ANCESTOR cults and ancestor worship loom large in the anthropological image of sub-Saharan Africa and few would disagree with Fortes that 'comparatively viewed, African ancestor worship has a remarkably uniform structural framework' (Fortes, 1965: 122). The general pattern may be quickly summarized. Ancestors are vested with mystical powers and authority. They retain a functional role in the world of the living, specifically in the life of their living kinsmen; indeed, African kin-groups are often described as communities of both the living and the dead. The relation of the ancestors to their living kinsmen has been described as ambivalent, as both punitive and benevolent and sometimes even as capricious. In general, ancestral benevolence is assured through propitiation and sacrifice; neglect is believed to bring about punishment. Ancestors are intimately involved with the welfare of their kin-group but they are not linked in the same way to every member of that group. The linkage is structured through the elders of the kin-group, and the elders' authority is related to their close link to the ancestors. In some sense the elders are the representatives of the ancestors and the mediators between them and the kin-group.

Fortes has extended our theoretical understanding of African ancestor worship more recently by further clarifying some of its structural features (1965). Amplifying Gluckman's (1937) distinction between ancestor cults and the cults of the dead, Fortes brings out the importance of the 'structural matrix of [African] ancestor worship', noting inter alia the relative lack of elaboration and indeed interest among the Africans in the cosmography of the afterworld in which the ancestors reside. The African emphasis is clearly not on how the dead live but on the manner in which they affect the living. Different ancestors are recognized as relevant to different structural contexts (as, for example, in groups of different genealogical levels); not all but only certain dead with particular structural positions are worshipped as ancestors; and the behaviour of ancestors reflects not their individual personalities but rather a particular legal status in the political-jural domain.

In this paper I shall describe some activities and relationships among the Suku of south-western Congo (Kinshasa). It will be apparent that the description conforms to the generalized pattern of African ancestor cults and is congruent with Fortes's analysis. But, I shall show that there are difficulties in characterizing the Suku complex as an 'ancestor cult' and shall bring in additional data on Suku lineage structure. I shall then contend that Fortes's analysis, while pointing in the right direction, does not go far enough because it does not take the final step of shedding the ethnoecentric connotations of the very term 'ancestor' - connotations that have a bearing on theory. I shall also try to show that by viewing what have been called African ancestor cults as part of the eldeship complex, we can account more simply for many of

Fortes's generalizations and at the same time make redundant some of the problems he raises.

The fundamental social and jural group among the Suku is the corporate matrilineage, generally consisting of some thirty-five to forty persons. Married couples live virilocally, and males live patrilocally at least until their father's death and often beyond. The membership of a matrilineage is dispersed over several villages but within an area that is not too large to preclude easy communication, consultations, and joint action in important matters. The matrilineage is a corporate unit in economic, political, jural and religious respects. Each matrilineage is centre in a particular village which bears its name and is its administrative and ritual head-quarters, containing the formal lineage head (the oldest male member) and, usually, several other older members (Kopytoff, 1964, 1965).

The dead members of the lineage, as a collectivity, are appealed to in times of crisis (such as a serious sickness or a series of misfortune) and, more regularly, on such occasions as the marriages of women of the lineage, the breaking of sexual taboos affecting these women, the coming-out ceremony for infants, and yearly, before the large communal hunts of the dry season. The general pattern is as follows: the head of the lineage and two or three older men of his generation go at night to the grave - any grave - of a deceased member of the lineage who was older than any of them. The Suku have no special burying places and graves are dug at random in the bush outside the lineage centre or near crossroads; the graves are not maintained and they eventually return to bush, so that the site of a particular grave is usually forgotten in time. The location of recent graves is of course remembered, and the lineage head and the older men usually go to the grave of the last deceased man who was older than they. The other appropriate place to address the dead is at the crossing of paths.

At the grave or at the cross-roads, the old men 'feed' the dead certain foods considered to be their favourite: particular kinds of forest mushroom and wild roots, palm wine, and sometimes even manioc, the Suku staple. A small hole is dug in the ground and the food is put into it. Communication with the dead takes the form of a conversational monologue, patterned but not stereotyped, and devoid of repetitive formulae. One speaks the way one speaks to living people: 'You, [such and such], your junior is ill. We do not know why, we do not know who is responsible. If it is you, if you are angry, we ask for forgiveness. If we have done wrong, pardon us. Do not let him die. Other lineages are prospering and our people are dying. Why are you doing this? Why do you not look after us properly?' The words typically combine complaints, scolding, sometimes even anger, and at the same time appeals for forgiveness.

At the coming-out ceremonies for infants and at marriages, the dead members of the lineage are informed of the event; pleas are made for their approval and their efforts in insuring the success of the newborn or of the marriage and the children that will be born to it. Before the large communal hunts of the dry season, the dead members are asked to extend good luck to the enterprise. They are told that the people are hungry for meat, they are reprimanded for not granting enough meat, and they are shamed that their own people should be eating less well than other lineages.

