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Religion, History and the Supreme Gods of Africa: A Contribution to the Debate

Author(s): Sandra E. Greene

Source: Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 26, Fasc. 2 (May, 1996), pp. 122-138
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(AfricanaStudies and ResearchCenter, Cornell University)

The status of the Supreme Being in precolonial traditional African

religious thought has been the subject of innumerable studies within
the fields of anthropology and religious studies. Of particular concern
in this paper is the debate that has raged between the so-called 'De-
vout' scholars and the 'De-Hellenists." The former emphasize the no-
tion that there existed among all African peoples before contact with
Islam and Christianity a Supreme Being with approximately the same
attributes that one currently associates with 'universalistic' world reli-
gions: the Supreme God as conceptualized by Africans was omnipo-
tent, and defined as the creator of the world. The 'De-Hellenists,' among
whom is the well-known scholar, Okot p'Bitek, argue that 'Devout'
scholars have generated this concept of a Supreme Being out of a
non-reality and that they had done so, in part, 'to defend Africa from
the intellectual arrogance of the West.' This arrogance p'Bitek associ-
ates with 'eighteenth century philosophers and... nineteenth century
anthropologists [who] used African and other non-Western religions to
demonstrate their theories of "progress."'2 p'Bitek argues that early
Western studies of world religions divided the history of religious prac-
tices into three evolutionary phases: Fetishism, Polytheism and Mono-
theism. The supposed religion of African peoples was defined as fetishism,
the lowest form of religious thought.3 Even after scholars began to reject
these evolutionary theories, leading Western anthropologists are said to
have continued 'to use insulting terms when describing African insti-
tutions.' In reaction to this racist scholarship, African scholars began
to claim that African peoples knew the Christian God long before the
missionaries introduced this new religion. In p'Bitek's words, African
scholars robed their deities in 'awkward Hellenic garments [in order]
to show to the world... that the African deities are but local names
of the One God who is omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, tran-
scendent and eternal.'4 p'Bitek continues by arguing that these more

O EJ. Brill, Leiden, 1996 Journal of Religionin Africa, XXVI, 2

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Godsof Africa 123

recent interpretations do nothing more than obscure the reality of

African religious thought.
If p'Bitek is correct, how then are we to understand African reli-
gious conceptions? p'Bitek and Robin Horton, another critic of the
so-called 'Devout,' do offer an alternative view of African traditional
religious concepts about a Supreme Being. According to these two, the
majority of African peoples before the entrance of Islam or Christianity
were not concerned with 'ontological definitions,'5where a person's in-
teraction with the spiritual was governed by notions of omnipotence,
omnipresence, transcendence and eternity. Instead, Africans were most
concerned about interacting with religious forces in order to obtain 'the
good life here and now,... health and prosperity,... success in life,
happy and productive marriage[s].'6According to this view, African re-
ligious thought revolved principally around the desire to 'explain and
influence the working of one's everyday life by discovering the con-
stant principles [within this spiritual world] that underlie the apparent
chaos and flux of sensory experience.'7 This conception of African reli-
gious beliefs does not deny the fact that some African cultures did, in-
deed, have a concept of a Supreme God. Rather what is being argued
is that the attributes accorded to this being were not necessarily those
also associated with the God of Christianity, Islam or Judaism, and
that interaction with this god-among those peoples who did recog-
nize a supreme god-was directed more toward explanation/predic-
tion/control over daily life rather than on 'communion' with the holy
as an end in itself.8
Efforts to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable positions do exist.
In his article published in 1982, Emefie Ikenga-Metuh argues that while
p'Bitek was correct in protesting the reduction of African and European
religious concepts into an undifferentiated mass, he also claims that
p'Bitek as well as Horton overstate their case. Based on a sampling of
West African religious systems, Ikenga-Metuh argues that African con-
ceptions of a Supreme God did exist and that God was described as
a being greater than all others. He notes that while the terms 'tran-
scendent, all-powerful and [the controller of] providence' are Western
philosophical concepts, they also described the attributes of the West
African Supreme Being. Ikenga-Metuh claims that there are, however,
differences between West African and Western religious thought. He
argues that the conception of God as creator did not exist within West
African belief systems. He also states that one could not speak of an
African monotheism despite the existence of a Supreme God, nor could

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124 SandraE. Greene

one characterize West African religious beliefs as polytheistic since the

Supreme God was not an equal among other deities that Africans wor-
shipped. Rather, one must define West African, and presumably African,
belief systems according to terms not existent in Western philosophical
thought. One must understand African tradition religion as a system
where it was believed that 'there [was] one Supreme God who medi-
ate[d] his powers through a hierarchy of subordinate deities.'9
The difficulty with this approach is that it does not really lead to a
greater understanding of African religious thought as a whole. Why is
it that in some instances the Supreme God was defined as a remote
deity uninvolved directly with the daily affairs of the world, and in oth-
ers, this God was worshipped according to the forms used to interact
with lesser gods? Is the only explanation the commonly stated notion
that the lesser deities were viewed by Africans as the vehicles through
which individuals communicated with the Supreme Being? How does
one account for the known historical fact that the name of the Supreme
Deity within the same society changed over time? How does one account
for the fact that in some societies a lesser deity became elevated to the
status of Supreme Deity? What are the implications of these changes
for our understanding the nature of the Supreme Deity in African tra-
ditional religious thought? Ikenga-Metuh's formulation does not exam-
ine any of these questions nor does his formulation give us any clue
as to how one might go about answering them.
Robin Horton has also attempted to break the analytical impasse
within the field of African religious studies and, I believe, has partially
succeeded in formulating a way forward with the publication in 1984
of his article 'Judaeo-Christian Spectacles.'" After providing extensive
additional evidence to support Okot p'Bitek's analysis of the problems
with scholarly studies on traditional African religious thought, he sug-
gests that the way forward is to abandon those methods used by 'Devout'
scholars. These methods rely on 'the use of [Western] religious dis-
course ... as a translation instrument' for the study of African religions,
methods that are grounded on the notion that 'a scholar lacking in
personal religious experience [lacks] the means of understanding the
religious thought and life of another culture."' A more fruitful approach
is said to involve recognition of the idea that religious conceptions
(termed 'theoretical' discourses or secondary theory) and 'everyday' prac-
tices were so intimately connected as to be indissoluble;'2one influenced
and impacted the other. Horton's discussion of this point is largely the-
oretical and is written to address issues in comparative religious stud-
ies, but his formulation is significant because it suggests not only that

