Ancestors are those who once lived in human society and, having fulfilled certain conditions, are now in the realm of the spirits. One becomes an
ancestor by living and dying in a particular way.

In African religion, to become an ancestor, onemust have lived an exemplary life, shown devotion to one’s own ancestors, respected the elders, and had children. Among various ethnic groups, to become an ancestor, one must have died a good death, that is, one’s death must not have been by suicide, accident, or other forms of violence, with the possible exception of heroic deaths on the battlefield.

In most societies, those dying of epilepsy, leprosy, and lunacy cannot be considered candidates for ancestorhood. This entry discusses the general importance of ancestors in African religion and morality and then looks at particular ways that reverence is shown. It concludes with an examination of how ancestor devotion influences ideas about death and dying.

Veneration Is Fundamental

The veneration of the ancestors is a fundamental part of African religion. There is a clear reason for such veneration. The ancestors are respected and venerated because they are elders and have walked the path that living people will walk. They are predecessors to all of those who are living and are in a spiritual state of existence that gives them power to assist those who are living. People have believed for a long time that the ritualized propitiation and invocation of ancestors could influence the fate of the living. This is a belief and practice that has been brought to a complex and elaborated level by thousands of years of African thinking.

Indeed, ancestors serve the living as the living beings serve them. Ancestors assist the living in court cases, in marriage, in mediations between family members, and in health situations; in return, the living offer ceremonies to feed the ancestors. Libations are usually offered through drink or food because the ancestors are believed to continue to live as they did when they were on the Earth. Thus, even in their spiritual state, they need to have sustenance. Offerings may be granted to them individually or collectively or by religious officials who perform on festival occasions.

Everything in life that matters to the order and harmony of society must be approached through the ancestors. This means that in African religion, there is always ancestral priority, presence, and power. The ancestral spirits are the most intimate divinities and must be consulted on important occasions. This is the reason that Africans regard the ancestors as the keepers of morality. One of the ways descendants of the ancestor maintain a balanced society is by avoiding the activities that were considered immoral by the ancestor. The living must do everything they can to avoid leaving the moral path laid down by the departed ancestors. If someone violates the moral path, then it is possible that the ancestors might bring about sudden death.

The social fabric of the African community is woven together by ancestor reverence. It is the source of many domestic and institutional relationships. Therefore, it is necessary to explain that it is not merely a reflection of the supernatural world; it is the only world lived in by many Africans. Thus, the manner of reverence among African people is relatively similar, which makes it possible to speak of the commonalities of ancestor reverence among Africans.

The Descent Line

The descent line is the basic structural component for all groups who practice ancestor reverence. People know whom they owe reverence by knowing to whom they belong. Constant ritualizing of the First Ancestors helps to reinforce the appreciation for a particular descent group. Sometimes the main descent group can be augmented by other ethnic or clan groups. For instance, the Ndebele people of Zimbabwe were originally a royal clan related to the Zulu of South Africa, but during their migration and conquest northward out of South Africa, they acquired new clans and ethnic groups who now appropriate some of the same ancestors.

Among many African people, the descent is through the mother—that is, matrilineal. In that case, many of the ancestors to be revered would come from the matrilineal side of the family. The husband would be a part of the family by virtue of his marriage to the direct descendant. In some cases, the husband may also revere the ancestors of his father. The idea is that the ancestor revered must be within the family structure. If the kinship structure is patrilineal, this means that the ancestors are from the father’s side, and because of legal affinities, the wife may participate in the reverence as a member of the family.

African religion is pre-eminently a religion of reverence for the ancestors. The Swazi king appeals to the ancestors on behalf of the nation, showing himself to be the chief priest. The pattern of royal intercession is followed by many other African groups. What is also common and extensively practiced is sacrifice, which always implies obligation. Kofi Asare Opoku, a major African scholar on religion, has written extensively on the question of obligation in African religion.

Obligation among the Swazi people means that each year an animal must be dedicated to a specific royal ancestor and may only be eaten by the direct descendants of that ancestor.

Reverence Displays

Although it is true that ancestors are revered, it is also true that not all ancestors are revered in the same way. A congregation, that is, a kinship group, so to speak, does not provide ritual service or respect to every ancestor in all situations. One might say that the ancestors who are accorded respect in one situation may primarily be those who are exclusive to the honoring group. This helps them to distinguish between collateral groups, perhaps of the same ethnic group.

However, some ancestors are more than family. They are national, that is, all families in the ethnic group are derived from them, and national ceremonies are held to commemorate those ancestors who may be the Yoruba egungun or the Asante nananom nsamanfo.

