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Kongo religion (Kikongo: BuKongo) encompasses the traditional beliefs of the Kongo people. Due to the highly centralized position of the Kingdom of Kongo, its leaders were able to influence much of the religious practices across the entire region. As a result, many other ethnic groups and kingdoms in West-Central Africa, like the Chokwe and Mbundu, adopted Bakongo spirituality.
The spirituality is based on a complex animistic system and a pantheon of spirits. The principle Creator God of the world is Nzambi Mpungu, the sovereign master, and his female counterpart, Nzambici. While Nzambi Mpungu, who gave birth to the universe and the spirits who inhabit it, is vital to the spirituality, ancestor veneration is the core principle.
The Bakongo cosmos is split between two worlds: the top half representing the physical world, or ku nseke and the bottom half representing the spiritual world, or ku mpèmba. Expert healers, known as Banganga, undergo extensive training to commune with the ancestors in the spiritual realms and seek guidance from them.
See also: Bantu mythology
The religion of the Kongo is deeply complex. According to historians John K. Thornton and Linda M. Heywood, "Central Africans have probably never agreed among themselves as to what their cosmology is in detail, a product of what I called the process of continuous revelation and precarious priesthood..." The Kongo people had diverse views, with traditional religious thought best developed in the northern Kikongo-speaking area. There is plenty of description about Kongo religious ideas in the Christian missionary and colonial era records, but as Thornton states, "these are written with a hostile bias and their reliability is problematic".
Generally, these traditions are oral rather than scriptural and passed down from one generation to another through folk tales, songs, and festivals, include belief in an amount of higher and lower gods, sometimes including a supreme creator or force, belief in spirits, veneration of the dead, use of magic and traditional African medicine. Kongo mythology, next to other nearby traditional religions can be described as animistic with various polytheistic and pantheistic aspects. This includes the worship of tutelary deities, nature worship, ancestor worship and the belief in an afterlife. While some religions adopted a pantheistic worldview, most follow a polytheistic system with various gods, spirits and other supernatural beings.
According to researcher Molefi Kete Asante, "Another important characteristic of Bakongo cosmology is the Sun and its movements. The rising, peaking, setting, and absence of the Sun provide the essential pattern for Bakongo religious culture. These “four moments of the sun” equate with the four stages of life: conception, birth, maturity, and death. For the Bakongo, everything transitions through these stages: planets, plants, animals, people, societies, and even ideas. This vital cycle is depicted by a circle with a cross inside. In this Yowa or dikenga cosmogram, the meeting point of the two lines of the cross is the most powerful point and where the person stands."
The Bakongo believe that in the beginning, there was only a circular void, called mbûngi, with no life. The Great Spirit, Nzambi Mpungu, summoned a spark of fire, or Kalûnga, that grew until it filled the mbûngi. When it grew too large, Kalûnga became a great force of energy and unleashed heated elements across space, forming the universe with the Sun, stars, planets, etc. Because of this, kalûnga is seen as the origin of life and a force of motion. The Bakongo believe that life requires constant change and perpetual motion. Nzambi Mpungu is also referred to as Kalûnga, the God of change. Similarities between the Bakongo belief of Kalûnga and the Big Bang Theory have been studied.
Like the creation of the universe, the Bakongo believe that in the beginning, the world was circular void (or mbûngi) with no life. Then a great force of fire (or kalûnga), emerged and filled this empty circle. Kalûnga heated up the contents of mbûngi, and when it cooled, it formed the Earth. The Earth, the starting point of the fire, then became a green planet after it went through four stages. The first stage is the emergence of the fire. The second stage is the red stage where the planet is still burning and has not formed. The third stage is the grey stage where the planet is cooling, but has not produced life. These planets are naked, dry, and covered with dust. The final stage is green stage is when the planet is fully mature because it breathes and carries life. As the Bakongo believe is part of the universal order, all planets must go through this process.
