In 2012 the following German article was published : Die dauerhafte Etablierung von rituellen Abweichungen. Das lakori-Prinzip bei den Bulsa Nordghanas.  Anthropos 2012, no 107: 1-12.

Translation by Franz Kröger in 2020:

The Permanent Establishment of Ritual Deviations

The Lakori Principle Among the Bulsa of Northern Ghana

Franz Kröger

At Athens, Lysimache, the priestess of Athene Polias, when asked for a drink by the mule drivers who had transported the sacred vessels, replied, “No, for I fear it will get into the ritual.”


This quotation from the Greek philosophical writer Plutarch (46-120 A.D.) precedes Jonathan Z. Smith’s thesis that an accident in the field of (religious) rites is understood as ‘a miracle, a sign that must be routinized through repetition, or it will be interpreted as impurity, as blasphemy’ (1982: 54), which can gain significance and become part of the ceremonies.

Numerous examples of the integration of an initially profane phenomenon into the ritualised course of religious acts can be found in many ethnic groups. Here, the lakori principle is intended to illustrate a special case of this type of ritual change as it was investigated over several years of field research among the Bulsa of Northern Ghana.

The accidental emergence of an avoidance commandment

The purely accidental intrusion of a foreign element, as represented by Smith in the quote from Plutarch, can also lead to permanent changes in the ritual of the Bulsa. However, for the actors, accident in the sense that is used here does not always exist but is interpreted as the conscious intervention of a supernatural power. In the following example, the attitude of the people towards a ‘holy’ animal, which is characterized by an avoidance (kisuk) and which was formerly referred to as totemism, is not based on events that originated in ancient times. Rather, the attitude has been created, supplemented or changed at all times, leading up to the present. When a small group of Bulsa tried to cross a heavily swollen river during the rainy season of 1973, a small child was caught by the floods and carried away. A crocodile swam towards the child without attacking it. According to eyewitnesses, the crocodile even tried to push the child towards the bank and thus to safety. The head of the farmstead (yeri-nyono) that the child belonged to ordered that from then on all of the inhabitants were forbidden to kill and eat crocodiles. Consequently, a new taboo (kisuk) in connection with a ‘holy’ animal, which was understood as the incarnation of an ancestor or a spirit that was well-disposed towards humans, had arisen.

The lakori/lokoli principle among the Bulsa and neighbouring ethnic groups

A more or less conscious deviation, culpable or blameless omission or unauthorized extension and transgression of traditionally established rules by the performers, as I experienced it during my time among the Bulsa, seems to be more important than the change of ritual structures by accident. This deviation from a ritual norm with its consequences is called lakori (pl. lakoa) by the Bulsa. The last two syllables of this term are probably linguistically related to korum, which was once described to me as ‘what the ancestors (koma) did’ but which is usually translated as ‘tradition’ or ‘history’ (cf. Schott 1977: 149 and Kröger 1992: 183). The first syllable of lakori cannot yet be etymologically explained or linguistically associated with other related terms within the Bulsa language. Although an informant’s assumption that la might be related to the verb le (to insult, to offend) would go well with the meaning of lakori (‘to offend tradition’), for linguistic reasons it is unlikely. Asking several competent Bulsa about the meaning of lakori did not lead to an abstract definition. Rather, they tried to explain the term by way of examples: “Lakori is when you do not bury a deceased man in a golung [triangle cloth] so that you cannot bury his sons in a golung.” An old earth-priest (teng nyono) put it this way: “Your father did this and you do something else.” An English-speaking informant gave the following ‘definition’ for lakori: “Something your family has never done before and you want to do it.” It is noticeable that here and in other descriptions lakori is not specifically related to the domain of religion. This may be explained mainly by the fact that there is no clear distinction between sacred and profane acts or areas in the consciousness of the informants. Every act can have a religious reference, which becomes particularly pronounced when it departs from the usual patterns of behaviour.

An attempt to induce Bulsa informants to form as many sentences as possible with the word lakori or to translate given English sentences into the Buli language showed that lakori not only signifies a break with an old tradition but also signifies the ritual newly created by the deviation, as expressed, for example, in the sentence: “Tagrung a chim ká lakori” (“A deviation becomes lakori”).

