What are the Ancestors in African Traditional Religion?

It is recognized that the African peoples are profoundly religious and that one of the central religious concepts in their worldviews is their ancestors.

Spiritual beings in African worldviews can be classified into two groups: non-human spirits and human spirits. The non-human spirits include the Supreme Being, deities, and spirit forces. The latter group consists of spirits who were once human beings, which include souls, ghosts, witches, and ancestors. Scholar of African religions Emefie Ikenga-Metuh observes the centrality of the ancestors, 

“Ancestors constitute a special category among the spirits of the departed and have a special place in African world-views and cults, and must not be confused with other spirits of the departed who are not ancestors. In fact, in the hierarchy of beings in most African world-views, after the Supreme Being, and the deities, come the ancestors” (1).

Belief in the ancestors suggests belief in an afterlife among African peoples but death does not make every single deceased individual an ancestor. Rather, important criteria must be fulfilled if one is to become an ancestor and this criteria varies according to different societies. It is believed that living a life according to the accepted moral standards of one’s group and having appropriate funeral rites are essential requirements. Funeral rites are important because they are “rites of passage” from Earthly life to the afterlife. Other criteria crucial to becoming an ancestor include living to an old age, having offspring, and dying a good death.

Dying before old age is viewed as unnatural. Such a death might be because of one’s personal sins. It could also be a punishment from God. Unnatural, bad death takes various forms and is generally associated with death by suicide, accident, leprosy, dropsy, smallpox, and epilepsy. Those who experience a bad death do not receive the full funeral rites and therefore cannot become ancestors.

Further, women do not become ancestors. Generally, women are legally represented by their brothers or husbands and will, if they receive the funeral rites and have offspring, continue to exist as wives and sisters in the afterlife just as they did in Earthly life.

The ancestors serve various functions. Because ancestors are close in the ontological order to God or the Supreme Being, they act as intermediaries between God and individuals. They are good spirits who are interested in the welfare of their tribe or clan and will look out for them by, for instance, warning their kinsmen of impending disasters. They will also inform their kinsmen of how to bring prosperity and success to their lives.

Among the Igbo people, most homes had ancestral shrines at the corner of the hut and offerings were made regularly to the ancestors. Any adult male who satisfied important criteria (having children, not breaking moral rules, and receiving funeral rites) could become an ancestor. But without receiving the appropriate ceremonies, the ghost of the deceased individual would harass the living.

Among the Ashanti people, the king is validated by his sacred role as the ‘one who sits upon the stool of the ancestors’ (2). The king is the link between the living and the dead, and he is thought to be imbued with the spirit and power of the ancestors. The ancestors care for the lives of their kinsmen and they constantly keep watch over their living relatives. The individual’s success and prosperity also depend on the ancestors, which is why the Ashanti make offerings such as the first morsel of food as well as pour libations to the ancestors daily. But the ancestors can also punish individuals with illness and death, especially those who have violated traditional laws and customs or failed to fulfill kinship obligations. On the other hand, they can bless their kinsmen with plentiful crops, children, and prosperity.

The Lovedu people believe the ancestors influence their own descendants for good or evil. But the ancestors also look after the people and ward off the harmful effects of witches and dangerous charms. When calamity does occur and the individual suffers, it is because the ancestor has temporarily removed his protection. Misfortune also might be an ancestor’s doing should he feel neglected.

Belief in the ancestors is also central to the South African peoples such as the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Thonga, Shona, etc. These cultures believe that their community is made up of visible and invisible members. Visible members are human beings and the invisible the ancestors. Unless they are neglected, the ancestors act benevolently.

Do Africans worship their ancestors? Ikenga-Metuh offers a mixed view on whether or not we should view the African peoples as engaging in ancestor worship. He thinks that in one sense we might be able to affirm this,

“If it is accepted that worship is an expression of one’s submission and dependence on a supernatural spiritual being, it is difficult to see why this term should not be applied to the cult given to ancestors. Both are given offerings of food and fresh blood, the formular used in prayers are similar, and the attitude of the worshippers show[s] very little difference. In some prayers and sacrifices, ancestors are invoked along with the Supreme Being and the deities” (3).

But on the other hand, despite their greater powers, the ancestors are not quite afforded the respect that one might associate with an object of worship such as the Supreme Being,

“Respect given them is often incongruously mixed with the casualness of a normal family gathering. They are approached as comrades and elder kinsmen who have as much interest in the welfare of the family as their living kinsmen. The form of the prayers is direct, the requests are straight forward as if to say that it is also to their interest to grant them. The tune of submission and pleading supplication which appears in prayers to God and the deities is significantly absent. They may be rebuked, insulted or even threatened” (4).

Ikenga-Metuh therefore prefers the term “ancestor cult” as a means for adequately capturing the significance of the rituals offered to ancestors in African worldviews. Rather than being Supreme Beings, the ancestors are intermediaries between God and man and elder members of the family and are venerated as such. They are not worshipped.

References

1. Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. 1987. “The Living Dead and Ancestral Cult.” In Comparative Studies of African Traditional Religions, edited by Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, 145-159. Onitsha: Imico Publishers. p. 146.

2. Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. 1987. Ibid. p. 151.

3. Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. 1987. Ibid. p. 156.

4. Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. 1987. Ibid. p. 151-157.

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