Ancestor Veneration, Worship, Reincarnation, and Idolatry

In the event of death or “passing on” (knock on wood (or paper proxy)), it seems reasonable that “spirits” would make every effort possible to help, and assist their loved ones left behind. Unfortunately experience has shown that this is less of an investment providing tangible economic results and more an exercise in developing individual spirituality. In collecting tribal african art one is sure to find the crossroads of ancestor based historical, and colonial religious values.  The main issues surrounding ancestor veneration stem from the fact that there are overlapping elements included in the concepts of “worship” and “idolatry”, and continued fallout based on historical characterizations, fueled by the unadulterated demonization (necromancy, zombies) of “other religions” by proponents of major religions.

Mahongwe Reliquary

Understanding Veneration

“I do not ask for their intervention … I ask and challenge myself that I can meet the standard or benchmark of their love and sacrifice, revealed to me in my own life.

I do not ask that they go before me in my journeys, yet I continue to learn from the lessons they taught me. Teachings I may never totally grasp, yet with different circumstances I continue to find similarities in strengths, and weaknesses. As time passes, we mature, and face similar challenges. I have the benefit of witnessing the fights and struggles of my ancestors, and believe I benefit from lessons they took to heart from earlier ancestors, who learned and shared from their elders. I believe in the knowledge that is unique to those raised in my family.

I may or may not build shrines to my ancestors, for I represent them physically, and to my loved ones I represent a portion of their spiritual essence as well.”

“African ancestral veneration is a religious piety that centres in honouring, loving and remembering the dead, while at the same time asking for their mediatory help. It is still widely and popularly practiced in modern African ethnic groups. In early Christianity, the same practice of religious piety was slowly developed and transformed into a new form that is called devotions to the angels and saints. In addition, African ancestral veneration is never a religion in itself but an aspect of a complex religious systems.”[1]

 

Ancestor veneration remains among many Africans, sometimes practiced alongside the later adopted religions of Christianity (as in Nigeria among the Igala) and Islam (among the different Mandé peoples and the Bamum) in much of the continent.[2]

Kota Reliquary

Idolatry

 

This seems like the easiest concept to refute since an idolater is defined as a “worshiper of idols”. The “burden of proof” in refuting the issue of worship however lies not in the base definition of worship, but rather in the typical understanding of what constitutes a reasonable act of worship. Worship by definition is “an expression of reverence”, or “extravagant respect or devotion”. Using this low standard would pretty much cover any acknowledgement of an intermediary figure to a supreme being. The representation of this intermediary would itself constitute an act of idolatry and by extension members of every “other religion” would be categorized as idolaters. It would seem therefore that the act of idolatry can be more clearly, simply reduced to the worship of a manmade image, carving, or representative structure, which is thought to possess Godlike attributes, and powers. In the Catholic church for example, statues representing saints serve many functional purposes, but the substance and roles of intermediaries are arguably similar to the roles of Orisha used in the Yoruba spiritual system. Few if any African Tribal religions therefore can be seriously considered based, or rooted in idolatry.

E1: Shango Dance Staff of a Standing Mother Carrying a Child. c. 1900.

African ancestral veneration is not idolatrous because of the following three major reasons.

 

1) African ancestral veneration does not consist of the worshiping of lifeless images or eidōlon or idols of emptiness. Instead, it primarily consists of venerating, honouring and loving human life – the spirits of the dead – that still survive after its corporal death and continue to live and engage an enduring communion with their living relatives. This belief is also very fundamental in the Christian faith (cf. the dogma of communion of Saints).

2) African ancestral veneration is not of worshipping demons hiding in images – statues, paintings or sculptures – as often claimed by the early fathers of the Church when talking about the danger of idolatry.  Instead, it is of veneration of the living spirits of the dead. They are not demons or evil spirits and are distinctly different from demons and evil spirits.  The carved images of ancestors – found in some traditional societies of Africa are not intended to be representational or abstract but conceptual and evocative. By means of stylized form and symbolic details, the ancestral carved image conveys the characteristics of the ancestors and  helps to make the spiritual reality of the ancestors present among the living. Thus, the carved ancestral icon enables the world of the living community and the world of the ancestors to come together for the benefit of human life.

3) African ancestral veneration is not of the worshipping of creatures in place of God, since the living souls of the dead are never viewed, approached or treated as God.[3]

 

Fang Tribe, Bieri sculpture

Aspects of Reincarnation

“it is in India and Greece that the doctrine of rebirth has been most elaborately developed. This belief is shared by all the other major religions of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gains, Sikhs and Sufis. [In ancient Greece, belief in rebirth formed part of the philosophical teachings of Pythagorean, Empodocles, Plato, and Plotinus. In modern times, religious teachers like Ramakrishna, Aurobindo or schools of thought, like Theosophy or various new "esoteric" "occultist" religious movements, like New Age or humanistic psychology: thinkers like C. G. Jung and Fritz Perls, hold onto belief in reincarnation.]”[4]

While several tribes believe in certain aspects of reincarnation there are various “flavors” and distinctions :

