#6 Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings
    (Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)

 …I am afraid that some of the following pages may be repellent to some of my readers. I have considered it to be my duty to set out the details of many of the horrors of the old régime. I have done so in order that the motives and reasons for them may be better understood. In olden times, and in times not so long past, the Ashanti people may seem, to the superficial observer, to have been merely bloodthirsty men and women unworthy of any sympathy whatever, and yet more than one hundred years ago, when these orgies of blood were at their height, one who knew them well [1] place the following statement on record:

‘It is a singular thing that these people—the Ashantees—who had never seen a white man nor the sea, were the most civil and well bred I have ever seen inAfrica. It is astonishing to see men with such few opportunities so well behaved.’

If such praise could be bestowed on a people who were at times guilty of the deeds that have been recorded by many travelers, I thought I would try to find out how these apparently opposing characteristics could be reconciled…

Experience has taught me, moreover, that there is sometimes a danger when we have before us a description of a rite which leaves us uncertain of its real meaning or its true raison d’étre.

We may commit the possible error of filling in this gap in our knowledge by construing the custom in terms of our own philosophy or of our own psychology. In most cases I believe, if we could follow up this rite to its end, or could properly understand it, we should find some good or, from our standpoint, perhaps some jejune consideration to account for it…


THUS far we have seen that the stages in anAshanti’s life have been indicated by a series of rites marking, as it were, certain exits and entrances. These transitions have not been abrupt, as all have been approached or departed from gradually. The child as yet unborn is already a denizen of the world of spirits. Its approaching arrival having been revealed, the expectant mother has a care not to do anything which might scare it back whence it is journeying. On the birth of the child a short period of suspense elapses, during which no one can be quite sure if the visitor from that other world of ghosts has come to stay permanently. After eight days there is more than hope, and the child is given a name. still, the link with the land of spirits is not yet severed absolutely; the child grows up and lives in a kind of borderland between the world of men and women and the world of ghosts. Gradually, as years go on, bonds with the latter seem to weaken, until at the age of puberty they are perhaps severed completely, and the ‘ghost child’, the ‘pot child’, becomes a man or woman, capable of performing those functions which seem to an Ashanti to be the only reason or compensation for being born again or reincarnated, the propagation of the species. Such persons are now admitted for the first time into the status and to the full privileges of grown mortals. They are entitled to a say in matters concerning their family or clan’s welfare; they are a potential power for good or for evil, not in an ethical sense, but in the realms of magic and religion. This recognition and acknowledgement of the new state into which they have now entered are really epitomized in the fact that should such a person die, he or she is entitled to, and must be accorded, full and proper funeral rites, and after death will receive honour and propitiation. His or her name will be held in memory as long as the clan exists.

Funeral ceremonies help to separate the dead from the living, to sever the ties with this world, and to assist the newly dead to pick up again the threads linking him or her with the land of spirits, which had been cut or dropped at puberty…

Although the funeral rites for anAshantiking and the ultimate disposal of his remains seem to differ materially from the obsequies of an ordinary individual, it does not necessarily follow, I think, that this indicates an intrusive culture. In the ceremonial for a dead king the differences possibly arose from a desire on the part of his people, not only to accentuate the disparity between the king, and the common herd, and even the great chiefs, but also to preserve his remains more carefully and reverently in order that these might serve as a medium or shrine for his spirit when it was summoned to return to his people in times of national reunion or national emergencies. In all this there is nothing exotic; it is only a crowning feature of theAshantibelief in ancestral spirits and their propitiation.


One aspect, however, of these funeral rites of an Ashanti king has attracted much attention. This is the so-called ‘blood-lust’, and the consequent apparently indiscriminate slaughter of victims. This feature of the royal obsequies has been emphasized and recorded in full by missionaries and other historians. One of the best known of our anthropologists said to me, a little over a year ago, after reading the manuscript of Ashanti, ‘I do not seem to
recognize your Ashanti as here portrayed; they seem milk and watery as compared with the conception I had formed of them; what about all the slaughter at their funeral customs?’ Now that very question had also worried me considerably. I could not imagine that the fine, charming, and manly people I had learned to know would become the blood-thirsty savages described in many works I had read. As I had not then, however, investigated funeral rites and ‘human sacrifices’, I could not express any opinion, and I therefore reserved judgement. I am now indebted for my knowledge to several old Ashanti of high rank, who have done me no small honour in admitting me into their confidence. They have disclosed to me secrets which would otherwise have passed with them into the grave. I have hesitated whether or not to allow some years to pass by before these statements are made public. Ashanti is, however, so rapidly advancing in civilization, that probably few of the younger generation will fell much interest in their recital. I am sure, moreover, that my older friends, venerable greybearded folk who themselves were actors in these events, will not object to the English public knowing the facts, which will help, I hope, to free the Ashanti from the stigma of having been bloodthirsty and ferocious savages before we took over the government of their country. I am now able to understand that there were motives other than mere blood-lust and cruelty, which ought to be known and taken into account before we pass judgement on the scenes of slaughter which seem to have been inseparable from great national mourning. Europeans seem to have an innate fear of the unknown beyond the grave; this the psycho-analyst calls thanaiophobia, which has also been aptly designated as our ‘passionate, absorbing, almost bloodthirsty clinging to life’. It will not therefore be easy to persuade the average person that there was something underlying all this spilling of blood, that ought to excite, if not admiration, at any rate a feeling that should be remote from disgust or pious horror. In the first place we should take into consideration a fact which was, of course, already well known, namely, that the persons killed on these occasions were supposed to resume after death their various duties under their royal master. It was incumbent upon those left on earth to see that the king entered the spirit-world with a retinue befitting his high station. Such killings thus became a last pious homage and service to the dead. The ideas and beliefs of the men who acted as executioners on those occasions and of their ‘victims’ with regard to death were the same. Death was merely a transition, like birth, from one kind of life to another. Although it would nowadays be far from correct to state that an Ashanti would as soon be dead as alive, never the less his outlook even now with regard to his exact position after death is not filled with any vague, troublesome misgivings as to what the hereafter may hold in store for him.

