The traditional Berber religion is the ancient and native set of
beliefs and deities adhered to by the Berber autochthones of North
Africa. Many ancient Berber beliefs were developed locally, whereas
others were influenced over time through contact with other
traditional African religions (such as the Ancient Egyptian religion),
or borrowed during antiquity from the Punic religion, Judaism, Iberian
mythology, and the Hellenistic religion. The most recent influence
Islam and pre-Islamic Arab religion during the medieval
period. Some of the ancient Berber beliefs still exist today subtly
within the Berber popular culture and tradition. Syncretic influences
from the traditional Berber religion can also be found in certain
1 Funerary practices
2 Cult of the dead
3 Ancient Berber tombs
4 Megalithic culture
5 Berber-Egyptian beliefs
5.1 Egyptian deities
5.2 Berber deities
5.3 Ammon as a common deity
6 Phoenician-Berber beliefs
6.1 Before the Battle of Himera (480 BC)
6.2 After the Battle of Himera
7 Greek-Berber beliefs
7.1 Before the Battle of Irassa (570 BC)
7.2 After the Battle of Irassa
8 Roman-Berber beliefs
8.1 The Imperial Period
9 See also
10 References and notes
11 External links
Archaeological research on prehistoric tombs in the Maghreb shows that
the bodies of the dead were painted with ochre. While this practice
was known to the Iberomaurusians, this culture seems to have been
primarily a Capsian industry. The dead were also sometimes buried with
shells of ostrich eggs, jewelry, and weapons. Bodies were usually
buried in a fetal position.
Unlike the majority of mainland Berbers, the
Guanches mummified the
dead. Additionally, Fabrizio Mori discovered a Libyan mummy older than
any comparable Ancient Egyptian mummy in 1958.
Cult of the dead
The authors of the book The
Berbers stated that the cult of the dead
was one of the distinguishing characteristics of the
Pomponius Mela reported that the Augilae (Modern Awjila
in Libya) considered the spirits of their ancestors to be gods. They
swore by them and consulted them. After making requests, they slept in
their tombs to await responses in dreams.
Herodotus (484 BC–ca.425 BC) noted the same practice among the
Nasamones, who inhabited the deserts around Siwa and Augila. He wrote:
[..]They swear by the men among themselves who are reported to have
been the most righteous and brave, by these, I say, laying hands upon
their tombs; and they divine by visiting the sepulchral mounds of
their ancestors and lying down to sleep upon them after having prayed;
and whatsoever thing the man sees in his dream, this he accepts.
Berbers worshiped their kings, too. The tombs of the Numidian
kings are among the most notable monuments left by the Classical
The veneration (not worship) of saints which exists among the modern
Berbers in the form of Maraboutism—which is widespread in northwest
Africa—may or may not contain traces of prior beliefs or customs
concerning the dead.
Ancient Berber tombs
The mausoleum of Madghacen
The tombs of the early people and their ancestors indicate that the
Berbers and their forebears (the
Numidians and Mauretanians) believed
in an afterlife. The prehistoric people of northwest Africa buried
bodies in little holes. When they realized that bodies buried in
unsecured holes were dug up by wild animals, they began to bury them
in deeper ones. Later, they buried the dead in caves, tumuli, tombs in
rocks, mounds, and other types of tombs.
These tombs evolved from primitive structures to much more elaborate
ones, such as the pyramidal tombs spread throughout Northern Africa.
The honor of being buried in such a tomb appears to have been reserved
for those who were most important to their communities.
These pyramid tombs have attracted the attention of some scholars,
Mohamed Chafik who wrote a book discussing the history of
several of the tombs that have survived into modern times. He tried to
relate the pyramidal Berber tombs with the great
Egyptian pyramids on
the basis of the etymological and historical data. The best known
Berber pyramids are the 19-meter pre-Roman Numidian pyramid of the
Medracen and the 30-meter ancient Mauretanian pyramid. The Numidian
pyramid in Tipaza is also known as Kbour-er-Roumia or
Tomb of Juba and
Sypax, mistranslated by the French colonists as
Tomb of the Christian
Tomb holds the graves of King
Juba II and Queen
Cleopatra Selene II, sovereigns of Mauretania.
Augustine of Hippo
Augustine of Hippo mentioned that the polytheistic Africans worshipped
Apuleius stated as well that rocks were worshipped in
the second century. The megalithic culture may have been part of a
cult of the dead or of star-worship.