Finally, dead members of the lineage are always referred to publicly by the living elders on all ceremonial occasions involving the lineage as a unit.

These activities clearly fit the general pattern of African 'ancestor cults'. The ancestors are seen as retaining their role in the affairs of their kin-group and only of their kin-group. They are propriated with 'sacrifices'. They are seen as dispensing both favours and misfortune; they are often accused of being capricious and of failing in their responsibilities, but, at the same time, their actions are related to possible lapses on the part of the living and are seen as legitimately punitive. The features of the 'cult' emphasize the nature of the social relationship while details of the life of ancestors in the other world are de-emphasized and are, indeed, of little interest to the Suku. It is primarily the jural context that dominates the relationship with the ancestors and not the personal characteristics they may have had when they were alive.

There is, however, one immediate problem that arises in calling this an 'ancestor cult': the Suku have no term that can be translated as 'ancestor'. These dead members of the lineage are referred to as bambuta. Literally, bambuta means the 'big ones', the 'old ones', those who have attained maturity, those older than oneself; collectively, the term refers to the ruling elders of a lineage. A mbuta (singular) is literally anyone who is older than ego. The meaning is comparative. Eldership is not an absolute state of being old; being a mbuta is always relative to someone who is younger. Within the lineage, a mbuta is any older adult, older siblings as well as those of the generations above. My bambuta collectively are all the members of the lineage who are older than I, whether they are alive or dead. In jural contexts, where authority is vested overwhelmingly in the males, the term is effectively narrowed to all my male seniors. The lineage is thus divided into two named groups: those above me who are my bambuta, and those below me - my baleke- to whom I am an elder. By contrast, no semantic distinction is made within the lineage between those who are alive and those who are dead.

An elder - any elder - represents to a junior the entire legal and mystical authority of the lineage. The very fact of eldership confers upon a person mystical powers over the junior. He can curse his junior in the name of the lineage, thereby removing from him the mystical protection of the lineage. The curse can be formal and public, but it can also be secret and even unconscious. To use a contemporary metaphor, a Suku is under the 'umbrella' of the power of his lineage; removal of this protection exposes him to the outside world, and the world is a dangerous place to be in when one is not attached to a kin-group. As the Suku phrase it, a curse 'opens the road to misfortune'; though it does not actively cause misfortune. An elder's curse, always implicitly made in the name of the lineage, can only be removed by an older elder - one to whom the previous elder is a junior.

Lineage authority and the representation of the lineage to the outside world are organized on a continuum of age, that is, of relative eldership. Within this formal continuum based purely on relative age, there is also the principle of generational solidarity. Lineage members of the same generation are close to each other and tend toward greater though never actual equality. Thus, the inequality of power and authority is most pronounced between generations. It is most presumptuous for the junior generation to question, under normal circumstances, the decisions of the senior generation and the ways in which they have been arrived at. It is the generation above me that represents to me the full authority of the lineage; generational solidarity as well as inter-generational distance means that, unless I have knowledge to the contrary, I must assume that the decision of one senior represents the decision of all seniors. This generational structure also expresses a continuum of authority. If I am middle-aged, the decision by elders of the generation above me carries for me the authority of all the senior generations above me. To a junior in the generation below me, my decision similarly carries the authority of my generation together with all the generations senior to it. To the junior, then, lineage authority is most directly embodied in the generation immediately above him, and it is presumptuous for him to go over their heads, so to speak, to yet more senior generations. Conversely, the authority of eldership is most directly exercised upon those of the generation immediately below, as they in turn properly exercise it over the generation below them. Exercising authority over the second lower generation, over the heads of the intervening one, is somewhat inappropriate. This results in muting the outward expression of authority between the alternating generations of a lineage, a pattern congruent with the relaxed etiquette between alternating generations.

In any context, the lineage is fully and legally represented by the oldest adult member of the lineage who is present. Let me give a few examples. In common with many Central African peoples, the name of the lineage is formally carried by the head of that lineage. Thus, the head of the lineage Kusu is addressed as Kusu. But this general rule expresses a more complex structure. The identification of the lineage's name with the person extends to the entire membership of the lineage; it is the lineage as a whole, qua corporate group, that holds the title. Cunnison (1951), writing on the Luapula peoples, has analysed this particular usage in which a person discussing his lineage and its history in the past, will refer to it by the pronoun 'I'. A similar usage exists among the Suku. The oldest lineage member who is present in any situation can refer to himself by the name of his lineage, and is so addressed by others. For example, an infant who is a member of the royal lineage is addressed as Mini Kongo, the title of the Suku king, as long as no other older member of the royal lineage is present. The moment an older member arrives on the scene, the title is shifted to him. A young man of Kusu lineage will refer to himself as Kusu and, a moment later, after an old lineage mate has arrived, he will refer to him as Kusu and will cease applying the title to himself. Ultimately, of course, if all the members of the lineage are present, the title Kusu devolves upon the oldest male members of the lineage who is also its formal head.

