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  • Writer's pictureTanja Meyburgh

How African Ancestral Healing Traditions can support the practice of Family Constellations

African Constellations: in search of how African Ancestral Healing Traditions can support the understanding and practice of Family Constellations. By Tanja Meyburgh, 2010

(this article also appears in German in “Praxis der Systemaufstellung”; issue 2, 2010)

Since my first experience of constellations, in the tradition of Bert Hellinger, in 2002, I intuitively knew that something African was at its core. However, beyond the obvious similarity in the placing of the elements to the throwing of the bones by the traditional African healer, and inclusion of the wider circle of ancestors, I had no knowledge of what this meant. I intuited that there was something really important to be discovered in the meeting of Africa and the West in Family Constellation, and this started a long search for very elusive information. This knowledge has now become a key to understanding and ensuring the health and well-being of myself, my clients and the training of facilitators.

Within the Family Constellations framework, it has always made sense to me to honour the African roots, as we honour those that came before us. I was intrigued by how little Hellinger spoke of the African influence on his work, and I wondered why the role it may have played in the development of his thoughts had, in my opinion, been marginalised. A student once said: “ I would think that there is an element of intellectual property that is ignored or not taken into account, thus shielding the role African spiritualism might have impacted on this development” (Ngororo, 2007)

Family Constellations have very clear foundations in African ancestral traditions, but the details are not easy to extract. In conversation with local people about the similarities it is difficult to get answers. At first I thought it is because I am white, and represent a tribe of people who have stolen enough from the African continent. What I came to realise is that this knowledge is that this knowledge is given to people who initiate as traditional African healers. It needs to be respected: it is not given lightly and it is not taken lightly for a reason.

“I experience fear (with family constellations) that I am tampering with something that is very sacred by talking about my ancestors, selling out a secret when in fact ancestors as spirit is a medium that is meant to be out there and need reverence rather than be tampered with.” (Ngororo, 2007)

Furthermore, the very act of writing knowledge down is not one that would have happened in traditional African society – it would have been passed on through songs and stories – and from teacher to initiate – to prevent misunderstanding and abuse from outsiders, and to protect the uninitiated. Knowing this, I am tentative when I put pen to paper, and have found this article particularly difficult to articulate in the written word.

The connections between African Ancestral Healing and Family Constellations

After interviewing the black African facilitator training graduates, the two most obvious connections between Family Constellations and Traditional African beliefs are confirmed. Firstly, the acknowledgement that our ancestors are vital for our wellbeing:

“The Zulu culture has a strong belief in Ancestors “Amadlozi” regarding connecting with them to appease or release or ask for certain things. They are regarded as our guides and are composed of people we know who have left this planet. Constellating an unresolved issue is similar to doing a ceremony, talking to ancestor/s asking for forgiveness or connecting those who have left the planet in conflict” (Zondi-Rees, 2007)

“The belief in ancestors is rooted in the need or desire to preserve the memory of known past generations and known or unknown lineages. The emphasis of acknowledging the excluded is the foundation of the cure for various ailments, like bodily discomfort, spiritual discord or common need to ward off misfortune or a curse that will be seen to be projected by malevolent spirits. The good spirits are acknowledged and given gratitude through ceremonies or cleansing rituals” (Mthembu-Salter, 2005).

Secondly, the use of divination by traditional African healers to receive the messages of the ancestors by “throwing of the bones”. The bones consist of symbols for various family members as well as symbolic elements relating to a person’s life: money, love, power, body organs, life force etc. Once the bones are cast, the healer considers the arrangements carefully, including how the bones are facing, the distance between the bones, configurations or patterns.

“The bones will fall to show the presence of spirits around the sick person, resentful ancestral spirits, offended nature or malevolent spirits. This gives the healer the picture of how the cause of the illness came about and what is needed as a remedy. Therapies can include animal sacrifices, rituals, massage, herbal teas, salves, snuffs, poultices, roots and herbs. African diviners play the role of spiritual leaders of ancient times and are diagnosers of both illness and mental problems.” (Mthembu-Salter, 2005)

“In African therapy the reading of the bones can be used to pinpoint pathology. However, it is more vital to reveal a pattern of affected pathological relationships – and resources. The bones reveal rituals and muthi (medicine) to settle family and ancestral relationships. In the same way, a Family Constellations reveals discomfort and resources within the entire constellation – rather than pathology of the patient. A constellation reveals remedies (“spiritual muthi”): such as bowing or saying certain sentences – which really are small acts of ceremonial ritual – to settle relationships” (de Wet, 2010).

I’m left wondering if the connection between the two has not been fully acknowledged on purpose, as a way of respecting the tradition and sacred African customs. What did Hellinger learn from local spiritual leaders at a time when he was expected to convert them to his own beliefs?

I decided to intensify my research. To gain more insight, I entered the process of supervision and coaching with a white Traditional African healer. I interviewed students joining the Family Constellation training that are undergoing traditional initiation at the same time. I slowly became clearer of other connections between FC and the African traditions of healing:

• Acknowledgement that our ancestors and family are deeply connected to both well-being and disease, and that the relationship is symbiotic and of mutual resource. • Understanding that the individual is an integral part of his family and ancestral lineage and can never be disconnected from it. • Alignment in terms of order in the family – who comes first, generational lineage and continuity of the family tree; including taking into account those who could still be causing problems until recognised and acknowledged. • The importance of the effect of the excluded part or issues in a family and person’s life, whether conscious or unconscious. • Healing using symbolism. • The spatial and physical representation of family members and intra-psychic elements of “throwing of the bones” are similar to placing representatives in family constellations. • Honouring of elders and the hierarchy of parents and children. • Connecting with the deceased and the rightful place of the dead. • Collapsing of past, present and future into a time and place set by the ritual / constellation. • The prescription of rituals and ceremony as homework after the consultation.

