Food has historically served as an integral component of African spirituality. Whether associated with African Diasporic rituals, funerals, or traditional ancestor veneration, the spiritual use of food has been a uniting practice of Africans worldwide. This entry's examination of food and its use, therefore, provides an insight into the fundamental structure of African traditional spiritual beliefs, as well as evidence of the unity of Africans worldwide.
As has been written, specific foods, such as okra, and food preparation practices provide evidence of African influence in virtually all world cuisines. Archaeologists have used food to document ancient African agricultural practices as well as the trade of these food stuffs among ethnic groups showing inter-African influence dating back thousands of years. Foods like akee, a pear-shaped fruit, may have originated in West Africa, but are now eaten not only throughout the African continent, but also in the Caribbean and other parts of the Diaspora.
Likewise, the naming of foods in the Diaspora also indicates an African cultural legacy. Gumbo as an okra-based stew popular in the Gulf Coast of the United States shares it root word with the Brazilian term for okra, quiabo, both of which are African in origin. Food in Brazilian spiritual houses, or ter-reiros, still relies on African preparation styles and recipes. For example, the Yoruba deity Oyâ still enjoys the bean fritters or acarajé in Brazilian Candomblé, which she began eating in Nigeria as akarâ. Ogun, the Yoruba deity of iron and patron of blacksmiths, enjoys beans and rice in Africa, as well as in North and South America. Beyond providing this evidence of African cultural unity, food also provides information on traditional African spiritual beliefs.
Food is a critical component in many African traditional ritual practices. These practices, and those based on them, have found their way via the migrations of Africans to all parts of the world. Food in this use becomes a tool to manipulate energy by which the believer's desires are fulfilled. For example, in North America, to catch a murderer, the believer will quickly place an egg in the victim's hand so that the murderer will not be able to escape the area. Likewise, the preparation of cleansing baths used to cleanse a believer of negative energy in other African populations often includes food ingredients such as crushed egg shell, milk, and coconut. Traditionally, kola nuts are not only exchanged as a sign of friendship, but are also used as divining tools and as offerings to ancestral and other spirits.
Some foods are reserved for their ritual use and are seldom, if ever, consumed outside of their ritualized contexts; such foods include dog, traditionally offered to Ogun, and ram, which is usually presented to Shango, the god of thunder and lightning. Other foods, including cornmeal and grits, can be used to determine the age of a particular deity. For instance, the fact that Oshun, a Nigerian riverine goddess, enjoys corn that was not brought into Africa until around 1500 AD supports the belief that she is the youngest of the Yoruba's spiritual pantheon.
The Living and the Dead
Food also evidences the symbiotic relationship between the living and the Dead in African cosmology. Africans have often celebrated important transitional phases in the lives of community members such as births, rites of passage, and the like with communal feasting. Perhaps the most common of these periods is the passing of a loved one. During the period of family mourning, it is customary for friends and relatives of the deceased to bring gifts of food to the home of the closest living relatives. Additionally, following the funeral ceremony, a community feast is held, during which attendees discuss the living in the fondest of terms. These practices, fairly common in the United States, are directly related to the funerary practices of other Diasporic communities.
This celebration of the loved one's existence is often carried over beyond the immediate period of their passing in North America, as well as in the entire Diaspora. Many Africans, as is commonly written, continue to practice ancestor veneration. Part of the honoring practice is to offer food to the Dead. Although Africans certainly understand that the person is no longer flesh, they do believe that offering food is critical to the strength of those on the other side.
This use of food may be understood as a token of exchange in which the living offers the Dead energy with which the Dead becomes more able to offer support and guidance to the living. Therefore, the relationship between the living and the Dead can be understood as highly reciprocal. If the living fail to meet their obligations to the deceased, including failure to provide them with food, the Dead may withhold their assistance with worldly matters.
Material and Spiritual
The exchange of material food with the spiritual realm provides insight into the fundamental structure of African traditional beliefs. The offering of food stuffs to spiritual entities makes sense in a paradigm in which the believer sees both the material and spiritual inextricably intertwined into one singular existence. Both of these realms, the material and the spiritual, are dependent on one another, and the offering of material food to ancestors and other spirits is indicative and symbolic of the relationship between the material and spiritual planes.
When leaving food for ancestral spirits, the living often offer those foods most enjoyed before the person died. However, the offering of food to other spirits requires knowledge of the requirements of the particular spirit being served. When working with higher spirits, such as the Vodun lwa, Yoruba orisha, and/or Akan abosom, among others, the living offer food according to the likes, desires, and taboos of the associated spirit. Additionally, the spirit may, according to the living's particular need(s), require more or less than is commonly offered.
