African cosmologies recognize two spheres of existence—the physical and the spiritual—between which there is an inseparable link, as well as constant interactions. Each sphere of existence is connected to the other: the living to the dead, the born to the unborn, humans to the deities. “A community develops its mode of relating to its ancestors and the gods, harmonizing the interconnectedness of everything,” according to Dr. K. C. Nweke. “Each community has its spiritual exclusiveness through its relatedness to the ancestors in the underworld who oversee the ephemeral world.”1
Today, many works of African fiction reflecting African cosmology are themselves fictional reflections of these African realities of life. Yet this can make it easy to mislabel such literary fiction as mere fantasy.
The genre of fantasy (part of the broader category of speculative fiction) can simply mean imaginative fictions involving outlandish characters, magical elements, and often set in created worlds. It is often a genre of escapist literature, in which readers must suspend their belief to enjoy. As such, “fantasy” can be an ill-fitting term, when describing many literary works of similar rendering from the African continent. In response, a new term was conceived to capture this gamut of African literary works, which, though having fantasy elements, are additionally imbued with the African spiritual realities: Afropantheology.
The stories envisaged under the label Afropantheology are primordial African stories inherited from priests and lorekeepers, who were in communication with the deities and the spirit world. Thus, the stories were viewed by their purveyors mostly as histories, rather than as fiction.2 (What may more correctly pass for the African literary equivalent to fantasy are the folklores, which are imaginative and didactic stories usually involving outlandish creatures and heroes, meant to entertain and sometimes instruct.) The stories of Afropantheology are not folklores, but (fictional) renderings of the histories passed down from keepers of African culture and lores. It is necessary that the stories be recognized for what they represent.
So, what does the new term Afropantheology mean? First, it is a portmanteau of Afro and pantheology. Pantheology is the study of gods, religions, and the bodies of knowledge associated with them. Derivatively, Afropantheology is the study of African (and African-descended) religions, gods, and the bodies of knowledge associated with them. It is a term to solve the age-old problem of accurate and respectful labeling of stories based on African lore and religion. They are not mere fantasies; neither do such labels as godpunk serve entirely to clothe these works—as skins do bones—for these stories stretch beyond just showing the “gods.”
Why then the creation of a new term, Afropantheology? Because it does not suffice to merely insist that these stories are the realities of the African cosmology, especially in this era when only the scientific is believed to be factual. Instead, it is because these stories, deriving though they are from African lore, are yet not wholly imaginative.
Is Revelation in the Bible a work of fantasy? If one believes that it stemmed wholly from the imagination of John the Apostle as he sat on the island of Patmos, then perhaps. But not if one believes that John wrote what was revealed to him by “God” or His delegates.
So too the stories of Afropantheology: they are fantasy, only insofar as the channels of their passage are dismissed. This, unfortunately, has been done for centuries now: when the continent’s jugular was slashed with the swords of slavery and colonialism, and its history and culture and stories poured into the arid sands of theft and erasure.
But not anymore. Afropantheology has been born to cauterize that wound, and our words to sing to life what was lost and sift the sand for the true Black Gold that lies amid the bones of our ancestors.
Our new book, the collection Between Dystopias: The Road to Afropantheology, articulates the concept of Afropantheology using what outsiders might term a multigenre approach. The short stories in the book showcase different aspects of African mysticism.
“The Deification of Igodo” reveals the creation of deities from among the ancestors in African cosmology (in which deities create humans as well as humans create deities). “A Dance with the Ancestors” demonstrates the interconnection between the world of the living and the world of the dead. And “The Land of the Awaiting Birth” articulates the link between the born and the unborn.
There are no magics in these stories, except if by magic one means what is not provable by science. In that case, the African cosmology abounds in such magics, and all the artist is called upon to do is to represent them.
The dystopic stories in the Afropantheology collection, like similar stories from the African continent, are realities, even if fictionalized realities. “Mother’s Love, Father’s Place” captures a moment in the history of certain parts of Africa, where the culture forbade the birthing of twins. “02 Arena,” on the other hand, is a contemporary “dystopic” reality. To readers in other climes, dystopic stories are mere dark imaginings, but not to us who experience, or whose ancestors experienced, them. Such arguments are showcased in “Too Dystopian for Whom? A Continental Nigerian Writer’s Perspective.” These dystopic stories, too, should be properly identified for what they represent: the African dystopic reality.
