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It is always very interesting to investigate cultures, traditions, and religions which are inherent to different people and compare the ideas people prefer to choose in their lives. Each continent and country introduce a number of new perspectives concerning how people should demonstrate their religious preferences and what customs they have to follow.
Western Africa is the region where more than 15 countries are united and eager to demonstrate their own interests, religious demands, and traditions. Due to numerous historic migrations, the representatives of different cultures have to link their interests in order to achieve success and satisfaction with the chosen activities.
A historical perspective has to be mentioned because its impact on cultural and religious aspects of Western Africans is considered to be great. The cult of the dead that is supported in the vast majority of countries is one of the traditions appreciated, and the Kingdom of Kongo (now it consists of the Republic of Congo, Angola, and Cabinda) is one of the central points where the cult of the dead was developed.
The cult of the dead is considered to be a kind of basis for many African religions that enhances people’s understanding of life and the life after death; an Nkisi that is close communication with dead people and Western Vodun are the powerful means to support an idea of dead powers and the cult of the dead itself and to prove that a life is not the only possibility to teach and improve personal knowledge, but there are many other sources where information is gained.
Evaluation of African Beliefs
West African spirituality in the Caribbean where the above-mentioned region is located undergoes considerable innovations from time to time. Its rich history, relations with other cultures, and religious improvements influenced the way of how African people lived and what styles of life they prefer today.
Thought the cult of the dead was highly appreciated between 15-19 centuries, its signs are noticed in the form of the Day of the Dead that was annually celebrated. The vast majority of African citizens define the cult of the dead also known as veneration of the dead as a possibility to communicate with dead relatives and believe that all those people who died continue their existences in some other place and may influence the life of those people who are still alive.
In Africa, ancestor worship is rather prevalent and provides people with a chance to admire the fact that some supreme power may assist them, show the right way, and help to make right decisions. Some people even believe that “God himself may send sickness which leads to death” (Middleton 79) in order to demonstrate his power and help other people in supernatural.
In comparison to Egyptian religion where huge pyramids were built and the dead were mummified because a soul survives only in case a physical receptacle is available, the Africans accept an idea of spiritual existence without an importance to save bodies. Vodun is the religion of the Africans that centers on the spirits that are side by side with people to assist them.
Western Africa: From Past till Present
West Africa is not the largest region on the continent, still, its influence on different religions and traditions remains to be rather huge. In spite of the fact that there are a number of different cultures on the region, there are still certain similarities in the traditional architecture, cuisine, music, and even dresses which are crucial for the development of the cult of the dead. Robert Farris Thompson made a magnificent attempt to evaluate the impact of African traditions on the New World.
Though Mande-influenced textiles as well as its musical paradigm and architecture fails to explain the ways of how the Africans shared their traditions with other nations. “The Mande diaspora did not diminish their cultural identity. Such was the Mande strength of ethnicity that the cultural focus of the civilization was maintained” (Thomson 196).
Western Africa spreads its ideas and suggestions all over the world, and America was one of the first countries who was eager to accept the ideas and define the chosen style as a separate approach to creativity:
“Variable of Mande and Mande-related cloth-making remain indelibly intact in these Mande, West African-influences regions of the New World. The recombination of these variables to form novel creole art – also embodying European influences – is an autonomous development in the history of Afro-American visual creativity, especially in Suriname. Nevertheless, the vibrant visual attack and timing of these clothes are unthinkable except in terms of partial descent Mande cloth, a world of metrically sparkling textiles.” (Thomson 209).
The Cult of the Dead in Western Africa, Kongo in Particular
A great variety of African traditional religions are usually orally or spiritually practiced. There are three important terms in the Western African traditions to be mentioned: Nganga, Nkisi, and Vodun. Each ritual provided by the African people has to be “accompanied by the chanting of scared songs, mambos, intended to bring down the divine power in the form of a spirit, simbi” (Matibag 162).
With the help of the ideas and traditions offered by the representatives of the Kingdom of Kongo, the cult of the dead and the possibility to appreciate the afterlife extended considerably in the New World and spread over the whole West Africa region. The cult of the dead was a successful mix of Roman Catholic religion, Christianity, and tribal animism which were so popular among the African people.
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“When the Yoruba religious system, under the conditions of slavery, was made to coalesce with the Catholic religious system, the resulting Reglas Lucumís retained the notion of aché as that metaphysical substance inspiriting and consecrating matter in accord with ritual properly carried out. Such investment of powers, marked by the appropriate signs, plays its part in determining the critical difference between the sacred and the profane.” (Matibag 11).
The cult of the dead in Kong, based on the ideas offered by the Yoruba religion, Christianity, and animism, may be traced in such rituals connected with Nkisi, Nganga, and Vodun religion.
Nkisi. On the territory of Central and Western Africa, and in Kongo in particular, the idea of Nkisi is supported by the citizens. Kongo cults emphasize the necessity to work with spirits of the dead people, and the Nkisi is one of the possible mediums to rely on. “The Nkisi served as refuge or prison to the soul of a returned ancestor or of some spirit attached to this world” (Matibag 162).
Due to the cult of the dead spread over Kongo, people got used to think that any kind of exceptional human power is a result of communication that happened between those who are alive and those who are dead. The Nkisi may be in the form of some ceramic vessels, various shells or bundles, or even animal horns because these objects aim at containing spiritual substances and providing people with a chance to communicate.
