The second book of Luke, the Acts of the Apostles, has always provided an interesting glimpse into the world of the first Christians. I have been fascinated by the account given of the attempts to confront the problem of religious pluralism in the early days of Christianity. One example of such attempts is the encounter between Paul and the inhabitants of Athens who were distinguished from the rest of the people of their time by their high learning and religious devotion. On an elevated spot in Athens, the Areopagus hill, Paul delivered a speech that could be considered as one of the earliest presentations of a Comparative Theology of Religions in the New Testament.

Hitherto, the non-Jews and non-Christians were considered as pagans whose "gods are idols, silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not, they have eyes, but they see not, they have ears, but they hear not, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Like them be those who make them! -- yea, every one who trusts in them!" (Ps 134, 17-19).

In this speech in Athens (to be referred to as "the Areopagus speech") Paul interpreted the concept of God among the non-Jews in a positive light. The God worshipped in the "pagan" Athens is the same Creator whom Paul had come to proclaim. The speech thus provides the theological basis for the missionary enterprise among non-Jews and non-Christians. God is not circumscribed in a particular geographical ambient. He is acknowledged and worshipped by all men and women everywhere.

Scholars have shown great interest in the speech.(1) From a long list of them we mention only a few. E. Norden, in his seminal work (Agnotos Theos), presented the first major analysis of the Areopagus Speech in which he sought to determine its form and font. B. Gaertner (1955), by carefully considering the typological writings from antiquity to the New Testament times, placed the speech in the context of natural revelation. M. Dibelius (1956) read it within the framework of "motifs" of images beautifully yoked together to produce a text unique but, according to him, isolated in the entire New Testament corpus. J. Lebram (1964) dug into the original parallel texts of the Testament of Orpheus, Aristobulus and Aratus to discover some existing Jewish literature for instructing proselytes from which Luke could have possibly derived his materials. V. Gatti (1982) sought to show the relevance of the inter-testamental literature, especially the religious and Hellenistic sapiential works, to the overall understanding of the speech. This was already a movement towards biblical contextualisation which C. Ukachukwu Manus later (1989) tried to articulate with the African background in mind. The same trend of thought in inculturation biblical study of the speech was followed by P. de Meester (1990) and P. Bossuyt with J. Radermakers (1995).

This write-up presents a reading of the speech from the African context. It takes a close look at the pericope, not with the aim of discussing the problems of dialogue with religions or the status of non-Christian religions from the point of view of Catholic theology.(2) Its direction is to attempt to study the text of the speech from the point of view of a reader in African Traditional Religion. There is a striking similarity between the religious dispositions of the Greeks (as described in the text of the Areopagus speech) and the Africans (as I have personally experienced and read about them).

How would the speech of Paul in Athens sound to a person whose religious background is African Traditional Religion? What points of contact exist between the themes raised in the Areopagus speech and the theological elements in the religious tradition of the Africans? In an attempt to answer these and similar questions, a reflection on different themes of the Areopagus speech from African traditional religious outlook is presented.


"Africans are notoriously religious."(3) This assertion can be verified in the lives of most Africans, be they exposed to the Euro-American influences or not. Religion permeates every aspect of the African life.(4)  Mbiti expresses this religiosity forcefully:
  J. E. Holloway presents the same point thus: Right from the womb, through birth, infancy, puberty, initiation, marriage, and funeral, many African societies have religious rituals for each phase of life.(7) Each day begins with prayer, offering of kolanut and pouring of libation. Each major step in the life of any given traditional community involves certain consultation of fortune-tellers and diviners to ascertain the will of God and the spirits. It is rare to find any act, human or otherwise, without some religious explanation for it.

This religiosity explains, in part, why there is a high turn over from Traditional Religion to Christianity or Islam in Africa. It accounts also for the quick spread of many groups of religious families and traditions in the continent. David B. Barret has recorded a long list of religious groups operating in Africa.(8) The number is ever increasing year after year.

Africans never lose the consciousness of the divine presence and intervention in their daily affairs. Their strong religious instinct tells them that neither the advancement of science nor mere human endeavour is sufficient to solve the problems of man today or to guide his decisions in daily undertakings or still to guarantee happiness, peace and progress in the world.(9)


The term "worship" is not found in the vocabulary of many African societies. In some areas, when it is used, it often refers to religious acts, individual or collective, formal or informal, which are directed to God. The more common words used are "offering" and "sacrifices".(10)

The objects used include: animals (cow, bull, sheep, goats, dogs fowls or chicken, human beings), foodstuffs (first fruits, eggs, maize sorghum flour, honey, cassava), drinks (milk, beer, water), incense, smoke from tobacco pipes, leaves.