But the greatest reason for employing the term Afropantheology to identify stories of African pantheon, mysticism, and origin? It is to right the literal and literary injustice perpetrated on the continent, and its pantheon, by the colonialists and their writers.
Afropantheology asserts the right of Africans and African-descended peoples to tell the stories of African deities and mysticism, which were handed down from the realm of the spirits, irrespective of whether they conform to “established” literary categorizations or not.
Afropantheology as an analytic frame does not, of course, seek to resurrect the discussion on geographical colonialism or even the dark history of African slavery (except incidentally). Those are worthy aspirations, but they are already being taken care of by other forms of writings, colonial and contemporary (and perhaps even postmodern. Also, Afropantheology does not preach the superiority of African deities. Of greater concern to Afropantheology is to correct the misportrayal of African religion in artistic writings, and to encourage the recovery, rediscovery, rebirth, and documentation of African stories, cultures, and religions.
In this sense, Afropantheology asserts the right—and, indeed, the obligation—of Africans and African-descended peoples to tell the stories of African deities and mysticism, which were handed down from the realm of the spirits, irrespective of whether they conform to “established” literary categorizations or not.
This quest to correct the mislabeling would not be necessary but for the colonization and the bastardization of African spiritual and cultural sphere by Europeans. While the colonialists undermined African political establishments, the missionaries undermined African spiritual and cultural establishments.3 Both groups of invaders came with a similarly (misplaced) superiority mindset, which sought to impose their perceived higher political and religious doctrines on the natives. They worked to usher us into a culture of dystopias in which Africans were storyless; to rip from our hearts our songs; and to steal the joy from our dances, the tales from our tongues, and the fire from our eyes that looked to the future.
During the preslavery contact between Europeans and Africans and at the onset of the transatlantic slave trade, the Europeans described Africans as black devils, soulless creatures, and other bedeviling attributes. They needed to convince and condition themselves, intellectually and emotionally, of the devilish nature of the Africans. They needed to do so to create the psychological immunity that would numb their conscience for this type of slavery, and justify their treatment of the Black people as less than animals.4
On the political side, African kings were forced to rule according to Western dictates. Those who refused to deviate from the ways of their forefathers—like Jaja of Opobo and Overamwen Nogbaisi of the Benin Empire—were deposed or killed.
On the religious side, Islam and Christianity played crucial roles in the demonization of the Africans. Christianity provided the psycho-mental disposition on which centuries of indoctrination taught the Black man that Jesus, the Savior, was white, and the devil, who used to be white as an angel, became Black.5
Christianity and Islam substituted Jehovah and Allah for the deities of Africa with approximate creative powers, and the deities which found no equivalence in the colonialists’ religious labeling were eroded or demonized. In Yoruba culture, for instance, Olodumare or Olorun was selected to represent Jehovah and Allah, while in Igbo culture it was Chukwu or Chineke. And because the devil’s position was necessary for the missionary theology, the missionaries sought the likeliest force in contradiction to Allah and Jehovah.6 Both Christianity and Islam thus found ready equivalents for their shared villain, Satan, in Esu Elegbara (Yoruba pantheon), Ekwensu7 (Igbo pantheon), and so on in other African pantheons. However, in none of the African deities did these two major colonialist religions find worthy replacement for the benevolent Jesus and Muhammad, despite the superfluity of deified ancestors who provide striking similarities to their roles—for instance, Orunmila of the Orisha pantheon. In the African cosmology, the deities fight for their people and not the people for their deities. This was amply demonstrated by Chinua Achebe in The Arrow of God: the native gods were abandoned for the Christian god, after the native gods refuse to fight for themselves against the onslaught of Christian poaching of their worshippers.