The continuum of eldership is representing the lineage has a jural significance in inner-lineage relations. Let me illustrate with an extreme example. A young man became angry with his elders and, without consulting anyone, sold to another lineage a hunting area belonging to his own. The transaction was fully legal, since he was a legitimate spokesman for his lineage in the context in which the transaction took place. His own lineage was, of course, incensed by the action; in the old days he might have been sold or even killed. But the significant point here is that the legality of the transaction was not questioned.

In short, to those on the outside, a lineage is represented by the oldest 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. The principle of eldership operating within the lineage corresponds, in its external relations, to its 'chieftainship' (kimfumu). Lineage 'chieftainship' is also a relative, not an absolute matter; for the outside world, it is carried by the oldest member present. Thus, the Suku say that 'everyone is a chief' - just as everyone is an elder.

Let us consider now some additional features of the ritual preceding the collective hunt of the dry season. Before the hunting season begins every Suku secures hunting luck by obtaining that the lineage wishes him well, that he continues to be under its protection. The reassurance can in principle be obtained verbally from any elder; more appropriately, it is obtained from anyone in the generation above. Young men go to the middle-aged and the middle-aged go to the old. There is a pattern in asking for luck: one beseeches, one complains, one reproves, one asks forgiveness. On his part, the older man signifies his goodwill by giving the junior some pemba (white clay); he also uses the occasion to remind the young man of his obligations to the old, to scold him lightly for his past misdemeanours, and to ask his forgiveness for past misfortunes. The manner of addressing the living elder is the same as the one used in addressing the dead. The Suku regard the two activities as being not merely analogous but identical, and the differences between them as incidental and contextual. Everyone goes to his elder. If I am young, I go to my elders who happen to be alive. The old people go to their elders; but since these are dead, they are to be found at the grave or at the cross-roads at night. Given the continuum of eldership, the use of any grave, as long as the dead is older than the petitioner, is understandable. Also understandable in this context is the neglect of older graves. In the light of the structure of eldership, this neglect does not represent a 'weak' ancestor cult nor does it indicate shallowness of lineage structure.

If there be a 'cult' here, it is a cult of bambuta, of elders living and dead. Every junior owes buzitu ('honour', 'respect') to his seniors, be they 'elders' or 'ancestors' in Western terminology. A single set of principles regulates the relationship between senior and junior; a person deals with a single category of bambuta and the line dividing the living from the dead does not affect the structure of the relationship. Where the line is relevant is in the method of approaching the elder. The dead must of necessity be approached differently from the living; interaction with them necessarily appears one sided and conversations with them necessarily become monologues. Also, interaction with them is necessarily less frequent and when it occurs, it is formal - but no less formal than is the interaction with living elders on ceremonial occasions. The offer of palm wine is normal at all formal occasions when a junior approaches a senior; but dead elders, in their capacity of the dead, also have their preferred foods - the special forest mushroom and roots. Thus, it is the special methods of approach, inevitably characterizing dealings with the dead as opposed to the living, that give these dealings the special cast that makes us, as anthropologists and outsiders, call it a 'cult'. The dead qua dead also know more and see things that living elders do not; they are, therefore, more powerful and can sometimes be more helpful. Also, though the reasons for action by any elder are often obscure to the juniors, actions by elders are particularly obscure since no explanations from them are ever possible. In short, there is a difference in the manner in which the dead are approached, in contrast to the living. But the difference is to their different physical states, even while they remain in the same structural positions vis-à-vis their juniors.

The Suku pattern described above is congruent with most ethnographic descriptions of African 'ancestral cults' and of the role of elders. When the Suku case may appear distinctive is in the accompanying linguistic and semantic pattern of encompassing under the single term mbuta the continuum of eldership while neglecting the line between the living and the dead. But the Suku are far from unique in this. Comparative linguistic evidence suggests that the merger or a very close semantic association of 'ancestors' with 'elders' is widespread in Africa, particularly in Bantu Africa.[2]

The accompanying table shows the distribution of the radicals used in several Bantu languages to form terms that have been translated as 'elders' and 'ancestors'. It can be seen that a situation similar to that of the Suku, with their single 'ancestor/elder' term, is also found in Ovambo, Lele, Songye, Nkundo, Bobangi, Ila, Lamba, Yao, Bondei, Bantu-Tiriki, and Zulu. Separate terms that are, nevertheless, very similar and derivative from the same radical, are found among the Kongo, Ntomba, Yao, Ankole, and Karanga. It will also be noted that when terms for 'ancestor' and 'elder' are reported to be different, or when alternative terms exist, the separate terms, nevertheless, derive from the same radicals that have occurred in the preceding cases. Finally, there is an occasional pattern for a single term to stand for 'grand-father/ancestor'.

Three common Bantu radicals stand out in the table: -kula, -kale, and -koko.

