Blood is viewed in African cultures as the source of life. In fact, almost every African culture has rituals associated with blood. For example, among the practitioners of some forms of Vodou in Benin, the priests gather their spiritual powers in a practice called lighting the fires, in which they pay homage to Ogun, the god of fire, iron, and war. During the ceremony, a cow is usually sacrificed, and the blood is spilled on the ground. Indeed, the blood of animals has been used to call forth the spirits for thousands of years in African history.
When the participants of the ceremony have danced the sacred dances and the energy of the spirits has filled the people, the blood results have been achieved. The fertilizing of the ground with the blood of special animals (cows, goats, and fowl) is a vital part of many religious rites. This rite enables the priests to call on the Gods to protect against evil forces. There is an ancient symbolic use of blood sacrifices and burnt offerings preserved from the ancestors of modern priestesses and priests.
The magical power of blood is referenced in The Book of the Dead, where it is written that “The God Osiris, whose word is truth, says the blood of Isis, the spells of Isis, the magical powers of Isis, shall make this great one strong, and shall be an amulet of protection against all forms of evil.”
There has never been a general acceptance of human sacrifice in African religion, although there are some exceptional situations where blood was offered to the deities in a defiled form of African religion, as with the short-lived Dahomey kingdom of the 18th and 19th centuries. In what may be called rituals of bloodtbirst, some of the kings, betraying the history of their region, adopted brutal measures to control the population during the worst period of Portuguese kidnappings in Dahomey. However, it is now recognized by scholars that this was an aberration.
Since ancient times, there have been cases where human beings, including servants and wives of a great king, volunteered or were expected to go to death with the king to be with him in the realm of the dead. Ancient Egyptians soon changed this practice to the symbolic use of shawabtis, small figurines that accompanied the dead. The shawabtis were placed in the tomb with the deceased to serve him or her during the sojourn in the underworld.
Africans have also used blood to seal oaths. This has been seen in Yoruba and Akan culture and is generally accepted as widespread in Africa. Among the Akan, a goat may be sacrificed and the blood spilled on the ground during special rites of the Ohum festival or other festivals dedicated to the ancestors.
Female blood has a remarkable potency in the ritual imagination of Africans. For example, among many people, the menstrual blood of a woman is considered sacred and has the power to ward off evil spirits or bring danger to men and many shrines. Of course, because the monthly cycle is natural, it also has the power to bring about embarrassment for women, producing in some a feeling of inferiority. Others see the ability to shed blood as an example of the unique fertility of a woman.
Indeed, there are others who see divinity in the special powers of women. In African religion, each sex can operate as the vessel of the spirits, and there are both priests and priestesses who serve at their shrines or temples. However, the sex of the minister is not an indication of the sex of the divinity. African traditional religion may be considered less sexist in its image of the spiritual world, compared with other world religions.
Despite taboos that might be associated with blood, for the most part, it is a sign of propitiation and ritual cleansing in a society. With blood the society announces its connection to the sacred, to the everlasting, and to the ancestors. Thus, in African traditional religion, blood remains one of the most important elements in the practice.
- Asante, M. K., and Nwadiora, E. (2007). Spear Masters: Introduction to African Religion. Lanham, MD: Universities Press of America.
- Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.