The Traditional Faith of Akan Peoples

The original polytheistic faith of the Akan has survived to the modern day. The way it is expressed varies somewhat between different cultural groups, but their worship tends to share several common traits. Foremost among these is belief in a supreme sky deity named Nyame. Nyame created the universe and everything within it, though he did not take much interest in human affairs. Nyame’s wife, Asase Yaa, is an earth mother goddess responsible for fertility, agriculture, and death. She is the mother of an array of lesser gods, or abosom, including Anansi the spider trickster.

Each major abosom is represented by a heavenly body and day of the week. Asase Yaa, for example, is associated with the planet Jupiter and Thursdays. According to Akan tradition, the day people are born decides their name and links them to that deity for life. Minor spirits inhabit every part of the world, drawing power from Nyame and interacting with humans freely.

Priests within each community maintain shrines to the abosom and ancestral spirits. A priest’s traditional roles include healing the sick, deciding when to go to war, and protecting the village from catastrophe. Maintaining a strong connection to ancestral spirits is an important part of Akan social and political life. The right to rule passes to kings and queen mothers through royal stools, which embody the goodwill of past rulers. Every year in fall, Asante societies hold yam festivals. During this time, chieftain’s stools are ritually purified, a symbolic act that washes away past sins. Offerings of the first yams of the season are also made to ensure future good harvests.

In the past, a king’s close servants and wives were typically sacrificed after his death. This was viewed as an honor, an opportunity to serve the king as he transitioned to the afterlife. The extent of human sacrifice beyond this custom is still debated.

Other Faiths and the Akan States

Over the course of centuries, the Akan states interacted with several other faiths. First came Islam, which may have pushed their ancestors to migrate south from the declining Ghana Empire. With European trade came Christianity and its missionaries, who built schools as part of their efforts to convert local populations. While their missions were increasingly successful, the long-standing independence of states like Ashanti preserved many of their older customs. Today, about 71 percent of Ghana’s population is Christian, primarily Protestant. Another 18 percent practice Islam, while 5 percent claim their traditional religion. Christian and Muslim worshippers may observe elements of both old and new faiths, or syncretism.

Learn More About Akan Culture

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