The semantic core of -kulu (-kuru, -kolo, -koro, -guru)and its usual semantic field in Bantu languages includes 'to grow up, to mature, to become adult, to become old, to be important' (with their respective adjective and noun forms). In many languages there is a semantic drift towards 'older' (comparative) and 'elder' (noun). In some languages, there is a further drift towards 'the old ones', used in the English sense of 'ancestors'. (The direction of the semantic drift is from 'elder' alone to the combined 'elder/ancestor'.) Thus, an appropriate translation of the core meaning of -kulu would be the French grand (with its associated verb grandir), and 'elders/ancestors' formed from this radical would be rendered as les grands (a term that French-speaking Africans in fact sometimes use with striking semantic appropriateness: les grands, after all, can be alive as well as dead).[3]

By contrast with -kulu, -koko appears to be a semantically primary term and the pattern of its semantic drift is in the opposite direction: it stands for 'ancestor' alone or 'ancestor/grandparent' or 'ancestor/grandparent/elder'. The semantic core is perhaps best rendered as 'forefather'.


Ovambo eld/anc
Kongo eld, anc eld (-uta)
Suku (-uta)
Lele eld/anc (-ota)
Songye eld eld/anc
Nkundo anc/gp/eld anc eld (-gambi)
Ntomba anc, eld anc/gp eld (-gambi)
Ngala eld eld nac/gp
Bobangi anc/gp/eld
Ila eld/anc gp eld (-alu)
Lamba anc eld/anc
Yao eld/anc eld, anc anc/eld (-kolo)
Ankole eld eld, anc/gp
Bondei eld anc/eld (-dala)
Tiriki eld anc/gp/eld (-guga)
Karanga eld, anc
Zulu eld/anc anc/gp eld (-guga, -dala)

The use of common radicals in forming terms for 'elders' and 'ancestors' in selected Bantu languages

Note: Ancestors: 'anc'; Elders: 'eld'; grandfather or grandparent: 'gp'.

An oblique stroke means that a single African term combines the two or three English terms (e.g., 'eld/anc' indicates that one term means both 'elder' and 'ancestor').

A comma means that the two terms are constructed from the same radical (e.g., in Karanga, makuru, 'elders', and vakuru, 'ancestors').

Radicals used -kale -kulu -koko -ka(ka) other

The third radical -kale is a common Bantu term for 'long ago', 'in the old days', 'aged (in time)', 'ancient', 'antecedent in time', etc. (like -kulu, it is among Meinhof's Ur-Bantu forms). An appropriate rendering of the core meaning is 'ancient' in its primary reference to the time scale, to 'dating back, originating in the past', and in its secondary reference to 'old' (when it indicates the state of a subject as derived from its position on a time scale). The French noun les anciens (unless one chooses the awkward 'antecedent') seems to translate the core meaning with its extensions (and French-speaking Africans do sometimes use this term). The semantic drift of -kale sometimes towards 'elder' only, sometimes towards 'ancestor' only, and sometimes towards the combined 'ancestor/elder' (les anciens can appropriately refer to the living or the dead or both).

The other less common radicals that occur in the formation of what we translate as 'elders' and/or 'ancestors' are -dala ('old' or 'far in time') and -alu (which may or may not be related to -kale); -ka or -kaka, used for 'grandparent' or 'grandparent/ancestor' ('forefather'?); and -uta/-ota (as in Suku mbuta) whose core meaning is 'to beget/bear'.

Thus, there are, in Bantu Africa at least, three principal ways in which the associated ideas of 'eldership' and 'ancestorship' are expressed. One is by semantic drift from 'to grow big', elders or elders/ancestors being les grands. The second is by semantic drift from 'ancient', so that elders or ancestors or elders/ancestors are rendered as les anciens. The third is by the use of a prime term for 'ancestor' that may, by semantic drift, also cover ancestor/grandparent and even ancestor/grandparent/elder.

The semantic association between 'ancestor' and 'elder' is not restricted to Bantu languages. In Igbo, ´nnà is used both for elder male relative and ancestor. In Mossi, the radical -kud occurs in 'elder', 'ancestor', and 'ancient times'. In Sango, -kota is used for elder relative, elder, ancestor, and dignitary. In Mangbetu, -koko occurs in 'ancestor' and 'to grow'. Among the Mandinka, the radical ke defines a cluster of age, authority, eldership, and ancestorship.[4] In Kanuri, kur- occurs in terms having to do with 'old times', and authority.[5]

We can speak, then , of the presence in many African cultures of a semantic association of growth, age, maturity, ancientness, eldership, ancestorship, and authority. This cluster conditions the semantic drift of terms along an 'adult-elder-ancestor' dimension. Consequently, we find within this semantic cluster a general category best rendered by the French les grands/anciens and that we shall refer to in English by the term 'elder/ancestor'. But the further distinction within this category between the living ('elders') and the dead ('ancestors') is one that is not always made in African languages. Insistence on the conceptual primacy of this division between the living and the dead is, I submit, an ethnocentric distortion of the African world view, a distortion that prevents our understanding of what we have persisted in calling 'ancestor cults' and 'ancestor worship'.

