The rite is a central theme of the anthropology of religion, constituting, according to W. R. Smith, “the ancient religion in its totality”. He states that “…primitively, religion was not a system of beliefs with practical applications, but a set of fixed traditional practices to which all members of society were subjected”. Ritual hypertrophy configures the central aspect in ancient religions of ancient structure, as is the case with African matrix religions. Along these lines, Radcliffe-Brown states that beliefs have a much more variable and volatile character in the face of the rite, which presents itself in a more consistent and perennial manner, which is why, according to him, rites should be the privileged object of study in the discipline. For Durkheim, the rite has a social dimension, has a character of repeatability, performs a specific function within a society. In Freud’s wake, Malinowski conceives a psychological dimension in the ritual, which would function as a cathartic and reassuring. Malinowski also observes a ‘magical’ dimension in the ritual, resulting from the fact that its effectiveness resides in him, i.e. when he summons an immanent power (the mana), distinguished in his idea from the ‘religious’ dimension, which occurs when its effectiveness depends on the intervention of powers outside the rite (gods and spirits). Marcel Mauss made a decisive contribution in the theoretical approach to the rite. According to him, the rite is a “traditional act” adopted by the collectivity or by an authority recognized by it, and which deals with things conceived as “sacred”. For Mauss the rite has the coercive function of manipulating things by means of offerings and requests. Victor Turner, for his part, considers that the study of rituals must be accompanied by the study of symbols, affirming that symbols are multifaceted, i.e., they represent several things at the same time. For Turner, religious life presents characteristics proper to communitas, having “qualities of passage”. Finally, for Turner the ritual is a system of symbols that “stores traditional knowledge”, possessing a rigid and repetitive character, possessing a dramatic charge that allows the group to overcome divisions and reaffirm unity.
Present in the coat of arms of the Nigerian republic, the horse is deeply connected to the culture of the country, 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 succeeded 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 combative. 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 strong armor and, above all, mounted on horseback. With a new military power, Òyó is reconquered and a 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, having owned a royal stable of 10,000 horses. This aspect is extremely present in SàngóÕs cult, where it is stated that his initiated, élégún Sàngó, are ridden by him. At the same time, due to the speed that the horse possesses, allowing fast and long-distance movements, he is associated with 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. In fact, 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 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 symbolizing 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 battle. At the same time, the rhythm called Alujá is sung. The alujá is a fast rhythm, of a military nature, whose variations 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.
In a lecture on Creole Culture, in Yale, in 1989, Robert Farris Thompson argues that African or Afro-descendant cultures should be looked as this and that cultures. This was a very important advice, which Salamone (2001) took seriously while analysing the case of a Nigerian healer, babalawo (Ifa priest) and Anthropologist that declares himself as monotheist and polytheist. Salamone deals with several coincidentia oppositorum facts. This remind us that our occidental framework of A or B is not operative in all kinds of contexts.
This is very clear when it came to study 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 scholar’s 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 Yorùbá religious context shall be understood as an open fluid system. We must remember Peel’s words (1968) … “…the whole system looks different from 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 on the Orisha. When asked about Oshun, if She is the river, the deity of the river or the woman that died on river, a Yoruba will answer: all. She is the woman that died on the river, the deity of the river and the river itself.
In all studies concerning Afro-Brazilian religions in Portugal (Pordeus, Saraiva, Guillot, et. al.) — in particular Umbanda, the most connected to the catholic framework – there is an undeniable emphasise to a widespread popular theology (as I think we may call it) of healthiness. Any sociologist, anthropologist or even a non-scholar Portuguese person will confirm that complains of any kind of disease or illness are a popular unlocker for conversations. This means that health is a central part of Portuguese identity. Such cultural attitude is a leitmotiv for the popular Catholicism, full of ‘demons’, ‘bad spirits’ and ‘spiritual diseases’. In the native religious beliefs is common the expressions as “go to the witches”. This is a popular language code to communal and well-known practices, especially found (but not exclusively) in rural areas. Any village has its own healer, called rezadeira (prayer), a woman or a man that is communally accepted as someone with particular power.
With Umbanda’s arrival to Portugal theology of welfare became part of the speeches of all priests in the accommodation to the religious communal psychology. The practices of cure are now the central point of all Umbanda temples in Portugal. The charity, which was so important to the spread of Umbanda in all-over Brazil, in Portugal became less important thanks to the affirmation of those theology and rituals of healthiness. This expresses well Umbanda’s plastic identity. While Candomblé presents itself as an African-oriented religion, with a nostalgia feeling and a traditional root, Umbanda reveals a dynamic attitude that produces an easy and strong appeal in the Portuguese community, not only because of it DNA marked by Portuguese Catholicism but also and most important of all trough a capacity of dialogue and absorb local non-orthodox beliefs such as the healers and those one arise with the New Age.
Considerations on African Theology sounds like a non-stop carousel: moving on the same direction and returning to the starting point at the same time. In Portuguese, we call it “a little hake with tail in mouth” situation. While some scholars focus their lens on the historical changes concerning the discourses or even to the rise of the so-called African Theology, nobody waste a moment thinking in the concept of Theology, itself.
The African Theology, at least as a given long-term concept, is understood as a Christian painting with African colours, materials and techniques. In other terms: African Theology refers to a flux of African typical ideas, languages, metaphors and even rites to the Christian God and to Jesus. In my point of view, this should be said to be African Christian Theology. Despite the several Christian movements, Islam is part of the communal furniture in Africa. Thereby assume that African Theology only refers to Christian movements and churches do not improve African Studies.
Moreover, recognizing that Theology should be related to patterns of thought and manners of practice and live the religion local ancient cults must not be excluded from African Theology framework, as I pointed in my MSc thesis on Yorùbá Religion (2011).