Source Book for African Anthropology




Beliefs of the Ovimbundu with regard to survival after physical death, and practices for securing the assistance of ancestral spirits, are typical of those prevailing among all Bantu Negroes. The words ekisi and ocilulu mean a disembodied spirit, but the word generally used for soul or spirit is utima, the heart. So far as could be ascertained these words are synonymous, and they do not refer to separate spiritual counterparts of the physical body. Yet it is certain that some Bantu and Sudanic Negroes believe in the existence of separate souls which dwell in one person, and at death the multiple souls have different fates. Such souls, though distinct, form a unity.

Ovimbundu spirits of the dead are in two divisions: the olosande, who are good and benevolent, and the olondele, who are malevolent. In this class are included the spirits of suicides and of those who were wicked or discontented on earth. All spirits are feared, especially those of the olondele group, and to approach the olosande the services of a medicine-man are usually required.

Spirits move by night, and whistling should be avoided, since the sound calls ghosts. Evil spirits who are afflicting a child can be deceived by changing the name of the sufferer. The rites of exorcism, of divination with a basket of trinkets, and the consultation of wooden figurines are described in connection with the medicine-man. In the chapter on "Economic Life," data are given to illustrate the way in which the hunter and the blacksmith depend on ritual which is associated with the activity of spirits.

The helpful nature of the olosande is indicated by the words of a sick person, who, failing to recover, says, "I have no more osande." Esuvi is a bird that flies by night, and it is believed to have the power of killing spirits, who die a second death, after which they can no longer be helpful to the living. A man who failed to recover his health after treatment by a medicine-man said, "The spirit of my grandfather has been caught by esuvi," meaning that a protecting influence had been withdrawn from the living relative.

Funeral rites of the Ovimbundu indicates a belief that the spirit remains near the dead body for several days. On the third day after death the coffin is fastened to a pole which is supported on the shoulders of two men (Fig. 82, a). An old man questioned the corpse, saying, "Today, my boy, we want you to make us glad; tell us all that takes you from earth." While asking this question, the interrogator held out food on a platter, and the mourners watched for a movement of the pole on the shoulders of the bearers.

In reply to the question "Were you poisoned?" the spectators declared that the coffin-pole swung backward, so indicating a negative. A prolonged interrogation resulted at last in a positive answer to the query, "Did you die from pains in the belly?" One of the questions asked has an important bearing on all Bantu procedure connected with death. The interrogator demanded, "Is it witchcraft that hates us and killed you? If it is witchcraft, come to the front." An affirmative answer would, before European control, have led to a process of divining to find the worker of antisocial magic. Such a person, named onganga, would have been compelled to take the poison ordeal.

Preparation of the body suggests a fear of a wandering ghost, for the great toes are tied together and the upper arms are bound to the torso with bark thongs. The mourning rites observed by a widow further imply a fear of a ghost which has to be placated. A widow must leave her hair loose and without ornament, and she is covered from crown to sole in cloth. For three days she has to sleep close to the corpse of her husband, with only a thin stick between them. During this time she has to abstain from food, and her wailing is almost continuous. After the corpse has been prepared for the rite of questioning, as described above, the widow bids farewell to the dead. Relatives hold the corpse upright and carry it toward her while she is held by other relatives. At the end of a year of mourning, and after a ceremonial feast and drinking of beer, the widow is free to remarry. These proceedings of the Ovimbundu have their parallels, or even their exact facsimiles, in many Negro tribes, both Bantu and Sudanic.

E. Torday (1928c, pp. 225–245) states that among several tribes of the southwest Bantu each person is believed to have two souls, a spiritual soul, moyo, and a sensory soul called mfumu kutu. The functions of the spiritual soul are to think and to will, while the sensory soul perceives through the senses. The sensory soul leaves the body during sleep and fainting, but the spiritual soul adheres more closely to the body, since it is distributed through the blood, though more of this soul exists in the heart and liver than elsewhere. The fact that the spiritual soul is believed to be distributed in the blood accounts for the importance of blood in religious and magical ceremonies, including the making of charms in which blood is an ingredient. The process of drying a corpse over a slow fire is carried out to liberate the soul from the blood so that the spirit can join the ancestral ghosts.

In most Bantu languages, the words for "embodied Soul" and "disembodied soul" are distinct, according to W. C. Willoughby (1928a, pp. 338–347). Bantu Negroes think of the soul as an entity that can leave the body during sleep, and the idea of a soul entering temporarily into an animal is widely distributed among Negroes. R. S. Rattray (1927a, p. 93) mentions "dream adultery" whereby a sleeper, on waking, is held responsible for the actions of his errant soul, if he is foolish enough to narrate his dreams.

