from: African Systems of Thought - FORTES & DIETERLEN pages 122-142



It has long been recognized that ancestor worship is a conspicuous feature of African religious systems (cf. Taylor, 1871, II, p. 115; Smith, 1950). Among the Tallensi of Ghana, as I have shown in previous publications, it so pervades their social life as to put them on par with the Chinese and the Romans in this respect. To a greater or lesser degree this holds for all the peoples of Negro stock in Africa.

There is general agreement that, whatever it occurs, ancestor worship is rooted in domestic, kinship and descent relations, and institutions. It is described by some as an extension of these relations to the supernatural sphere, by others as a reflection of these relations, yet again as their ritual and symbolic expression.

Comparatively viewed, African ancestor worship has a remarkedly uniform structural framework. The congregation of worshippers invariably comprises either an exclusive common descent group, or such a group augmented by collateral cognates, who may be of restricted or specific filiative provenance or may come from an unrestricted range; or else the worshippers in a given situation may comprise only a domestic group, be it an elementary family to a family of an extended type.

In the paradigmatic case, congregations of the first kind represent ancestor worship in the structural context of the corporate lineage; and those of the second kind shows us its family context. Here spouses, who are, of course, formally affines, not kin, participate by right of marriage and parenthood, not of descent or filiation, as do members of the first kind of congregation.

It may be thought that this paradigm does not apply to the worship of royal or chiefly ancestors. In fact we can see that it does if we look closely at the ethnographic details. The Swazi (cf. Kuper, 1947, p. 192) illustrate this. It is the King who appeals to his ancestors on behalf of the nation, as any headman might do in the more limited descent group context. At the yearly sacrifice to the royal ancestors each animal 'is dedicated to a specific ancestor and may only be eaten by descendants in specific kinship categories' (ibid., p. 195). Qua cult, in the strict sense of the offering of ritual tendance and service, the worship of royal ancestors follows the pattern of family and lineage ancestor worship. Its national significance derives from the political rank of the worshipped ancestors not from their ancestral status.

It could be argued that the delimitation of the group of worshippers by rules of kinship, descent, and marriage is implicit in the very concept of ancestor worship. But it is in fact not just tautologously implied. For investigation has shown that a congregation does not offer ritual service or respect to all their common ancestors in every situation of worship. The ancestors acknowledged in a given situation are primarily only those who are exclusive to the worshipping group and therefore distinguish that group unequivocally from collateral and co-ordinate groups of a like sort, who have remoter ascendants in common with them, and worship jointly with them in situations of common concern. This is well exemplified in segmentary lineage systems with ancestor worship, where descent divisions of all orders are defined, as Dr. Freedman remarks for the Chinese, 'in terms of the cult of the ancestors'.

This is not the same as the purely mnemonic use and perpetuation of pedigrees and genealogies. They may serve simply as a calculus to distinguish persons and groups for jural purposes such as the assignment of rights, duties, and status, in relation to property, office, and rank, or for ritual purposes, such as liability to death, birth or caste pollution, or for establishing titles to membership f a corporate group. This is not necessarily associated with a religious cult of ancestors. The Tiv (cf. Bohannan, L. and OP., 1953) are a case in point, and this is true also of the Nuer (cf. Evans-Pritchard, E. E., 1956, p. 162). There is much more to ancestor worship than its utility as a means of mapping out and providing a charter for a genealogically ordered social structure.

Yet ancestor worship strictly defined presupposes geneonymy, that is the commemoration of ancestors by name. In the paradigmatic case (e.g. of the Tallensi) ancestors are worshipped by name and the names are perpetuated in the lineage genealogies and personal pedigrees in an accepted generation sequence. Moreover, these genealogies are equally essential for the correct constitution to congregations of worshippers, for the exact focusing of the their ritual service, and for the organization of social relations in all domains of social structure.

An ancestor is a named, dead forbear who has living descendants of a designated genealogical class representing his continued structural relevance. In ancestor worship such an ancestor receives ritual service and tendance directed specifically to him by the proper class of his descendants. Being identified by name means that he is invested with attributes distinctive of a kind of person.