Food preparation is also dependent on the spirit to which the substance is being offered. For example, in Haitian Vodou, a chicken offered to Legba is killed by twisting its neck, whereas when offering chicken to Loco, the throat must be cut and the bird bled. But just as the offering of food exposes the African belief of reciprocal giving, the sharing of the meal among the believers following the ritual furthers the notion that the physical and spiritual attendees are aligned in pursuit of the requested act. Although the food offered to the deities is sometimes shared, it is important to note that there are occasions, especially those associated cleansing rituals, where the food stuffs must be properly disposed of because they have absorbed the negative energy from the believers.
Food stuffs are also present within the ritual stories associated with African spirituality and are instructive tools symbolizing complex ideas and concepts. In one such story, Ogun, the god of iron, technology, and patron of blacksmiths, isolates himself in a forest. Because the people depended on his abilities and gifts for most of their daily lives, the community soon fell into chaos. They beseeched the great Ogun to return, only to be ignored by the orisha. Only the orisha of sensuality and female empowerment, Oshun, was able to lure Ogun from his haven. She spread her honey on his lips, and the tempted Ogun followed her out of the forest. Honey, in this story, has been said to be a metaphor for Oshun's sexuality, and the story instructs believers about using their own particular talents for the good of the community.
Food continues to unite Africans, both autochthonous and Diasporic, living and dead; spirit and flesh; it continues to be used as ritual catalyst, divining tool, and socializing instrument for many Africans the world over.
Table 1 lists some popular African deities and the foods most commonly associated with them. Because specific beliefs and practices vary from region to region, this list is by no means comprehensive or entirely reflective of what are complex and fluid ritual practices present throughout the African World.
Table 1: Popular Deities and Associated Foods
|Nana Asuo Botopre||Raw Rice, Sugar Cubes, Fanta Orange Soda, Fried Fish, Fried Plantain, White Yams, Fowl, Bananas|
|Nana Kumi||Guinea Fowl, Schnapps, Tiger Nuts, White Yams, Turkey|
|Nana Densua Yao||Duck, Rice, Liquor, Fruit|
|Nana Adade Kofi||Raw Rice, Gin, Palm Wine Candy, Cookies, Cake, Honey, Fanta Orange Soda, Fruity Wine, Nana Esi Ketewaa Sugar Cane, Yams, Eggs|
|Nana Tegare||Kola Nuts, Beer, Schnapps, Rum, Tiger Nuts|
|Nana Asuo Gyebi||Peanuts, Green Bananas, White Rice, Grits, Corned Beef|
|Ogun||Peppers, Onions Garlic, Red Palm Oil, Beans, Dog|
|Obatala||Igbin (Snails), Coconuts, Milk, Honey, Shea Butter, Rice, Bread, Cookies|
|Sango||Red Apples, Red Palm Oil, Peppers, Bitter Kola Nut, Spicy Foods, Ram|
|Yemonja||Grapes, Melons (especially watermelon), Squash, Candy, Cakes, Palm Oil, Kola Nuts, Sheep, Guinea Fowl, Hens, Pigeons, Fish, Palm Wine, Grits|
|Oya||Eggplant, Rum, Beer, Wine, Plums, Red or Purple Grapes, Hen, Female Goat|
|Oshun||Honey, Wine, Beer, Rum, Gin, Hens, Guinea Fowl, Quail, Goats, Candies, Cakes, Kola Nuts, Red Palm Oil, Coconuts, Corn|
|Esu||Chili Peppers, Peppercorns, Jalepenos, Rum, Gin, Beer, Pigeon, Rooster, Male Goat|
|Zaka||Yams, Goats, Chicken|
|Erzulie||French Wine, Candies, Cookies, Cake|
|Agwe||Ram, Imported Wine and Champagne, Rice and Beans, Cornmeal, Chicken|
- Ani, M. (2004). Let the Circle Be Unbroken: The Implications of African Spirituality in the Diaspora. New York: Nkonimfo Publications.
- Deren, M. (2004). Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. New York: McPherson & Company.
- Harris, J. B. (2001). Same Boat, Different Stops: An African Atlantic Culinary Journey. In S. Walker (Ed.) African Roots/American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas (pp. 169–182). New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Hurston, Z. N. (1996). Mules and Men. New York: HarperPerennial.
- Vega, M. M. (2001). The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria. New York: Ballantine.