In my search for corresponding concepts in other ethnic groups in northern Ghana, I have so far only found one equivalent to the lakori term that is formally and linguistically related to the same phenomenon—namely among the Koma, who are a small ethnic group of about 2,000 members to the southwest of the Bulsa residential area. These two groups are related to each other both linguistically and culturally. The term lokoli exists in Konni, the language of the Koma. However, according to Baluri (see below), lokoli refers to the standard set in the past or a new standard created by an infringement and not, as in the case of the Bulsa, the deviation itself.

Ben Baluri Saibu from Yikpabongo, a Koma village, describes the prescribed gifts of money (bandaala ligre, literally ‘love money’) from the bride suitor in a chapter titled ‘Courtship and Marriage’ (Kröger/Baluri 2010: 306), as follows:

How much is given depends on the existing precedent in the villages or clans concerned; in other words, the amount used to be fixed, and to give more was to violate the set standard (lokoli). These days, however, things have changed. When competition for a girl is keen, a resourceful young man may offer up to 200,000 cedis and more. Koma elders disapprove of this change of attitude, but it has caught on! The lokoli has been broken.

A failure to observe the lokoli principle (i.e. here the institutionalised laws and customs) leads to the establishment of an innovative violation of sacred traditions and can be demonstrated in another of Baluri’s quotes concerning the marriage of women who are divorced from or still married to their husbands while, at the same time, being courted by another man (2010: 310):

For example, a man of the Bakodeng Clan of Yikpabongo may not confiscate a Duyogisi (Yizesi) man’s wife, because the two groups are chomballi: children of the same ‘father’ or ancestor […]. Such a violation could result in restrained relations. If a wife wrongly confiscated is not returned, a lokoli (precedent) will have been set and a Duyogisi could seduce a Bakodeng man’s wife and the two groups would now become dataasi (enemies in marriage).

Similar views and practices of the lakori/lokoli principle also seem to occur among other ethnic groups in northern Ghana, but are only occasionally mentioned in ethnographic literature. For example, M. Fortes (1945: 43) reports an episode among the Tallensi of Tongo. Although four Tallensi sections consider themselves descendants of their founding ancestor, Mosuor, only Tongo is responsible for the worship of his ancestral shrine. During a sacrificial preparation, it was suddenly discovered that a representative of another of the four sections (Yamələg) was present, and this immediately led to intensive consultations with the elders. When the non-official nature of the visit became apparent, permission was granted. The justification for this permission is relevant to our discussion of the lakori principle: “his [the visitor’s] presence there did not signify a claim by Yamələg to be represented at such rites, nor would it establish a precedent for the future” (Fortes 1945: 43).

Two essential elements that will be discussed regarding the Bulsa in more detail later on also appear among the Tallensi: first, the in-depth deliberations of the elders when they learn that an old legal claim and tradition may have been broken here (i.e. the offering of the Mosuor shrine to which they alone are entitled; and second, the fear—although unfounded after consultations—that the innovation will enter into the ritual and thus “establish a precedent for the future.”
Before discussing how lakori affects the religious tradition of the Bulsa, several relevant examples demonstrating different realizations of this idea will be presented.

Examples of lakori in rituals

The fear of creating precedents for future ritual actions through a deviation or omission in the execution of a ritual sequence plays a constant role in the considerations of those responsible, as the following examples in the context of a Bulsa burial in Wiaga Yisobsa will show.

In January 2003, the sister of my Bulsa assistant died in the hospital of the district capital Sandema. Because the father of this woman was in southern Ghana, my assistant, as the eldest son, had to take over the father’s position and tasks. With the help of a pick-up truck, we transported the body to the parents’ house in Wiaga, about 10 km away, which enabled a complete traditional burial service. As is customary with the Bulsa, the corpse was to be kept on a special straw mat (tiak) in the ancestral room (kpilima dok or dalong) until burial. Because there was no surplus straw mat for this purpose in the whole farmstead (yeri), the deceased was to be laid out on her own wrapping cloth, which in Ghana is part of the traditional clothing of a woman. However, a male inhabitant of the farmstead immediately lodged a strong objection because, according to the lakori principle, this would mean that in the future no other deceased woman of similar status could be laid on a straw mat before her burial. Consequently, an elderly woman had to give up her children’s’ sleeping mat for this purpose. When she later complained about this to my assistant, he promised to buy her a new mat. Immediately another woman protested because this would mean that the responsible male relative of the deceased had bought the mat from another owner. Although this would not be a gross offence against the dead woman or the ancestors, it would henceforth ‘enter into the ritual’; that is, in later cases the same procedure would have to be followed.

