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American Academy of Religion

Sin and Its Removal in African Traditional Religion

Author(s): J. made Awolalu
Source: Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Vol. 44, No. 2 (Jun., 1976), pp. 275-287
Published by: Oxford University Press
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JAAR 44/2 (1976)275-287

Sin and Its Removal

in African Traditional Religion


WHEN we speak of African Traditional Religion we mean the indigenous

religion of the Africans. It is the religion that has been handed down from
generation to generation by the forbearers of the present generation of
Africans. It is not a fossil religion (a thing of the past), but a religion that Africans
today have made theirs by living it and practicing it. This is a religion that has no
written literature, yet it is "written"everywhere for those who care to see and read.
It is largely written in the peoples' myths and folktales, in their songs and dances,
in their liturgies and shrines and in their proverbs and pithy sayings. It is a religion
whose historical founder is neither known nor worshipped; it is a religion that has
no zeal for membership drive, yet it offers persistent fascination for Africans,
young or old.
What are the fundamental beliefs of the Africans? Succinctly put, they are:
(a) that this worldwas broughtinto being by the Sourceof all beingsknownas the
SupremeBeing.This SupremeBeing is given differentnames by differentethnic
groups in Africa. These names are meaningful,and they reflect God's attributes
and the people's concept of Him;
(b) that the SupremeBeingbroughtinto beinga numberof divinitiesand spiritsto
act as His functionariesin the orderly maintenanceof the world;
(c) that death does not write "the end" to human life but that the soul of the
deceasedancestor who has lived well and "dieda good death"will returnto the
Source of all beings and will continue to live in the abode of the departedspirits.
Thus the ancestralcult is highly developed in Africa;
(d) that the divinities and spirits together with the ancestral spirits are in the
supersensibleworldwith the SupremeBeing,but are not uninterestedin whatgoes
on in the world of men;
(d) that the divinitiesand the ancestorshave laid down some rules of conductand
guidingprinciplesfor the benefit of men and women and for the maintenanceof
peace and concord in the community;
(f) that man, the head of all creation, was createda moral agent, gifted with the
ability to distinguishbetween right and wrong;
(g) that whenmen observethe rulesof conduct,they havethe favorof the Supreme
Being and His agents and they enjoy shalom (total well-being);when they act
contrary,a breach occurs; sin is introduced. In other words, Africanshold that
man is vitallyrelatedto and evendependentupon Deity and His agentswho watch
over human behavior and can rewardor punish man as the case may be.

J. OMOSADE AWOLALU (Ph. D. IbadanUniversity,Ibadan,Nigeria)is acting head of the

Department of Religious Studies at the University of Ibadan.

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Sin, as a religiousconcept, has not receiveda systematicstudyamong scholars
of AfricanTraditionalReligion. Some of them who mentionedsin in theirwriting
did so justby the way and claimedeitherthat the Africanshad no notion of sin or
that they had very poor concept of it. Let us examine some of these scholarsand
what they said about sin.
J. K. Parratt writing about the Yoruba said, "the sense of sin among the
Yoruba,if any, is nothingcomparablewith the developedethicalconceptionof sin
which is to be found in both the Old Testamentand the New Testament."'
Parrattseems to overlook the fact that comparisoncan often be odious; and
that in mattersrelatingto religion,comparisonbecomesmore delicatebecauseif
one attemptinga comparativestudy is not careful, that which is supposed to be
comparativereligionmaydegenerateinto competitivereligion.If Parrattand men
like him had tried to make a little bit of effort to suppress their preconceived
notion and prejudiceand had endeavoredto makea thoroughand unbiasedstudy
of the concept of sin among the Yoruba and other African ethnic groups, they
would have been persuadedthat these Africansare as conscious of sin as the Jews
of the Old Testamentwith whom Parrattwas tryingto comparethe Yoruba. We
shall attempt in this paper to show that Africans have a deep sense of sin and
"know the distinction between ritual errors which are calculated to be offences
againstthe divinities,derelictionsof filial dutieswhichmay arousethe angerof the
aggrievedancestors, and the breach of Deity's behests which is purely a moral
issue. . . Sometimes,of course, it is not easy to drawthe line betweenthe merely
ritual and the purely ethical, as they are often involved one in the other."2
Basden,writingabout the Ibo, said in one breaththat "Certainactions suchas
murder,theft, and adulteryare esteemedoffencesagainst God, as well as against
man;"and in anotherbreathadded that "inspite of this theoreticalknowledgeof
good and evil, there is little compunction in committing theft, murderand other
misdemeanours.The lureof a title leadsa man to steal in orderto acquireit."3This
latterassertionmade by Basdenis tantamountto saying that the Ibo are ignorant
of the gravity and repercussionof sin, and this runs counter to his (Basden's)
former statement - namely, that "murder,theft and adultery are esteemed
offences against God, as well as against man." But Arinze, a well-readIbo man
who has studied the religion of his people, maintainsthat "an Ibo man believes
that when he sins, he makes the high power frown."4
A. B. Ellis, discussingthe sense of sin and morality among the Twi-speaking
people of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), wronglyassertedthat "religionis not in
any way allied with moral ideas"and that the two only come together"whenman
attains a higherdegreeof civilization."He claimedthat "amongthe people of the
Gold Coast sin is limited to insults offered to the gods, and neglect of the gods.
Murder,theft, and all offencesagainst the person or againstproperty,arematters
in which the gods have no immediateconcernand in which they have no interest.

