Habitations of the Sacred

Africana approaches to disease and healing are complex.

“Woman in Trance” by Victor Ehikhamenor

By Tracey E. Hucks

“Wherever a community of people is found, health and wholeness are desirable.”1

Africana sacred traditions, while dialogical with Western medicine, are comprised of a constellation of distinct spiritual and wellness systems. Both continental Africans and those in the diaspora have, for centuries, fashioned their own etiology of disease, sociological approaches to healing, skilled herbal apothecaries, and proficient divining specialists, each given a unique flavor, born of the particularities of time, region, and intercultural contexts. Within Africana theurgic domains, one encounters not only pathways for physical healing but a complex theologizing of the human body, which defines human materiality as embodying simultaneously the place for affliction and the location for interpreting and ritualizing healing.2 For most African-descended populations, there exist “gaps in a western medical approach to holistic restoration” for, “unlike western scientific medicine which precisely distances itself from the ‘supernatural,’ ” most African peoples see clearly that “the connection between these two worlds is key to the practice of medicine in traditional communities.”3 Thus, the Africana world as it relates to health, restoration, wellness, and wholeness is not explained exclusively within bounded scientific empiricisms, but instead is more broadly interpreted and defined in spiritual and theological terms.

In theorizing Africana notions of disease, illness, and affliction, religious scholars such as Emmanuel Lartey argue that “disease in Africa is thought of as . . . having spiritual and relational causes.”4 In this paradigm, illness and disease not only represent a “physical disharmony” but may also be symbolic of “spiritual, religious, medical and socio-ethical” disharmony that has broader implications.5 Thus, the larger healing event for Africana communities is defined and lived out in textured and meaningful intersections between the natural and the supernatural worlds. Healing, in its ultimate sense, involves an episodic series of restorative processes linking humans and the spirit world in a constellation of wellness practices. As a result of his extensive research among communities and healers in West Africa, Lartey concludes: “the heart of African traditional medicine is the restoration of harmonious relationships throughout the whole cosmos. . . . African traditional healers seek to bring about harmony between the Supreme Being, the deities (or messengers . . . of God), the ancestors, humanity and nature.”6 The work of healing and medicine in Africa, therefore, covers a broad tapestry of individual, family, social, and “spiritual restoration.”

Global Africana communities commonly negotiate theories of health, conceptions of wholeness, and diverse strategies for achieving physical, spiritual, and ontological stability through material and divinatory approaches to wellness, within the context of their diasporic circumstances. Divinatory and material technologies are often inextricably linked, sharing relational space with locally defined conceptions of medicine, healing, and wellness. On the continent of Africa and throughout its diaspora, material culture and divination have been important indices and “communicative modes” that speak through languages of materiality, embodiment, healing epistemologies, and medicinal prescriptions.7

Divination as a “diagnostic process”8 has remained fundamental across African and diasporic geographical and cultural contexts. Throughout my research endeavors in Africa, North America, and the Caribbean, I analyze divination as a mediatorial language and corpus of sacred knowledge negotiated through a complex interplay of hiddenness and revelation.9 My scholarly and curricular work engage the lived traditions of healing and wellness in the places where human affliction is theologized and ritualized. In the venues I explore, I have found that Africana populations accommodate multiple habitations of the sacred, blurring religious boundaries and traversing multiple sacred cosmologies in ways that are “self-authorizing.”10 In an effort to advance a subfield of divination studies within the discipline of religion, I most recently taught a comparative course on the “transcultural phenomenon” of divination and the globality of esoteric divinatory practices.11 Through comparative engagements with Greco-Roman sympathetic magic and spell production, British and New England magical traditions, Muslim ingestion and talismanic practices, and Japanese Noh plays and dream divination, this course situated Africana divinatory practices in Africa, North America, and the Caribbean within a larger global repertoire of healing technologies that collectively employ a variety of medicinal and material fabrication practices. Divination, throughout many of the global contexts examined, adhered to an “anthropocentric ontology” where “existence . . . is viewed in terms of its connection to humans” and human agency was a chief negotiator between the spiritual and natural worlds.12

Curative prescriptions might include herbal medicine, bathing rituals, infusions, healing soaps, and topical salves.

