Ancestral and family veneration in Kabyle Society

By Dr Malika Grasshoff

In traditional Kabyle society the distribution of the population in the country was a mosaic of small village-communities. These villages are politically, legally, economically and thus socially free and independent. Each village resembles a small republic, governed by the elders.

This particularity is based on the special social relationship all inhabitants share with each other. When one analyses the genealogy of the villagers what becomes apparent is that almost everybody is related in some way or other, forming a kinship-group. How people are related to each other is regulated by Endogamy, which allows for marriages between people of the same village community (Khellil 1979/2).

In this way social relationships are based on blood ties and affiliation to the commonly shared land. Furthermore the social life in the villages is based on a model of a harmonious community through mutual aid and support (Tiwizi or Touiza).

This model requires a collective responsibility of all members of the family, spreading through the whole village. In every aspect Kabyles experienced their social identity as being part of the group. Their responsibility is focused on the family, resulting in a sense of connectedness, nobody feels isolated, and everybody feels protected by her/his family. This sense of responsibility is apparent among the living but also exists in reference to the ancestors. One talks of ancestral veneration, or a ‘religion’ of the ancestors.

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“There is no clear division between the living and the dead members of a family; the living as much as the dead are all members of the clan, and only the clan is important. Even less distinction is made between the living members of a family.” (Mammeri, pp. 404-405)

This ancestral veneration is not based on religious dogma, but is cultivated in everyday life. It is based on tradition, the bloodline through the mother, and finds expression in all social activities. Even Islam could not find entry into Kabyle society without incorporating ancestral veneration. In its specific version of the Marabout-Cult it is seen as equal to the veneration of the saints.

Since the women of traditional Kabyle society have been kept from the Arabic and French written language and schooling, Islam has had little influence on them. The religious dimension in their lives is the experience of everyday life in a ritualised contact with nature. Their lives were filled with an aura of magic, for everything they did formed a unity through ritual.”

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