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February 19, 2020
As we celebrate February with Black History Month it’s a perfect time to educate ourselves on the ancient history and traditions of African and African Diasporic people.
I want to clearly state that the subject of African Traditional Religions (ATRs) could easily be an endless series of academic and folklore books and studies. One could live a long and healthy life and still barely scratch the surface of one of these traditions. ATRs are not a monolith nor are present day black culture or people. With that said, what are some of the communal beliefs interconnected between the thousands of different African Tradition Religions? There’s more to African traditions than Egyptology (which is great don’t get me wrong!). And how did ATRs call and respond to the various challenges and traumas of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and centuries of colonization?
Almost all ATRs are earth-based religions, meaning: communing with, worshiping, and having relationships with natural elements like mountains, bodies of water, plants + animals. These elements and energies are built into most ceremonies, events, and gatherings — A constant reminder that our connection to the Earth is sacred and to be honored with reverence. In addition to sharing a broad and diverse system of Earth magic, almost all ATRs share two other tenants: Honor God/Goddess (yes the Supreme Being is both male and female in many ATRs!) and honor your Ancestors. Many also believe in one Divine Creator (even with their great pantheon of Deities) contrary to misinformation and stigma of ATRs being demonically polytheistic. Upon contemplation, it makes sense that some of the oldest African traditions on the planet (many with historical evidence dating back over 10,000yrs) witnessed the land, waters, and creatures of this Earth with such ritualistic dedication.
Almost every tradition that left Africa due to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and violent colonization shifted and adapted to the conditions in various ways. This is largely the reason traditions like Santeria, Lucumí, Obeah, Candomblé, Myal, etc exist. If one can say anything monolithic about African and Black culture, it’s the strength and staying power of the ritualistic ancient traditions due to its ability to adapt. When enslaved Africans were brought to the Americas and beyond, they brought their ancient religions with them. In most cases, essential components to religious ceremonies like drumming, sacred dance and trance work, and singing in their own tongues, became outlawed and cause for the worst abuse, suffering and death. This forceful and centuries long (most certainly on-going) threat of abuse for being themselves caused a huge schism and splintering in the African Diasporic Spirit. Many forgot or refused to speak their languages, they abandoned their religions and ceremonies, and many chose to survive and experience the harsh reality of assimilation and conversion. We are grateful to those who made sacrifices for our existence, no matter its expression, always.
Even still many kept ancient traditions alive in total secret or in syncretization. The tradition Santeria has it’s roots in the Ifá religion from West Africa, which largely came to the Caribbean with the slave trade. The enslaved Africans in this specific region were being colonized by Catholic rulers, and so many African religious leaders decided to hide their deities in plain sight by syncretizing them with Catholic saints and images. For example Yemanja, the great Divine Mother Orisha of the ocean, is syncretized with Mother Mary. And the Orisha Chango of Lighting and masculine strength is syncretized with Saint Barbara, whose story also involves fiery courage and lightning.
Other black traditions like Hoodoo/Voodoo in the North American southern regions morphed into existence from a mixture of the Kongo and later Haitian Vodun religions, Christianity, and Indigenous Native American belief systems. During and in post-colonialism, secrecy became a must for survival no matter the persons level of involvement in an African religion, causing many elders to pass down traditions without labels or under different names unknowing to their communities or families.
Offerings to Yemanja, the great Divine Mother Orisha of the ocean.
Hatian Voo Doo ritual via National Geographic
Due to these and many other series of events, not surprisingly, most Black Americans in particular are and were raised in some sort of Abrahamic religious system (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). However ancient practices like: the sacredness of music and dance, the importance of improvisation in ceremony and life (lookin at you jazz, AAVE, code-switching, hip-hop, viral dances, black culture in general), and speaking and singing in tongues (aka trance and channeling work) heavily pervade and continue to connect us and the entire world to our African Ancestral wisdom. In fact ATRs are now practiced internationally by African diasporic and non-African diasporic people internationally. And we already know Black culture is socially enjoyed by almost everyone in some way if not genuinely than monetarily.
ATRs acceptability and shedding of negative stereotypes has been a slow one. A small part of that is due to the secrecy that many of the traditions require. Yet some would be surprised to know that practitioners continue to be persecuted, exiled, or killed in present day. Even still the relentless punishing of practitioners was turned into a triumphant moment of adaptability; So many men and High Priests in their traditions were killed in colonial and post-colonial times that women were left to carry on the tradition. Women especially in the Candomblé tradition in Brasil remain extremely well respected and are central authority figures in religious communities today.
Obatala Priest in Temple
Even with all the intergenerational-trauma that colonization and the repercussions of slavery has and continues to cause, theses traditions have persisted in African Diasporic experiences. If not as entire religious systems, than perhaps in smaller ways like the ancient connection to rhythms and harmonies sung for thousands of years, or the mirroring of dances and languages that transcend space and time barriers. However it manifests, these cultures and traditions are sacred, and to remain both a mystery and a memory all at once. To me as a human being, that is most beautiful. To me as a black woman, it is something in which I take immense solace.
This month and every day I give thanks to the Ancestors that persisted, and the beauty and magic that Black culture has brought to the Universe. Remember to support black people, business owners, and especially marginalized black folk with your money, time, and/or openness to learn through deep listening. This month especially but everyday, too!
Ritual to Venerate your Honorable Ancestors:
In a previous Gratitude article I have detailed how to build an ancestral altar from the Lucumí tradition. Please reference it or feel free to create your own ancestral altar from the heart. Find a way to give your Ancestors an offering or prayer this month. Keep it simple and direct.
Additionally I encourage readers to look up or purchase a book from one or more of the following Black authors in order to be proactive in your learning and activism for Black freedom. Do not just be a passive consumer of black culture and expect that to be enough. Do the work and research yourself, pay black educators and workers, and let us be great without a desire to control our expression. Asé & Happy Learning!
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Camille Langston is a Reiki Master teacher in Usui Shiki Ryoho technique, psychic medium, tarot reader, musician, and actor living in Los Angeles, California. Read her bio here.
Read more on astrology, horoscopes, occultism, magick & ritual on our blog, Esoteric Insights!
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