Supernatural elements of African religion

African Religion

African traditional religions comprise a melange of practices and beliefs. Some African religions are monotheistic, some polytheistic, and some nontheistic. Religious roles, rites, and rituals differ from region to region. Supernatural elements of African religion also vary, including trance, divination, witchcraft, and shamanic healing. Within the panoply of the continent’s religions emerge a few distinct themes that unite them. Witchcraft and divination are among the most salient features of African faiths, and those features are inextricably tied in with African culture as well. Throughout “most” of sub-Saharan Africa divination is an “essential part of daily life,” (Pemberton 2009). Divination is by no means unique to African religious traditions. In fact, divination is found in every culture just as religion itself is (Peek p. 1). Divination rituals vary throughout the African continent but its role in religion and culture remains the same: to discern personal or collective destiny. Moreover, the underlying theories of divination are central to African religion. Divination serves multiple social, political, epistemological, and cosmological roles in African religious traditions.

One of the functions of African divination rites can be conceived of in terms of art and artistry. Divination methods are rooted in the belief in cosmic order and harmony, which translates into visual images. For example, throwing objects such as stones or specially cut pieces of wood or bone reveals patterns on the diviner’s table. Those patterns can be asymmetrical or symmetrical; perturbing or relieving like any artful presentation. How the objects fall and their visual display is of primary importance in the divination practice, because how the objects fall creates a visual language. That language serves as a divine code, manifest in visual form. Divination reveals a “mystical order as reflected in visual harmony, and of mystical disorder as reflected in visual disjunction,” (Bourgeois p. 1).

Patterns are discerned not just in the ways objects land after being thrown but also in the essential features of those objects. Gender is commonly represented on traditional African divination tablets, and so are images such as house (van Binsbergen). Traditional African divination devices can also be appreciated on a materialistic level as art: carefully carved pieces of bone, stone, wood, shells, nuts, tortoise shell, and among the Chokwe of Angola, basketry (Pemberton 2009; van Binsbergen). Some divination devices are explicit works of art including “beautifully carved” renditions of animals (most commonly a crocodile, bush pig, or dog),” (Pemberton 2009). As artful objects, the tools used in divination practice can be appreciated in their own right. The multitude of divination practices depends at least in part on visual cues, and both aesthetics and mathematical patterns play important roles in interpretation. Divination is also tightly linked with other religious practices such as spirit possession and trance, which are often accompanied by musical or dance performances (Bourgeois p. 1). Masquerade and elaborate costumes are also integral to African divination practices, revealing deep connections between religion and art (Pemberton).

Divination sometimes depends on external events, which are interpreted by diviners. For example, Mali Dogon elders carve squares purposefully in the fields outside of their village and visually interpret the tracks left by foxes (Pemberton 2009). Among the Baule and Guro of Cote d’Ivoire and also in Camaroon, the movements of mice and spiders are perceived of as meaningful in the divination practice (Pemberton 2009). The surface of water presents a glassy mirror that also offers diviners visual cues used for divination. Even the chance events of the natural world offer aesthetically meaningful codes. Divination codes are both “metaphoric” and “symbolic,” key features of any art (Peek p. 4).

However, divination is far from a materialistic pursuit no matter how artful divination practices, objects, and rituals may seem. One of the primary social and personal functions of traditional African divination systems is healing. “Diviners treat illness primarily through facilitating the direct intervention of the spiritual world,” (“Exploring Africa”). Illnesses can be assessed in terms of personal responsibility or from negative outside influences. A diviner might, for example, determine that an illness was “caused by inappropriate behavior” on the part of the patient (“Exploring Africa”). Peek points out the role of the diviner as a doctor and consultant such as with the Lobi of Burkina Faso (p. 4). The social role of the diviner in most traditional African cultures also includes that of healer. A diviner can diagnose illness, define its cause, and consult with the patient about possible curative remedies. The diviner serves as healer by also administering medications, creating charms or talismans, or removing alien substances from the body (Peek p. 87). Divination can be used to tell whether a patient had been the target of witchcraft, and a diviner can offer special protective antidotes to curses (Pemberton). Patients also consult with diviners for psychological counseling, showing the multifaceted role of diviner in traditional African society. Therefore divination is part of a holistic African medicinal tradition as well as religion (Peek).

