In research for my latest book Healing Ancestral Karma, I was fascinated by the vast number of cultures, both indigenous and contemporary, that incorporated ancestral veneration in their beliefs and practices. Unfortunately, in our western civilization we have largely ignored an active and daily connection with the ancestors, which appears to be gradually changing as we learn how they can help us during this dramatic shift that is occurring on the planet and in human consciousness.

In the following excerpt I describe the commonalities amongst cultures that incorporate ancestors as an important part of their spiritual beliefs and practices, along with a description of how this is enacted in African traditions.

(excerpt from Healing Ancestral Karma by Dr. Steven Farmer, reprinted with permission of the author)

There’s a wide variety in the way various cultures treat their ancestors. From simple reverence to more complex systems of beliefs and practices, from indigenous communities to more contemporary cultures and communities, every culture has its own unique characteristics related to the honoring of those who have come before. There are, however, some commonalities that are universal:
·      There exists another realm where ancestors and other spirit beings dwell.
·      Ancestors remain active participants in the lives of their descendants.
·      Ancestors help keep family traditions alive.
·      Ancestors protect the family.
·      It’s important to make periodic offerings to honor the ancestors and to receive their benevolent gifts.
·      Ancestors can serve as intermediaries between humans and a supreme being.
·      If ignored, ancestors may create problems.
·      Ancestors gain greater spiritual perspective and insight in the afterlife.
·      Ancestors carry with them into the afterlife some of their idiosyncrasies, unhealed wounds, and character traits.
·      Ancestors can help you heal, and you can help them heal.

Following are just a few examples of various traditions around the world where ancestors are acknowledged for their influence upon the living. While not exhaustive, it gives you some idea of the scope and variety of ancestor veneration.

African Traditions

Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalized ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many . . . can be recalled by name. But they are not the living-dead. There is a difference.  ―James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me

As is true of other cultures, African veneration of ancestors is aimed to assure not only their well-being in the afterlife but also to seek their blessings and their assistance. Another function of ancestral veneration is social and familial in that it helps bind the family together and assures the continuity of the family lineage. With populations that inhabit a specific territory and share a communal heritage, these practices help maintain solidarity within the community. Ancestors are honored through prayers, offerings, and sacrifices.

There are long-standing traditions in most African countries, and often ancestor reverence is integrated with Christianity, with the exception of North Africa, where Islam predominates. There is still the acknowledgment and worship of God (the one God in many forms), but there is not a personal relationship with this higher being. God is the Creator of All, but He is too distant to hear the prayers of mere mortals. Instead, prayers are typically mediated through the ancestors.
The living have an interactive relationship with their ancestors—they can influence one another. The flow of energy goes both ways, and there is a continuity of connection between the living and the dead. After a year has passed, Zulus, a South African people living mainly in the KwaZulu-Natal province, will welcome the deceased back into the home by performing a ritual. A section of the hut is set aside for the ancestor, and a large branch is brought in, which becomes the ancestor’s place to sit—wherever the beer is kept!

The ancestors are seen as capable of meting out punishment as well as support, guidance, and encouragement, so the actions of the living are done to appeal to the ancestor’s benevolence and guidance—and to avoid punishment. The ancestors are considered to be the caretakers of the family’s and community’s customs, laws, and moral codes. They watch over the living to assure that these are kept in alignment with tradition. If something is out of alignment, the ancestors can create difficulties and illness.

Gretchen Crilly McKay was initiated as a traditional African healer called a sangoma, or African shaman. In a personal interview she shared the following:  “When you were having a problem you would go see the local sangoma and he would contact the ancestors and determine the source of the problem by throwing the bones [an ancient tool for divination]. I recall where a friend’s son was taken ill and they took him to see the sangoma. He threw the bones and determined from the ancestors that gathered in the ritual that the boy had the wrong name!”  Gretchen continued, “So the sangoma in the communication with the ancestors was told the boy needed a name that meant ‘Chief.’ The boy was then given that name and immediately the illness lifted.”

The healing can work both ways, from the living to the dead. If an ancestor left a mess when he died, he also carried some of that into the afterlife. By working with rituals and propitiations, the living can help him do the necessary healing that will allow him to further evolve on his spiritual journey in the afterlife. That way the entire family and community can benefit, particularly the descendants.

Although ancestors are always closely involved with their living relatives and watching out for their welfare, they are not connected in the same way with everyone in their group. Tradition dictates that the elders’ position of authority allows them a more direct and intimate relationship with the ancestors. The elders’ role is to not only represent the ancestors but also serve as mediators between the ancestors and the family.

Dr. Steven Farmer

Dr. Steven Farmer

About The Author:  Dr. Steven Farmer is the author of many best-selling titles, including Healing Ancestral Karma:  Free Yourself from Unhealthy Family Patterns, Children’s Spirit Animal Cards, Children’s Spirit Animal Stories Vol I and Children’s Spirit Animal Stories Vol II, Earth Magic, Animal Spirit Guides, Power Animals, Earth Magic Oracle Cards, Power Animal Oracle Cards, Messages from Your Animal Spirit Guides Oracle Cards, and Sacred Ceremony. He is a shamanic practitioner, ordained minister, hypnotherapist, former college professor and retired psychotherapist.  Steven offers workshops and presentations on a variety of shamanic healing and earth-centered spirituality topics and also offers private shamanic healing and divination sessions.  To learn more about his workshops or to contact him, please visit