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1.1 CLASSIFICATIONS. Humankind was born in Africa about six million years ago. Today the continent shelters many peoples, who speak over 800 languages, of which some 730 have been classified. The inhabitants of Africa themselves have been submitted to other classifications as well, according, for instance, to their "race" or to "cultural areas." The inadequacies of these criteria have been demonstrated over the past three decades. Although the delimitations of languages are not precise, the linguistic classification is by far preferable to any other.
In 1966 Joseph H. Greenberg proposed a division of the African continent into four large linguistic groups, composed of several families. The most important is the group called Congo-Kordofan, whose main family is the Nigero-Congolese. The Bantu languages are a subfamily of the latter. The Congo-Kordofan area covers central and southern Africa.
A second linguistic group, including the languages of the Nilotes, of western Sudan, and of the Middle Niger area is the Nilo-Saharan group.
Afro-Asian languages are spoken in North and Northeastern Africa. They include the Semitic languages of western Asia, Coptic, Berber, the Kushite languages, and the languages of Chad, such as Hausa.
The fourth group contains the languages popularly called "click," from four characteristic sounds of the language of the Bushmen. Their principal speakers are the Bushmen and the Hottentots, and their scientific name is the Khoisan languages.
Religious borders often do not follow linguistic borders. The northern countries have participated in the long history ofIslam, in its Egyptian andBerber varieties, both permeated by women's possession cults, which have repeatedly been compared with the ancient Greek Dionysiac cults, and by African magic. In this Afro-Islamic syncretism, the marabout, receptacle of baraka, or spiritual force, is the main character. Before Islam, some Berber tribes had embraced Judaism, but most of them belonged to African Christianity. The moral rigorism of the Donatists fought by Augustine (354-430 C.E.) was already manifesting the particularism of the Berbers, which consists of choosing a form of religion that never coincides exactly with that of their dominators.
In West Africa the situation is different. Senegal is divided among autochthonous cults, the cross and the crescent. Moving south, African religions become dominant. In Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, and Benin, syncretism prevails. The Mandes are Islamicized, but this does not apply to the Bambara, Minianka, and Seniufo. In the Nigerian confederation, African cults are powerful. The religion of the Yoruba is one of the most important of the region.
Equatorial Africa and the south, evangelized by the Portuguese and by British and Dutch Protestant missions, are prevalently syncretistic. Eastern syncretism among the Bantus is dominated by the banner of the Prophet. The Lake tribes (Azande, Nuer, Dinka, and Masai), in spite of British missionary activity, are still practicing the religion of their ancestors.
Confronted with such diversity, historians of religions have to make an uneasy choice. They can take an aerial view, without landing anywhere, as B. Holas did in his Religions de l'Afrique Noire (1964); they can deal with the subject phenomenologically, without giving any importance to geographic and historical divisions, as was done by Benjamin Ray in his African Religions (1976); or they can pick up a few representative religions from different areas and describe them individually and contrastively, as was done by Noel Q. King in his African Cosmos (1986). Each one of these options has its advantages and disadvantages. We will here borrow elements from the three of them.
Before proceeding any further, however, we must ascertain that two traits, although not universal, are shared by many African religions: the belief in a Supreme Being, often a deus otiosus (inactive deity) who withdrew from human affairs and consequently is not actively present at human rituals; and divination in two forms-by spirit possession and by varying geomantic methods that seem to come from the Arabs.
1.2 RELIGIONS OF WESTERN AFRICA.
1.2.1 The religion of the Yoruba, practiced by over fifteen million people in Nigeria and the surrounding countries such as Bonin, is probably the largest African religion. Its inexhaustible subtleties have recently been explored by a relatively fair number of scholars.
At the beginning of the century the Yoruba community was still dominated by a secret brotherhood that nominated the highest representative of public power: the king. Before his nomination, the king was not aware of the proceedings, for he was not a member of the Ogboni brotherhood.
Being a member of this exclusive club means talking a secret language not understood by the uninitiated and practicing forms of hieratic and monumental art that have little in common with exoteric Yoruba art. Cloaked by the secret of initiation, the internal Ogboni cult remains mysterious. It is centered around Onile, the Great Mother Goddess of ile, that is, the elemental world in its chaotic state, before having been organized. The ile is opposed on the one hand to orun, heaven as an organizational principle, and on the other to aiye, the inhabited world, which stems from the intervention of orun in ile. Whereas everyone knows what the inhabitants of the orun look like, as well as the orisa, who are the object of exoteric cults, and likewise the deus otiosus Olorun, who has no cult, the presence of ile in Yoruba life is mysterious, troubling, and ambivalent. The goddess Yemoja was fecundated by her own son Orungan, and the products of the incest were numerous gods and spirits. Yemoja was the mistress of the Yoruba witches, who took her as a role model because of her extraordinary, tortuous life story. Infertility, represented by the goddess Olokun, wife of Odudua, is likewise associated with witchcraft.
The organized world stays away from ile. The creator god is Obatala, whose specialty is shaping the embryo in the maternal uterus. Together with him, the orun has sent into the aiye the oracular god Orunmila, whose divination tools are present in every traditional Yoruba house.The HarperCollins Concise Guide to World Religion. Copyright © by Mircea Eliade. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.