Chapter 9 (pt.1)
THE AUTHORITY OF ANCESTORS
Who Has Authority?
What is Subject to Authority?
How Does Authority Last?
Conclusion: BASIC CONTRADICTIONS
What, in sum, do we mean by saying that Tale ancestors have authority? Even more, how is this the key to the entire social organization, as we have suggested? In preceding chapters there has been a good deal of discussion of this in relation especially to a number of larger organizational issues. Here I shall concentrate on some more specific questions about the ways in which Tale ancestral authority operates, the way in which this specific case is what we have defined and discussed more generally. We shall look at the three main questions: Who has authority (including how are authoritative decisions made)? What is subject to authority? How does authority last?
Who Has Authority? Ancestors do, but not as an aggregate. One of the most important points in the Tale ancestral system, and one stressed repeatedly by Fortes, is that it is always a specific individual, more especially a genealogically specific individual who becomes an ancestor (1965a, p. 129). Fortes' emphases have not kept others from missing the point. Kopytoff, for example, has suggested that ancestors are merely elders and we are ethnocentric to see them as anything else (1971). Kopytoff's argument is a very weak one, but it is worth our while to refute it in the course of establishing the identity of the ancestor as authority figure among the Tallensi.
Fortes is quite clear on the matter:
When a particular deceased -- and it is always a particular person -- is thus reinstated as an ancestor, it is, as I have argued, because he has living descendants of the right category. His reinstatement in this status establishes his continued relevance for his society, not as a ghost, but as a regulative focus for the social relations and activities that persist as the deposit, so to speak, of his life and career. (1965a, p. 129)
There is, for any corporate group of agnates a single ancestor who is the salient point of collective reference. similarly, there is a single ancestress, forming a matrilateral link, as represented in the copying of ancestral shrines (see Chapter 3). It is the apices which are crucial, then, in both patrilineal and matrilineal descent among the Tallensi:
Each segment has its focus of unity, and an index of its corporate identity, in the ancestor by reference to whom it is differentiated from other segments of the same order in the hierarchically organized set of lineages. (1945, p. 31)
The identity of the particular ancestor, we observe, inheres in the social relations of his descendants (see also Chapter 3 on the relevance of fission and fusion to this). It is also clear that relations with ancestors are primarily manifestations of the social system and not of particular psychical relations with parents or ungrounded metaphysical beliefs:
Ancestorhood is conferred on persons of the parental generation who have jural authority in living social relations, not on those who imprint their personalities on their offspring by virtue of their part in bringing them up. (1969, p. 130)
An ancestor has his authority not because of his personality, nor in general because of his individual career. Exceptions to this occur only inasmuch as men of social importance are more likely to have sons and keep them in a large unit of social solidarity until their deaths. Neither does an individual become an ancestor because of any particular authority or esteem among members of his own generation. He has authority because of his genealogically structured position with regard to the living:
Ancestor worship is a representation or extension of the authority componant in the jural relations of successive generations. (1965, p. 133)
This authority componant is of course formal. Although the ancestor must be someone in particular, he does not behave as anyone in particular (see below). He represents the abstracted principles of lineage structure, authority and values. In Kuper's words: "The ancestors are the ideal not the actual personality" (1947, p. 188, cited from Fortes, 1959; cf. also Fortes 1949a, p. 235). It is because of this idealization of ancestors, that is, the independence (in principle) of their ancestral status from their living careers, that any many who
dies leaving a son . . . becomes an ancestor of equal status with any other ancestor. (1965a, p. 133)
Kopytoff finds this description unsatisfying (at least in 1971, though not so much so in his earlier work):
I shall also try to show that by viewing what have been called African ancestor cults as part of the eldership complex, we can account more simply for any of Fortes' generalizations and at the same time make redundant some of the problems he raises. (1971, pp. 129-30)
Kopytoff builds his argument by first insulting Fortes and then proceeding to demonstrate his own ignorance and/or misunderstanding of the latter's work. His argument is apparently based on the assumption that all Africans are the same, for he continually speaks of "African ancestor cults" as a unit, while criticizing Fortes' analysis of the Tallensi on the basis of his own material on the Suku. He does this without considering the relevance of of such differences between the two societies as the fact that one is matrilineal and the other patrilineal. He pays little heed generally to differences in social contexts or the changes wrought in the decades between Fortes' fieldwork and his own. His argument at places is rather like suggesting that England has no Parliament because the United States has none.
Much of Kopytoff's article is occupied with an examination of various bantu languages in search of words translatable as 'ancestor'. His search is part of an attempt to show that the term and its connoted distinction of living from dead are but ethnocentric impositions of western anthropologists. Brian has convincingly challenged Kopytoff's assertions on this, suggesting that his claim "that Bantu language have no word for ancestral spirit is patently absurd," and indeed that the noun classes used are different from those for living persons (1973, p. 126). Fortes also offers a term for ancestor and a distinct one for elder (yaab an kpeem), translations Kopytoff doesn't even consider. Under Tale definition, an ancestor is any man who "dies leaving a son..." (op. cit). By this criterion there are ancestors in all societies; the question is what is their significance, or what variations are there in native usage (as would be likely in a matrilineal society). Kopytoff is concerned to show us that:
Once we recognize that African 'ancestors' are above all elders and are to be understood in terms of the same category as living elders, we shall stop pursuing a multitude of problems of our own creation. (1971, p. 138)
He is wrong, however. The distinction between ancestors and elders is a useful one. Indeed it distinguishes much in the Tale authority organization from that of the Suku.
