classes of divinities in atr


There are different classes of divinities in ATR (African Traditional Religion). These classes  depends on the different location within the African society.

According to Wikipedia, in religious terms, divinity or godhead is the state of things that come from a supernatural power or deity, such as a god, supreme being, creator deity, or spirits, and are therefore regarded as sacred and holy.

Such things are regarded as “divine” due to their transcendental origins or because their attributes or qualities are superior or supreme relative to things of the Earth. Divine things are regarded as eternal and based in truth, while material things are regarded as ephemeral and based in illusion.

In African Traditional Religion (ATR), there are four foundational religious beliefs namely; the belief in impersonal (mystical) power(s); the belief in spiritual beings; the belief in divinities/gods and the belief in the Supreme Being.

These foundational religious beliefs are essential to our theological interpretation and analysis of the traditional religions. African religion involves the whole of the African’s life: the environment, values, culture, self-awareness—a complete worldview. Religion considers the dynamic interaction of various activities that take place in every African community, and it permeates all phases of life.

The worship of the divinities in ATR is more obvious in the African religion than any other form of religion. However, it has to be noted that there are several divinities in ATR and form of worship from one people group to another. Consequently, this manuscript shall focus on select divinities in ATR.


When we refer to the word ‘God’, we are talking about the living eternal Being who is the source of all living and whose life existed from the dateless past. He is self existed and is the one whose power sustains the universe.

He is an all-knowing Being who knows and sees all things at the same time without any modern instrument. He even knows the end from the beginning. This Great Being has revealed Himself in many different ways, “and human beings, in particular, have always felt His presence and responded to Him in worship” (Brown, 1975). This manifestation or revelation of God has brought about a living relationship between God and Man leading to what we now call religion.

The Origin of Belief in God in Africa

As there are divergent views of scholars concerning the origin of religion, in the same way many scholars have various views as per the origin of belief in God in Africa. Three important views exist which are here explained.

First, through reflections on the universe, Africans came to believe in God. This view has its bases on the fact that Africans believe in God as the Creator of the universe. This belief may have led them to reflect on the vastness of the universe. Their imagination led them to this conclusion that there must be a Supreme Being whose power not only created this vast and complex universe but also sustains it. They, therefore, began to give this being worship and adoration.

Mbiti (1975), writing in his work Introduction to African Religion, explains that the process of arriving at this conclusion of belief must have taken a long time “and there must have been many myths and ideas which tried to explain these mysteries of the world”.

Secondly, through the realization of their own limitations, Africans came to believe in God. This second view or explanation of the origin of belief in God in Africa has its roots in man’s limitations and the insatiable nature of man’s needs. Mbiti (1975: 41) argues that “this idea made it logical and necessary for man to depend on the one who was more powerful than people”.

Thirdly, as Africans observed the forces of nature, they came to believe in God. This third view of the origin of belief in God in Africa is so important because it has to do with the various forces of nature. From time immemorial; man has been in the habit of looking at the forces of nature with awe and reverence. Mbiti argues that this may be the reason “that God is so much associated with the sky and the heavens”.

Attributes of God (Supreme Being) in Africa

Attributes of God refer to words or phrases ascribing traits, properties, qualities or characteristics to the Supreme Being. These attributes are anthropomorphic in nature. This is because any religion that stripes the Supreme Being of the anthropomorphic phenomenon will eventually end up as an abstract religion that does not have human feelings and is not fully realizable in the world.

God is real to Africans: Africans do not perceive God as an abstract entity whose existence is in the mind. He is seen and perceived as a real personal entity whose help is sought in times of trouble and who is believed to be the protector of the people. According to Idowu (1973), the Yoruba of Nigeria call God Olodumare or Edumere meaning “The King or Chief unique who holds the sceptre, wields authority and has the quality which is superlative in worth, and he is at the same time permanent, unchanging and reliable.”

The Igbo of Nigeria call God by these names Chukwu meaning “Source Being” which connotes “the Great One from whom being originates”. Chineke meaning, “The Source Being Who creates all things”.

God is unique in African religious ontology: When the word unique is used in reference to the attribute of God in Africa we are looking at God as having no equal or non like Him and being the only One of its sort. We earlier explained that the Yoruba people of Nigeria refer to God as Olodumare meaning “The king or chief unique, who holds the scepter, wields authority and has the quality which is superlative in worth, and he is at the same time permanent, unchanging and reliable”. This description shows the uniqueness of God in Africa. Not only is God seen as unique but He is also seen as permanent, unchanging and reliable.