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Religion, Godsof Africa 125

the Supreme Being within African religious thought was worshipped as

part of an effort by Africans to explain, control and predict the 'every-
day' occurrences in their lives, but also that this effort necessarily in-
fluenced how Africans worshipped the Supreme Being. Horton also
supports the need to recognize that African religious thought was dy-
namic and non-doctrinaire. He notes that 'because challenges to the
theoretical status quo come from the flow of experience...,'13 innova-
tions do occur. Dynamism is an integral part of the theoretical for-
mulation and practical worship of the Supreme Being. In addition,
'concern with systematization and consistence,' and the inclination to
be doctrinaire is less evident.'4 Horton's approach does have its prob-
lems, however. In his discussion of African religious systems, for exam-
ple, he notes that changes did occur therein, but he also stresses that
such changes were conservative, slow and happenstance in nature. I
believe this is not a particularly helpful analysis of the nature of change
within African religious systems. It does not address the question of
why changes occurred, in response to what, as initiated by whom.
The purpose of this essay-offered as a preliminary investigation of
African traditional religious thought about the Supreme Being-is to
build on Horton's theoretical outline by emphasizing the practical,
dynamic and non-doctrinaire aspects of African traditional religious
belief. But it also challenges Horton's understanding of the nature of
change as a peripheral and seemingly uninteresting feature of these
belief systems. I argue instead that not only did change occur, but that
an understanding of the same is central to an analysis of African con-
ceptions of the Supreme Being.'5 The focus of the essay is on the Ewe
and Fon god, Mawu (the deity that has been identified as the Supreme
God of most Ewe and Fon speaking peoples in the 19th century).
Evidence indicates that there did exist the concept of a Supreme Being
among the Ewe and Fon prior to the nineteenth century, but evidence
also suggests that this God's attributes shifted and changed over time
under the influence of changing power relations within the upper and
middle Slave Coast where the Ewe and Fon were situated. In analyz-
ing the nature of the Ewe and Fon Supreme God, I acknowledge the
importance of studying the notion of a Supreme Being as an integral
and important aspect of African traditional religious thought as argued
by the 'Devout,' but I also emphasize the extent to which the con-
ceptualization of the Supreme Being was very much influenced by
specific historical conditions. This is not to say that one can reduce
religious beliefs to a purely functionalist exercise. Rather I associate
such beliefs (and more specifically, changes therein) with changes in the

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126 SandraE. Greene

political and economic culture of a region. The two are inextricably

connected. One cannot understand African religious beliefs, and in this
case, conceptions of the Supreme Being, without also accepting the fact
that such beliefs were subject to change under the influence of worldly
events. Thus, by focusing on the historical, I shift the debate away from
issues about the centrality of the Supreme Being and the importance
of communion for its own sake versus its practical implications. I empha-
size instead the dynamic and non-doctrinaire character of African reli-
gious practices as well as the centrality of the history of politics and
power for understanding African-and in this case Ewe and Fon-con-
ceptualizationsof the Supreme Being. It was these qualities-the dynamic,
the non-doctrinaire and the intimate association with secular concerns-
which I believe defined and provided the foundation for African belief
systems, qualities that one found not only in the worship of lesser deities
(a point that has been recently well-established by McKenzie, Apter
and Brenner)16but which also influenced, altered and maintained the
worship of a Supreme Deity.

The Conceptof Mawu: Contemporary

and HistoricalAccounts
Studies on the traditional religious thought of the Ewe and Fon-
speaking peoples of Ghana, Togo and Benin are fairly unanimous in
attributing to these two peoples a belief in a Supreme Being who was
known as Mawu. Among the Anlo of southeastern Ghana, for exam-
ple, C.R. Gaba states that:
Mawu is the Anlo name for the Supreme Being. This same word is used by other
Ewe neighbors to designate their Supreme Beings... Mawu in Anlo thought
[means, etymologically] on the one hand, 'the One who surpasses all,' 'the Omnip-
otent,' and on the other, 'the One who does not kill'... This belief... and the
[etymology of thc word] support the view that Mawu originated with the Supreme
Being and was later adopted as [the] generic symbol for deity.'7

