Ancestral veneration reflects or reinforces other essential elements within the African spiritual worldview: notions about the continuation and endless cycle of life, reincarnation and our obligation to others in ensuring their welfare – the basis for communal living. It should be immediately clear then the value of Ancestors in African Spirituality, not as objects of worship as many try to stigmatise it with, but as role models for emulation. – Dalian Y. Adofo.

Traditional societies such as the Australian aborigines and African communities across both continents have a strong sense of the importance of ancestors in their lives. This is because an ancestor is seen to be important not just because they lived a long time ago, are part of our family or community and then they died, but rather they are revered for their level of attainment as good human beings and subsequent example of behaviour they have left to their communities.

To be an ancestor and be remembered for it, is to be someone who lived a good life and who exhibited personality traits that warrant emulation. People would look at such a person and say that they lived an inspiring life, that they helped their communities and were caring people in every way that we should copy today.

Europe: We find a similar attitude in ancient European societies where ancestors were revered in Roman society and most households had a shrine to their favourite god/goddess and their ancestors. In the Norse tradition from ancient Scandinavia, their ancient sacred text The Edda says that there can be no greater honour that future generations should remember us for our meritorious character and deeds of this life. The canonisation of saints in the Catholic Church and the celebration of the past glories of European Kings and Queens, are similar to the veneration of ancestors in African and Aboriginal traditions. We still perpetuate this ancient veneration of ancestors in the Western countries on such occasions as ANZAC (Australia), Veterans’ (US) or Armistice (UK) Day and their equivalents across European countries where we remember honoured ancestral war heroes and celebrate their example of self-sacrifice for the good of future generations.

India and the Middle East: In India the various festivals for Avatars, or great spiritual teachers of the past, looks very much like ancestor veneration. In China we have ‘filial piety’ to esteemed ancestors in Confucianism and Taoism which both look to emulating the example of ancestors. The Prophet Mohammed and Jesus the Messiah in the Middle East and Europe are worshipped as ideals of what we should try to become.

Polynesia: Ancient Hawaii: In the traditional societies of our Polynesian neighbours, chiefs were trained from childhood to an ideal of the perfect chief as one who led and inspired his people by wise and courageous example. Chiefs in ancient Hawaii were expected to lead their commoners in heavy labour, planting, building fish-ponds, constructing rock platforms for temples, as well as in battle. The paramount chiefs of Hawaii served as the interface between men and the high God, Ku, from whom flowed ‘mana’ (life force) for governance, diplomacy, warfare, fishing, agriculture, public works, canoe building, and all the crafts that guaranteed the survival of traditional society. This is all very similar to the European ideal of Christian Knighthood and their obligation of setting a courageous example to the common people. However, just as in the European ideals of knighthood, or many of our politicians today, the ideals of chieftenhood were often honoured in the breach than by observance. Those who behaved most outrageously may well be the ones who are most remembered in the history books, though probably the great majority of chiefs were those who quietly and diligently strove to be examples of the virtuous life. Many kings ruled with diplomacy and benevolence – Lailekukahi of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, Liloa of Hawaii, the big island of the Hawaiian group, and Liloa’s son, Umi, were especially famous for their wisdom and goodness a bit like King Solomon of Israel in the Bible.

Modern Science: Traditional beliefs in the importance of ancestors are borne out by the latest science of Epigenetics which indicates that the experiences and traumas suffered by ancestors seem to be built into our DNA and may be directly handed down to future generations. Advances in modern science now confirm that various genetic markers in our chromosomes transmit traits, phobias and behavioural patterns between family members over generations. Ancestral communication thus reflects the attempt to activate their essence within us to draw and learn from the experience and wisdom garnered over their lifetimes by tapping into the ‘chromosome memory’.

So, what were these meritorious ancestral characteristics that should be followed even now centuries later? Australian Aboriginal and African culture alike stress that we should live life in the best manner we can. We should attempt to master and develop ourselves till we get to the point where we could be emulated by others as an example to be lived by.

Some examples from African traditional societies:

  • Ancient Egypt: the concept, and the Goddess, Maat, representing truth, balance, law, and morality as standards to live by. That we should try and develop and attain a purity within ourselves emulating the law of balance in the greater Universe.
  • Nigeria: amongst the Yoruba people the concept of Iwa-pale, meaning a balance of good character in alignment with one’s own, Ori, or Divine Self. Be a better person and consider the best interests of others.
  • Ghana: the Akan people speak of Obra Pa, meaning, living a life of beneficence and developing a good character.
  • South Africa: the concept ofUbuntu,or ‘I am because we are’, that we are all part of humanity and we have a universal bond of sharing because of our shared consciousness. An authentic individual human being is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental and spiritual world This puts the burden of responsibility on us to live up to the best of ourselves and to overlook differences between people to achieve the common goal of peaceful co-existence. This concept is found in most African societies called by different names.

So, ancestors become a living presence in our lives for many traditional peoples not because our ancestors just lived long ago and are our direct relations, but because they represent ideal examples of high character that we can emulate to make our world of today a better place.

More information on traditional African reverence of Ancestors is available on Ancestral Voices website at www.ancestralvoices.co.uk and in the book by Dalian Y. Odofo: Ancestral Voices: Spirit is Eternal (2016). More information on Ancient Hawaii is available in the book by Herb Kawainui Kane: Ancient Hawaii (1997).

The constant reminder of good deeds of the ancestors acts as a spur to good conduct on the part of the living; and the belief that the dead can punish those who violate traditionally sanctioned mores as a deterrent. Ancestral beliefs, therefore, represent a powerful source of moral sanction for they affirm the values upon which society is based. – K. Opuku Asare.