Why African Spirituality Became Associated With Satan

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“You must stop your Satanic idol-worship”, “You devil worshipper”, “You will go to Hell”. These are all common derogatory comments I have received as a third-generation practitioner of Vodu, an ancient West African spiritual and herbal practice, mostly by Christians that preached their faith on me. At first, I used to react harshly to them which normally ended in both parties arguing, sometimes even ending in insults. As I grew older, I realized that most people who hold such views have little knowledge about African history or spiritual traditions. In this article, I will shed light on some reasons why African spiritual and herbal traditions like Vodu have historically been and continue to be stigmatized and associated with Satan or the devil.

To delve deeper into this issue, we must first understand who or what Satan is from the perspective of Abrahamic religions. According to Wikipedia:

“Satan, also known as the Devil, is an entity in the Abrahamic religions that seduces humans into sin or falsehood. In Christianity and Islam, he is usually seen as either a fallen angel or a genie, who used to possess great piety and beauty, but rebelled against God, who nevertheless allows him temporary power over the fallen world and a host of demons. In Judaism, Satan is typically regarded as a metaphor for the yetzer hara, or “evil inclination”, or as an agent subservient to God.”

Most Africans today will agree with the above definition and go a step further and label all African spiritual practices as Satanic. While there are indeed many frightening spirits in Vodu (i.e. Vodu Adeti, Vodu Sakapata, Enukpepe, etc.), there are no spirits that are inherently evil because they also simultaneously benefit society. As my Vodu priest father puts it, “Vodu is like a knife. It can be used to do bad or good- it depends on the person.” Fearful spirits in traditions like Vodu are feared because of their ability to reap havoc in their negative manifestation. In their positive manifestation, they can be used to benefit society. For example, in Vodu practice, Vodu Sakapata, the deity of epidemics like smallpox can both cause and cure infectious diseases. In Vodu, such deities are believed to derive their power directly from God, not an entity independent from God such as Satan. To my knowledge, the concept of Satan does not exist in Vodu. Satan is, therefore, a foreign concept imported into African societies through colonialism that deliberately sought to stigmatize African spirituality.

The mistranslation of Eshu (also known as Eshu Elegbara), a highly revered indigenous Yoruba deity, by Samuel Ajayi Crowther (1809–1891) as ‘the devil’ is perhaps the most salient example of why African spirituality became associated with Satan. Samuel Crowther was an Oxford-educated Nigerian who became the first Anglican Bishop in Nigeria. He is widely known to be one of the most prominent figures in the history of evangelism in West Africa. In the mid-nineteenth century, he was tasked with translating the Bible from English into Yoruba and subsequently mistranslated Eshu as the “Devil”. As an evangelical African Christian, Crowther was on a mission to convert the ‘pagan’ African and described Yorubaland as, “ a land of heathenism, superstition, and vice”. (Adefarkan 42). This is how he translated Eshu in the Yoruba Bible:

Rev. 20:10

And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night forever and ever (182).

Ifihan 20:10

A si wo Esu ti o tan won je losinu adagun ina ati sulfuru, nibiti eranko ati woli eke ni gbe wa, a o si ma da won loro t’osan-t’oru lai ati lailai (1062–63)

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Samuel Ajayi Crowther (left), an Oxford-educated Nigerian evangelist who translated the Bible from English into Yoruba

By equating Eshu to the ‘devil” through translation, Crowther succeeded in demonizing an entire spiritual tradition. Consequently, many Yoruba Christians even today view Eshu and the entire Yoruba pantheon of deities as the epitome of sin and evil. Even dictionaries published as late as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary have retained that original “evil” association. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today only means “child of the devil”. In reality, Eshu although being known as a trickster deity in Yoruba cosmology has nothing to do with the devil. He is the deity that acts as an intermediary between the spirit and human world. (In Vodu practice, he is known as Legba and utilized in the Fa (Ifa) geomantic divination system). In this way, the language was used as a tool for cosmological imperialism to equate African spirituality to Satan in parts of Africa.

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An 1870 German depiction of a ‘fetish-priest’ of Esu Elegbara, the so-called ‘devil priest’ in Abeokuta, Nigeria. It was at that time that Esu became falsely equated to the Christian concept of the devil. (Source: Missions-Bilder: Sierra Leone und Yoruba)

African spirituality was also demonized because it was associated with slave rebellions and uprisings. Slave masters believed that through these traditions, slaves will coalesce and fight for their freedom. They were, therefore, discredited and/or banned. The most cited example of a slave uprising sparked by Vodu practitioners is the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804) which started on the night of August 14th, 1791 (Celucien). Dutty Boukman, a prominent enslaved African leader and Vodou priest led a secret ceremony at Bois Caiman to rally African slaves to overthrow the French who were led by Napoléon Bonaparte (see Boukman’s prayer below). The resulting revolt led to the first free black nation, Haiti, in the Western Hemisphere in 1804 and inspired black revolutionary action across the globe. Evangelical Christians like Pat Robertson in recent times have claimed that Haitians made a ‘pact with the devil’ in exchange for their freedom.

