Cosmology refers to worldview and myths in general or, more specifically, to the cultural and religious imagery concerning the universe. African cosmology, which often takes the form of oral narratives, describes the web of human activities within the powerful spiritual cosmos; it transmits the beliefs and values of African peoples. African cosmology, then, is an attempt to describe and understand the origin and structure of the universe, how humans relate to the cosmos, and how and to what extent their thoughts and actions are shaped by it.
African religion poses an interesting and complex problem of description and interpretation. In fact, African languages have no equivalent word for religion. Indeed, African social structures and cultural traditions are infused with a spirituality that cannot be easily separated from the rest of the community's life at any point. To analyze religion as a separate system of beliefs and ritual practices apart from subsistence, kinship, language, politics, and the landscape, for example, is to misunderstand African religion in general and African cosmology in particular. Thus, African culture could be described as a complex web of religion, attitudes and behavior, morality, politics, and economy. The African thought system influences the African cognitive process and lifestyle.
Owing to the apparent complex diversity of African societies and their religious systems, it may seem, at first sight, problematic to homogenize Africa into a single whole or develop overarching generalizations about the religious life of its people. However, a survey of a great number of various traditions in Africa allows one to identify certain common themes and affinities. For example, a common and most obvious denominator of the respective local cosmologies is orality. Indeed, the beliefs and practices are transmitted from one generation to another through oral traditions, myths, legends, art, paintings, sculpture, songs, and dances. This is not all, however, because African societies display many common affinities in their religious worldviews, such as the belief in spiritual entities, the use of concepts to represent them, in rituals and similar attitudes toward their manipulation and control.
To understand the complex spatial and temporal constructions of African cosmology, and the values associated with it, one must comprehend a multiplicity of local cosmologies. These cosmologies consist of constructed special spaces that provide the setting for ritual action and an enabling environment for ritual enactments, special roles that evince the pertinacity of actors in the religious activity, and special powers or beings with which the actors form prescribed relationships within a ritualized context.

Symbols and Myths

Inherent in ritual praxis are religious symbols that inform the actions that characterize life stages and patterns. Myths represent one source for understanding African cosmologies, creation of the universe, human origin, death, and societal norms and ethos. African societies such as the Yoruba, Akan, Zulu, and Dagomba have their creation narratives located in religious mythology. Yoruba perception of the world was the kernel to their religious beliefs as structured in their creation myth, praise songs, and sayings. Although there are variations of the creation myth, the most widely accepted cosmogonie myth locates Ilé-Ifè as the cradle of civilization. In Zulu cosmological tradition, myths connect the human and natural cosmos. The creation myth relates the gods to the birth of the first humans. They trace their ancestry to creation by inkosi yezulu (the God of the Sky) or uMvelingqangi (that which appeared first) who lives up above along with inkosazana yezulu (the Goddess/Princess of the Sky). The first human, uNkulunkulu, who existed was believed to have creative power. Although there are mythical variations, they provide images of the cosmos and pantheons of supersensible entities. Myths are perceived as the key toward understanding life and its provenance.
African religions are concerned with underlying life forces, vital forces, energies, or other supra-mundane powers. Such themes as belief in transcendental reality, a Supreme Being, divinities, spirits, ancestors, magic, sorcery, and witchcraft are central, although the names, functions, rankings in hierarchy, and emphasis vary from one context to another. Some animals, forces of nature, natural objects, and unseen forces qualify as spirits, but African peoples assign the same objects different hierarchical ranks.
The relationship between humans and spiritual entities is expressed and achieved through ritual action. Mediation plays an important role in the African religious systems because the source of power from the supreme deity cannot be received directly. Beliefs and rituals associated with spiritual forces constitute a distinctive pattern of religious thought and action. The religious world is characterized by a multiplicity of divinities, spirits, and ancestors; and beliefs and practices concerning them are a dominant element. Although the divinities and spirits are proxy to the affairs of the living, they mediate between the Earth and the sky.
Among the Zulu, three elements that are capable of exerting amandla (power) are the God of the Sky, the ancestors, and medicine. They have a religious relationship to the sky, as well as to the Earth, the abode of the ancestors. The God of the Sky is a male-father figure, whereas that of the earth is a female-mother. Both are believed to have brought abantu (the people). Yoruba worldview divides the cosmos into aye (earth) and orun (sky). The cosmos is believed to be the creation of Olorunl Olodumare (the Supreme Being), and the names and attributes reveal its nature. Their religious world is characterized by a multiplicity of orisa (divinities), and beliefs and practices concerning orisa are a dominant element. The divinities and spirits are proxy to the affairs of the living: They mediate between the human and spirit worlds. They act on behalf of the Supreme Being and are approached through ritual action.
Ancestors also play an intermediary role between the mundane and supersensible realms. They are the guardians and custodians of moral and religious values of society. Most African societies believe that death does not terminate the relationship between the living and the Dead. Death is only a stage in life. Only those who lived a good life, lived to a ripe age, died a good death, and are accorded a befitting burial can qualify for the status of an ancestor. Among the Zulu, the world below is divided into three levels: the level of the unborn spirits, the recently deceased spirits, and the ancestors. The amalozil amatbonga (ancestors) is of fundamental significance. Their religious life revolves essentially around veneration of ancestors, and this attracts extensive ritual obligations. The relationship between the living and the Dead is one of mutuality, which excludes nonkin and reflects the major emphases of Zulu kinship, particularly patrilineal organization. The most important ancestors for a kraal are males, particularly the former headman/priest. As religious powers, ancestors are capable of acting for the good or ill of their descendants. For this reason, they are revered and treated with great respect. Special shrines and rituals exist as contexts for maintaining proper relationships with them.