I labour what might seem to be a trivial point because confusion has long prevailed in the literature through equating ancestor worship with cults of the dead. Yet Durkheim warned (1913, cf. English translation, 19321, p. 62) that 'by itself, death has no deifying virtue'; Radcliffe-Brown came close to seizing the point in nothing that 'the belief in the world of spirits rests on the actual fact that a dead person continues to affect society' (1922, p. 304); and Gluckman, in following this up (1937), drew attention to differences between ancestral cults and religious concern with the dead. The distinguished and erudite authority on Chinese religion and philosophy, J.J. M. De Groot, was typical in his view that 'the worship of the dead in China is the worship of the ancestors' (1910. p. 60); and in African ethnography, to stick to our proper study, Junod's still unsurpassed description of a system of ancestor worship quite simply assumes that death is both the necessary and the sufficient condition for attaining 'deification' as an ancestor spirit (Junod, 1927, II, P. 424 ff.). If ancestor worship is subsumed under the worship of the dead then its meaning must be sought in customary beliefs an practices concerning death, the soul, ghost, spirits, and the after-life.

But the facts of ethnography and history show that ritual dealings with ghosts or spirits or shades, whose preterhuman character and existence is attributed to the transformation brought about by death and apparently recognized in funerary rites, are not the same as true ancestor cults. The ancient Greeks appear to have had elaborate cults concerned with beliefs about ghosts and shades, but no true ancestor cult ( cf. Guthrie). The two are found side by side, but well distinguished, in the religious system of the Chinese, as all our authorities point out (e.g. De Groot). Nuer sacrifices and prayers evidently express awe of ghosts of the dead but, as I have already noted, they do not have ancestor worship. And to turn to West Africa, my impression is that the Ga have ritual reverence to their dead forbears but do not have an ancestor cult in the precise sense in which I am employing this term (cf. Field, 1937). Indeed we need look no further afield than our own civilization to see the difference. Catholics have a cult of saints as Tylor remarked (op. cit.) and say masses for named dead; Jews commemorate them by name in the course of the celebration of their New Year and their Day of Atonement, as well as on the anniversaries of particular deaths. Yet we do not consider either Catholics or Jews to be ancestor worshippers. Following Tylor, those who regard the contents of the rites and beliefs and observances as the primary phenomena of ancestor worship necessarily seek to interpret it as a product of eschatological ideas and of doctrines about souls and spirits. Others follow Malinowski (1925, ch. III) and seek an explanation in the need for emotional reassurance against the loss and against the dread of annihilation. I do not say that such considerations are irrelevant for a complete analysis of ancestor worship. I do not forget that it is a branch of religion and a moral philosophy, not to speak of its functions as a theory of causation. What I wish to bring out is that the structural matrix of ancestor worship which is my chief concern here, and the code of beliefs, values, and symbols used in the cult, are analytically distinguishable aspects. This is clear if we bear in mind that death is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the attainment of ancestorhood.

Every culture provides what Dr. Field (op. cit. p[. 93 ff.) has aptly called a 'dogma of human personality', that is to say an accepted formulation, be it pragmatical, mystical, of naturalistic, of the physical and psychical constitution of man. This establishes the conceptual premises and the symbolic images of the nature, causes, and consequences of death and of the relations between the living and the dead. It serves as the warrant for the lore and observance by means of which the experience of the individual's death as irrevocable is reconciled with acquiescence in continuity of the living community. From a different angle, however, the dogma of personality is a representation of the social capacities and potentialities with which a person is endowed in virtue of his social roles and relationships. Doctrines of the soul and of after-life existence belong not only to religion but also to the apparatus of politico-jural and moral custom by means of which these capacities and potentialities are salvaged and ploughed back into the life of society after the individual's death. Tikopian ideas about the soul are, says Frith (1955), 'restatements of social structure at a symbolic level'. It is this structural framework that interests me here.

Thus ancestor worship, though it consists descriptively of ritual relations with dead forbears, is not co-terminous with the worship of the dead.

