Arquivo da Categoria: Anthropology of Religion

The Concept of Religion

When we leave the universe of Abrahamic reference, we are confronted with a fundamental problem concerning the scope of the concept of “religion”. This concept is dilemmatic when we set out to look at African cultures. In this scenario, it is always operative to take up Kishimoto’s adequate definition [1] that each cultural context generates its definition of religion. To accept such a postulate is to reject hermetic notions that frame the phenomena into religious and non-religious from a particular scheme of what is considered a religion. Rodney Needham [2] had already discussed the problem of translating the concept of “religion” into non-Latin languages. Later, Lenclund [3] broadened the discussion by recognising the obstacle constituted by our Western model of belief to establish an analysis of other cultural-religious realities. Notwithstanding Lenclund’s proposal, later authors bring theoretical proposals that entangle the gaze from ethnocentrism: Christine Bell [4], with the opposition between “ritual” and “religion”, or Rivière [5] (along the lines of Hammond [6]), with the classical opposition between “religion” and “magic”.

One of the first obstacles to the analysis of religions in Africa, particularly within the so-called autochthonous ones, is the assumption of the separation theory between the sacred and the profane[7]. As first Awolalu[8]and later Appiah[9] have argued, religion/rituality is not separate from everyday life. On the contrary, it enters daily activities, assuming an explanatory and justificatory role in all current elements and events. Religion acquires a dimension of “total social fact”[10], operating as a product and producer of social order and aggregation[11]. Following this route, Robin Horton[12]recognises the role of “communion” proper to African religions, extending the idea to attitudes of “explanation”, “prediction”, and “control”.

The dimension of explanation is found with the religious phenomenon ab initio, referring to religion as a metaphorical language that aims to produce a set of narratives that elucidate natural phenomena and the world. In turn, prediction relates to the wonders of divination, which seek to predict essential events in the community’s life. At the same time, control concerns rituality itself, i.e., the capacity of ritual action to control negative phenomena in social life, such as heavy rains, droughts, floods, and epidemics.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "The Concept of Religion," in Adarrum, accessed in 18 de Agosto, 2022, url: <https://jfdias.hypotheses.org/836>.

[1]KISHIMOTO, Hideo, “An operational definition of religion”, Numen, 8 (3), 1961, pp. 236-240.

[NEEDHAM, Rodney, Belief, Language and Experience, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1972.

[3]LENCLUD, Gérard, “Vues de l’esprit, art de l’autre: L’ethnologie et les croyances en pays de savoir”, Terrain, 14, 1990, pp. 5-19.

[4]BELL, Christine, Ritual: Perspective and Dimensions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[RIVIÈRE, Claude, Socio-anthropologie des religions, Paris, Armand Colin, 1997.

[HAMMOND, Dorothy, “A problem in semantics”, American Anthropologist72 (6), 1970, pp. 1349-1356.

[7]ELIADE, Mircea, Le sacré et le profane, Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag GmbH, 1957.

[8] AWOLALU, Joseph Omosade, “What is African traditional religion?”, Studies in Comparative Religion, 10 (2), 1976, pp. 1-10.

[9] APPIAH, Kwame Anthony, “African traditional religions”, In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1998.

[10] MAUSS, Marcel, Essai sur le don forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.

[11] DURKHEIM, Émile, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totémique en Australie, Paris, Alcan, 1912.

[12] HORTON, Robin, “A definition of religion, and its uses”, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 90 (2), 1960, pp. 201-226.

The intellectualisation of religions in Africa and the African diaspora

Early on, the authors noticed that more than their peers in academia, the bulk of the readers of their scientific productions came from their own research contexts. This is particularly evident with regard to African-American religions. The eminently hypertrophic ritual character (Prandi, 2000) of these religions, where the doing constitutes the religious ethos itself (Ferreira Dias, 2013a) overcoming the cosmological dimensions, the aspects linked to collective memory and the normative importance of the processes of learning and transmission of knowledge (Berliner & Sarró, 2007), does not avoid, by comparison with the so-called Abrahamic religions, hermeneutic challenges for their members. The production of a new religious dynamics, resulting from globalisation and with it the growing transnationalisation of religions and New Age movements, where religion takes on a market dimension, leads to a ‘rational choice’ (Stark & Bainbridge, 1985) in the selection between religious offers, also giving rise to an intense search for religious knowledge which contests the classic logic of learning. It is not surprising, then, that Sérgio Ferretti (2001) reports the normative importance of his and his wife’s work for the Xangô of Pernambuco or that Salamone (2001) reveals the occasion of a Yorùbá bàbáláàwó who presents himself as an ‘anthropologist in training’. The classic transit between academia and the terreiros of Bahian Candomblé (Seeber-Tegethoff, 2007; Castillo,2010) not only brought a ritual importance to reading (it is enough to see the impact of the work of Pierre Verger or Juana Elbein dos Santos), but also a scientification of the religious discourse, accelerated by the departure of devotees to universities (Seeber-Tegethoff, 2007; dos Santos & dos Santos, 2013), after an initial wave of researchers who moved from the academy into the terreiros. This process of intellectualization of the religious discourse led Paul Christopher Johnson (2002) to coin the term ‘Protestant Candomblé’. In other ‘afro-religious’ scenarios, one can find similar processes. Umbanda, considered ‘ the Brazilian religion par excellence ‘, which perpetuates the myth ‘of the three races’ (Furuya, 1974; Ortiz, 1978), has been marked by the permanent intellectualisation of its discourse and praxis (Birman, 1978; Brown, 1985; Novaes, 2017). The so-called Afro-Cuban religion, which includes various religious segments, contains imprinted the same mark (Palmié, 2007, 2013), evidencing a transatlantic process of religious intellectualisation. In the African context, the emergence of a Yorùbá ethnic and religious identity is not undressed by an intellectualized cultural revivalism (Peel, 2000; Matory, 2005), in which an attempt is made to trace a continuum with respect to Egypt (Lucas, 1948, 1995; Wescott, 1957; Lawal, 1975; Imhotep, 2012) in order to legitimize and superior local religious practices.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "The intellectualisation of religions in Africa and the African diaspora," in Adarrum, accessed in 18 de Agosto, 2022, url: <https://jfdias.hypotheses.org/784>.

