Kpelle - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Whereas some 10 to 25 percent of the Kpelle are nominal Christians (usually Lutheran) in those areas where missionaries are very active, and whereas a handful embrace Islam, the vast majority hold traditional animistic beliefs. Kpelle religion is rather inchoate, focused vaguely on God, the ancestors, and forest spirits and more sharply on the secret medicine societies and the masked spirits who operate within those societies. The Kpelle recognize a High God who created the world and then retired. They believe in a variety of lesser spirits or genii, including ancestors, personal totems, water spirits, and spirits in magically powerful masks. Witchcraft and sorcery figure prominently in the belief system.

Religious Practitioners. The Kpelle recognize three principal types of shaman (medicine person of either sex): those associated with the Poro and Sande societies, those associated with other specific medicine societies, and those who are independent. The first two types mainly conduct rituals; the third type, and occasionally the second, primarily heal. The Kpelle also utilize diviners who analyze problems for a fee.

Ceremonies. Sacrifices are made to ancestors and other spirits, often at crossroads. Rituals and ritual knowledge are secret and, in general, associated with the secret medicine societies. Accordingly, most important Kpelle rituals are not accessible to observers. One exception is the coming-out ceremonies following initiatory seclusion.

Arts. The Kpelle design various musical instruments, weave homespun cloth and several types of mat, and carve crude sculptures. Their most beautiful and refined artistic creations are the elegant and awesome spirit masks associated with the secret societies.

Medicine. The Kpelle deal with disease and with spirits through magic and medicine, both of which are implied by the word sale. Depending on whether a malady is determined to be caused by spiritual (e.g., witchcraft) or other agency, the appropriate type of specialist is consulted for treatment.

Death and Afterlife. Death is a passing into a spiritual realm that coexists with the material realm. The deceased become ancestors, who seem to become increasingly vague and to move further away from villages and into the bush as their memory becomes less distinct in the minds of their living relatives.

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