God is Transcendent and Immanent: These two words, transcendent and immanent could be seen as two sides of the same coin. Transcendent means that something is beyond what is natural and normal, and different from it. As an immanent God, Africans see Him as God whose presence is felt by people within the natural world. This means that they feel his presence around their surroundings, and through what happens to them and their families.

Awolalu and Dopamu (1979), argue that to the Africans “the transcendence and immanence of God are two divine attributes that are paradoxically complementary”.

In Africa God is Eternal and Immortal: The Africans do not see the Supreme Being as One who will one day cease to be or one who will eventually die. They rather see Him as the eternal and immortal One who lives forever to satisfy the human soul. This is why “they hold that the Supreme Deity is the Ever-living Reality Whose Being stretches to eternity” (Awolalu and Dopamu, 1979: 52).


The African religions partly recognize a group of being popularly known as divinities. These beings have been given various names by various writers such as ‘gods’, ‘demigods’, ‘nature spirits’, divinities, and the like. Mbiti explains that the term “covers personification of God’s activities and manifestations, the so-called ‘nature spirits’, deified heroes, and mythological figures” (Concept of God in Africa, 117).

This belief in divinities in ATR is a common phenomenon especially in West Africa, while in other parts of Africa; the concept is not succinctly expressed. This is what Francis O. C. Njoku means when he said, “The phenomenon of belief in divinities in ATR is not everywhere prominent in Africa” (125).

Nature of Divinities in ATR

There are two major schools of thought as regards the origin of divinities in African religious ontology. The first school of thought is led by John S. Mbiti. He argues that divinities in ATR were created by the Supreme Being. He explains that divinities “have been created by God in the ontological category of the spirits. They are associated with Him and often stand for His activities or manifestation either as personifications or as the spiritual beings in charge of these major objects or phenomena of nature” (Mbiti, African Religions, and Philosophy, 1975, 76). By this view of Mbiti and his group, divinities are under the Supreme Being in the order of things. They can also be seen as manifestations of the characteristics or attributes of the Supreme Being. The second school of thought, championed by E. Bolaji Idowu, argues that divinities in ATR were not created but were brought out into being. In his words,

From the point of view of the theology of African traditional religion, it will not be correct to say that the divinities were created. It will be correct to say that they were brought into being, or that they came into being in the nature of things with regard to the divine ordering of the universe (Idowu, 1973:169).

This view of Idowu may correspond to the Christian theology about the divinity of Christ. Christians believe that Christ was not created but came out (brought forth) from the Father and so shares almost all the attributes of the Father. This is why he is called the Son of God. In the same way, Idowu applies the same theology to the divinities in ATR. He explains that Orisa-nla (the arch-divinity among the Yoruba) “is definitely a derivation partaking of the very nature and metaphysical attributes of Olodumare” (Idowu, 169). This is why the Yoruba people call him “Deity’s son and deputy, vested with the power and authority of royal sonship “(Idowu, 169).

Idowu further states that in Benin of Nigeria, Olokun the arch-divinity is regarded as the son of Osanobwa, which means a son vested with power and majesty by his father. Among the Akan people of Ghana, all their divinities are regarded as sons of Onyame. Idowu, therefore, argues that “it is in consequence of this derivative relationship that these divine “beings” are entitled to be called divinities or deities” (Idowu, 169).

A careful look at these two schools will show that Idowu was applying the Christian theological principle to African traditional religion by declaring that the divinitiesin ATR were not created just as Christians believe that Jesus Christ was not created. Chike Ekeopara (2005:19), lays his weight behind Idowu by declaring that the divinities were not created and adds “Divinities in ATR are brought into being to serve the will of the Supreme Being”.

Relationship between Divinities in ATR and Supreme Being

  1. They are created “beings”. As created beings, they are subordinate to the Supreme Being.
  2. They are derivations from Deity. The divinities do not have an independent existence or absolute existence but derive their being from the Supreme Being. This means that “since divinities derive their being from the Supreme Being, their powers and authorities are meaningless apart from Him (Ekeopara, 2005)
  3. They are given functions to perform: Divinities in ATR do not perform duties against the will of the Supreme Being rather they are obedient to the command of the Supreme Being.
  4. Another important relationship between the divinities in ATR and Supreme Being in Africa is that the divinities serve as “functionaries in the theocratic government of the universe” (Idowu, 1973: 170). This means that the various divinities have been apportioned various duties to perform in accordance with the will of the Supreme Being. This is clearly shown by Idowu in his book Olodumare … where he explained that in Dahomey, Mawu-Lisa is regarded as an arch-divinity who apportioned the kingdoms of the sky, the sea, and the earth to six of his off-springs. He made his seventh child Legba, the divine messenger and inspector-general in African pantheon. This also means that the divinities are ministers with different definite portfolios in the monarchial government of the Supreme Being. They, therefore, serve as administrative heads of various departments (Idowu, 1973:170).
  5. Divinities in ATR are Intermediaries between man and the Supreme Being. They have therefore become channels through which sacrifices, prayers, and offerings are presented to the Supreme Being. In Africa, there are no images of the Supreme Being but the divinities in ATR are represented with images of temples or shrines.