'J. K. Parratt, "Religious Change in Yoruba Society," Journal of Religion in Africa, vol. 2,
1969, p. 118.
2D. Bolaji Idowu, Alodumare: God in Yoruba Belief (London: Longmans, Green and Co.
Ltd., 1962), p. 148.
3G. T. Basden, Among the Ibos of Nigeria (London: Frank Cass, 1966), pp. 216-17.
4FrancisA. Arinze, Sacrifice in Ibo Religion (Ibadan: Ibadan University Press, 1970), p. 34.

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Thisis not a truerepresentation of thesenseof sin amongthesepeople.Ellis
got himselfinto this muddlebecauseof his prejudices.He assumedthat "the
deitiesarenot,properlyspeaking,whatwe shouldtermsupernatural agents.The
conceptionof a deity formedby uncivilizedracesis verydifferentfromthat
formedby higherraces.A deityis with theminvariablya partof nature.It is
superhuman, butnot superriatural.Theconceptionof the latterbelongsto a far
higherstage of mental developmentthanthat whichthe Tshi-speaking peoples
From his pronouncements we know that Ellis was one of the men who
attemptedto put moralityand religionin watertightcompartments.Many
historiansof religionagreethatthereis a kindof connectionbetweenthetwo."We
are assured,"declaredJ. EstlinCarpenter, "thatthe historicalbeginningof all
moralityis to be foundin religion;or thatintheearliestperiodof humanhistory,
religionandmoralitywerenecessarycorrelatesof eachother.7RobertsonSmith
cautiouslyaffirmsthat "in ancientsocietyall morality,as moralitywas then
understood, wasconsecrated andenforcedby religiousmotivesandsanctions."8
It is hearteningto note that in his 1949editionof WestAfricanReligion,
Parrinder statedthat"themoralityof WestAfricais entwinedwithreligion,for
the peopleundoubtedly havea senseof sin.Theirlifeis not overshadowed witha
constantfeelingof sinfulness,however;the African'shappydispositionis well
known.If a manbreaksa taboo,he expectsthe supernatural penaltyto follow,
andhisfriendswilldeserthim,orevenpunishhimfurther.. . Iflightningstrikesa
manor a house,he is judgedat onceto be an evildoer,withoutquestion,forhe
musthaveoffendedthegods. . ."9But,in subsequent editionsof thesamebook,
Parrinder expunged thisstatement.Why he did so, he aloneis inthebestposition
to tell.
AnotherWest Africanobserver,MajorLeonard,who studiedthe ethnic
groupson the LowerNiger,describedreligionas intermingled withthe whole
socialsystemof the people."Thereligionof thesenatives,"he declared,"istheir
existence,and theirexistenceis theirreligion.It suppliesthe principleon which
theirlawis dispensedandmoralityadjudicated. Theentireorganisationof their
commonlife is so interwovenwith it that they cannotget awayfrom it. Like
Hindus,theyeat religiously,drinkreligiously,and sin religiously."'0
Similarly,JakobSpieth,a Germanmissionary,pointedout that "amongthe
Ewe-speaking folk,notonlydoesMotherEarthpunishwithdeaththosewhohave
swornfalsely,but Mawu,God,whoknowsthethoughtsandheartsof men,whois
thegiverof everything good uponearth. . .willnotallowonebrotherto deceive
another,or to sufferthe king to judge unrighteously,or permitone to burn
Morality,as depicted here among the Ewe, is definitely more than
5A. B. Ellis, The Tshi-Speaking Peoples of the Gold Coast (London: Frank Cass, 1894,
reprinted 1966), pp. 10-11.
61bid.,p. 19.
7J. Estlin Carpenter, Comparative Religion (London: William Norgate, n. d.), p. 196.
XW. Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites (London: A & C Black, 1914), p. 267.
9E. G. Parrinder, West African Religion, Ist ed. (London: Epworth Press, 1949), p. 199.
'0A. G. Leonard, The Lower Niger and Its Tribes (London: Macmillan, 1906), p. 429.
"Jacob Spieth quoted by J. Estlin Carpenter in Comparative Religion, pp. 197-98.