Divinatory communication in Africana religious studies, in particular, remains largely dependent upon the mystical infusion of locally available material instruments of the natural world. For example, bones, nuts, shells, water, metal, stones, and pebbles are embraced alongside other surrogate artificial instruments encountered in the Atlantic world, such as coins, cards, crystal balls, and Bibles. Henry John Drewal identifies these as “meaningful assemblages of objects from a variety of sources” that distill and activate religious power. African-descended communities in Africa and in the diaspora have long used mystically charged objects of material culture as conduits of theurgical intervention and potent mediatory languages.13 These “material forms of mediation” operate at the “juncture between physical and spirit worlds,” revealing “the views and intentions of the supernatural world.”14

Through specific instrumentalities, divinatory patterns transform into sacred textual transcripts that are then deciphered by religious specialists in order to diagnose and to prescribe spiritual and medicinal remedies. In order to enact healing, the morphology of Africana divination may include examination, consultation or reading, diagnosis, and applied prescription. The healing may also involve a complex relationship with oracular literature or sacred oracles that aid in identifying spiritual prescriptions that seek to appease, neutralize, or invoke mystical assistance. For example, for those seeking wellness in Africana sacred traditions, curative prescriptions might include herbal medicine or ingestive remedies, bathing rituals, infusions, healing soaps, topical salves, recitation or incantation utterances, as well as treatments that require supplicative appeasements to spiritual entities, such as incantations and prayers, food offering, animal sacrifices, and, in some instances, initiatory rites.15 Corollaries to such practices in European traditions include prayers of supplication, exorcism, ritualized confessions, use of divining rods, spell and incantational practices, or baptism.

In Africana religious contexts, divination and material objects are most commonly part of a larger spiritual grammar of healing, restoration, and curative practices enacted through ritual correspondences between human and mystical transcendence. Material artifacts, in particular, maneuver a fluid world across ranges of disease and affliction. For example, Frederick Douglass utilized Sandy’s “root” to displace fixed temporal and social boundaries in North American slavery. These spiritually charged artifacts act as a compere for transformative spiritual energy with the ability to stabilize the maladies of the human body and the challenges of everyday life.

Seeking healing and restored wholeness in Africana wellness systems, supplicants enter the world of divination pursuing an alternative sociology of religious knowledge and a theory of time that assist in decoding the inexplicable and indecipherable. They enter with their “everyday contradictions, memories, problems, and hardships,” engaging a multivalent epistemology around the origins of affliction and human distress. Thus, in moments of “physical, emotional, or spiritual crisis,” healing and restoration are maneuvered through a world “between practices” and across belief systems, seeking not just a cure from affliction but an explanation of its origin” in this larger “illness event.”16

Africana approaches to healing and wellness expose supplicants to porous orientations toward sacred power and possibility. In this context, rigid distinctions and boundaries that often circumscribe religious orthodoxy are commonly profoundly relaxed. In Central African contexts, Congolese scholar Jean Masamba Ma Mpolo observed that “many Africans converted to Christianity run back to traditional spirituality especially when they have to find solutions to misfortune and poor health. People cling to African traditional spirituality as it contains positive human possibilities for wholeness and offers a kind of repository of other options beside Christianity and western therapeutic and medical systems.”17 Within African and diasporan contexts, this flexible spiritual epistemology is host to a fluid world constitutive of what Grey Gundaker theorizes as “coexistent realities and double sight.”18

