Birds are held in high regard in African religion because of their ability to cross the barriers among humans, spirits, space, and time. As with many African religious systems, this belief is based on observable phenomena. Birds thrive on land, in water, and in the sky. The chicken, or bird, may be the most sacrificed animal in African religious practices. Practically speaking, this is due to chickens being domesticated, abundant, and easy to acquire.
Mythically, chickens are present at creation or accompany the first humans. Among the Yoruba, a five-toed chicken accompanies Obatala from heaven to what will be Earth. Her scratching of the loose earth brought with Obatala creates the Earth. The Mende creator god Ngewo gives two chickens as a gift to the first human couple. These stories illustrate how chickens have the ability to mediate between humans and the Divine, hence their frequent use in sacrifice.
The Mende of Sierra Leone endow birds with the gift of prophecy because, from their high vantage points, birds are able to witness events unfolding from a broader view than the ground-bound human. Being able to interpret the language of birds allows the foretelling of future events. This ability is generally held by senior-initiated Mende women. Birds also carry messages from the ancestors. A person traveling and hearing the persistent voice of a single bird could be hearing a message from a spirit being relayed by the bird.
The chicken is also held in high regard. It keeps village time with its morning crows and returns to the coop in the evening. It is ever watchful and squawks at the first stranger. Mende women use the leaves a brooding chicken selects as prenatal medicine. Pregnant women are encouraged to emulate the self-disciplined focus of a brooding chicken and are forbidden to eat its flesh or eggs. The chicken also serves as a distin-guisher of truth. To determine whether a dispute has been settled among relations or friends, the estranged person hold grains of rice in hand. If the chicken pecks enthusiastically at the rice, the dispute has been truly resolved. Other examples of birds being used to distinguish truth exist in stories among the Xhosa of South Africa, where a bird identifies a murder, and in ancient Kemet, where a feather is the ultimate judge of an individual's activities during life.
Another common spiritual association with birds is their connection to the human soul. The ba-bird in Kemet depicts a bird with a human head. The ba is translated in the west as the soul, but it really does not have an English equivalent. It is the psychic force of a person that, when they die, seeks to be united with the ka, the life force or sustenance of a person for the body to exist in the afterlife. The image of the ba-bird drawn in funerary scenes hovering above the body or in trees around the tomb shows this journey that must be made every night.



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Further Reading

  • Borioni, G. C. (2005). Der Ka aus religionswissenschaflicher Sicht. Vienna, Austria: AFRO-PUB.
  • Gittins, A. (1987). Mende Religion: Aspects of Belief and Thought in Sierra Leone [Introduction by Bryan Wilson]. Nettetal, Germany: Steyler Verlag/Wort und Werk.
  • Olupona, J. K. (Ed.). (2001). African Spirituality: Forms, Meanings and Expressions. New York: Herder & Herder.