The creation of a Bakongo person, or muntu, is also believed to follow the four moments of the Sun, which play a significant role in their development. Musoni is the time when a muntu is conceived both in the spiritual realm and in the womb of a Bakongo woman. Kala is the time when a muntu is born into the physical world. This time is also seen as the rising of the Sun. Tukula is the time of maturity, where a muntu learns to master all aspects of life from spirituality to purpose to personality. The last period of time is luvemba, when a muntu physically dies and enters the spiritual world, or Ku Mpémba, with of the ancestors, or bakulu. Because Bakongo people have a "dual soul-mind," or mwèla-ngindu, they are able to exist and live in both realms during the different moments of their lives. Even while in Ku Mpémba, a muntu still lives a full life as they prepare for Kala time once again. The right side of the body is also believed to be male, while the left side is believed to be female, creating an additional layer to the dual identity of a muntu.
The nature of Kalûnga is also spiritual. As Kalûnga filled mbûngi, Kalûnga transformed into a body of water that acted as a line, dividing the circle in half. The top half represents the physical world, or Ku Nseke, while the bottom half represents the spiritual world of the ancestors, known as Ku Mpèmba. The mbûngi circle, one longer a void, became the universe with the Sun at the center.
The Kalûnga Line separates these two worlds, and all living things exists on one side or another. Simbi spirits are believed to transport Kongo people between the two worlds at birth and death. Then the process repeats when a person is reborn. Together, Kalûnga and the mbûngi circle form the Kongo cosmogram, also called the Yowa or Dikenga Cross.
Represented on the Kongo cosmogram are the four stages of life: musoni, or conception; kala, or birth; tukala, or maturity; and luvemba, or death. They are believed to correlate to the four moments of the Sun: midnight, or n'dingu-a-nsi; sunrise, or ndiminia; noon, or mbata; and sunset, or ndmina, as well as the four seasons (spring, summer, fall and winter) and the four classical elements (water, fire, air and earth).
Prior to European colonization, Nzambi Mpungu and his female counterpart, Nzambici, were perceived as the Great Spirit who existed everywhere simultaneously and gave life to all things. Nzambi Mpungu was the "sovereign master," the God of the sun (fire) and change. It was believed that Nzambi Mpungu/Nzambici created the universe, the spiritual world (Ku Mpémba) and the physical world (Ku Nseke). Contrary to what the title "the Great Spirit" implies, Nzambi Mpungu/Nzambici and the spiritual nature of the Kongo people did not exist under the same confines of hierarchy as the omnipotent God of the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam). All spirits within Kongo spirituality were believed to be equally significant and each had their own purpose across both worlds.
After the introduction of Catholicism by the Portuguese, there was a massive effort to convert Central Africans by creating connections between Christianity and their traditional religions. While it was largely a failure for ethnic groups, like the Mbundu, the Portuguese were able to deceive the Bakongo by convincing them that Nzambi Mpungu was the Christian God and that the other spirits were similar to angels, who were subservient to God. Not only did this act make way for an easier conversion of the Bakongo people to Christianity, it also created a hierarchy in Bakongo spirituality that reduced other spirits like Nzambici, simbi and nkisi to "lesser spirits" that no longer had relevant voices in spiritual matters. This may have also played a role in the Kingdom of Kongo becoming a more male-dominated society, marginalizing the belief in the dual male/female identity of all Bakongo people and creating a gender hierarchy based on Portuguese culture, where men were traditionally at the center of spiritual matters.
By the early 17th century, oral tradition stated that Nzambi Mpungu was surrounded by lesser nature spirits, who were so powerful that they were given individual names. There is consensus among historians that this reduction of nature spirits to lesser spirits was due to Portuguese the influence of monotheism and their shunning of "idols." During this period, Nzambi Mpungu began to exist as a separate spirit from his female counterpart, Nzambici, and was seen the Creator God, while Nzambici was seen as his wife, the "God the essence, the god on earth, the great princess, the mother of all the animals, the one who promises her daughter to the animal who shall bring her the fire from heaven." She is also referred to as Nzambi, the mystery of the earth, "the mother of a beautiful daughter, gives mankind all laws, ordinances, arts, games, and musical instruments. Nzambi settles quarrels between animals, and in the stories giving her decision is embedded an immense amount of Fjort law."