Throughout my own research in Africana religious cultures in the diaspora, I explore the complex meanings of healing, divination, and materiality from two perspectives: first, from the hermeneutical perspective of those Africana spiritual specialists and ritual technicians who facilitate “knowledge management” of these traditions; and second, from the historical perspective of those in the Atlantic colonies who campaigned to demonize, penalize, and criminalize Africana religions and its associative practices.19 More specifically, my work as a historian of religion within the contexts of North America and the Caribbean examines the contested interpretations of Africana healing practices and approaches to personal and social disease both as a constituent of a larger repertoire of healing technologies and as historical targets of European criminalization and persecution stemming from misdiagnoses of African religious traditions as carriers of spiritual malevolence. This mislabeling of Africana religious cultures as transporters of spiritual sorcery and evil has endured since the earliest encounters between European travelers, colonialists, and missionaries and so-called primitive cultural practices.

My current book explores systems of sacred knowledge and divinatory technologies in the Caribbean, specifically examining nineteenth-century British-colonial Trinidad in the slavery and post-slavery eras. Within this nineteenth-century Anglophone Caribbean context, the criminalization and demonization of African religious practices as “unsanctioned religious power” stand out against the stringent regulations enacted by white colonial officials.20 Beginning in 1797, when the British acquired this territory from the Spanish, African practices such as Obeah were outlawed based upon British imagined perceptions of the dangers of these mysterious African religious traditions. According to Article 11 of Governor Picton’s 1800 Slave Code in Trinidad, “any Negro who shall assume the reputation of being a spell-doctor or obeah-man, and shall be found with an amulet, a fetishe, or the customary attributes and ingredients of the profession, shall be carried before the Commandant of the District, who will take cognizance of the accusation; and provided the crime be not capital, inflict proper punishment.” The ordinance furthen stipulated that “should it appear probable that the culprit has been the cause of death of any person by his prescriptions (as very frequently happens), the Commandant will then transmit him to the gaol, as a criminal, to be prosecuted and dealt with according to law.”21

Long after British manumission in the 1830s, this legislation remained the primary social and legislative prism through which African religious cultures were negotiated and measured. The most thoroughly documented legal case against Africana healing practices in Trinidad was that of John Cooper in the 1870s. The official record of well over 100 pages, documenting John Cooper’s conviction for Obeah, states: “John Cooper, a black, was entering Port of Spain about 5 a.m. on the 25th November, with a bundle. His demeanor attracted the attention of a constable who stopped him for the purpose of examining the bundle under sec. 55 of law of 1868. In the bundle were two fowls, one dead, the other alive.” Cooper was initially suspected of theft, but upon his explanation that the fowl were used for spiritual healing purposes through ritual, the arresting charge was changed to Obeah, or sorcery. The lens through which British society viewed Africana healing religiosity is evident in these colonial documents. According to the record, “Among the population of African descent” there existed a widespread belief in Obeah “superstition,” and the “chief practitioners of it are natives of Africa.” It was believed to prevail “in all West Indian Islands” and deemed by colonial authorities as a source of spiritual “terrorism.”22 In addition to John Cooper’s recorded “testimony” and alleged “confession,” we learn from the Trinidad Gazette in 1872 that, at the time of his arrest, he had a collection of material culture in his possession indicating his status as a potential specialist in Africana religious cultures. Colonial records indicate there was “a packet of powder on him” and another “parcel of powder,” which, he said, was to prevent harm coming to him as he walked. “He had a bone; he was asked what that was for; he said, to protect himself. He had a cock; he said he would cut the [bird’s] throat, and sprinkle the blood on the ground to do good for the person who employed him.”23 This transcript offers significant evidence concerning John Cooper’s possible profession as a diviner and ritual specialist, and his presence in the colonial record is symbolic of a larger mapping of African divinatory, healing, and curative practices upon the religious landscape of the Americas and the Caribbean.

