Ancestral Veneration in Igboland

by Kev


In African Traditional Religion, ancestorhood is a status predicated on certain vital considerations. In Igbo land it is not all who have died that are considered as ancestors. To qualify as an ancestor, one should have the following qualifications. The person must have lived a decent life while on earth. African religion is entirely a lived religion, not a doctrinal one. It involves the whole of life; whatever one thinks, says or does is religious or at least can have religious implications. At all times in a person’s life, a religious consciousness is always explicitly and implicitly present. In no way is anything understood except in context of God, ancestors and the spirits: In no way is any thought, word or act understood except in terms of good and bad, in the sense that such an attitude or behavior either enhances or diminishes life. So for one to live a decent life on earth one must not be associated with those behaviours that diminish life – theft, adultery, poisoning, witchcraft and the totality of what is regarded as abominations in the society. It is only when one is not known to be “bad” in terms of doing the above evils that one can be considered to have lived a decent moral life on earth and as a result can attain the status of ancestorhood at death.

The person must have married and begotten children. Marriage is seen in Africa, Igboland inclusive as a means to attain full humanity. One is not considered a complete man in Igbo tradition if one did not get married. Marriage involves significant moments and is always marked by traditional ceremonies and payment of bridal price after the agreement of the two partners and their families. Marriage is not an end in itself but a means to an end, which is procreation. It is the belief of the traditional African (Igbo Tribe) that one should have offsprings to represent him after his death here on earth. In this regard, there is no place for celibacy in African Traditional Religion and culture. If by any reason one fails to marry, he is not considered responsible and hence not a real man and cannot attain the status of ancestorhood. Moreover, if he married and did not have offsprings, it is still the same fate that behoves him at least in Igboland. Barrenness or infertility, which is always the reason for not having offsprings, is considered as a punishment from the spirit world in African traditional society. Generally, the death of one who has no offspring is seen as the end of the “continuity of life, the discontinuance of family lineage. Such a person cannot be qualified to be an ancestor. The dead person should enjoy here also decent and full burial rites before he qualifies as an ancestor.

To qualify as an ancestor, one will not die a ‘bad death’. Death is death but what killed one and how one died are of utmost importance in Igbo perception. Violent and accidental deaths are bad deaths. Suicide and the death of widows or widowers still wearing mourning dress/ clothes are regarded as bad deaths. More so, inclusive among bad deaths are the death of those who make confessional statements of their heinous deeds and people who die while waiting for the expiring date of oaths taken. Oath taking may last for months or a year. To die while awaiting the expiration of the period is considered a bad death. Deaths resulting from dreaded diseases such as leprosy, madness, swollen abdomen and prolonged diseases are regarded as bad deaths.

Moreover, those who are not qualified to attain the status of ancestorhood include witches, wizards, armed robbers, burglars and highwaymen, condemned criminals, fugitives, vagabonds and those who are guilty of genocide, patricide, matricide, infanticide and murderers in general are all disqualified to be ancestors. The souls of such people do not reach the spirit world. Their spirits keep hovering in the air, crying at times like the cries of awful birds. The ghosts of such souls are seen at odd hours of the day. Fowls crackle and dogs bark on seeing them. These and many others are eliminated from among the ancestors. Generally, to qualify as an ancestor one has to marry and have children, live a mature, noble, holy and exemplary stainless life of very high moral tone.

Ancestral Veneration

At death, the ancestors are believed to have entered a spiritual mode of existence with God. The Igbo considering the closeness of the ancestors to God, do reverence and venerate them, believing that they are ministers of God and the unseen protector of their families. Ancestors are accorded respect and are held as models for the living to emulate. The living honour them by offering libations and thanksgiving sacrifice to them, as a way of consolidating the communal relationship that had existed among them. Consequently, these practices for some scholars constitute worship of the ancestors which has raised dust among various writers. In any case, the filial piety and closeness between the dead and the living has made it veneration and not worship.

Ndebunze, or Ndichie, are the deceased ancestors who are considered to be in the spirit world, ala mmuo. In Odinani, it is believed that the ancestors are invisible members of the community; their role in the community, in conjunction with Ala, is to protect the community from epidemics and strife such as famine and smallpox. Ancestors helped to look after men. Shrines for the ancestors in Igbo society were made in the central house, or obi or obu, of the patriarch of a housing compound. The patriarchal head of the household is in-charge of venerating the patriarchal ancestors through libations and offerings, through this the living maintain contact with the dead. Only patriarchs whose father is dead, and therefore in the spirit world where they await reincarnation into the community, were able to venerate ancestors. Female ancestresses were called upon by matriarchs. At the funeral of a man’s father there is a hierarchy in Igbo culture of animals that will be slaughtered and eaten in his honour. Usually this depended on the rarity and price of the animal, so a goat or a sheep was common and relatively cheaper, and therefore carried less prestige, while a cow is considered a great honor, and a horse the most exceptional.

