Source Book for African Anthropology



Deistic beliefs of the Ovimbundu of Angola are typical of concepts of a supreme God among Bantu Negroes. Suku is the most important spiritual being of the Ovimbundu, who say that he made the mountains, rivers, sky, and people. Some informants associated the name of Suku with rain, but the word does not mean rain, water, or food, since these are designated by the words ombela, ovava, and okulia, respectively.

In connection with the concept of Suku as a creator, a story states that in the beginning all was water; then a man came from above and caused land to appear. When out hunting, this first inhabitant saw a strange animal which he was about to shoot, but refrained when he observed that the creature was like himself. He captured the creature, took it home, mated, and raised a family.

Ideas of Suku emphasize his importance as a creator, but Suku gives no commands, offers no rewards, and threatens no punishments. He is too far away to be intimately concerned with the affairs of men, and the concept of this supreme being cannot be said to influence ethics, law, and general behavior; neither does Suku demand sacrifice or prayer.

An article by E. Torday (1928c, pp. 225–245) summarizes theistic beliefs of the southwestern Bantu, of which the Ovimbundu are a part. Torday points out that Nzambi is a god who, with trifling modifications in the name, is known over a great part of the Bantu Negro area, from the Bakongo to the Barotse, and from the Bangala to the Ovaherero. The Bakongo call him Nzambi Mpungu. Antonio Cavazzi, who was a missionary to the lower Congo in the period 1654–70, states that in olden times the kings of Angola adored an idol named Kalunga, that is, the sea, or, according to others the Supreme Lord. The name still survives among the Ovimbundu as a word of greeting, and as the title of an exalted spiritual being.

South of the Ovimbundu, the Vakwanyama and other sections of the Ovambo use the word Kalunga (or Karunga) for a supreme being who is connected with Nzambi in the thoughts of the people. But these deities, though benign, are too remote to be interested in the lives of men, and in comparison with the active ancestral spirits the higher gods are unimportant.

Similarly, among the southeastern Bantu, there are concepts of a high god. P. V. Cathrein (1915, pp. 307–322) has examined the connotations of such words as Unkulunkulu and Uthlanga, who for several Zulu tribes were creators and supreme beings. After taking into consideration the research of Canon H. Callaway (1870), Cathrein states, that notwithstanding confusion of ideas arising from European intrusions, and a change of concepts with place and period, the Zulu had an indigenous idea of a supreme being. The Zulu god was a creator, one who punished, one who controlled thunder and lightning, and a deity who demanded sacrifice. The Zulu concept represents a god less otiose than Nzambi or Kalunga, but nevertheless not so functional as the spirits of dead ancestors.

H. A. Junod proves a close connection between ancestor worship and deism by showing that the Bathonga create their gods from souls of dead relatives. "Any man who has departed this earthly life becomes a shikwembu—a god." The two principal categories revered by the Bathonga are those of the family and those of the country. These deities are developed from the souls of dead commoners and deceased royalty, respectively. "In national calamities the gods of the country are invoked, while for purely family matters those of the family are called on." The process of making gods is always active, and several clearly defined classes of gods exist in addition to the two divisions mentioned, namely, the national and the family deities.

Each family has two groups of gods, one on the maternal and one on the paternal side of the family. These gods are equal in power, and both are invoked though there is a general assumption that the maternal gods are more tender-hearted.

The "gods of bitterness" are the spirits of persons who have been drowned, killed by a wild beast, or have committed suicide. These gods include the spirits of pregnant women who have been buried without being cut open. This palpable evidence of the creation of deistic ideas given by H. A. Junod (1912, vol. 2, p. 347) is more instructive than a transcendentalism that assumes the existence of a supreme being who directs the aspirations of all men. The view expressed by W. C. Willoughby (1928a, p. 338) is to the effect that "there is an instinct for God that tells upon behaviour —an upward urge that makes for betterment, and that this is due to the unwearied play of the spirit of God on the souls of men." The creation of gods is a natural thought-process that must have occurred independently many times, since the basic concept is that of a clever creator who is all-powerful.

To continue with the deism of the southern Bantu: the Bavenda have Khuzwane, the creator, and his followers Thovhela and Raluvhimba. These gods are honored lightly, yet some offerings are made to them, and their names are venerated. The lesser regional deities have, however, more real spiritual influence, and in particular the spirits of the dead ancestors are objects of veneration, since they are believed to have benevolent as well as malign influence. Animistic beliefs relating to the spirits of trees, rivers, and mountains are important (A. M. Duggan-Cronin, 1928–31, vol. 1, p. 21).

