In Africa the cradle of humankind there are many forms of shamanic practices. In central Africa Dogon (Mali), sorcerers (both male and female) claim to have communication with a head diety named Ama, who advises them on healing and divinatory practices. Traditional healers in parts of Africa were often referred to in a derogatory manner as “witch doctors” practicing Juju. The San or Bushmen ancestors, who were primarily scattered in Southern Africa, practiced a practice similar to shamanism. In areas in Eastern Free State and Lesotho, where they co-existed with the early Sotho tribes, local folklore describes them to have lived in caves where they drew pictures on cave walls during a trance and were also reputed to be good rain makers. Zulu Sangoma (Shaman), Pondo shamans and the Kalahari San. The !X? people of southern Africa were both animistic and animatistic; they believed in both personifications and impersonal forces. For Vodou (spirit) healers, (Houngan male or Mambo, female) individual sickness or social disease is the result of lack of harmony arises from either: Spiritual intrusions – perceived as energies foreign to a person which have been introduced into his energy system, where their detrimental impact is experienced as illness or Soul loss – where certain traumatic events or willful actions result in a severe loss of power which, will ultimately create illness (zombi). They use their healing spirits, sacrifice to appease or empower the spirits. or cornmeal, an egg, rum, or water. Iboga is the visionary root of African Shamanism
Sangomas of Southern Africa
Sangomas are the traditional healers in the Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa and Ndebele traditions in southern Africa. They perform a holistic and symbolic form of healing, embedded in the beliefs of their culture that ancestors in the afterlife guide and protect the living. Sangomas are called to heal, and through them ancestors from the spirit world can give instruction and advice to heal illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties. Sangomas have many different social and political roles in the community: divination, healing, directing rituals, finding lost cattle, protecting warriors, counteracting witches, and narrating the history, cosmology, and myths of their tradition. They are highly revered and respected in their society, where illness is thought to be caused by witchcraft, pollution (contact with impure objects or occurrences) or by the ancestors themselves, either malevolently, or through neglect if they are not respected, or to show an individual her calling to be a Sangoma. For harmony between the living and the dead, vital for a trouble-free life, the ancestors must be shown respect through ritual and animal sacrifice. A Sangoma is called to heal by an initiation illness, often psychosis, headache, intractable stomach pain, shoulder or neck complaints. She will undergo Thwasa, a period of training including learning humility to the ancestors, purification through steaming, washing in the blood of sacrificed animals, and the use of Muti, medicines with spiritual significance. At the end of Thwasa, a goat is sacrificed to call to the ancestors and appease them.
Sangomas are steeped in ritual. They work in a sacred healing hut or Ndumba, where their ancestors reside. They have specific coloured cloths to wear to please each ancestor, and often wear the gallbladder of the goat sacrificed at their graduation ceremony in their hair. They summon the ancestors by burning a plant called Imphepho, dancing, chanting, and most importantly playing drums. Sangomas are able to access advice and guidance from the ancestors for their patients in three ways: possession by an ancestor, or channelling; throwing bones; and interpreting dreams. In possession states the Sangoma works herself into a trance, through drumming, dancing and chanting, and allows her ego to step aside so an ancestor possesses her body and communicates directly with the patient, providing specific information about his problems. It can be very dramatic, with the Sangoma speaking in tongues, or foreign languages according to the specific ancestor, or dancing fervently beyond her normal ability. Accessing the ancestors’ advice through the bones is an alternative to the exhausting possession states. The Sangoma possesses a collection of small bones and other small objects like seeds, shells etc, each with a specific significance to human life. For example a hyena bone signifies a thief and will provide information about stolen objects. The Sangoma or the patient throws the bones but the ancestors control how they lie, and the Sangoma then interprets this metaphor in relation to the patient’s life. In the same way, Sangomas will interpret the metaphors present in dreams, either their own or patients’. Sangomas will give their patients Muti, medications of plant and animal origin imbued with spiritual significance, often with powerful symbolism – lion fat is given to promote courage. There are medicines for everything from physical and mental illness, social disharmony and spiritual difficulties to potions for love and luck. Muti can be drunk, smoked, inhaled, used for washing, smeared on the body, given as enemas, or rubbed into an incision. One of the most famous and well-respected sangomas worldwide is Vusamazulu Credo Mutwa also known as the Zulu Shaman.
Bwiti of West Central Africa
Bwiti is a West Central African religion practiced by the forest-dwelling Babongo and Mitsogo people of Gabon (where it is one of the three official religions) and the Fang people of Gabon and Cameroon. Modern Bwiti is syncretistic, incorporating animism, ancestor worship and Christianity into its belief system. Bwiti use the hallucinogenic rootbark of the Tabernanthe iboga plant, specially cultivated for the religion, to induce a spiritual enlightenment, stabilize community and family structure, meet religious requirements and to solve problems of a spiritual and/or medical nature. The root bark has been used for hundreds of years as part of a Bwiti coming of age ceremony and other initiation rites and acts of healing, producing complex visions and insights anticipated to be valuable to the initiate and the chapel. The root bark or its extract are taken in doses high enough to cause vomiting and ataxia as common side effects. Bwiti ceremonies are led by a (male or female) spiritual leader called N’ganga who is a very important member of the community and has extensive knowledge of traditional healing practices, hexes and spells. The crucial rite of Bwiti is the initiation ceremony, when young Gabonese men take iboga for the first time in the men’s hut to become members of the religion. There are many ceremonies at different times of the year to give homage to the ancestors. Special ceremonies may be held to heal sick persons or drive out harmful spirits. While early forms of Bwiti excluded women, modern chapels include men and women.