Family Constellations as ritual

African traditions have various levels of ritual with accompanying rules and observances for their practice. Family Constellation, in the view of the African ancestral healers that I have consulted, is considered to be a high-level ritual, which means that a lot of “random heat” (energies which can easily attach themselves to vulnerable others and make them and their families ill) is created. They would have strict rules for preparation of the participants and facilitators, as well as for the space that is created around the actual ritual event. This is not done out of fear, but by observing and acknowledging potentially harmful consequences by containing them in relevant structures. It is considered irresponsible to have no knowledge of the different levels of ritual process when doing ancestral and healing work.

My thinking started to turn around: instead of searching only for the Zulu / African knowledge behind Family Constellations, I am now looking more towards what African traditional wisdom can contribute to what we already know in FC. Through this shift, the hidden knowledge starts finding me and has become the source of profound insight in working with my own and clients’ wellbeing.

I believe, much of what has been left out of the traditional Family Constellation field has to do with the boundaries required for safe ritual work, and with the clear structure of training and initiation that is required to do ancestral healing. I am not advocating a move back to larger authoritarian structures, but rather to an honoring of ritual and initiation processes as a means to supporting the health of facilitators and their clients, and including this consciously in workshops and trainings (as many are doing already).

Health of the facilitator, clients and representatives

In African tradition, the rules for ritual, ceremony and ancestral work include speaking with the ancestors by name before the event, dietary observances around the event, sexual abstinence and body cleansing before and after the event, as well as observances around the ritual space such as burning of herbs when spirits of the ancestors are to be invoked.

Looking from a western perspective, I would say the function of these rituals are to:

1. Create advance awareness and preparation of the body and mind, and emphasise the importance of self-care before and after the constellation. 2. Consciously connecting to resources for support and strength. 3. Centering the client and creating awareness of the depth of ancestral healing – a threshold experience not to be entered into lightly. 4. Marking the event in time with a clear beginning and ending. 5. Acknowledging the role of body, its boundaries and how to protect it energetically.

When observing these five points (without prescribing the actual ritual observances required by the African traditions) in the way that I enter workshops as a facilitator and in the introduction of the process to participants, I have dramatically improved my own health and energy levels and those of clients following intense workshop experiences.

I include points 1 to 5 above before the workshop through advance application questionnaires and family research guidelines that assist in preparing the client’s thoughts; requirement of advance payment; and calling the ancestral resources through a task such as collecting stones or photographs. During the actual workshop or training, I prepare the space with my ancestors before beginning the day; ritually practice a body awareness and centering exercise with the participants at the beginning and ending of the day that acknowledge the arrival of the body in the workshop space as well as its departure at the end of the day. As closing I use visualizations of leaving behind unwanted elements that may have been taken on during the day; give suggestions for cleansing after the workshop and use African guidelines for “clearing up” afterwards with traditional herbal remedies.

Training of the healer / facilitator

In most African traditions to become an ancestral healer, you have to undergo an intensive training process and initiation. Practices include: connecting daily to all one’s own ancestors by praying to them by name (always on your knees); kneeling whenever addressing those higher in the learning hierarchy and age than you are (the teacher is called mother or father, grandfather or grandmother regardless of age); being put into the position of not knowing what is going to happen next and learning to trust the process as it unfolds.

Considering these and common themes that I have experienced in those starting the facilitator training in South Africa i.e., parentified children, identification with the victim and interrupted reaching out, the position of kneeling as the respectful child makes sense in the healer’s training and initiation processes.

“The training sangoma, or thwasa, remains on his or her knees throughout training – and averts the eyes when talking to people. In spite of the seeming power imbalance of the position, it is a rich and charged space for exploring boundaries of communication and intimacy. It is like getting driving lessons in the spirit world. As the thwasa, accompanied by the guiding ancestor gets street-wise, he/she transforms the order with new levels of intimacy” (De Wet, 2010)

I have observed thwasa’s whose knees are bruised and bleeding or have become hard with calluses. At first I thought this is a strange authoritarian power exerted by the teacher, but with time I have come to realise that this positioning is the primary movement required to facilitate ancestral work. I am reminded that Hellinger was initiated in his own way on his knees into the Catholic Church.

So far I have integrated “kneeling” into the training by:

1) Focus in the foundation stage is on extensively exploring the own family genogram, creating rituals of inclusion for all excluded elements and personal rituals of reverence for one’s own family. 2) A full day is set aside to explore the position of child in relation to parents and ancestors, and to personally practice the “bow”, including the full bow in relation to parents and ancestors and taking a position of humility as child. 3) Initial training is primarily experiential and body-based, working through the discomfort of “not knowing”. Theory and intellectual insight is introduced later.

After all the pondering over the writing of this article, a student on the current training, who recently graduated as a Traditional African healer and has similar African and German ancestry to my own, put it quite simply: “Family Constellations as a system is an outcome of the way the Germanic soul has integrated aspects of African culture” (de Wet, 2010).

From concerning myself with the unacknowledged African knowledge behind constellations, to possible secret knowledge that has to be protected, to starting to identify what could support FC by being re-included in facilitator training, I track a journey of empowerment of the African blood in my own veins. It has been a form of initiation for me. It was only when I placed myself in the position of the child before the African knowledge, and honoured what it had to teach, that it began to reveal itself to me.

Interview references

De Wet, A. (2010). Family Constellation’s roots in Africa.

Mthembu-Salter, L in Meyburgh, T, (2005).

Ngororo, L. in Meyburgh, T. (2007).

Zondi-Rees, T. in Meyburgh, T. (2007).

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