“According to the Chewa people in Kenya, for instance, ancestors after death reincarnate into their descendants’ offspring. It is generally believed that the Chewa ancestors come back to the living community on earth through the infant naming ceremony. Thus naming a child after a particular ancestor symbolizes the mystical union between the ancestor and the living community. According to the BaManianga people in Kongo, a living person consists of three elements: nitu – the physical, visible, mortal body;   kini – the invisible body,   a shade or reflection of nitu; and mwela – soul which has no form. A Manianga scholar, named Fukiau-kia-Bunseki, states that mwela separates itself from nitu and kini at death and looks for a chance to reincarnate into an about-to-born-baby. The BaManianga people (plural of Manianga), indeed, believe in reincarnation of mwela, yet some of them say that this reincarnation is true to the extent of physical resemblance.  Thus a son may look, smile, talk or walk like his father or grandfather without having his father’s mwela.  Since this kind of reincarnation has to do only with physical resemblance, it is traditionally believed that the spirit of a dead person may continue to reincarnate in several generations to come. Thus, the reincarnation of a mwela is not seen as an event that occurs just one time but is a continuing trend. In other words, it can be understood as the process of ceaseless duplication of the soul – mwela. The Akan people in Ghana also widely believe in the possibility of the reincarnation of the human soul. According to their traditional belief, all people, especially ancestors reincarnate themselves into the world – mostly into their own clan or descendants – in order to complete their purpose of being, called nkrabeaNkrabea, they say, is a reason and a purpose for every person to be born.  It is a duty and mission given by Nana Nyame – God – that must be accomplished in the mundane life of every person. Two of these missions are to live an ethical life and to produce offspring.  If the person fails to fulfil this mission, he/she must be reincarnated as many times as necessary in order to achieve what was mandated by Nana Nyame in the beginning.”[5]

The Science, Reality, and Panacea of Orisha

 The Yoruba African Spiritual system has gone viral. It presents a broad framework with fascinating social and inclusive indigenous appeal, embracing a holistic and intuitive approach which incorporates history, flexibility, science, portability, and functionality, simultaneously making allowance for individuality and originality. This system was one of the driving forces behind the development of African Tribal art in Nigeria. The framework is similar to the methodology used in Object Oriented Programming (OOP) which utilizes objects, classes, and procedures.

Shango Dance Staff of a Standing Mother Carrying a Child. c. 1900.

A simple example should illustrate.

Note the Specific individuality.

If Jesus Christ were to be incorporated as an Orisha (spiritual being or divinity), the narrative would probably read as follows; His primary paths would be those of peace, sacrifice, and love. The offerings given to a shrine dedicated to him would consist of bread, fish, and wine. His colors would be “white” say, and his emblems would be the cross, the palm/olive branch, or thorns.

Note the General Characteristics

He would lie in the second of five levels of the Yoruba pantheon, below the level of Oldumare, Creator and Supreme Being. The third level would be the “Egungun” which are the ancestral spirits of the people. The next two levels consist of humans, grouped by kings, queens, chiefs, priests and priestesses ,while devotees complete the bottom level.

“The Orisha are seen as emissaries of Oldumare from whom they emanated. These Orisha are ancestors whose great deeds earned them divinity. The Orisha are said to recognize each other and are themselves identified or associated with different numbers and colors. “These polarities which each Orisha exhibits are expressed as personalities called Roads or Paths of the Orisha.” This is done through offerings to Orisha of their particular favorite foods and other gifts. One can learn much about these different Orishas by watching the forces of nature at work about you. “

“For instance, you can learn much about Oshún and her children by watching the rivers and streams she rules over and observing that though she always heads toward her sister Yemayá (the Sea) she does so on her own circuitous route. Also observe how the babbling brook and the flash flood reflect her changeable moods.” [1]

These Orishas can be contacted during a “bembe” where one or more of their priests will be mounted in a form of highly spiritualized trance possession. This possession by an Orisha is an integral part of Yoruba religious ritual as it serves as a means of communicating with the forces of Oldumare (God).

Shango Dancing Staff

Portability

This is demonstrated as follows – “Yoruba spiritual beliefs were retained in several systems including Batuque, Candomble, Tambor De Mina and Umbanda in Brazil, Lucumi and Santeria in Cuba, Shango in Trinidad and Jamaica, Venezuela, Palo, Vodou or Voodoo in Haiti. Consequently, slaves did not completely disconnect with their culture, nor blindly convert as the Christian Churches describe as “good sheep.” “Autonomous organizational structures, the framework of forced and eventual free migration, mutual contact and exchange stimulated the development of Orisha religions in the New World.” [2]

Wole Soyinka

Wole Soyinka (the first African awarded the Nobel Prize (’86) for Literature) , explained the Yoruba worldview as centered in compromise and stated that the greatest Yoruba virtue is tolerance. He claims that the survival of Yoruba religion in Cuba and Brazil is because of the powerful sense of tolerance and compromise.

“The deities have compromised with present times and modern technologies,” he said, citing, “the practice of placing god representations and saints on the single same altar in Brazil.”

” The gods are exemplars of human striving,” said Soyinka, “paradigms of existence and phenomenon… Yoruba gods are not perfect or infallible, “infallibility is seen as mystification.” [3]

[1] http://www.orishanet.org/ocha.html

[2] http://www.rootsandrooted.org/?p=1123

[3] http://www.loyno.edu/newsandcalendars/loyolatoday/2003/12/soyinka.html

E1 : http://ocw.nd.edu/anthropology

E2 : www.ohio.edu/africanart/gallerypageq.html

E3 : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wole_Soyinka

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