Niger-Congo Religion Takes Hold Across West Africa Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Niger-Congo religion recognized three levels of spirits: ancestral spirits, territorial spirits, and, by the sixth millennium b.c.e., a creator god, suggesting an early manifestation of monotheism.

Summary of Event

The practice among the Niger-Congo-speaking peoples of a religious belief system that included an omnipotent god of creation can be traced back to the sixth millennium b.c.e. These ancient peoples spoke ancestral Niger-Congo languages, inhabited the woodland savanna of West Africa, and produced microlithic stone tools from the seventeenth millennium b.c.e.

Niger-Congo religious beliefs and practices centered on basic human concerns regarding the creation of the world, human origins, malevolence caused by evildoers, and protection and beneficence emanating from the spiritual (divine) sphere. From at least the sixth millennium b.c.e., Niger-Congo religious philosophy consisted of a creator god, who stood at the zenith of the religious hierarchy and was the maker of all things; various other levels of spirits; and a realm of evil. The spirits included ancestral and territorial spirits, which were both forces that had more immediate consequences for the day-to-day lives of the Niger-Congo than did the creator god. Evil was believed to be caused by human malice or ill will that was animated through curses and medicinal mixtures employed with witchcraft.

Evil was perceived by the ancient Niger-Congo peoples to be a human force caused by people’s feelings of resentment, envy, greed, or the like combined with techniques of witchcraft. This faith had no devil figure, no embodiment of evil. Wicked individuals faced serious consequences for their actions, but at no time were they thought to have communed with a satanic figure. An evil person’s punishment was the most extreme retribution Niger-Congo society could confer on any person: The individual was ritually forgotten by his or her society and thus unable to receive blessings, bound to roam Earth alone. In societies such as the Niger-Congo, in which belonging to a lineage through sanguine or fictive ties was crucial to religious and social existence, becoming a social outcast was a highly undesirable fate. Integral to the notion of evil was the potential for remedy through assistance from ancestors and doctor-diviners who diagnosed causes and prepared curative therapy with medicines and religious rituals. The Niger-Congo religion had no concept of a final redemption and did not focus on an afterlife. Its main focus was life itself.

According to ancient Niger-Congo religious beliefs, ancestral spirits remained part of the lineage or family line as participating members who could help or harm the kin group and therefore had to be paid due respect and be formally remembered in ceremonial acts. Because of the belief that ancestral spirits continued to play an active role and could thus have momentous impact on community welfare and well-being, these spirits were venerated and called on in times of misfortune or tragedy and for sanctions of celebrations and as sources of goodwill. Ancestor spirits were not gods, so they were not worshiped but venerated.

Niger-Congo territorial spirits were important because they inhabited or presided over specific places such as a meadow, a river, a woodland, or a particular village. They were spirits bound to a particular territory. In the minds of believers and practitioners of the Niger-Congo religion, these territorial spirits affected the outcome of events that occurred within their sphere of influence. For example, the favor of a river spirit granted safety on the water, while disfavor could cause harm. In this sense, the social and physical landscape, which included the spirit or spirits that inhabited the space, affected social life.

Religious belief and practice carried over into the social and political realm. Niger-Congo clan chiefs wielded religious power and were accountable for particular ritual responsibilities. Therefore, there was a close connection between cosmology and political power that translated into a view of the kin leader as an individual who had the power to protect the lineage. The perception that a particular individual had the ability to communicate personally or through diviner-priests with ancestral and territorial spirits meant the difference between a community accepting or rejecting a leader. One of the critical precepts of the Niger-Congo religion was the scope of human society. In this religion, the creator god and spirits of the religion were seen as being on a communal level. Religion permeated every aspect of a community’s life, from economic, social, and political activities to the events of birth and death.

Although the Niger-Congo religious ideology consisted of many levels of spirits, at the zenith was a creator god, seen as the first being in the world, but one who participated little in the daily lives of the Niger-Congo people. The word for creator god varied by culture; today some Niger-Congo descendant communities call this figure Muumba, Obassi, or Choko. Regardless of the word used, this god figure was the creator of all. This concept is traced with confidence to the sixth millennium b.c.e., and its nascent origins seem to have taken root even earlier.