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rudimentary;the justice of man is put under the guardianshipof God who is the
righteous Judge.
One cannot but be impressedby Westermannin his assessmentof the senseof
sin and the removal of evil among Africans. He claimedthat "theAfricansknow
about sin and evil, theirconfession and their removal. . . On the Gold Coast,the
evil or sin is expelledfrom a town before the new harvestis allowed to be brought
into it." He furtherpointed out that "themanytaboos whicha man has to observe
are not to be regardedas things mechanicalwhichdo not touch the heart,but that
the avoidance is a sacred law respectedby the community. In breaking it, you
offend a divine power."'2
Westermann'sstatementis very importanthere for our understandingof the
concept of sin among Africans. Contraryto the wrong notion of some foreign
investigators that Africans have no sense of morality and no sense of sin,
Westermannimpliedin his statementthatAfricanstenaciouslyhold the beliefthat
moral values are based upon the recognitionof the divine will and that sin in the
community must be expelled if perfect peace is to be enjoyed.
We indicatedin the introductionto this paperthat Africansbelievethat this is
God'sworld and that He has broughtinto beingdivinitiesand spiritsas well as the
ancestral spirits for the orderly government of the universe. God and His
functionaries are interested in the moment-to-moment behavior of men and
women and have laid down guiding principlesfor humanbehaviorin the society.
Man is able to respond to Deity's behests because he is created a moral agent
endowed with conscienceand capable of distinguishingbetweengood and evil.
Man, as conceivedby Africans,is createdin a being-in-relation- in relation
to God his Creatorand his fellow men. We agreewith Westermannwhen he said,
"Africansociety is characterizedby the prevalence,of the idea of the community.
The whole existence from birth to death is organicallyembodied in a series of
associations,and life appearsto have its full value only in those close ties." 3These
ties will includeextendedmembersof the family, the clan and village, the various
societies and organizationsin the communitytogetherwith the close ties with the
ancestors who are interestedin the day-to-day life of their living children. It is
indeed an ethical system.
In this ethical systemof the Africans,covenant plays a very importantrole. In
fact the whole of person-to-personand person-to-divinityrelationshipsare based
upon one type of covenant or another. We have both the parity covenant (when
the agreement is sealed between persons of equal rank) and the suzerainty
covenant(whenthe agreementis sealedbetweena personor beingin authorityand
his subjects). The parity covenant takes different forms. It may involve simple
sharingof a meal or a more elaborateform like ceremoniallysuckingeach other's
blood or drinkingtogethersome concoctionfrom a specialreceptacle,or swearing
beforeand in the name of a divinitywho acts as a witness.The suzeraintycovenant
is the type that takes place when an African becomes a devotee of a particular
divinity. Such a devotee must observe all the taboos that such an acceptance
12D.Westermann, Africa and Christianity (London: Oxford University Press, 1937), pp. 96-
13D. Westermann, The African Today and Tomorrow (London: International African
Institute, 1949), p. 65.

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demands.Forexample,amongthe Yoruba,the devoteesof Orisa-nla(thearch-

divinity)mustnot drinkpalmwinebecausetraditionhasit thatOrisa-nlaonce
drankpalmwineandmissedan importantmissiongivenhimby Olodumare (the
SupremeBeing).Fromthenon, Orisa-nladecidedneverto drinkpalmwine,and
he enjoinedhis devoteesto do likewise.
Thusa covenantunderlines the factthatmanis a being-in-relation
to Deity.
With a deliberateattempt on the part of man to keep the covenant, a union is
establishedbetween man and Deity and betweenman and his fellow men. It also
gives man a sense of security and of togetherness. The terms of the covenant
become the norm of conductfor individualpersonsthat make up the community.
From this sense of belonging and of concern for each other, a sense of moral
obligation emerges. Men believe that they belong all together to Deity but
severallyto one another. In this way, the life of the community is guided and
safeguarded. What we are suggesting and emphasizing here is that man, as
conceivedby Africans,is createdfor a purpose - namelyfor fellowship. He is not
left to the whims of his passions and lusts. His rights and obligations are
prescribed,his duties are enjoined, and his relations to others are regulated.14
The foundation of practicalethics lies in social usage. When any custom is
establishedwith sufficient strength to serve as a rule demanding observanceso
that its breachevokes some feeling, the seed of morals is alreadygerminated.No
group, however small, no society, however crude, can cohere without some
guidingprinciplesand norms. These norms may be formed in variousways. They
are strengthenedby habitual repetition;they acquirethe sanction of the past. In
Africa, they are usually referredto some great ancestors or divinities or Deity.
Society, as conceivedby Africans,is a creationof God and it is a moralsociety.
In Africancommunities,thereare sanctionsrecognizedas the approvedstandard
of social and religiousconduct on the part of individualsin the society and of the
communityas a whole. A breachof, or failureto adhereto the sanctionsis sin, and
this incursthe displeasureof Deity and His functionaries.Sin is, therefore,doing
that which is contraryto the will and directionsof Deity. It includesany immoral
behavior,ritual mistakes,any offenses against God or man, breachof covenant,
breakingof taboos and doing anythingregardedas abominableand polluting.We
cannot speak of sin in isolation - it has got to be related to God and to man.
Africansdo not have a rigiddistinctionbetweenan offensecommittedagainst
a person or society and one committed against Deity or divinities and spirits.
There is no sharpdividing line in this regardbetween the sacredand the secular
such as is assumed by the Westernworld. God is regardedas the founder and
guardianof morality. To disregardGod, the divinitiesand the ancestralspiritsis
to commit sin. Likewise,to disregardthe norms and taboos of the society is to
commit sin. Human relationshipsmust have moral foundations;they cannot be
built on anything else. Evans-Pritchard,writing about the Nuer, said,
"ifa man wishes to be in the rightwith God, he must be in the rightwith men,that
is, he must subordinatehis interestsas an individualto the moralorderof society.
A man must honour his father and his father'sage-mates,a wife must obey her
husband,and a man must respecthis wife'skin, and so on. If an individualfails to
observe the rules he is, the Nuer say, yong, crazy, because he not only loses the
support of kith and kin but also the favour of God. . .5
14Mydiscussionof Man-in-relation is drawnfrommyarticle,"TheAfricanTraditionalView
of Man,"Orita,vol. 6, 2 (December,1972).
'5E.E. Evans-Pritchard, NuerReligion(Oxford:ClarendonPress, 1956),p. 18.

