There are many African traditional religions and Afro-diasporic traditions practiced across the continent of Africa, the Afro-Caribbean islands, the Americas, and even around the rest of the globe. These spiritual paths and traditions have more often than not been misunderstood, misrepresented, culturally appropriated, maligned, and even completely demonized in mainstream society and spiritual communities alike.
With this overview of the most widely practiced and well known Africana traditions, I hope to spread accurate information about their origins, practices, and differences.
Every culture, religion, and tradition is different with regards to who is welcomed to practice and engage with it as well as how potential practitioners or converts must learn and begin to become a part of those traditions. Cultural appropriation refers to when someone from a dominant and/or outsider culture crosses the expressed or traditional boundaries of a minority and/or marginalized culture’s traditions.
Some Africana religions like Kemeticism are very open and for the most part can be practiced by anyone (if done so respectfully) without culturally appropriating at all. However, most other Africana religions and traditions are so tied to ancestral practices and veneration that is practically nonsensical for those without African ancestral connections to attempt to engage with them. Even for us black folks, not all African and Afro-diasporic religious traditions are necessarily open without finding the right guidance and going through the correct channels. As you read through the different religions and traditions below, reference this legend key to understand what’s closed, semi-closed, and open under different circumstances.
🔴 Closed – These traditions are closed to everyone except people of African descent
🔶 Semi-Closed/Initiatory – Even for people of African descent, guidance from initiated practitioners or initiation is required to learn and practice
✅ Open – Anyone regardless of ancestry can practice and initiation or guidance is not strictly required
The vast majority of African religions and Afro-diasporic traditions are 🔶 initiatory (semi-closed), meaning that you cannot fully engage with and practice the religion without being initiated into it or at least joining an in-person community of initiated practitioners who can guide and teach you.
Some Africana communities will choose to initiate people regardless of their ancestry or race and some will not. Regardless of ancestry, it is never a given that any of these traditions will welcome potential practitioners or those seeking initiation. The only way to find out is to respectfully find a community of practitioners and inquire about the possibility. If the answer from that community is no, then it’s no.
Having time and time again witness first-hand the damaging impact of people without ancestral connections to these traditions being initiated and practicing them, I highly discourage folks without African descent from seeking to practice any of these traditions or religions (read more about this topic here). However, learning respectfully is always encouraged and that is exactly what this page is for.
Indigenous African Religions
The religions described below are African traditional religions (ATRs). While there are thousands of indigenous cultures and religions across the vast continent of Africa, a few are legitimately practiced by people around the world and across the diaspora. It is not uncommon for practitioners of some ATRs to fly to their countries of origin to be initiated by elders of the culture and traditions. All Afro-diasporic religions also have their origins in various ATRs such as these ones.
Spirits: Netjeru (spirits/deities)
Joining: Kemeticism is open, but Kemetic Orthodoxy has a conversion process
Kemeticism is the modern reconstruction of the religious traditions of Ancient Egypt. Kemetic Orthodoxy is a specific tradition of Kemeticism, which was founded by Rev. Tamara L. Siuda in the late 1980′s. The official website for the Kemetic Orthodoxy says,
“Kemetic Orthodoxy is an African Traditional Religion, and bears similarity to other African Traditional and African Diasporic religions (such as the West African religions of the Yoruba, Akan, Congo, and Dahomeyan peoples; and Afro-Caribbean practices of Vodou, Candomble, and Lukumi) as well as spiritual practices from northeastern Africa and the ancient Near East. Practicing Kemetic Orthodoxy requires a commitment to understanding a cultural heritage established in the past, which Kemetic Orthodoxy continues to respect and represent, even in places and times well removed from its original practice.” [x]
🔶 Ifa / Isese
Region: Yorubaland (Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, Togo, Ivory Coast)
Spirits: Olodumare (God), Orishas (spirits), Egungun (ancestors)
Joining: Must learn from initiated priests (babalawo, iyanifa, olorisha)
Many thousands of years ago, the Yoruba people of West Africa (primarily in Nigeria) developed an oral tradition and sacred literature called Ifá. The word “Ifá” can refer to many different things: the Yoruba system of divination, verses of the literary corpus known as the Odu Ifá, and the entire religion itself. Worship of the orishas comes from the Yoruba people’s Ifá traditions. The orishas are spirits of nature representing certain personalities and divine powers of the one supreme God, called Olodumare.