Niger-Congo places of worship tended to be in nature. People thought of mountains, rivers, and forests as places of deep religious significance (interestingly, the sun has never been an object of worship for these peoples). However, while Niger-Congo society worshiped in nature, they never worshiped nature itself. Mountains, trees, rivers, and other such landscape features were never prayed to but were places of worship, sites seen as somehow sacred for being connected to a specific spirit or to the creator god.

Historians’ knowledge of ancient Niger-Congo religion comes from linguistic evidence, archaeological findings, and oral traditions of the Niger-Congo descendant peoples. Written literature or religious texts from ancient Niger-Congo communities are not available for analysis, as this was an oral not a literary society. By comparing vocabularies from the descendant Niger-Congo languages that spread throughout western, eastern, central, and southern Africa, it has been determined that the concept of the creator god goes back to a period before the widespread growth, expansion, and divergence of Niger-Congo peoples. Similarly, scholars have compared oral traditions across the Niger-Congo language family and have been able to reconstruct elements of prototraditions based on specific commonalities within the traditions on religious beliefs and practices.

Significance

The Niger-Congo language family is one of the four language families of Africa. The Niger-Congo family includes the well-known subbranches of Mande, West Atlantic, and Benue-Kwa, which together cover approximately two-thirds of the African continent. The name Niger-Congo descends from a proto-Niger-Congo community, which would have spoken a common language and began to develop distinctive cultural and religious practices around the time of the sixteenth millennium b.c.e. Scholars have been able to reconstruct religious ideas and culture back to 16,000 b.c.e., but the concept of the creator god seems to be solidly established ten millennia later in the sixth millennium b.c.e.

The fact that Niger-Congo peoples had conceptualized a creator god, an omnipotent creator of all, together with a variety of spirits, as opposed to multiple gods, implies that there was a form of monotheism very early in religious practice in some parts of Africa. Niger-Congo religious belief portrayed a perfect world in which humankind and the creator existed in harmony. Then, a major cataclysmic event separated the creator from the people. Niger-Congo traditions indicate that humans offended God with rude behavior, such as filling his residence with dirt or smoke. Others claim humanity directly disobeyed the orders of the creator, causing a fissure. Within Niger-Congo religious philosophy, humanity’s mistakes separated the creator from people’s daily lives.

Significantly, the Niger-Congo concept of death was neither a trip to an afterlife nor a permanent sleep; instead, the departed became an ancestral spirit. Although his or her body had perished, the person’s “divine spark” was inextinguishable. Scholars have referred to ancestral spirits as the living dead, for they were neither physically with their family nor completely absent. Ancestors could thrive only if their families made a conscious effort to remember them, particularly through consultation with them in times of crisis or for a blessing. Thus, the ancestors “survived” in the memories of their kin. This notion continues to hold salience among many Niger-Congo descendants and even influences modern-day communities.

Because the Niger-Congo peoples saw it as the family’s duty to remember all ancestors and to pass this tradition on to future generations, those who regularly honored their dead were believed to receive the blessing of the ancestors. Conversely, a forgotten ancestor had the power to curse his or her family for such disrespect. Often, times of misfortune were attributed to the disregard of a family’s ancestral duties. Because a neglected relative was believed to have the power to curse the family who forgot their duties, the curses of ignored ancestors were often one way the Niger-Congo peoples explained the existence of evil, crisis, and unforeseen tragedy in society.

Malicious acts could be targeted even toward those who venerated their lost loved ones. In this case, the evil manifested itself in the hatred or spite of a living being using negative energy for selfish purposes. These people were said to attack their enemies through spells, curses, and medicinal herbs.

The Niger-Congo in the sixth millennium b.c.e. were already developing complex notions of creation, gods, evil, and goodwill that incorporated elements of both divine and human actions. Although ancient Niger-Congo practices have been transformed in the past eight millennia, there are some elements of these religious beliefs that are still evident in the current practices of the descendant cultures of the Niger-Congo peoples.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ehret, Christopher. The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2002. An excellent source on prehistoric Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mbiti, John. African Religions and Philosophies. New York: Praeger, 1969. Helps explain African religion by discounting mistaken notions commonly held by Western observers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mbiti, John. Introduction to African Religion. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann Educational Books, 1975. A general overview of African belief systems.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parrinder, Geoffrey, D. D. West African Religion. London: Epworth Press, 1961. Helps to explain and conceptualize the many different views of the various Niger-Congo descendant cultures.

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