After laying the deceased out, my assistant and myself were asked to invite guests from other farmsteads for the following rituals. One head of a farmstead (yeri-nyono) declined the invitation because he could not come since there had not been a representative from the family of the deceased woman present at his father’s funeral celebration (not his burial!).

Usually, after death, a ritual (noai boka) with the death mat is carried out (Kröger 2001: 310-11), which is intended to determine who is responsible for the death of the deceased. However, this ritual could not take place in the described case at Yisobsa because it had not been performed for two childless women of the farmstead who had died some years ago. A similar situation, which even escalated into a slight conflict, arose when my assistant wanted to fire some shots from a steel pipe (da-goong) with the help of locally produced gunpowder to inform all of the neighbours about the completed burial of the dead. The leader of the burial ritual was an elderly man from a neighbouring farmstead, and he protested along with other elders. They objected because no shots had been fired upon the death of the two childless women or even at the funeral of an old man from the same farmstead. On this occasion, my assistant, who had already bought the gunpowder, was able to assert himself by making use of the opportunity to make up for ritual omissions of the past. The first shot was fired for the man and the two unmarried women who had died some time ago, and the second shot was fired for his sister who had just died.

On this occasion, I learned that the clothing in which the two recently deceased women had been laid into the grave had also been investigated. (Different clothing regulations apply to men.) Both of these women had been buried with only a coloured woven strip of cloth (garu-pali) around their hips. Had these woven strips not been applied to them at that time, the only choice now would have been to place the dead woman in the grave either completely undressed or with three woven strips around her hips. In the latter case, the deceased would have been verbally requested to give the other two strips to her late predecessors: “Give them to N. and N.!” In this way, the ritual omission could have been made up for.

In accordance with the decision of the elders, the gaasika ritual was to be performed a few days after the end of the burial service at the deceased’s mother’s residence, during which the mother’s head mother would be shaved bald. The ritual would end with the ritual consumption of millet porridge. In the sense of the ‘rites de passage’ by Arnold van Gennep, the gaasika ritual can be described as a typical reintegration ritual. However, until now (i.e. 2020) this ritual has not yet taken place because the mother, a devout Christian, still refuses this ritual for religious reasons. If it does not take place, then this means that no member of this family can again be subjected to the gaasika ritual in a comparable situation.

The list of discussions about the lakori principle that occurred here at one ritual event—the burial of a woman—is by no means complete. For example, time and again people inquired about what payments had been made for the two comparable burials of the likewise unmarried, childless women, what kind of animal (vorub dung) had been slaughtered above the grave shaft, and what optional rituals had been performed or omitted at that time. The examples during the female burial described here would probably be explained by other Bulsa in such a way that they always tried to avoid lakori, and thus a violation of the ritual norm.

It is certainly worth investigating to what extent, in contrast to these examples from the traditional religious sphere, the lakori principle has recently been applied with regard to either strictly rejecting or accepting modern innovations. One example is the intrusion of taking photos at ritual events, which probably found its way into a fixed ritual structure through strangers (e.g. ethnologists) but was then also taken up by emancipated family members who owned cameras. In 1973, I was banned from taking photographs of the official parts of sacrifices, purification rites, oracles, and so on in Wiaga. When I first took part in a non-public ritual celebration, I was told that no pictures of the ritual events had ever been taken before and that the ancestors and other supernatural powers did not like such innovations. After being granted permission to take pictures by the head of a farmstead who was open to modern developments, a new element had entered into the course of the ritual. After the absence of sanctions by the ancestors, there was nothing to prevent the liberal use of a camera on following occasions. However, photographing important events had not yet become part of the ritual, as is almost always the case with European weddings where a visit by a professional photographer is planned into the festive routine.

At large public funeral celebrations (kumsa) of the Bulsa, however, an enlarged and framed photograph of the deceased has become an almost permanent ritual place in recent times. Before the ceremonies begin, the personal effects of the deceased are deposited or hung up at the central granary of the farmstead. These include a wooden chest with clothes and valuables and, above all in the case of a deceased male, his bows and quivers, which are ritually destroyed and burned at the end of the last stage of the funeral (juka). For several years, it has become customary to hang a photograph of the deceased on the outside wall of the granary on this occasion, and not doing so is almost considered an impropriety in the overall process. Older men today sometimes ask a camera owner to take a photo of them, which is later to be hung on the central granary at their funeral. In the future, it cannot be ruled out that hanging a photo on the grainstore will have been fully ‘entered into the ritual’ and thus a one-time and perhaps even unintentional omission of the photo may be considered a lakori offence.