One indication of this, as Gluckman discerned (loc. cit.) is that full blown ancestor worship often goes with only the sketchiest lore about the mode of existence of the dead and a clear distinction, in belief and ritual, between them and worshipped ancestors. Pressed hard, Tallensi elders are quite ready to surmise that the departed must exist somewhere, in heaven or in the earth, and no doubt do so in ways that mirror life in this world. Mostly they say, how can we know? Some speculative elders point out that when a wife dies she is buried among her husband's kin and is invoked in her funeral rites to join his lineage ancestors, that is her affines. Presumably, therefore, the dead live together in families as they did when alive. But a wife on her death is given two funerals, a primary funeral in her conjugal settlement where she is mourned by her husband and her children, as wife and mother, and a secondary one when she is 'taken back home' to her paternal lineage. There she is mourned as daughter and sister and is besought to 'reach' her own fathers and forefathers. Has she then, two 'souls', one which goes to join her natal lineage ancestors? No Tallensi would accept this argument. What is significant for them, as for the observer, is that cognizance is taken in the rituals that terminate her social existence in the flesh, of the two critical jural statuses a woman passes through in her life cycle. Again, vague suppositions that animals and libations offered to ancestors become their spirit flocks and herds and food and drink, can be elicited from thoughtful men. But this is not taken as serious doctrine and there is no hint of it in the complex and elaborate rituals, prayers, and observances in which ancestor worship is daily put into action.

The picture is typical of African ancestor worshippers. The Thonga, according to Junod (pp. 347 ff. vol.2) are just as vague about the after-life. If anything, they seem to distinguish more precisely between the ghostly dead without offspring, whose existence may be a nuisance to the living, and ancestors, who have descendants to bring them offerings and give them reverent service. The Dahomenas, whose religious institutions and ideology exhibit refinements not reached by the more matter-of-fact Tallensi and Thonga, distinguish precisely between the dead (chio) and the ancestors (tovodu), and have intricate ceremonies for 'deifying' their dead and so transforming them into ancestors ritually eligible to be worshipped (Herskovits, ch. XI. vol. I). With their subtle theory of the personality as made up by several souls inhabiting a body mouled out of a substance described as clay, the Dahomeans might be expected to have a rich eschatology and a vivid picture of the after-world. These elements of their religious system are certainly more elaborate than those of the Tallensi or Thonga but still meagre and amorphous by contrast with the ceremonies, rites, and social and political setting of their ancestral cults (Herskovits, vol. II, especially ch. XXXI). This is equally true of the Ashanti (cf. Busia and Rattray, 1927). Both religious systems have pantheons of gods and nature deities as well as ancestor cults. Yet by comparison, for example, with the Greeks or Hindus their mythologies of the 'spirit world' are thin and unimpressive. Worship in rituals of prayer and sacrifice, the observance of religious prescriptions in the form of taboo and injunction, and submission to such moral norms as the incest prohibition, may all be validated by reference to what we describe as spiritual beings, be they gods or ancestors or nature deities. But none of this, it is evident, necessitates a circumstantial cosmography of a 'spirit world'. Religious beliefs and practices can be carried on perfectly well without a doctrine or lore of the nature and mode of existence of the 'beings' to whom they are ostensibly directed.

In Christian civilization the popular notion of the soul appears to be that it is a detachable spiritual essence which leaves the body on death and then enters on a state of existence which must be accounted for. This is done by assuming a kind of law of the conservation of entities in a total universe made up of two complementary regimes, a regime of nature and a regime of deity. By this reckoning souls are indestructible essences that animate bodies and succeed them in the timeless realm of God, pending resurrection in a corporeal form. It is therefore logically necessary to account for their immortality by providing a picture of an after-life, as is done for us by our mythology and theology.

But we must not project our vulgar cosmology on to other cultures. The concepts of the psychical constituents of personality held by the Tallensi, the Ashanti, and the Dahomeans, for example, do not have the metaphysical implications of the Christian notion of the soul. They refer to activities, relationships, and experiences that are deemed to fall wholly within the regime of nature. So mortuary ceremonies, though couched in language and rites that appear to personify the dead, are in fact not directed towards consigning them to, and equipping them for spiritual existence in a supernatural realm, but towards discorporating them from the social structure. At the personal level this resolves the dislocation and assuages the grief of bereavement. But death and mortuary rites, though they must precede, do not confer ancestorhood. Specific rites are needed for that. The dead has first to be 'brought back home again', re-established in the family and lineage, by obsequial rites, and will even then not receive proper ritual service until he manifests himself in the life of his descendants and is enshrined (cf. Fortes, 1949, p. 329).

