All animals are sacred in African religious traditions. They play vital roles in the creation of the heavens, Earth, and people. They bring messages of life, death, social order, customs, and practices. Some are regarded as deities, whereas others represent deities. On a practical level, animals provide food for humans and are a source of social wealth and standing. Through totems, they also distinguish relations among members of a particular community. For this reason, the images of animals, whether it be in stories or on textiles, houses, temples, shrines, pots, containers, drums, and sculptures, impart a sense of the sacred to the everyday and ritual life of Africans. This entry examines the background of African attitudes about animals and then looks at some specific beliefs and practices.
Many African stories hold that long ago people and animals could communicate and that individuals in some cultures were able to become one with specific animals. Over time, this ability was lost to most people except for select specialists such as hunters, healers, shaman, priests, or priestesses. Although communication was no longer possible, reverence remained.
Animals, because of their complex human-like activities, were early teachers of humans, in the sense that humans learned from watching animal behavior. By observing their behavior, Africans were able to discover in-depth information about themselves and their world. These animals then became symbols, and their images were used to convey important information. People of the Nile Valley have a deity of language and writing called Djehuty who is represented as a baboon. Baboons have a language consisting of clicking sounds. Perhaps these early inhabitants made the association of language with baboons based on this observation.
Another early example of the use of animal images is among the San of South Africa. A painting of a dying eland, with zigzag lines emanating from it, depicts the potency of eland, which the San believe to be a source of their shamanistic power. Another image shows the emptying of an eland's bowels, perhaps a crucial indicator that it is the energy release at the point of death, not just death itself that releases this power. The images are painted with a mixture containing the blood of an eland. Other images depict a combination of an eland and human, or a bird or lion and a human. These therianthropes appeared in rock shelters scattered throughout southern Africa and often overlapped, making it difficult to distinguish scenes. These “theaters” were vital to the life of the San people because they were the places at which the shaman could gather and communicate information obtained from their experiences with and as animals in the spiritual world.
Ancient Kemetan culture makes extensive use of both animal images and related therianthropes. The written language, Mdw Ntr, contains dozens of images of animals and birds that act as letters in their writing system. Sometimes they are read phonetically, sometimes they are read ideographi-cally. Egyptian deities appear as both animal images and therianthropes. The sun deity, or neter, Ra is shown as a falcon or wings, just as the neter Horus. The falcon is a bird of strength and aggressiveness that soars high, like the sun and with the sun. The falcon would also be drawn with kings to reinforce their god-like powers and attributes. The neter Hathor is a cow or, in earlier times, a hippopotamus or water cow, both ancient maternal symbols of strength. Sobek is imaged as a crocodile.
The crocodile represents the monster that symbolically devours the day: darkness or night. The depiction of a crocodile with a falcon head shows that it is Heru, or the sun, that is being devoured or doing battle with the forces of darkness. The Khepera, the ever-becoming neter, image is the dung beede. The dung beetle buries its eggs in cow dung. After the annual flood of the Nile, the eggs hatch, starting a new cycle of life. Out of the less than ideal settings of dung and a flood, life is still ever-coming. Sometimes the use of animal images is more abstract, as in the case of the neter, one of whose symbols is a feather. The feather represents the lightness of heart felt when practicing Maat. The complete bird is an image of justice among the Xhosa, where it identifies a murderer in a common tale.
No animal is left out of consideration for a sacred duty; in addition to the beetle, lizards, chameleons, spiders, snakes, and foxes occupy prominent positions in religious traditions. It was often the lizard or chameleon who carried the message of death into the world. Spiders are held to be wise, and one of the titles of god among the Akan and Ashanti is the Great Spider, the Wise One. Snakes are thought to be immortal in many societies or represent the departed or living dead. For that reason, specific types of snakes in the physical world are not harmed. If they appear in dreams, they are bearing a message from the ancestors and, if drawn, are shown consuming their tails to symbolize eternity.
With animals given such prominence in spiritual and sacred matters, they become archetypes and their imagery permeates entire cultures. Among the Dogon, the pale fox, Ogo, rebels against his creator, attempts to steal seeds of creation, and, in doing so, introduces disharmony into the universe. The resulting symbolism of the fox in Dogon culture is diverse, abstract, and highly sophisticated. The fox is rendered by a simplistic outline drawing of his body and is found on totemic sanctuaries and caves throughout Dogon country. However, symbolic paraphernalia of the fox can be encountered in children's games, baskets, drums, and divination tables.
Another area of where animal images are found is that of the totem. When a family or clan has a special and specific relationship with a particular animal, it is expressed in the form of an animal totem. Common applications of totems include a prohibition from eating or hunting the animal. The use of its image on the garments of ritual clothing, walking sticks, pots, and statues in shrines is an expression of totems.
One last area of the use of animal images is in dance. It is understood that all dance forms started as a sacred rituals. The movements in the dances were often pantomimes of activities of animals such as birds and fish. While the dancer is experiencing the movements internally, it is an abstracted image of the animal to those watching the dance.
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Finch, C. S., III. (1998). Echoes of the Old Darkland. Decatur, GA: Khenti.