By Iya Marilyn Kai Jewett, Oni Sango
Includes excerpts from her forthcoming book,
“THE WISDOM OF MY ELDERS: REMEMBERING THE ANCESTORS”
WHO ARE THE ANCESTORS?
Known as the Egun (Ay-goon) or the Egungun in the Yoruba culture, they are the spirits of our family members – blood relations who have made transition beyond the physical body and now reside in heaven. They watch over their descendants on Earth. They bless, assist, protect, warn and even punish their surviving relatives depending on how their relatives remember or neglect them.
They also collectively protect the community against evil and misfortune to ensure the overall well-being, productivity and prosperity of the entire community. The Egun can be invoked individually or collectively intimes of need. Ancestor reverence holds a very important place in cultural traditions worldwide — from Africa to Asia to the Americas and even Europe. For example, most Asian stores include visible ancestor shrines with offerings to ensure success. All cultures have rituals to commemorate and revere their ancestors.
WHY ACKNOWLEDGE THE ANCESTORS?
The Egun are a part of our family. They are not “dead,” but have transitioned to the next phase of life. Without them we would not exist. We carry our ancestors with us through our DNA. Rituals must be done on a regular basis to acknowledge and take care of them just as we did when they were on Earth. Absence of these rituals can result in negative, destructive behaviors like drug/alcohol abuse, violence and promiscuity. Our Egun can help heal us and correct some of these issues. These rituals were lost to us during the African Holocaust when we were stripped of our African culture/spirituality, but have been reclaimed by many. Once you have knowledge of the Egun rituals there is no excuse to continue ignoring them. Our Egun are watching and waiting. In some indigenous cultures, dissatisfied ancestors are believed to instigate violent death. A culture where many people die violently or accidentally is said to have dysfunctional relationships with its ancestors. Sound familiar?
That’s why these rituals are needed. They serve to keep yourself in harmony with the universe, to heal your connection to your ancestors and to heal the ancestors. Many of the ills that face African-American families and communities are the result of us ignoring the Egun and not performing the necessary rituals. In African and other cultures it’s important to remember the names and good deeds of your ancestors. They tap into that creative energy by treating the Egun with loving reverence. Regardless of your religion, your ancestors must be taken care of.
*However, we do not revere those whose conduct was detrimental to the family or community while they were on Earth. You may send prayers asking that they be healed.
HOW DO YOU ACKNOWLEDGE THE ANCESTORS?
The Egun are generally acknowledged through prayer (libation) and offerings of food, drink and flowers at a designated altar. Every home should have an ancestor altar – a special place where you can revere, consult and communicate with your ancestors. The altar should be placed on a table or space covered by a white cloth.
Items to be placed on the altar include pictures of your ancestors (don’t use a picture that includes other people), a clear glass of cool sweet water with sugar or honey, a white cup of black coffee, a white seven day candle, a small glass or a bottle of spirits (whatever your Egun drank) and white flowers (or those that were a favorite of your Egun). Some people include an item that belonged to their Egun (Bible, Koran, jewelry) and tobacco products (cigarettes, cigars, pipes, tobacco, snuff, etc.) if they had Egun that used them and a basket of fruit. The altar should be refreshed each week on Sunday or Monday.
Last but not least, you should include some food on a white or clear crystal plate designated for your Egun. Why food? Everything in the universe is made up of energy. That’s what connects us. Food is made of energy.
Energy doesn’t dissipate it just transforms. Our Egun are energy that has now transformed. When we feed the Egun, we are returning energy to those who shared their energy by creating us. Remember, we came to the Earth through our ancestors. We feed them and take care of them, they will feed and take care of us.
You should feed them at least once a week. *When cooking for the Egun do not use salt! Salt repels spirits. You want to attract your Egun, not repel them. When preparing a meal, the first food taken out of the pot before anyone eats goes to your Egun. Place the food on the plate designated for your ancestors and let it cool before placing it on the altar. *Never give hot food or drink to the Egun! The food may be left on the altar for a few hours or a few days. It may be disposed of in the trash or in the bush. Don’t be alarmed if the food and drink develops mold. The drink should be disposed of by washing it down the kitchen sink with cold water.
Also, you cannot impose your diet on your Egun. You may be a vegetarian, but your Egun most likely were not. In that case, every now and then you need to fix your Egun a meal they would have eaten while on Earth. Pork-eating Egun get tired of those turkey chops or tofu. For example, although I don’t celebrate Easter, I cook an Easter ham for my Egun because that’s what they would have done. I also cook my beloved Nana’s favorite meal for her birthday each year since her transition.
Pour libation to your Egun (praying and calling their names) at least once a week, when placing food on the altar. It’s also good to sit and talk to them about what’s going in your life, especially if you have a problem. This is a good time to ask for assistance. If they were smokers, light their favorite cigarette, cigar, pipe, etc. while talking to them. Be still and listen for an answer or look for it in your dreams. The Egun communicate a lot through your dreams. Keep paper and pencil beside your bed to record your dreams upon waking.
Do these rituals at least once a week and you will begin to heal yourself, your family and our communities.
Sources: Baba Obalumi Ogunseye, Chief Ojugbona Awo of Ife; Four New World Yoruba Rituals, John Mason, 1985; Jambalaya, Luisah Teish, 1985; The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Patrice Some, 1998