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If a man stealsor practicessorcery,his antisocialaction causesdispleasureand

harmto some membersof the God-ordainedsociety,and such an evil deedwill not
go unpunished.The Ewesay, "Mawu(God)does supporta personwho does harm
to his fellow men. And the Yorubasay, "A-mokunjale, bi oba aiye o ri o, t'oke
nwo o - You who steal in the cover of the night, know you assuredlythat if the
earthlyking does not see you, the heavenly King (i.e., God) does." To say that the
heavenly King sees is to say that He sees and passesjudgement. In other words,
what is happeningin the society is of concern to Deity. This is why we agreewith
Evans-Pritchardwhen he said, "If God was thought by Nuer merely to have
created man and then to have ceased to interesthimself in human affairs, there
would be no point at all in their payingattention to him and sacrificewould be a
meaninglessact."'6This suggests that God who createsis He who also maintains
the society. He and His divine functionariesare interestedin the welfare of the
community and frown on anything that can disrupt the harmony. Mattersare
referredto those divine agents for commendation or condemnation.
Africans have a high sense of morality and this sense of morality leads to
establishedcustoms, taboos, rulesand laws which areprominentin many African
societies. Such customs and taboos we shall examine more closely presently. But
for the time being, we want to emphasizethat moralityis evolved to keep society
alive and in peace. Membersof a community attempt to do their duties to the
societyand enjoycertainprivilegesconferredby the society. Becauseof the love of
the societyand the fearof divinepunishmentthatfollows wrongdeeds, menavoid,
as much as it is humanlypossible, vices such as cheating,dishonesty,selfishness,
theft, treachery,sorcery,witchcraftand the like. Nothing is to be done to destroy
the equilibriumbetweengroupswhose desireis to see that no one plans evil against
the other. If thereis anythingthat will work harmand spoil the community,this is
to be avoided. Hence,to safeguardthe welfareof the communityand individuals,
thereare many taboos, rulesand regulationsstatingwhat must be done and what
must be avoided. For example there are rules and regulationsrelating to:
(a) Worship:
Suchrulesspellout, interalia, whenand how worshipis to be accordedspecific
divinitieson specificoccasions;how many songs areto be sungand in what order;
what prayersareto be saidand by whom;what offeringsareto be broughtbeforea
divinitybeing worshipped;how the presentationis to be made;what preparations
are to be made by the priests and the devotees before worship and what their
attitude should be during and after worship.
In almost all Africansocieties it is considereda thing-not-donefor a womanto
engage in extramaritalcoitus. If she does, she does harm not only to herselfand
her husband,but she has also wrongedherhusband'sancestralspirits.If a woman
does not confess such an evil deed, it is believedthat she and the child brought
forth in adulterystand a chance of dying a sudden death.
Furthermore,incest is a taboo in Africa. Among the Nuer, for example, rual
(incest) is regardedas the greatest sin. There is the belief that if the two people
involved in an incest "arevery closely related,death may follow possibly within a
few days,whileif theyareverydistantlyrelatednothinguntowardmay happen.""7
Among the Yorubaof West Africa, if a personcommits incest, the two people
'61bid.,p. 177.
'71bid.,p. 184.