A number of major masking institutions exist around Igboland that honour ancestors and reflect the spirit world in the land of the living. Women, for example, are incarnated in the society through the agbogho mmuo masking tradition in which men represent ideal and benevolent spirits of maidens of the spirit world in the form of feminine masks. These masks performed at festivals of agricultural cycles and at funerals of prominent individuals in the society. One of the accusations levelled against Africans and Ndi Igbo in particular by the early Europeans was that they worship the ancestors. The respect given to the dead by the living in Igboland is not worship but veneration. The ritual of ancestral veneration is an important aspect of African religious theology and this theological fact is an important link in African religious thought. The respect given to the dead is not worship but participatory symbiotic roles showing that African world is inhabited by the living, the dead and yet unborn.

The term ancestor worship is a very unfortunate term indeed and if allowed to go unchallenged, one of the major elements on which the African theology is based is destroyed. Like some nations of the world, food items, clothing, trinkets, ornaments are buried along with the corpse so that the dead should still be using them in the land of the dead. Yet the Africans regard these beings as alive and keeping surveillance over the affairs of the living. This European position is not only incomprehensible but uncompromising. They could not see how the ancestors could still be praying for the living and protecting their interest.

In venerating the ancestors, Ndi Igbo are doing what other people are doing. If by ancestors we mean forefathers, then all the great masters starting from Adam, Abraham, Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, etc. are all ancestors. We know how sacred and holy we hold some of them. All the saints and martyrs we venerate and even take their names as patron saints have all lived good lives and died. However, ancestor worship was found a convenient designation for religion in all Africa. This, of course, has already been shown to be wrong, for one cannot use a manifestation of one aspect of African traditional religion to describe all other aspects of religion in Africa. Among the Igbo, it is the duty of the elders to give food and drinks to the ancestors.

The offerings given to the ancestors are believed to be the same gift they would have received had they been alive. Therefore, this act must not be, interpreted as worship. Among the Igbo, ancestors are revered, like divinities they are believed to be serving as ministers of Deity, and are approached for various blessings; blessing of wealth, health, children and fertility of the land as well as blessing of longevity. What the westerners described as worship is in fact, communion and communication that the Igbo maintain with their departed relatives in the form of offerings. It does not in any way entail worship.

This fact has been explained in a famous analogy of the English-man who went to place a wreath on the tomb of a deceased relative, at the same time that a Chinese was putting rice on the tomb of his own deceased relative: The English-man asked the Chinese, “My friend, when is your relative going to eat the rice that you are offering?” To which the Chinese promptly replied, “When does yours smell your flowers.”

The offering of food as used here cannot be said to be worship, rather it is a reverential food the living give to the dead relatives.  Thus, who could not distinguish between the type of reverence given to the ancestors and the worship accorded them concluded that ancestor-worship is the root of every African religion.

By venerating the ancestors, the Igbo are acting according to divinely ordained pattern of observing creation as a continuum. The chain linking all creation in this or in the next life is a continuous process. This goes to show that the communion of the living and the dead and even the unborn is a natural process of life. From the land of the dead, the deceased are eying and mirroring their living relatives on earth while the living do maintain the link through prayers, pouring of libations, offering sacrifices and requests to intercede on their behalf to the Supreme God-head. Such continue from generation to generation, binding the progenitor and the progeny and this sustains the crucial and ontological vital union that life entails.

Consequently, as Christians give special honour and respect to martyrs and saints and implore them to pray for them, so Ndi Igbo implore their ancestors; their own holy ones, who had lived and passed over to another world, to pray for them. However, it is not worship (latria) that the Igbo give their ancestors but “dulia” which means respect and honour given to friends of the Almighty God, they are next to the divinities in the hierarchy and also seen as symbol of peace, unity and prosperity in the family. “It is not only in Christianity that we have friends of God. They abound in all religions.”

In these last few years, there has been a revival in the practice of African traditional Religion in different parts of Africa. Today, as the spirit of religious intolerance and exclusivism is being replaced slowly by the spirit of interreligious tolerance, dialogue and mutual respect, African Traditional Religion is also slowly finding its place in the orchestra of the world religions. Its true spiritual and moral values have been recognized as part of the religious and moral patrimony for humankind.

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