Ancestor Shrines

By Eileen Moyer
University of Amsterdam (formerly University of Iowa)

Gabon; Tsogo (Mitsogo) peoples

Reliquary guardian figure

Wood, metal

H. 33 cm (13")

University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art, The Stanley Collection, X1986.581

Among Mistogo peoples of Gabon, the skulls and longbones of revered ancestors are kept as reliquaries on shrines that commemorate the lineage. Human bones are kept in baskets or woven bags, which also contain animal bones, shells, coins, jewelry, brass rings, and other personal effects of the deceased, and are guarded by sculpted wooden figures such as this (Perrois 1979: 227). When a lineage moves to a new area it is often only the bones of the ancestors that are brought along. The figure that protects the bones may be easily replaced, but the ritual value of the relics is too great to leave behind.  In many parts of the world, land ownership is signified by the burial of one’s ancestors in it. The practice of moving lineage ancestors into a new settlement may act as a declaration of ownership. Among Cameroonian peoples to the north of Gabon, skulls of the lineage ancestors also accompany the migrations of families. Wherever the bones of one's ancestors can be found is, in effect, transformed in to sacred ground.