The complexity of the practice of ancestor reverence varies among ethnic groups. However, among most groups, the interconnections between religion and property, marriage, birth, death, and titles to membership and leadership of the corporate group are clearly tied to geneonymy. This word means commemoration of the ancestors by name. Everyone who calls the name of the ancestors must use the accepted geneonymic sequence because that is the only way the group establishes itself as a congregation.

Another reason that geneonymy is important is the establishment of ancestral focus. Every member of the congregation knows exactly to whom he or she belongs. One calls the name of the ancestor publicly so that the ancestor’s name is spoken again in the community of the living.

Africans do not do this simply for the purpose of hearing the name, but also to instruct the young people of the community on the value of commemoration. Therefore, it is the highest form of obligation for the children of the ancestor. Ancestor reverence or worship should not be confused with cults of the dead. For Africans, death in itself has no divine qualities. African people believe something far more significant than simply the worship of the dead. In the popular traditional African religion, there is the idea that those who have lived in the community actually affect the lives of the living after death.

Universal Practice

Thus, the deification of the ancestral spirit is essential to the religion, but death must occur for the process of deification to take place. Ancestor reverence, therefore, is not the same as practices dealing with ghosts and spirits and Hob-Goblins. Some Western societies have believed in ghosts and shade cults, but do not have ancestor reverence.

There is widespread practice of ancestor reverence on the continent of Africa, and the practices vary in different regions of the continent. Among the Ga of Ghana and the Nuer of the Sudan, two of the several groups that do not have an elaborate system of ancestor reverence, there is still a strong belief in the veneration of ancestors on special occasions. The Ga have ritualized libations in the name of the honored dead during naming ceremonies, marriages, and the Homowo Festival.

Their practice, and that of the Nuer, may be somewhat like the practice of the Jews and Catholics; both groups name ancestors on special occasions. The Catholics have masses in the names of the ancestor saints, and the Jews name ancestors on the Day of Atonement and their New Year Day.

In Africa, the Ibo of Nigeria believe that the ancestors profoundly influence all actions in society. Although they do not have kings of their towns (instead they have a group of elders who govern the community), they are nevertheless quite elaborate in their veneration of the ancestors. This has far-reaching significance in sociological terms. Among the Ibo people, sacrifice has to be offered regularly, and a person does not eat or drink without giving a portion to the ancestors.

The Spirits of the Dead

The spirits of the dead are the ancestors, and the forces of nature often represent their activities; they may be the powers behind the storms, rain, rivers, seas, lakes, hills, and rocks. They are not just the rocks or water, but the spiritual powers capable of manifesting anywhere. There is no separation between the religious world and other spheres of human and supernatural activities because the relationship among the living, the dead, and the Supreme God is one of mutuality and connectedness. Humans are intertwined with the divine; there is no seam in the relationship.

The spiritual world is interrelated with the natural world according to the Shona of Zimbabwe. Mwari, the Supreme God, is connected to the living through the ancestors and spirit mediums. The natural world, the world of trees, rocks, rivers, and so forth, has a direct connection to the spiritual world by way of moral geography. To become an ancestor, death is necessary, but it is not enough. Most practitioners of popular traditional African religion make a distinction between the dead and the ancestors. In fact, among the Tallensi people, it is believed that those who die without offspring live a ghostly existence because they have no one to provide reverence for them. A more elaborate understanding of this distinction is given by the Fon of Dahomey. In fact, the Fon say that the dead (chio) are not the same as the ancestors (tovodu). As one would expect, the people of Benin (the African nation with the largest proportion of its population practicing popular traditional African religion) also have the most complex ritual system for deifying the dead and turning them into ancestors.

The Ritual Protocols

Clearly the practice of ancestor veneration among the people of Africa means that there must be a pantheon of deities. Of course, there exists in all of these congregations a pantheon, but most often a judicious and limited one. There are not thousands of deities, as among the Hindu people, or scores of them as among the ancient Greeks; there are only the robust ancestral spirits that have been properly called into service by ritual. They have been brought home again and have manifested themselves in the service of the community.

Through prayers, rituals, sacrifice and incest prohibition, and other taboo injunctions, the community acknowledges the dead person as joining the cosmography of the ancestral world.

The Akan people of Ghana have a rather developed sense of ancestor reverence based on kinship. The matrilineal forebears can become ancestors and receive veneration. The Akan may have established this system because the philosophical tradition is based on the idea that the person is composed of the ntoro, the sunsum, the abusua, and the mogya. The father transmits ntoro, personality, to the child, but it does not survive death.

The mother transmits the mogya, the blood, and the abusua, family lineage. Thus, in a matrilineal society, it is from the mother that one receives those things that survive and are transmuted to become the spirit of the ancestor.

Spirit is a name attached to certain ritualized relics, such as a stool, which represents the validation of the proper ancestral lineage.

