Academic journal article Ife Psychologia

Integrating Principles Underlying Ancestral Spirits Belief in Counseling and Psychotherapy

Academic journal article Ife Psychologia

Integrating Principles Underlying Ancestral Spirits Belief in Counseling and Psychotherapy

Article excerpt


This article discusses the traditional beliefs, of many indigenous cultures of Africa, associated with ancestral spirits and its use as powerful therapeutic agent for influencing behavior or lifestyle changes. Explanatory models of attachment to ancestral spirits by living descendants are first discussed, followed by a discussion on major factors responsible for real sense experience of ancestral spirits. Special emphasis of the paper is on the employment of exemplary behavior or status of dead relative, during their lifetime, for influencing different aspects of life of living descendants including lifestyle and career choices. Also featured in the paper are the drawing of significant parallels between traditional and Western psychotherapeutic practices and suggestions as to how to incorporate ancestral spirits belief into conventional counselling and psychotherapy.

Keywords: attachment to ancestral spirits; belief in ancestral spirits; conventional counseling; exemplary behaviors; indigenous cultures; living descendants


The general widespread assumption or conviction, among most traditional cultures of the world, is that people exist in two main realities. Many indigenous cultures in Africa believe that human beings are comprised of two closely intertwined realities or dimensions (Wager & Ngcobo, 2010; Buhrmann, 1990; Bynum, 1999). From the African traditional perspective, man is believed to be unitary being consisting of biological body and spiritual body (Chiakwa, 1999).

The biological body is the physical reality while the spiritual body is the non-physical reality which is often referred to as the mental component of a person. Although during a person's lifetime these two realities (biological or physical body and non-physical spiritual body) form a unity, the spiritual body or the non-physical reality is believed to be capable of separating from the biological body (or physical reality) especially in situations such as in a dream, trance or some other altered state of consciousness (Mabetoa, 1992). For instance, the spiritual body is believed to be separated from the biological body when a person is not responding to the immediate environment, or when a person loses the awareness of his/her immediate environment. In death, the belief is that the spiritual body is freed completely from the biological or physical body and continues to exist as an indestructible entity. The belief by indigenous people is that death is just a passage from one form of being or reality to another - from physical reality to non-physical reality (Gelfand, 1959; Mitchell, 1965; Zambuko, 2010). A simple way to explain the term "spirit", or non-physical reality of a person, therefore, is to consider it as that which exists beyond any physical realm. Mabetoa (1992) contends that the spirits are the collective unconsciousness of the indigenous people who believe in them and are influenced by them. Ngubane (1977) earlier asserted that the spirit is that aspect of a person that survives and continues to live in the mental psyches or minds of living descendants. Gumede (1990) also considers ancestral spirits as the spirits of dead family and community members, while Grimassi (2000) also refers to ancestral spirit as the collective consciousness of one's ancestors.

Bases for Attachment to or Consciousness of Ancestral Spirits

Many cultures of the world have different explanatory models for attachment to or consciousness of ancestral spirits. For instance, according to Buhrman (1989), in most indigenous African cultures, the belief is that, for the gift of life, a child is forever indebted to the parents and owes the latter obedience and deference and that even after the death of parents a child is expected to continue to provide for the parents in the spirits world. In this regard, attachment to ancestral spirits is an affirmation of the multiple realities of human beings - that dead people are still very much around even though they are in non-visible dimension of reality. …

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