A place (shrine or temple) is set apart for offering and sacrifices. Usually, a shrine is dedicated to a specific spirit or divinity. Thus in Yoruba land the 1700 divinities have shrines in people's dwelling houses where the divinity concerned exercises great influence and authority as the owner of the house and the area. Similar situation is found among the Igbo people. For example, Ogbunike, a small town near Onitsha has a shrine (Okwu) for Kesa, another for Ogba (cave). Nkwelle-Ezunaka has a reserved forest for the powerful Iyi-ojii. The Ganda people have temples for the national divinities with functionary priests and, occasionally, mediums and women servants. A.M. Liguira reports that when any of these divinities prove ineffective to help the people, the king could order his or her temple to be raided and even destroyed.(11) Only with the express permission of the priest in-charge may other people enter the shrine.

The sacred spot where sacrifices are made is the altar. Its location varies from place. Generally it is found in the shrine. Among the Igbo it is expected that each household has small altar where the head of the family makes offerings. Mbiti reports that the Ila use "the foot of the central pole in their houses as altars", and for the Kipsigis, altars "are made of sticks" and are located "on the right side of the door outside every house"; and the Konta "have altars on the roads leading to their homes, where they place their agricultural offerings".(12)

It was usual before the advent of European modernity and secularization, and Christian and Islamic religious influences to see several places of worship (shrines and altars) while walking through the pathways in an African village. This is a manifestation of the religiosity of the people. It is not a multiplication of kateidolos or a promotion of paganism and a support for sanctuaries of devils, as many Europeans have portrayed it. It is a genuine expression of religious sentiments.



African Traditional religion has been variously described as monotheistic, pantheistic, polytheistic and, recently an author (13) has added, henotheistic. The divinities are broadly divided into two (but not on the basis of equality of status): the Supreme deity and the subordinate deities.(14) Each tribe or ethnic group has its own pantheon, according to the specific needs and interests of the people. In general the divinities are arranged in a hierarchy with the Supreme deity at the apex (distant, with all the superlative titles and qualities) and the other divinities and ancestral spirits according to their rank and order of importance in the community. The relationship between the Supreme Being and subordinate divinities has lead to different interpretations given to the African Traditional Religion.(15)

The early European visitors to Africa did not meet a people without the knowledge of God; they did not encounter pagans. The missionaries did not invent the names and various attributes given to God: they used what was already available among the people. Setiloane remarks:

When Paul at the Areopagus hill spoke of an "Unknown god", many Africans would have recognised the phrase as the title they give to the Supreme deity (God). The Igbo will not find it difficult to understand that Chukwu (God) is Amama-amasiama (the Known who cannot be sufficiently known); the Ngombe call him Endandala (the Unexplainable); the Ashanti refer to him as "the Fathomless Spirit"; and the Bacongo say that he is "Marvel of Marvels".(17) The Zulu acknowledge that God has made all things but they do not know his name.(18) The tribes of Massai, Lunda and Moru talk of him as not only unknown but unknowable.(19) The result of a long research on the concept of God as incomprehensible and mysterious among several African tribes done by Mbiti led him to make the following affirmation:
  A foreigner in Africa, who simply goes round the villages to observe the religious acts of worship as practised by the followers of the traditional religion, could interpret the term "Unknown god" with reference to the Supreme deity in another sense. Ikenga-Metuh writes:
  When this tendency to pay less direct attention to the Supreme deity in public worship is observed, it could lead to the conclusion that God is unknown among many tribes of Africa.

Westermann and many other writers go further to speak of the Supreme deity in Africa as Deus otiosus (the withdrawn God). According to him:

Some authors report that there are African communities that share this view of Westermann. For example V.C. Uchendu holds that in the Igbo theology, the high god "Who has finished all active works of creation and keeps watch over his creatures" is "a withdrawn god".(23) In asserting the remoteness of the Supreme Being, P. Baudin describes the Yoruba notions thus:
  S.F. Nadel takes up the terms of incertus and remotus, as applied to Supreme Being, and reaches the conclusion that that they are verified in the religion of the Nupe where "nothing very definite can be said or is known about God."(25) The nature of the Supreme Being (Soko) in Nupe is Lokpa - "far away" - and He "cannot be reached by prayers and invocations alone, there have to be intermediaries, of which Kuti (ritual) is one and Cigbe (medicine) the other."(26)

The Fang express the enstrangement of the Supreme Being thus:

