Fertility is of the utmost importance to African people in general and thus occupies a central place in African religion. This is the case because fertility refers to the perpetuation and regeneration of life, a matter of great significance for African people. Indeed, the latter believe in a life force that permeates all that is—human beings, animals, plants, minerals, objects, and phenomena. That shared life force, which is responsible for the world's ontological unity, ultimately derives from God, the Supreme Being, and is therefore sacred. It is human beings' incumbent and sacred duty, as well as best interest, to appreciate and protect the harmonious flow of life, and this, in the end, is obviously predicated on the occurrence of fertility. This entry looks at the role of fertility in society, its relationship to the gods and the ancestors, and related ritual expressions.
Fertility, as Africans understand it, given the common spiritual essence of all that exists, includes not only human fertility, but also animal and land fertility. Fertility manifests itself primarily through the birth of many children, the birth of many domesticated and game animals, the growing of medicinal plants, and the flourishing of generous crops. Many children born to a family mean that its lineage will continue and expand, whereas the names of the parents and other relatives will be spoken after they have made their transition to the ancestral realm, thus preventing them from being forgotten and from dying socially. Rituals will be conducted on their behalf, ensuring that they remain properly connected with the world of the living.
In contrast, a large thriving cattle herd and plentiful crops and healing plants most obviously mean prosperity and peace for the living. Likewise, the presence of numerous animals in the forest will assure hunters of successful and generous hunts, that is, adequate feeding for all.
For fertility to occur, the union of the male and the female is indispensable. In the case of human beings and most other animals, it goes without saying that only through the sexual encounter of males and females of the same species can young ones be born, thus maintaining and regenerating life. However, in the case of land fertility, the same principle of sexual complementarity applies. Indeed, African people commonly associate the sky with the male creative power, whereas the Earth stands for the female creative power. In that context, the sky, while releasing rain (i.e., life-bringing and sustaining water), fertilizes the earth, thus allowing plants to grow and life in general to thrive.
Rain, in the African spiritual and religious context, acts as cosmic sperm or fertilizer. The same observation could be made about water in general, whose intimate relationship with creation and fertility has often been stressed in African religion from ancient times. In Kernet (ancient Egypt), for example, at the beginning stood the primeval waters, Nun, from which arose Ra, the supreme deity. From Ra's eyes came the tears that were to give birth to women and men. Similarly, the Ankh, the symbol of life in ancient Egypt, was often used as a sign for water during rituals. Streams of libations were represented by ankhs on some of the temples' walls.
The Gods and Ancestors
Fertility, the maintenance of life, always requires sexual fusion as far as Africans are concerned. Thus, for many African people, and quite consistently, the Supreme Being, ultimately responsible for the creation of the world, is androgynous (i.e., both male and female). NanaBuluku, the supreme deity of the Fon, or Amma, the supreme deity of the Dogon, are but two examples of such primordial androgyny. Furthermore, Mawu-Lisa, the dual divinity created by NanaBuluku, displays both male and female attributes. Also, in the Dogon tradition, the primordial egg that contained the world was divided into two twin placenta: Each placenta contained a pair of twin Nommo, from which human beings came.
One of the striking similarities of the Nommo was sexual completeness because they were each endowed with the spiritual principles of both female and male at the same time. Similarly, it is not uncommon for many of the African divinities most closely connected with fertility to display the same characteristic of sexual completeness Danbala-Wedo, the vodu snake giver of children of the Vodu tradition of both Haiti and Benin, for example, never appears without its female counterpart, the vodu Ayida-Wedo.
On Earth, the coming together of the male and female, during sexual encounters, is interpreted as the necessary reenactment of the original divine androgyny to which the world owes its existence in the first place and without which life would not be present. It is easy to understand why, within the African worldview, homosexuality is incomprehensible and highly reprehensible because it violates the ultimate order of things and inescapably means infertility (i.e., the end of life).
All over Africa, the ancestors are intimately involved with the occurrence of human, animal, and land fertility. There are a number of reasons for this. Given the primary role of the ancestors as guardians of the social order of the world of the living, such involvement is not surprising. Within the African worldview, a harmonious state of affairs requires the continuation of life, and it is incumbent on the ancestors to bestow fertility on the living. The ancestors are directly responsible for sending children to married couples.
In fact, the ancestors have a vested interest in human procreation because children ensure the continuation of the family line and the veneration of the ancestors. Indeed, it is those children who, through appropriate acts of ritualized commemoration, will keep members of the family's lineage alive for many generations. Also, it is those children sent by the ancestors who allow the latter to reincarnate and come back into the world of the living.
Ritual and Art
Unsurprisingly, rituals to ensure fertility abound in Africa. Rituals marking the beginning of a new agricultural season (e.g., asking the ancestors for sufficient rain) are quite common. The great prestige of rainmakers, as privileged intermediaries between the living and God, to cause rain to fall or stop (if too much rain has already fallen), is attested throughout Africa. Some African royal figures, such as the Queen of Luvedu, owe much of their prestige to their rain-making abilities, which they received from the ancestors.
Thus, offerings and sacrifices are presented to the ancestors before and after harvesting. In some African societies, for instance, the first fruit of the harvest is offered to the ancestors, and only afterward are human beings able to eat. Similarly, offerings and sacrifices will be made to the ancestors, as well as other spiritual entities, to secure the coming of numerous children. When a couple has difficulty conceiving, the ancestors are immediately suspected of having closed a woman's womb or cursed a man with impotency as a form of severe punishment for engaging in actions deemed disrespectful or neglectful by the ancestors.
Divination and appropriate rituals will be performed as an attempt to help restore the compromised harmony. The rituals in question will commonly involve animal sacrifice because African people ordinarily believe that the act of spilling blood on the Earth reinforces one's life force. If everything has been done correctly, a successful pregnancy should follow shortly.
Common in Africa is the sacred analogy between the woman's womb and a clay pot. Women are often depicted as potters, re-creating life through their molding of clay, the stuff of life. Thus, the clay pot metaphorically establishes the African woman as mother and creator. Among the Bemba people of Central Africa, for example, a critical moment of female initiation involves the making of a clay pot. In other parts of Africa, women guard jealously and proudly their clay pots as symbols of their womanhood and motherhood.
Given that women are most valued and appreciated as child-bearers, some precautionary measures are taken to protect them as such. Thus, in some African societies, women must avoid places, such as the forest, which could be dangerous to them. Also, some foods, which are believed to have an adverse effect on fertility, must be avoided by women. Among the Kasai of Central Africa, for example, women must not eat chicken meat or eggs. Food taboos are also observed during pregnancy. Thus, and to cite one example among many, a pregnant Lele woman (from Central Africa) will avoid eating fish because the latter is believed to interfere negatively with the outcome of the pregnancy. So great is the African concern for fertility that there is, in the end, hardly any area of the existence that is not informed by this constant preoccupation with the thriving and perpetuation of life.
- African people
- Central Africa
- Armor, R. (1992). Gods and Myths of Ancient Egypt. Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press.
- Jacobson-Widding, A., and van Beek, W. (Eds.). Creative Communion. African Folk Models of Fertility and the Regeneration of Life (Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Upsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology, 15 (1990). ). Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiskell International.
- Mbiti, J. (1990). African Religions and Philosophy. London: Heinemann.