The two people differ in a number of ways. The most relevant at present is that the latter base authority on relative age:
In short, to those on the outside, a lineage is represented by the eldest member present. Within the lineage, the lineage is represented to any one member by any older member present and, collectively, by all older members living and dead. (1971, p. 133)
Kopytoff suggests that the distinction between living and dead is "incidental and contextual" and that the Suku share this view (op. cit.). Suku lineages do not seem to be internally differentiated and hierarchically organized with reference to a monistic system such as that of which ancestors are the focus for the Tallensi. Only at the highest levels, of clans, are Tale ancestors dealt with 'in general' (1945, p. 137). Surprisingly, Kopytoff asserts that:
The Suku pattern described above is congruent with most ethnographic descriptions of African 'ancestral cults' and of the role of elders. (1971, p. 134)
Certainly this is not true of Fortes' writings on the Tallensi, despite the fact that it is these which Kopytoff directs the most attention to.
Both the matrilineal Suku and the patrilineal Tallensi are primarily patrilocal. This means that a single system of ties of graduated intensity and density among the Tallensi is paralleled by two crossed matrices of social relations among the Suku. Fortes describes ancestral authority as an extension of the authority componant in relations between the generations. Suku lineage 'elders', it is clear, are not the same as the generational authority figures vis-á-vis any Suku individual. Residential affiliation and paternal authority cross-cut relations through matrilineal descent. For the Tallensi, descent, residence, and paternity relations closely parallel one another. The two populations -- cultures -- thus differ in (logical) consistency, to use Sorokin's terms (1957). In Lévi-Strauss's usage regarding a more closely related matter (matrilateral cross-cousin marriage) the Tale system is "harmonic" while the Suku system is not (1949, p. 334). The former has strict genealogical determination of identity and authority relations which the latter does not, and which would be incongruent with the rest of Suku social organization. Age, as a basis for authority, necessarily introduces a greater individualism into the organization. Since all authority relations among the Suku are determined by relative age, they necessarily link individuals. They do not form the corporate units characteristic of the Tale organization of authority. There are thus significant reasons quite beyond anyone's ethnocentrism, for the difference in descriptions of authority systems, and for retaining the term 'ancestor', Kopytoff, despite his rhetoric, does not see beyond the end of his ethnographic nose.
Kopytoff goes on at length with his argument that the distinction between the living and dead is ethnocentric. Now (vivocentric bugger that I am) I do not think so. The distinction is hardly as important to previous writers as Kopytoff makes out, but it's not a fault anyway. In any given case a majority of one's ancestors are likely to be dead. In particular, most beyond the range of grandfather will probably be dead. Both the Tallensi and the shorter Oxford English Dictionary make a distinction at this level. We, for example, have specific kin terms for ascendants up to the grandparents, beyond whom we distinguish by a series of 'greats' or lump together as ancestors. People beyond this range seldom have concrete dealings with us as actual personalities (rather than structural, genetic, or ideological significance). There is an additional point. It is stereotypically at the level of grandparents that ancestors become the focus of new effective minimal lineages among the Tallensi.
The fact that ancestors are generally dead is an important condition of their idealization. Living persons have a problematic propensity for doing things, for acting on the bases of their own social and psychical personalities. These are always only partial representations of overall principles of social order. One of the most important characteristics of ancestors as authority figures is, then, their inactivity. Those things which they 'do' tend to be either chance occurrence or social actions. I choose the latter term in preference to one based on consensus (as in Fortes' discussion) because although consensus may be high in Taleland, it is not absolute, and differently placed persons in the social organization exert differential influence in decision making. Nonetheless, ancestral authority is high on our variable of authority largely because it forces social decision-making along relatively diffuse and highly sociated lines. It does not vest a 'free agent' with the authority to act on behalf of the ancestors. Within certain confines of scales this provides for a highly stable social organization.
Specific ancestors hold primary authority over groups larger than households (that is, larger than those headed by living parents). They also are the prime referent in the definition and differentiation of these corporate groups. Let us look briefly at the mechanisms of authoritative decision within these groups (remembering of course that matters involving relations between groups are generally within larger groups). The primary means of bringing the ancestral voice into the affairs of the living is through divination.
Fortes does not tell us a great deal about Tale diviners, but it is clear that they are not the entrepreneurial specialists reported among a number of South African peoples (this reading is confirmed by personal communication with both Fortes and Hart, 1975). Most divining is fairly localized, and as we have noted, most men are diviners (although a majority are not in active practice). It is not a full-time occupation:
Diviners are numerous. There may be as many as ten to twenty in a large settlement, but only one or two of them will earn more than a few pence a day by divining. (1945, p. 10)
There is no indication of particular structural relevance of diviner's identities. Fortes interprets the divination procedures essentially as providing a voice for 'public opinion'. As we have noted, this is not simply a matter of consensus, and only within certain constraints is it a matter of 'majority point of view'. Divination must, of course, occur after some fact, but not necessarily the fact. It is, an attempt to explain some even, but its structural significance may lie in its effects on some other, underlying event. Divination may thus follow, but need not primarily be 'about' some minor misfortune on the part of a young man. Both divination and outside analysis will then frequently reveal that it is the fact that the man has not set up his own homestead which is behind matters. A proxy father can thus be forced from an overly tight-fisted stand (1949a, p. 176).
Ancestors may also be invoked to bring about more complex social decisions, as in the settlement of long-standing disputes. Two things are important to remember in this regard. The first is that a divination may be structured very considerably, and this quite within the range of the participants' and interested parties' recognition (1949a, p. 99). The second is that a divination is not final, and may be ignored or questioned:
There are no jural sanctions compelling a man to abide by custom in cases of this kind; and as the Tallensi often say, men do not fear to defy even the ancestor spirits, when their property or power is at stake. (1945, p. 249)
Although divinations may be restaged, claiming a failure of the mortal portion of the procedure, one may never 'go over the head' of an ancestor (1959, p. 19). They stick together, ancestors.