Chapter 4: African Ancestral Tradition
Ancestral spiritual traditions are practiced in nearly all African tribal cultures. The ancestors of the tribe are honored as spirits who preserve the moral standards of tribal life. They are also regarded as the intermediaries between the living and the divine powers.
This is quite different from the better known Chinese ancestor worship. The early Christian missionaries called the African practices “Ancestor Worship”. In fact, the Africans do not worship their ancestors in the same way as the Chinese . Please see the footnote below if you are interested in Chinese ancestor worship.
African ancestral traditions have a much more interactive relationship with dead ancestors. Bert Hellinger has outlined some Zulu ancestral practices:
“The way the Zulus do it is to bury the dead, and then after a year has passed, the deceased are welcomed back to the house through a ritual. The family members take a branch and imagine that the dead ancestor is sitting on the branch, which is dragged into the house. A certain section of the hut is reserved for ancestors and that's where the deceased have their place. Their place is always where the beer is. When someone drinks a beer, he or she gives the ancestors a few drops.”
from “Acknowledging What Is” by Bert Hellinger and Gabriele ten Hövel, p58
In the African practices the relationship between a person and their ancestors is seen as a symbiotic relationship that goes both ways and influences in both directions. African tribal people work collaboratively with their ancestors for healing and strength.
According to Heidi Holland (2001), African traditional beliefs rest on three main themes:
• Sacred images such as gods and ancestors which regulate the traditional universe.
• Rituals and ceremonies by which these sacred images communicate moral patterns into living culture.
• The earthly representatives of gods and ancestors – traditional healers, diviners, prophets, priests and sacred kings – who are servants of the community with the roles of mediating the sacred to the people through rituals and divination.
Africa's sacred images are mainly ancestor spirits. God is the creator, the spirit force responsible for all life on earth, including the ancestors, but he is too remote to hear the prayers of ordinary mortals. Dead ancestors, being spirits, communicate with God, mediating between him and humanity. This resonates with Bert's idea that many people try to bypass there parents by becoming spiritual:
“A common motivation for the search for God is that the searcher doesn't have a father and is looking for him. If the father is found, the search for God isn't so important anymore – or is different.”
from Love's hidden Symmetry by Hellinger, Weber & Beaumont p122
According to Holland (2003), traditional healers or diviners – the prophets, physicians, psychologists and exorcists of African culture – are people chosen by the ancestors to interpret God's will on earth.
In West Africa, there is yearly dancing ritual where distinguished ancestral spirits "alight" on the heads of men to spiritually possess them. Each clan has a mythical pair of founders, whose son, as the oldest of ancestors, stands as the absolute ruler of all ancestral spirits. The actual clan head (the oldest man) derives his absolutism from his association with the ancestral spirits, whose power he can invoke to enforce his decrees.
When Bert Hellinger began systemic constellation work, he stated that he had been influenced by his 20 years working with the Zulu in South Africa. He has only given brief but tantalizing clues as to how this affected his ideas. Nonetheless the roots of these ideas are distinctive and notable in the African tribal ancestral traditions. They appear among some of the novel theoretical contributions Hellinger made, adding significantly to our systemic understanding.
The use of ritual in family constellations would have been influenced by all the years Bert Hellinger worked as a Catholic priest. It is likely that the African influence would also have been important as Hellinger experimented with integrating Zulu music and rituals into the Catholic mass during his ten years working with the Zulus in South Africa (Hellinger, Love's Hidden Symmetry p328)
Hellinger acknowledges that he learned the fundamental need for humans to align themselves with the forces of nature from the Zulu (Love's Hidden Symmetry p328). This is reflected in the way family constellations cause healing in families by realigning the family systems to the natural orders of love. Interestingly a fundamental part of this process is acknowledging the previously excluded which is also a significant part of the African ancestral traditions.