Attempts to introduce photography into a religious-ritual environment do not always go in this direction. For example, after a diviner willingly gave me information about his divination utensils, he allowed me to photograph them. However, during this attempt my flash failed to go off in the almost dark room. A few minutes later when I was able to correct the mistake in the same farmstead and asked to re-take the photos, I was denied this request on the grounds that the divination spirit (jadok) obviously does not allow photos. This attitude had not changed when I made the same request for photo documentation almost 30 years later. Further examples of such inclusions of coincidences that often have oracular or symbolic features for those concerned could easily be cited for the Bulsa.

Reasons for deviations from traditionally established actions

The reasons for an imperfect repetition of traditional rites stem from different causes. Perhaps the most banal reason is an unintentional oversight or ignorance of the details of previous actions. This may be particularly true when the responsible decision-makers (kpaga, ‘elders’) have spent most of their lives in the major cities of southern Ghana or when the ritual leader, as a devout Christian, has been alienated from the traditional religion. During situations where there is an extraordinary lack of information, it is possible that a married woman who has spent several decades in her husband’s farmstead may be approached for help. On one occasion, even the ethnologist’s knowledge, preserved by field notes and a letter from the deceased, was used.

In those cases in which a deliberate deviation from previous rites is permissible, the difficulty in procuring different material objects and the means needed for the rites or the economic situation of the performers may play a role. It is quite possible, for example, that no weaving strips or gunpowder can be purchased at the market or in neighbouring farmsteads during a burial. Even a tiak mat is not always available (as described earlier).

Nowadays it is more likely that a newly acquired wealth will create the desire to perform a ritual with greater material expenditure to venerate the reputation of the deceased and the prestige of the bereaved. Most frequently, money payments, the exact amount of which cannot be determined over a longer period of time due to Ghana’s high inflation rate, are adjusted to the respective economic situation. Smaller innovations that take the possibilities of a changing modern society into account (e.g. the framed photograph present at the funeral celebrations mentioned earlier) usually meet with little resistance. However, in 2003 a rumour circulated that a yeri-nyono in Fumbisi (southern Bulsa), whose ancestral room (kpilima dok) had been destroyed by rain, had it rebuilt in cement blocks rather than the prescribed technique of ‘wet clay balls’. This rumour received quite a bit of attention. If no sanctions are imposed by the ancestors, then the daring advance of the head of the farmstead could not only lead to ancestral rooms but also the otherwise earthen ancestral shrines being built using modern cement techniques.

Sometimes a ritual change does not take place through one-time, conscious decisions. Rather, it gradually penetrates into ritual acts without the consultation of elders and an orientation towards old traditions. In ancient times, complete nudity was most likely prescribed for sacrifices to all earth shrines (tanggbana), at least for the actively participating men, and leaf dress was prescribed for the women. Today this rule applies only to some shrines and only to the officiant (teng-nyono). When I participated in sacrificial ceremonies at the Pung Muning Earth Shrine in Wiaga-Badomsa in the early-1970s, I was required to strip not only my upper body and take off my shoes but I was also required to strip all signs of Western culture and wealth, such as wristwatch, glasses, and so on. Unnoticed, a great freedom of movement has since been established here. On a very chilly morning, all those present were allowed to keep their shirts and sweaters on. The European guest who found it difficult to walk barefoot over sharp-edged pebbles was allowed to wear his sandals, and European women were spared the exposure of their upper body for obvious reasons. In recent times, one can observe more and more participants who do not take off their shirts or sandals, even without a special reason. The possibility of this behaviour resulting in a reprimand by the officiant has also lessened.