A central role of divination in African culture is to inform and maintain social order. The function of divination as art and healing both reflect the connection between divination and order. Art reveals the visual patterns that reflect the divine order of the cosmos, whereas divination itself can show where order and imbalance are manifest in the human body. In traditional African societies, divination involves imposing or perceiving order in randomness: such as in the behaviors of spiders or foxes or in the ways stones fall to the ground.

Similarly, divination is crucial for maintaining social and political order in traditional African societies. At the most basic level, divination is a skill that itself defines the social roles of diviner/medium/witch and patient. Not everyone is authorized to divine. Divination is a skill closely connected with others such as healer or priest. The diviner is like other social roles that endow a human being with the capacity and learned authority to communicate with the transcendental world.

Divination is integral to maintaining political and social structures in traditional African society. Peek describes divination as “the major — often the sole — expression of a social system and the means of maintaining its governing norms…in other words, the social system exists through divination,” (Peek p. 4). Divination sometimes involves gender bending, which both challenges and upholds traditional gender order and gender roles (Peek p. 24). Divination also points out the ordered, hierarchical distinction between the world of the living and of the dead: as ancestor spirits are central to African traditional religion. Belief in ancestor spirits “extends the community in time and space,” (Bourgeois p. 1). Divination is a bridge between ancestral or spirit worlds and the mundane or materialistic worlds. The fact that divination exists illustrates the core faith in an orderly universe.

Divination suggests that human beings can transcend time by seeing both into the future and into the past. As a psychological and social phenomenon, divination points to the universal human need to understand and control destiny. Therefore, divination is an epistemological pursuit: a quest for knowledge or meaning.

As Bourgeois puts it, traditional African cultures view “the unseen other world and the past…as causal, authoritative, and a source of power and knowledge,” (p. 1). Among the Atuot Nilotic Sudanese, divination “provides the primary interpretation of their experience and source of their philosophy,” (Peek p. 4). Divination is not merely about knowing about personal pasts and futures or divining harvest or community events. Rather, divination is an important means of discerning transcendental or existential knowledge. Cosmologies are rooted in divination practices, just as some social and political structures are also rooted in divination (Peek p. 3).

Cosmology is essentially the perceived order of the universe. Therefore, traditional African divination practices parallel traditional African cosmologies. Divination is an assurance that cosmic order exists, and is also a means by which to understand the cosmic order. As with water methods of visually perceiving patterns, divination serves as a literal mirror for the cosmos. The visual cues of divination such as cowry shells or the patterns made by mice sometimes serves as a pictorial language spoken between nonhuman and human participants. That language is not one used in human communications, even though it may inform human social order and modes of cognition.

The language of divination represents communication between human and super-human forces. A diviner acts much like a translator would, communicating the perceived patterns of cosmic order to an individual or to the community. Divination is integral to all traditional African religions as well as to the religions of most other cultures. The function of divination is artistic, epistemological, and expressive. Divination also creates, maintains, and interprets social and spiritual order.

Works Cited

Bourgeois, Arthur P. “Insight and Artistry in African Divination – Book Review.” African Arts. Summer 2002. Retrieved April 13, 2009 from;col1

“Exploring Africa.” African Studies Center. Retrieved April 14, 2009 from

Peek, Phillip M. African Divination Systems. Indiana University Press, 1991.

Pemberton, John III. “Divination in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Art and Oracle: African Art and Rituals of Divination. 2009. Retrieved April 13, 2009 from

Van Binsbergen, Wim. “Regional and Historical Connections of Four-Tablet Divination in Southern Africa.” Retrieved April 13, 2009 from

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