The monument of
Msoura is the best-known megalithic monument in
northwest Africa. It is composed of a circle of megaliths surrounding
a tumulus. The highest megalith is longer than 5 meters. According to
legend, it is the sepulchre of the mythical Berber king Antaeus.
Another megalithic monument was discovered in 1926 to south of
Casablanca. The monument was engraved with funerary inscriptions in
the Berber script known as Tifinagh.
Herodotus mentioned that the ancient
Berbers worshipped the moon and
sun and sacrificed to them. He reported:
They begin with the ear of the victim, which they cut off and throw
over their house: this done, they kill the animal by twisting the
neck. They sacrifice to the
Sun and Moon, but not to any other god.
This worship is common to all the Libyans.
Cicero (105-43 BC) also reported the same cult in On the
Republic (Scipio's Dream):
When I (Scipio) was introduced to him, the old man (Massinissa, king
of Massyle) embraced me, shed tears, and then, looking up to heaven,
exclaimed I thank thee, O supreme Sun, and you also, you other
celestial beings, that before I departed from this life I behold in my
kingdom, and in my palace, Publius Cornelius Scipio ....
There were some Latin inscriptions found in Northwest Africa dedicated
to the sun-god. An example is the inscription found in
Souk Ahras (the
birthplace of Augustine;
Thagaste in Algeria) written "Solo Deo
Samuel the Confessor
Samuel the Confessor appears to have suffered from the
Berbers who tried unsuccessfully to force him to
worship the sun.
The Berber pantheon also contained multiple gods, known as the Dii
Mauri, represented on reliefs and also the subject of dedications.
During the Roman period, Saturn was the focus of an important cult,
subsuming that of
Baal Hammon, a deity of Punic origin.
The Ancient Egyptians were the neighbors of the Berbers. Therefore, it
is sometimes supposed that some deities were originally worshipped by
the Ancient Egyptians and the Ancient Libyans (Berbers) as well. The
Egyptian-Berber gods and goddesses can be distinguished according to
The Eastern ancient
Isis and Set. That was reported
Herodotus when saying:
Cow's flesh, however, none of these [Libyan] tribes ever taste, but
abstain from it for the same reason as the Egyptians, neither do they
any of them breed swine. Even at Cyrene, the women think it wrong to
eat the flesh of the cow, honoring in this Isis, the Egyptian goddess,
whom they worship both with fasts and festivals. The Barcaean women
abstain, not from cow's flesh only, but also from the flesh of
Berbers supposedly did not eat the flesh of swine, because it
was associated with Set, while they did not eat the cow's flesh,
because it was associated with Isis.
Osiris was among the Egyptian deities who were venerated in Libya.
However, Dr. Budge (in addition to a few other scholars) believed that
Osiris was originally a Libyan god saying of him that "Everything
which the texts of all periods recorded concerning him goes to show
that he was an indigenous god of North-east Africa, and that his home
and origin were possibly Libyan."
The Egyptians considered some Egyptian deities to have had a Libyan
origin, such as
Neith who has been considered, by Egyptians, to have
Libya to establish her temple at Sais in the Nile
Delta. Some legends tell that
Neith was born around Lake Tritons (in
It is also notable that some Egyptian deities were depicted with
Berber (ancient Libyan) characters. The goddess Ament was thus
portrayed with two feathers, which were the normal ornaments of the
Ancient Libyans as they were drawn by the Ancient Egyptians.
Ammon as a common deity
The most remarkable common god of the
Berbers and the Egyptians was
Ammon. This god is hard to attribute to only one pantheon.
Although most modern sources ignore the existence of Ammon in Berber
mythology, he was maybe the greatest ancient Berber god. He was
honored by the Ancient Greeks in Cyrenaica, and was united with the
Baal due to Libyan influence. Early depictions of
rams (related possibly to an early form of the cult of this deity)
North Africa have been dated to between 9600 BC and 7500 BC.
The most famous temple of Ammon in Ancient
Libya was the augural
temple at Siwa in Egypt, an oasis still inhabited by Berbers.