O conceito de religião

Quando saímos do universo de referência abraâmico somos confrontados com um problema de fundo que diz respeito ao alcance do conceito de «religião». Este conceito é dilemático quando nos dispomos a olhar para as culturas africanas. Nesse cenário, é sempre operatório retomar a eficaz definição de Kishimoto [1]de que cada contexto cultural gera a sua própria definição de religião. Aceitarmos tal postulado é recusarmos noções herméticas que esquadrinham os fenómenos em religiosos e não religiosos a partir de um esquema particular do que se considera por religião. Rodney Needham [2]já havia debatido sobre o problema que constitui a tradução do conceito de «religião» para línguas não-latinas. Mais tarde, Lenclund [3]amplia a discussão ao reconhecer o entrave que constitui o nosso modelo ocidental de crença para o estabelecimento de uma análise de outras realidades culturais-religiosas. Não obstante a proposta de Lenclund, autores posteriores trazem propostas teóricas que emaranham o olhar a partir do etnocentrismo: Christine Bell [4], com a oposição entre “ritual” e “religião”, ou Rivière [5] (segundo a linha de Hammond [6]), com a oposição clássica entre “religião” e “magia”.

Um dos primeiros obstáculos à análise das religiões em África, em particular no quadro das ditas autóctones, é admissão da teoria de separação entre sagrado e profano[7]. Como argumentaram, primeiro Awolalu[8]e posteriormente Appiah[9], a religião/ritualidade não se separa da vida quotidiana. Pelo contrário, ela entra por todas as atividades do dia-a-dia, assumindo um papel explicativo e justificativo em todos os elementos e acontecimentos correntes. A religião adquire uma dimensão de “facto social total”[10], operando como produto e produtora de ordem e agregação social [11]. Seguindo esse roteiro, Robin Horton[12]reconhece o papel de «comunhão» próprio das religiões africanas, ampliando a ideia para atitudes de «explicação», «previsão» e «controlo».

A dimensão de explicação encontra-se com o fenómeno religioso ab initio, dizendo respeito à religião como uma linguagem metafórica que visa produzir um conjunto de narrativas que elucidam sobre os fenómenos naturais e o mundo. Por seu turno, a previsão refere-se aos fenómenos de adivinhação, os quais visam prever acontecimentos importantes na vida da comunidade, ao passo que o controlo diz respeito à própria ritualidade, i.e., à capacidade da ação ritual controlar fenómenos negativos na vida social, como chuvas intensas, secas, cheias, epidemias.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "O conceito de religião," in Adarrum, accessed in 18 de Agosto, 2022, url: <https://jfdias.hypotheses.org/584>.


[1]KISHIMOTO, Hideo,“An operational definition of religion”, Numen, 8 (3), 1961, pp. 236-240.

[2]NEEDHAM, Rodney, Belief, Language and Experience, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1972.

[3]LENCLUD, Gérard, “Vues de l’esprit, art de l’autre: L’ethnologie et les croyances en pays de savoir”, Terrain, 14, 1990, pp. 5-19.

[4]BELL, Christine, Ritual: Perspective and Dimensions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1992.

[5]RIVIÈRE, Claude, Socio-anthropologie des religions, Paris, Armand Colin, 1997.

[6]HAMMOND, Dorothy, “A problem in semantics”, American Anthropologist72 (6), 1970, pp. 1349-1356.

[7]ELIADE, Mircea, Le sacré et le profane, Rowohlt Taschenbuchverlag GmbH, 1957.

[8] AWOLALU, Joseph Omosade, “What is African traditional religion?”Studies in Comparative Religion, 10 (2), 1976, pp. 1-10.

[9]  APPIAH, Kwame Anthony, “African traditional religions”, In Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, London: Routledge, 1998.

[10]MAUSS, Marcel, Essai sur le don forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1925.

[11] DURKHEIM, Émile, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse: Le système totémique en Australie, Paris, Alcan, 1912.