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 an career.

Can we identify the critical characteristics of ancestorhood more exactly? Ashanti doctrine is quite explicit on this issue. Only matrilineal forbears become ancestors who receive worship. So that constituent of the personality which is transmitted by the father and is symbolized in the ntoro cult and its derivative, the sunsum, is not imagined to survive in a supernatural realm after death. Rattray (1923, p. 53) says it is believed to remain behind to look after persons of the same ntoro. As to what constituent of the living person is transmuted into an ancestor, our authorities are vague and I myself never succeeded in getting a coherent account from my informants. As ancestral 'spirit' is not thought of as a kind of nebulous being or personified mystical presence but primarily as a name attached to a relic, the stool, standing for ritual validation of lineage ancestry and for mystical intervention in human affairs. In more concrete terms it is thought of as the counterpart, in the context of the lineage cult, of the matrilineal component of the living person.

As is well known (cf. Fortes, 1950), an Ashanti father has a specially intimate personal relationship with his children during their infancy. He takes a direct responsibility for their upbringing which the mother's brother does not normally have. And the unique moral relationship thus engendered is recognized in the belief that the father's sunsum influences the well-being of his child because they have a common ntoro. It stands to reason that a father will live on in his children's memory much more vividly and affectionately after his death than will a mother's brother. But it is the latter and not the former who may have a stool dedicated to him and becomes the ancestor for purposes of worship. For, though some honour their father's memory, 1 ancestor worship by sacrifice, libation, and prayer is a lineage cult; a cult, that is, of the basic politico-jural unit of Ashanti society, not of the domestic unit in which both parents count. In other words, ancestor worship belongs to the region of kinship and descent structure in which law, backed by the sanctions of the political order, regulates social relations and conduct, as opposed to the region of patri-filial relationships in which conduct is ruled by moral and spiritual considerations. In this sense, ancestor worship is an aspect of citizenship in the politico-jural domain, not of membership or domestic groups.

It is the same in other matrilineal systems, for example, that of the Nayar of S.India (cf. Gough, 1958) and the Plateau Tonga (cf. Colson, 1954). 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 off-spring by virtue of their part in bringing them up. Indeed, he rule is more stringent than this. For among the Ashanti, as among the Nayar, ancestorhood does not automatically supervene for everybody who has the status of a mother's brother. Normally it is only those members of a lineage who have been invested with authority, i.e. jurisdiction in the lineage, as lineage heads or as the holders of office in the external politico-jural domain, who become permanently enshrined in stools of worship. The rule applies, of course, equally in the patrilineal descent systems as was already discerned by Fustel de Coulanges, but with modifications. In a patrilineal system jural authority and parental responsibility are combined in the same persons. But it is only the authority component of the relationship between successive generations that is transformed into ancestorhood (cf.Fortes, 1961).

Before we go further, let us see if the hypothesis is consistent with the converse of ancestorhood, that is, the status of the worshippers. In the paradigmatic case worshippers stand in a filial or descent relationship to the ancestors they worship. This principle is of general application. It is rigorously observed among the Tallensi. Only a son can offer sacrifices to ancestors; and he can do so only if his relevant parent is dead, that is, i that parent has become an ancestor. Sacrifices to be pre-parental ancestor or ancestress can only be offered through a parent who has become an ancestor. Thus a man cannot offer sacrifices to his patrilineal ancestors of any generation whatsoever unless his own father is one of them. He has the right of ritual access, and the corresponding duties, directly to his own ancestor-father and calls upon other ancestors through him, just as he traces his descent through him. This is the normal rule for all acts and observances of ancestor worship. This is why a man cannot, for example, sacrifice directly to his deceased mother's brother, but must have the latter's son do so on his behalf, even if he and his mother's brother had close bonds of affection and trust during the latter's life.

