ANCESTOR VENERATION IN AFRICA
By Charles Nyamiti

1. Introduction

In many African societies ancestral veneration is one of the central and basic traditional and even contemporary forms of cult. As is indicated by the title, this essay intends to expose briefly the main features of that type of veneration in black Africa, South of the Sahara.

2. Ancestral cult in Black Africa

African ancestral cult is deeply rooted in the African traditional worldview so much so that a proper and adequate understanding of that cult cannot be achieved without examining it in its intimate link with such worldview. Hence, before exposing the main features of ancestral veneration, it is useful to give first a brief survey of the African traditional worldview, in the light of which the former will and should be envisaged.

2.1 Brief Survey of African Traditional Worldview

As can be gathered from anthropological and ethnological data most of the elements found in the African worldview can be reduced to four main headings:

2.1.1 Dynamism and vitalism, comprising an existential, concrete and affective way of approach. Reality is seen and judged especially from its dynamic aspects closely related to life. The farther a being is from these elements, the more unreal and valueless it is conceived to be. Hence the emphasis on fecundity and life, and the identification between being and power or vital force. Indeed, the ideal of the African culture is coexistence with and the strengthening of vital force or vital relationship in the world and universe. Above all forces is God, who gives existence and increase of power to all others. Next come the dead of the tribe who, thanks to their transition into the other world, are endowed with special powers. The living form a hierarchy according to their power. The different manners of being are distinguished by their mode and degree of participation in the Supreme Force (God) and in superior forces of other "spiritual" beings.

The craving for power, safety, protection and life is the driving force in the African religion. This craving originates not so much from logical reflection, but from a feeling of incapacity and an obstinate desire to overcome it. Many individual needs are believed to be satisfied by dynamism and spiritism. Amulets and talisman are vehicles of vital energy. This ethic is based on the belief that every act and custom which strikes at the vital force, or at the growth and hierarchy of man is bad. What is ontologically and morally and juridically just is that which maintains and increases the vital energy received from the life-Giver, the Creator of force and the Fount from which all forces flow and are under His control.

Force, soul, life and word are closely connected with one another. The word is the principle of life, vital force par excellence (hence the force of the name, ritual, word and myth). In a certain sense all is participation, because it is the same force which animates the whole universe; and it is normal that everything acts upon everything. Hence pan-vitalism or cosmo-biology characterises the African traditional worldview.

The classification of being is based on forces according to

(a) the principle of proximity of origin (the begetter is always "stronger" than the begotten), or of existential affinity (correspondence between the visible and the invisible, the profane and the sacred, the jungle and the village);

(b) distinction of sexes.
 

2.1.2 Solidarity (relationality), totality and participation

The universe is conceived as a sort of organic whole composed of suprasensible or mystical correlations or participations. The African does not only represent in his mind the object of his knowledge, but he participates in it only in a representative fashion, but simultaneously in the physical and mystical sense of the world, as can be observed especially in rituals. The connection between cause (supernatural) and effect is immediate; secondary causes are either not admitted or considered negligible. God is, in the final analysis, behind all the vents in the world. He is the Fountain of life and power in which all participate and, as such, He is the Foundation of human and cosmic solidarity, totality, and participation. This totalising vision manifests itself by the assimilation of the individual in the group, and by the absence of clear-cut differentiation between the various social functions (economic, juridical, political, religious). The social order is conceived as a replica of the order of the cosmos (adultery provokes dryness), and public function is at the same time religious and cosmological (i.e. symbolises somehow the cosmos). The power of tradition is connected with cyclic duration, ritual repetition, gerontocracy (government by old men), cult of ancestors, initiation rites whereby man is plunged into the mythical time of the ancestors to participate in the sacred events of that time of origins. The solidarity and totality of the socio-cosmical universe determine all private initiative.