Willoughby thinks that the Bantu generally believe that a soul enters the fetus at the time of quickening, and he describes a Bantu belief that the spirit of a dead child haunts the place where the infant

FIG. 82. Funeral rites. a. Bearers of a corpse, Ovimbundu, Elende. b. Grave near Caconda, Ovimbundu tribe.

body was buried. Women passing such places are likely to become pregnant. Beliefs in reincarnation, and the practice of divination to discover which ancestral spirit is within the newly-born child are of wide distribution. Usually commoners sacrifice only to their immediate ancestors, but the souls of chiefs receive sacrifices and petitions for centuries after their death.

Despite a general and well-established belief in the continued existence of souls, there exists a ritual for destroying them. Instances of destroying the soul are found in connection with executions, warfare, and head-hunting. A draft of poison before execution, burning a corpse, or eating the body are methods of destroying a soul whose vindictiveness is feared.

Other general beliefs mentioned in Willoughby’s study of Bantu concepts of the soul are the presence of the spirit near the corpse for several days after death, the retributive conduct of neglected ancestors, and the preservation of social status in a world of spirits; a chief remains as such, while slaves continue their servitude.

The direct manner in which Negroes address ancestral spirits is shown by R. P. J. van Wing (1930, pp. 401–428). "In their magical formulae and in their prayers, one can discover, not so much individual and passing sentiments, as the soul of the whole people." There is a process of direct bargaining with the ancestors when supplication is made for curing the sick. "The ancestors are informed that they will receive the honours they claim on condition that they restore the health of the patient and the prosperity of the clan." The burden of most supplications is desire for fecundity, good crops, relief from sickness, and aid in combating witchcraft.

The observations of A. T. Bryant (1917, No. 95) indicate that according to Zulu philosophy man is composed of two parts, the body and the spirit or soul. In addition to these, the concept of a human being includes an entity whose name can be translated by the words heart, feelings, or mind. There is also something meaning intellect, memory, and understanding. A final part or aspect is the shadow or personality. The relationship of these things to each other and their fate at death does not seem clear in Zulu philosophy, though general beliefs and practices favor the hypothesis that all these aspects of a human being accompany the departing life.

"The Zulu religion makes no definite statement on the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The soul survives death, and is offered sacrifice practically continuously throughout an indefinite period of time; but how long it will continue to live, and whether or not it will endure for ever, is not defined." The spirit materializes into a snake of a non-poisonous kind which can be recognized by bright green color with black marks. The kind of snake and the size are clues to the status of the visiting ancestor. Old women prefer to take the form of small lizards.

"The only spirits that now really matter, that actually enter into the practical religion of the present-day Zulu, are the spirits of his father, his grandfather, and his other immediate ancestors. These he feels he knows, and they alone, he assumes, have any present interest in him." Any neglect of sacrifices will be visited with reprisals, such as infliction of barrenness on wives and sickness on children. The diviners act as intermediaries between the living and the dead by use of various techniques that Bryant describes in detail.

Ideas of the Zulu correspond closely with those recorded for the Bakongo and other Bantu tribes. "The Zulu sacrifices and prays to the spirits only when he wants something," and the bargaining process is shown in the address to the ancestors. The words, which are spoken as soon as the sacrificial ox has been speared, are: "Take ye and eat, that thereby this child of ours (who is sick and whom you are taking from us) may be restored to health and to us." If the matter is of national rather than family concern, the king sacrifices to the Greatest-great-ones, his own direct ancestors.

An eastern Bantu tribe, the Wanyamwezi, make the usual distinctions of rank among ancestral spirits. The most important ancestors are those of kings and medicine-men, and in view of the national importance of these spirits appeal is made to them by the king, on recommendation of the medicine-man mfumu, during times of drought and disease. Family ancestors are grouped in two categories, as with the Bathonga. Ancestors in the paternal line are ku buta, and in the maternal line, ku migongo. Sacrificial rites to ancestors are typically a family concern, and the presiding priests are a grandfather, a father, or the oldest son of the family. There are, however, special instances in which a mfumu officiates. The spiritual relationship of a family to the ancestors is that of supplicants who do homage and make gifts in return for concessions (F. Bösch, 1925, pp. 200–209; 1930, pp. 105–167).