D.E.K. Fiawoo adds to this emphasis on the historic association between

the appellation Mawu and the Supreme Deity among the Anlo by not-
ing that the Anlos believed that Mawu was 'the basis of life, the supreme
power or force animating organic and inorganic existence and [was]
the underlying factor in all human relations.'8 Riviere, in his study of
the Ewe of Togo cites similar locally generated etymologies of the word
Mawu to arrive at the same conclusions: Mawu comes from the nega-
tion, ma = not, and the verb wu = to kill. Mawu doesn't kill. Rather
'he [gave] life to man, together with his assurance of nourishment,
drink and clothing... this distinguish[ed] Mawu from other gods, the

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Godsof Africa 127

trxwo,which inspire[d] fear and are reputed to kill those who fail to
respect them. Wu also means to exceed, to surpass. With the negation
ma in Mawu, one has the idea of a supreme or unsurpassable God.'9
Herskovits, in his study of Dahomey, has made similar connections be-
tween the Supreme Being of the Fon and Mawu.
When the ultimate control of the Universe is referred to, Mawu is the god usu-
ally named. It is Mawu as parent of the other gods, who gave them their power.
It is Mawu who, according to the diviners of Destiny, holds the formulae for the
creation of man and matter. It is Mawu who sent the art of divination to earth
so that man might know how to appease the anger and thwart the ill intentions
of the reigning pantheon heads, Mawu's children. It is Mawu who gave her favorite
son, the trickster Legba, to man to help him circumvent Fate. Most important of
all, it is Mawu who, though she divided her kingdom among her children, the
other Great Gods, and gave each autonomous rule over his own domain, has yet
withheld from all of them the knowledge of how to create, so that the ultimate
destiny of the Universe is still in her hands. When her children punish and destroy,
she can create anew.20

Contradicting these contemporary analyses of the conceptualization

of Mawu as the Supreme Deity are oral traditions collected in the 19th
century and early 20th century, and European accounts from this same
period. They offer a very different image of Mawu and the worship of
the Supreme Deity among the Ewe and Fon speaking peoples. In his
1911 publication on Ewe religion, J. Spieth observed that in the
Ewe-speaking area of Peki, the residents of that polity had 'conscious-
ness of a supreme god,' but this god was not Mawu, but rather Dzingbe.
As described by Spieth, the Peki conception of Dzingbe should not be
confused with the way in which this term was used in other Ewe-
speaking areas. In the latter, Dzingbe referred specifically to the heavens,
'the expanse which is on high, the celestial vault, [Mawu's] supposed
residence21where. . . the wealth of light that pours from the heavens
is from the oil which God is using to anoint his gigantic body, [where]
heaven's blue color is the veil with which he covers his countenance
and [where] the different cloud formations are the dress and the dec-
orations which the god dons at certain times.'22In Peki, Dzingbe was
the Supreme Being. He had 'his residence beyond the clouds in a
region they call Assron... when there is thunder, one hears his foot-
steps [as] he walks on the clouds.'23It is possible, of course, to argue-
as does Spieth24-that the Peki have simply replaced the name Mawu
with that of Dzingbe, but questions remain. If one accepts this replace-
ment theory, one still must explain the fact that Peki traditions state
that the Dzingbe-despite its attributes as a Supreme Being-was also
a tro, the term used for lesser gods among Ewe-speaking peoples.
Similar questions about the actual character of Ewe conceptions of

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128 SandraE. Greene

the Supreme Deity arise from J. Spieth's observations about the reli-
gious beliefs of the Anlo. He noted that in the early 20th century, there
existed among the Anlo not only a conception of the Supreme God as
Mawu, but also recognition of the name Se as the Supreme Being. Ac-
cording to Spieth, the term Se entered Anlo with the Afa divination
system. It was not an attribute of Mawu (as described by many con-
temporary scholars);25rather it co-existed as a separate yet non-com-
peting conception of the Supreme Being invoked specifically during Afa
divination sessions. Spieth also noted that in late 19th and early 20th
century Agu, the god Kpaya had all the attributes of the Supreme
Being as indicated in the following description, and Mawu was rather
conceived as a son, a creation of Kpaya, a tro who ruled over all other
tr:wo in Agu. Yet the way in which Kpaya as the Supreme Being was
conceptualized also does not conform to contemporary descriptions of
Ewe conceptions of the Supreme Being which emphasize the eternal
omnipotence of God.
Kpaya is omnipotent. He made the sun, the moon and the stars. He sends rain
and causes the morning to break and the night to fall. He sends children. But he
also imposes epidemics and death on mankind. Kpaya is the greatest and father
of all trowoat Agu. His priest became very rich, and that proved the God Kpaya's
own greatness. When the priest died, however, the riches disappeared with him,
and no second priest could be found who would have been comparable in wealth.
That is why Kpaya's greatness eventually disappeared.26

Similarly, while Herskovits stated that in Dahomey Mawu was con-

sidered the parent of all the other gods, the only one able to create,
the controller of the ultimate destiny of the Universe, he also observed
that Mawu was considered by many to be 'but another voduor god,'
worshipped by its particular followers who in fact were the only ones
who tended to invoke Mawu in their prayers for blessings. For many,
the name of the Supreme Being was not Mawu at all, but Sogbo.27
Additional questions about the implied unchanging association of
Mawu with the Supreme Deity among the Fon of Dahomey arise from
the oral traditions collected about the history of this god. These tradi-
tions state that the mother of the Dahomey king Tegbesu, Hwandjile,
introduced the worship of Mawu into Dahomey. Two of these tradi-
tions are recited here.
A woman who was called Hwandjile brought all the vodufrom Adja.

In those days, there were no vodu. Human women became pregnant and bore
goats, and goats gave birth to men. So it was. Now there was Hwandjile who
came from Adja, and she sold indigo. Many times she saw men mount she-goats
and he-goats mount women, so she asked who bore these animals and they told
her that women bore them.