In West Africa where the concept is clearly expressed, there are so many such divinities. In Yoruba pantheon, for example, Idowu (in Njoku, 2002) explains that there are as many as 201, 401, 600, or 1700 divinities.

In Edo of Nigeria, Mbiti narrates that there are as many divinities as there are human needs, activities, and experiences, and the cults of these divinities are recognized as such. In his words “One [divinity] is connected with wealth, human fertility, and supply of children (Oluku); another is iron (Ogu), another of medicine (Osu), and another of death (Ogiuwu)” (Concepts of God in Africa, 119).

Major Groups

Divinities in ATR have been grouped into two major groups namely: the Principal Divinities and Minor Divinities. Principal divinities are regarded as part of the original order of things. Njoku (2002: 126), sees these as being “co-eval with the coming into being of the cosmos”.

They include such divinities as Sango or Amadioha – thunder divinities for Yoruba and Igbo; Ani or Ala – earth divinity among the Igbo, Aje in Idoma land and other solar divinities. The Dinka people of Sudan recognize Deng divinity associated with rain, fertility and others, Abak with mother role, Garang – perfect picture of father/son relationship. They also recognize Macardt – a divinity associated with death.

Minor divinities in ATR are not part of the original order of things. They are created as the need arises.

There is an agreement among scholars that divinities are divided into two groups. One group being spirits and the other group being human beings of the distant past, who, by their heroic activities were deified.

Some Notable Divinities in ATR


Obatala is the arch-divinity in Yoruba land. He is known by other names like: Orisa-nla and Ogiyan. Obatala is the creator-divinity.


Orunmila is the great oracle divinity and is also known as ha. This is a divinity that one can be said is worshipped throughout Africa under different names. However, according to Yoruba mythology, he was said to have accompanied Obatala as a counselor when Obatala was sent to equip the earth after it has been created.


The adherents of Esu see Esu as one of the divinities closest to Olodumare especially on matters of rituals and human conduct. He is therefore seen as the “Inspector General” of rituals.


This is the Igbo earth goddess. She is the arch divinity of Igbo land. She is regarded as both the spirit of the earth and the queen of the underworld who rules the ancestors that have been buried in the earth.


This is another popular divinity among the Igbo people. This divinity is also known as Igwe, Ofufe, and Kamalu in other localities within Igbo land. Amadioha is highly regarded among the Igbo. He is regarded as the one in control of lightning, thunder, and storm. He represents the wrath of God and the manifestation of divine justice. He is the one that punishes witches, thieves, sorcerers and other evildoers.


Olokun is a divinity among the Edo people. The name, Olokun literally means “the owner of the sea”. This implies that Olokun is the divinity of the ocean and water.


Sokogba is the thunder divinity of the Nupe. This divinity has a close resemblance to Sango among the Yoruba and Amadioha of the Igbo.


Tano is regarded as the greatest of the Ashanti divinities. He is often described as king as his other name, Takora, signifies. He is also seen as the father of water gods. The Ashanti people see him as the creator divinity and the principal temple is located near the source of River Tano at Obuase.



In African religion, especially among the West African people, the concept of divinity is well established. Divinities are so many that their number seems not to be known. This concept has made so many scholars believe that African religion is either pantheism or polytheism.

Those who believe that African religion is pantheistic are of the view that Africans see the spirit in everything including wood, tree, fire, and others. Though this may be true but Africans do not see these spirits as deserving worship. They still have a strong place for the Supreme Being whom they revere in a special way, and whom they believe is unique.

On the other hand, those who see African religion as being pantheistic have failed to understand that “polytheism is a qualitative and not quantitative concept. It is not a belief in a plurality of gods but rather the lack of a unifying and transcending ultimate which determines its character” (Tillich, 1951:246). A careful study of this definition will reveal that in Africa, though there are many gods, yet there is One Supreme God who is worshipped above all others. This means that the One Supreme God believed in Africa becomes the unifying and transcending ultimate who therefore determines the character of every other activity, showing that polytheism cannot be the right term to describe the type of religion practiced in Africa.

Edward E. Evans Pritchard recognized that Nuer religion should not be seen as either monotheistic or polytheistic. He explains that it could be regarded as both depending upon the context.


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Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divinity on September 2, 2016.