Pietas in Ancestor Worship

The Henry Myers Lecture, 1960



THE HENRY MYERS LECTURE is meant to be addressed to a mixed audience of anthropologists and non-anthropologists of varied interests. This makes it a tempting opportunity for stepping off the straight and narrow path of professional specialism to wander in the green pastures of speculation from which one normally averts one's eyes. If I have been rash in yielding to this temptation, I trust that this is not an act of impiety towards the founder of this lecture.

When I began my fieldwork among the Tallensi in 1934, the controversy aroused by Malinowski's assault on the Freudian hypothesis of the Oedipus complex was still simmering. Though he himself was in the phase of behaviouristic revulsion against psycho-analysis, his earlier views remained influential both as a challenge to psycho-analysis, his earlier views remained influential both as a challenge to psycho-analytical theory and as a stimulus to anthropologists in the field. Just what sort of field investigation of the problems in dispute could feasibly be attempted by an anthropologist, was the subject of lively discussion. The main theoretical issues had been elucidated with characteristic impartiality and clarity by Seligman, in his Huxley Lecture (1932). But all that was certain was that the primary social field within which the oedipal drama might be expected to manifest itself in custom and behaviour was that of family and kinship. The tricky question of what inferences could legitimately be made from overt customary behaviour to the hidden motives and fantasies identified by psycho-analysis, was left unresolved, as indeed it still is to a great extent (cf. Leach 1959). However, a distinctive orientation towards both field-work and theory emerged as the ethnographic monographs and studies of the thirties and forties testify. As it shaped itself for me there were three basic rules. The first, learnt from Malinowski, was that a custom, or body of custom, whatever its historical source may have been, is meaningful in the contemporary social life of a people, and that the anthropologist's essential task is to investigate this fact. The second, learnt from Radcliffe-Brown, was that custom is embedded in social structure and is significant of social relations. The third, due to the prevailing climate of psychological thought, was that custom is the socially tolerable expression of motives, feelings and dispositions that are not always acknowledgeable and may include potentially disruptive as well as constructive elements.


Kinship and ancestor cult are so prominent in the household and neighbourhood arrangements, the economic pursuits, and the routine of social relations among the Tallensi, that I was obliged to make myself adept in these matters from the outset of my field work. I arrived in the middle of the dry season. It is the time of the year when funerals are celebrated, both because the weather permits and because there is grain for beer and leisure from farming. For the same reason, it is also preferred season for communal ceremonies and for many major domestic rituals.

Thus far from being in position to establish my good faith by showing an interest in such neutral topics as string figures (which have no significance except as an amusement for children), material culture, or crops and markets, I was flung straight into divination, funeral ceremonies, domestic sacrifices, and the Harvest and Sowing Festivals. And it quickly became apparent that no understanding of these ritual and ceremonial activities was possible without a thorough knowledge of the kinship, family, and descent structure. For the Tallensi, like most African peoples with a highly developed system of ancestor worship, patently associated with descent groups and institutions, fit very well the paradigm of the religious community, in what he spoke of as 'early stages', sketched with such masterly insight by W. Robertson Smith in The Religion of the Semites. I refer to his observation (p. 54) that 'it is not with a vague fear of unknown powers, but with a loving reference for known gods who are knit to their worshippers by strong bonds of kinship' that religions begin. He was struck by the parental characteristic of early Semitic divinities and connected this with the composition of the congregation of worshippers as invariably a 'circle of kin' whose greatest kinsman was the worshipped god. 'The indissoluble bond that united men to their god', he concludes, 'is the same bond of blood fellowship which ... is the one binding link between man and man, and one sacred principle of moral obligation' (p. 53). And particularly worthy of recollection, for its bearing on the theme to-day, is his comment (p. 58) that 'the feelings called forth when the deity was conceived as a father were on the whole of an austerer kind; than those directed to a maternal deity because of the father's claim to be 'honoured and served by his son'.

