Ancient Religions of Africa

The various religions of each of the kingdoms and tribes of Africa are called traditional religions. The oldest religion in ancient Africa was found in a South African cave where they used red ochre to commemorate a burial over 100,000 years ago.

Many of these religions were based on the belief that there were mysterious natural forces that played a role in their daily lives.
Early 20th-century Yoruba divination board

Religious Leaders:

They believed that their priests (also known as “witchdoctors or shamans”) could manipulate the magic through charms and casting spells. The shamans knew a lot about the herbs and elements of nature that they could use as remedies for those that were sick or to help someone with their problems.

Shamans in various tribes were supposed to be able to tell the future through the “casting of bones.” Some used actual bones, while others used stones, shells, or other items of value. Many of the religions throughout Africa shared in some of the common beliefs such as:
The Hanging Church of Cairo

  • A single supreme deity or god that created the world. Different religions had various names for their god including: Olodumare of Nigeria and the Ugandan god Katonda. Some of their belief systems indicated that their God interacted directly with people, while others didn’t interact at all.
  • Spirits of nature were popular in many of the religions. These were typically beneath the supreme God and lived in the natural elements such as earth, water, and animals.
  • Spirits of the dead or ancestral spirits played a big role in traditional beliefs. Many of their religions thought that by honoring their ancestors that had passed on that the spirits would help them as well as communicate with them or the Supreme god on their behalf.
  • Sacrifice to the spirits or gods also played a big part in many of the ancient African religions. The sacrifice could be anything from offering food or drink all the way to sacrificing livestock or even humans.
  • Life’s rites of passage was a method used in African religions to celebrate various moments within a tribal member’s life. They typically included special rites of passage for birth, entering adulthood, marriage, and death.

Individual craftspeople within a tribe were often considered to have magic as a part of their expertise.
Nan Hua Temple in Bronkhorstspruit

Those that were valued at the highest levels were ironworkers. This craft was kept secret and it’s due to the hidden information that many thought they had power and mystery.


Just as in many religions around the world, rituals were very important for ancient African beliefs and to keep a bond with the community. The rituals of each tribe often included drums, chanting, masks, and dancing.

A lot of the rituals were designed to call upon nature’s spirits or the ancestral spirits to help them with problems or offer solutions to situations.

  • The African Mali Empire believed that a magical force that they called “nyama” that was the natural force that controlled everything.
  • Some Ancient African religions thought that bad spirits were the cause of illness or bad behavior and good spirits would act to protect the individual or tribe.
  • In the areas of Africa that experienced the driest weather, some priests were designated as “rain-makers” to drive away any bad spirits that were causing a drought and ask for assistance from their good spirits to help with rain.
  • In East Africa (known as Sudan today), archeologists have found standing stones that date back to 6,000 BC that are thought to have been part of the local religious ceremonies and may have marked the seasonal changes.
  • We know the most about the religions of Ancient Egypt who worshipped a lot of gods including: Isis, Ra, Osiris, and Amen.
  • Some Nubian gods such as Bes were including in both Egypt and today’s Sudan area.
  • A Bronze Age cemetery that dates to 3000 BC was found in Kenya at Lake Turkana.
  • The Bantu people of West Africa worshipped a single god and it’s thought that they considered the god either a sun or sky god.
  • The Ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Akhenaten, (King Tut’s father) is the only pharaoh that tried to change the Egyptian religion from the worship of many gods to a single god.


What ancient African craftsperson was thought to be magical?


What were the ancient African people of medicine called?

witchdoctors or shamans

How old was the oldest burial area found in ancient Africa?

over 100,000 years old

Ancient African religions shared in the belief of what two types of spirits?

natural or “nature” and ancestral

Which ancient African civilization do we know the most about their religious practices?


What is it called when an ancient African shaman tells the future?

casting of the bones