Gikuyu Names for Deity
*These are Some of my field notes from interviews for my book Crossing Rivers
Mogai: Literally means “server.” The idea is that the source of everything is God.
Ngai: This is by far the most popular word for God in the current vernacular, but it seems this is more a matter of the adoption of this word for the Christian concept of God. The original source of “Ngai” is likely that it was borrowed from the Maasai deity word, “Enkai.”
This is the generic term for God and is sometimes used in conjunction with other deity words. For instance, there is a saying, Ngai niwe Mogai, which means “God is the only server,” or “the source of all things is God.” Here we see also the use of these two terms for the same deity. Historically, this confused early missionaries and anthropologists, who assumed that there were different gods rather than a variety of names for the same God.
Mwene Nyaga: Literally means “the owner of the spotted mountain,” or “the owner of the ostrich,” or “the owner of whiteness.” The male ostrich is mostly black with large white areas toward its back; similarly, Kirinyaga (Mount Kenya), when seen from Gikuyu lands, is a mostly dark-to-black mountain with a white patch on its “backside.” This has led many to conclude that the Gikuyu worshipped the mountain itself, which is not the case.
Murungu: Literally means “underworld dweller.” Unlike Western beliefs, the underworld for the Gikuyu is not necessarily evil. The belief is that departed ancestors dwell beneath the roots of the sacred fig tree called the mugumo. Murungu visits the ancestors under the roots of this tree. It was an absolute taboo, in pre-colonial Gikuyu culture, to deface or cut down a mugumo tree.