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involvedin the immoralact are exposedto ridiculeand are requiredto offer

propitiatory sacrificeto assuagethe angerotithe ancestralspirits.
Moreover,it is forbiddenfor a man to cohabitwitha womanon the bare
ground.It is an uncleanactandit desecrates theearth.TheYorubawillsayof the
person, "o ba ileje" - he has spoiled(desecrated)the earth.Thisis becausethe
earthis believedto be indweltby a powerfulspirit.A personwho breakssucha
taboowill haveto undergoan elaborateritualceremonylest he is overtakenby
disaster.Iftheculpritsarenotdiscoveredandtheritualcleansingis notdone,the
earthwillnotyieldits increaseandall sortsof misfortunes willbefallnotonlythe
culpritsbut also the communityat large.8
(c) Food:
Examplesaboundamong Africansof items of food that are personalor
communaltaboos.Somepersonsare forbiddento eat okroor pumpkin,others
mustnot eat a porcupineor monkeyfor suchitemsof food aretotemsandare,
therefore,sacred.Manypriestsdo noteatfoodprepared bymenstruating women,
andsomeavoidcertainitemsof foodin orderto preparethemselvesforeffective
worshipat the shrineof and beforea divinity.
(d) Abominabledeeds:
Therearedeedsof men,animalsorbirdswhichareregarded asabominable. In
manypartsof Africa,it is consideredanabomination fora womanto givebirthto
twinsor to dietravailing; fora manto havecarnalknowledgeeitherof hismother
oranotherof hisfather'swives;fora manto commitsuicidebyhangingorforhim
to stealyamswhicharejustbeingplantedin theheaps;fora womanto climbthe
palmtree or to urinateon the bed whereshe sleeps.Similarly,it is regarded
abominablefora dog to bringforthonlyone whelpor for a hento lay onlyone
egg;for a cock to crowin the midnightor for a dog or fowl to crossa corpse.
Theseactionsand thingsconsideredabominableare so categorizedbecause
theyareregardedas abnormal.Thisis to suggestthatcertainthingsandactions
are regardedas normalwhentheyare in line withthe acceptedtraditions,and
theseacceptedtraditionshavenot only thecommonsenseto backthemup but
theyalso havetheapprovalof theancestorswhoin the timepasthaveobserved
themand havenow handedthemoverto the presentgeneration.
Fromoursurveythusfar,we knowthatAfricansareconsciousof thefactthat
theyarehedgedroundby a numberof guidingprincipleswhich,whenanalyzed,
constitutedutiesto Deity,divinitiesandancestorsand to menandwomenwho
constitutethecommunity.Deityand Hisagentsandfunctionaries, whoact as a
cloud of witnesses,rewardor punishmen accordingto theirdeedsTheycan
rewardor punishmanbecausemanis a freeandresponsible agent.Inotherwords,
thereis an indissolubleconnectionbetweensin and punishment.G. Wagner,
writingabouttheVugususaid,"Thesignificant pointis thatGodis notbelievedto
vary the 'normal order of things'out of spitebut only to punishpeopleif they
themselves deviatefromtheorderestablished byhim."i9Similarly,Idowu,writing
aboutthe Yoruba,said, "Byandlarge,it is believedthateachdivinitypunishes
ritualor moraloffenceswhichare committedwithinhis province,that each
aggrieved ancestorreprimands hisownforderelictionof filialduties,andthatit is
'8See J. O. Awolalu, "The Yoruba Philosophy of Life," Presence Africaine, no. 73, 1970, pp.
'9GunterWagner, "The Abaluyia of Kavirondo (Kenya)," in D. Forde, ed., African Worlds
(London: Oxford University Press, 1970), p. 43.

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Oludumarewho judges men purely for what they are; that is in consequenceof
their character."20
At this stage, let us turn our attentionto examiningwhat Africansthink of the
consequencesof sin in African Traditional Religion.

All over Africathereare mythsindicatingthat therewas once a kindof
"GoldenAge"(somethingof the Gardenof Eden)wheneverything wasbeautiful
and peacefuland when therewas a close link betweenheavenand earthand
betweenGodandman - a "goldenage"whenmancouldgo to Godin heaven
andreturnto earthas hewished,andwhenhe didnotneedto workbeforehehad
his dailybreadsuppliedby the SupremeBeing.Butthen,somethinghappened
whichmadeGodwithdrawfrom-man. Thatwhichhappenedis putin theformof
One versionsays that God'sdwellingplace(theheavens)was veryclose to
earth,so closethatwhena womanwaspoundingyam,sheconstantlyknockedthe
tip of herpestleagainstthe "faceof God."Anyattemptto discourageherfrom
liftingthe pestletoo highprovedabortive.So, Godwithdrew.
Anotherversionclaimsthat thesky,in pristinetime,usedto supplyfood to
mankind.Allthata personneeddo wasto stretchhishandto reachtheheavenfor
asmuchfoodashewanteddaily,butnomore.Somegreedypeopledecidedto take
morethantheycouldmanage.Thisdisobedienceand greedinesson the partof
manannoyedGodand so He withdrew.
Yetanotherversionsaysthatwomenwereparticularly quarrelsome, andall
effortsmadebyGodto askthemto stopquarrelling andto livepeacefullyproveda
failure.HenceHe withdrew.
One legendamongthe Ibo of Nigeriasays that "it is the increasein crime
among men that ended the happycompanyof the good old days and also
shortenedman'stermon earth."21
Fromthedifferentversionsof the mythrelatingto the withdrawal of God,it
wouldseemthatAfricansholdtheviewthata happylifeis oneinwhichmankeeps
in close touchwith God - a life in whichGod "tabernacles" withthe people.
Thereis, also, the suggestionthatmanis capableof respondingto Godandof
keepingin close touchwith God becausehe wascreatedresponsible; and that
contraryto allexpectation,manpushedGodawaybyhismisdemeanor, mainlyby
doingwhatGodforbadehim.Whatmanis saidto havedoneto irritateGodvaries
fromone ethnicgroupto another.Butthe basicfactremainsthe same,namely,
that man did somethingcontraryto the directionsof God, and that his
misdemeanor contributedlargelyto the disruptionof the relationthathitherto
existedbetweenhimand God. The wholeepisodeis symbolic.
Wehaveindicatedthatmanhassomerelationship to Godandrelationship to
his fellow-men.Both relationshipsare to be maintainedbecauseit is in the
maintenance of thetwothatmanhaspeaceandhappiness.Inbothcases,Godand
His functionaries(divinitiesand ancestors)arethejudges. In otherwords,man-to-
man relationshipis as great a concern to God as man-to-God relationshipis to
From the myth of the withdrawalof God, we deduce that man'sdisobedience
20E.Bolaji Idowu, Olodumare: God, p. 149.
21E.A. Arinze, Sacrifice in, p. 12.