[12] HORTON, Robin, “A definition of religion, and its uses”The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 90 (2), 1960, pp. 201-226.

The Horse in Yorùbá Culture and Candomblé

Present in the coat of arms of the Nigerian republic, the horse is deeply connected to the country’s culture, from the Islamic peoples who introduced it to the Yorùbáland. It is estimated that Òyó was established as a city in 1400. According to Stride & Ifeka (1971), the first monarch of Òyó would have been Oranmiyan Omoluabi Odede, originally from Ifé, who would be succeeded by his eldest son, Dada Ajaká, a king with no military spirit, who would be deposed and followed by Sàngó, his younger brother, who would prove to be an extremely combative monarch. After his death, Ajaká would have returned to the throne, presenting himself much more violent and belligerent. However, it would be Kori, Ajaká’s successor, who would conquer the area known as the metropolitan Òyó, beginning a century of enormous expansion. With the death of Aláàfin Olúwásò and the arrival on the scene of his son, the eighth Aláàfin, Onigbogi, Òyó faces collapse at the hands of the powerful Nupé army, whom the Òyó called Tapá, and who were led by Tsoede (Stride & Ifeka 1971), around 1535, and the royal family went into exile in the kingdom of Borgu (Oliver & Atmore 2001). This period of exile lasted 80 years, during which the Nupe took over the region of Òyó. The 17th century marked the period of the reconquest of Òyó, thanks to a well-organized army with solid armour and, above all, mounted on horseback. With new military power, Òyó is reconquered, and new capital is erected, Òyó-Igboho.

The Horse in Religion

This short historical passage introduces the theme of the horse. In Yorùbá culture, the horse is therefore associated with royalty, representing the superiority of the kingdom of Òyó. According to oral and textual sources, Sàngó was an excellent rider, owning a royal stable of 10,000 horses. This aspect is highly present in the Sàngó cult, where it is stated that his initiated, élégún Sàngó, are ridden by him. At the same time, due to the horse’s speed, allowing fast and long-distance movements, he is associated with the lightning, mythical-natural weapon that Sàngó would use to defeat his enemies.

In Candomblé, the horse is equally present in the mythological, musical and choreographic aspects. If in the cult of Òsoòsì (Oxóssi), the presence of the horse is quite evident, since during the xirê — i.e., the praiseworthy part of Candomblé that precedes the invocation of Òrìsàs (Orixás) into the trance — at the moment Oxóssi is greeted, the members of the terreiro present at the “roda” perform the gestures of the mount, pulling the reins of the horse from one side to the other, indicating a change of course, in the case of Sàngó (Xangô) this aspect is not particularly evident or not widespread among the members of Candomblé. Nevertheless, it is precisely in his cult that the horse is most obviously present, with enormous emphasis on ritual trance. Sàngó’s dance with his hands closed and arms extended, side by side, is commonly interpreted as symbolising the carriage of the double-edged axes (oxé) and/or the sère (xére; instrument containing the seeds that invoke the sound of rain). However, this dance represents, at least equally, the ferocious mount of Xangô towards the battle. At the same time, the rhythm called Alujá is sung. The alujá is a fast rhythm of a military nature, whose variations are produced in the larger atabaque, the hwm, the soloist, variations known as “folds”, reproduce the advance of the Òyó cavalry in charge of the enemy.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "The Horse in Yorùbá Culture and Candomblé," in Adarrum, accessed in 18 de Agosto, 2022, url: <https://jfdias.hypotheses.org/567>.

“This and that” in Yorùbá (religious) patterns of thought

In a lecture on Creole Culture, at Yale, in 1989, Robert Farris Thompson argues that African or Afro-descendant cultures should be looked like this and that cultures. This was very important advice, which Salamone (2001) took seriously while analysing the case of a Nigerian healer, Babalawo (Ifa priest) and Anthropologist that declared himself a monotheist and polytheist. Salamone deals with several coincidentia oppositorum facts. This reminds us that our occidental framework of A or B is not operative in all kinds of contexts.

This is very clear when it comes to studying Yorùbá religion(s). Long-term discussions on ‘monotheist versus polytheist’ in this context can still be found in some literature, despite the win of monotheist ideology, due to some scholars’ work as Idowu (Olodumare: God in Yoruba belief) and Ifá theology, deeply embodied in monotheist perspective. In a previous paper, published in 2013, following the path of Hallgren’s The Good Things in Life, I argued that the Yorùbá religious context should be understood as an open fluid system. We must remember Peel’s words (1968) … “…the whole system looks different from the different social standpoint” (p.29). In fact, the whole system looks different because, in fact, it is.

Stating: religion in Yorùbá context is a this and that case. It is monotheist and polytheist. A good example of this and that pattern of thought can be found in the Orisha. When asked about Oshun, if She is the river, the deity of the river or the woman that died on the river, a Yoruba will answer “all”. She is the woman that died on the river, the deity of the river and the river itself.

Cite this article as: João Ferreira Dias, "“This and that” in Yorùbá (religious) patterns of thought," in Adarrum, accessed in 18 de Agosto, 2022, url: <https://jfdias.hypotheses.org/341>.