The cosmology of the Lambas indicates the functions of the more remote spiritual beings who, though not intimate with the lives of men, are in charge of controlling forces. Rain is supplied from a lake above the dome of sky, and all water is in charge of the god Lesa. Thunder and lightning are the scoldings of Lesa. Beings of minor importance clean the sun and push the orb across the sky. They also light the fires of the sun and keep them burning. The moon also has workers who wash it clean, and the relationship of the sun to the moon is that of maternal uncle. This cosmology shows what is characteristic of Bantu religion, namely, the projection of mundane ideas into a spiritual universe (Doke, 1931c, pp. 222–225).

The deism of Sudanic Negroes of Ashanti, Dahomey, and some parts of Nigeria is more definite and operative than that of most Bantu Negroes, yet concepts of supreme beings are, on the whole, of secondary importance in comparison with the active proximity of lesser gods and ancestral spirits. As an example of functional deism, the worship of Buku, the highest being of Atakpame, Togoland, may be considered. Beliefs include not only a rich mythology, but many definite commands and prohibitions. Buku is himself represented by a club-like object before which the worshipers have to make obeisance. Followers of Buku are expected to give reverence, sacrifice, and praise to their god, and they must swear their oaths by Buku in legal procedure. The outward symbols of allegiance to Buku are corporal paintings on head, face, and feet as well as the wearing of a cowrie-shell necklace and the carrying of a staff. Buku has his own priesthood (P. F. Müller, 1906–1908).

Prohibitions during sacred periods include sexual continence, abstention from all work, avoidance of bridges and canoes, and refusal to climb a hill or to ascend to the second story of a house. A worshiper of Buku is not allowed to sacrifice a female animal, and no offering of a dog or a pig may be made.

Evidence of deism in Ashanti shows a welt-developed worship of supreme beings, who, according to R. S. Rattray (1923, 1927), are not a result of the theological teachings of Europeans. Nyame, the Sky god and supreme being of the Ashanti, differs from the Suku, Nzambi, and Kalunga of the southwestern Bantu in having shrines, a priesthood, and a definite system of worship with elaborate ritual. Moreover, Nyame is responsible for the lesser tutelary gods, who preside as genii of rivers, lakes, and the sea. Some of these beings are the sons of Nyame.

The priests of Nyame are dedicated to life service. They dress their hair in a peculiar manner and have ornaments with figures of the sun, moon, and stars embossed on them. Once a year, offerings of mashed yams are made to Nyame with the prayer, "My God, I pray you for life and I pray you for strength." Here is a functioning god, a supreme being who is in touch with the needs of men. But Rattray points out that the obosum or lesser gods are more important than Nyame in the practical affairs of everyday life. A similar deism, with a hierarchy of gods, some of whose names are the same as those of Ashanti, is described by L. Tauxier (1932, pp. 64–125; 219–227).

A. Le Hérissé (1911, pp. 96, 99, 137) states that in Dahomey there is belief in a supreme being, Mahou or Sê, but this god is not represented in statues or symbols; neither is there a cult for him. His name means "principle" or "intelligence," and the word is pronounced in exclamations and invocations. Mahou created the universe and many holy objects (Le Hérissé uses the word fetishes), which he is said to own through Vôdoun, whose name is applied to the sea, thunder, a monstrosity, and any force. The local Vôdoun are of greater practical importance than Mahou, since they control the lives of men. Legba, one of the Vôdoun, can grant or refuse offspring. The guardian spirits, which sometimes reside in trees and stones, are the chief functional spiritual beings.

According to the data of M. J. and F. S. Herskovits (1933), Dahomean religion includes a belief in a Sky god, who partitioned the universe and gave special powers to a hierarchy of lesser gods. This corresponds with the theistic beliefs of Ashanti and the Ivory Coast, as reported by Rattray and Tauxier, respectively. Herskovits says that the religion of Dahomey is Vodu worship; even the cult of ancestors is a Vodu cult, for the dead are deified and the Vodu are the gods. Each Dahomean identifies himself with the cult of his particular pantheon. The great gods are not individual deities, but pantheons on whom the kingdom is dependent for protection and nourishment. The cult of the great gods is not so practically important in daily life as the cult of ancestors, comprising deified ancestors and the recent dead. The founders of the more important sibs rank with the great gods, and a link between deism and ancestor worship is provided by a cult of the spirits who represent the first offspring of the original supernatural founders of the principal sibs. The domain of the goddess Mawu is the moon, and she is represented as controlling the universe. Lisa, who rules the sun, is a male. Aido Hwedo, the serpent deity who carries thunderbolts to earth and lies under the earth to support its weight, stands for the personification of gods who preceded those with whom Dahomean tradition begins. Herskovits then describes the sky pantheon and the thunder pantheon, together with the ancestral cult and the functioning of personal spirits and powers.

