How African Spirituality Got Tied to Satan
“You must stop your Satanic idol-worship.”
“You devil worshipper.”
“You will go to Hell.”
These are all common comments said to me as a third-generation practitioner of Vodu, an ancient West African spiritual and herbal practice. Mostly these things are said by Christians preaching their faith on me.
I used to react harshly, which normally ended in an argument or insults. As I grew older, I realized that most people have little knowledge of African history or spiritual traditions. African spiritual and herbal traditions like Vodu have historically been, and continue to be, stigmatized and associated with Satan or the devil.
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 this definition and even label all African spiritual practices as “Satanic.” While there are indeed many frightening spirits in Vodu (that is, Vodu Adeti, Vodu Sakapata, Enukpepe, etc.), there are no spirits that are inherently evil because they can all bring positive outcomes as well. 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.”
Satan is a concept imported into African societies through colonialism to stigmatize African spirituality.
Fearful spirits in traditions like Vodu are feared because of their ability to wreak havoc in their negative manifestation. In their positive manifestation, they can 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 how African spirituality became associated with Satan. Crowther was an Oxford-educated Nigerian who became the first Anglican Bishop in Nigeria. He is one of the most prominent figures in the history of evangelism in West Africa. In the mid-19th 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 people, and he described Yorubaland as, “a land of heathenism, superstition, and vice” (Adefarkan 42).
This is how Crowther translated Eshu in the Yoruba Bible:
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).
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)
By equating Eshu to the devil through translation, Crowther succeeded in demonizing an entire spiritual tradition. Even today, many Yoruba Christians view Eshu and the entire Yoruba pantheon of deities as the epitome of sin and evil.
Recent dictionaries, such as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary, have retained the original evil association. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today means “child of the devil.” In reality, Eshu is a trickster deity in Yoruba cosmology but has nothing to do with the devil. He is the deity that acts as an intermediary between the spirit and the human world. (In Vodu practice, he is known as “Legba” and used in the Fa [Ifa] geomantic divination system.)
But through Crowther, language was used as a tool for cosmological imperialism to equate African spirituality to Satan in parts of Africa.
African spirituality was also demonized because of its association with slave rebellions and uprisings. Slave masters believed that through these spiritual traditions, slaves would coalesce and fight for their freedom. The practices were, therefore, discredited and/or banned.
African spirituality inspired Africans to directly challenge the power of colonizers and the Church, so they were dismissed as Satanic.
The most cited example of a slave uprising sparked by Vodu practitioners is the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), which started on August 14, 1791 (Celucien Joseph). Dutty Boukman, a prominent enslaved African leader and Vodou priest led a secret ceremony at Bois Caïman to rally African slaves to overthrow the French — led by Napoléon Bonaparte. 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. More recently, evangelical Christians like Pat Robertson have claimed that Haitians made a “pact with the devil” in exchange for their freedom.
Continental Africans also used African spirituality to inspire several anti-colonial struggles, which made them despised by white oppressors. In the First Chimurenga Rebellion (1896–1897) in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), ancestral spirit medium Mbuya Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana co-led a revolt against the British after the introduction of an exploitative “hut tax” in 1894.
Another example of an African spirituality-inspired revolt against white-colonist European settlers was the Mau Mau Uprising (1952–1960) in Kenya. 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 played significant roles in inspiring subsequent struggles for independence that ultimately led to decolonization. In all of these examples, colonial masters referred to these actions as works of “the devil.” African spirituality inspired Africans to directly challenge the power of colonizers and the Church, so they were dismissed as Satanic.
Colonists were so afraid of the empowering potential of the slaves’ spiritual and herbal practices that they enacted 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 in 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. 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, and some still exist.
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.
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 on screen in films and shows 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 is tormented by bad juju, the film usually ends with the protagonist prevailing over the family member as a result of their Christian faith.
I have 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, usually by a white Jesus.
Through language, colonial laws, and popular cultural 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 who 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 nonpractitioners. 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 preserve our cultural and spiritual legacy.