The Phoenicians were originally a
Semitic people that inhabited the
coasts of modern
Lebanon and Tunisia. They were seafarers and they
Carthage in 814 BC. They later gave birth to the so-called
Punic culture which had its roots in the Berber and Phoenician
cultures. Some scholars distinguish the relationships between the
Phoenicians and the
Berbers in two phases:
Before the Battle of Himera (480 BC)
When the Phoenicians established in Northwest Africa, they stayed in
the coastal regions to avoid wars with the Berbers. They maintained
their deities which they brought from their homelands. The early
Carthaginians had two important deities,
Baal and Astarte.
After the Battle of Himera
Carthage began to ally with the Berber tribes after the Battle of
Himera, in which the Carthaginians were defeated by the Greeks. In
addition to political changes, the Carthaginians imported some of the
Baal was the primary god worshipped in Carthage. Depictions of this
deity are found in several sites across northwest Africa. The goddess
Astarte was replaced by a native goddess, Tanit, which is thought to
be of Berber origin. The name itself, Tanit, has a Berber linguistic
structure. Feminine names begin and end with "t" in the Berber
languages. Some scholars believe that the Egyptian goddess
related to the Libyan goddess
Tanit (Ta-neith). There are also Massyle
and Phoenician names that apparently contain roots from the god Baal,
such as Adherbal and Hannibal.
The ancient Greeks established colonies in Cyrenaica. The Greeks
influenced the eastern Berber pantheon, but they were also influenced
by Berber culture and beliefs. Generally, the Libyan-Greek
relationships can be divided into two different periods. In the first
period, the Greeks had peaceful relationships with the Libyans. Later,
there were wars between them. These social relationships were mirrored
in their beliefs.
Before the Battle of Irassa (570 BC)
The first notable appearance of Libyan influence on the
Cyrenaican-Greek beliefs is the name
Cyrenaica itself. This name was
originally the name of a legendary (mythic) Berber woman warrior who
was known as Cyre.
Cyre was, according to the legend, a courageous
lion-hunting woman. She gave her name to the city Cyrenaica. The
emigrating Greeks made her their protector besides their Greek god
The Greeks of
Cyrenaica seemed also to have adopted some Berber
customs and intermarried with the Berber women.
Herodotus (Book IV
120) reported that the Libyans taught the Greeks how to yoke four
horses to a chariot. The Cyrenaican Greeks built temples for the
Libyan god Ammon instead of their original god Zeus. They later
identified their supreme god
Zeus with the Libyan Ammon. Some of
them continued worshipping Ammon himself. Ammon's cult was so
widespread among the Greeks that even
Alexander the Great
Alexander the Great decided to
be declared as the son of
Zeus in the Siwan temple by the Libyan
priests of Ammon.
The ancient historians mentioned that some Greek deities were of
Libyan origin. The daughter of
Athena was considered by some
ancient historians, like Herodotus, to have been of Libyan origin.
Those ancient historians stated that she was originally honored by the
Lake Tritonis where she had been born from the god
Poseidon and Lake Tritonis, according to the Libyan legend. Herodotus
wrote that the
Aegis and the clothes of
Athena are typical for Libyan
Herodotus also stated that
Poseidon (an important Greek sea god) was
adopted from the Libyans by the Greeks. He emphasized that no other
Poseidon from early times apart from the Libyans who
spread his cult:
[..]these I think received their naming from the Pelasgians, except
Poseidon; but about this god the Hellenes learnt from the Libyans, for
no people except the Libyans have had the name of
Poseidon from the
first and have paid honour to this god always.
Some other Greek deities were related to Libya. The goddess Lamia was
believed to have originated in Libya, like
Medusa and the Gorgons. The
Greeks seem also to have met the god Triton in Libya. The Greeks may
have believed that the
Hesperides was situated in modern Morocco. Some
scholars situate it in Tangier where
Antaeus lived, according to some
Hesperides were believed to be the daughters of Atlas a god
that is associated with the
Atlas mountains by Herodotus. The Atlas
mountain was worshipped by the
Berbers and the Canary Islands
represent to many the daughters of Atlas.
After the Battle of Irassa
The Greeks and the Massyle began to break their harmony in the period
of Battus II. Battus II began secretly to invite other Greek groups to
Tunisia and East Algeria. The Libyans and Massyle considered
that as a danger that had to be stopped. The
Berbers began to fight
against the Greeks, sometimes in alliance with the Egyptians and other
times with the Carthaginians. Nevertheless, the Greeks were the
Antaeus is depicted with long hair and beard, contrary to Heracles.