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Religion,Historyand the SupremeGodsof Africa 129

Agadja had a wife who was called Naye Adono, but the two were not happy
together. One day after market, Naye Adono came to tell her husband, the King,
that she had met a woman from Adja who said she knew proper sacrifices to offer
up to bring it about that human beings would bear human beings, and goats bear
goats. Agadja sent a man to call Hwandjile to him. Now she was married to a
man in Adja, and had borne him a man-child. When the summons of Agadja
reached her she came to him and said, 'In our village, human beings bear humans
and animals bear animals.' Agadja asked her what they did in their country to
cause this to happen and she replied, 'In our country, we have vodu.You do not
have voduhere.' Agadja replied, 'Bring us these voduthat we may have them.'28

Hwandjile told him what was necessary, and, when Agadja provided everything
she had named, she brought Mawu...

The second tradition is quite different, but it emphasizes as well the

link between Hwandjile, the mother of King Tegbesu, and the intro-
duction of the worship of Mawu into Dahomey.

During the reign of Tegbesu there was great unrest among the princes, his half-
brothers, who coveted his throne. A number of them and their retainers were
eventually sold into slavery to the New World. To allay the disaffection of the
people who were being swayed by the priesthood of the autochthonous gods to
resist the monarch, his mother, herself a priestess of Mawu-Lisa, persuaded Teg-
besu to cause the cult to be brought to Abomey, and under the aegis of the pow-
erful gods of the Sky to cement his rule and gain the spiritual submission of his

A full analysis of these traditions is not the concern here. More impor-
tant for our understanding of the worship of Mawu in Dahomey is that
these traditions state that the worship of the god Mawu came from
elsewhere. It was not necessarily conceptualized as the Supreme Being.
Its gender in early 20th century Dahomey was defined as female rather
than male (as was the case in Ewe-speaking areas). In the first tradi-
tion, it was described as a single deity; in the second it was conceived
as a duality composed of the female Mawu (symbolized by the sun)
and the male Lisa (symbolized by the moon).
These traditions and earlier accounts which describe the worship of
Mawu among the Ewe and Fon-speaking peoples of Ghana, Togo and
Benin, and which also convey a particular image of Ewe and Fon con-
ceptions of a Supreme Being differ sharply from those found in more
contemporary studies. How does one reconcile these various descrip-
tions? If Mawu was indeed conceived of as the Supreme Being, and if
we also accept the idea that this Supreme Being may have had differ-
ent names among the various Ewe and Fon communities, that it could
have been variously conceptualized as male, female, or as a Supreme
Being of a dual nature, possessing both male and female aspects, how
can we account for the fact that traditions from the area also describe
the Supreme Being, whether this entity was named Mawu, Mawu-Lisa,

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130 SandraE. Greene

Se or Kpaya, as a being that could lose like Kpaya of Agu its omnip-
otence? What conceptions of the Supreme Being would permit a descrip-
tion of God as having come from elsewhere as a voduor tri and then
been elevated to status of a Supreme Being? How can two conceptions
of the Supreme Being, as was the case with Mawu and Se in nine-
teenth century Anlo, co-exist yet one not displace the other? How could
the Supreme Being be conceptualized as both Supreme Being and vodu
as was the case in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Dahomey?
Critical to an analysis of the history of Mawu and conceptions of
the Supreme Being in the Ewe and Fon-speaking area of West Africa
is the idea that one cannot isolate the study of religious thought and
practice from the political, economic and social conditions in which the
believers in a Supreme Being operated. This social context defined how
individuals, families and communities interacted and defined the Su-
preme Being; it influenced how notions about a Supreme God shifted
and changed. This is not to suggest that religious thought in precolo-
nial west Africa cannot be understood without a full analysis of the
political, economic and social conditions within a society. But an analy-
sis of this interconnectedness can provide answers to the questions above.
Such an analysis also injects into the debate about African concepts of
the Supreme Deity the necessary understanding that changes in reli-
gious beliefs and practices did occur. These changes can be documented
in a way that reveals much about African, and in this case, Ewe and
Fon conceptions of a Supreme Deity.

Mawu and Conceptions of the SupremeBeing amongthe Ewe and Fon: An

The earliest information about a god called Mawu comes from oral
traditions and archaeological studies. On the basis of the findings of
Aguigah and Gayibor, it seems clear that the deity Mawu originated
in the Adja area of west Africa, and gained its prominence in part
because of its association with the Watsi town of Notsie, a political,
economic and religious center that was prominent during the sixteenth,
seventeenth and eighteenth century. During this period, the town of
Notsie had the organizational capacity-headed by a priest at the apex
of the politico-religious system30-to build a wall enclosing 14 square
kilometers to symbolize its status as a major center within the region.
Despite the fact that it was located about 100 kilometers from the coast,
European travelers were made aware of its existence, and its location
was noted on the Atlas of Muenster in 1575. More importantly for this

