Yoruba Theology and Tradition - Ancestor Reverence
african man kneel

What is an ancestor or who can be considered an ancestor?  Depending on the culture, the definition of ancestor has many meanings.  In some cultures you cannot be considered an ancestor unless you have lived a good standing, morally correct life.  In other cultures, women are not considered ancestors at all.

However, and generally speaking for most, “ancestor veneration” or “ancestor worship” (meaning to maintain an ongoing relationship with those who have departed) is not only a tradition shared amongst our Afrikan ancestors, but the concept has existed through almost every known culture including various parts of Afrika, the Pacific, South American, Indonesia, certain parts of India and Indochina, even among those who have converted to Islam or Christianity.

Even Jewish people have been known to light candles and say special prayers honoring their family member’s anniversary of death.  And in celebration of All Soul’s Day, many honor the dead by putting gifts, flowers and food on the graves of their family members for it is believed that once death occurs, the physical body is left to decay and the soul transits into the realm of spirit where such spirit continues to live as an ancestor or a spirit guide.

In many instances, the living will leave money, cloths, animals, and messages at grave sites of their deceased relatives in hopes that the deceased might use these things on their journey.  In addition, many cultures will honor the dead with festivals, drumming, singing, dancing, and drinking for it is believed that to honor our ancestors is to honor our lineage and our roots and is the first step to reclaiming our spiritual heritage.  Therefore, the ancestors are consulted for guidance, prayed to, venerated with rituals and are given offerings for their continued influence on the living by helping them to resolve their day-to-day problems.

Because so many cultures, primarily outside of the United States, believe that the invisible world plays such an enormous part in every day life, it is custom and is extremely important to pay a great deal of attention to the dead and the ancestral family.  I think we all can agree that death is a universal fact and is the inevitable end of all human life.  However, in many cultures, life does not just end there.  The soul continues on, just, in another form (spirit) and in another world.

It is also believed by many that the dead are reborn into family members so that they can finish whatever business they were not able to finish while on earth and for these reasons a great deal of concern, care, time, and money is spent on proper burial rites.  From the preparation of the body all the way through to the prayers, ceremonies, and sacrifices given to help ensure that the deceased is satisfied and appeased for an easy transition from the land of the living to the land of the dead.  For it is believed that if proper funeral rites are not performed for the deceased, the spirit of the dead person will become a ghost to roam the world without peace, lost and confused with the abilities to harm and haunt people and relatives until it gains attention and proper acknowledgment of the proper burial rights, prayers, offerings, or ceremonies that will bring contentment to its soul.

Traditionally in Afrika, “ancestors” were called “egungun” and were viewed as departed family members: parents, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  Egungun is a society of people who believed in the continued existence of the ancestors in the life of the living.  They believed that there is a the link between the dead and the living and that the egungun represented ancestral spirits that would return from heaven to visit and periodically commune with the living during a 7-day festival where honor is given and sacrifices are offered at shrines specifically set for the ancestor spirits.

How important is ancestor reverence?  Lets see, try to put yourself in the shoes of your ancestors.  If you were an ancestor and your family members and friends were to just forget about you, how would you feel? If you were alone, lost, and confused in the spirit realm and there was no one person praying for you or giving you light so that you could find your way, what would you do?  If you wanted to save someone or help them to better their life and they just ignored your messages, would you give up?  If you wanted forgiveness or just wanted to know that you were still loved, and there was no one to show you some attention and your efforts were ignored, wouldn’t you feel alone and abandoned?  And God forbid, but, if you were ill and approaching death or you died suddenly, how important would it be to you that someone, even if one person, were to remember you?

Article Source:
By: Oba Ilari Aladokun

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