It is commonly held among different peoples of Africa that there was a primordial close relationship between the Supreme Being and man which became severed at some point in the remote past. There are myths to explain the cause of this separation.(28) The Ashanti hold that the Supreme Being lived in the sky but very close to men. Whenever the mother of these men pounded fufu her pestle was constantly knocking against God and so he decided to move up higher to avoid this disturbance.(29) The Bari and the Lugbara peoples of the White Nile region believe that the separation occurred because the rope which linked the abode of the Supreme Being and the habitation of men was accidentally broken by a hyena.(30) Among the Mende, the withdrawal was occasioned by the disturbance of God by incessant requests made by human beings. God therefore moved Leve - Up.(31) The Yao people hold that God went up when men learnt how to make fire by friction and began to disturb him with the smoke.(32)

But the withdrawal has another interpretation. His "remoteness" is explained as an act of benevolence. In the words of Evan Zuesse:

Scholars up to R.S. Rattray, one after another, have upheld the opinion expressed by Westermann that among the Africans, "God does not live in practical religion." It was widely expressed that God in Africa is not approached or worshipped directly. Rattray discovered that there is indeed a direct worship of God. He pointed out that among the Akan, Nyame is worshipped with shrines and priests dedicated to him.(34) Since then many more scholars have found similar forms of religious acts directed to God.(35)

The altar dedicated to this God, although not everywhere found among all the tribes of Africa, is accommodated in the religious worldview of the people. The inscription of the name of a particular god or spirit to whom a shrine or altar belongs is done in the memory of the people, such that when it is forgotten, it could lead to the situation where a particular sacred place exists without proper identification of the deity who owns it.


God is almost universally acknowledged as the creator of the world. Some names that refer to him as the creator could be mentioned: Mumbi (Akamba, Kenya), Jok Nyakaswiya (Alur, Zaïre), Cuta (Ambo, Zambia), Ruhanga or Nyamuhanga (Ankore, Uganda), Bore-Bore (Ashanti, Ghana), Rurema (Barundi, Burundi), Kibumba (Basoga, Uganda), Zambi (Baya, Central African Republic), Kagingo (Ganda, Uganda), Omubumbi (Gisu, Uganda), Chineke (Igbo, Nigeria), Namulenga (Ila, Zambia), Ndorombwike (Nyakyusa, Tanzania), uDali (Pondo, South Africa), Rog (Serer, Gambia), Mlengi (Tonga, Malawi), and so on.(36)

Africans have their own myths of creation. It does not, however, seem that the African concept of creation includes bringing things into being ex nihilo. But whatever primordial elements used, there is a strong affirmation of the creative role which God has played in the world. The origin of God himself is not discussed, it is assumed in the myths that he was there from the beginning. The Boshong simply say that in the beginning Bumba was alone. God is Mutangakugara, the one who existed in the beginning (according to the Shona people); Kajati, self-creator (for the Tonga tribe); and uZivelele, the self-existent One (for the Zulu). This uncaused Cause is responsible as the initiator and origin of other beings in the world.

He is not only responsible for bringing other things into existence, he also endows each being with its specific quality. This description touches on the point mentioned in the Areopagus speech of God's role in allotting period and boundaries of habitation to every nation.

There is a striking similarity between the function assigned to God in the Areopagus speech and his role as found in the name given to him in Igbo language. One of his names in Igbo is Chineke. This word has two component parts: "Chi" (meaning God or deity) and "eke" (with root meaning, "divide").(37) In one sense it conveys the sense of endowing, according to Metuh. It means that God gives life and all the other qualities necessary for existence. This extends to allotment of places of habitation to different tribes.(38) The Ganda call him Namugereka (he who arranges and distributes according to his discretion). For Kiga people he is Rugaba (the One who gave everything on this earth and can also take it away).


The atmosphere of family exists in the African worldview between human beings and God. Among most tribes, God is identified as a benevolent parent. It appears that the conception of him is less sexist than could be found in Christianity or Islam.(39) To some people, God is Father, to others Mother and still to others without gender.(40) According to Joseph A. Omoyajowo:
  Metuh finds the attribute of Father in some of the African names and in the prayers said by the people.(42) Among the names by which God is invoked are: "Father giver of life", "Father of men," "Great Father," "Grand Father," "the father of the sky," and so on. When the people pray, they use such phrases as: Father of the universe, our father, father of our fathers.(43)

Among the societies that are matriarchal, God is often invoked as Mother. The southern Nuba tribe use feminine terms to describe God. They even refer to him (in their context I should say "her") as "Great Mother" who gave birth to earth and to mankind. Among another tribe there is the saying" "The mother of pots is a hole in the ground, the mother of people is God".(44) The invocation of God as female is found among those whose "social organisation is centred on the home and position of the mother".(45) The Ewe people have powerful female-male combination of Mawu/Lisa as the Supreme being(s). Mawu who is female is often spoken of as the Supreme being. She is gentle and forgiving. Indeed it is said that when Lisa punishes people, Mawu grants forgiveness.

