Mircea Eliade "From Primitives to Zen": Ngai, The High God of the Kikuyu


The Kikuyu are a Bantu-speaking tribe of East Africa

First we have Gothaithaya Ngai, which means 'to beseech Ngai,' or 'to worship Ngai.' Ngai is a name of the High God. The difference between deity worship and ancestor worship is demonstrated by the fact that Gothaithaya is never used in connection with the ancestral spirits.

The conception of a Deity. The Kikuyu believes in one God, Ngai, the creator and giver of all things. He has no Father, Mother or companion of any kind. He loves or hates people according to their behaviour. The creator lives in the sky, but has temporary homes on earth, situated on mountains, where he may rest during his visits. The visits are made with a view to his carrying out a kind of 'general inspection,' Koroora thi, and to bring blessings and punishments to the people. Ngai cannot be seen by mortal eyes. He is a distant being and takes but little interest in individuals in their daily walks of life. Yet at the crises of their lives he is called upon. At the birth, initiation, marriage and death of every Kikuyu, communication is established on his behalf with Ngai. The ceremonies for these four events leave no doubt as to the importance of the spiritual assistance which is essential to them. . . .In the ordinary way of everyday life, there are no prayers or religious ceremonies, such as 'morning and evening prayers.' So long as people and things go well and prosper, it is taken for granted that God is pleased with the general behaviour or the people and the welfare of the country. In this happy state there is no need for prayers. Indeed, they are inadvisable, for Ngai must not needlessly be bothered. It is only when humans are in real need that they must approach him without fear of disturbing him and incurring his wrath. But when people meet to discuss public affairs or decide a case, or at public dances, they offer prayers for protection and guidance. When a man is stricken by lightening it is said: 'He has been smashed to smithereens for seeing Ngai in the act of cracking his joints in readiness to go to smash and chase away his enemies.'
It is said that lightning is a visible representation of some of God's weapons which he uses on ahead to warn people of his coming and to prepare and clear the way. His approach is foretold only by the sounds of his own preparations. Thunder is the cracking of his joints, as a warrior limbering up for action.


Jomo Kenyatta, 'Kikuyu Religion, Ancestor-worship, and Sacrificial Practices.' Africa, X (1937) pp. 308-28

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