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date: 06 December 2023

Indigenous Religions in West Africalocked

Indigenous Religions in West Africalocked

  • Katharina WilkensKatharina WilkensDepartment of Religion, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
  •  and Mariam GoshadzeMariam GoshadzeDepartment of Religion, Universitat de Bayreuth


Reaching from the Sahara Desert and the savanna in the north to the densely wooded areas of the Atlantic coast, West Africa is a region marked by a history of long-distance trade, large empires, European colonialism, and postcolonial nationalism. Indigenous religions here consist of a number of functionally differentiated institutions, societies, and ritual performances that vary considerably across the region. These may include lineage rituals of ancestor veneration, professional praise singers and narrators, mask societies, burial rituals, healing, puberty rites and marriage, societies dedicated to various divinities, witchcraft, annual festivals, and divination. With concepts like “fetishism” and “animism,” Western scholarship on African religions has left a deep epistemological imprint on how it has been understood. The current usage of both terms “indigenous” and “traditional” in reference to African religions reflects the variety of approaches toward decolonizing Western theories of religion and culture that emphasize different aspects of empirical research, discursive identity, and the relationship to Christianity (and to a lesser extent to Islam). Precolonial sources on the subject are rare, but some do exist, including Islamic textual sources, oral (mostly epic) literature, and archaeological data. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the changing perceptions of Indigenous religions in the face of Christian missionization and European colonialism are marked by a shift from the importance of ancestral rituals in public offices to nationalistic idealization of traditions as a means of ethnic integration. During the course of the 20th century, the neglect of, or even antagonism toward Indigenous religious expressions has led to a culturalization of ritual performances and narratives, on the one hand, and to the reactive formation of neotraditional religious groups, on the other hand. Confronted with attacks launched by Pentecostalism and Salafism, traditional religions remain relevant as actors, and observers point out their contribution to modern, decolonial societies entangled in diasporic and world history.


  • Indigenous Religions

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