There is no necessity to save human bodies because it seems to be enough to have a symbolic object where a human soul can be found. Numerous functions of Minkisi (plural form of a Nkisi) are of divine nature. To appreciate the cult of the dead, Kongo citizens could use the Minkisi for healing purposes (in comparison to Greek and Egyptian cultures, animal horns were used while hunting or trading).
With the help of worship of the dead, a number of Minkisi were used to support order and follow an appropriate style of life. Eugenio Matibag admits that “Nkisi means ‘charm’ but also ‘positive magic’” (162), so, the idea of the Nkisi can never be regarded as something harmful for people or something with a negative impact on human life. The necessity to communicate with gods and dead people is regarded as an integral and rather helpful part of life.
Nganga. Talking about the spiritual life in Kongo, and the cult of the dead in particular, it is necessary to mention and evaluate the role of Nganga, a spiritual healer or a herbalist who is responsible for proper communicate with the world of the dead. One of the most significant roles of the Banganga (a plural form of an Nganga) is to protect the cult of the dead against witchcraft and religious impacts that may come from different countries and regions.
According to Matibag, “the name of Nganga refers either to the small cauldron that holds the spirit or to the spirit itself… the Congo Nganga itself is therefore a figure of ‘multiple representation’” (162). So, the Nganga can be of different forms, and many historians and writers are ready to prove their own positions and give various definitions to the term.
Though, if an Nganga is considered to be a person, the cult of the dead requires the necessity to communicate to the dead and find out the secrets of afterlife and the methods to improve the current life and make right decisions.
If an Nganga is another significant object of a ritual where the cult of the dead is supported by the citizens of Kongo, this object remains to be a divine means of communication with the dead. Another important detail about the cult is that the Nganga aims at doing what its owner orders. In some cultures, the use of Kongo’s Nganga is similar to a game: owners of Banganga are playing with their spirits and make their do what has to be done.
Voodoo people: Western Vodun
Voodoo religion is popular in many countries on different continents, however, its origins came from Kongo. Haitian Voodoo has a number of characteristics, and one of them is the development of the cult of the dead.
As the already discussed ideas, Voodoo representatives also made numerous attempts to provide proper veneration of the dead and protect communication with the dead against witchcraft. However, some historians still have many doubts concerning a true nature of the Voodoo craft and believe that some portion of evil magic and witchcraft is present.
Many people still believe that Haiti is a true origin of voodoo people, however, it is not actually true. At the beginning of the 17th century, Americans and some European countries knew a little about Vodou and African beliefs. These beliefs “seem to be fused with the national history and culture in Haiti more than in any other country in the Americas” (Galembo ix). It is well known that West Africa underwent considerable changes because of slavery present.
This region was a famous Slave Coast because many transatlantic traders had an access to African people who, in their turn, were able to share their religions with other nations. Within 400 years, the lands of Brazil and Haiti were full and West Africans who introduced new beliefs and abilities. Voodoo people used a number of objects to arrange rituals and communicate with the dead. They truly believe that life is a constant struggle, and dead people had to assist their generation to achieve success.
True Vodun came from Kongo, the land of slaves, and as many other supporters of the cult of the dead, it was closely connected to animism, Christianity, and even Catholicism. Vodou is more than just a religion. It is the way the vast majority of Africans prefer. They believe that it is possible to improve their lives with the help of communications with the dead and practice transmigration of souls to gain better understanding of the essence of life.
Symbols of the cult of the dead
Blackened stool: This was mythical symbol honored annually by the Kumasi and was associated with the Odwira festival. The honoring of the stool was designed to appraise the spirits of the ancestors (Murrell 40).
Masks and charms: according to Murrell, carnival type masks were worn during gleeful occasions. The masks were made of fabric layers of dark color and it was believed that whosever wore the egungun attire will be possessed with spiritual power of the ancestors he or she represents (Muller 40).
Yams: The feast of the yams was festival dedicated to the return of the patrilineal ancestors, which was conducted annually and was also known as egungun (Murrell 40).
Drums: The drums were used during the mourning period whereby, the men were entitled with the task of beating the drums throughout the night (Murrell 39).
Mountains: The Mountains were considered to be the dwelling place of the ancestors. During the rituals, the ancestors would be petitioned and invited from the mountains by the priests (Murrell, pg 40)
West African natives performed a variety of cultural traditional rituals, which were later incorporated in Europe. The western African religious cultural practices were characterized by various components including the use of music, dancing, and textile industry development.
An individual was considered to possess different personalities according to the cultural traditions of the Western Africa. Kongo was the place where a number of traditions like Vodou or Nganga were originated, and due to the transatlantic trades, Africans were able to share their traditions and religion with other people.
The cult of the dead was widely spread over the African people. In spite of the fact that communication with dead people may lead to some negative outcomes, the main purposes of Vodou and Nganga remain to be protective, so that any witchcraft or evil magic cannot spoil true educative intentions of the believers and supporters of the cult of the dead.
Galembo, Phyllis. Vodou: Visions and Voices of Haiti. Berkley, CA: Ten Speed Press. Print.
Matibag, Eugenio. Afro-Cuban Religious Experience: Cultural Reflections in Narrative. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996. Print.
Middleton, John. Lugbara Religion: Ritual and Authority among the East African People. Oxford: LIT Verlag Münster, 1999. Print.
Murrell, Nathaniel S. Afro-Caribbean religions: an introduction to their historical, cultural and sacred traditions. PA, Temple University Press.
Thomson, Robert, F. “Round Houses and Rhythmized Textiles.” In Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books, 1984, 193-225. Print.