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THE ROLE OF THE ANCESTORS IN HEALING
Steve Edwards, Nomahlubi Makunga, Jabulani Thwala and Buyi Mbele
University of Zululand, South Africa
This article explores beliefs and practices with regard to the role of the ancestors in
healing in relation to communal, human spirituality in general and Southern African Nguni
people in particular. Special focus is on the psychosocial dynamics of healing as revealed
through divine mediation and continuous communication with the ancestors.
Keywords: Ancestors, role, healing, Nguni culture.
The point of departure for this discussion is to establish common ground for
understanding the meaning of the key words in the topic. The term ‘ancestor’ is
generally defined as anyone from whom a person has descended. The concept
has many connotations and ancestors can be conceived in many different ways,
ranging from the total evolutionary heritage of contemporary humanity, through
direct linear relations in families, to social constructions with special psychologi-
cal and religious meaning. The particular focus of this article is on the role of the
ancestors for Southern African Nguni people for whom the term usually refers to
deceased, very elderly and/or living dead persons who continue to communicate
with their children. The purpose of the article is to explicate the psychosocial
dynamics of this conception, with special reference to the healing role of the
ancestors, which is their propensity to make individuals, families and society
whole through a process involving transformation from illness to health.
OUR COLLECTIVE ANCESTRAL HERITAGE
Converging lines of recent evidence from various disciplines such as genetics,
linguistics, paleontology and archeology all point consistently to Africa as the
cradle of civilization for all humanity, with homo sapiens evolving some one
hundred and fifty thousand years ago and gradually emigrating across the Sinai
Peninsula some fifty thousand years later. While many factors such as language
and creative intelligence would have played a role, it seems that contemporary
2 INDILINGA – AFRICAN JOURNAL OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS Vol 8 (1) 2009
humanity has survived primarily because of a remarkable facility to form and
maintain social relationships (Jobling, Hurles and Tyler-Smith, 2004; Myers,
The fundamental form of these transgenerational, human and social relation-
ships is poetically portrayed in the Zulu saying “umuntu umuntu ngabantu”. This
saying literally refers to the fact that a person becomes a person through other
people, including the mutually validating “only through you do I become an I” and
“I am because we are”. The saying has deeper implications of a shared sense of
self in both temporal and spatial dimensions that include the common ancestral
heritage of contemporary humanity.
In both these universal and local senses, ancestral reverence of historical per-
sons demonstrating outstanding divinity such as Buddha, Christ and Moham-
med, more contemporary persons such as Gandhi, Sister Theresa and Mandela,
as well as recently deceased parents and grand parents, are fundamental for
spirituality. Religious practice brings experiences of belonging and transcen-
dence. Its function is to organise and structure reality so as to optimise survival
and well-being (Loubser, 2005). Ancestral reverence perpetuates generational
relationships that provided protection, health and balancing of individual, family
and cultural dynamics.
Today, ancestral reality and reverence remains clearly present when breathing
through a Zulu diviner (isangoma) in a process called ukuphefumulela amadlozi
or ukububula kwedlozi. The first phrase literally means to be breathed by the
ancestors; the second has connotations of moaning or groaning as the energy of
the past lives of the ancestors is experienced in all their power, love and wisdom.
Depending upon the depth of the past evolutionary ancestral call, diviners may
breath like roaring lions (ukubhodla kwengonyama) or even pythons in their
silent communication (inhlwathi igingile).
Judith (2004) has defined soul as the individual expression of spirit and spirit as
the universal expression of soul. (Reid, 1998) has noted that all spiritual healing
traditions, African, Eastern and Western converge on two basic beliefs. Firstly
the energy, will and/or intention that created the universe and all its life is guided
by a set of primordial principles, often called wisdom or truth, that transcend all
cultural definitions. Secondly, the universal energy of creation is motivated and
accompanied by that compassionate empathy for life called love. Wisdom, love
and power refer to three inseparable virtues or forces of the universe requiring
balance and harmony. Power without wisdom is destructive, power without love
is cold, love without power is impotent, wisdom without power is useless. Zulu
people speak of uNkulunkulu, uthando and amandla
In Zulu culture, the intimate relationship between the living and the dead is
revealed through the importance attached to the concepts of umphefumulo
(soul), umoya (spirit) the shadow (isithunzi) and the ancestral shades’ brooding
(ukufukamela) over the lives of their descendents just as a hen broods over her
THE ROLE OF THE ANCESTORS IN HEALING 3
eggs. It is believed that unless appropriate rituals are performed and actions
taken, this brooding can lead to misfortune, illness, madness and vulnerability to
various ecological hazards such as lightning as well as sorcery and witchcraft. In
the case of calling to be healer, unless a specific ritual is performed to close off
the ancestral call (ukuvala idlozi), this brooding becomes accepted and used in
healing after the appropriate training by a qualified isangoma with regard to the
role of medium for the ancestral shades. In other cases, various rites are related
to brooding shades: appropriate sacrifice, washing in chyme rather than water,
abstention from new clothes and cosmetics, not cutting hair and/or one or more
nails, wearing the slaughtered animal’s inflated gall bladder in one’s hair and
other articles from the animals skin, for example, an amulet. In particular, there is
drinking or cleansing in gall after the sacrifice, as it is believed that the shades
are especially fond of gall liked for its sweetness (Berglund, 1976).