I have only come across one important innovation, which was carried out by a decision of the assembled elders for a unit of the size of an entire subsection. This happened in 1973 at the first funeral (kumsa) of a man from Sandema-Kalijiisa-Choabisa, who had died at an advanced age (he had allegedly witnessed the fights against the slave raider Babatu). On the second day (tika) of the celebration, an old man delivered a speech through his speaker (‘interpreter’, Buli biisitieroa) in which he warned troublemakers of this celebration and expressed the wish that every bachelor (dakoak) might find a wife here. Such threats and wishes are almost part of every funeral. However, he then announced that from then on it was permitted for members of Choabisa to marry persons from other subsections of Kalijiisa. A subsection, which is also a local unit by nature, usually corresponds to a lineage with a genealogical depth of seven to nine generations. Choabisa (literally ‘children of the forge’) is a section of blacksmiths who immigrated a long time ago without any blood ties to the other subsections of Kalijiisa. The abolition of the exogamy regulation in 1973 did not come as a complete surprise. It had earlier been discussed at similar events and in some cases had been practised by emigrants in southern Ghana. I could not follow the arguments of the elders in their closed meeting room (kusung-dok), but several informants suspected that it was related to the previous part of the speech (i.e. that they wanted to allow those willing to marry to choose a partner with less restrictions).

Lack of change

In almost all of the examples that I have given so far, changes to a given ritual or, in our eyes, profane sequence were shown. However, it was also pointed out that once deviations from a norm had been introduced, they would henceforth be retained and ‘entered into the ritual’.

At this point three fundamental questions arise:
(1) Are there interruptions or changes in the routine of ritual life that occur once and then do not create a new series of traditions?
(2) Are there areas in which violations of tradition do not lead to changes because they arouse the anger of the ancestors and lead to immediate punishment?
(3) Are there Bulsa groups in which the ritual system is so rigid that there is no possibility of changing the established norms, thus making it difficult to establish changes for the future?

(Re 1) In answering the first question, we may refer to the everyday religious life of a Bulsa family. The diviner (baano) is responsible for solving all problems arising within the religious cult and is also responsible for solving everyday problems. Although he is a recognized ritual expert among the Bulsa and most of the ethnic groups of northern Ghana, and is the person regularly visited by the family fathers and the heads of the farmsteads, it should be noted that no divination was mentioned in the course of the burial rites described earlier. A similar lack of genuine divinatory sessions can be observed during the two very elaborate Bulsa funeral celebrations (kumsa and juka). Meanwhile, the third day (gbanta dai) of the kumsa celebration was named after the Buli term for divination. On this day, a diviner is supposed to confirm that all previous rites have been properly performed. However, the divinatory sessions have degenerated into persiflage in most of the funerals that I attended (i.e. in Wiaga and Sandema). Even if they visited a real diviner, he only very rarely intervenes in the ritual events of a funeral. This was confirmed by many informants. In Sandema-Kalijiisa, the elders commissioned two boys, both about 10 years old, to perform a divination. With a temporary stick (later thrown away), they arbitrarily imitated the wand movements of a professional diviner for a few minutes without verbal utterances. During such an occasion in Wiaga-Guuta, two men who had never been diviners were commissioned and their session resembled that of the boys from Sandema.

At events such as funeral celebrations that go beyond the immediate family, the elders in their confined meeting room (kusung dok) are solely responsible for ensuring that all of the rites are performed in their permitted and appropriate form. A diviner seems to be superfluous here for official decisions on the application and nature of the rites.

Thus, it is not a diviner’s ritual task to find out how the rites of a family or a whole lineage were performed in the past to avoid a lakori injury. His instructions (or rather, the instructions of the ancestors and other supernatural powers through him) refer mainly to the current questions of everyday life. However, this also includes the interpretation of those extraordinary occurrences that were described at the beginning as accidents. The diviner only investigates whether the event is accidental or whether a certain supernatural power manifests its will through the event. Prescribing instructions for similar cases in the future and thus bringing about innovative changes are not within his competence. If a diviner dealt with lakori problems, then the instructions of the ancestors (given by the diviner) would possibly compete with the memory of the living, which could possibly compromise his authority or put the one he is serving in an insecure situation.