Among the Akan, ancestor veneration is more than a filial relationship to the father or mother; it is a kinship event with the backing of the political philosophical system. Those members of the lineage who are heads of households or holders of office may become enshrined as venerated ancestors.

What is true for the Akan matrilineal system is also true for the patrilineal system in terms of the rules of selection and veneration. As an ancestor, a person is able to prolong his legal existence in his heir or co-heirs. He may have been a person of bad temper or poor judgment, but it becomes the inescapable duty of his heirs to venerate him because he continues to live effectively in the world.

Accordingly, it does not matter what a person’s relationship has been with the ancestor; once the person has become an ancestor, it is necessary to venerate him regardless of his successes or failures as a person. One ancestor is on equal standing with another so long as he has been ritualized into ancestor hood, which carries with it the power to influence lives and intervene in activities of his descendants.

The Tallensi people, along with many other Africans, believe that if a man has no sons, he cannot become an ancestor regardless of his virtue and success in life. Without an heir to venerate him, he is in danger of a grievous travesty. What holds for the ancestor holds for the descendants.

The eldest son must officiate regardless of his moral condition or his intellectual capacity. No one can take away from him his right to lead the veneration of the ancestors of his parents. He alone has the lifelong responsibility to carry out the functions of libation and sacrifices for the ancestor. If he fails to do so, he is in grave peril. Should others try to take away his right to fulfil his responsibility, they will be in peril.

Similarly, the ancestors behave the same way toward their descendants irrespective of either of their characters. Ancestors who were good behave just like those who were bad tempered during their lifetime. They intervene in the lives of their heirs regardless of the character of those heirs. An heir could be trifling or upright and thrifty, and yet the ancestral intervention will show no difference. They exact ritual service and veneration in accordance with the same rules of intervention. None of this process is a matter of good or evil; it is a matter of holding back chaos in the world. In fact, the ancestors neither persecute their descendants, nor punish them for wickedness, nor reward them for goodness. However, the ancestors may harass or trouble the descendants for failing to provide religious submission or service.

The ancestor is not a punishing authority, but a judge who is concerned with the prosperity of the lineage. He is therefore attuned to the needs of the people and provides corrective intervention where necessary.

Thus, behind the practitioner of ancestor veneration or reverence is a body of religious beliefs that are aligned with rules of conduct for designated authority in the social system of most African societies. Attending to the rites of ancestors is one way to continue to bind the people together in one community because ancestors show the continuity of the society and compel communal action if necessary.

Funerals and Death

Death represents a separation. But something always provokes, brings about a separation, in African belief; it does not happen without reason. Among the Swazis, it is believed that no one dies without some sort of sorcery. People do not die from sickness or old age; no one dies a natural death.

Among the Lovedu, the Rain-Queen is not supposed to die. She becomes divine by taking her own life. She takes poison, which contains the brain and spinal cord of a crocodile, among other things. The queen is buried in a deep grave, standing upright and facing north, from whence came her ancestors.

The body is wrapped in cloth and ox skin. It is buried with beads, water, a firebrand, a mat, and, in the ancient days, a male corpse. The grave is gradually filled up and is only completely covered when the head has decomposed after 6 months.

A year later, the fires are put out and then ritually relit, and a new queen is installed. Sufficient time had to elapse before the spirit of the dead queen could rest.

Like other African ethnic groups, the Lovedu language of death is indirect. They say,

the house is broken
the king is busy
the mountain has fallen
the mighty tree is uprooted
the queen is elsewhere.

When it is said that “the queen is elsewhere,” the people are expressing a deep sense of loss, separation, and mobility.

In the past, the Asante kings were laid out and the seven openings of the body filled with gold dust. The body was put in a coffin over an open pit for 80 days so that the flesh was decomposed, and then charms were fastened onto the skeleton. The Swazi specialists squeezed the fluids from the body to prevent rapid decay. The Swazi king, divine in life, was apotheosized in death and entered the ranks of the ancestors.

Traditional African believers accept that ancestors are ever-living; they never die. This is not worship in the sense that the Christians or Muslims believe in their gods; it is rather that Africans accept supreme deities. Ancestors have additional powers; to obtain their blessings, people must avoid their anger and win their favor. Because humans are in the midst of primal struggle between good and evil, they need all the assistance they can gather. Who better to provide people with Earthly assistance in this struggle than their own ancestors, who have a stake in their survival and abundant living. Ancestors know their kin, and they know what is necessary to protect them. Every person is involved in the struggle for continuity, not just political heroes, and this means that people must pay special attention to rituals.

Heroes and Wars

It was a common practice for the Asante army to call on famous Asante warriors during battle. The names would be spoken, shouted, and sung as the army went into battle. The Yoruba called on a mythical god of war. Other ethnic groups have similar ways of expressing their connectedness to heroic ancestors. Inasmuch as ancestor reverence is considered to be at the base of all African ways of obligation, it is the fact that we are obliged to the ancestors that causes us to grant reverence.

