African Diaspora Religions

Different Tribes Brought Different Beliefs

African hands in prayer


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The continent of Africa has been home to hundreds of indigenous tribes speaking a wide variety of languages and believing a wide variety of different spiritual ideas. One certainly cannot speak of "African religion" as if it was a single, coherent set of beliefs. The versions of these religions as they developed in the New World became known as African Diaspora religions.

Origins of the Diaspora Religion

When African slaves were transported to the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries, they each brought their own personal beliefs. However, slave owners deliberately mixed slaves from a variety of different backgrounds together in order to have a slave population that could not easily communicate with itself, and thus curtail the ability to rebel.

Moreover, Christian slave owners frequently forbade the practice of pagan religions (even when they also forbade conversion to Christianity). As such, groups of slaves practiced in secret among strangers united by circumstance. Traditions from multiple tribes began to mix together. They might also adopt New World native beliefs if natives were also being used for slave labor. Finally, as slaves started being allowed to convert to Christianity (with the understanding that such a conversion would not free them from slavery), they began mixing in Christian beliefs as well, either out of actual belief or out of a need to disguise their actual practices.

Because the African Diaspora religions draw strongly from multiple distinct sources, they are also commonly identified as syncretic religions.

The Diaspora

A diaspora is a scattering of people, generally under duress, in multiple directions. The Atlantic Slave Trade is one of the most well-known causes of a diaspora, scattering African slaves throughout North and South America. The Jewish diasporas at the hands of Babylon and the Roman Empire is another fairly familiar example.

Vodou (Voodoo)

Vodou developed primarily in Haiti and New Orleans. It posits the existence of a single god, Bondye, as well as numerous spirits known as lwa (loa). Bondye is a good but distant god, so humans approach the more present and tangible lwa.

It should not be confused with the African Vodun. Vodun is a general set of beliefs from multiple tribes on the west coast of Africa. Vodun is a primary African religion of origin of not only New World Vodou but also Santeria and Candomble.

African Vodun, as well as elements of Kongo and Yoruba religions, influenced the development of New World Vodou.


Santeria, also known as Lacumi or Regla de Ocha, developed primarily in Cuba. Besides Vodun and Yoruba religion, Santeria also borrows from New World native beliefs. Santeria is defined primarily by its rituals rather than by beliefs. Only properly prepared priests can perform these rituals, but they can be performed for anyone.

Santeria recognizes the existed of multiple gods known as orishas, although different believers recognize different numbers of orishas. The orishas were created by or are emanations of the creator god Olodumare, who has retreated from creation.


Candomble, also known as Macumba, is similar to Santeria in origin but developed in Brazil. In Portuguese, the official language of Brazil, the orishas are called orixas.


Umbanda grew out of Candomble in the late-19th century. However, as it has broken up into multiple paths, some groups have pulled farther way from Candomble than others. Umbanda tends to also incorporate some Eastern esotericism, such as the reading of cards, karma, and reincarnation. Animal sacrifice, common is most African Diaspora religions, is often eschewed by Umbandans.


Quimbanda developed parallel to Umbanda, but in many ways in an opposite direction. While Umbanda was more likely to embrace additional religious thought and step away from traditional African religion, Quimbanda more strongly embraces African religion while rejecting much of the Catholic influence seen in other diaspora religion.

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Your Citation
Beyer, Catherine. "African Diaspora Religions." Learn Religions, Sep. 6, 2021, Beyer, Catherine. (2021, September 6). African Diaspora Religions. Retrieved from Beyer, Catherine. "African Diaspora Religions." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).