African Religion: Understanding and Invoking Divinity through Plants and Animals

According to African beliefs, the inherent nature of the universe is spiritual so much so that natural objects and phenomena are intimately associated with God; they do not only originate from Him but also bear witness to Him. The typical African perception of God is strongly colored by the Universe of which man is himself a part; the African not only sees the universe as an imprint of God but also a reflection of Him.

Africans hold a special relation to the plant and animal kingdom in the sense that they are not only used for purposes of consumption but also a means to invoke Universal conscience or God. There are several myths which reveal how domesticated animals originated from the same place, in the same way, and in the same time as man. Among the Zulus for instance, it is believed that both men and cattle sprang from the same spot following which God gave clear instructions to man that flesh and milk from the cattle were to be consumed as food. If a lightning strikes a village and kills cows, goats, and sheep in the process, the Zulus believe that it is God’s doing; that it is Him who has slaughtered the animals or his consumption and thus considered a blessing upon the village within which it occurs.

The Akamba believe that the first batch of human beings lowered by God from the skies, were accompanied by cows, goats, and sheep. The Maasai believe that God gave them cattle from the very beginning and that nobody else has the right to own cattle; as such, they believe it is their sacred duty to carry out raids in other villages and take their cattle and don’t consider this as a form of theft or robbery.

Several examples are found around the continent where cattle, sheep, and goats are used for sacrificial and other religious purposes. Incidentally many people have a scared attitude towards their animals; the Herero for instance, regard their cattle as sacred, and as having originated from their mythical ‘tree of life’ from where human and other forms of life originate, it is for this reason that the Herero consume only the flesh of cattle which has been offered as sacrifice. For the Dinka, every ox or bull, is ultimately set to be sacrificed; they believe that cattle belong to God and are given only as gifts from Him.

A section of African societies believe that some wild animals have religious significance. Fierce animals like the lion and buffalo are closely linked to God by tribes like the Turu and Langi who perceive them as a re-incarnation of God in His immanent aspect. Tribes like the Nuer, Madi, and Fajulu blame the hyena for having cut off the cow-skin rope which once joined the earth to heaven effectively separating the two worlds.

Crawling animals feature more in African religious doctrines compared to other animals. The Vugusu and Sidano people for instance consider the snake to be immortal. Other tribes consider huge snakes like the python as very scared. And then there are those tribes with human spirits or the living dead; such snakes are usually offered food and drinks when they appear in people’s homes.

There are societies which consider the lizard as the messenger who brought message from God that men should die. It is believed through myths that it is the Chameleon that was the one supposed to deliver this message but that either he lingered or slightly altered the message which prompted the lizard to accurately deliver the message.

On birds, Chicken features most in spiritual rituals and sacrifices; mainly as sacrifices to God or lower spiritual beings including the living dead. The spider, though small in stature, also features in many stories and myths. For example among the Ashanti and Akan tribes, the spider is used as a symbol for wisdom; and for that reason, God is referred to as ‘Ananse Kokroko’ which means ‘The Great Spider, that is, the Wise One.’

Mythical trees feature in a number of African stories. The Herero for instance speak of a “tree of life,” said to be in the spiritual realm and from which all things emanate. Other tribes like the Sandawe and Nuer hold that men originated from a tree. Other tribes like the Chagga, Bambuti, and Meru hold the narrative almost similar to that of the bible of ‘forbidden tree’ whose fruit God forbade the early man to eat, and that man defied God and ate the fruit anyway, and as a consequence, God withdrew Himself from among men, and death came into the world. The wild fig tree is also deemed sacred by many tribes across Africa who hold prayers and rites beneath it. There are also other trees considered sacred like the baobab and the sycamore that are associated with God and other spiritual beings for religious purposes. Tribes like the Maasai, Nandi, and Mao use grass in carrying out rituals, chanting prayers, and making offerings to the divine.

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