As such, twins are emphasized in the cosmologies of most West African peoples. Twins are thought to bring double trouble or double fortune. The founding ancestors of many tribes are said to have given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, who went on to give birth to more children and creating an entire people. The term “Ibeji” literally means twins in the Yoruban language and refers twins and also to twin deities named Ibeji. They also refer to the carved wooden figure created to house the spirit of a dead twin, which is then cared for and given offerings to ensure the survival of the remaining twin.

Initiation is of paramount importance to African peoples. EVERYONE gets initiated in African tribes – magic and religion are part of the fabric of life (from which we could also learn much) and any uninitiated person is considered to be less than human. The downside of this is that with initiation also comes circumcision, which of course has been the cause of great controversy globally, and rightfully so. Both boys and girls are circumcised in most African countries, but for girls, the procedure is far worse and often life threatening. Because of the belief systems of African peoples that one is not human until one is initiated (as well as sexist beliefs that circumcision for women will cause them to be faithful due to decreased sexual pleasure) , eradicating circumcision has been incredibly different.

It was important to me to mention initiation and that it is a fact of life for Africans, but I also feel that I would not be presenting the whole picture if I did not mention circumcision. Having said this, anyone who has gone through the transformational process of an initiation in a mystery tradition understands the depth of the process – and that circumcision is not a part of that process for those of us in the Western tradition. (At least I hope not!)

West African tribes incorporate all of the arts into their religious practices – sculpture, visual arts, music, sacred drama, and dance are all used in initiatory training in Africa. Sculpture is often used as a means of transmitting visual reminders of information about one’s role in society, ancestral origins, myths, and secrets to one’s people. Masks and masquerades are used in similar ways – the maskers tell the stories of the gods and also transmit important moral messages. They also serve in rites of passage to help the spirits of the dead move onto the next world.

In most masquerades across West Africa, the mask that is worn by the performers is not just a mask – it extends to the entire body, as it is important to complete the transformation of the dancer from human being into a being from another world. When the dancer embodies a deity, the entire body must be covered to create that transformation – no part of the human body may be seen. The performer may also disguise his voice to complete the transformation, and it is forbidden for anyone to touch this divine being. When the performer speaks, he speaks the words of the gods and whatever he says must be followed. (The reader will notice I am using the word “he” to refer to the performers. Across Africa, all performers are male, even when they are enacting female parts. The one exception to this is amongst the Mende of Sierra Leone and Liberia, which I will cover shortly) .

Amongst the Yoruba, the Egungun and Gelede are perhaps the best-known masquerades. The Egungun masquerade celebrates the ancestors and the Gelede celebrates the powers of women – specifically that of Mothers, female ancestors, and elderly women. Across Yorubaland, there are some differences in the costumes – sometimes the costumes are made of raffia, other times of long, flowing cloth. Cloth signals wealth amongst the Yoruba, and performers from wealthy families add more cloth to their costumes each year, showing off their status. The cloth also gives the artwork of the masquerade a fourth dimension – it moves through time and space on the body of the performer. The masks themselves are beautifully carved to represent various characters from Yoruba mythology and story-telling. The Gelede in particular has humorous masks to demonstrate proper behavior amongst the Yoruba, to mock those who misbehave.
Amongst the Mende, we see the one exception to the rule of masks only being worn by males.

Like most West African peoples, the Mende have so-called “secret” societies for the men and for the women. The term “secret” is often seen in earlier anthropological writings, but is really a kind of misnomer. The Sande (also called Bondu) association is the association to which all Mende women belong, and the Poro association is the association to which all Mende men belong. There are secrets that are kept from non-initiates and non-tribe members (for example as Westerners, we would most likely be excluded from belonging) but amongst the Mende themselves, the existence of activities of each society is known to all. Each of these associations’ purpose is to teach the members of each sex proper behavior and readies them for their adult roles in Mende society.

The Sande association is unique in all of Africa in that it exclusively controls the use of the Sowo mask – also known as the Bondu helmet mask – and is worn only by its members: women. The masks embody Sowo (also Sowei) , their guardian spirit. The masks usually include an elaborate hairstyle and attempt to represent serene feminine beauty, with high foreheads, small compressed facial features, and voluminous neck rings. The neck rings have been alternately interpreted to represent the desirable full-figured woman, or the ripples on the water as the water goddess Sowei emerges from the depths. It has also been suggested that the rings represent the chrysalis of the moth or butterfly as a neighboring people, the Temne, associate Sowei with the butterfly. (Boone, 1986, p 13.) The goddess Sowei also represents the ideal woman – one who is calm and serene, as exemplified by her peaceful facial expression on the masks – and one who is fashionable, as can be seen from her elaborate coiffure. Although hers is the only mask in Africa danced by women, Sowei is not the only female water spirit/deity one can find in West Africa.