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Vodou Priest Dutty Boukman’s Prayer (right) at the Bois Caiman Vodou ceremony before the Haitian Revolution (left).

Continental Africans also used African spirituality to inspire several anti-colonial struggles which made them despised by white oppressorsIn the First Chimurenga Rebellion (1896–1897) in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), Mbuya Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana, an ancestral spirit medium co-led a revolt against the British after the introduction of an exploitative ‘hut tax’ in 1894. The Mau Mau Uprising (1952–1960) in Kenya is yet another example of an African spirituality-inspired revolt against white-colonist European settlers. Members of the Mau Mau rebellion took a blood oath according to Kikuyu traditions and swore to expel the colonizers or face death (Calatayud). While both the First Chimurenga and The Mau Mau Uprising were unsuccessful, they both played significant roles to inspire subsequent struggles of independence which ultimately led to decolonization. In all three examples, colonial masters referred to these actions as works of ‘the devil’. Because African spirituality inspired Africans to directly challenge the power of colonizers and the Church, they were dismissed as Satanic.

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The spirit medium, Mbuya Nehanda, (left) photographed after her capture in the First Chimurenga Rebellion in Rhodesia in 1897; The Mau Mau Blood Oath (right) from the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya.

Colonists were so afraid of the empowering potential of the slaves’ spiritual and herbal practices that they took them seriously and promulgated a set of laws against them. For example, Obeah, a system of spiritual healing and justice-making practices developed among enslaved West Africans in the West Indies, has been a crime in much of the English-speaking Caribbean for more than two centuries and remains so in many parts of the region. The term ‘Obeah’ is first found in documents from the early 18th century, as in its connection to Nanny of the Maroons, an Akan woman, celebrated for her spiritual prowess and role in defeating the British in Jamaica in 1739. Colonial sources referred to the spiritual powers attributed to her in a number of derogatory ways, including referring to her as “the rebel’s old obeah woman”. One source of colonist fear related to Obeah was the belief that practitioners were skilled in making herbal poisons to harm them. One colonial correspondent in 1866 covering the arrest of an Obeah man wrote. “The Jamaica herbal is an extensive one and comprises some highly poisonous juices, of which the Obeah men have perfect knowledge.” The Obeah Law 1898 (Jamaica), Vagrancy Acts 1840 (Barbados), Obeah Ordinance 1855 (British Guiana), and Obeah Ordinance 1872 (St. Lucia) are all anti-Obeah laws some of which exist to this day (read more here). These barriers forced many African religions in the Diaspora to go underground in secrecy. Some spiritual traditions like Santeria in Cuba survived by blending or disguising their practice with Christianity and equating Yoruba deities (known as Orisha) with Roman Catholic Saints to avoid being detected by slave masters. (You can watch a short film, Peaceful Opposites, I created about the history and practice of Santeria below).

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Jamaica’s Obeah Law of 1898 still exists in 2020.

Finally, popular culture, especially Hollywood and Nollywood (Nigeria’s Hollywood) has played a significant role in perpetuating negative stereotypes about African spiritual practices like Vodu (commonly known as Voodoo) around the world. It is not uncommon to see images of pins and dolls, zombies, and black magic in Hollywood movies such as The Serpent And The Rainbow, The Princess and the Frog, and American Horror Story. Nigeria’s Nollywood produces thousands of films every year that depict African spirituality, pejoratively referred to as ‘juju’, as satanic and backward. The plot usually goes like this: The protagonist, normally a devout Christian, has a jealous family member, usually a wicked aunt or father-in-law. This ill-intentioned family member usually goes to a ‘juju’ man to have the protagonist killed through spiritual attacks. Although the protagonist suffers and gets tormented by bad juju, the film usually ends with the protagonist prevailing over the family member as a result of their Christian faith. I am yet to see a Nollywood film that depicts traditional African spirituality in a positive light. From an early age, most contemporary Africans watch such films and naturally come to the conclusion that traditional African spirituality is always, and inherently, a malicious Satanic practice that needs saving from usually a white Jesus.

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American Horror Story (left), Disney’s Princess And The Frog (middle), Juju: The Power of The Dark (right). Hollywood and Nollywood depictions about traditional African spirituality.

Through language, colonial laws, and popular culture depictions, traditional African spiritual and herbal practices have been portrayed for centuries as a force of evil throughout the world. This reality starkly contrasts historical accounts and my personal interactions with hundreds of practitioners that have used these African traditions to heal, liberate, and benefit society. I believe African spiritual traditions continue to be stigmatized and widely misunderstood because most portrayals of African traditions are made by non-practitioners. There is an African proverb that says, ‘Until the Lion learns to tell his tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’. Indeed, as long as practitioners of African spiritual and herbal traditions do not raise their voice to dignify these ancient traditions, the story of African spirituality will continue to be negative. It is, therefore, crucial that we proactively tell our stories to dignify and preserve our cultural and spiritual legacy.

You can learn more about our work on our Facebook Page: ReVodution: Voodoo Education or our shrine’s, Afrikan Magick Temple website

via Why African Spirituality Became Associated With Satan | by Sena Voncujovi | Jun, 2020 | Medium

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