Ancestors and Harmonious Life

The ancestors are at the center of African religion because they are at the core of all harmony or disharmony in society. No specific African cultural community exists apart from the dynamics provided by the ancestral realm. In fact, the causes of all good deeds, fertility as reflected in the abundance of harvest or the productivity of women, and joy of family are the result of the ancestors. One could also say that all misfortunes, misdeeds, famines, and difficulties of living are caused by the ancestors in African religion. Nothing in society is immune from the influence of ancestors. The ancestors are responsible for beneficence and afflictions. However, harmonious living in society can be achieved only by following the ritual paths of the elders.
Malevolent actions are attributed to unhappy ancestors and those spirits that might assist the ancestors such as local or nature spirits. Affliction and chaos can be traced to the lack of ritual and sacrifice. Thus, it is necessary to have diviners who can identify the cause of disasters and afflictions to restore balance and harmony.

Communication with Ancestors

All healers and diviners, whether they are called babalawos or ngangas, are able to detect occult forces at work in the community. They might be able to tell a person what spirit or ancestor is responsible for a certain disease. To resolve this issue, it is necessary for propitiation in the form of rules, behaviors, and sacrifices to be followed. If an ancestor is responsible for creating disharmony in society, then the resolution has to be seeking the reason for conflict within the line of descent. This means that the members of the society who participate in propitiatory exercises are appealing to the ancestors to have mercy on the society.
In the typical African society, hierarchy is by age. Of course, the ancestors are older than the living, and among the living, the elders are the highest in terms of authority. Thus, the ancestors as participants in the society are eager to see the prosperity and sustainability of the community. They will be called on by the living, appealed to in the case of crises, and evoked when children are born. Their function, it seems, is to hold the society together.
Actually, the visible and invisible worlds are intertwined in an intimate interplay of the living and the ancestors. This is a richly textured phenomenon in which heaven and Earth, various levels of humans, spirits that are terrestrial and celestial, and ancestors all dwell in a powerful drama of maintaining the moral order, keeping harmony in place. Because this order works to the benefit of everyone, it behooves the living to do everything in their might to maintain this order. One thing they cannot do is offend or displease the ancestors in any way. Therefore, one lives with a constant understanding of the balance that is necessary to keep harmony.
Once a person ends terrestrial existence, the departed becomes a member of the mediators in the invisible world. But the departed are never far away from their old communities. In fact, they take the harmony of their old communities quite seriously and, as privileged personalities, are consulted on a regular basis.
Thus, dependence on the ancestors is the key to appreciating African religion. The preponderant nature of the ancestral world is such that the ancestors are everywhere and are entitled to superior powers giving them authority to keep the living community harmonious. In reality, this conception of the ancestors depends on the understanding of death as the end of the biological world, but the entrance into the afterlife, where the spiritual world is filled with energies that affect the living world.

Ideas about Time and Immortality

Furthermore, there is a belief in immortality; it is a belief that supports the idea that divinity is worthy of being respected and worshipped. When one appreciates the nature of time as an active present, then one can see how the ancestors are constant even in their immortality.
Every community is a present community; it does not live in the past, although the past is heavily subscribed to in a historical sense. Thus, time is different in the African communal sense than time in the Western sense. Consequently, sacrifice, redemption, and the world to come are lived in the present. There can be no resurrection either because everything is present, including the activities of the ancestors.
Now the elders remain alive in the community as guides. Although they are physically absent, they are spiritually active and always present. What does a guide do? He is responsible for the well-being of the community. As such, the ancestor oversees the harmony of the society, guarantees fertility, serves as protector of the children, and establishes good health for his descendants.
There are six general prerogatives of the ancestors
  1. Control of the society's filiations
  2. Control of the metaphysical and social order
  3. Protection of agricultural rites and keeping the land fertile
  4. Sustaining of unity and harmony
  5. Reinforcement of group cohesion
  6. Maintenance of harmony between the living and dead
The ceremonies and rituals that are made to the ancestors reinforce the bonds between the ancestors and the living, thus ensuring harmony in the community. Neglecting the rituals is tantamount to asking for ill fortune and even death. Everything is linked in the community, and the living members of the community are responsible for the journey of the ancestors into the next world. Ancestors and other divinities are the recipients and beneficiaries of the rituals made by the living. They need these forces as they negotiate their way through the universe. Thus, the generating balance and the extraordinary attention paid to the community is one of symbiosis. If the community really wants the intervention of the ancestors, then the community must show its support and appreciation for the ancestors by performing the ritual duties.
When one speaks of the harmonious community in the African sense, one is speaking of the interrelationship between the living and the dead, the balance between heaven and Earth, male and female, good and evil, and the visible and the invisible. To hold this phenomenal situation in cohesion takes the rituals and ceremonies of the living and the interventions of the ancestors. In the end, harmony is achieved.



  • ancestors
  • African religions
  • rituals
  • Harmony Society
  • spirits
  • heaven
  • fertility


Related Entries

Further Reading

  • Ephirim-Donkor, A. (1997). African Spirituality: Of Becoming Ancestors. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
  • MacGaffey, W. (1991). Art and Healing of the Bakongo. Stockholm: Folkens Museum.
  • Pradel, L. (2000). African Beliefs in the New World. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.