C. K. Meek (1931a, pp. 197, 217) states that "the Jukun, for all their devotion to the cults of royal and family ancestors, have a fundamental belief in the Supreme control of the Universe by an inscrutable Being who is known as Chido or Shido, i.e., the Sky-God." Ama is another god of importance, but a distinction exists between Chido and Ama, although the Jukun sometimes declare that the two deities are identical. Meek suggests that this idea of the unity of the gods comes from Mohammedan teaching. Chido is identified with all celestial phenomena and with the sun in particular. Ama is a creator, and fashioner of men.

But despite an advanced theism the "work-a-day religion of the Jukun is the cult of ancestors. On the national side, this assumes the form of the cult of dead kings, who become gods; and in its private aspect it assumes the character of a propitiation of ancestors who are regarded as being in close association with the gods and even with the supreme deities Chido and Ama. The cult of ancestors is not to be thought of as a distinct cult from that of the higher deities. For the cult of the one is the cult of the other, and conversely. When national rites are performed on account of a dead chief or of any deity, the ancestors are thought to be present; and when private rites are performed on behalf of ancestors the gods are also believed to be close at hand."

The Yoruba believe in the existence of an almighty god whom they term Olorun, Lord of Heaven. He is acknowledged to be the maker of heaven and earth but is too exalted to concern himself directly with men and their affairs. The word Olorun is applied to god alone and is never used in the plural to denote Orisas. Kings and other notables may be termed Orisas, but the word Olorun is reserved for the great god alone. Sango, Oya, Orisa, and Oko are deified heroes. Orisala, a co-worker with Olorun, gave man his human form. Ogun is a god of war and of all instruments made of iron (S. Johnson 1921, pp. 26–39; 143–150). He is patron of the blacksmith’s craft; and so the pantheon continues, gods having their wives and other relatives who attain the status of lesser gods after the manner of the ancient Egyptian pantheon, with which C. K. Meek (1931a, p. 122) has drawn some arresting analogies. Dedication to such lesser gods has led to the establishment of an Osu system among the Ibo (S. Leith-Ross, 1937).

Among the Shilluk and some other Nilotic Negroes, the name Jwok denotes the highest spiritual being, who, though a creator, is not particularly reverenced. Yet he is high above the spirits of the dead in the spiritual world. He dwells above, is the originator of death, and determines the fortune of men; but the name Jwok is seldom mentioned (P. W. Hofmayr 1911, pp. 120–131; pp. 185–242). The Shilluk have more regard for Nyakang, a god who was once a king and whose spirit is reincarnated in every king of the Shilluk people. Worship of family ancestors is the activating religious principle which is most intimately associated with daily life (C. G. Seligman, 1930, pp. 176–179).

Consideration of theistic ideas shows that these are present to varying degree among Bantu, Sudanic, and Nilotic Negroes. But in all tribes the importance of the lesser gods is emphasized because they are closely concerned with the lives of man. I would say that the resemblances of deistic beliefs among Negroes are far more impressive than the differences.

Supreme gods are somewhat otiose, yet an exception must be made with regard to some areas of west Africa. In parts of the Ivory Coast, Ashanti, Dahomey, and certain regions of Nigeria a god-concept is clearly defined. The supreme deity, together with a hierarchy of lesser gods, has definite functions, and a tangible recognition in sacrifice and prayer. These are lacking among Bantu Negroes in their concept of Nzambi and Karunga. Whether this local development of functional theism has resulted from an importation of ideas, or whether the theology is indigenous, is uncertain; but the special aspects of the religion are clear.

According to R. P. J. van Wing, Nzambi is not a man or a woman, nor an ancestor hero, nor an animal, nor heaven, nor earth. Nzambi is unique and separate from the rest. Nzambi is Nzambi. "On ne définit pas Dieu." (See "... L’Etre supreme des Bakongo," Recherches de Science Religieuse, Paris, Tome 10, 1920, pp. 75–81.)

There exists, however, a comparable groundwork in Negro religion, since the sacredness of kings and chiefs, together with the activity of all ancestral spirits, and a belief in their reincarnation, can be shown to be of paramount importance in all Negro life.


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Chicago: "The Idea of God," Source Book for African Anthropology in Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886- 543–548. Original Sources, accessed July 21, 2024,

MLA: . "The Idea of God." Source Book for African Anthropology, in Source Book for African Anthropology, edited by Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886-, pp. 543–548. Original Sources. 21 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: , 'The Idea of God' in Source Book for African Anthropology. cited in , Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. , pp.543–548. Original Sources, retrieved 21 July 2024, from