Thins are conceived as symbols of each other. Symbols, on their part, not only unify the objects they symbolise, but are also believed to participate somehow in the reality which the express. The African is not content merely with living in the world and experiencing its rhythm but desires also to interpret the symbolism of created things, and to enter into sympathetic communion with them. The world is, for the human being who has daily contact with it, an ensemble of signs and messages to be interpreted. The initiated is the one who knows the secret (symbols) of things. There is no clear-cut distinction between the sign and the signified.

What is also prominent in this "corporate way of thinking" is a strong of community life, expressed by participation in the life of the community into which the individual is introduced by various initiation rites. This accounts for the deep sense of the family shown by the attachment to the family and the bond with the ancestors. Closely connected with the family and community at large is the great respect shown to the head of the family and other members of the communal authority. In many cases members of a clan have special mystical relationship to a totem, with which the name of the clan is associated.

2.1.3 The sacred. There is a marked sense of the sacred understood as the "tremendum et fascinosum", and is characteristically manifested in initiation rites comprising, among other things, return to the sacred time of the ancestors, culture heroes, founders and archetypes. The present world is closely connected with the world after death, and one lives in close contact with one’s ancestors and other spirits. As consequence, the African traditionalist is deeply characterised by magico-religious behaviour.

Among the spirits, God is the highest. He is the ultimate controller of natural forces and human destiny. He dwells far away in the sky, or in some important places such as mountains. He is often approached through intermediaries.

Side by side with God is the Mother Earth - a goddess who purifies or symbolises the fertility of the soil. Besides these are other spirits and those of the dead.

2.1.4 Anthropocentrism. Society and religion are centred on man whose welfare (well-being, security, protection) in this and the next world they are meant to procure. Human dignity is highly respected, and man has a privileged place in the universe; he interprets the cosmos in terms of human organisation. The world, inexhaustible source of life, is meant to reinforce the power of man so as to make him more living. Interest in God seems to be chiefly based on His readiness and capacity to help man in his terrestrial interests. This fact, together with the desire to live fully the values and powers of this world, may explain the absence of mystical contemplative communities in African traditional societies.

It should be added that in modern African societies — especially in urban circles and among the elite — these elements are undergoing considerable changes and are at times even disappearing. But it remains true that they still characterise the general African traditional mentality.

After this short description of some of the items in the African traditional worldview, I shall now expose the various beliefs and practices concerning ancestral veneration in the majority of African traditional societies.

2.2 The Cult of Ancestors

There is no uniform system of beliefs and practices of this cult in black Africa. In fact, one finds differences of detail even in the same ethnic group. Moreover, the ancestral veneration which will be described here is not found in each African traditional community. Nevertheless the cult belongs to the majority of the peoples. Besides, notwithstanding the differences referred to above, there are many elements shared in common by many ethnic societies. This fact justifies the assertion that there are common conceptions on ancestors and their cult. It is on such common views that the exposition which follows will be mainly centred.

Mention has already been made that ancestral veneration in Africa is intimately linked with the traditional worldview. In this worldview life, understood as sacred power (vital force), is a central element. We have seen that the ideal of African culture is coexistence and strengthening of vital force in the human community and the world at large. This ideal is one of the basic motivations of ancestral cult. That is why in many African societies ancestral status is closely linked with procreative fecundity. In some (but by no means all) communities, a person without offspring cannot become an ancestor.

There are even cases where it is believed that the naming of the descendant by the name of his ancestor makes it possible for the ancestor to continue to live in his descendant. The belief is widespread that the ancestor will continue to survive as ancestor only on condition that he is not forgotten, i.e. if his descendants will communicate regularly with him through prayer and ritual offering. Hence, the African desires to have many children who will remember him and ritually communicate with him. An ancestor, on his part, is believed to procure benefits for his living kin such as health, long life and the begetting of children.

African ancestral relationship includes the idea of kinship as an indispensable factor. No one can be an ancestor of an individual who is not kinly related to him. It is for this reason that rituals for the dead without any particular reference to kinship are generally considered as not belonging to ancestral cult. And although there are cases where ancestral relationship is not founded on family ties (e.g. when such relationship is grounded on common membership in a religious or secret society), yet such relationship rarely — if ever — goes beyond tribal limits.