The Western ethnocentric conviction that 'ancestors' must be separated from living 'elders' conditions the cognitive set with which we approach African data and theorize about them. Not only is our term 'ancestor' - meaning an ascendant who is dead - denotatively ethnocentric but it is also connotatively so. Western cultural tradition (which includes ghosts) accepts that the dead can be endowed with cultural tradition (which includes ghosts) accepts that the dead can be endowed with extraordinary powers. The dead belong to what we call the 'supernatural world'. A Western anthropologist, working in an African society, finds it easy to accept without much further questioning that the dead, including the 'ancestors', should be believed capable of extraordinary doings, that they should 'mystically' confer benefits, that they should visit sickness upon the living, that they should have 'supernatural' powers. Such beliefs about the dead are culturally acceptable to us, and it is appropriate that such dead should have a 'cult'. But living people in our cultural conceptions do not have such 'mystical' powers merely because they happen to be older. If they are said by Africans to have such powers, these must be 'derived' from elsewhere; and the ancestors, being dead, are seen as an appropriate source.[6]

Our interpretations have had two opposing emphases. In the ethnographies, dealing descriptively with African beliefs, it has generally been held that Africans see the powers of the elders as derivative from the power of the ancestors. By contrast, on the theoretical level (where out cultural assumptions come to the fore and where ancestors cannot 'exist' except as a symbol and an abstraction), the directionality of the explanation is exactly reversed; the powers with which ancestors are endowed become a 'projection' of the palpable powers of living elders. This latter interpretation is the gist of Fortes's (1965) formulation. But what, then, of the mystical powers that elders hold directly and on their own, as among the Suku? Are they in turn to be seen as re-projections from the ancestors? When we see the powers over the juniors of both living elders and ancestors as derivative from eldership per se, both the above interpretations of the 'sources' of power come to be beside the point. The problems they attempt to solve arise in the first place from an ethnocentric categorization of ethnographic data.

The reformulation of the problem around the broader category of 'eldership' carried other semantic implications for anthropological terminology (and consequently for the theory built on this terminology). We talk of ancestor 'cults' and even of ancestor 'worship'. In their modern meanings[7] these English words are culturally appropriate in describing dealings with the dead and the supernatural. By contrast, we would hesitate to apply the terms 'cult' and 'worship' to relations with the living. Yet, if the Suku and others 'worship' their dead elders, then they also 'worship' their living elders. If they have a 'cult' of dead elders, the same 'cult' applies to the living. Obversely, if the living elders are only 'respected', then so are the 'ancestors', and no more than that.

These points are very well illustrated by Kenyatta (1938:265-8), with his inside view of Kikuyu culture, when he discusses 'ancestors'. 'In this account, I shall not use the term [worship], because from practical experience I do not believe that the Gikuyu worship their ancestors .... I shall therefore use the term "communion with ancestors".' Kenyatta's European analogy is revealing: 'There appears to be such communion with ancestors when a European family, on special occasions, has an empty chair, the seat of a dead member, at table during a meal. This custom might be closely equated with Gikuya behaviour in this respect.' 'The words "prayer" and "worship", gothaithaiya, goikia-mokoigoro, are never used in dealing with the ancestors' spirits. These words are reserved for solemn rituals and sacrifices directed to the power of the unseen.' As to the question of what is so often called 'sacrifice':

'The gifts which an elder gives to the ancestors' spirits, as when a sheep is sacrificed to them, and which perhaps seem to an outsider to be prayers directed to the ancestors, are nothing but the tributes symbolizing the gifts which the departed elders would have received had they been alive, and which the living elders now receive.'

By using terms such as 'cult', 'worship', and 'sacrifice', we introduce semantic paradoxes which we then feel compelled to explain. Thus, in the International African Institute's Salisbury seminar (Fortes and Dieterlen, 1965: 18), 'the view that ancestors are generally represented as punitive in character was discussed at length'. The need to understand why an object of 'worship' should be 'punitive' arises from the semantics of the terms used. We are told in the report on the seminar that 'Professor Mitchell concluded that ancestors seemed to be normally ambivalent, inflicting punishment to demonstrate the legitimate authority and exercising benevolence when appealed to. He linked this up with some remarks of Dr. Turner, who gave instances of ancestor worship being significant in group rituals of solidarity and expiation aimed at restoring amity within a community. Such rituals, Professor Mitchell suggested, would be directed towards the ancestors in their benevolent aspect, whereas in the case of misfortune the punitive aspect would be invoked in order to provide an interpretation.' Such theoretical involution is unnecessary. The attitude to elders (dead or alive) is normally ambivalent; they both punish and exercise benevolence, and they necessarily participate in restoring amity within the lineage. Mitchell's complex theoretical interpretation ignores what almost r ethnography and every general descriptive statement on African ancestor 'cults' have always stressed: that African lineages are communities of both the living and the dead. Gluckman and Fortes rightly stress that 'ancestor cults' are not the same thing as the cults of the dead. But this irrelevance of the 'deadness' of ancestors has implications for the very idiom in which theoretical problems are cast.