Some historians believe that the myth of
Antaeus was a reflection of
those wars between the Libyans and Greeks. The legend tells that
Antaeus was the undefeatable protector of the Massyle. He was the son
of the god
Poseidon and Gaia. He was the husband of the Berber goddess
Tinjis. He used to protect the lands of the
Berbers until he was slain
by the Greek hero
Heracles who married Tingis.The learned client king
Juba II of
Mauretania (died 23 BC), husband of the daughter of Antony
and Cleopatra, claimed his descent from a liaison of Hercules with
Tinga, the consort of Antaeus. Some sources describe
Antaeus as the
king of Irassa,
Plutarch reported that his son founded Tingi
(Tangiers) after his mother. In Greek iconography,
clearly distinguished as being different from the Greeks in
appearance. He was depicted with long hair and a beard that was
typical for the Eastern Libyans.
The Romans allied firstly with the Massyle against Carthage. They
Carthage in 146 BC. But later, they also annexed Massyle to
the Roman Empire.
The Imperial Period
According to Pliny the Elder, the Libyans honored the war goddess Ifri
or Africa, who was considered to be the protector of her worshipers
(and seemed to have been an influential goddess in North Africa), and
depicted her on the Berber coins. This goddess was represented in
diverse ways on Numidian coins from the first century BC. When the
Romans conquered Northwest Africa, she appeared in sculpture and on
the coins of the Roman states in North Africa.
The Roman pantheon seems to have been adopted generally, although the
cult of Saturn, as mentioned above, was perhaps the most important.
A new god appears in later texts, identified with tribes such as the
Austuriani outside the Roman frontiers of Libya. Gurzil was a war god
who identified with the son of Ammon. He was taken by the
their battles against the Byzantines. Corippus mentioned that the
chiefs of the Laguata took their god Gurzil into battle against the
Byzantines and Arabs. It is very likely that the sanctuary of Gurzil
was located in Ghirza, in Libya, where remarkable reliefs show a noble
Libyan receiving tribute while seated on a curule chair.
Muslim conquest of the Maghreb
Berbers and Islam
References and notes
^ a b Ouachi, Moustapha. “The
Berbers and the death.” El-Haraka
^ The mystery of the Black Mummy
^ Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. 1996. The Berbers. Oxford:
Blackwell, p. 35
^ Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress p. 35
^ Herodotus, Histories, Book 4, 170
^ James Hastings,
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 4 - p. 512
^ Tawalt, Libyan Massyle Site (in Arabic), Chafik, Mohammed. Revue
Tifinagh. Elements lexicaux Berberes pouvant apporter un eclairage
dans la recherche des origines prehistoriques des pyramides].
^ a b Chafik, Mohammed. Revue Tifinagh. Elements lexicaux Berberes
pouvant apporter un eclairage dans la recherche des origines
prehistoriques des pyramides
^ a b c d . “The
Berbers and rocks.”
^ Tertre de M'zora (in French)
^ Herodotus, Histories, book IV, 168–198.
^ M. Tullius
Cicero (105-43 BCE): from On the Republic (Scipio's
^ James Hastings,
Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics Part 4 p. 508.
^ Elizabeth Fentress, 1978, 'Di Mauri and Dii Patrii' Latomus 37, 2-16
^ Herodotus: The Histories.
^ Mohammed Mustapha Bazma, The Libyan Influence on the Egyptian and
Greek Civilizations and their Influence on the Libyan Civilization.
^ Cited by
Lewis Spence in Ancient Egyptian Myths and Legends; p. 64
^ William Shaler (1824). Communication on the language, manners, and
customs of the
Berbers or Brebers of Africa, in a series of letters to
P.S. Duponceau, read before the Amer. phil. soc. and publ. in the new
ser. of their transactions. pp. 18–.
^ H. Basset, Les influences puniques chez les Berbères, pp 367-368
^ Mohammed Chafik, Revue Tifinagh...
^ K. Freeman Greek city state- N.Y. 1983, p. 210.
^ Oric Bates, The Eastern Libyans.
^ Mohammed Chafik, revue Tifinagh...
Herodotus Book 2: Euterpe 50
^ Oric Bates. The Eastern Massyle, Franc Cass Co. p. 260
^ Plutarch, Life of Sertorius, 9. 4.
^ O. Brogan and D. Smith, 1984, Ghirza: a Libyan Settlement in the
Roman Period. Tripoli.
Recherches sur la religion des Berberes by René