Ancestral ceremonies typically consist of community gatherings involving a
ceremonial sacrifice (umsebenzi) of some kind. Various different types of umse-
benzi include various sorts of rites and rituals, involving a particular animal; such
as a goat, sheep, cow or bull in a particular place; e.g. kraal, homestead, with
particular person leading the ceremony, e.g. healer, eldest son; accompanied by
particular medicines; at a particular time (birth, adolescence, marriage, death) or
place (e.g. cleansing for amabutho) for various reasons such as to contact,
appease, promote various ancestral spirits including nature spirits and Holy Spirit
(Edwards, 1985; Oosthuizen, Edwards, Wessels and Hexam, 1989; Sokhela,
Edwards and Makunga, 1984).
In Jung’s view human spirituality has both instinctual and transcendent roots and
functions (Hayman, 1999; Jung, 1961). Hammond-Tooke (1989) stresses the
cognitive meaning making and emotional security providing function of spiritual-
ity, religion and ancestral respect. He distinguishes between clan founder ances-
tors and recently deceased ancestors, to whom everyday communication is
addressed. The concept of spirit explains such states as sleep, trance, coma and
death and justifies beliefs as to why ancestors continue to take a lively interest in
the affairs of their descendents. The explanatory function of such beliefs there-
fore affirms an afterlife and provides post facto causes of illness.
Nguni people believe that extended family kinship ancestors play a role of
protecting the home, keeping harmony or when appropriate, causing misfortune
and even illness to remind the children of the error of their ways (Buhrman,
1989). They therefore need to be heeded and given appropriate respect and
care. Ancestral ceremonies bring a re-establishment of archetypal and psycho-
dynamic harmony between humans and spiritual forces, providing balance
between people in their individual, familial and/or collective unconscious and/or
consciences, and ancestral heritage in the forces of nature on land, trees, rivers
In Nguni culture, a person does not choose to become a diviner (isangoma) but
is chosen by her ancestors, who bestow upon her clairvoyant powers (Ngubane,
1977: 102). Ancestral calling usually takes the form of powerful ancestral dreams
4 INDILINGA – AFRICAN JOURNAL OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS Vol 8 (1) 2009
and some encounter with a snake (ixhanthi) in water (Mfusi and Edwards, 1985;
Edwards, 1999). Accepting the call (ukuvuma idlozi) implies death to the old way
of life as the neophyte (ithwasa) undergoes a period of apprenticeship under a
qualified diviner and becomes reborn (ukuthwasa). Various healing and
strengthening methods including repeated confessional dances (izingoma
yokuvumisa) and sexual abstinence (ukuzila) are necessary in order to achieve
the unpolluted sacred status of the diviner as medium with the ancestral studies
(Berglund, 1976; Ngubane, 1977).
Not all ukuthwasa sufferers become fully-fledged izangoma. Some are neither
healed nor their future vocations established as attested by many psychiatric
patients who attribute their illness to an incomplete calling. The completed
ukuthwasa process may be described as a crisis in living accompanied or fol-
lowed by a creative illness in which there is integration and resolution in the life
world of the diviner and her secular and religious community, who benefit in her
divinatory abilities as a result of the religious conversion experience. Such
religious conversion experiences occur in varying forms amongst all peoples
constituting a marvellous way of society caring for its afflicted (Edwards, 1987).
While izangoma may use various aids such as bones or a mirror, typically divina-
tion consists of the vumisa technique where the diviner, following appropriate
communication with the ancestral shades, tells the afflicted of the illness, honing
in on problem areas depending upon the degree of expressed agreement by
afflicted and relatives, before giving advice or treatment, which is typically of a
religious and ritual nature (Gumede, 1990; Ngubane, 1977, Sokhela et al.,
1985). Such healing dialogue forms the essence of all healing in both traditional
and modern medicine throughout the world. Through the vumisa technique it is
acknowledged as focal foundation by the isangoma.
