Ancestor Worship?

It made me smile when Ben Byerly wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog entry about ancestor worship in England. I thought it was great to help us see our own culture from a different perspective. I liked it even better when he gave one of his African colleagues the opportunity to talk about his research into ancestor worship:

Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective (Part 1)

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors?

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

As you can see in the comments, this is not news to the anthropological world. But the rest of the world, especially the Christian world might not be aware that what had been labeled “ancestor worship” for a long time is not necessarily worship. We so easily judge other cultures using the wrong grid (looking through the lenses of our own culture) and at the same time justifying things that are very similar in our own culture.