Once we recognize that African 'ancestors' are above all elders and to be understood in terms of the same category as living elders, we shall stop pursuing a multitude of problems of our own creation. There is nothing startling that the attitude to elders wielding authority should be ambivalent. Fortes (1965: 133) makes the important point that what matters in ancestors is their jural status, that (speaking of the Tallensi) 'the personality and character, the virtues or vices, success or failures, popularity or unpopularity, of a person during his lifetime make no difference to his attainment of ancestorhood'. But, we should add, neither do these variations make a difference in the authority invested in eldership; what matters in formal relations is the formal status, in dead elders as well as those alive. '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' (ibid.). But from the point of view proposed here, what occurs is not a 'transmutation' but a retention of status by the now dead elder. The status, that is, remains unaffected by death, while one's purely personal and idiosyncratic relationship with the elder is necessarily changed. Similarly, when Fortes states: 'Ancestor worship is a representation or extension of the authority component in the jural relations of successive generations', we can restate this more simply and, I would claim, more realistically and more in keeping with African conceptions as follows: 'Elders, after they die, maintain their role in the jural relations of successive generations.' In Fortes's theory, people are believed to 'acquire', upon death, the power to intervene in the life of their juniors. I would claim that they 'continue' to have that power.

Such rephrasing simplifies the interpretation of ethnographic data. Thus, in Fortes's formulation, the son begins 'officiating' in the 'cult' only upon his father's death because he now becomes a jural adult (Fortes, 1965: 130-2). This succession means 'ousting a predecessor', and 'sacrifice' to the ancestors may be a psychologically reassuring mode of ritual reparation; the ancestor cult becomes a psychological 'refuge' (Fortes, 1965: 140-1, 1945:9). Without questioning the psychological dynamics specific to the Tallensi, one may suggest another formulation that would seem to be more appropriate for dealing with the general phenomenon of 'sacrifice' in African 'ancestor cults', since these guilt feelings and their relief cannot be shown to exist in all of these societies. We see among the Tallensi a continuum of intergenerational eldership. The power of the kin-group is represented to me (a Tale) by my father, as his father represents it to him. My father 'worships' (respects) and 'sacrifices' (gives tribute) to his dead father, as I respect and give tribute to him. When my father dies, my relationship with him continues (Fortes, 1959: 48 ff.). The chain of relationships over the generations remains unaltered, though the method of interaction with my father becomes necessarily different when he is dead. If we express this difference by speaking of 'worship' and 'sacrifice', in contrast to 'respect' and 'gift or tribute', it is because we, as Westerners, find such terms more appropriate to express dealings with the dead. And, further, 'sacrifice', 'expiation', and 'guilt' is a comfortable semantic cluster for us. But there is surely a danger here of transmuting the semantic biases of the observer's culture into problems of the ethnology of the observed.

By treating the phrase 'ancestor cults' as a rather misleading way of referring to an aspect of the relationship with elders in general, a matter that Fortes sees as a puzzle can be re-examined in a new light. The puzzle is in fact that the Tiv and the Nuer, with genealogically based social systems not unlike those of the Tallensi, lack 'ancestor worship' (Fortes, 1965: 140). There is indeed a puzzle if one insists upon seeing the ancestor cult as a symbolic projection of the social system. In the view presented here, on the other hand, the ancestor cult is an integral part of the system of relationship with elders. The relationship with dead elders (that is, 'ancestors') is seen as being on the same symbolic plane as that of living elders and not as secondary to it or derivative from it. From this point of view the over-all structural similarities among Tallensi, Tiv, and Nuer should not be expected to result in similar ancestor cults. Other facts would seem to be more relevant to the relationship with ancestors qua dead elders: the meaning and structure of eldership, the nature of the authority attributed to it, and the beliefs about the effect of death upon the elder's role.

For the Tiv, the question to be asked is: what is there in the Tiv relationship with elders that makes for relative indifference to dead elders? Pervasive Tiv egalitarianism de-emphasizes the authority of eldership and indeed exacerbates the authority problems that inhere in such segmentary systems (Bohannan, 1953: 31 ff.). Neither genealogical position nor age confer, of themselves, special powers on the living, while the dead are believed to have no effect on the living (ibid: 83). In short, Tiv elders qua elders have little influence on the lives of their juniors, be the elders alive or dead. Their formal authority here in minimal and genealogically shallow. Though a relationship with the dead is not entirely lacking (Bohannan, 1969: i: 35 ff., and 43), it is confined to one's parents. As to the Nuer, here also elders do not carry authority and power simply by virtue of their eldership (Evans-Pritchard, 1940: 179-80). The elders' passage into the other world does not change their situation in this respect.

