Ancient African Prophets

The Western World definition of a prophet is an individual that brings enlightened ideas on religious and social conditions.

The Greek definition included people that were more cult figures that spoke on behalf of a god or gods, and ancient the Israelite religion translates the Hebrew word “navi” to our term prophet as the supreme being’s spokesperson.

In studying ancient African religions, the idea of “prophets” as the Western World defines them didn’t seem to play a major role in their religious practices but are instead credited to religious leadership.

African Religious Beliefs:

Ancient African religions had religiously sanctioned healers, chiefs, and judges but didn’t appear to be the recipients of communication from their religious spirits or supreme being.

The term in this case is being used in a broader sense to include those that claim revelations from lesser gods.

African religions make use of diviners, mediums, and prophets, with spirit mediums being the most common.

These are people that get messages from either lesser spirits or a supreme being and are then translated by a priest and told to the village. The priest, instead of the medium, controls what is told to the community.

Types of Religious Leaders:

In the Igbo and Shona religions, they have specific mediums for the supreme being and they speak in the voice of the supreme being in a foreign language.

A male ritual specialist acts as the interpreter for the message and tells everyone present. Almost all African religions have lesser spirit mediums.

Prophets are found to go into a kind of trance and receive communications and control the translation themselves.

Both mediums and prophets are thought to be communicating directly with the spiritual being who is relating the information to them.

Prophets are used when conditions occur that may involve stress or anxiety in the community or instability. Mediums are used for more personal situations or problems.
St. John the Baptist Preaching

Diviners make use of their knowledge of omens or signs in nature and they have developed techniques that allow them to communicate the deity’s will or desire.

They are interpreters of signs but are not the direct recipient of communication with spiritual beings.

Mediums, prophets, and diviners are part of the original ancient African religions and shouldn’t be confused with any of the figures that came forward once Africans were influenced with the Judeo-Christian or Muslim traditions.

Beliefs Differ by Area:

East African religious leaders that were identified as prophets seem to be those that have communication with lesser spirits instead of any supreme being.

There are some religious traditions in the Nilotic group where lesser spirits are thought to be radiating from the supreme being.

Field researchers studying the Nuer people of southern Sudan learned of the tradition of African prophet called “guk.”  This was translated to be “man possessed by a spirit of some kind” or “mouthpieces of the gods.”

They were thought to be more like witch doctors. Nuer prophets made claims to have direct communication with the sky deities or the spirits above and were important as a role of healers.

The Dinka religious leaders were inspired by free and clan divinities. These people were called “ran nhialic” which means men of divinity.

Similar to the Nuer prophets, the Dinka prophets were called upon during clan disputes, but were also powerful enough to be the leaders of war parties when needed.

This type of religious leader or prophet has gained more power in the community than many of the others.

Additional Nilotic group prophets included the Meban of Ethiopia that said they had direct contact with a divinity and through words or thought could control death and life.

Both the Maasai and Kalenjin of Kenya had prophets called “laibon” that were the rain makers and prepared war medicines for the warrior’s safety.
The Vision of Isaiah is depicted in this 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld
The Diola are those of Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau and they have ancient prophetic traditions that relate to their supreme being, Emitai. As with others, their main job seems to be as rain makers.


What are the three types of religious leader roles in African religion?

diviners, mediums, and prophets

What does the African word “guk” translate to?

man possessed by a spirit of some kind” or “mouthpieces of the gods.”

What is the difference in use or purpose between mediums and prophets?

Prophets are used when conditions occur that may involve stress or anxiety in the community or instability. Mediums are used for more personal situations or problems.

What additional role did the Nuer prophets play in African communities?


What is the role of a diviner?

to interpret omens or signs