Ancestral Initiation

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

A chief’s altar commemorating his paternal ancestors. Benin City, Nigeria, October, 1981, Photo by Barbara W. Blackmun.

Ancestors inhabit most African communities and households. In other words, they are not separated from surviving loved ones in a far-removed heaven (or hell!). Shrines and altars are thresholds between the living and the dead, to be traversed in either direction. Indeed, Yoruba sometimes refer to an altar as “the face of the gods” or “the place where the world comes to a point” (Thompson 1993), thus facilitating exchanges between this world and the other. Ancestor figures and shrine paraphernalia place the past in the present, as spirits participate in life’s continuities and vicissitudes. Often, an altar is maintained by senior persons in an extended family, lineage or clan, on behalf of all members. In politically centralized societies, a chief or king frequently uses such a shrine to communicate with ancestors to gain assistance for his (or occasionally her) subjects. Such an altar further sanctions and legitimizes the chief's authority. In today’s cosmopolitan world, African government officials sometimes maintain personal shrines of the sort even as they may be fervent Christians or Muslims.