Mediation and Ancestry Worship

Following are notes from our weekly staff meeting on the subject of mediation and ancestry worship in the Zulu culture by Bheki Zulu. We hope this information benefits you and gives you a greater understanding of the subject.

What is it?

The custom of venerating deceased ancestors who are considered still a part of the family and whose spirits are believed to have the power to intervene in the affairs of the living.

Beatification (from Latin beatus, “blessed” and facere, “to make”) is a recognition accorded by the Catholic Church of a dead person’s entrance into Heaven and capacity to intercede on behalf of individuals who pray in his or her name.

Ancestor Worship

In the Zulu culture, it is believed that ancestors (known as amadlozi, abaphansi, abangasekho, izinyanya) are intermediaries between the living world and ethereal plane, living in the spirit world of uMvelingqangi (the Self Existent One). It is the belief that ancestors are the middle people between them and God, and that they work hand in hand with God. When a person dies, it is believed that they are going to their family members who had also died, and that they will be together watching over those who are still alive. Zulu people believe that their deceased loved ones are their ancestors who are highly respected. They respect ancestors and believe that ancestors should be obeyed for things to go well in everyday life, as they are closer to God.

In the tradition of ancestry worship, offerings and sacrifices are made to the amadlozi in order to secure a good life, sangomas serve as a designated diviner through which ancestral spirits can speak to believers. Traditional healers are believed to help people know what their ancestors want from them, like if there is a certain ritual required, they may come through a dream. The older people can interpret dreams, and are able to say what they mean.

Sangomas claim to have a gift of interpreting other people’s dreams, as well as dreams that predict the future.

Ancestor worship involves religious beliefs and practices consisting of prayers and offerings to the spirits of dead relatives. Ancestor worship is found in many cultures all across the world. Prayers and offerings are made because it’s believed the spirits of ancestors live on in the natural world and are thus able to influence the futures and fortunes of the living relatives. That’s why ancestors’ spirits are thought to act as mediators between the living and the Creator.

Ancestors are also believed to influence the lives of later generations by blessing or cursing them, in essence acting as gods. So speaking to them, presenting them with gifts like utshwala besizulu, a traditional Zulu sorghum beer (The recipe: a combination of maize, maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water) utshwala besizulu is used during the practice of contacting ancestors in the Zulu culture (known as amadlozi) that is usually drunk from a zulu calabash, and making sacrifices are done to appease them and gain their favour.

Unveiling of Tombstones

Zulu people visit gravesites mostly when they are going to have rituals, but they do sometimes visit them without a special occasion. When the unveiling of the tombstone is going to be done, it is seen as necessary to visit the gravesite. When Zulu people unveil the tombstone, they do the unveiling together with the tradition known as bringing the deceased back home. This tradition is usually done a year or 2 after the deceased has died. When this tradition is going to be done, the family members first go to gravesite and speak to the deceased, tell them what they are about to do and they may also talk about their troubles. The day before the unveiling, the family slaughters a cow, burn incense and speak to the ancestors.

Burning of incense

The burning of incense is used to communicate with ancestors, sometimes if one has a headache, they may burn incense or sometimes if one is getting nightmares to chase away evil spirits but it is usually used for ancestors. Sometimes incense may be burnt as a form of remembering the dead and is usually accompanied with Zulu beer. A ritual is not complete without Zulu beer and incense is essential when doing a ritual particularly for ancestors.

What does the Bible say about ancestor worship?

First, the Bible tells us that the spirits of the dead go to either heaven or hell and do not remain in the natural world (Luke 16:20-31; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Hebrews 9:27; Revelation 20:11-15). The belief that spirits continue to reside on earth after death and influence the lives of others is not scriptural.

Second, nowhere in the Bible are we told that the dead act as intermediaries between God and man. But we are told that Jesus Christ was given that role. He was born, lived a sinless life, was crucified for our sins, buried in a grave, resurrected by God, seen by a multitude of witnesses, ascended into heaven, and sits now at the right hand of the Father where He intercedes on the behalf of those who have placed their faith and trust in Him (Acts 26:23; Romans 1:2-5; Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:3-4). There is only one Mediator between God and man, and that is God’s Son, Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 2:5-6; Hebrews 8:6, 9:15, 12:24). Only Christ can fill that role.

The Bible tells us in Exodus 20:3-6 that we are not to worship any god other than the Lord God. Furthermore, since diviners and sorcerers were thought to be able to contact the dead, they were also expressly forbidden by God (Exodus 22:18; Leviticus 19:28, 32, 20:6, 27; Deuteronomy 18:10-11; Deuteronomy 32:17; 1 Samuel 28:3; Jeremiah 27:9-10; Jeremiah 29:8-9; Revelation 21:8).

There is no contact between the dead and the living

For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 ESV

David knew that fasting for the dead would not bring them back

“He said, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” – 2 Samuel 12:22-23 

Simon the sorcerer

“Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have said may happen to me.” – Acts 8:9-25

God warns us about the snare of the Devil

Be careful of the false prophets and teachers.

“And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. 21 They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward.22 And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.” – Isaiah 8:19-22

“Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor, and ate sacrifices offered to the dead.” – Psalm  106:28

Zulu people worship ancestors out of fear

Children of God are given power over fear of failure, condemnation and death

“Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you” -Luke 10:19 

Jesus is our protector 

“And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” – Rev. 12:11

“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” – Prov. 18:10

Jesus overcame Satan 

“Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” – 1 John 3:8

“…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” 1 Peter 1:18-19

Ilobolo (Dowry)

The fundamental reason for the practice and enforcement of ilobolo among the Zulus is not just about uniting families, and thanking them for raising this beautiful woman you are marrying. It forms part of bringing and uniting ancestors of the families concerned. The bride is seen as a stranger who must be introduced to the new family so that she will be recognized by the ancestors. That is why ilobolo is a must, and not an optional. Anyone that does not practice this would be viewed as (imbuka) a rebel or traitor. If anything goes wrong in your marriage, like constant fightings and infertility, the root of the problem would be attributed to failure to pay ilobolo. Among other contributory factors is that, you are only regarded as man enough by the amount of ilobolo you paid. Men take pride in that and women see it as an indication of their value to their man. Thus, ilobolo is seen by the concerned parties as a precursor to your ability to look after their daughter. You are not seen as a man because of the relationship with Christ. Most men take pride, not over the fact that they can provide shelter or can support the wife but, that they paid ilobolo. Many men get into serious debts to secure ilobolo.

In conclusion, ancestor worship is wrong because it goes against God’s specific warnings about such worship, and it seeks to replace Jesus Christ as the Divine Mediator between God and mankind.