Yemoja is a Yoruban river goddess who “resides in the sacred depths of the Ogun River, which flows past Abeokota. Here her devotees espouse an ancient theory of the spirit that water is alive in sound and motion identifies the presence of a goddess. Her river sculpts the stones it touches, leaving them smooth and time-resistant. Smooth stones and rushing water together make a music: the murmur of immortality.” (Thompson, 1993, p. 270) . Yemoja is often associated with Olokun who at times is male or female, depending on the region. In some stories, Olokun is a god, and a consort to Yemoja. Like the water she embodies, Yemoja takes on the shapes of the places she inhabits. According to Baba Karade, “Yemoja is the divinity of all the oceans. She is said to be the mother of all the Orisha and expresses her mothering throughout the earthly and heavenly realms. Yemoja is the matriarchal head of the cosmic universe.” (Karade, 1994, p. 26) .

Osun is also a Yoruban goddess associated with rivers. She is a goddess of love, intimacy, beauty, diplomacy, and wealth. She is known to be very generous, but she is also very hot-tempered and fiercely protective of her people. Robert Farris Thompson says of her, “In generating love, Oshun generates herself. She is various; she is multiple. There are as many avatars as depths in her river.” (Thompson, 1993, p. 207) .

The last deity I wish to discuss is for me one of the most fascinating deities. She is Mami Wata, who was recently the subject of a travelling art exhibition out of the USCLA Fowler Museum. I find her fascinating in that she is both a reflection of the African Diaspora, and the beliefs and practices taking place today in West Africa. She is truly syncretic – a deity who has crossed the Atlantic, and returned to Africa with different influences added in as deemed appropriate by her Priests and Priestesses. This adaptability is what I find so appealing about African practices and beliefs. Mami Wata is a water spirit whose image graces murals, sculptures, altars, paintings, and prints reflecting her popularity and the ingenuity of the African peoples in adopting imagery from sources inside and outside Africa.

She is most often seen as a mermaid or snake charmer, or combinations of both. She is most certainly an Afro-Atlantic hybrid deity. She is often a seductress, one who borrows freely from Christian, Islamic, and Hindu images and practices as well as traditional African practices. Because she is a water spirit, she is often compared with or even hybridized with Yemoja, Oshun, and Sowei, and even Egyptian Isis.

Images of water spirits have been found on the African continent for centuries, the earliest being found in the Kalahari Desert, dating back about twenty-eight thousand years ago. (Drewal, 2008, pp 28 – 29) . A primordial water goddess known as Tingol/Njaloi is often referred to as a woman with the body of a fish who embodies beauty, power, and goodness. Her worship is included in the initiatory rites of a variety of West African peoples, including the Mende, Temne, Bullom, Vai, Gola, Dei, Kissi, and Bassa. She is most certainly a pre-Muslim deity, however her presence has managed to insert itself into modern day Islam in her incarnation as a djinn.

The genesis of Mami Wata’s appearance as a snake charmer can be traced to a German chromolithograph of a snake charmer in a travelling circus. This image was circulated by a German fish merchant who realized he could make more money putting on “people shows.” He had inexpensive color posters printed to advertise his shows, which found their way into West African by way of African sailors who saw the poster in Germany. Mami Wata is an excellent example of the ways in which Africans “Africanize” images to meet their own needs.

As Africans “Africanize” images and beliefs to meet their own needs, so I believe we can be more fluid and flexible in our approach to the gods. I am not suggesting cultural appropriation, which is something we certainly must be aware of in any practice we take on in a culture outside our own. What I am suggesting is that there are times when it may not be necessary to rely so heavily on written sources and times when it may be appropriate to write new stories and seek new insights. The first humans came from Africa, the cultures there are older than any on earth – I believe their approach to religion, spirituality, and belief have much to teach us.

Boone, S. A. (1986) . Radiance from the Waters: Ideals of Feminine Beauty in Mende Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Drewal, H. J., and Mason, J. (1998) . Beads Body and Soul: Art and Light in the Yoruba Universe. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Drewal, H. J. (2008) . Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diaspora. Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
Karade, B. I. (1994) . The Handbook of Yoruba Religious Concepts. Boston, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser LLC.
Matte, U; MG Le Roux, B Bénichou, JP Moisan and R Giugliani (1996) . "Study on possible increase in twinning rate at a small village in south Brazil". Acta Genet Med Gemellol (Roma)
Thompson, R. F. (1993) . Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum for African Art.
Thompson, R. F. (1983) . Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Random House.
Visona, M. B. et al. (2008) . A History of Art in Africa. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Prentice Hall.

Copyright: Helena Domenic, 2010


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