Many traditional societies consider illness and disease to stem from spiritual
disharmonies. The belief in the ancestral spirits power to heal or afflict, has a
powerful placebo effect that the diviner utilises to heal. This is supported by the
often-made statement by diviners that “one must believe in the medicines and
the ancestors for them to work”. Generally speaking, research indicates that
cross-culturally, people find healing in religion and spirituality (Ivey, Andrea, Ivey
and Simek Morgan, 2002).
The spirits of deceased ancestors are frequently held responsible for sending
illness because the living err in some way. The spirits of deceased ancestors are
concerned with the lives of the living and either protect or discipline them.
Among Nguni peoples the notion of disease encompasses both physical illness
and misfortune. Anything that brings intrapsychic, interpersonal or social dishar-
mony, be it with the environment or others can be perceived as potentially
disease/illness causing. There are four major influences on the human condition,
a supreme being, who rarely intercedes in human affairs, ancestors, sorcery and
pollution (Edwards, 1985).
According to healers the ancestors are seen to do God’s work. The diviner will
explain how ancestors and God, as first ancestor, work together. During rituals
THE ROLE OF THE ANCESTORS IN HEALING 5
God is invoked to make all healing possible. God is believed to work through
ancestors (also called angels) in helping people. Recent research has indicated
that healers who beam healing energy into a computerised random events
generator are able to effect significant differences in random numbers distribu-
tions, which provides credibility to the notion that the effects stem primarily from
consciousness and that traditional Zulu healing incorporates some level of psi
functioning. Further research continues on the explanations, mechanisms and/or
dynamics responsible for this effect. Healers themselves believe that the healing
power works through both internal and external ancestral forces (Lumbsden-
Cooke, Edwards and Thwala, 2006; Lumbsden-Cooke, Thwala and Edwards,
Whatever the level and type of scientific explanation for divine mediation, re-
search supports the psychotherapeutic effectiveness of traditional Zulu healers.
Various authors have noted perennial components of psychotherapy shared by
both traditional healers and modern psychologists (Frank, 1972; Torrey, 1972;
Cheetham and Griffiths,1982). In a randomised controlled trial, Edwards (1986)
found that although traditional healers (an isangoma, inyanga and umthandazi)
and psychologists worked from different epistemological positions, they were in
significant agreement when rank ordering biological psychological, socio-cultural
and religious components of diagnosis and treatment in the same group of
psychiatric patients. Furthermore patients rated healers and psychologists as
equally helpful. Makhwanazi (1989) found significant psychotherapeutic facilita-
tive conditions of empathy, warmth and genuineness in izangoma.
From an African perspective, ancestors are regarded as custodians of our lives.
They occupy a position of dignity and awe among their descendants. From time
to time through certain ritualistic procedures that differ from group to group, they
are celebrated and consulted for guidance. As they are dead, ancestors are
believed to know more than anyone alive, to have extra-ordinary powers and to
be at any place at any time. They can bring good luck and bad luck equally if
they are pleased or angered respectively.
Healing by ancestors is achieved in a sense that they provide us with a sense of
rootedness; they anchor us, and they confirm our identity. If one conceives
human consciousnesss as nature’s ability to be aware of itself, i.e. the capacity
to know that we are living entities that will also die in future; one can understand
the need by human beings to understand their origins as well as their destina-
tions. Ancestors provide this. Taub-Bynum’s concept of the family unconscious
and Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’ explicate different levels of this connected-
ness to our ancestors (Taub- Bynum, 1984; Ivey et al., 2002).
The knowledge of having superior beings that are their custodians provides a
sense of security for humans. Doing all that needs to be done in order to secure
a place in our future destination is what gives us our identity, a sense of purpose
and a sense of belongingness. When a new person joins the family, she/he must
6 INDILINGA – AFRICAN JOURNAL OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS Vol 8 (1) 2009
be reported to the departed elders of the family (abaphansi); e.g. a new bride or
a newborn child. It is believed that illness and misfortune could result if the
expected procedures are not followed correctly.
Therefore if one looks at healing as an act of one making healthy we can argue
that nothing heals a person better than knowing who she/he is, (descendancy)
what she/he is about (purpose) and where she/he is going. One role of the
ancestors in healing is to provide their descendants with a sense of complete-
ness and guidance when there is uncertainty.
