What do ancestors have to do with the indigenous religion of the Shona?

The Shona people believe in a Supreme Being, whom they call by different names. These names include Musikavanhu, Musiki, Mwari, Nyadenga, Samasimba, Samatenga, Wedenga, Musikarudzi, and Zame. This Supreme Being is believed to be the creator of the universe and all that is in it. Additionally, just like the Christian faith also believes in other spiritual beings like angels and saints, the Shona also believe in other spiritual beings, such as ancestral spirits.

What are ancestors and ancestral spirits?

Ancestors are family elders, or people in your family line who lived before you, especially those before your grandparents. According to Shona religion, after a person dies, his spirit wanders about until it is invited to come back and protect its children and descendants. This invitation is done through a libation ritual known as kurova guva. It is then that the spirit becomes formally included in the ancestral line to become a mudzimu (ancestral spirit), and joins madzitateguru (elders) who became vadzimu/ midzimu, and are in nyikadzimu (the world of ancestral spirits). Vadzimu are responsible for looking after their living descendants.

There is a large number of other deceased who are never formalised as ancestral spirits. These include barren women, sterile men, children, social misfits, outcasts, and other undesirables. It is some of these, not all, who become other spirits – family or wandering.

Do vadzimu interact with the living?

Vadzimu sometimes interact with the living through dreams, visions, or spirit mediums. A svikiro (spirit medium) is a person who becomes possessed by an ancestral spirit. Sometimes people find out that they could be spirit mediums after becoming critically ill, and all attempts at getting them better fail. Divine intervention is then sought, and the divine healer will prescribe specific measures to be taken. These measures usually include a libation ritual to ordain the host and formally accept and welcome the spirit.

It is more common for one to become a svikiro of a spirit from their father’s side of the family (as opposed to the mother’s), which could be the spirit of their father, grandfather or great grandfather. Rarely however does one become a medium of their father’s spirit.  More common is one becoming the svikiro of the spirit of one’s grandfather (sekuru). This means a mudzimu is most likely to select one of the grandchildren to be its medium.

Generally, it is not expected for the spirits of those far back in the ancestral line to show themselves through mediums. If this happens, it becomes very difficult to establish their legitimacy. Even pleas and petitions are not made directly to spirits beyond the grandfather’s, but these older spirits can be mentioned on requesting that a plea be passed on to them.

When a medium is possessed by an ancestral spirit, their body is taken over by the spirit during that time. In most cases, they start speaking in the voice, and assume the mannerisms of the ancestor whose spirit has possessed them.

A spirit medium possesses certain materials, which symbolise his/ her status as a medium. The common materials of a svikiro include a white and black cloth which they wear when possessed, animal skin clothes, some snuff which they use before becoming possessed, and any other instruments or tools, such as knobkerries and walking sticks, which could have belonged to the ancestor.

Are prayers made to vadzimu?

There are various ways in which people describe prayer. Prayer involves dependence on a superior supernatural being, and it also involves having faith in that which is unseen. Most importantly, prayer is generally understood as the act of worshipping gods. Shona religion does not regard ancestors as gods, and therefore religious practices would not be considered a form of worshipping ancestors.

In Shona religion, death is not the end but the beginning of life in another world. The deceased ancestors gain a closer connection with the Supreme Being. They also retain their functional role in the living world, and therefore the living still maintain spiritual contact with them. Contact with ancestors involves making tributes in the form of offerings and sacrifices. Because of their closer contact with the Supreme Being, requests for such things as good health, prosperity, and protection are made through them. This signifies respect, and reliance on ancestors given the realm in which they now exist, rather than it being a form of worship.

In Shona culture, before doing something very important in one’s life, one will go to their elders and secure some form of blessing, seeking that these elders wish them well. For example, a young man will go and seek his father’s blessing before he goes off to marry. In return, the father signifies his blessing by giving his son something that will go towards the bride-price, be it some money or a beast. The father also seeks out the blessing of the ancestors for his son. Another example of when someone might seek a blessing from their elders is on leaving home to start a life alone, or when relocating to live in a foreign land. Shona custom also dictates that when families meet to deliberate on issues, matters are communicated hierarchically from the youngest to the eldest and vice versa.

This manner of addressing living elders is the same as the one used in addressing the dead. Everyone goes to their elders for blessings. The old people go to their elders, but since these are dead, the manner of communication is through rituals and ceremonies which make up the religion. So when ancestral spirits are addressed, they are mentioned hierarchically, with the latest to be included on the roll of ancestral spirits being mentioned first, and requested to pass on to so and so, who will pass on to so and so, and so forth. At the top of the hierarchy is the Supreme Being, Nyadenga.

What is the role of vadzimu?

A belief held is that vadzimu look after their descendants or their clan, known in Shona as their dzinza. They are involved with the welfare of the dzinza, and only of their dzinza.  In return for constant protection, families will occasionally honour their vadzimu. While they are known to protect the needs of their descendants, when vadzimu feel they have been forgotten or neglected, they might withhold their protection, leaving their descendants exposed.

It is therefore common for families to resort to ritual ceremonies after they are faced with misfortune such as illness, death or economic hardship. Such families will consult a divine-healer seeking an explanation for their misfortune. Where the explanation given is that the ancestral spirits are displeased, the divine-healer will advise the family to perform a ritual to honour them and make things right.

However, ancestral spirits can also directly cause suffering, rather than simply withholding their protection. This is the case with the selection of spirit mediums, where they cause suffering on individuals as a way of making contact with and gaining the attention of their families.

Ancestral spirits also sometimes confer special gifts upon mediums. One spirit medium I spoke to in 2019, Sekuru Munaku, described how he would sometimes have dreams pointing him to herbs or plants for use in treating various ailments.

Sekuru Munaku also highlighted how ancestral spirits play an important role in preserving a clan’s history, and passing it down through mediums. To ensure genuineness of a mudzimu, when it first manifests itself, it is thoroughly questioned to establish and confirm its identity. This is known as kukonyesa mudzimu.

How does a family honour its vadzimu?

Tributes to ancestors are made through rituals. A ritual is generally called bira. Rituals made in honour of ancestral spirits can be viewed as an act of sharing with the ancestors, even though they are no longer among the living.

Such rituals usually involve kuteura or kupira. Pouring a libation or sacrificing an animal is known as kuteura. This is done as an offering, kupiraTeura means ‘spill (beer or blood of an animal),’ and pira means ‘make an offering.’ Also, because ritual feasts involve the brewing of beer (doro/ hwahwa), you will sometimes hear them being referred to as hwahwa or doro. So as an example, a family could brew beer and hold a bira to honour their ancestors, and refer to it as doro remvura yenyota (beer to quench (the ancestors’) thirst).

In addition to the traditional beer, ritual feasts usually include singing, dancing, and drumming. At some point during the ritual, the senior elder of the family will make a petition through the ancestral spirits. A libation, which involves pouring out beer on the floor/ ground, is offered as a way of sharing with ancestors, as they cannot physically partake of the feast.

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    From all the above, it is obvious that the belief in the existence of ancestral spirits, and dependence on them is at the core of the indigenous religion of the Shona. However, the Shona still believe in the existence of a Supreme Being who is the creator of the universe and all that is in it. 

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