Vodou is an animistic Caribbean spiritual tradition, most usually associated with Haiti, which traces its lineage to the shamans of ancient Africa. It blends together (through a process known as “syncretisation”) a number of traditional African beliefs with elements from other faiths, most notably Catholicism (the religion of the French slave traders who took the shamans of Africa to the Caribbean New World), but also those of the indigenous Haitian Taino and Arawak people and the European pre-Christian pagans who also came to settle there. Vodou believes in one creator-God called Gran Met (“Great Master”) and a pantheon of lesser deities known as the Lwa. These entities, as well as the spirits of the ancestors (‘zanset yo’) are directly available to man through the mechanism of possession, a trance-like state where a person is taken over by one of these spirits so it may dispense healing, advice, or wisdom to the community faithful, who are known as Vodouissants. The shaman-priest of Vodou is known as the Houngan and the priestess as the Mambo. Often accomplished healers, magicians, and leaf doctors (herbalists), these spiritual leaders are also experts on the nature, desires, and ways of interacting with the spirits, as well as therapists, counsellors, and doctors for their community.
Quimbanda is an Afro-American religion practiced in Brazil. It is often also called Macumba and found mostly in urban areas such as Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, MaranhÃ£o and Pernambuco. It is generally viewed as a subset of Umbanda, but may be more accurately described as representing the survival of African ethical traditions within the religion, which in other sectors has espoused a heavily Christian moralism not consistent with African views of spiritual agency. In recent years, despite gaining a greater following among some middle class whites, it has begun to assert itself as a separate tradition from Umbanda. Instead of the wider focus of Umbanda which recognizes entities such as Caboclos, Baianas, Sereias among others, Quimbanda focuses more on entities such as Exu and Pomba Gira. But traditionally Quimbanda also relies heavily upon the Pretos Velhos and the Malandros who do not always fit easy in any one of the preceding groups. Rituals are concerned with necromancy, divination or preparation of amulets, potions or other devices intended to bring supernatural aid, to obtaining resources or to deal with other areas of life. Additionally, the spirit-entities of this cult provide advice to their followers to aid in resolving life’s problems. In most respects a gira of Quimbanda will appear pretty much the same as one of Umbanda, with only a likely shift in the color preferences, whichâ€”as with most Bantu religious practiced in Brazil and Africaâ€”emphasizes red, black, and (sometimes) white, rather than predominantly white. Quimbanda, like Umbanda and CandomblÃ©, has become recognized as a legitimate religion. However, in recent years, many Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian churches and congregations have shown increasing intolerance toward African derived religious traditions in Brazil, engaging in harassment and violence. Followers of these traditions are beginning to seek recourse from the law which protects freedom of religion in Brazil. The name “Quimbanda” derives from the Kimbundu language of Angola and means healer or diviner.
The Brazilian black metal group Ocultan identify themselves as practitioners of Quimbanda.
The Yoruba are one of the largest tribes in Africa, with 30 million individuals throughout West Africa. Yoruba medicine is Orisha-based medicine practiced by many other groups in Africa, the Caribbean and elsewhere, mostly due to the African diaspora. â€œAfrican herbal medicine is commonly called Yorubic or Orisha medicine on the African continent. It started from a religious text, called Ifa Corpus. According to tradition, the Ifa Corpus was revealed by the mystic prophet, Orunmilla, around 4,000 years ago in the ancient city of Ile-Ife, now known as Yorubaland. The last 400 years saw individuals in the Caribbean and South America practice the Yorubic healing system as a token of their past when the first wave of African slaves arrived in the Americas.â€ Orunmilla taught the people about the customs of divination, prayer, dance, symbolic gestures, personal, and communal elevation. He also advised them on spiritual baths, meditation, and herbal medicine in particular. The Ifa Corpus is considered to be the foundation of divine herbology.
According to A D Buckley, Yoruba medicine is similar to European medicine in that its main thrust is to kill or expel from the body tiny, invisible “germs” or insects (kokoro) and also worms (aron) which inhabit small bags within the body. For the Yoruba, however, these germs and worms perform useful functions in the healthy body, aiding digestion, fertility etc. However, if they become too powerful in the body, they must be controlled, killed or driven out with bitter-tasting plants contained in medicines. Yoruba medicine is quite different from homeopathic medicine, which uses medicinal ingredients that imitates pathological symptoms. Rather, in a similar manner to mainstream European medicine, it strives to destroy the agencies that cause disease. With Egypt at its roots, it is therefore inevitable that African herbal medicine became associated with magic. Amulets and charms were more common than pills as preventions or curatives of diseases. Priests, who were from the earliest days the forefathers of science and medicine, considered diseases as possession by evil demons and could be treated using incantations along with extracts from the roots of certain plants. The psychosomatic method of healing disorders used primarily by psychiatrists today is based loosely on this ancient custom. As well as using bitter plants to kill germs and worms, Yoruba herbalists also use incantation (ofo) in medicines to bring good luck (awure), for example, to bring money or love and for other purposes too. Medicinal incantations are in some ways like the praise songs addressed to human beings or gods: their purpose is to awaken the power of the ingredients hidden in the medicine. Most medicinal incantations use a form of word-play, similar to punning, to evoke the properties of the plants implied by the name of the plant.
Other Important African Shamans
Nganga is a Bantu term for herbalist or spiritual healer in many African societies and also in many societies of the African diaspora such as those in Haiti, Brazil and Cuba. In South African English, a tagati is a wizard, witch, or a spiteful person who operates in secret to harm others or who uses use poisons and familiar spirits to carry out harmful deeds. The term is first recorded in 1836; it derives from the Zulu word umthakathi, being someone who mixes medicine. The word umthakathi (plural abathakathi) itself comes from two Zulu words thaka (mix) and muthi (medicine). The term has gradually come to be used to refer only to negative, harmful uses of medicines derived from plants, animals and minerals.
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