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Godsof Africa 131

study, the oldest residential district within the town, the Tegbe quar-
ter, was the site where the priest of the god Mawu is said to have
lived. In addition, the sanctuary for Mawu, according to Notsie oral
traditions, was once located in the sacred forest immediately north of
the Tegbe quarter.31This association between the worship of Mawu
and the oldest section of Notsie, a town that was noted throughout the
region as a political and religious center, is significant because it sug-
gests that the worship of Mawu-whether as the Supreme Being or as
a voduor lesser god-dates to at least the sixteenth century.
While we cannot know how the people of Notsie conceptualized
Mawu-as a lesser god or the Supreme God-it is apparent that it
was conceived of by others in the region as having great power. Accord-
ing to seventeenth century accounts written by European travelers,
Mawu was known and viewed as the Supreme Being in the town of
Whydah.32In the oral traditions of the Dahomey people, the god Mawu
is said to have brought order into the world when it was introduced
into the polity; it supported the efforts of the Dahomean king Tegbesu
(1740-1774) to entrench his authority as king. In the Anlo area during
the early sixteenth century when the current residents settled on the
Atlantic littoral, it was to Notsie that one of the most prominent immi-
grant groups, the Nyaxoenu lineage, resorted when it became entan-
gled in a dispute with another immigrant family as to which lineage
had the religious authority to share leadership of the area with the in-
digenous inhabitants. Anlo oral traditions indicate that it was from
Notsie that the Nyaxoenu family obtained its tsina or rainstone, an
object of great spiritual power, and it was the acquisition of this object
that allowed them to assert their right to provide the Anlo spiritual
and political leader, the aw3amefia.33 This connection between Notsie
and Anlo continues to be acknowledged in contemporary Anlo rituals.34
The interaction that evidently occurred among the polities of Notsie,
Anlo, Whydah and Dahomey appears to have established or reinforced
belief in the god Mawu, but the way in which this deity was concep-
tualized and worshipped in the latter three areas took very different
forms. In Whydah, European accounts indicate that Mawu was first
worshipped as a Supreme Deity that was not directly involved and
therefore not an object of supplication for aid by the local population.
W. Bosman noted, for example, that 'they do not pray to him or offer
any sacrifices...'35 By the eighteenth century, however, the worship of
Mawu is said to have taken on more of the attributes of a vodu or
lesser god, which was worshipped by individuals and to which were
offered sacrifices for good health.36 In Dahomey, Mawu was probably

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132 SandraE. Greene

known as a deity from at least the mid-seventeenth century since the

inhabitants of Whydah, with whom the Dahomeans had regular eco-
nomic interaction,37viewed Mawu as their Supreme Deity. During the
seventeenth century, however, it appears that the deity whom the
Dahomeans defined as the Supreme God was called Nana Buluku.38
From the eighteenth century on, when Dahomean king Tegbesu
(1740-1774) associated himself with the worship of Mawu, the god-
first introduced as a lesser deity or vodu-gradually gained the attributes
of a Supreme Being. This elevation appears to have altered its defined
position vis-a-vis Nana Buluku. Mawu was no longer described as the
creation of the latter; rather Nana Buluku and its powers became one
of Mawu's attributes as the Supreme Deity.39 Mawu was redefined as
'the ultimate controller of the universe, parent of the other gods. It was
said to hold the formulae for the creation of man and matter.'40
The worship of Mawu in Anlo took yet another form. There were
no shrines to Mawu as there were for other lesser deities. Nevertheless,
as T. Ellis noted in the late 19th century:
Mawu... is regarded as the most powerful of the gods... [although] sacrifice is
never directly offered to him, and prayer rarely. The natives explain this by say-
ing that he is too distant to trouble about man and his affairs, and they believe
that he remains in a beatific condition of perpetual repose and drowsiness...41

Ellis also claimed, however, that while the Ewe viewed Mawu as the
most powerful of gods, 'he [was] not a supreme creator.' Ellis contin-
ued by stating that:
I am aware that this is not the view commonly held by the German missionar-
ies who are the only class of Europeans who ever seem to try to discover what
the religious beliefs of the natives are. They are of the opinion that Mawu is held
to be the lord of the terrestrial gods, who are subordinated to his control, and
some even go so far as to say that he created them; but though one may occa-
sionally obtain from natives who inhabit the seacoast towns, and who having all
their lives been in contact with Europeans, have become familiar with the European
notion of a creator and supreme god, statements that go to corroborate this, yet
it is evident that this is a modification of the more original conception of Mawu,
and is due to European influence; for natives who have not been subjected to that
influence distinctly hold the view that Mawu though the most powerful is simply
one of many gods, each of whom is perfectly independent in his own domain,
and subject to no control whatever.42

Ellis' interpretation does indeed clash with German missionary con-

ceptions of how the Anlo viewed Mawu, but acceptance of either view-
that Mawu was a Supreme Deity or was simply the most powerful, but
distant deity included within Anlo religious beliefs-would ignore the
complexity of how the Anlo appear to have conceptualized the Supreme
Being. According to German missionary Bernhard Schlegel, mid-19th

