‘Thou shalt not worship idols’

The Ten Commandments and traditional chieftaincy in Ghana



Classic ethnographic studies focusing on traditional chieftaincy in Ghana, West Africa, have revolved around issues such as succession rules, installation rituals, or competition for positions of power. However, becoming and being a chief in a predominantly Christian society, like present-day Ghana, has raised new kinds of concerns. Many churches, particularly those that belong to the Pentecostal-charismatic movement, reject traditional ritual life aimed at ancestors and other kinds of spirits as immoral. Since chiefs are fundamentally ritual leaders, who perform sacrifices on behalf of their communities, chieftaincy has assumed an increasingly negative character in Pentecostal discourses. In them chieftaincy is often equated with ‘idol worship’ and thus in direct conflict with the Ten Commandments. Ethical rules of ‘world religions’, such as the Ten Commandments, transcend particularity and their strength is based on an impression that they are applicable everywhere. As pointed out by Webb Keane, this requires mediation work that makes the rules transportable and gives them a potential to be re-contextualized in different places. The article looks at how different interpretations of religious rules are used by Ghanaian Christians and chiefs when debating the in/compatibility of traditional chieftaincy with Christianity. These debates are understood as a part of a process of historical and cultural recontextualization, that is, determining what the commandments mean in the particular time and place that they inhabit.

How to Cite

Kallinen, T. (2022). ‘Thou shalt not worship idols’: The Ten Commandments and traditional chieftaincy in Ghana. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society, 46(3), 71–89. https://doi.org/10.30676/jfas.116234