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Bwete

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A Hongwe or Mahongwe Bwete ancestor figure from Gabon.
A Hongwe or Mahongwe Bwete ancestor figure from Gabon.

In Western and Central Africa the veneration of ancestors is called the cult of Bwiti or Bwete. (Although the two spellings are considered interchangeable, those who perform the ceremonial rites according to African traditions are generally called "Bwiti" dancers, while the reliquary statues of the ancestors are usually called "Bwete" figures.) On this page, both the Bwete shown in the Black Hawk bucket and the Bwete at the top were made by Hongwe or Mahongwe artisans of Gabon.

The Mahongwe ancestor cult was at one time the most important religious and social force in Gabon, and the aid of powerful ancestors was sought for protection and group unity. Relics from the corpse of a deceased chief were decorated with metal, rubbed with magical powders and placed with fixed and prepared charms and talismans into a hand-woven rattan basket, on top of which stood a bwete reliquary figure carved of wood and sheathed in thin copper or brass strips or wire.

The Bwete reliquaries of each family were expected to confer benefits to that family. They were owned by the family, but all the Bwetes for a given village were kept in the back of the village chief's hut. When young family members were to be initiated, a dance-ritual was held, at which attendees from all the family-clans would gather. During the ceremony to honour the ancestors, the chief of each clan would dance while holding up his family's reliquary in display.

Venerating the Spirits of Black Hawk and Bwete.
Venerating the Spirits of Black Hawk and Bwete.

Beginning in the 1930s, Christian missionaries undertook to destroy both the Bwiti religion and the Bwete figures that symbolized it. By the 1960s, the Bwiti cult was considered by anthropologists to be a lost and forgotten way of life. However, Bwete figures continue to be made -- although it is said they are only created for the tourist trade -- and people of African descent in the Americas have adapted them for use as guardians of the containers in which their own ancestral family relics are kept.

The spirits of the Bwete -- the African ancestors -- may also be invoked by spirit mediums working within the historically African American Spiritual Church Movement, and by conjure practitioners who wish to reconnect to their lost African and African American ancestors, in the same way that Black Hawk is appealed to by those of Native American descent. The Black Hawk and Bwete bucket on this page was created by an American hoodoo rootworker to celebrate and bring in closer the lost and missing Native and African ancestors of her husband's family.

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