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Religion, Godsof Africa 133

century Anlo religious beliefs included the idea that the human soul,
the luva, consisted of two elements: the spirit or life soul, known vari-
ously as the gbzgb3,dsogbe,se or aklama,and the personality soul, also
known as luva or vovoli.The gb~gbgwas believed to have been given to
a person by the Supreme Being and was that spiritual force which gave
the person life, breath, and consciousness. The luva gave a person his
or her personality. On a person's death, the luva, referred to as the
vovolior V3ali,was believed to return to the land of the dead, Tsiefe,
while the gbagba,originally bequeathed to that person by Mawu, returned
to the Supreme Being. Of particular interest here is the fact that accord-
ing to Schlegel, the gb3gb3returned to Mawu in the town of Notsie,
the same town where Mawu obtained the luva for assignment to
new-borns, the same town to which certain Anlo families resorted in
their efforts to obtain additional spiritual powers in order to establish
their claim to the leadership of the polity, the same town where Aguigah
indicates the worship of Mawu existed from at least the sixteenth cen-
tury.43This association between Mawu (a deity that had the sole power
to create life) and the town of Notsie where a shrine to Mawu actu-
ally existed, suggests that the boundaries that separated conceptions of
the Supreme Being from those associated with a very powerful god,
voduor tra, was a very porous one. In Anlo, Mawu was viewed, as Ellis
described, as the most powerful deity in the area. It was imagined to
be distant from the population, and in fact was, not only in a cosmo-
logical sense, but also in a real material/geographical sense. Its home
was in Notsie. But it was also viewed as a Supreme Deity because only
it had the power to give life.
These examples from Whydah, Dahomey and Anlo suggest that
among the Fon and Ewe there existed a tendency to merge concep-
tualizations of the Supreme Being with the imagery and/or worship of
a specific deity that was viewed as extremely powerful. This analysis,
in turn, suggests that if the powers of a particular deity that had pre-
viously been defined as a Supreme Deity declined, the population would
have redefined the Supreme Deity by associating it with another lesser-
but now all-powerful-god. That this was indeed precisely what hap-
pened is perhaps most apparent from the history of Mawu in Daho-
mey. Prior to the second half of the eighteenth century when Tegbesu
accepted Mawu as a deity that was to be closely associated with the
royals of that state, this deity was viewed as a tra that included among
its priests, Hwandjile, the mother of Tegbesu. The Supreme Deity, the
most powerful god of the Dahomeans, was Nana Buluku. Once Teg-
besu began to patronize Mawu, however, and the latter's worship found

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134 SandraE. Greene

continued support from his royal successors, the Supreme Being, for-
merly associated with Nana Buluku, was redefined as Mawu. Nana
Buluku became only an attribute, a manifestation of Mawu. Mawu, in
turn, was redefined as the only deity powerful enough to engage the
otherwise dangerous activity of human sacrifice; it became known as
the god 'closest... to the members of the royal family.'44Because of
its supposed powers, it also assumed the attributes of a Supreme Deity,
while in practice it was still worshipped as a vodu.
This same conceptualization of the Supreme Being as being inti-
mately intertwined with the realities of daily political and religious life,
changing and shifting as the character of power relations within the
political and religious life of a community changed, also helps make
sense of late nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts about
conceptions of the Supreme Being in Peki, Agu and Whydah. In Peki,
the god Dzingbe-described as the name of the Supreme Being of this
polity-was attributed all the characteristics associated with a Supreme
Being found among other Ewe-speaking peoples. It resided in the area
above the clouds. The blueness of the sky, the clouds, thunder and the
wind were viewed as only manifestations of its presence. Yet Dzingbe
was also worshipped as a tro. It had a priest and its worship was said
to have entered Peki at a particular point in time. In Agu, where the
Supreme Deity was called Kpaya, the latter was associated with the
power of creation, but was also viewed as a tro, a god. In seventeenth
century Whydah, Mawu was apparently conceptualized as a Supreme
Deity that was too distant for individuals to approach through direct
worship. By the eighteenth century, when perhaps the worship of Mawu
as a god entered the area, the population combined the image of Mawu
as Supreme Being with Mawu as god. In all three cases, ideas about
a Supreme Being were directly linked to and influenced by conceptu-
alizations of the powers associated with a specific tro.
It is only with this understanding of Ewe and Fon religious belief
practices that one can make sense of the fact that among nineteenth
century Ewe-speaking peoples Mawu was (and continues to be a term)
used both for the Supreme Being and as a generic term for god. It
also helps explain the gender transformations that apparently occurred
when the worship of Mawu entered Dahomey. Accounts about the
identity of this god in seventeenth century Whydah and in nineteenth
century Anlo indicate that Mawu in these locations was conceptualized
as a male, but on its acceptance into Dahomey as a deity closely asso-
ciated with the royal family, it was re-conceptualized (for unknown rea-
sons) by a variety of people as female, androgynous and/or male.

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Reliion,Histoy andtheSupreme
Godsof Africa 135

Understandings about the nature of the Supreme Being were subject

to constant change. They were dynamic and deeply influenced by the
changing political and religious conditions that prevailed in the com-
munities where, in this case, Mawu was worshipped.
Equally evident in the history of Ewe and Fon religious beliefs was
the notion, so clearly articulated by Brenner, that:
African 'religious' practice is highly eclectic and anything but doctrinal... The
conceptual universe... is constructed ad hoc around the specificity of events. No
evidence exists to suggest that systematic internal cosmologies were ever produced
to integrate 'religious'/theoretical thinking... into a coherent whole.45

