Ancestral Initiation

By Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Mossi artist, Burkina Faso, masks at funeral. Photo by Christopher D. Roy.


Initiation is a lifelong process with a last stage at death, through what Burkinabé ethnographer Evariste Poda (1991) calls “ancestralization.” Western concepts of eternity based upon linear time and punctual death may not be shared by Africans, except through Christianity and Islam. “Eternity” is not necessarily a “forever” enjoyed or suffered in strict seclusion from the living. Rather, communities include ancestral beings who guide and protect their living loved ones. Here a woman of a Mossi family dances at a funeral to honor the deceased and while masked performers assure his entrance into the world of the ancestors. The masks have been brought from distant villages to honor the man’s spirit so that it may be “initiated” into the world of the dead, whence it can return to inform living loved ones through dreams and visions, often with the assistance of divination.