The apparent exception proves the rule. This is the case where a chief, tendaana, or any other lineage head who has the custody of the lineage boghar, is entitled and bound to officiate in sacrifices to the founding ancestors. He does so then in his capacity as a successor to office (cf. the parallel case of the Swazi king previously referred to). But we must remember that a son, among the Tallensi as among other peoples with patrilineal descent, is a jural minor during his father's life, and becomes sui iuris, jurally autonomous within the limits of his lineage status, and in virtue of this capable of officiating in the ancestor cult, only when his father dies. In other words it is a successor to his father's jural status that a son acquires the capacity to act independently in ritual. Hence the obsequial ceremonies which reinstate a deceased father as an ancestor in his family and lineage end by ritually releasing his eldest son from jural minority and ritual dependence and establish him as his father's heir. Jural autonomy is the perquisite condition for entitlement to responsibility in religious matters, shown especially in the right to officiate in the ancestor cult; and this is achieved by a step analogous to succession to office. Roman law, with its characteristics sociological exactitude, understood and recognized this in the concept of the heir as the 'universal successor'. As Maine explains in his beautiful discussion of Testamentary Succession (ch. VI) the 'prolongation of a man's legal existence in his heir or in a group of co-heirs' is exactly parallel to succession in a corporation. Thus in the instance we are discussing a man who accedes to an office vested in a lineage by right of succession has a status relation to his deceased predecessor analogous to that of a son who steps into his dead father's status in the domestic group.

Mutatis mutandis, the position is the same in matrilineal systems. Officiating in ancestor worship, as opposed to participating in group worship, is the prerogative of succession to the office or status of the class of ancestors to whom worship and offerings are given in a specific context of social structure and occasion. Reduced to its elementary core, among the Tallensi, the son has the right and duty to offer prayer and sacrifice directly to the father (and by extension, the father's forefathers) whom he replaces in the social structure - the lineage head, directly to the predecessors he has replaced as lineage head. This is an oversimplified formulation but it will help to sharpen the analysis. I have, for instance, left out the ramifications of matrilateral ancestor worship, 2 and the qualifications that should be made to take account of sibling relations, among the Tallensi, as well as considerations of the cult of 'royal' Stools in Ashanti. I refrain, also, from discussing the well-known fact that women, in such patrilineal systems as that of the Tallensi, have no right to officiate or even to take any autonomous action in the worship of either their own ancestors or those of their husbands, though they have as close personal relationships with parental kin as their brothers and husbands. The explanation long ago given by Fustel de Coulanges, to wit that women have no juridical independence, and therefore no religious status in their own right, holds for African patrilineal descent systems. Nor need I elaborate on the fact that accessory lineages of slave or stranger origin never acquire the right of direct access to the shrine of the founding ancestor of their host lineage.

All these data point to the same conclusion. Ancestor worship is a representation or extension of the authority component in the jural relations of successive generations; it is not a duplication, in a super natural idiom, of the total complex of affective, educative, and supportive relationships manifested in child-rearing, or in marriage, or in any other form of association, however long-lasting and intimate, between kinsmen, neighbours, or friends. It is not the whole man, but only his jural status as the parent (or parental personage, in matrilineal systems) vested with authority and responsibility, that is transmuted into ancestorhood. 3 It devolves as an inescapable right and duty of worship; and this is quite irrespective of what the personal relations of the ancestor and his custodian-worshipper might have been. Hence, not surprisingly, in such a developed system of ancestor worship as that of the Tallensi, the personality and character, the virtues or vices, success or failures, popularity or unpopularity, of a person during his lifetime makes no difference to his attainment of ancestorhood. This was repeatedly brought home to me by Tallensi elders. A man may be a liar, or a wastrel, or an adulterer, a quarrelsome neighbour, or a negligent kinsman; he may be a mean and bad-tempered parent who has made his son's life miserable; he may have been abroad for years and have contributed nothing to their upbringing. If he dies leaving a son he becomes an ancestor of equal standing with any other ancestor. To put it in the believer's words, he acquires the power to intervene in the life and affairs of his descendants in exactly the same way as any other ancestor.