Though 'ancestor cults' should not be equated with cults of the dead, beliefs about the dead are nevertheless relevant, as illustrated by the Songye who may also be said to lack an 'ancestor cult', but for rather different reasons. Here, living elders have authority; once they die, however, the relationship with them as dead elders does not last because they become reincarnated in their grandchildren.[8]

To conclude,[9] the selection by anthropologists of the phrases 'ancestor cult' and 'ancestor worship', in dealing with African cultures, is semantically inappropriate, analytically misleading, and theoretically unproductive. Fortes has rightly emphasized that the essential features of these activities are to be found not so much in the fact that people concerned are dead as in the structural matrix in which they are placed. But he does not go far enough. By retaining the term 'ancestor' (rather than use, say, 'dead elders'), he continues to give undue weight in his interpretations to the fact that the persons are dead. The term 'ancestor' sets up a dichotomy where there is a continuum. By conceptually separating living elders from ancestors, we unconsciously introduce Western connotations to the phenomena thus labelled and find ourselves having to del with paradoxes of our own creation and with complex solutions to them. It is striking that African 'ancestors' are more mundane and less mystical than the dead who are objects of 'worship' should be in Western eyes. African elders, on the other hand, look more mystical to us than we re willing to allow the living to be. Similarly, Africans treat their living elders more 'worshipfully' than the English term 'respect' conveys, and they treat the ancestors with less 'respect' and more contentiousness than the term 'worship' should allow.

These are all paradoxes that stem from the difficulty of our vocabulary to accommodate to the fact that African living elders and dead ancestors are more similar to each other than the Western living and dead can be, that an elder's social role does not radically change when he crosses the line dividing the living from the dead, and that African 'ancestorship' is but an aspect of the broader phenomenon of 'eldership'. The initial theoretical problem here is not so much that of uncovering deep psychological and symbolic processes as it is of probing African cultural categories and of finding adequate translations of these into the Western language used for theorizing. The terminological recasting that is proposed here (with a consequent recasting of the cognitive categories of the theorist) suggests that our understanding of variations in what we have called 'ancestor cults' must begin with the analysis of eldership in particular African societies. Finally, these redefinitions also resolve the puzzle of finding 'ancestor cults' to be, on the one hand, so very characteristic of Africa as a culture area and, on the other, to be inexplicably and erratically absent here and there within the area. No such problem arises when we realize that the cultural trait to be examined is not 'ancestorship' but the more widely distributed African recognition of 'eldership'.


BOHANNAN, LAURA AND PAUL. 1953. The Tiv of Central Nigeria. London.
_____ 1969. A Source Notebook on Tiv Religion (v. I: Cosmos, Soma, Psyche and Disease). New Haven, Conn.
CUNNISON, IAN. 1951. History on the Luapula, Rhodes-Livingstone Papers, 21.
EVANS-PRITCHARD, E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford.
FORTES, MEYER. 1945. The Dynamics of Clanship among the Tallensi. London.
_____ 1959. Oedipus and Job in West African Religion. Cambridge.
_____ 1965. 'Some Reflections on Ancestor Worship', in African System of Thought, ed. M. Fortes and G. Dieterlen. London.
_____ and DIETERLEN , G. (eds.). 1965. African Systems of Thought. London.
GLUCKMAN, M. 1937. 'Mortuary Customs and the Belief in Survival after Death among the South-Eastern Bantu', Bantu Studies, xi.
HOMBURGER, L. 1941. Les Langues négro-africaines et les peuples qui les parlent. Paris.
KENYATTA, JOMO. 1938. Facing Mount Kenya: The Tribal Life of the Gikuyu. London.
KOPYTOFF, IGOR. 1964. 'Family and Lineage among the Suku of the Congo', in The Family Estate in Africa, ed. Robert F. Gray and P.H. Gulliver. London.
_____ 1965. 'The Suku of Southwestern Congo', in Peoples of Africa, ed. James L. Gibbs, Jr. New York.
MCKNIGHT, J.D. 1967. 'Extra-Descent Group Ancestor Cults in African Societies', Africa, xxxvii. 1-21.
SAPIR, EDWARD. 1921. Language. New York (reprinted 1949).
WILSON, MONICA. 1957. Rituals of Kinship among the Nyakyusa. London.

For the terms for 'ancestors' and 'elders' in the African languages mentioned, I have used the following sources: Mary Douglas, The Lele of the Kasai, London, 1963; Walter Sangree, Age, Prayer, and Politics in Tiriki, Kenya, London, 1966; and the dictionaries of the respective languages by the following: C.W.R. Tobias and B.H.C. Turvey 1954 (Ovambo/Kwanyama), W. Holman Bentley 1887 (Kongo), R.P.A. Semain 1923 (Songye), G. Hulstaert 1952 (Nkundo/Lomongo), M. Guthrie 1935 (Ngala), M. Mamet 1955 (Ntomba), J. Whitehead 1899 (Bobangi), Edwin W. Smith 1907 and J. Torrend 1931 (Ila), C.M. Doke 1933 and 1963 (Lamba), G.M. Sanderson 1954 (Yao), C. Taylor 1959 (Ankole), Herbert W. Woodward 1882 (Bondei), C.S. Louw 1915 (Karanga), D. McJ. Malcolm 1966 and C.M. Doke and B.W. Vilakazi 1958 (Zulu), R.P. Alexandre 1953 (Mossi), B.F. and W.E. Welmers 1968 (Igbo), Charles A. Taber 1965 (Sango), A. Vekens 1928 (Mangbetu).