Whether God is considered as Father or Mother in the African societies, it does not change the relationship that exists between him and human beings. It is generally acknowledged that all human beings are God's children. The attitude displayed during sacrifices is that of father-children relationship. There are tribes that explicitly express this relationship with God. The Bambuti people will invoke God in time of difficulty thus: "Father, thy children are afraid."(46)

Different groups of persons are considered as special to God. The Bemba tribe are "the children of God". Among the Lugbara the elders are also looked upon as "children of God". For the Shilluk the king has the following titles: "the first born of God", "child of God," etc.(47)

Most African societies hold that God has a divine spark in every person. Among the Kalabari he has put in every person Tamuno (personal creator). This divine element is variously called Chi (in Igbo), Ori (in Yoruba), and Kra (in Ashanti).

God, after creation, did not finish with the world. He still sustains it. The Bacongo people say, "water never sleeps, God made it to be always flowing".(48) The providence of God is ever felt. The Igbo say, "God drives away files for a cow that has no tail".

Although God is presented in household terms, many African traditional religionists very often do not deal with God directly but go through intermediaries. God has revealed himself through the ancestors and wise men. The words spoken by these special persons are sometimes also divine. There are proverbs, wise-sayings, myths, that are full of religious symbolism and are very instructive for the understanding of man's relationship with God.

In spite of the close relationship between God and human beings, after studying the practice of religion in many parts of Africa, John Mbiti came up with the following astonishing conclusion:

The image of a happy life is that in which God is close to the people. This closeness, however, is not characterized by mere presence for contemplation but God's nearness to supply food and other basic needs of man. Thus sacrifices and offerings are mainly for utilitarian purposes. In so far as God is able to provide them these needs, he can be anywhere, even "in the distance of the Zamani".(50)


The early Europeans that came to Africa saw numerous objects used in religious functions and called them "idols". African Traditional Religion was dismissed as paganism, idolatry, heathenism and fetishism. There was even a prayer prepared for, and recited by, Africans for the conversion of the African people "wandering in the vale of wilderness where they are destined to be lost forever. But your beloved Son, Jesus Christ found them…" (51) Early this 20th century, the catechism book prepared by the missionaries in Igboland of Nigeria had in it inserted among the grave/mortal sins, literally translated:
  African traditional religion was unequivocally condemned. Its followers were referred to as ndi obodo, a term which could mean not simply citizens of a town but, more derogatively, people who are not civilized and are pagans. A true Christian, in the days of the early missionaries, must not have anything to do with that group of people in the society.

The catechism has since been revised. But in some parts of the world, this uninvestigated assessment, followed by condemnation of traditional religious practices, still takes place. People are becoming more and more aware of their cultural, religious heritage and are easily offended by the missionaries' wrong interpretation of their practices. One of the early missionary-explorers in Africa once remarked:

Of what use are carved objects in African Traditional Religion? Pierre de Maret writes:
  Sculptural arts often express the spiritual images dominant in a given place. Because those who carved the images are not naïve, they do not consider the work of their hands as in se God or gods or even spirits. They reproduce images that help them to focus their thoughts on the things beyond physical perception, realities in the "noumenal" world.

Natural objects like stones, trees, mountains, metals, are also conceived as symbols. The word, symbol, has behind it the Greek sumbolaion, meaning "token, insignia, or means of identification by which parties to contracts, allies, guest and host, and other kinds of partners could identify each other." (55) It is considered as "a precise and crystallized means of expression, corresponding in essence to the inner life in opposition to the external world".(56)

A symbol stands for or takes the place of another thing. (57) Unlike a sign, a symbol points to itself but at the same time draws attention to another thing more profound than itself. It is a thing which it represents, but at the same time it is not. Cohen explains:

A symbol (which is not only material things but also gestures, linguistic expressions, etc.) has no meaning in itself; its signification is derived from the context, from the community in which it is used. A kolanut is a simple tropical fruit which in itself is nothing more than that. But among some African communities when it is presented to a visitor, it is a symbol of welcome, friendship, love, etc. Outside these communities, it remains only a simple fruit.