Nevertheless, the Kongo spirits are believed to have been created largely as a means for the Bakongo people to understand the natural world around them. Most of them have a connection to the earth, water, the sky, fire and the stars. "The land is eternal. The earth withers in the dry seasons but flourishes with the coming of the rains. The sky bears the winds that brings the rains and shuffles the clouds to hide and then reveal the sun's rays... the Nzadi River flows forever... to eventually join the vast sea."
At the center of Kongo religion are the ancestors, or bakula, who are believed to maintain a spiritual existence in the physical world (Ku Nseke) after death, through the "dual soul-mind" (mwèla-ngindu). Because of this, the ancestors are seen as spirits, who watch over the Bakongo people and direct power from the spiritual world (Ku Mpémba) to protect them. These ancestral spirits are also believed to inhabit bodies of water, known as kalunga (also called n'langu or m'bu), and the forest, known as mfinda.
Nzazi is the nature spirit of thunder, and Lusiemo is the nature spirit of lighting. Spiritual experts who dedicated themselves to Nzazi gained the title a Nganga Nzazi (Nganga means expert in Kikongo) and invoked his power to cause thunder, lighting and rain during the dry season through consecrated objects, called nkisi. It was believed that a Nganga Nzazi could also used the power of thunder and lightning as a spiritual weapon. This power activated when a Nganga Nzazi simulated the sound of thunder by knocking two consecrated sculptures, called biteke, together.
Ngonde is spirit of Moon and menstruations, and his brother Ntangu is spirit of time and Sun. It is said that the brother originally lived by the sea, and one day, Ntangu challenged Ngonde to a foot race, believing he could beat his brother. However, Ngonde was successful and defeated Ntangu. This is believed to be the reason why the Moon can be seen during the day with the Sun, but the Sun cannot be seen at night.
Chicamassi-chinuinji is the ruler of seas and oceans. Mpulu Bunzi is the goddess of the rain and harvest. In some Kongo villages, Bunzi is a male spirit called Phulu Bunzi, who is believed to be the chief blacksmith and lord spirit of the waters. Mbumba is the rainbow and a water serpent who reached the sky by climbing trees.
A simbi (pl. bisimbi) is a water spirit that is believed to inhabit bodies of water and rocks, having the ability to guide bakulu, or the ancestors, along the Kalûnga river to the spiritual world after they pass away. They are seen as the guardians of nature and the intermediaries between the physical world of the living and the spiritual world of the ancestors. Bisimbi are also believed to be spiritual guides, using storytelling and oral tradition to connect the living to the ancestors and their history. Spiritual leaders called banganga (sing. nganga) underwent an extensive initiation process to learn the position of the sun as it rotated around the earth to seek guidance from the ancestors and the bisimbi. These water spirits were said to be present during the baptisms of African American Christians, according to Hoodoo tradition.
Nature spirits held different names by region. In the Kingdom of Loango and the lower Nzadi River to the north, they were called a nkisi (pl. bakisi, mikisi or minkisi) . They are nature spirits, animated objects or deified people who embody the extraordinary power of the spiritual world. They inhabit specific areas where their families and villages are located and usually have a special connection to the people living in those regions who venerate them.
In the eastern region in the Kingdom of Kongo, nature spirits were called nkita (also nquita) after subset of the Bakongo people who referred to themselves as aquaquita, with their spiritual leaders holding the title Nganganchita. This Kimpasi group was the target of many raids by Roman Catholic priests, who received support from the King of Kongo to storm into their houses of worship, or nzo a quimpazi, and destroy any traces of idolatry along with the buildings. Belief in nkita persisted, with the spirits even providing power from the spiritual world for the Bakongo people to create sacred medicines called minkisi.