Over time, populations of African descent in Africa and the diaspora have participated in their own mappings and meanings for securing therapeutic and protective refuge from societal and personal discord. John Cooper’s case in the Caribbean is important for it represented a moment in the historical record when Africana “subterranean traditions” were brought forth from their marginal social contexts and placed at the center of Western colonial religious reflection.24 What I learn most from the corpus of this research, and what I hope will continue to be unearthed in the future study of Africana religious cultures in Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean, is that wherever African people have settled, their theurgical and therapeutic practices (inclusive of divinatory and African mystical technologies) have functioned as important epistemic and generative resources for how Africana populations deploy religious meaning, invoke counter-strategies of resistance, and seek to create remedies of restorative health and wholeness as protective shields from individual and collective affliction, disease, threat, and annihilation.


  1. The Church and Healing: Echoes from Africa, ed. Emmanuel Yartekwei Lartey, Daisy Nwachuku, and Kasonga wa Kasonga (Peter Lang, 1994), 3.
  2. Emmanuel Y. Lartey, Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World (Pilgrim Press, 2006), 145.
  3. Emmanuel Y. Lartey, “Two Healing Communities in Africa,” in The Church and Healing, ed. Lartey et al., 7, 42.
  4. Ibid., 39.
  5. Andrew Olu Igenoza, “Wholeness in African Experience: Christian Perspectives,” in The Church and Healing, ed. Lartey et al., 126.
  6. Lartey, “Two Healing Communities in Africa,” 41.
  7. Grey Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs: Literacies, Creolization, and Vernacular Practice in African America (Oxford University Press, 1998), 8.
  8. Yvonne B. Chireau, Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (University of California Press, 2003), 101.
  9. Lartey, Pastoral Theology in an Intercultural World, 128.
  10. Cornel West, Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight against Imperialism (Penguin Press, 2004), 81–82.
  11. Henry John Drewal, “Mami Wata Shrines,” in African Material Culture, ed. Mary Jo Arnoldi, Christraud M. Geary, and Kris L. Hardin (Indiana University Press, 1996), 327.
  12. Preston McKever-Floyd, “Masks of the Sacred,” in Religion in South Carolina, ed. Charles H. Lippy (University of South Carolina Press, 1993), 155.
  13. Drewal, “Mami Wata Shrines,” 327.
  14. Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs, 123. Jacob K. Olupona, “Sacred Cosmos: African Indigenous Religion in the Contemporary World,” in African Americans and The Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures, ed. Vincent Wimbush (Continuum Press, 2000), 72.
  15. Velana Annemarie Huntington, “Bodies in Contexts: Holistic Ideals of Health, Healing, and Wellness in an American Orisa Community” (PhD diss., University of Illinois at Chicago, 2005), 7–8.
  16. Ibid., 44.
  17. Jean Masamba Ma Mpolo, “Spirituality and Counseling for Healing and Liberation,” in The Church and Healing, ed. Lartey et al., 17.
  18. Gundaker, Signs of Diaspora/Diaspora of Signs, 128.
  19. Ibid., 151.
  20. Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, “Extra-Ordinary People: Mystai and Magoi, Magicians and Orphics in the Derveni Papyrus,” Classical Philology 103 (2008): 26.
  21. A. Meredith John, The Plantation Slaves of Trinidad, 1783–1816: A Mathematical and Demographic Enquiry (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 215.
  22. CO 295/261, Colonial Office and Predecessors: Trinidad Original Correspondence. Correspondence, Original – Secretary of State. Despatches.
  23. “Proceedings of the Meeting of the Court of Appeal,” Trinidad Chronicle, April 9, 1872.
  24. Dianne Stewart Diakité and Tracey E. Hucks, “Africana Religious Studies: Toward a Transdisciplinary Agenda in an Emerging Field,” Journal of Africana Religions 1 no. 1 (2013): 43.

Tracey E. Hucks, PhD ’98, is Professor of Religion and former chair of the Department of Religion at Haverford College. Her book Yoruba Traditions and African American Religious Nationalism (University of New Mexico Press) was published in 2012, and she has recently completed a manuscript on African religious cultures in Trinidad. This is an edited version of the plenary address Hucks delivered on April 13, 2012, at the Harvard-sponsored symposium, “Sacred Healing and Wholeness in Africa and the Americas.”

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