On the other hand, a man may be a paragon of virtue, as parent and as kinsman, respected as citizen and successful in his career, if he leaves no son he cannot become an ancestor; or, at best, among the Tallensi, if he has a daughter he may become a matrilateral ancestor, of secondary worth only, to her sons and their descendants. One of my friends, a man of truly noble character, revered for his wisdom and benevolence, and one of his chief's most trusted councillors, was pointed out as being in danger of this grievous fate because he had no surviving sons; and daughters 'do not inherit'. 4

From the opposite side, what holds for ancestors holds reciprocally for their descendants. it behoves a son to accept his parental forbears, in their character as ancestors, into his family and lineage, to tend their shrines, perform such ritual services for them, as making offerings and pouring libations when these are demanded, irrespective of his sympathies or aversions, and without regard to his character or achievements. It is the oldest living son who has the main responsibility for the ritual tendance and service of his parent ancestors. These duties begin with the obligation to attend to their burial and funeral rites and continue as the obligation and privilege of being the primary officiant in the ritual service rendered by all the members of the filial-sibling group. Now it makes no difference what sort of person the eldest son may be. He may be a good-for-nothing, or a half-wit; he may have quarrelled with the dead parent and have left the parental home; he may be destitute, a notorious thief, what you will. The responsibility for initiating, supervising, and taking the leading part in the mortuary and funeral ritual for his parents is unavoidably his and so are the consequential, life-long duties of ancestor worship. He can refuse them only at the dire peril of disaster inflicted by the ancestors; he cannot be deprived of them, except at the dire peril of those who try to do so (cf. Fortes, 1949, 1959).

What must be particularly stressed is that ancestors behave in exactly the same ways, in the ways expected of them and permitted to them in the ancestral cult, quite irrespective of what their lifetime characters might have been. The ancestor who was a devoted father and conscientious provider for his family in his lifetime is divined to be the source of illness, misfortune, and disturbance in his descendants' lives in exactly the same way as is an ancestor who was a scoundrel and spendthrift. No other way of manifesting himself is open to him. All ancestor spirits exact ritual service, and propitiation in accordance with the same rules of unpredictable and more commonly persecutory rather than beneficent intervention in their descendants' lives. 5 From this it is evident that a lore or doctrine of an after-life in which rewards and punishments are meted out to the dead according to their moral deserts in life, concerns a different sector of religious thought and behaviour than does ancestor worship, as we find it among peoples like the Tallensi. And again the reciprocal conditions apply. The troubles and misfortunes attributed to the mystical intervention of ancestors are the same for descendants who are upright and scrupulous in their moral conduct and social relations as for descendants who are wicked and lax.

This is consistent with the principle that ancestors are deemed to be equally the source of misfortunes interpreted as retribution for failure in religious submission and service, whether this failure is witting or unwitting. The ancestors persecute in the etymological sense of persistently following and harrying their descendants; they do not punish for wickedness or reward for virtues, as these are defined by human standards (cf. Fortes, 1959). Thus homicide, among the Tallensi, must be ritually expiated whether or not it is deliberate or unintentional. This is done not because it is wicked to kill a man, but because it is sinful to pollute the Earth with human blood or to commit such an outrage against the supreme law of kinship amity.

Furthermore, there is an established order of precedence in this. As one might expect, it is the reciprocal of the order of precedence in worship. Ancestors can, ideally, only intervene in the life of descendants through the intermediation of the deceased parents of the right category through whom they are approached in worship. Naturally, too, the person who has, by right of succession, the right to officiate in their worship also bears the main burden of accountability to them. His faults of negligence are more apt to be invoked if things go wrong with any of his dependants than their own. Even adults who are jural minors (e.g. married younger brothers or sons of the head of a family) are only indirectly accountable to the ancestors when ill befalls them. In short, the persecuting ancestor is not a supernatural being capriciously punishing wrong-doing or rewarding virtue. He is rather to be thought of as an ultimate judge and mentor whose vigilance is directed towards restoring order and discipline in compliance with the norms of right and duty, amity and piety, whenever transgressions threaten or occur. When misfortune occurs and is interpreted as a punitive, or to be more exact, corrective intervention by the ancestors, they are believed to have acted rightfully, not wantonly. Moreover, they are subject to the moral constraint that emanates from faithful worship. Though one cannot be certain that one's offerings and tendance will gain their benevolence, one can rest assured that they will bind the ancestors to act justly (cf. Fortes, 1959).

There is clear logic in this. For in everyday experience authority is made patent more obviously in disciplinary actions than in indulgence. A parent shows his authority and asserts the rule of right when he gives commands and when he punishes disobedience, not when he is affectionate and protective. A chief's authority is similarly evinced when he exacts services or inflicts penalties for wrong doing. Such demonstrations of authority may be very infrequent, as is the case among the Tallensi, but if they are not known to be possible and legitimate, authority wilts. Benevolence and affection, hospitality and largesse, are necessary concomitants of authority but their function is only to make it tolerable.