An indigenous South African constellation practitioner, Lindiwe Mthembu Salter (2008), states:
“The belief in ancestors is rooted in the need or desire to preserve the memory of known past generations and known or unknown lineages. The emphasis of acknowledging the excluded is the foundation of the cure for various ailments, like bodily discomfort, spiritual discord or common need to wade off misfortune or a curse that will be seen to be projected by malevolent spirits. The good spirits are acknowledged and given gratitude through ceremonies or cleansing rituals. For example, a person will consult a traditional healer who will facilitate the session of finding a solution or a root cause of the trouble. This is often done through throwing the bones in order to constellate the wider family picture”.
See footnote on throwing the bones
Other examples of Hellinger's ideas which resonate with African Ancestral traditions are:
• The recognition that biological fathers are important in the family system even if not involved in any other way with their children. Although this could be deduced from Boszormenyi-Nagy's principles of contextual therapy, it was never before explicitly stated.
• The idea of ancestors going back many generations being felt as a resource and a source of strength. This includes the acknowledgement that our ancestors and family are deeply connected to both well-being and disease.
• Understanding that the individual is an integral part of his family and ancestral lineage. This idea is reflected in many cultures including the New Zealand Maori who talk about their ancestral lineage as the “ whakapapa ”
• Alignment in terms of order in the family – who comes first, generational lineage and continuity of the family tree including taking to account one who could still be causing problems until recognized.
• The importance of the effect of the excluded part or issues in a family and person's life, whether conscious or unconscious.
• Healing using symbolism and ritual and connecting with the deceased.
• Honouring of elders and the rightful place of the dead.
For more information on African ancestor worship go to
Amatongo or ancestor worship
Ancestors in Africa: Selected readings and Mambila case material prepared by David Zeitlyn as part of the Experience Rich Anthropology Project
Footnote on Chinese Ancestor Worship
Ancestral worship in China is a fusion of the teachings of Confucius and Taoism rather than a religious ritual. T he main importance of this worship is the continuity of the family , r everence for the wisdom of the elders , and honouring ancestors through the achievements of the current generation (e.g. being an astronaut is considered a special honour to the whole family) .
The practice is very ancient extending back before 1000 BC. The practices are essentially a family affair , and sometimes a village affair where most of villagers are under same family name . They are held in homes and temples (village) and consist of prayers and offerings before tablets.
The practitioners participate in the worship out of filial virtue , sometimes with banquets after ceremony, without any sense of fear of loss or hope for gain which helps to preserve a strong sense of family solidarity.
The rituals of Chinese ancestor worship occur around special annual events such as the spring festival which is a big family gathering like Western Christmas and the spring and autumn remembrances where rituals are performed at the ancestors gravesides. Also special events such as births, marriages, special achievements of the younger generation and deaths are all marked by rituals within this tradition.
Footnote on Throwing of the Bones
Traditional African healers use throwing of bones as a method of divination for the messages of the ancestors. The bones consist of symbolic elements for various family members as well as symbolic elements relating to a person's life: money, love, power, body organs, life force etc. Once the bones are cast, the healer considers the arrangements carefully, including how the bones are facing, the distance between the bones, configurations or patterns. The bones will fall to show the presence of spirits around the sick person, resentful ancestral spirits, offended nature or malevolent spirits. This gives the healer the picture of how the cause of the illness came about and what is needed as a remedy. Therapies can include animal sacrifices, rituals, massage, herbal teas, salves, snuffs, poultices, roots and herbs. African diviners play the role of spiritual leaders of ancient times and are diagnosers of both illness and mental problems (Meyburgh and Mthembu-Salter, 2008).
Hellinger B. Weber G. Beaumont H. (1998) Love's Hidden Symmetry; What Makes Love Work in Relationships ISBN 978-1-891944-00-0
Bert Hellinger, Gabriele ten Hovel, and Colleen Beaumont (1999) Acknowledging What Is: Conversations With Bert Hellinger ISBN 1-891944-32-0
Heidi Holland (2001). African Magic: traditional ideas that heal the continent. Penguin Books
Tanja Meyburgh and Lindiwe Mthembu-Salter (2008) A Zulu woman's experience of Family Constellations: An interview between www.tanjameyburgh.co.za