Unlike these other religions, whose cosmos were polarized into simple good and evil, the cosmos of the African pantheons is polarized along a wider and varying spectrum: encompassing good and evil, power and weakness, physical and spiritual. Befuddled by this smorgasbord of deities, the conquerors of the African religious space relegated all the other African deities that found no equivalent in their monotheistic deisms to the status of demons. This is why they insisted that their African converts abandon these deities for the “true God.”
African “religions” not only do no proselytizing, but also readily welcome every creed and faith in the spirit of tolerance. In their tolerance, these religions have historically accommodated foreign religions and their adherents, letting its deities stand or fall for themselves. As such, they were taken advantage of.
While seeking to address and correct these mislabelings, the concept of Afropantheology recognizes the fluidity of definition and the diversity of the Continent and its pantheons. What Afropantheology seeks is the freedom of the artist to express these stories in their original forms, unbridled by Western labels and terminologies and the need for conformity to defined (often limited) literary standards.
This is because, contrary to speculations, the relative unfamiliarity of stories reflecting African pantheons is not due to the paucity of such stories, but, rather, to their accessibility. These stories have always been extant in oral forms, preserved by lore keepers whose goal was to ensure the continuity of culture rather than the fame of publication, who sought no glorification outside the recognition of their fidelity in passing the stories.8 In Africa, the oral arts perhaps predate stone and wood arts, but due to its very nature, oral literature is not a subject of archaeological discovery. And because of this, the forms of these stories are fluid and not readily conformable to standards of storytelling in civilizations that commenced their storytelling in written form.
In view of this, and of the diverse nature of African pantheons, any attempt at documenting these stories must understand the various histories and cultures behind them. Hence, the stories that fall under the label of Afropantheology are varied in artistic forms and themes. This, perhaps, is too obvious to require iteration. With Afropantheology, we provide a label which we believe more correctly identifies the stories of African deities and mysticism. We have not set out to create a new form of African literature (even if we incidentally did create a new genre), but merely to expose extant lores of African mysticism in the form intended by the deities and ancestors and lorekeepers of primeval African societies.
For too long, the stream of stories of African mysticism has been held by the dam of incorrect labelling and forced terminologies. Through Afropantheology, we hereby open the dam to release the pent-up stream of African mystic stories into the sea of global literature, to swell and enrich it!
In the words of Chinua Achebe, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
And so, our stories are here reformed and reborn in the throes and strength and fires of our words, an unbroken chain stretching through an endless cycle, leading us down that dark road of dystopia, guided by the light of recovery, into Afropantheology.
- Kizito Chinedu Nweke, “Responding to new Imageries in African indigenous Spiritualities,” Religious: Jurnal Studi Agama-Agama dan Lintas Budaya, vol.6, no. 3 (2022), p. 272. ↩
- Mbiti asserts that African cultures and religions are passed down through stories and folklores. See John S. Mbiti, Introduction to African Religion (Heinemann Educational, 1991). ↩
- Bascom considers Christianity as a repressive culture that urged a monumental evil on Africa. (Tim Bascom, “The Black African and the ‘White Man’s God’ in Things Fall Apart: Cultural Repression or Liberation?,” Commonwealth, vol. 11, no. 1 (1988), p. 70. ↩
- Nweke “Responding to new Imageries in African indigenous Spiritualities Religious,” p. 274. ↩
- Nweke “Responding to new Imageries in African indigenous Spiritualities Religious,” p. 276. ↩
- E. M. Okoye, The Traditional Religion and Its Encounter with Christianity in Achebe’s Novels (Peter Lang, 1987), p. 142. ↩
- Ekwensu is an Igbo deity of violence, war, deceit, and trickery He was revered, feared, and summoned in extreme needs to serve his purpose in wars or bargains and challenges. Festivals were held in his name in Igboland with military displays and some communities pledged allegiance to Ekwensu as their God, and assume its name for its protection or in appreciation of its goodness to them. Such communities adopted names such as Umuekwensu (the kindred of Ekwensu). (Nweke, p. 278). ↩
- The basis of African religion is tradition and ancestor worship passed through oral storytelling. (World Eras, vol. 10, edited by Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure (Thomson-Gale, 2003), pp. 275–314). ↩