Zulu and Yoruba Religions

Published 02 Nov 2017

The Zulu consider real anything that holds power, but particularly the supreme God of the Sky, the ancestors (whom the Zulu revere), and medicine. Diviners (who may be either male or female) are particularly real because they diagnose problems, offer solutions, and mediate between the Zulu and the divine forces, and the ancestral spirits determine their roles and status (not every Zulu is entitled to mediate between spirits and humans). In addition, herbalists (who are mostly male) enjoy special significance; though most Zulu have some familiarity with herbal medicine, only a select few can attain special proficiency and status.

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The Zulus’ most important religious purposes include rooting out sources of destruction and social disruption, because the Zulu value harmony and order; thus, having a sense of control over their lives (as a group rather than as individuals) is vital. Their rituals are thus geared toward this maintenance of order and control, and refusing to properly worship these forces represents a serious threat to their society, not simply a breach of practice.

At the personal level, they value the intricate social relationships that exist in their villages, as well as the ties to their ancestors (whom the Zulu believe live in the earth, the main reason why cattle enclosures at the center of each village are sacred).

The Zulu consider witchcraft and sorcery dangerous because witches “derive their power from, and base their operations in, a shadowy world that is neither that of the ancestors nor that of the God of the Sky” (37). They defy the ancestors by ignoring the proper rites and rituals, as well as threatening public order.

Among the more desirable aspects of Zulu religious and social life are praise (frequently part of their rituals), harmony, solidarity (as expressed in the role of ritual), maintaining proper relations to their ancestors, and the sense of control over their destiny and environment that their religious life helps them attain.

The Yoruba share key aspects of their religion with the Zulu, but their more urban-based, decentralized society reflects in their religious beliefs and practices. It is more complex, prompting Earhart to joke, “The diversity of Yoruba thought and practice is so great that some scholars – tongue in cheek – recommend studying its art instead” (Earhart 61).

The most real aspects of Yoruba religion are the holy Nigerian city of Ife and the dominance of the deities orisa (who are approachable through ritual) and olorun (a remote, supreme god approachable only through mediators). In addition, lesser spiritual power exists in villages, all physical objects, and in people as well.

They consider discovering and living according to their destiny most important, as shaped by their adherence to ritual, deference to authority, and maintenance of group solidarity. (Like the Zulu, the Yoruba value herbal medicine and diviners, though any Yoruba can be a diviner and Yoruba herbalists have more of a divine role than their Zulu counterparts do.) In addition, they value.

The Yoruba consider witches and sorcerers dangerous because they defy traditions, social harmony, and religious conventions. In addition, the trickster god Esu can be dangerous because he is fickle; thus, he must be recognized and respected in Yoruba rituals in order to win his favor and that of the olorun. In addition, unbalanced people who fail to properly revere the ancestors, gods, and earthly authorities.

They consider being spiritually balanced (through honors to ancestors and gods, such as the fickle Esu) a desirable object in life, because such people heed divine forces and thus help bring good fortune to themselves and their people.

Divinity and community for the Zulu are more spatially concentrated, since they center on two chief locations – the kraal, or cattle enclosure around which Zulu villages form a ring, and on the hills surrounding Zulu villages. Because they believe that their ancestors reside in the earth, the kraal around which circle-shaped Zulu villages are built is sacred ground, the location of most Zulu religious activity and social rituals. Major events in life, such as marriages, coming of age, death, and others, involve rituals that take place in this space, which symbolizes the contact and constant presence the Zulu feel with their ancestral spirits. In addition, the hills surrounding Zulu villages are important because they are sites where the Zulu can directly commune with the God of the Sky, their supreme deity.

Zulu communities place village headmen at the top of not only the secular hierarchy but also in control of religious life. They serve as priests as well as playing social and political roles, mediating between the worshippers and spirits and leading in both the religious and secular realms. According to Earhart, “These ancestors require reverence and devotion, and the [village headman] ensures that both in attitude and in act the members of the community . . . perform their religious duty” (Earhart 35). Adhering to the headman’s authority is a key component of maintaining proper relations with ancestors as well as with fellow villagers. In a society where balance and respect matter utmost, their sense of community is defined by the networks of social relationships that bridge the earthly and spiritual, tying the living to the ancestors and gods.

Among the Yoruba, whose society is more physically dispersed and significantly more urbanized than that of the Zulu, both divinity and community are more complex. Not only does it have a somewhat more abstract sense of community, with a sacred central city and lesser power dispersed from this site throughout the Yoruba world, but it also operates on more levels, with more layers of mediation between worshippers and deities than the relatively less complex Zulu religion.

The Yoruba community, on the other hand, is more physically dispersed and decentralized, with Ife the most important religious site because of its connections to the god Orisa-nla, whose first acts of creation occurred there (Earhart 61). (This is somewhat similar to the importance of Jerusalem in the major Western faiths, being the spiritual center of their world.) In addition, many other places in Yoruba society have a lesser but nonetheless vital spiritual importance. The Yoruba believe that their towns and local chiefs derive their power directly from Ife, which exerts a powerful spiritual influence throughout Yoruba lands and determines who should wield such power.

In addition, Yoruba divinity takes place in a variety of sites, not simply in the kraal or hills as in the Zulu tradition. Yoruba homes often have shrines where family-centered worship occurs, and the town has a higher level of spiritual and social importance (under the chief’s spiritual leadership), demonstrating a more complex social hierarchy and corresponding religious practice. The ancestors are not shared in such a broadly common way among the Yoruba, because ancestor worship is centered more at home than in a common holy space.

As with the Zulu, the Yoruba depend on religion to maintain a strong sense of community and seek harmonious relations with divine forces. However, they differ on spatial and hierarchical grounds; the Zulu world is more village-centered, with simpler spiritual and religious hierarchies. The Yoruba reflect their more dispersed and urbanized society in their religion, which has more levels of deities and spiritual practices and protocols.


  • Earhart, H. Byron. Ed. Religious Traditions of the World. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
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