There are initiated priests (babalawos) and priestesses (iyanifa/iyalawo) of Ifá and initiated priests and priestesses of orishas called olorishas. Babalawos and iyanifas use either the divining chain known as Opele, or the sacred palm or kola nuts called Ikin, on the wooden divination tray called Opon Ifá. Meanwhile, olorishas can use cowrie shells to divine.
Through the slave trade, Ifá traditions would become the basis of many Afro-diasporic religions around the world. The Lucumí religion, which also worships the orishas, refers to the Yoruba religion as Isese (“tradition” in Yoruba language). Though many people in the US practice the Afro-diasporic branches of these traditions, there are also many who choose to instead practice Ifá traditions the Yoruba way and even fly to Nigeria to be initiated there.
Cultures: Fon / Dahomey and Ewe
Regions: Benin, Ghana, Togo, Nigeria
Spirits: Mawu / Mahu (God), Loa (spirits), Ancestors
Joining: Must learn from initiated priests and priestesses
The religion of the Fon and Ewe peoples in West Africa is called Vodun (also sometimes spelled Vodon or Vodoun), which comes from the Fon/Ewe word for “spirit.” In Vodun, there is one supreme God called Mawu or Mahu, who has many divine messengers and representations in her children, the loa. It is possible to travel to Benin or other countries where Vodun is practiced to be initiated into the religion by an indigenous priest or priestess, so Vodun is practiced primarily in West Africa but also worldwide. Even more so than West African Ifá, Vodun tends to require travel to Africa in order to learn and practice it.
These religions described below are Afro-diasporic religions (ADRs), also commonly known as ATRs (African traditional religions) due to their origins in various traditions from indigenous African cultures. The vast majority of ADRs developed under the conditions of slavery across the Caribbean and the Americas. For this reason, it is very common to see significantly more Christian and European influences in ADRs than in their indigenous African parent religions.
Spirits: Jah (God)
Joining: For people of African descent only
An Abrahamic spirituality that developed in Jamaica during the 1930′s, Rastas don’t refer to their faith as a religion or an “-ism” because that would be contrary to its core ideas. Rastafaris worship one God, whom they call Jah, and many regard Haile Selassie, the former emperor of Ethiopia, as the Messiah. As an Afrocentric movement, Rastafari focuses on the African diaspora and the oppression of black people in Western societies. They refer to Western Society as “Babylon” and Ethiopia or Africa as a whole as the “Promised Land of Zion.” Smoking cannabis, growing dreadlocks, and living naturally are all a part of livity, the Rasta lifestyle and sacred practices.
🔶 Lucumí / Santería
Spirits: Olodumare (God), Orishas / Saints (spirits), Egun (ancestors)
Joining: See more here
This tradition is known by many different names including Santería, La Regla de Ocha, La Regla Lucumí, and Lucumí/Lukumí. It developed as a distinct Afro-Cuban religion when many Yoruba slaves practicing Ifá traditions were brought to Cuba. Those Yoruba descendants in Cuba became the Lucumí people, who developed their own version of the religion syncretized with Catholicism. Not to be confused with Ifá as it is practiced by the Yoruba people in West Africa, there are also Ifá traditions of the orisha Orunmila within Lucumí. There are iles / casas (lineages/houses) of Lucumí that work with babalawos of those Ifá traditions and ones that only work with Ocha (orishas other than Orunmila). Today Lucumí / Santería is widely practiced in Cuba, the US, and many other parts of the world.