With war comes death. The general attitude of the African toward the dead is one of respect. There are certain taboos among some ethnic groups about death. They do not even speak the word. A taboo is a socially sanctioned prohibition against performing certain acts. Most taboos seem to involve sexual relations with certain people and under certain circumstances.

The incest taboo applies to a larger range of people in Africa than in Europe. In Africa, it applies not only to members of the same family, but also to members of the same clan or lineage. Taboos against marriage tend to be stronger and stricter than those against copulation. Yet the rules of exogamy, which are a direct result of these taboos, influence the social structure of African societies. The rules regulate the exchange of women and marriage compensation, which work to maintain a society’s cohesion.

Taboos around death are the most troubling. Among the Akan people of Ghana, one does not speak of death, and one must certainly not say that the king is dead. These are taboos for which the person would have to make restitution in some ritual propitiation.

The Fear of Death

In all societies, there are people who are terrified of ghosts and people who have thanatophobia, the fear of death. This is different from the typical African’s response to death. In African cultures, fear associated with death involves collective danger, not individual fear; thus, the idea of thanatophobia in some Western and other cultures is more an individual rather than a communal fear.

Taboos are communal, not individual, and a person who breaks one actually violates the fabric of the society. It is like tearing a hole in a beautiful blanket. It must be repaired or everyone suffers. Respect for the dead is a given among African traditionalists and believers. The Asante have ceremonies every 3 weeks for the ancestors. They are given water to wash their hands and soul food, that is, food for their souls. The Gikuyu elders put a little food on the ground for the departed spirits.

The light of the ancestors is thought to stand in the place where they stood. People do not pray to ancestors, they pray to god, but they ask ancestors for intercession. No Africans pray to their ancestors any more than they pray to their living fathers. Prayer is reserved for the gods. A person may pour libations to the ancestors to ask the ancestors for a special favor. For example, “Why do you treat us like this? Why did you give us this problem? What must we do to appease you?”

These are like scolding messages; they are not insults, but conversations that men hold with the spirits expressing disappointment for failures. At the moment of the conversation, one realizes the reciprocal nature of reverence for ancestors because, although the ancestors do not speak, they demand and desire more and more. Believers are obligated to carry out every sacrifice that is required to appease the ancestor.

In conclusion, it must be made clear that Africans do not debate whether the ancestors are gods; they know that they are ancestors, and this is a special category of belief. Historically, one can see that conquerors have often appropriated some of the ideas of the people they conquered, yet the conquering religions do not see ancestors as Africans have seen them. Death is a clear confrontation with reality because, in the view of Africans, it is where one crosses over to the ancestral world, and it is only by accessing the ancestors that the living are able to commune with those on the other side.

The Idea of Ancestral Reincarnation

Africans believe in reincarnation, but the African idea is not based on a written text; it is based on the belief that humans beings live in a cycle, that things go around and come around. African reincarnation is based on the religion of ancient Egypt, where the priests said that we shall come back millions and millions of times. Two points should be made clear about reincarnation. The first is that this belief in reincarnation is firmly held in most of Africa. The second one is that the African idea of reincarnation differs from the Asian idea. Throughout Africa, people believe that humans who die return to the Earth in different human forms, but not, as is found in India, as animals.

There is no idea of suffering in the African construction. In Asia, one has the notion of rounds of existences and cycles of rebirth from which men might escape by Nirvana. This idea is not found in Africa. Similarly, the idea of reward or punishment by rebirth into a higher or lower state, as one finds in Asia, is missing in Africa. There is no thought that the present world is an illusion and is full of suffering in the African context. Africans think of world affirming, not world-renouncing, activities.

Finally, one reason for which people appeal to ancestors is that souls are reborn in children, and the souls who are reborn may be grandparents returned. There is a saying that the ancestors do not create the child; the child has been here from long ago. This means that it behooves the living to pay close attention to those who have become ancestors because they are not dead, but living.

As they live, the ancestral name is renewed in the family. There is revitalization of people, and believers can expect their descendants to carry out the same rituals of memory for them.

By Molefi Kete Asante

See also Reincarnation

Further Readings

  • Fadipe, N. A. (1970). The Sociology of the Yoruba. Ibadan: Ibadan University Press.
  • Idowu, E. B. (1973). African Traditional Religion. A Definition. London: SCM.
  • Karade, B. I. (1999). Imoye: A Definition of the Ifa Tradition. Brooklyn, NY: Athelia-Henrietta Press.
  • Opoku, K. A. (1978). West African Traditional Religion. Accra, Ghana: FEP International Private Limited.

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