In ancient times, when life was much more uncertain and precarious than now, the attitude towards death was one of comparative indifference…

…Among the scores killed at royal funerals were some of the highest of the land—high court officials, relatives and wives of the dead monarch, who, no longer having any desire to live once ‘the great tree had fallen’, compelled their relatives to slay them by swearing the great oath that they must do so, thus not leaving them any option except to carry out their wishes. If we, then, take all these points into consideration, we may perhaps be entitled still to think this slaughter terrible, and to view such rites with abhorrence; but, on the other hand, we shall not be entirely just to this people should we, when writing or thinking to them, designate them senseless, savage, and brutal murderers.

The man or woman who, like some of these old Ashanti, was ready to die for an ideal, however misguided and mistaken it may have been, nevertheless is of the stuff which goes to the making of a virile and courageous nation, and is entitled to our respect and admiration…


The first intimation that the king had breathed his last would be, so I am informed, the sight of blood pouring from the royal bath-room. Here the body had been carried to be washed and dressed; at each stage of the process some attendant or other had been killed, one ‘to carry his bath mat, one the sponge and soap, one the bath robe’, and so on. The Queen Mother, perhaps the most powerful person in the kingdom, was immediately informed. She in turn dispatched messengers to the royal harem, for certain of the king’s wives to prepare themselves to accompany their husband on the journey upon which he had set out. The king, before his death, might have informed the Queen Mother which of his women he wished to go with him, and she also might choose others for this privilege. Others again would volunteer to share their fate.[2] The message delivered to these women of the harem was, ‘I bid you set out for a certain place’, and the answer always was, ‘Ma te’, ‘I have heard Akoranto’. These women then sent for their relatives, bade them farewell, decked themselves in white, as for a ceremonial feast, and put on all their gold ornament. On the night the royal body was removed from the palace to the first temporary mausoleum (the Barim Kese), the women, who had drunk themselves into a state of semi-consciousness with wine or rum, were strangled with leather thongs by men or women executioners. An alternative method of killing them was to twist their necks ‘with strong hands’. Strangling inAshanti is considered the aristocratic method of killing, because blood is not shed and there is not any mutilation.

Representatives of each section of household office-holders were killed in order to accompany the king; these included many young boys to act as elephant-tail switchers and heralds. The latter had their necks broken over the large elephant-tusk upon which the king used to rest his foot when bathing; they were smeared with white clay as a sign of joy. Besides all those who had not any option, freemen and sometimes slaves would volunteer for death. ‘I am hungry’ they would say, and should the executioner refuse to dispatch them they would swear the great oath, saying: ‘I swear the great oath that you must kill me that I and my master may set out, for I am hungry’. Such volunteers could always choose the manner of their death; some chose to be shot, others preferred to be strangled, and they were also accorded full funeral rites. They could, moreover, choose such articles as they wished to take with them; these were put into the grave.

In addition to the four classes of victims—criminals, captives of war, volunteers, and various holders of office at court, who did not seem to have any say in the matter—there were undoubtedly a certain number of persons killed, during the first few days after the death was made public, by people who had worked themselves up into a state of frenzy, and by some psychological process, which I do not pretend to understand, seemed to find in promiscuous killing the only satisfactory relief to their emotions.

[#6] Ashanti: “Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings” from R. S. Rattray, Religion & Art in Ashanti, Kumasi: Basel Mission Book Depot; London: Oxford University Press, 1927, pp. vi-viii, 59-61, 103-109.

[1] Mr. James Swanzy, given before a Commission of the House of Commons (Parliamentary Paper No. 506, p. 32, 20 June 1816)

[2] Two cases known to me of royal wives volunteering to accompany their husbands were those of Afoa and Kra Akyerc, who were natives of Agona and Breman, and wives ofKing Kwaku DuaI. they were buried with full funeral rites, dressed in oyokoman cloth (the cloth of the royal clan). Kwesi Dubi, the ntahera’ hene, uncle of my friend Kwame Sapon, shot himself in order to accompany his master Kwaku Dua I to the spirit world.

Captives and criminals killed at funerals were not buried; their bodies were cast into the forest near the spot Diakomfoase (somewhere near the site of the present rest house).

1 Comment

Filed under Africa, African Traditional Sub-Saharan Cultures, Indigenous Cultures

One Response to ASHANTI

#6 Funeral Rites for Babies and Kings
    (Capt. R. S. Rattray, 1929)

  1. Pingback: AFRICAN TRADITIONAL SUB-SAHARAN CULTURES(documented 1853-present) | The Ethics of Suicide Digital Archive

Leave a Reply