Spirits: Olodumare (God), Orixas (spirits), Ancestors
Joining: Must learn from initiated priests
An Afro-Brazilian religion derived from Yoruba Ifá traditions as well as Fon and Bantu practices. The way Lucumí / Santería developed in Cuba out of Yoruba Ifá practices through the slave trade is very similar to how Candomblé became a distinct religion in Brazil. Candomblé is also blended with Catholicism, using saints as covers for the worship of the orixas.
Spirits: Nzambi (God), Nkisi / Saints (spirits), the Dead
Joining: Must learn from initiated priests (Tatas and Yayis)
Also called Las Reglas de Congo (”Ways of the Congo”), Palo is an Afro-Cuban religion with several different branches including Palo Monte, Palo Mayombe, Palo Briyumba, and Palo Kimbisa. The name Palo comes from the Spanish word for stick due to the branches that are placed in nganga pots as a part of the traditions. While many ATRs are derived mostly from West African traditions, Palo’s roots are in Central Africa and the Congo Basin. Developed by the ancestors of many Congo slaves brought to Cuba, Palo’s liturgical language is a mix of Spanish and Bantu languages called habla Congo or lengua. Palo Cristiano are practitioners who syncretize with Catholicism and Palo Judio are those who do not. The Mpungo and Nkisi are the spirits who are worshipped with Nzambi being the supreme God.
🔶 Diasporic Lwa/Loa Traditions
Cultures: Afro-Caribbean and Latin American
Regions: Haitian (Vodou), Dominican (Vudú / 21 Divisiones), Cuban (Vodú), Brazilian (Vodum)
Spirits: Bondye (God), Lwa/Loa/Misterios (spirits), Ancestors
Joining: Must learn from initiated priests (mambos and houngans)
Vodun, the religion of the Fon and Ewe peoples, spread through the slave trade around the world and became the parent religion to many diasporic traditions with similar names (as mentioned above). The most well-known of these is Haitian Vodou, which played a role in helping liberate the Haitian slaves who developed it from slavery and French colonial rule. However, priests and priestesses of the lwa/loa/misterios spirits can also be found in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, and the United States (see below). Across these many different traditions, Catholic syncretism and using the saints as a cover for worshipping the spirits is a very significant practice.
🔴 New Orleans Voodoo
Culture: African American
Regions: New Orleans, Louisiana
Spirits: Bondye (God), Lwa/Loa (spirits), Ancestors
Practicing: Must learn from an experienced practitioner or be a hereditary practitioner
Louisiana Voodoo, also known as New Orleans Voodoo, describes a set of African American traditions developed by Fon and Ewe slaves brought those areas of the United States. With its French Catholic culture, Louisiana was a place where those slaves were able to preserve the Vodun religion through syncretization with Catholic saints. The liturgical language of voodoo is Louisiana Creole French. Unlike West African Vodun and Haitian Vodou, Louisiana Voodoo has blended somewhat with the separate and distinct tradition of hoodoo (see below). The words sounding similar and some of the overlaps between hoodoo and voodoo is where folks tend to mix the two up. For example, gris-gris bags are used in voodoo while mojo bags are a practice in hoodoo.
🔴 Hoodoo / Rootwork
Culture: African American
Region: United States (especially the South)
Spirits: Ancestors, Mojos/Hands, High John the Conqueror, Catholic saints (e.g. St. Rita, St. Expedite), Black Man at the Crossroads, Haints, Plat-Eyes
Practicing: See more here
An African American tradition and spirituality that developed from a number of different ATRs (especially from the Congo) when African slaves were brought to the US. Over time, hoodoo has also accumulated influences from a wide variety of other religions and cultures including Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Native American traditions, European folk medicine, European witchcraft and ceremonial magic, some East Asian beliefs, and Judaism. Despite these many influences, hoodoo is still primarily grounded in an Afrocentric approach to spirituality and is considered by many to be an aspect of African American culture. Read more about hoodoo here.