In a series of 56 divinatory sessions (1984), clients, mainly from Wiaga, consulted the diviner Akanming (Wiaga-Badomsa) to investigate the causes of various extraordinary events: an illness within a family (most common occasion), a quarrel, a bad harvest, the death of a cow, the collapse of a building, a snake or scorpion bite, the refusal of a small child to accept his mother’s breast, and so on. Akanming almost always gave his clients the explanation that one of their ancestors or other supernatural powers caused the disaster because a certain sacrifice was omitted and they then requested the execution of an additional sacrifice or other rituals. These rituals, in which sacrifices were again performed, included the name-giving ritual (segrika), building a personal shrine (wen piirika) and acquiring a magical medicine. In some cases, instructions were also given on how to perform sacrifices (e.g. about the nature of the sacrificial animal and its preparation). In other cases, advice was given on how to change certain behaviour: a man should reconcile with his enemy, a curse should be withdrawn, a woman should confess her adultery before the birth of her child, a young man should not take up work in southern Ghana, a cow that has strayed from its (unknown) owner should be slaughtered immediately, and so on. What all these instructions had in common was that they only referred to one single case concerned. No application was planned for similar cases in the future.

(Re 2) On the question about the areas of life in which violations of traditions do not lead to permanent changes, Jan Platvoet’s statement in his work on ritual in pluralistic societies may, to a certain extent, also apply to the Bulsa: “Complex rites may also have a stable core with fringes more open to innovation” (1995: 29). For important areas of social behaviour within a lineage that are constantly monitored by the ancestors, no innovations are permitted among the Bulsa. In fact, sacrilegious deviations from the norm do not bring about changes in old traditions but rather result in immediate and severe punishments by the ancestors and other powers involved (e.g. tanggbana, earth spirits). These deviations include, for example, wilful omission of prescribed sacrifices, transgression of important taboos (kisita, pl.), unjustified imposition of a curse (kaka), theft within one’s own lineage, incest or marriage within one’s own clan section, and the seduction or marriage of the wife who is or was married to one’s own clan member. In these core areas of religion and society, violations and above all their repeated occurrence, would shake the basic social structure of the Bulsa.

(Re 3) With regard to the fundamental refusal of any ritual change, it must be noted that the Bulsa in general adapt very quickly to new challenges, and to technical and economic change and they do not usually allow ritual traditions to hinder development and progress. So far, I have only come across one exception to this rule, which was in the small village of Kom, 10 km east of Wiaga. Here, innovation and the loosening of old taboos, even in an area that outsiders would describe as purely profane, have so far been prevented by religious justifications (lakori). Of the many taboos existing during my visit to Kom (2001), only a few will be listed here:
• Peanut cultivation.
• Use of mortars in the dark.
• Building houses with zinc roofs (although the Kom school has one).
• Use of cement for the construction of houses or plastering walls and floors.
• Use of bicycles, motorcycles, cars, tractors, and so on. This ban also applies to foreign visitors but has recently been relaxed somewhat for practical reasons. For example, bicycles may be used outside the village and the number of farmsteads where the taboo still applies has been greatly reduced.
• Possession and use of firearms.
• The cultivation of the fields with ploughs by inhabitants of Kom (foreigners are allowed to plough here).
• The wearing of red clothing (including caps, modern shirts, etc.).

This list makes it easy to recognize that the rigid adherence to individual traditions dangerously blocks technical and economic progress, prevents improvement in living conditions and thus leads to the emigration of young men. It still has to be investigated how the easing of certain taboos (e.g. the restriction on bicycles) came about and resulted in regulations and prohibitions that are hardly observed today. It is possible that they can be traced back to events similar to those described above, such as the absence of painful ancestral sanctions for the first violation (lakori) of the taboo.

The compensation for wrong decisions and the making up for omitted rites

Up to now, the permanent establishment of a ritual deviation has been the focus of this account but some of the examples that have been given show how the initiation of such an establishment can be prevented or even be reversed. Within certain limits, it is possible to suspend a ritual omission by making up for it, as shown earlier in the conflict over igniting the gunpowder and the hypothetical example of the hip weaving stripes.

A further example of the attempted reversal of, and compensation for a significantly wrong decision shall be represented here. In the 1970s, an elderly informant reported that after his death he would probably not be buried in a courtyard (dabiak), as is generally accepted Bulsa tradition for a head of a farmstead or a lineage segment, but would instead be buried outside the farmstead near the enclosure wall. His elder brother had ‘reprehensibly’ (he used the word ‘wicked’) buried their father on one side of the farmstead. Consequently, my informant had to bury his elder brother there, and he himself found his final resting place there a few years later. For some years now, elaborate negotiations have been taking place between the elders of this lineage segment and the deceased men’s families. The family would like to exhume the three deceased men after performing numerous reconciliation sacrifices and bury them inside the farmstead. Only after these reparations have been made, can the burials of the older men be carried out and the controversy, which began several decades ago, end. Thereafter, burials inside the farmstead may continue again.