The fact that in nineteenth century Anlo, two identical but separate
conceptions of the Supreme Deity could exist-Mawu as well as Se-
illustrates the extent to which the population in this area constructed
its religious belief system in response to a felt need to explain, control
and/or predict the events of the here and now. The concept of Se,
according to both late nineteenth and early twentieth century German
missionary accounts and Anlo oral traditions, was incorporated into
Anlo religious conceptions of the Supreme Being with the acceptance
of the Afa divination system, probably in the eighteenth century when
the polity of Anlo area increased significantly its economic and politi-
cal interaction with those polities such as Anecho and Whydah which
were located on the coast to its east.46 Prior to this period, Anlo tra-
ditions indicate that a local divination system was well established and
widely practiced. Given the fact that almost all Ewe-speaking groups
maintained in the 19th century a belief in the reincarnation of the soul,
luva, which required parents of new-born children to consult a diviner
to determine who their infant was a reincarnation of, it is likely that
this belief system was much older and that the Deity whom the diviner
consulted was Mawu or some other named Supreme Deity. The accept-
ance of the Afa divination system is said to have replaced the older
system.47One of the results of this change was that diviners trained in
the Afa system invoked not Mawu as the Supreme Being, but rather
Se. The continued political and religious importance of the connection
between Anlo and Notsie, where it was believed that Mawu resided-
the Mawu which had given the Nyaxoenu branch of the Adzovia clan
the spiritual force to establish its claim to the leadership of the polity-
meant, however, that while Se became the Supreme Deity which most
Anlo diviners invoked in order to determine who a new-born infant
was a reincarnation of, Mawu as Supreme Deity remained a central
feature of Anlo religious thought, conceptualized as identical to but sep-
arate from Se as the Supreme Deity.

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136 SandraE. Greene


To date, most studies concerned with understanding African con-

ceptions of a Supreme Being have been locked into an increasingly
sterile debate that has pitted the so-called 'Devout' scholars against the
'De-Hellenists.' The 'Devout' argue for the existence and the central-
ity of the Supreme Being in African religious thought; they also empha-
size the notion that African interaction with the Supreme Being-like
that of Western monotheistic religions-was based on the desire to be
one with God for its own sake. The 'De-Hellenists,' on the other hand,
emphasize the variability of the conceptions about the Supreme Being
and emphasize either its relative marginality in African religious thought
and/or the notion that while the Supreme Being may be part and par-
cel of African thought, more central for understanding African concep-
tions of the Supreme Being is the association of this God with every-
day affairs. The impasse in this debate, I believe, has to do with the
fact that all concerned have failed to recognize the extent to which
African religious conceptions were deeply influenced by the power dy-
namics within a given polity or region. The conceptualization of a Su-
preme Being was continually subject to reinvention. This analysis of
the nature of Mawu illustrates the necessity to broaden the study of
African religious thought to include historical data. For the same econo-
mic and political changes which were impacting the daily lives of Afri-
cans also profoundly influenced their conceptions of the Supreme Deity.

1. The terms for these two groups come from Okot p'Bitek, AfiicanReligionsin West-
ern Scholarship(Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1971) and Robin Horton, 'On the
Rationality of Conversion,' Africa,XXXIV, 2 (1975) 85-104, as well as Robin Horton,
'Judaeo-Christian Spectacles: Boon or Bane to the Study of African Religions?,' Cahiers
d'EtudesAfricaines,XXIV, 4, 96 (1984) 392-436. Included among the 'Devout' by p'Bitek
areJomo Kenyatta, J.B. Danquah, K.A. Busia, W. Abraham and E.B. Idowu. Horton in-
cludes among this group H.W. Turner, V.W. Turner, J. Mbiti and E.E. Evans-Pritchard.
2. p'Bitek, AfricanReligions,41.
3. p'Bitek, Ibid., 43.
4. p'Bitek, Ibid., 47.
5. p'Bitek, Ibid., 72-73.
6. p'Bitek, Ibid., 62.
7. Robin Horton, 'Ritual Man in Africa,' Africa,XXIV, 2 (1964) 97.
8. Horton, 'Judaeo-Christian Spectacles.'
9. Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, 'Religious Concepts in West African Cosmologies: A
Problem of Interpretation,' Journal of Religionin Africa,XII, 1 (1981) 11-24.
10. See the citation for this article in footnote number one. This article also appears
in Robin Horton, Patternsof Thoughtin Africa and the West:Essays on Magic, Religionand
Science(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

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Religion,Historyand the SupremeGodsof Africa 137

