Ancestors in Xhosa Tradition

The Ancestor Cult

The effective spirits, or shades, are typically the deceased senior males of the agnatic group. The Xhosa refer to the ancestors as iminyanya, whereas the Mpondo call them the amathongo.

©Dr Peter Magubane
A burial spot near a Xhosa homestead.

Notably men of weight and influence during their lives, the shades were leaders of followings - the clan founders, clan leaders and chiefs of the distant past - occupying nodal positions in the kinship structure and with many descendants. The ancestor cult is essentially the cult of the domestic unit, the extended family.

As the living link between the members of the homestead and the ancestors of the agnatic group, the male household head officiates on ritual occasions, in person or by proxy.

The deceased household head is incorporated by his sons as an ancestor of the homestead, a process that normally involves two sacrifices. In the first 'umkhapo', a white goat without blemish is slaughtered to accompany 'ukukhapa' the spirit of the deceased to the shades.

In the second 'umbuyiso', an ox is slaughtered to bring back 'ukubuyisa' the spirit of the deceased as an ancestor to brood over the eaves and threshold of the homestead. Although historically chiefs were sometimes buried on a riverbank or in the forest, household heads were buried in the cattle byre near the gatepost.

Becoming an Ancestral Spirit

©Dr Peter Magubane
A Xhosa woman can become an ancestral spirit to various members of her family.

All old people who die, women no less than men, become ancestral spirits and can influence the lives of their descendants, communicating with them through dreams and omens. A woman can be an ancestral spirit to her children, her son's children and her brother's children.

Although the ancestors of the agnatic group into which she was born to continue to influence a woman after marriage, a married woman is nevertheless thought to be influenced by the ancestors of her husband as well.

This is articulated symbolically in the traditional wedding ceremony 'umdudo', when the bride thrusts a spear, belonging to the groom's father, into the gatepost of his cattle byre 'ukuhlalsa umkhonto'. When a woman is ill or called to become a healer, the head of the homestead where she was born, or his proxy, is obliged to perform the required sacrifice's' on her behalf.

Traditional Rituals

©Dr Peter Magubane
A traditional ritual being performed during a Xhosa couple's wedding.

Quite apart from illness and misfortune, traditional rituals 'amasiko' are performed at virtually every stage of the life-cycle, from birth through puberty, marriage and menopause to death. The Cape Nguni utilize a whole repertoire of metaphors in reference to the spirits and the spiritual world.

Probably one of the oldest of these metaphors used for the ancestors is wind 'umoya', a term which was adopted by the missionaries for the Holy Spirit and has been used in Xhosa translations of the Bible ever since. Traditional rituals are still widely performed today, although in considerably altered and attenuated form, both in the rural areas and in the suburbs of South African towns and cities.