The great ritual and practical effort involved in the reburial of the three deceased men, and also long consultations and doubts as to the correctness of this plan lead us to believe that we have reached the limits to what is possible here to make amends and end a new ritual tradition that was introduced some decades ago. Deviations from the traditional norm that go back even further, especially when the circumstances and the responsible deviators are no longer known by name, are usually considered irreparable and are regarded as a ritual peculiarity of a lineage segment: “Our fathers always did it this way [in deviation from other Bulsa]!” In these cases, the deviation has been immortalized.

An example from the same clan section of Wiaga-Badomsa shows that changes made long ago are usually irreversible. When Adoring and, later, his son Akab (the father of Abadoming, the founder of the Badomsa clan section) died, they were not given their own ancestral shrine (bogluk) because of a family dispute but they were venerated in their respective father’s and grandfather’s (Asinyang) bogluk. As a result of the rotation of ancestral shrines within Badomsa (cf. Kröger 1982 and 2003), one day Ameeruk, the head of a farmstead, received the oldest shrines of his clan section, including that of Abadoming. He consequently decided to also erect the shrines of the two ancestors, Adoring and Akab, in front of his farmstead. Immediately after the shrines were built, he fell ill and suffered from hallucinations (loud drum music). He died before the first sacrifice could be made to the two new shrines. His successor destroyed and threw away the corresponding wen stones, which serve as sacrificial sites of the shrine. According to the people of Badomsa, the wena (pl.) (i.e. the ancestral spirits present in the two stones; Kröger 1982 and 2003), either returned to the shrine of their respective father and grandfather (Asinyang) or they have been wandering around without a sacrificial shrine ever since (Buli: Ba kala kama. ‘They are hanging around’).

This example shows that it was probably impossible to reverse a decision made in the past, namely not to build a shrine for the two ancestors, after a long time. Adoring and Akab lived 10 and 11 generations ago, respectively. Ameeruk lived four generations ago, which means that the latter tried to undo a decision that had been made six and seven generations, respectively, before his time.

The role of the elders

The decision to follow a tradition, to allow an innovation or to return to a tradition that was abandoned not long ago is, in most cases, the responsibility of the elders, who consult all pending problems in the meeting room (kusung or kusung dok) in front of the farmstead. Their discussions, combined with long speeches by the most respected representatives of well-defined lineage segments, can take many hours. To both outsiders and the Bulsa with school education, the elders’ rhetoric is often pejoratively presented as useless palaver. However, our research has shown that the old men, when viewed from an emic point of view, fulfil an eminently important and even—by Bulsa standards—dangerous function. They discuss ritual practices, compare them with ritual events of the past and thus create standards for the future. An unjustifiable decision against tradition can not only steer the ritual practice of one lineage segment in a direction unwanted by the others but can also arouse the anger of the ancestors, which manifests itself in illness, misfortune and death.

Prior to the burial of my assistant’s sister, the elders felt the need to define not only the status of the deceased but also that of her close relatives, including their relationship to the dead. There were no objections to my assistant taking over the role of their absent father. The mother of the deceased was asked by the elders whether she had had another ‘miscarriage’ (bia-kaasung). This question was justified because, although the deceased was married in southern Ghana and was also the mother of a child, she was equated with the two unmarried women who had died previously. She was regarded as ‘unmarried’ or even as a ‘miscarriage’ because she had not died in her husband’s house and thus had not completely fulfilled the required role of wife and mother. Therefore, the rites of her burial and especially those of the future funeral celebration would in many respects resemble that of an unmarried man.

These clarifications about the status of the deceased and their close relatives already provide a rough definition of the rituals to be applied. The subsequent decisions on how to follow the minutiae of the rites are strictly based on previous rituals; that is, the ritual of the predecessors should be repeated according to the norm without changes, extensions or omissions. If this postulate were to be carried out in any case without any changes, then a rigidly fixed, closed ritual system structured by rules and conventions would probably emerge over time, as is known from societies in which rituals were laid down in writing. In contrast to these societies, the religious system of the Bulsa is more flexible. Each case is re-enacted by the elders, and there is the possibility of deviation from rites of comparable cases that preceded them not so long ago, such as by continuing an earlier interrupted tradition series or starting a new one.

