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Blood Symbolism in African Religion

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 October 2008

M. Y. Nabofa
Department of Religious Studies, University of Ibadan


Symbolism has found spontaneous expression in several religious and secular practices among many different peoples of Africa. These expressions can be seen in religious emblems, ideograms, rituals, songs, prayers, myths, incantations, vows, customary behaviour and personifications. The under-standing of these religious symbols lends itself to rapid comprehensive and compact use; not only that, it also helps understanding and concentration. In fact, Mary Douglas expresses the view that such symbols, especially rituals, aid us in selecting experiences for concentrated attention, creative at the level of performance, and can mysteriously help the co-ordination of brain and body (1966, p. 63). Conversely, religious symbols have their ambiguities, and these could shroud their true meaning to the unwary. A religious symbol could also represent a complex set of ideas at different levels which gives room to diverse theological, philosophical and psychological interpretations. While we may agree with Raymond Firth (1973, p. 32) that an anthropologist is concerned primarily with the public use of the symbolic, and his aim is to separate symbols from referent so that he may describe the relations between them, we are of the view that those who are in the field of psychology of religion will be most concerned with how symbols influence the mind of the believer and thus understand the faith of the devotee better. In fact, it was the non-understanding of traditional African religious symbols and ideas that partly contributed to the way in which some of the early Western and Arab scholars, investigating African thought forms, looked at the African indigenous beliefs in a derogatory manner. As a method of scholarly research, a careful and meaningful study of the religious significance of certain ritualistic elements and behaviour enables us to understand and appreciate the more why certain things are treated in some special way by the believers, and thus helps to deepen our knowledge of that very faith. It helps us to grasp the essence of the religion rather than its incidentals. In order, therefore, to help comprehend some of the practices in African traditional religion attempts will be made in this paper to discuss the central significance of blood in African belief. Although I consulted the works of some anthropologists and theologians on African religions and philosophy of life, the bulk of the ethnographic materials used in this paper are mainly drawn from my fieldwork (1975–82) among some groups of Nigerians; and a great deal of my interpretations are surrounded by the theories propounded by Mary Douglas and Raymond Firth.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1985

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