Thanks to his death an ancestor is believed to enjoy a sacred super-human status with special magico-religious powers that can be beneficial or even harmful to his earthly kin. Such super-human condition is expressed in various ways. Thus, for instance, both bodily and spiritual qualities are ascribed to the ancestors: invisibility or visibility in human but unusual form, capacity to enter into and possess human individuals or brute animals, capacity to consume food or drinks, special nearness to the Supreme Being, capacity to exist anywhere — although the ancestors are believed to have localities of preference (e.g. shrines, particular trees or bushes, grave-yards, etc.). At times the ancestral spirits are presented with ambivalent features: they can be benevolent to their earthly kin, but they can also intervene at will to harm them. That is why they are also feared. When they are forgotten or neglected by their descendants, they are said to manifest their anger by sending to their descendants bodily or spiritual calamities. Their anger is usually appeased through prayer and ritual offerings or oblations. This is an indication of the belief that ancestors are entitled to regular sacred communication with their earthly relatives.

In spite of the fear manifested at times towards ancestors, the living are naturally drawn to ritual communication with their deceased kin. Such inclination stems from the natural love, piety and respect towards their sacred relatives in the other world, as well as from the belief in the beneficial sacred vital forces the ancestors are supposed to possess thanks to their nearness to the Supreme Being. Indeed, the living on earth expect special benefits from their ancestors, e.g. protection from sickness, death or other misfortunes, and the acquisition of various benefits, such as long life, great wealth or many children. An ancestor is, therefore, expected to be faithful to his earthly kin, who expect from him a favourable response or reward for their prayers and ritual donations to him when recourse to the ancestors fails to procure the desired effects, the living normally turn to the Supreme Being as a last resort. The ancestors, on their part, are said to desire frequent or regular contact with their earthly relatives, and are even believed to visit them through mediums (e.g. snakes, hyenas and caterpillars) or to have direct union with them through possession. In fact, the living and their ancestors form a totality in which solidarity is lived and expressed through prayers and rituals, in which human and cosmic solidarity is engaged.

From what has been said above, it is obvious that the African manifests a sort of dialectical tension in his attitude towards his ancestors, namely: fear, but also attraction towards them. As can be gathered from the above description there are various reasons behind such ambivalent attitude. Among such reasons, the sense of the sacredness of the ancestors should also be included. We have already seen that the sacred is experienced both as tremendum et fascinosum, tremendous and fascinating, at the same time. Undoubtedly, belief in such experience accounts also for the African’s ambivalent behaviour characterised by fear and attraction towards his ancestors.

Thanks to their superhuman condition and nearness to the Creator, the ancestors are often considered as mediators between the Supreme Being and their earthly kin. However, although mediation is ascribed to the dead in many African societies, it is not an indispensable factor of ancestral status. It is indeed absent from the ancestral cult of some communities, and some anthropologists believe that it is a later comer into that cult, probably due to Christian influence. Besides, although the creation Himself is acknowledged as ancestor by some tribal groups, no mediatory role is ascribed to him by such communities. It is important to add, in this connection that, unlike the Supreme Being, human ancestors are not adored in African societies.

No one can attain ancestral status without having led a morally good life, according to traditional African moral standards. For an ancestor is regarded as a model or exemplar of conduct in the community, and as source of tribal tradition and its stability. In some tribes, proper burial with appropriate funeral rites is another necessary condition for the ancestral mode of existence. This condition is, however, not universal. Thus it was non-existent among those societies in which the dead were not buried, but thrown into the bush.

African ancestral cult exists as part of a larger religious system. As it is limited to the ethnic group, no attempt is made to proselyte outsiders. Close observation reveals that the cult is fundamentally anthropocentric. It is centred on the human person, and is intended to procure human welfare in this world and in the world beyond death. And in those cases where the creator is acknowledged as ancestor, he is anthropomorphically conceived.