Considered in relation to the social structure, therefore, ancestor worship, among such peoples as those who have been discussing, can be described as [inter alia] a body of religious beliefs and ritual practices, correlated with rules of conduct, which serves to entrench the principle of jural authority together with its corollary, legitimate right, and its reciprocal, designated accountability, as an indisputable and sacrosanct value-principle of the social system. 6 In these societies, jural authority implies not only control but responsibility and rests on mutuality of rights and duties. It is effective because he who holds authority is himself bound to superior authority and is both entitled and obliged to invoke this superior authority as the sanction of his status. He can fulfil his responsibilities with authority, if I might put the matter somewhat paradoxically, because the ultimate responsibility lies outside his control.

In these societies, the kind of authority and right here at issue is generated and exercised through social relations created by kinship and descent. Jural authority vests in a person by virtue of kinship status or of office that, in the last resort, depends upon descent. Ancestors symbolize the continuity of the social structure, and the proper allocation, at any given time, of the authority and right they held and transmitted. ancestor worship puts the final source of jural authority and right, or to use the more inclusive term, jurisdiction, on a pedestal, so to speak, where it is inviolable and unchallengeable, and thus able to mobilize the consent of all who must comply with it.

In presenting this hypothesis, I lean, appropriately, on no less a guide than Maine. Discussing the unilateral limitation of agnation he declares that this ensues because the foundation of agnation is not the marriage of the Father and Mother, but the authority of the Father' and pursuing the topic further he concludes: 'The Parental Powers proper are extinguished by the death of the Parent, but agnation is as it were a mould which retains their imprint after they have ceased to exist' (Maine op. cit., pp. 123-4). I have simply applied these dicta to the religious aspects of descent.

This leads me to a speculation which, I believe, deserves closer consideration. It seems to me that we have in all societies something like a general faculty, or factor, or jural authority or jurisdiction, ius per se. It pervades all social relations but is, of course, only recognized and experienced in particular contexts and situations, and in specific rules of conduct.

Lest this should be dismissed as another one of those 'bloodless abstractions' attributed to structuralist anthropology, I should like to draw attention to some parallels. One such parallel is the postulate of the Rule of Law in complex democratic societies. Thus Weldon (1946, p. 243) observes that 'the Rule of Law is invested with peculiar sanctity just because it is held that the law guarantees the inviolability of the individual...' More pertinent is Gluckman's discussion of the Lozi concept of the law as the quintessence of the corpus juris (1955). As he notes (p. 164) the word mulao is used by the Lozi 'to describe all the rules and the whole procedure by which their society is controlled: thus they say, "even the king is the slave of the law (mulao)". The concept mulao, he comments (p. 226), 'is a multiple concept covering all kinds of ordered regularity and authoritative action' (my italics). I am reminded of the Tale word malung which can be translated as 'ritually obligatory' but is often used to account for anything that is felt to be customarily obligatory. Again, there are the two terms buurt, right, and yuko, authority. Thus a chief awards buurt to the party in the right in a dispute that comes before him, and he does so in virtue of yuko; a lineage head is exercising yuko when he accepts the placation gift from a suitor for the hand of a daughter of the lineage; and the same term is used for anyone who is entitled to give orders to others. In Ashanti, the notion of the Stool as the sacred vehicle of the presence of the ancestors and both the source and the symbol of politico-ritual office, from the kingship down to the headship of a local lineage, embodies the same idea. Ashanti political and jural organization is permeated with the notion of the sanctity of ancestrally-ordained authority, as the institution of the oath graphically illustrates (cf. Rattray, 1929, passim).