More than a contextual thing, a symbol may have multi-vocality. The same symbol may mean different things to different communities. The gesture of goodbye in Italy is, in Nigeria, that of an invitation to come closer. Among the Lango (in Uganda), Mount Agoro which is rocky is considered as a place with a very high intensity of God's immanence. Pilgrims could be seen walking away with pebbles taken from the mountain believed to contain power to give fertility.(59) The Bambuti (in Congo), the Gisu (in Uganda) and the Akamba (in Kenya) consider rocks as the dwelling place of the spirits of the departed.

Apart from drawings used, for example by the Akan people, to designate attributes of God, there does not seem to be any image made of the Supreme Being in African Traditional Religion.


African traditional societies are concerned about justice, punishment and retribution. There is a strong belief that no good and no evil can happen by chance. Good things happen because of individual or communal good deeds which are pleasing to the ancestors, the spirits and God. Evil comes as a result of wrong doing.

The concept of God as Judge is not foreign or strange to the African Traditional Religionist. God is regarded as the "ultimate dispenser", the "distributor": he gives to each person his or her own portion of "talents, fortune and estate of life."(60) Mbiti remarks that among the Azande people, God is known as the "One who settles the differences between us who are men."(61) The Jie tribe hold that God intervenes in human affairs to avert calamities and punish those who offend against the ritual.(62) The Ila people give Him a name Ipaokubozha ("He who gives and causes to rot").(63)

Discussion on immortality, judgement and retribution in the after-life does not assume the first place in Africa Traditional Religion. But it is reported that among the LoDagaa of Ghana there is some notion of judgement after death.(64) They believe that the dead cannot enter the spirit-world until the final funeral ceremony called "Cool Funeral Beer" is performed. In this other world, there is final judgement which is described thus:

Among the Yoruba, there is this saying:
  There is the strong belief that the spirit of the dead stands before Olodumare for final judgement in order to give account of individual's conduct while alive on earth.

Paul announced in his speech to the Athenians that God has designated a man as a judge on his behalf. In the African traditional societies the use of intermediaries in determining and carrying out God's instructions and in pronouncing the divine judgement is known. Priests are prominently mediators between God and man: they offer sacrifices, often they are invited to purify a defiled community, and occasionally they settle disputes among the people. Along with Priests, the seers, prophets, diviners, medicine men, rain-makers, etc. are also regarded as people who have powers to know the mind of God and spirits. Kings, in the areas that have them, are sometimes believed to be divinely constituted. Elders too are important in settling disputes in the society.

It is known in many parts of Africa that a particular deity can select somebody to be dedicated to him. Among the Igbo people of Nigeria, if a person is so selected and he or she refuses to accept, it is believed that some evil will befall him or her. This evil may come in the form of misfortune in business, death in the family, and sometimes some mild type of madness called agwu. A person that accepts the divine appointment and is consecrated often exercises tremendous spiritual power in the society. He or she sometimes offers sacrifices, prays for the community and very often acts as an arbiter in case of dispute between families or clans.


In many African societies death of human beings was not intended from the very beginning. According to many tribes, man had the option to choose either death or immortality but, somehow, the messengers either distorted the message or did not arrive in time to give God the reply from humanity wishing to live for ever. Some animals are identified as bearers of this all-important message. Among the animals most often mentioned include: tortoise, dog, hyena, lizard, cat, chameleon, hare, mole, etc. In error death was man's first choice in the "primordial state" of existence and for this reason every person must die. Death is, therefore, a permanent feature with man.

In the African worldview, death is not conceived as the end of life. Life has really no end, a person changes from one form of existence to another. There is no death in the sense of a separation from the close family members or the tribal community. Life is conceived as cyclic, not linear; it is eternal, a process that continually moves from the realm of spirit to that of "history" and vice versa. A person in his old age with many prosperous children is considered to have a good life. At his death, he joins the ancestors, undergoing a transition from the state of mortality to that of ancestral immortality. It is a movement from life to life.(67) There is strict continuity in the transition. According to P. Paris, the ancestors retain their moral character, social status and all family consciousness.(68)

The process by which the dead return to the "historical" world and live in a normal bodily form is called reincarnation, that is, taking flesh again. There could be many forms of it among different African societies.

Among the Igbo people two forms are distinguished. One form is called igba-nje. The person who returns to life is called ogbanje (repeater). This generally applies only to children. It is believed that these children are in league and their interest is to torment their parents. They allow themselves to be born and then they die before the reach the age of two. They die and then re-enter the womb to be born again. To stop the repetition of this phenomenon, there is need to perform a religious ritual called ibo iyi uwa (to unearth and break the instrument of the covenant between a particular child and the rest of the children in the group of ogbanje).