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isolated him from God and disrupted his total well-being; "it brought
disadvantageousand tragic consequences to men: God left men alone, death
came, and man lost happiness,peace and the free supply of food.'"22For a man to
miss God's fellowship and guidance is to incur God's displeasureand to bring
misfortune, pain and death upon himself. It is necessary to emphasize the
connection betweensin and punishment.This is aptly put by G. Wagner,whenhe
Thus,amongtheVugusu,Godis saidto punisha womanforcommitting adultery
bylettingherpreviouschildrendie. Hewillthenappearto herina dreamandsay:
'I havegivenyouthesechildrenfromyourhusband.Whyhaveyou lefthimand
joinedanotherthigh?Now I shalltakethesechildrenbackto me."'23
God is herepresentedas benevolent Fatherwho also would punish his childrenif
they acted contraryto His directives.Among the Nuer, "Asicknessmay alwaysbe
a sign of some fault. . . Nuer think that a man would not be sick if therehad been
no error. . ."24 And the Lugbara people hold the belief that "sin temporarily
destroys the ideal relationship between living and dead kin and persistent sin
causes sterility."25
Among the Yoruba, thereis the strong belief that sin bringsdisasterupon the
evil doer who eventually dies a bad death. To die a bad death, accordingto the
people, is for the sinner to be singled out by anti-wickednessdivinities (e.g.,
Aiyelala, Sango and Soponno), scourged with terrible disease and killed. The
death of such sinnersis nevermourned;the corpsesaretreatedshabbilyand taken
to the bad bush. No one praysto have such a spirit reincarnatein the family, and
no one invokes the spirit of such an ancestor during worship at the ancestral
What is being emphasizedat this point is that Africansknow the essence of
being in good relationshipto God and to theirfellow men and are convincedthat
sin destroysgood relationship,that it upsets the equilibriumof the society, that it
drives a wedge between man and the supersensibleworld and that it brings
suffering,pain and death to man.
Since they are aware of the terribleconsequencesof sin, Africansdo all they
can to please God and His functionariesand to abideby the norm of the societyin
whichthey live. Butwhenthey know that they have violatedany of the norms,they
do not look or feel unconcerned,but they attemptto removethe stain and blemish
which sin impressesupon them as individualsor as a community.


Besidesthe evil machinationsof witchesand sorcererswhichcan spelldisaster

for those who are persecuted,it is.believedthat the chief causeof evil in the society
or in an individual,is sin. "Whenthere is sin," says Evans-Pritchard,"a man's
spiritual state is changed;he is polluted, contaminatedor unclean."27This is to
suggest that every transgressionis of evil nature and rendersa man filthy and
22John Mbiti, African Religion and Philosophy (London: Heinemann, 1969), p. 98.
23Wagner,The Abaluyia, p. 43.
24Evans-Pritchard,Nuer, p. 192.
2SJ. Middleton, Lugbara Religion (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), pp. 85-86.
26SeeJ. O. Awolalu, "Aiyelala' - A Guardian of Social Morality," Orita, Ibadan Journalof
Religious Studies, vol. 2, 2, December, 1968, pp. 79-89.
27Evans-Pritchard,Nuer, p. 195.