Robertson Smith was not the only scholar of his generation who perceived the connexion between the institutions of kinship on the one hand, and religious beliefs and practices on the other. He was indeed anticipated by a quarter of a century by that other inspired precursor of our current ideas, Fustel de Coulanges, to whom I am specially indebted. But for him the linkage was to all intents the other way round. Where Robertson Smith supposed parenthood and kinship to underly the worship of their gods by the Semites, Fustel argued (1864, bk. ii, chap. v) that is the ancestral cult of the Romans which imposed agnatic kinship. 'The source of kinship', he says, 'was not the material fact of birth; it was the religious cult;' 1 and he goes on (chap. vii) to demonstrate brilliantly how succession and inheritance are interlaced with the domestic ancestor cult. I quote: 'Man dies but the cult goes on ... While the domestic religion continues, the law of property must continue with it,' and further, with regard to the law of succession, 'since the domestic religion is hereditary ... from male to male, property is so too ... what makes the son the heir is not the personal wish of his father ... the son inherits as of full right ... the continuation of the property, as of the cults, is an obligation for him as much as a right. Whether he desires it or not it falls to him'. The essential point, by his reasoning, was that in early Greek and Roman Law descent in the male line exclusively determined the right to inherit and succeed to a father's property and status but it was primarily a religious relationship. Hence a son who had been excluded from the paternal cult my emancipation was also cut of from his inheritance, whereas a complete stranger who has made a member of the family cult by adoption thus became a son entitled to inherit both the worship an the property.

Robertson Smith was not immune from the fallacies of his day and has been justifiably criticized for this, 2 and Fustel, I understand, is considered by some Classical scholars to have subordinated scholarship unduly to conjecture. Be this as it may, we cannot but admire their perspicacity in directing attention to the social matrix of the type of religious institutions they were concerned with. For at that time the orthodox approach to early religions was by way of their manifest content of belief. From their pinnacle of intellectual rectitude, most scholars saw no further than the false logic, the erroneous cosmology, and the emotionally distorted superstitions which their pre-conceived theories revealed in non-Christian religions. This was the school of thought whose first concern was with what Robertson Smith designated as the 'nature of the Gods' and with which he contrasted his own procedure (cf. p. 8). This is the tradition of Tylor, Frazer, and Marett, and the host of their followers, amplifiers and expositors too numerous to list (and mostly now quite obsolete). And this, fundamentally, purified of its grosser bias, is the tradition of Malinowski and of Lévy-Bruhl, as well as such famous ethnographers of Africa as Rattray and Junod, Westermann and Edwin Smith.

I lay no claim to having been aware of the bearing of Robertson Smith's and Fustel's theories on the religious institutions of the Tallensi when I studied them in the field. That came much later. It was simply that ancestor worship was too conspicuous to be missed and that the framework of genealogical bonds and divisions was an aspect of ritual to which both participants and commentators freely drew attention. But given the general orientation I have described, what started me thinking about the crucial factors of ancestor worship was the casual observation recorded in the book which originally aroused my interest in the Tallensi.

In 1932 there appeared the first systematic ethnographical survey of the tribes of Northern Ghana, R.S. Rattray's Tribes of the Ashanti Hinterland. It is, in fact, a some-what disconnected compilation of Rattray's own observations and informants' texts. But with his uncanny knack for field enquiry, in following up some of the kinship customs of the Nankanse, who are neighbours of the Tallensi and differ little from them in language and culture, Rattray (1932, I, p. 263) discovered a rule which he reports in these words:

'Among the Nankanse, as also among many other tribes, it is forbidden for the first-born (male and female) to make use of any personal property belonging to the parents, e.g. to touch a father's weapons, put on his cap or skin covering, to look into his grain store or into his tapo, leather bag, or in the case of the female, to pry into her mother's kumpio. "Parents do not like their first-born and it is unlikely to live with them." I think [comments Rattrray] the idea is that they are waiting, as we would say, "to step into the dead man's shoes".'

That parents and children are often opposed and even antagonistic to one another is widely acknowledged. It is a common enough theme of European novels and plays. Anthropologists have long been familiar with the parallels in primitive society. But its cardinal importance in social life was only beginning to be understood in 1932, partly through coming into the limelight of psycho-analysis 3 but more particularly through the kinship studies of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. Radcliffe-Brown's revolutionary paper on the Mother's Brother (1924) had made us realize the significance of respect and avoidance customs as expressions of the authority held by fathers over children in a patrilineal family structure, and Malinowski (1927) had revealed the conflicts that go or under the surface of matrilineal kinship norms (cf. Fortes 1957). The Nankanse custom seemed to betray outright hostility between parent and child of the same sex, linked to open admission of the wish for the parent's death. It was curious also in singling out the first-born. No anthropologist alert to the current controversies concerning kinship and family structure could fail to be intrigued.

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