In the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola, nature spirits were called kilundu. They existed in the same context as nkisi and nkita. However, like bisimbi, kilundu were largely believed to be spirits that were once living people, who transformed into spirits after they entered the spiritual world. This created evidence of a unifying concept of the two worlds and the four moments of life across ethnic groups in both Kongo and Angola. It also verified that even nature spirits go through the lifecycle. 17th Century oral tradition accounts the story of two kilundu named Navieza and Cassumba who left their homeland in the Upper Ganguela region to flee disease. While on their journey, they took shelter in "an isolated hut" in the Kisama. There they died, entered the spiritual world and were transformed into nature spirits whose purpose became to protect those who venerated them from diseases.
This person to nature spirit transformation concept was also recorded in the Kingdom of Kongo in the 20th Century. A man named Mbola is said to have died and transformed into a water spirit that inhabited a stream and taught the living how to use his spiritual power for healing and to create sacred medicines, which became known as mbola.
As previously mentioned, nature is essential to Kongo spirituality. While nature spirits later became more associated with water, or kalûnga, they were also known to dwell in the forest, or mfinda (finda in Hoodoo). The Kingdom of Kongo used the term chibila, which referred to sacred groves, where they would venerate these forest spirits. The Kingdom of Loango called them bakisi banthandu, or spirits of the wilderness. The Kingdom of Ndongo preferred the name xibila (pl. bibila).
The Kongo people also believed that some ancestors inhabited the forest after death and maintained their spiritual presence in their descendants' lives. These particular ancestors were believed to have died, traveled to Mpémba, and then been reborn as bisimbi. Thus, The Great Mfinda existed as a meeting point between the physical world and the spiritual world. The living saw it as a source of physical nourishment through hunting and spiritual nourishment through contact with the ancestors. One expert on Kongo religion, Dr. Fu-Kiau, even described some Kongo cosmograms with mfinda as a bridge between the two worlds. 
Mfinda is also where Kongo secret societies, such as Kinkimba and Lemba, initiated new healers. Expert healers, known as banganga (sing. nganga) underwent extensive training to commune with the ancestors in the spiritual realm and seek guidance from them. These new initiates learned how to locate nature spirits and build a connection. Once they became official banganga, it became their duty to seek them out in the forest and venerated them with shrines, sacred trees, and minkisi (sing. nkisi). In return, the ancestor or nature spirit would pass on untold history, advise the nganga, or allow them to harness their powers for healing or protection.
The concept of mfinda as a spiritual space also emerged in the United States through trans-Atlantic slavery and became known locally as finda. Kongo descendants saw the wilderness as a symbol of freedom but also sorrow. Because early enslaved Kongo had no ancestors on this side of kalûnga (which became synonymous with the Atlantic Ocean), it meant they had no blood tie to the new lands in which they were transported. Thus, banganga had no way to connect to the spiritual world. To remedy this, some Bakongo and Mbundu willingly committed acts of sacrificial suicide so that they could become ancestors or simbi and connect the living to the ancestors. The finda then became a sacred space, where sightings of "cymbee" spirits were often recorded by African Americans.
In the 17th century, the Bakongo people expanded the concept of nkisi to include consecrated objects or charms that contained the essence of nature spirits and their spiritual powers. These minkisi (sing. nkisi) were used for protection and healing. Nkisi were also used to make mojo or conjure bags. These mojo bags were essentially small bags where magical items were normally stored. They were also believed to contained the spiritual power of nkisi. A nganga created mojo bags for individuals, using ingredients connected to a specific simbi to invoke it into the mojo bag. Bakongo spiritual philosophy influenced the creation of mojo bags, with African-Americans including certain natural ingredients or animal bones, to house the simbi spirit or an ancestral spirit inside a bag for either protection or healing.
The traditional spirituality has its roots in Bantu-speaking peoples in West-Central Africa. As the faith traveled to the Americas it retained various traditions but often mixed with other faiths. Some surviving traditions include possession by the dead to learn wisdom from the ancestors, and working with Nkisi. The spiritual traditions and religions that have preserved Kongo traditions include Hoodoo, Palo Monte, Lumbalú, Kumina, Haitian Vodou, Candomblé Bantu, and Venezuelan Yuyu.
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