Beliefs and practices relating to ancestor worship, and the functional aspects of religion are similar among Sudanic and Bantu Negroes. R. S. Rattray (1927a, pp. 153–156) emphasizes the practical importance of lesser gods and ancestral spirits in the daily life of the Ashanti, though S. Clarke (1930, pp. 431-470) thinks that the sociological significance of ancestor worship has not been sufficiently stressed by Rattray. Yet, despite Clarke’s criticism, the observations of Rattray are quite clear on many fundamental and practical aspects of Ashanti religion.

The Ashanti believe in a plurality of non-corporal elements, each of which has a distinguishing name. The kra is a spiritual part of a human being, and during the life of a person to which it is attached the kra leads a separate, shadowy existence. When a person is dying, his kra leaves him gradually, and the difficult breathing of the dying person is said to be due to the exertions of the kra in climbing a hill in the spirit world. The kra is thought to have been in existence before the birth of the person to whom it became attached; it is a spirit waiting for reincarnation. The Ashanti have other words to describe spiritual parts that do not perish with the body. Saman is a ghost; samanfomeans an ancestral spirit. A sasa is a spirit of either a human being or an animal which can disturb the living by casting a spell that only magic can avert. Hunters, butchers, and executioners are likely to be haunted by a sasa if precautions are not taken. A sunsum is the part of a person that wanders when he is asleep. The ntoro and its sociological functions have been explained. The obosum is the spirit of a ntoro totemic division.

In common with all Negroes, the Ashanti believe in the vindictiveness of ghosts, which may cause barrenness of women, sexual impotence of men, sickness, and misfortune. Widows mourn to satisfy the ghosts of dead husbands, and the belief prevails that a widow who has sexual intercourse within the year following the death of her husband will be barren or die. The new husband of a widow has to make a propitiatory offering to the ghost of the former husband. This is the fearful and negative side of respect for ancestors; the positive rites, both family and national, are of the usual type in which offerings are made and favors are asked.

The wandering of a soul, its objective nature, and the dependence of bodily welfare on the actions of a soul, are exemplified by L. W. G. Malcolm (1922, pp. 219–222). The Efik of southeast Nigeria call the bush soul ukpon, and if an animal that is holding the ukpon falls sick or dies the owner of that soul suffers. At Old Calabar, a man begged for the release of a trapped leopard on the ground that the animal held his bush soul. A man who wishes to injure an enemy pays a visit to a medicine-man to discover what animal holds the ukpon of his foe. Injury can be inflicted by trapping or killing this creature, but if the plot is discovered a trial by ordeal will result and the punishment will be severe, since this is antisocial magic.

The functional aspects of ancestor worship, and the intimacy of religious exercises with everyday life of the Dahomeans, indicate that the principles and practices of ancestor worship for these Sudanic Negroes are the same as those of the Bantu, but religion of Sudanic Negroes is elaborated in all its aspects. Family religion among many Bantu tribes is exemplified by the simple rites followed by the Ovimbundu. The chief cult object of the home is a wooden figurine whose hollow abdomen is filled with medicine by the ocimbanda. Then follows a consultation between the ocimbanda and the figurine, which is a temporary shrine for an ancestral spirit.

In Ashanti and Dahomey, the family arrangements are more elaborate. M. J. and F. S. Herskovits (1933, pp. 69–74) describe the walled compound of an extended family with its shrine to Legba and a small square house for worshiping individual ancestral spirits. Inside the house of the first wife is an altar to Minoa, the goddess of women, and another altar for Hweli, protector of the household. Herskovits describes the promises of a man to his Vodu, the non-fulfilment of the obligation, the divination to find what Vodu is incensed and why, also the placation of the Vodu. The differences between Bantu and Sudanic religious practices are chiefly of degree and not of kind.


Dr. C. G. Seligman states that among Nilotic Negroes, especially the Shilluk, the ancestral cult is overshadowed by that of Nyakang. Yet there exists more feeling for and fear of dead ancestors than a cursory investigation would suggest. Often there is difficulty in showing the observance of sacrifice to ancestors, apart from that which is associated with the cult of royal ancestors.

But the data given by C. G. Seligman (1931, pp. 1–20) prove conclusively that ancestor worship of the kind observed among Bantu and Sudanic Negroes is characteristic of some Nilotes. The Dinka believe that each human being has a soul or spirit, atiep (shadow), which at death remains about the house or becomes associated with the shrine, buor, which is prepared for it. The atiep may appear to the living in a dream to ask for food; then the dreamer in order to escape sickness or other reprisal from an offended spirit, mixes durra with fat and places this in a pot in a corner of the hut.