Another form of reincarnation is ino uwa. This is return of a happy person after death to a cherished family where he or she is reborn as a baby. It is frequently said that old parents at death return as grand children to their families. But the right to return does not depend on the dead. It is an outcome of the encounter with the Creator after death. In the final analysis it is God who permits who should stay forever in the spirit world or who may reincarnate. Even though to remain in the spirit world and be revered as an ancestor is a prestigious thing, most people would prefer to return to earth and live among their relatives. Metuh says that an Igbo would do anything to make sure that he is allowed to return and that refusal to be allowed to reincarnate is considered a retribution for sins committed during one's life-time or even previous existence.(69)

It is not always easy to explain the nature of the ancestor who returns to his family. He dwells in the spirit land and, at the same time, lives as a child among his beloved family members. He may even reincarnate in more than one family. In the believers view, it is not strange that a spirit can be ubiquitous. This ability to be in more than one place at a time is one of the characteristics of the resurrected body in the Bible. The follower of African traditional religion could find in the concept of ino-uwa a stepping stone to understanding the Judaeo-Christian notion of the resurrection.


Our short reflection here has shown that the important vocabularies found in the Areopagus speech are not foreign to the Africans. If the speech had been addressed originally to the Africans, it would have been well received by an appreciative audience.

Volumes of books have been published condemning the early missionaries for not understanding and encouraging the admission of many of the important elements of the African Traditional Religion into the Christian theology. These early harbingers of the Gospel must not be placed outside their context of life. They had to battle with the cultural and sociological conflicts that faced them on arriving in Africa. Their theology of the missions was not very well developed and the prevailing opinion of Africa was not positive.

Africans have received the Gospel in spite of the rejection of part, and sometimes the whole, of their religion (by the earliest missionaries) as authentic and valid religious expression. The question that remains is: if many of the positive values of African Traditional religion and culture were misunderstood by the foreigners, have the Africans really made them understandable today?


(1) See Classified Bibliography of Literature on the Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Tools and Studies, 1966; also Isizoh C.D., The Resurrected Jesus Preached in Athens, The Areopagus Speech, Rome, 1997. Also for further reading: Norden E., Agnotos Theos, Untersuchungen zur Formengeschichte religiöser Rede, Darmstadt, 1971; Gaertner B., The Areopagus Speech and Natural Revelation, transl. by C. H. King, Lund, 1955; Dibelius M., Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, transl. by M. Ling, London, 1956; Lebram J.-C., "Der Aufbau der Areopagrede," Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 55 (1964) 221-243; Gatti V., Il discorso di Paolo ad Atene, Brescia, 1982; Ukachukwu-Manus C., "The Areopagus Speech (Acts 17,16-34), a study on Luke's approach to evangelism and its significance in the African context," Revue Africaine de Theologie 13 (1989) 155-170; Meester P. de, "Inculturation de la foir et salut des cultures: Paul de Tarse à l'Aréopage d'Athènes (Acts 17,22-32)," Téléma 62,2 (1990) 59-80; Bossuyt P. & Radermakers J., "Rencontre de l'incroyant et inculturation, Paul à Athènes (Ac. 17,16-34)," Nouvelle Revue Théoligique 117 (1995) 19-43. For a comprehensive discussion on various aspects of the African Traditional Religion, see my internet webpage at

(2) The International Theological Commission working under the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently published a document on Christianity and other Religions. See "Il Cristianesimo e Le Religioni" in La Civiltà Cattolica, vol. 3518, (Rome, 18 January, 1997), 146-183.

(3) Mbiti J.S., African Religions and Philosophy (New York, 1990), 1; also his Introduction to African Religion (Oxford, 1975), 30.

(4) "In spite of their many and varied religious systems the ubiquity of religious consciousness among African peoples constitutes their single most important common characteristic." Paris P.J., The Spirituality of African Peoples, The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis, 1995), 27.

(5) African Religions and Philosophy, 2. The same idea is expressed by many African scholars some of whom we mention as example: Parrinder E.G., West African Religion, London, 1961; Idowu E.B., Olodumare: God in Yoruba Belief, London, 1962; Awolalu J.O., West African Traditional Religion, Ibadan, 1979.

(6) Holloway J.E., ed., Africanisms in American Culture, (Bloomington, 1990), 37.

(7) Mbiti documents many examples from several African societies. Cf. African Religions and Philosophy, 107 - 161. In his Concept of God in Africa, he dedicates a whole chapter to discuss Africans' "Times and Places of Worship": every day; at the observation of the rites of passage; at the harvest ceremony; at planting time; in time of war or raid; in time of drought or when rain is needed; at the time of distress, illness, calamity, or other disaster; before or during an undertaking; annually or monthly; on special days and occasions; and other times. See Chapter 20.