THE CONTINUOUS COMMUNICATION
We have a continuous relationship with our ancestors, marked by recognition of
our origins (roots experience). According to traditional Nguni culture, there is
always a relationship between the living and the “living dead” [abaphansi]. This
becomes apparent when considering the terms: “ukufihlwa”, “ukutshalwa” that
are used when referring to burying the dead. Ukufihlwa means burying an ordi-
nary citizen while ukutshalwa means burying a member of a royal family. Sym-
bolically, ukufihla and ukutshalwa relate to rebirth. The actual burial
service/process called “umsebenzi wokubuyisa” signifies the beginning of a new
life as an ancestor who will always be present in guiding the living. These con-
cepts provide definitive descriptions of the continuity of life in the Nguni context,
which can be equated to sowing a seed of corn in the soil and sustaining it with
water. In time of maturity this seed will produce much corn to feed the family as
well as the community.
According to traditional Nguni culture, the deceased must be given a good send-
off. Slaughtering of a beast plays an important role in the send-off process. Use
is made of a special type of a twig called “ihlahla” from a tree known as “umlah-
lankosi” which acts as a communication link between the living and the de-
ceased person. The job of carrying the twig and communicating with the
deceased person is assigned to a close family member, usually an elderly
person who is conversant with the family tradition. During the process of bringing
the deceased home from the site of an accident, the elderly person drags the
twig on a small cotton-like threat, while talking with the deceased person and
asking him or her to come home. While the Western world may reject this notion
and/or negatively label it as mental illness, in Nguni culture this is regarded as
respect for the completion of a process that links the living and the living dead.
This “umsebenzi” is done for the purposes of clearing the environment so that it
becomes accident free for other road users. It also signifies respect for the
deceased and the recognition of existence after death as an ancestor. It is
important to carry out the process of “removal” from the spot where death oc-
curred. In this way the spirit breath “umoya” comes out. If its removal does not
take place, it is believed that the deceased will wonder around that spot and
cause others to die (i.e. become a bad ancestor or ghost).
In Nguni tales, elderly people would tell stories about places where accidents
happen. This would be described as a place where the deceased were not
THE ROLE OF THE ANCESTORS IN HEALING 7
properly removed and brought home to rest and become good “spirits”. The
teachings around this area help in the process of instilling the love of culture and
the importance of the living dead (ancestors). Children find it fascinating to
spend time with elderly people in a learning process with regard to their own
origins. This is the beauty and richness of becoming part of Black African culture
where sons and daughters remain young as long as they have their parents.
Through urbanization, the traditional family structure was however disrupted with
men seeking jobs in cities and women left in rural areas. In instances where a
male dies whilst in the city, it is the family’s prerogative to bring him back home
using “ihlahla”. The person carrying ihlahla, on his way back home, whether
using public or private transport, is not allowed to talk to any one except with the
deceased. For this reason she/he needs to be accompanied by someone who
becomes her/his spokesperson in case a need arises for verbal communication
before they reach their destination. It is often said that if the person carrying
ihlahla speaks on her/his way back home, the deceased or a person who is no
longer verbally communicating with the living, or the sleeping (osethule or ose-
lele) fails to find the way home and she/he goes back to the spot where the spirit
came out. In Nguni culture this is another example of “abaphansi basifulathele”
meaning that the ancestors have turned away from us (Berglund, 1976).
IMBUZI YEZANDLA/ YEHLAMBO (INHLAMBULULO)
Nguni people perform a special ritual after a member of the family has passed
away. A special herb is used for cleansing and a goat is slaughtered. Although
some of the Nguni cultural groups use sheep, goats still remain an important part
of such a ritual. Inhlambuluko take place in thirty days after the burial of the
deceased. Only the immediate family members are expected to attend inhlambu-
luko. This has however been extended to church members who would become
part of the family and sing for the whole night as a sign of acknowledging the
transition of life form ordinary life to the life of “the living dead”.
THE ROLE OF DREAMS IN ANCESTRAL COMMUNICATION
Buhrmann (1978) mentions Old Testament dreams regarded as messages of
great importance for the individual or the community. She also mentions that the
best documented use of dreams for the purpose of healing illnesses, both physi-
cal and/or mental came from the Ancient World i.e. Africa, especially Egypt,
Greece, The Middle East and the Aryans of Ancient India. With specific refer-
ence to the South African context, dreams are regarded seriously as communi-
cation from the ancestors. Their significance is never in doubt. Once the dream
message has been made clear and indicates what is required of the individual,
the family or the clan, it must be acted on to prevent serious illness or misfor-
It is well established (Thwala, Pillay and Sargent, 2000; Mfusi and Edwards,
1985) that the living dead employ dreams as a vehicle to communicate informa-
tion, which informs both rural and urban way of life among African people, with
8 INDILINGA – AFRICAN JOURNAL OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS Vol 8 (1) 2009
regard to important issues such as warnings, giving guidance and appointing
someone for divinity. This process of becoming a diviner, “ukuthwasa”, which
has been discussed above, is extensively described further in the works of
Ngubane (1977) and O’Connell (1980).