It is not too far-fetches, then, to suppose that some notion of a pervasive principle of authority, or as I have called it, jurisdiction, is apprehended, however loosely, in African societies. But what must be stresses is that its operation is experienced piecemeal, in particular situations, and that it is respected and complied with in relation to the particular persons, offices, or institutions in which it is vested for the time being. In these situation, jurisdiction is accepted by reference to sanctions deployed from the outside and to the symbols and usages that identify status and office; but it is also complied with by reason of habits, beliefs, and sentiments that are ingrained in the individual. In the domain of kinship and descent we are concerned with jurisdiction vested in parents and parental agencies and channelled through the social relations engendered by parenthood. But this jurisdiction, and the matrix of social relations in which it functions, outlasts the occasions on which it comes into play and, what is more, the persons engaged. Succession ensures that authority and right do not die with the bodily demise of men who have them. Descent ensures that the matrix of social relations remains more or less constant through the passage of generations. And the nuclear context of relationship for the incidence and experience of jurisdiction, as well for its transmission, considered both structurally, at a given time, and genetically, over a stretch of time, is the relationship of successive generations. The condition of filial dependence, from infancy to adulthood, is the model of subordination to authority throughout the domain of kinship and descent. Hence the experience of filial dependence, as recognized and interpreted by the culture, provides the material for the code of symbolism and ritual by means of which reverence for authority can be regularly affirmed and enacted. For it is in this experience that the beliefs and sentiments of respect, reverence, and worship are inculcated.

The experience of filial dependence among the Tallensi is marked by ambivalence, as i have shown elsewhere (1949), and this is reflected in the images of the ancestors and the attributes given to them in Tale ancestor worship. Authority and right may be accepted as just; they cannot but be felt at times to be coercive and arbitrary. The avoidance and respect behaviour required of children towards their parents is well designed to deflect opposition to living authority when it is felt to be coercive. To counterbalance latent opposition and secure loyalty in spite of it, familiarity and affection are also evoked and allowed conventional expression. In their ancestor worship Tallensi make clear to themselves the fact that, though parents depart, the authority and jurisdiction they wielded - and which enabled them also to be protective and benevolent - still goes on. The symbolism and imagery used to this end purport to state that it is the parents themselves who survive in transmuted form and become accessible in the material objects dedicated to them. What in fact survives is the web of kinship and descent relationships generated by the parents and the filial experiences standardized in the norms, values, and beliefs inculcated by them. Ancestors are apt to be demanding, persecutory, and interfering for one reason because parents appear thus to their children when they are exercising authority over them, but also, in the wider sense, because this is a particularly effective way of representing the sovereignty or authority and right.

These reflections leave open some difficult questions. How does parental and lineage authority, as projected in ancestor worship, link up with political authority and its ritual symbolism and representation as in some forms of African kingship? Again, what is the nature of authority and what representation, if any, does it have in religious or ideological terms in genealogically based social systems like those of the Tiv and the Nuer which lack both ancestor worship and the equivalent of kingship? Is it that jurisdiction, in these societies, is so diffused and so collective as to rule out specific attribution and representation of authority?

In conclusion, I believe that the analysis I have put forward can usefully be extended to features of ancestor worship I have not dealt with. Take the crucial ritual institution of ancestor worship, the sacrifice. If we think of it as a mode of ritual reparation incumbent on every successor to authority, we can see that it may be connected with the hazards of succession. Succession means ousting a predecessor, even though it is lawful and inevitable. It is thus a reminder of the transience of authority and the dangers of arousing opposition to it. Tallensi point this out, saying, for example, that men who have the custody of the ancestor shrines have a heavy responsibility because they are more exposed to the demands of the ancestors than are other people. Moreover, they arouse jealousy among their peers, and though this does not endanger their lives, it is irksome. So it is only a safeguard for anyone in authority to show that he is himself the servant of higher authority, but it may be a reassurance to himself to be able to make the kind of reparation to his displaced predecessor which the beliefs and practices relating to sacrifice make possible. Here we trench on problems that call for psychological analysis, as indeed any comprehensive study of ancestor worship will be bound to do.


1949. The Web of Kinship among the Tallensi, London.

1950. 'Kinship and Marriage among the Ashanti' in African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, ed. Radcliffe-Brown and Forde.

1959. ??dipus and Job in West African Religion, Cambridge

1961. 'Pietas in Ancestor Worship'. J. Royal Anth. Inst., vol. 91.2,pp. 166-91.

1955. The Judical Process among the Barotse, Manchester.
    1. Middleton, John. 1960. Lugbara Religion, London.
    2. Goody, Jack. 1962. Death, Property and the Ancestors, London.

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