LES 'cultes des ancêtres', de structures remarquablement uniformes, sont considérés comme un des traits les plus spécifiques des cultures africaines. Cet article examine d'abord chez les Suku du Congo le phénomène qui, selon certains critères, serait considéré sans hésitation comme un 'culte des ancêtres typique'. Cependant l'anlyse des concepts Suku montre que les reltions avec les ancêtres font partie intégrante d'une structure plus large de séniorité, dans laquelle le fait qu'un aîne soit vivant ou mort est d'importance secondaire. Sur le plan sémantique, ceci est réédité par l'absence d'un terme Suku distinct pour désigner 'l'ancêtre', un seul terme étant employé pour les aînés, vivants et morts.


The first version of this paper was delivered at the 67th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, 21-4 November 1968, at Seattle, Washingtonm under the title: 'African "Ancestor Cults" without Ancestors?'
[2]Monica Wilson speaks of Nyakyusa 'senior kinsmen, living and dead' having a 'mystical power over their juniors' and of the 'cult of senior relatives' which she parenthetically equates with 'ancestor cults' (1957: 3, 4, 226). But this is exceptional in ethnographic reporting. The overwhelming pattern in ethnographies is to treat 'elders' separately from 'ancestors' and this may influence linguistic reporting as well. In my combing of the ethnographic literature for the terms for 'ancestors' and 'elders', an unexpected discovery was the extent to which ethnographies often discuss 'ancestral cults' and the position of elders without giving native terms for one or the other and especially for both at the same time. One is tempted to see this as reflecting the hold that these terms have on us as designating necessrily separate categories. We all know, before even getting to the field, that Africans have elders (that is, 'social structure') and ancestors (that is, 'religion'). A combing of dictionaries is somewhat more rewarding, constrained as they are by the existing semantics. These are, of course, most revealing when one can get a full rnage of English terms for the single African word.
[3]Interestingly, the English old parallels, etymologically, the semantics of the Bantu kulu: Old English oud, Frisian alt, Old Norse ala (to rear, to grow up), and Latin alere (to begin, to grow) andadultus. With kulu, of course, we are dealing with a term whose present core meaning is 'to grow, etc.' and which repeatedly drifts in many languages (but not in all) towards 'elder' and among some of these towards 'ancestor'. Hence the applicability of the term 'semantic drift', by analogy to Edward Sapir's linguistic drift' indicating parallel grammatical changes occurring in languages of the same stock after they separated (Sapir, 1921/1949: 171 ff.).
[4]Personal communication from Dr. Peter M. Weil.
[5]Homburger (1941:250-1) considers Bantu -kulu to be related to such forms as Zande kuru, Mossi kud-re, Mande koro, and Kanuri kure. Their semantic cores are identical ('big/old/grown') and they show similar semantic drifts towards 'important', 'elders', and 'ancestors'. With the possible exception of Kanuri, these languages are, of course, related.
[6]To introduce a personal note, I had no difficulty in the field in accepting the idea that the dead 'ancestors' should have 'supernatural' powers. But I must have driven my informants to distraction by insisting on pursuing the question of the 'why' and the 'where from' of the powers of the living elders. It took a kind of methodological (and cultural) leap of faith to accept as a terminal ethnographic datum that if the dead can appropriately do supernatural things, why not also the living?
[7]The English word 'worship' carried, to be sure, a less religious connotation in Old English, referring merely to 'dignity', 'honour', and 'worthiness' - appropriate to one aspect of the African relationship with both elderss and ancestors, but still missing its associated aspect of familiarity that, when necessry, allows scolding.
[8]Personal communication from Dr. Alan P. Merriam.
[9]In this paper, I have discussed only the elders/ancestors of the descent group itself, and I have made no reference to the 'extra-descent group ancestor cults' discussed by McKnight (1967). Briefly summarized, McKnight's point is tht the 'extra-descent group ancestors' (that is, paternal ancestors in the matrilineal systems, and maternal ones in the patrilineal) are not benevolent as they should be in terms of Radcliffe-Brown's theory of extension of sentiments. McKnight shows that the relations with the kin-group of the 'residual parent' need not duplicate the sentiments of the reltionship with that parent. Thus, in a patrilineal society, once can be on the warmest of terms with one's mother and her brotehr and still have strained and even hostile reltions with their kin-group as a corporate entity and with other relatives in it. and it is these latter relations tht condition the relations with the 'extra-descent group ancestors'. McKnight's mode of analysis is consistent with the one used here. I would merely use the term 'relationship with the dead elders of the extra-descent group' instead of 'extra-descent group ancestor cults'.

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