11. Horton, 'Judaeo-Christian Spectacles,' 395-396.

12. Horton, Patternsof Thought,312-320-326.
13. Horton, Ibid., 330.
14. Horton, Ibid., 331.
15. Another of Horton's principal concerns in examining traditional African religious
thought is to demonstrate the extent to which this system shared much in common
with modern scientific thought. This aspect of his work has been the subject of numer-
ous responses, many of which are quite critical. My concern, and that of others like
John Beattie, 'Understanding Traditional African Religion: A Comment on Horton,'
SecondOrder,II, 2 (1973) 2-11 andJ.E. Wiredu, 'How Not to Compare African Thought
with Western Thought,' in AfiicanPhilosophy: edited by Richard A. Wright,
An Introduction,
133-147 (Washington D.C.: University Press of America, 1979) is that this particular
comparison lends support for the impression that no scientific thought existed in Africa
with which to compare European scientific approaches. Science rules the day in Europe;
religious beliefs rule the day in Africa. I reject these implications while still finding in
his theory some otherwise very valuable elements.
16. P.R. McKenzie, 'Yoruba Orisa Cults: Some Marginal Notes Concerning Their
Cosmology and Concepts of Deity,' in Journalof Religionin Africa,VIII, 3 (1976) 189-207;
Andrew Apter, Black Criticsand Iings: The Henmeneutics of Powerin ooruba Societ (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1992) and Louis Brenner, "'Religious" Discourses in and
about Africa,' in Discourseand Its Disguises,edited by Karin Barber and P.F. de Moraes
Farias (Birmingham: Birmingham University African Studies Series No. 1, 1989) 87-105.
17. C.R. Gaba, 'The Idea of a Supreme Being Among the Anlo People of Ghana,'
Journal of Religionin Africa, II, 1 (1969) 64.
18. D.E.K. Fiawoo, The Influence of Contemporary Social Changes on the
Magico-Religious Concepts and Organization of the Southern Ewe-speaking Peoples of
Ghana. Ph.D. Dissertation. University of Edinburgh (1957) 49.
19. Claude Riviere, Anthropologie Religieusedes Eve du Togo (Lome: Les Nouvelles Edi-
tions, 1981) 15.
20. Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits, 'An Outline of Dahomean
Religious Beliefs,' in Memoirsof theAmericanAnthropological Association,No. 1 (1933) 12.
21. Riviere, Anthropologie Relgieuse 16.
22. Jakob Spieth, Die Religion der Eweer (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprect,
1911) 5.
23. Spieth, Ibid., 46.
24. Spieth, Ibid., 4.
25. Riviere, Anthropologie Religieuse,17 and Fiawoo, The Influence, 46.
26. Spieth, Die Religion,22.
27. Herskovits and Herskovits, 'An Outline,' 12.
28. Melville J. Herskovits, Dahomey:An Ancient WestAfricanKingdom,Volume 2 (New
York: JJ. Augustin, 1938) 104.
29. Herskovits, Dahomey,104.
30. Nicoue Lodjou Gayibor, Recueildes SourcesOralesdu Pay Aja-Ewe(Lome: Universite
du Benin, Ecoles des Lettres, 1977) 63.
31. Dola A. Aguigah, La Site du Notse: Contribution a L'Archeologie du Togo.
Theses pour le Doctorat de Troisieme Cycle, Universite de Paris I, Pantheon, Sorbonne
(1986) 52, 66-67, 397-400, 411-412.
32. Robin Law, The Slave Coastof WestAfrica, 1550-1570 (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1991) 111.
33. See Sandra E. Greene, Gender,Ethnicityand Social Changeon the UpperSlave Coast
(Portsmouth: Heinemann Books, forthcoming) Chapter Three.
34. Sandra E. Greene, Field Note No. 53: Interview with Togbui Alex Afatsao
Awadzi, 16 December 1987, Anloga, Ghana and Field Note No. 62: Interview with
K.A. Mensah, 5 January 1988, Anloga, Ghana.

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138 SandraE. Greene

35. William A. Bosman, A New and AccurateDescriptionof the Coastsof Guinea(London:

J. Knapton, 1705; repr. 1967) 368.
36. Law, Ibid., 111.
37. See Law, The Slave Coast, 44-56 for a discussion of trade in the region during
the seventeenth century.
38. Herskovits, Dahomey,102.
39. Claude Savary, La Pensie symboliquedes Fon du Dahomey(Geneve: Universite de
Neuchatel, Faculte du Lettres, 1976) 141.
40. Herskovits, Dahomey,12. For a discussion of the political significance of this see
Robin Law, 'Ideologies of Ritual Power: The Dissolution and Reconstruction of Political
Authority on the Slave Coast, 1680-1750,' Africa,57, 3, (1987) 330. See also P. Mercier,
'The Fon of Dahomey,' in Afiican Worlds:Studiesin the Cosmological Ideas and Social Values
of AfricanPeople.Edited by Daryll Forde (London: Oxford University Press, 1954) 210-234.
41. A.B. Ellis, The Ewe-Speaking Peoplesof the Slave Coastof WestAfrica(Chicago: Benin
Press, 1890. Reprinted in 1965) 32-33.
42. Ellis, Ibid., 32-33.
43. Bernhard Schlegel, 'Beitrag zur Geschichte, Welt- und Reigionsanschauung,
nametlich des Eweers,' in MonatsblattderNorddeutschen 7, 93 (1858) 407.
Much has been written on Anlo conceptions of the soul, see: Fiawoo, The Influence;
G. Von Binetsch, 'Berichte der Missionare G. Binetsch und B. Hartter uber die Eweer
bezw. Anglo-Eweer,' in Zeitschnriftir
Ehnologie,38 (1906); Gaba, 'The Idea;' G.K. Nukunya,
'Some Underlying Beliefs in Ancestor Worship and Mortuary Rites among the Ewe,'
in La Notionde personneen Afriquenoire.Edited by G. Dieterlen (Paris: Editions du Centre
national de la recherche scientifique, 1973) 119-130; A. Jehle, 'Soul, Spirit, Fate,' Journal
of the AfricanSociety,6 (1906) 405-415; Elis, The Ewe-Speaking,101-107.
44. Herskovits, Dahomey,109.
45. Brenner, "'Religious" Discourses,' 91, 93.
46. See Sandra E. Greene, The Anlo-Ewe: Their Economy, Society and External
Relations in the Eighteenth Century. Ph.D. Dissertation, Northwestern University (1981)
on the history of relations between Anecho and Anlo. See Spieth, Die Religion,6, on
the entrance of the concept of Se into Anlo.
47. Albert de Surgy, La Geomancie et le culte d'Afa chez les Ewhe du littoral(Paris: Pub-
lications Orientalistes de France, 1981) 9. For information on Afa divination, see also
Peter Kwami Akli Ackoussah, Afa Divination as a Means of Social Control, B.A. Thesis,
Political Science Department, University of Ghana, Legon (1978); G.K. Nukunya, 'Afa
Divination in Anlo: A Preliminary Report,' ResearchReview(Legon)5/2 (1969) 9-26; and
Spieth, Die Religion,15, 192-215, 219-220.

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