Spiritual Forces

Human beings also occupy a significant position in African cosmological thought. The Zulu make a distinction between three aspects of being that are important for their religious thinking. They distinguish among inyama/umzimba (the physical body), umoyalumphefumulo (vital force or breath), and isitbunzi (literally “a shadow,” personality or force of character). Once the umoya leaves the body, then the person is dead. His isitbunzi lives on as an ancestral spirit; it goes to the ancestors who live in the nether world. Among the Yoruba, each human being is believed to have a dual makeup: the ara (physical) and the enti and ori (spiritual mien). Olodumare charged Orisa-nla, the arch-divinity with moulding ara, the physical body with clay, while Olodumare supplies the emi by breathing life into man. As the principle of predestiny, ori is the most important orisa as far as human welfare is concerned.
The concept agbara (spiritual power) is evident in Yoruba religious thought. Words of agbara are legitimated by ase (charm of command, vital force) from the Supreme Being. The cosmos is populated with malevolent spiritual forces and other sources of mysterious powers such as medicine, witchcraft, magic, and sorcery. Apart from the spiritual entities, chiefs, kings, priests, diviners, healers, witches, and sorcerers are believed to possess power of one kind or another, and they play special roles within the religious praxis. In many cases, political, social, and religious functions overlap.
The pursuit of health, fertility, and a balance between humans and nature constitute some of the basic concerns of African religion. Ritual and sacrifice structures draw on a philosophy of relationships. Rites of passage are a common feature of religious life. An individual's passage through life is monitored, marked, and celebrated from prebirth, parturition, childhood, transition to adulthood, adulthood, marriage, old age, death, and the living dead. Divination is an important activity, although the mode varies from place to another. People divine in their quest to know the behest of the supernatural beings and to inquire about their destiny. If a is the most widespread means of divination among the Yoruba. The izangoma/babalawo/nganga (diviner-healer) is a pivotal force for order and rapprochement between man and the spirit world. The role of diviner/healer is held by either men or women depending on the local context. They are approached with much awe and respect.
Sacral kingship represents one important feature of political organization in most societies. The myth narrative establishes the Yoruba kingship system as a sacred kinship line that emanates from the primordial kingship of Oduduwa. The sacrosanct nature of the Oba (King) is rooted in religious belief. The Oba is regarded as Ekeji Orisa (the deputy of the divinities), set apart from his people by the spiritual powers with which he was endowed at his installation.

Women's Role

The role and status of women in indigenous religions and societies are normally defined by what is deemed to be wholesome to the welfare of the entire community. Although Zulu society is patrilinea!, women have significant areas for religious action. The ritual role of women is further exemplified in the relationship between women and the Princess of the Sky. She is associated with virginity and fertility of all creatures, and she is capable of instituting rules of behavior and ritual action. The location of the divinity is a specific hill or mountain. In most Yoruba communities, women are in charge of some shrines where they carry out cultic functions. lya Nla (the Great Mother) is at the apex of a hierarchy of female orisa, who are collectively known as awon lya (the Mothers).
Some of these cosmological aspects are not peculiar to Africa. The encounter with Islam and Christian cosmologies has at times transformed indigenous religious thought and practice, but did not supplant it. African religion preserved much of its beliefs and ritual practices while also adjusting to the new sociocultural milieu. In fact, in many cases, Islam and Christianity became domesticated on the African soil. New religious initiatives attest to the continuity of African worldviews and ritual cosmos in the midst of change.



  • African cosmology
  • Zulu
  • African religions
  • ancestors
  • rituals
  • spirits
  • kingship


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Abimbola, W. (1976). Ifa: An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus. Ibadan, Nigeria: Oxford University Press.
  • Arens, W. (1989). Creativity of Power: Cosmology and Action in African Societies. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.
  • Berglund, A. (1976). Zulu Thought-Patterns and Symbolism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
  • Lawson, E. T. (1984). Religions of Africa: Traditions in Transformation. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
  • Olupona, J. K. (Ed.). (2000). African Spirituality: Forms, Meanings and Expressions. New York: The Crossroad.