Religious And Other Elements in Bulsa Funeral Rituals ( Part 1)

Franz Kröger

Note: All the photos, if not stated otherwise, were taken by the author. Other sources: M.S. = Martin Striewisch (Essen), D.L. (Danlardy Leander, Wiaga).

Although the Bulsa are often regarded as one of the best-studied ethnic groups in Northern Ghana, their funeral rituals, with their interweaving of innumerable religious rites and secular acts of various kinds, have never been the subject of a general monographic publication1.
In the following investigation, I have limited myself mainly to religious rites and to those in which a rebellion against the existing order is expressed, including those rituals that subvert both traditional values and social roles and break hitherto strictly-observed taboos very openly.

1. Fate of the deceased person’s soul (chiik)
The basic religious idea of funeral celebrations may lie in preparing a transition of the deceased from the land of the living to the land of the dead. In order to understand this process better, it is necessary to clarify which parts of the human personality are affected by certain rites concerning the deceased. The Bulsa attribute a number of personality components to each person.


One of them is nyuvuri (cf. nyueri, ‘nose’, and ‘vuum‘ life) or the “pulsating life”, which is mainly revealed in the respiratory movements. Another component is the “life force” or pagrim, which is not only shown in physical strength but also in the immunity from and resistance against harmful spiritual influences, e.g. ghosts, witches, bush-sprites, etc. (cf. Kröger 1978: 143-145). The personality components mentioned so far play only a subordinate role in burial and funeral rituals. More importantly, there are the functions and activities of the following three components (ibid. 140-143):
• The body (nying, pl. nyingsa)
• The wen, a divine power associated with an individual but worshipped by sacrifices to a shrine outside the body (Kröger 1982: 6ff and 2003: 254ff)
• The soul (chiik, pl. chiisa)

The body and its odour (piisim) may be a great danger to the living. Only the initiated grave diggers know exactly how to deal with it.
The corpse of a deceased is usually buried on the day of death. This activity usually takes place within the narrow circle of one’s own family and with only a few rituals.
The veneration of a deceased person’s wen is intensified only years or decades after the burial. Although during the funeral celebration the wen-shrines of the deceased exist in the compound, sacrifices to these or any other rituals are not a part of the funeral celebration.
As will be explained in more detail below, the soul (chiik) of the dead is paramount among the religious events of the first funeral celebration. After the funeral, the personality of the dead man is represented less by the tomb than by the sleeping mat (tiak, rolled: ta-pili) on which the dead man died, for it

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Dead mats under the ceiling of a room

is regarded as the abode of his soul2. Shortly before or after the burial, a neck rest (zukpaglik) consisting of part of a branch is rolled up into the mat and laid under the deceased’s neck before the burial. After this, the noai boka ritual is performed, and with the aid of the mat, the person guilty of the deceased’s death is determined3. In the following ta-pili yika ritual, two gravediggers hang the mat under the ceiling of the dalong (kpilima dok, ancestral room), where it remains until the first funeral.
To a great extent, the soul of the dead, which is in or near the mat, represents the personality of the deceased, and any contact takes place by way of the mat. For example, in the past this entailed leaving a small dish of food in the ancestral room every evening and, on the next morning, removing the untouched food. This means that the dead man did not consume the food in a material sense but only took its power to provide nourishment. Afterwards it was consumed by humans or fed to animals. Furthermore, certain preferences of the deceased like the enjoyment of beer, kola nuts or tobacco are respected by placing these luxuries for some time in the ancestral room.

The acting compound head speaking to his predecessor’s soul

The hole in the tomb (see arrow)

The soul of the dead is not always enclosed in the mat or hovering around it. It can, for example, visit the deceased’s body in the grave (boosuk). In order to have free access, a small hole is left in the ceramic cover of the grave until the end of the Juka celebration. According to information from Gbedema, some Bulsa (usually thoughtlessly) invite the ancestors or the dead to eat with them by uttering the following sentence before eating: Ni de abe ni ge te mu (You eat before you give me). Also, a ceramic pot (liik) with drinking water located in a corner of each courtyard should never be empty so that recently deceased persons and ancestors can serve themselves here.

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When the head of a compound (yeri-nyono) dies, it is either his eldest brother or his eldest son who is responsible for his soul (see below). However, they exercise this office only for the deceased and must inform their predecessor about every important

The dressed gain store

ritual in the compound by speaking to his soul in the mat.

At the first funeral celebration (Kumsa), the mats are of extraordinary importance. On the first day, they are taken from the ancestral room to the courtyard (dabiak) of the compound head’s eldest wife (Ama). Here they are rubbed with cloths and a horse tail. One chicken or cock is killed for each mat by beating the animal’s head on the ground and throwing it on the ash-heap

 (tampoi). This killing is part of the nang foba ritual, which is later supplemented by the bloodless killing of mammals. According to one source, the bloodless killing will enable the ancestors to begin poultry or cattle-breeding with these animals in the land of the dead.
The death-mat is carried to the central millet store of the compound and is located in the middle of the cattle yard. The mat as well as the grain store (bui), clothed with the garment (garuk) and the hat (zutok) of the deceased, are visited first by newly arriving guests to greet the deceased here and mourn his death.  (photo)
In the evening of the second day (Tika Dai) of the Kumsa-funeral, grave diggers burn the mat together with the


Burning the mat

zukpaglik neck support in a free field outside of the farm.
These rituals make it appear as if a series of actions concerning the mat and the soul enclosed in it have come to an end, since, by burning the mat, the soul is released in a certain respect. However, it does not immediately enter the land of the dead (kpiluk). This event takes place only at the second funeral (Juka) when the soul of a deceased male stays with his quiver and bow or the soul of a woman with a number of certain ceramic pots. It is only when the quiver and bow are destroyed and burnt in the juka-ritual or the ceramic and calabash vessels of the women are broken [see below], that the soul of the dead can enter the land of the dead. These rituals of destruction evoke strong emotional outbursts of close relatives because, as a woman told me, “only now have we finally lost our relatives”.


A grave digger is chopping the bow andquiver into small parts The bow and quiver are burned Ceramic vessels and calabashbowls are destroyed


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