The regulation of conflicts and emotions

In-depth discussions about planned rituals and their strict orientation towards ancient traditions not only limit the scope for the rituals’ concrete realization but also make it easier to organize their implementation and make decisions when sudden conflicts arise. These conflicts probably only rarely arise over decisions made by the elders. They usually occur between participating individuals and groups of people, and encompass such matters as the distribution of gifts, the remuneration of musicians, the distribution of food and beverages. It is advantageous for one of the counterparties to refer to decisions made by elders and/or regulations in earlier comparable cases. In this way, a conflict that first appears profane is incorporated into a series of traditions and is thus ritualised, to a certain extent. Thus, the decision that has been made is legitimised. Although the occurrence of disagreements and conflicts is not eliminated by strict adherence to previous precedents, it is reduced. Financial burdens, physical work, prescribed presences, the division of a sum of money, the exercise of a specific role behaviour, and so on are not demanded from the participants in a ritual at the request or order of the head of a farmstead or ritual leader. Rather, these situations require a necessary alignment with previous actions, the non-observance of which would not only be a violation of old traditions but sometimes the beginning of a new series of traditions.

By means of regulation, the prescribed ritual can not only mitigate conflicts that occur to a certain extent but can also have an influence on the mood of those affected. This ability of rites has already been recorded by Tambiah and Platvoet: “Ritual is not a ‘free expression of emotions’, but disciplined rehearsal of right attitudes” (Tambiah 1979: 126); and, “[a ritual] has distancing effects upon the participants: it prevents spontaneous expressions (because they can be disordered) and private emotions when they do not express the public ones required by the ritual” (Platvoet 1995: 29).

The angry reaction of the head of the farmstead who was invited to the funeral ritual of the deceased woman was initially very emotional and personal because he himself had hoped to perform the burial. His refusal to attend contained elements of resentment and retribution. However, he could officially invoke the lakori principle and state that no representatives of the inviting family had come to his father’s funeral.

Just as suffered affronts are repaid with exactly the same means, pleasantries are treated correspondingly. A regulated compensation can refer to completed services or a material expenditure carried out under strict observance of reciprocity. This becomes very clear when guests are entertained after the announcement of a ritual event in another house or are making a visit of condolences (kumsa). In one specific case, after the death of his stepmother, a primary school teacher gave the guests from the woman’s parental house not only alcoholic beverages, as prescribed, but also a certain amount of money. During the prescriptive return visit, he received the same amount of money (back) in addition to the drinks offered. Hereby the observance of the lakori principle comes close to the regulations, which are made on a reciprocal basis.

These measures can be applied without taking into account ritual regulations, but they acquire a special significance through institutionalisation in a religious area and also help in defusing conflicts.

The importance of the lakori principle

Some of the effects of the lakori principle on various social and economic relations have been described in this paper. However, the essential function of lakori is to create a balance between the rigidness of ritual traditions, and the random and directionless change brought about by spontaneous innovations.

The lakori principle initially acts as an obstacle in cases of desired changes. The change of a ritual is made difficult because it is not only considered within the context of one case but also within the context of all comparable occasions. On the one hand, this inclusion of the wider ritual environment and previous events within a local group requires much more reflection and consideration about the desired change than a purely individual decision without further consequences. On the other hand, the lakori principle brings about social coherence—change is not only supported by individuals but also by society or the local group.

The strange contrast between the neighbouring ethnic group (Koma)—where the term lokoli denotes the ritual norm—and the Bulsa—where lakori is a linguistically corresponding term that means almost the opposite, namely the violation of the ritual norm—does not seem so surprising, especially when given that lakori also includes the new norm that has occurred after a change. A set standard can be changed and broken, and the innovation thus becomes the standard. The way in which a change is made appears to be more decisive than the current form of a ritual, which can be changed within certain limits; namely by taking into account economic and social necessities, and an orientation towards the ritual traditions of the local group. In most cases, it is the consulting elders who decide which rituals are allowed to undergo a change and which are not. While a violation of ritual norms in the core area of religion would provoke the anger of the ancestors, changes in the fringe areas of religious life are largely unproblematic and can easily lead to the permanent establishment of ritual innovations.


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