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unacceptable and causes a strained relationship between him and the

supersensibleworld. It is the general belief of the Africans that divinities and
ancestorscan anddo punishritualerrorsand moraloffensesand that the Supreme
Beingjudges character.
When, therefore, sin has been committed various exercises which are
considered useful and meritorious in removing sin and its attendant evils are
undertaken. These include purification, ritual of shaving, ritual bathing in a
flowing stream, confession, fasting, anointing the body, rolling on the ground,
chasing out evil ceremonially or conveying sin from the individuals and the
community by means of human scapegoat or by offering propitiatorysacrifice.
When some of these rites are examined, they give one the impressionthat sin is
conceived by Africansas somethingwhich is both physicaland spiritual - it is a
stain that can be washed off or evil that can be chased away from a community.
Yet, at the same time, it is regardedas an invisible element, the consequencesof
which are only visible and noticeable. We cannot elaborate all the exercises
undertaken,but we shall try to select a few for discussion.
(i) Purification:
This is a positiveapproachto the cleansingand removalof sin and pollution. It
involves an outwardact which is consequentlybelieved to have a spiritualinner
cleansing. The cleansing may be of the body or of a thing or of a territoryor
For example, in some parts of African, if a dog urinatesinside a house, it is
regardedas a pollution. Some blood must be extractedfrom the dog and sprinkled
on the polluted ground.
If a woman urinateson her sleepingbed, it is a defilement,and the defiledbed
and beddingmust be sprinkledwith special twigs dipped into a speciallyprepared
concoction believed to be efficacious in removing such defilement.
If a man is awareor made awareby a divinerthat he has committedan offense
which has resultedin the disruptionof his peace, he will have to undergoa ritual
cleansing.This may include ritualshavingbf the hairfollowed by ritualbathingin
a flowing stream.The "washingoff"of stainsis undertakenby the sinnerunderthe
guidance of a priest on an appointed date, time and place. The sinner provides
what the priestdirectshim to bringfor the "washing."It will be useful to describe
one particularincident watched among the Yoruba.
The priestasked the sinnerto providea pigeon, traditionalblack soap, a yard
of white calico and an old loin cloth. At the appointedtime, both the priestand the
sinnercame to a river.Thepriestinvokedthe spiritin the riverrequesting"him"to
wash and cleanse the sinner of his sin and its consequencesas he enters into the
river for the ritual washing.
The sinnerthen took off his dressand tied on the old loin cloth. The blacksoap
procuredwas applied to the pigeon which was used as a sponge. The man went
into the riverwaist deep, and he startedwashinghis head and his whole body as he
confessed his evil deeds and requested that the sins committed and their evil
consequencesmight flow away as the foaming of the soap and the dirt from his
body flowed downstream, and that as a river never flows upstream, his sins
washedoff togetherwith theirconsequencesmightnevercome back. He held on to
the pigeon, squeezingit as he applied more and more soap and washed his body
vigorouslyuntil the birdwas weakened. It was thrownfar awaydownstreamafter
being swung round his head three times. He prayed that his sin and its
consequencesmightbe removedfrom his head. He also removedthe old loin cloth

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fromhiswaistandcastit away,sayingthesamekindof thingas hehadsaidwhen

he threwthe "sponge"away. He then movedfromthe rivertowardsthe bank
wherethe priestwas standingand receivedfromthe priestthe newwhitecalico
clothwhichhe thentied roundhis waist.
Thewholethingis symbolicanddramatic.Sinis hereportrayedasa stainand
a filthyragwhichcan be washedoff or cast off respectively.
Thedisappearance of sinbringsnewlifejustastherejuvenated
clean white cloth and casts off the old one.
Many times, when people in a community experience a setback in their
enterprises,they resortto ritualcleansingof the community.In manyplaces,such
a ritual cleansing is made an annual event. For example, among the Ijaw Apoi
people of Okitipupa Division of Western Nigeria, there is the annual Boabu
Festivalduringwhich adult membersof the community-get some twigs and palm
fronds from the Boabu grioveto sweep every cornerof each house and the whole
town. All the thingsswept in the exercisetogetherwith the twigs and palmfronds
used as brooms are ceremoniallythrown into a river which, the people believe,
carriesaway the uncleannessand unpleasantnessfrom the community.
It is to be noted that during the ceremony, the chief celebrantscover their
bodies and faces with charcoal as a mark of repentance.They beat one another
gently with the palm frondsas if dusting away evil hiding in the body. Duringthe
processiontowards the river, the chief priest falls on the ground nine times and
rolls about on the ground as if saying, "I am sorry for the sins of the people."
Among the inhabitantsof Ile-Ife,whereit is believedthat life firstbeganin the
whole world, and whereit is believedboth the blackand the whitemen originated,
there is the annualEdi Festivalwhichis a ritualcleansingof the whole town and all
her inhabitants.The festivallasts sevendays. Onthe thirdday, everyadult in every
home selects ofonran (burningfirebrand),and with this he chases evil, calamity,
misfortuneand the like out of his house into the streetandfrom the streetinto the
bush and from the bush into an appointed streaminto which the firebrandsare
dipped. As the firebrandsare dipped into the riverand are carriedaway by the
flowing stream,so also, it is believed, sin in the communityand its consequences
are carriedaway.
And, on the seventhday, which is the final day of the festival,men and women
come out of theirhouses to line the route to be takenby a humanscapegoatcalled
Tele. He is drapedpartlyin white garmentand partlyin grassand is madeto bear
the people'ssins (symbolicallytied in the form of a load) into an appointedgrove.
As soon as Tele appears in the public, the people shout loud and long
"E E E O O!" three times. At the third time, they circle their hands over their
heads swiftly as they say:
In this act, the people .believe that their sins and the attendant evils are
transferredto and are ceremoniallyborne away by Tele into the grove. After this
dramatic transferenceand carryingaway of sins, people hasten back into their
houses and remain indoors till the following day.
In the past, a humanscapegoatwould be led into the groveand offeredup as a
sacrificial victim. But with the abolition of human sacrifice, a goat has been

