Early African Religion

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Standing stones at Nabta Playa (modern Sudan), ca. 6000 BC

Early African religion: Standing stones at Nabta Playa (modern Sudan), ca. 6000 BC

Early African religion – the Stone Age

The earliest evidence we have for religious faith in Africa is from Blombos Cave in South Africa, where people may have been using red ochre for funerals about 100,000 years ago. Around 6000 BC, people put up standing stones in East Africa (modern Sudan), maybe marking the changing seasons.

African religion in the Bronze Age

In Egypt, by 3000 BC people were already worshipping IsisOsiris, Ra, and the Amen. Further south in Sudan, the Kushites seem to have also worshipped these gods, along with their own gods, Apedemak and Sebiumeker. Some Nubian gods, like Bes, seem to have travelled north from Sudan to Egypt too.
In West Africa, however, the Bantu people seem to have been more monotheistic. They thought of there being one god, sometimes a sky god or sun god and sometimes not. By around 1300 BC, we can see the first strains of an interest in monotheism emerging in Egypt with Akhenaten.
A tombstone with a rough image of a woman with her arms raised up and various moon and triangle symbols - Early African religion

Early African religion: the Phoenician goddess Tanit

Phoenician, Greek, and Roman gods come to Africa

Polytheism triumphed when Akhenaten died, though, and survived through the conquest of North Africa by the Phoenicians who introduced their own gods to North Africa, like the goddess Tanit and the god Ba’al. The Greeks, and then the Romans, soon added their gods to the gods worshipped in North Africa.

Christianity and African religion

Around 300 AD there was a second great change in African religious belief when many North and East Africans gradually followed the Roman Emperor’s lead in converting to the monotheistic faith of Christianity. The great Christian theologian St. Augustine was from North Africa. By the 500s AD Christianity won over most of North Africa, including Egypt, and also the kingdom of Axum south of Egypt (modern Sudan, Eretria, and Ethiopia). The Christians of North Africa were split among the Donatists, the Catholics, and then the Vandal Arians.

Mosque in a medieval seaport in East Africa (Masjid al-Qiblatayn, Somalia, 600s AD)

Bantu ghosts and ancestors

In this same time period, the Bantu were gradually expanding across southern Africa, bringing their faith with them. Bantu faith continued to de-emphasize polytheism, while having instead a firm belief in ghosts and their power over living people. Some of these ghosts were your own dead parents or grandparents. Others might be the ghost of a dead king or hero, and these might be remembered for a long time, rather like Christian saints.

The rock-cut church of Lalibella

The rock-cut church of Lalibella

Islam and African religion

In the late 600s AD, another monotheistic faith, Islam, came to Africa, first across the Red Sea to Somalia, then to Egypt. After that, Islam spread rapidly across North Africa. A hundred years later, almost the entire population of North Africa had converted to Islam. Islam quickly spread across the Sahara Desert as well, so that many people who lived in the grasslands south of the Sahara became Muslims too.

Remains of the Great Mosque at Gedi, Kenya

Remains of the Great Mosque at Gedi, Kenya

All the way south to the great rain forests, there were many Muslims or people who followed at least some Muslim beliefs. And, thanks to Arab and Indian traders, the entire east coast of Africa became Muslim, as far south as Mozambique. Sudan also became mostly Muslim. But Ethiopia stayed Christian.

San Rock Art - people doing a sacred dance

San Rock Art – people doing a sacred dance

South of the rain forests, in central and western Africa, Bantu religion remained dominant. And in the Kalahari desert, the San people kept up their own faith. It was very similar to the Bantu faith in its emphasis on ancestor ghosts.

Did you find what you were looking for about early African religion? Do you have more questions? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing – A rock art project
More about the goddess Tanit

Bibliography and further reading about African religion:

Myths and Legends of Ancient Egypt, by Thomas James (1971)

Children of the Lamp (Akhenaten Adventure), by P. B. Kerr (2004)

Abiyoyo, by Pete Seeger (reprinted 1994)

A Coalition of Lions, by Elizabeth E. Wein (2003) – A novel about Christian Africa in the 500s AD- warning: this book is the second in a series!

African Religion, by Aloysius Muzzanganda Lugira, Paula R. Hartz (2004)

The Atlas of Islam: People, Daily Life and Traditions, by Neil Morris, Manuela Cappon, Gian Paulo Faleschini, Studio Stalio (2003)

More about Tanit
More about the god Bes
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By | 2018-02-08T11:25:21+00:00 May 18th, 2017|Africa, History, Religion|27 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. Early African Religion. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 18, 2017. Web. February 20, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.


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