(8) Barret D., ed., World Christian Encyclopaedia, Nairobi, 1982.

(9) In the reply to question 44 of the Lineamenta for the 1994 African Synod the Episcopal Conference of Burkina Faso remarked: "La religion traditionnelle Africaine survit toujours, même si elle va s'effritant. Malgré la modernisation et le mouvement de Christianisation et d'Islamisation, son influence reste profonde sur les consciences des individus, puisqu'il s'agit d'une religion qui a sa source dans la famille même." The Episcopal Conference of Cameroon in their own reply to the same question wrote: "La Religion Traditionnelle Africaine demeure vivace dans toutes les couches de la société camerounaise. Elle s'accommode aisément des exigences de la science, de la technologie et ne se trouve nullement freinée par les structures d'un Etat moderne."

(10) On sacrifices among the Igbo, G.T. Basden observes: "…sacrifices are offered, not from any desire to give, but because of the fear that, unless they are offered their lives and interests will be blighted. Every man must contribute his share in public festivals, and all join in the subsequent carousals, but no man offers sacrifice privately until he feels compelled to do so by adverse circumstances; it is never a voluntary offering. Sacrifice is offered solely to appease a malignant god whose imperative demands are indicated by the gods' executive, i.e. the medicine-man (dibia)." Cf. Among the Ibos of Nigeria (Lagos, 21983), 223. This view, although in part true, does not present the whole meaning of sacrifice for an African. Mbiti listed four theories that explain the meaning and function of sacrifices and offerings among the followers of African traditional religion: gift theory, propitiation theory, communion theory and thank-offering theory. See African Religions and Philosophy (Oxford, 21990), 59; Arinze F., Sacrifice in Igbo land (Ibadan, 1970).

(11) Ganda Art, (Entebbe, 1969), 31 -32.

(12) Concepts of God, 241.

(13) Peter J. Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples, 30.

(14) Ikenga-Metuh E., Comparative Studies of African Traditional Religions, (Onitsha, 1987), 103.

(15) On this complex relationship and the place of the subordinate divinities and spirits in the African Traditional religion, there is abundant literature in print. See my webpage on the internet at, for a detailed bibliography.

(16) Setiloane G.M., African Theology: An Introduction, (Johannesburg, 1986), 29.

(17) Cf. Mbiti J.S., Concepts of God in Africa,26. See also Lystad R.A., The Ashanti, (New Brunswick, 1958), 163; and Claridge G.C., Wild Bush Tribes of Tropical Africa, (London, 1922), 268-269.

(18) Cf. Callaway H., The Religious System of the Amazulu, (London, 1870), 9-10. But O. Pettersson (in Chiefs and Gods, Lund, 1953) opines that probably the name has been lost in the course of history, 153.

(19) See Hinde H., The Last of the Massai, (London, 1901), 99; Campbell D., In the Heart of Bantuland, (London, 1922), 245; Nalder L.F., ed., A Tribal Survey of the Mongalla Province, 1937, 172-173.

(20) Concepts of God in Africa, 27.

(21) Comparative Studies, 103.

(22) Africa and Christianity, (Oxford, 1937), 79.

(23) The Igbo of Southeast Nigeria (New York, 1965), 94. The absence of significant influence of the high god among the Igbo of Nigeria has been noted by one of the early European missionaries, G.T. Basden in his Niger Ibos, (London, 1938/1966), 37. In his Among the Ibos of Nigeria (Lagos, 1921 rep. 1983), Basden remarks: "The knowledge of the Supreme Being is practically confined to the name and the interpretation thereof", 216. See also Ikenga-Metuh, Comparative Studies, 126.

(24) Fetishism and Fetish Worshippers, 1885, 9ff.

(25) Nupe Religion, (London, 1954), 11.

(26) Ikenga- Metuh, Comparative Studies, 125-126; See also Nadel S.F., Op.cit., 18.

(27) Ulli B., The Origin of Life and Death, (London, 1966), 19.

(28) Mbiti J.S., African Religions and Philosophy, 94-95.

(29) See the contribution of K.A. Busia, "The Ashanti," in Forde D., ed., African Worlds, (Oxford, 1954), 192.

(30) Mbiti J.S., African Religions and Philosophy, 95.

(31) Ibid. See also Smith E.W., ed., African Ideas of God, (London, 21961), 278f.

(32) Mbiti J.S., African Religions and Philosophy, 95.