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substituted.Tele (usuallyan Ife slave) still bearsthe "burden"awayfrom the town

into the grove, but he takes along a goat which is sacrificed in the grove.
It is not difficult to find periodicceremoniessuch as those describedhere in
different parts of Africa. Sometimes the sins are symbolically buried in the
ground, sometimessunk into the river,and sometimesthey are conveyed into the
grove by consecratedpersons or animals. Furthermore,among the Yoruba,secret
cults like Aribeji, Egungun and Oro are employed to drive away sin and its
consequencesfrom a community.
(ii) Confessionand Reparation:
Another means of removing sin and its consequences is confession together
with reparation.This impliesacknowledgingand declaringone'ssins to a priestor
to someone wronged and, where the need arises, making amends. For one to
refuse to confess and to make necessary restitution is to retain one's sin. For
instance,a woman who commits adulterysins against both her husbandand the
ancestralspirits of the husband'shome. It is generallybelieved that if a woman
commits such an offense, she will not be able to bringforth herchild at the time of
deliveryunless she confessesher immoraldeed. This is becausethe ancestorswho
are guardians of social morality do not condone such an immoral act. The
adulterous woman should confess her sin as soon as her conscience starts
disturbingher, or she waits until a time of crisis (e.g. when in labor) when she will
be bound to confess or face a damnable consequence.
Wheneverthe truth comes to light, the adulterouswoman and her partnerin
adulteryare punished - a fine is usuallyimposed. Thismay includedemandinga
goat from the adulterousman, Such a goat is offered as propitiatorysacrificeto
the ancestral spirit. The woman is also humiliated and is required to make
reparation'for the sin committed.
Furthermore,if a man breaks a family taboo or neglects a divinity, and he
realizesor is made to realizesuch an offense, he will be requiredto confessand do
all that he can to make reparationin order that normalcy may be restored.
It should be pointed out herethat if an offendercommitssin, refusesto own up
and is killedby one of the agents representingthe wrathof God (e.g. Sango, as we
shall see presently),he is believedto have died a bad death. He is not givena good
burial,and the body is treatedshabbilyand taken to the bad bush. Thememoryof
such a person perishes with him because he cannot reincarnate,and his spirit
cannot be invoked during an ancestral veneration. This is one of the grave
consequencesof sins not confessed.
(iii) Sacrifice:
Finally, propitiatorysacrifice is employed to remove sin. Among different
ethnic groups in Africa there are anti-wickednessdivinities (for example the
thunder god, known as Sango among the Yoruba, Amadioha among the Ibo,
Sokogba among the Nupe, Xeviosa among the Dahomeans)who detest stealing,
witchcraft,sorceryand other vicious crimes. When men incur the displeasureof
such divinities,they are singledout for punishment.For example, when there is a
visitationby Sango among the Yoruba,it is believedthat the divinityhaulsa stone
upon an evildoerand kills him;or Sango may damagedoors, windowsand roof of
a house to warn its inhabitantsto desist from their evil deeds.
When this happens, the Magba (the chief priest of Sango) has to be notified.
He and his assistantpriestsperformnecessarypropitiatorysacrifice.Materialsfor
sacrifice(includinga ram,plenty of palm oil, pito and palmwine)are providedby

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the offenders(if they are still living)or theirrelations.In the midstof ritual
drummingof the bata(specialSangodrum),singingandecstaticmovementsby
the priests,the meteoricstones,believedto be hauledby Sango,aresearchedfor
anddugoutof theearth.Thesacrificial ramis immolated, andthebloodis poured
in theaffectedarea.Plentyof oil is pouredalsoto calmtheangerof thedivinity.
Thebeliefis thatuntilthe riteis performed,the wholeareauponwhichSango
descendedis declaredout of boundsto peoplebecauseit is sacred.A violationof
the taboowillresultin death.Hencethe commonsayingamongthe Yorubo-
"BiSangobaw6ni'le,onilea wol'agbede". If Sangodescendsupona building,the
inhabitants haveto procureanalternative accomodation ina smithy.Butoncethe
propitiatory sacrificeis performed,it is believedthatsin is removedandpeaceis
Althoughsin can be and is punishedby eitherthe divinitiesor the ancestors,we
must realize that Africans believe that such sins are still regardedas offenses
against God who is the Creatorand Sustainerof the universeand its inhabitants,
who expects His creaturesto maintain good relationshipwith one another and
with the supersensibleworld and on whose behalf the divinities and ancestors
punish immoraldeeds.

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