The word jok is reserved for powerful ancestors who died long ago; some of these jok are the spirits of founders of clans. The spirit of an animal ancestor is a powerful jok. The jok, like the atiep, are guardian spirits of house and clan; both are vindictive if annoyed or neglected. Men and women who can see the atiep and jok are called tiet. These gifted persons communicate with the ancestral spirits to discover what spirit has been offended, what has caused displeasure, and what sacrifice should be made in placation. A close connection exists between the cult of the dead and the totemic belief concerning reincarnation of an ancestor in some animal which becomes emblematic for the clan. This totemism is a special development of religious belief among the Nilotes; similar beliefs exist among some Bantu and Sudanic Negroes, but not usually with the same emphasis as among the Nilotes.

P. W. Hofmayr (1911, pp. 120–131) agrees that in general the ancestral cult of the Shilluk is restricted to worship of the spirits of higher chiefs and kings. But each house has its own ancestral spirits who are interested in the family. Graves of immediate family ancestors are reverenced, and the following procedure shows a close similarity between family rites of the Nilotes, and those practices which are characteristic of Bantu and Sudanic worship of immediate and lowly ancestors. For the Shilluk, states Hofmayr: "A father who intends to dispose of his daughter in marriage goes to the grave of a family ancestor and prays, ’Lord! here I bring my child; bless her! thou knowest whether her way will be straight or unlucky. I offer a little sheep whose blood will penetrate to thee through the earth and speak for me and my child.’"


In addition to the kingly office, the employment of medicine-men, and the use of shrines, prayer, and sacrifice as means of establishing contact with ancestors, cannibal rites are of local importance. E. Torday (1913, p. 83) has pointed out that the Banyanzi were not ashamed of cannibalism and expressed a preference for human flesh; but, generally speaking, cannibalism has a ritual aspect, which has previously been mentioned in relation to warfare and head-hunting.

J. Roscoe (1924, pp. 40, 140, 147) believes that cannibalism among the Bagesu and other northern Bantu is a ceremonial feast in honor of the dead. Only certain clan members eat the flesh, and only selected parts of the corpse are cooked. The evidence adduced when describing secret societies showed the ritual importance of cannibal rites, and it is a general truth that medicine-men regard portions of the human body as potent ingredients. Medicine-men disinter bones of the dead, and the remains of medicine-men are regarded as specially efficacious. This is distinctly a form of ceremonial cannibalism. The whole of the evidence for cannibalism in the plateau belt of central Nigeria emphasizes the ritual importance of the institution. The alleged reasons for cannibalism among the Angas appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, the soul of an enemy is destroyed by eating his flesh, but, on the contrary, the soul of a relative can be sent to the spirit world if he is killed and the flesh is eaten ceremonially. Cannibalism can function as a special form of sacrifice for maintaining connection with ancestral ghosts, for among the Angas, although flesh from the head of a relative is eaten, the skull is preserved in a pot which becomes a shrine or altar for family ancestor worship (Meek, 1925, vol. 2, pp. 48, 53–58).


Consideration of ancestor worship and of survival after death establishes uniformity of fundamental beliefs and procedures among all Negroes. The departed spirits of kings, chiefs, and important rain-makers are of tribal concern; they are venerated for long periods with elaboration of ceremonial at which a reigning king or chief acts as high priest to gain ancestral blessings. But likewise important, though generally restricted to the family or the clan, are the ancestral spirits of people of low social status. Between the spiritual and the profane worlds these spirits come and go at will. By sacrifice they are cajoled; they are human in their wants and jealousies; but by the use of correct ritual their aid in all matters of family concern can be solicited. That supplicants of these immediate ancestors are chiefly concerned with obtaining material benefits is beyond dispute; but what are the controlling relationships between deism, ancestor worship, and human conduct?


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Chicago: "Survival After Death, and Ancestor Worship," Source Book for African Anthropology in Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886- 557–565. Original Sources, accessed March 22, 2019,

MLA: . "Survival After Death, and Ancestor Worship." Source Book for African Anthropology, in Source Book for African Anthropology, edited by Hambly, Wilfrid D., 1886-, pp. 557–565. Original Sources. 22 Mar. 2019.

Harvard: , 'Survival After Death, and Ancestor Worship' in Source Book for African Anthropology. cited in , Source Book for African Anthropology, ed. , pp.557–565. Original Sources, retrieved 22 March 2019, from