(33) "Perseverance and Transmutation in African Traditional Religions," in Olupona J.K., ed., African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, (New York, 1991), 174.

(34) See Rattray H.S., Ashanti, Oxford, 1923, rep. 1969.

(35) Alice Werner has, as early as 1933, made this observation in her book, Myths and Legends of the Bantu. See particularly pp. 41ff. Cf. Also Middletown J., Lugbara Religion, Oxford, 1960; Lienhardt G., Divinity and Experience, Oxford, 1961; Harjula R., God and the Sun in Meru Thought, Helsinki, 1969.

(36) See the theophoric names compiled by J.S. Mbiti in Concepts of God in Africa, 327-336.

(37) Metuh made allusion to this in his Comparative Studies, 109.

(38) This is one of the many instances of the closeness of thought between the Igbo people and the Jews. G.T. Basden in 1938, at the end of his monumental work on Igbo tribe of southern Nigeria, gave a chapter to the discussion on the similarities between the Israelites and the Igbos. See Niger Ibos (London, 21966), 411-423.

(39) Paris P.J., The Spirituality of African Peoples, 32.

(40) Part of the reason for this "gender-less" concept is the fact that many African languages do not have specific pronouns for genders.

(41) "The Role of Women in African Traditional Religion," in Onupona J.K., ed., African Traditional Religions in Contemporary Society, (New York, 1991), 74.

(42) Comparative studies, 107.

(43) See Smith E.W., The Ila Speaking of Northern Rhodesia, 96; Di Nola A.M., ed., The Prayers of Man, (London, 1962), 7.

(44) Dymond holds that the saying is from among the Ovambo tribe. See Smith E.W., ed., African Ideas of God, 146.

(45) Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion, 53.

(46) Schebesta P., Revisiting my Pygmy Hosts (London, 1936), 174.

(47) See Mbiti, Concepts of God, 91-94.

(48) Claridge G.C., Wild Bush Tribes of Tropical Africa (London, 1922), 270.

(49) African Religions and Philosophy, 96.

(50) Ibid.

(51) From "Prayer for conversion of Africa" which the author was taught to recite with diligence when he was younger. Probably the prayer was prepared by the missionaries. It is now almost suppressed and forgotten.

(52) Original text: "ife ndi obodo n'eme dika ife alusi, ikpoku ndi mmuo, ichu aja m'obu idebe ogwu chekwube ya ka Chukwu; i gwo ajo ogwu, i kwa ozu ka ndi ogo mmuo nya na iso ndi obodo wee mee etu ife afu."

(53) Basden G.T., Niger Ibos, (London 21966), xviii.

(54) "Archaeological and Other Prehistoric Evidence of Traditional African Religious Expression," in Religion in Africa, ed, Thomas Blakely, et al. (Portsmouth, 1994), 165.

(55) Cohen M.A., "Symbolism," Encyclopaedia of Religion, vol. 14, ed. M. Eliade (London, 1986), 204.

(56) Cirlot J.E., A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd ed. transl. Jack Sage (London, 1971), xxxix.

(57) Cf. Kooy V.H., "Symbol, Symbolism," in Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 4, 472-476.

(58) Opus cit., 204.

(59) Mbiti J.S., Concepts of God , 149.

(60) Wagner G., in Forde D.I., Op.cit., 43.; Mbiti J.S., Concepts of God in Africa, (London, 1970), 76. We shall lean heavily on Mbiti's work as a great source of information for our discussion here.

(61) Mbiti J.S., Concepts, 76.

(62) Gulliver P. & Gulliver P.H., The Central Nilo-Hamites, (London, 1953), 47.

(63) Smith E.W., & Dale A.M., The Ila-speaking Peoples of Northern Rhodesia, vol. I, (London, 1920), 199.

(64) Cf. Goody J., Death, Property and the Ancestors (London, 1962); and also Metuh E., Comparative Studies, 270-272.

(65) Metuh, Ibid., 271.

(66) O'tito. Extract taken from the internet webpage maintained by Fashina Falade at:, Ijo Orunmila.

(67) Mbiti calls those who live in this new state "living dead".

(68) Op. cit., 52. Margaret W. Creel explains: "Ancestors retained their normal human passions and appetites, which had to be gratified in death as in life. Ancestors felt hunger and thirst. They became angry or happy depending on the behaviour of their living "children." The living dead were vindictive if neglected but propitious if shown respect. Just as filial loyalty prevents one from allowing a parent to go hungry, "so must food be offered to the ancestors." See "Gullah Attitudes toward Life and Death," in Joseph E. Holloway, Op. cit., 88.

(69) Metuh, Comparative Studies, 272.