In Nguni culture, people often report that they can physically sense that they
have been visited by abaphansi and warned against some misfortune. In such a
case, the dreamer will try to remember the content of a dream and go to a local
dream interpreter for further clarification for no charge. In the past, especially in
rural areas, grandparents performed dream interpretations.
Some examples of dream messages and meaning are as follows (Chinkwita,
1993; Shuter & Shooter, 1991):
• To dream of green fruits may mean prosperity.
• To dream of soft fruits may mean a birth in the family or a friend's family.
• To dream of much meat and houses may mean death in a family.
• Flying denotes success, in most cases.
• A large river or lake also signifies death.
• Dreaming of someone sick may mean long life.
• Climbing a tree may mean promotion at work.
• A wedding may indicate a funeral and loss of money
• Dreaming sometimes convey an opposite message. For example, to dream of
failing an examination may presage passing it.
Psychosocial dynamics with regard to the role of the ancestors in healing which
have pervaded most of the preceding discussion can now be more explicitly
PSYCHOSOCIAL DYNAMICS OF ANCESTRAL PRESENCES
The term ‘psychosocial dynamics’ refers to an umbrella concept explaining the
often hidden, unapparent, psychological, familial, social and cultural tensions,
forces, mechanisms, reasons and/or causes underlying otherworldly or spiritual-
istic phenomena, in the form of visions, dreams and hallucinations, that may
appear to persons concerned with ancestral visitations. Such phenomena can
become amplified under conditions of stress, death, and bereavement. Nocturnal
dreams lose their distortions and intensity in the light of day, and reality becomes
clear and sharp when we have eaten and slept well. Skilled helpers and personal
insight may be needed to interpret reality as phenomena, which may seem
confusing and threatening, become readily understandable.
From a psychodynamic perspective, ancestral visitations and their communica-
tions will be as threatening or reassuring as these personages had been in their
former physical existences and as perceived by the perceiver. For example,
verbal abuse, corporal punishment and familial rejection by powerful parents
and/or elders are clearly very threatening experiences for a vulnerable child.
Such experiences will remain rooted in the consciousness of the child, be ampli-
fied and corroborated by familial and sociocultural belief systems and, after the
THE ROLE OF THE ANCESTORS IN HEALING 9
death of such elders, may assume gigantic proportions and readily manifest as
“abaphansi basifulathele” (ancestors have turned away), requiring appropriate
appeasement rituals. On the other hand, if parents and grandparents have been
affirming, kind and loving, after their death, their continued recognition
(abaphansi banathi), kindness and love is more likely to be experienced by
future generations. In terms of reciprocal parent child relationships, bad behav-
iour is punished/rejected and good behaviour rewarded/praised. Such patterns
are recognised by various schools of thought in psychology. Children learn to
bring about rewards of parental recognition, love and praise through proper
behaviour. These are very good reasons for surviving generations to continue to
communicate and honour their ancestors, be well behaved and perform appro-
priate ceremonies to ensure continued health, protection and prosperity.
This article has examined beliefs in the importance of ancestors and the way the
living dead keep in touch with the living in a harmonious way, with special refer-
ence to the beliefs and practices of Southern African Nguni people. Particular
focus has been on psychosocial dynamics related to the healing role of the
ancestors, in beliefs regarding their propensity to make individuals, families and
society whole through a life and death process involving transformation from
illness to health.
As indicated above, ancestral reverence may be perceived as the foundation for
all religions. This point is most beautifully portrayed in the following Old Testa-
ment Apocrypha tribute to genius and leadership, written in traditional, patriar-
chal style, which should be interpreted as generically referring to all revered
ancestors, women and men.
Let us now praise famous men,
And our fathers that begat us,
The Lord hath wrought great glory by them,
Through his great power from the beginning.
Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms,
Men renowned for their power,
Giving counsel by their understanding,
And declaring prophecies . . .
Such as found out musical tunes,
And recited verses in writing
Rich men furnished with ability,
Living peaceably in their habitations,
All these were honoured in their generations,
And were the glory of their times
Their seed shall remain forever,
And their glory shall not be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in piece,
But their name liveth for evermore.
10 INDILINGA – AFRICAN JOURNAL OF INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE SYSTEMS Vol 8 (1) 2009
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