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Dancing with the Gods: essays on Ga Rituals by Marion Kilson – a book review by Gyau Kumi Adu

Book Review: Dancing with the Gods: essays on Ga Rituals by Marion Kilson (New York: University Press of America, 2013).
By Gyau Kumi Adu (

Analysis of Title
The book’s central theme is about important discussions on Ga rituals based on case studies she conducted on the Ga people of Ghana. The title “Dancing with the Gods” suggests two things. Firstly, that dance rituals (as dance movements) are very key in the execution of Ga rituals. In my view, this is plausible since many Ga dance rituals capture important aspects of the ritual life and process. Kilson argues that “Dance also was often an integral part of religious rituals. Dance was usually a communal rather than an individual act. The high point of most religious festivals usually involved some form of dance.”[1]
Secondly, the title suggests that Ga rituals mainly achieve union between mortal men and the gods. Kilson points out “The maintenance and restoration of order in the relations between God and man depend upon the performance of ritual by which mortal Ga attempt to establish contact with divinity and to achieve certain goals through this interconnection.”[2] Ga rituals are no exception. In fact, mediums (wͻŋtsɛmɛi) usually achieve spirit possession of the gods through dance rituals. Without this they cannot perform their most vital role of becoming communication lines by which the gods speak to the people. Ammah in the context of funeral customs reveals the way in which Ga mediums disclose the cause of death through the agency of dance rituals.[3] I have personally observed Ga rituals that emphasize on extended dancing procedures in order to let the gods descend (yishi) upon mediums. These dance rituals are a significant in maintaining unity between members of the community as well. They all sing, cheer and dance in unison.
A close look at the book reveals that Kilson’s concentration is rather on general theoretical discussions on Ga rituals than on dance rituals in praxis. Hence, the second point seems to be the more appropriate choice behind the choosing of the title. That is, dance representing the purpose of Ga rituals to achieve harmony between the spiritual and physical world, since they are not done in isolation; they are done in connection to the spirit world.
In my reflection, Kilson’s theoretical discussions on Ga rituals such as the Taxonomy and Structure of Ga rituals, puts her on par with scholars in ritual studies such as Victor Turner and Catherine Bell. Her writings have become very foundational texts, since these writings were done at a time that many people knew little about the nature of Ga rituals. What is very captivating is the comprehensive detailing of Ga ritual dates, periods, and events.

Review of Central theme.
In my opinion, the most significant contribution Kilson makes to the Ga culture in this work is her understanding of verbal and non-verbal rituals. Every Ga ritual is essentially divided into these phases.
“Verbal forms of rituals concern rites which emphasize mainly on some form of words, whereas non-verbal emphasize on action… verbal forms of rituals of affliction include prayer, songs, and utterances (i.e. a form of prayer, but more unstructured). Non-verbal consists of dance healing rituals, sacrifice (by the shedding of blood), libation, special rituals (i.e. formless ritual), and water cleansing ritual.”[4] However, within one ritual we can also have both verbal and non-verbal ritual procedures. For instance, although libation ritual by itself is an action ritual (non-verbal), there are libation prayers which are essentially verbal.
One thing that this category establishes is that Ga rituals are very systematic: they follow a fixed pattern. Of libation prayers, Kilson writes “The action of libation involves two ritual actions: one verbal, the other nonverbal. These actions are performed sequentially: a priest prays before he libates… The form of libation prayer consists of three successive elements: (1) invocation of divine beings and ancestral shades, (2) explanation for summons, and (3) supplication of divine beings.”[5]
This clearly shows us how orderly Ga rituals are. Most often, many Ghanaians frown upon these ritual possessions not taking into account the fixed pattern of ritual proceedings which have taken thousands of years to establish. Many centuries before the age of writing, rituals have played a major role in reinforcing and preserving tradition, as the Encyclopedia of African Religion notes that “rituals constitute collective statements of continuity and unity…”[6]. They are systematic and repetitive as well as dynamic, at the same time carry symbolic codes of historic undertones of actual stories and myths integrated in such a way that the two are sometimes indistinguishable. Every step of a ritual is fused with in-depth interpretations of cultural events. As Kilson notes “By singing songs and offering prayers in agricultural rites, performers perceive themselves to be reenacting invariant time-honoured traditions.”[7] For the ancient African as well as Ga, preservation has been in the form of oral and practical tradition (such as rituals) rather than of the written. It behooves the policy makers in Ghana to begin looking at cultural policies that are in sync with our tradition so that education in our schools can be expressed in a more participatory form than what we have today (theoretical).
An analysis of the verbal and non-verbal categorization sparks up the existing “thought-action debate”[8] of scholars in rituals studies such as Durkheim, Bell, Turner, Claude Levi-Strauss, Ron Geaves, and Edward Shils. In this context, the argument runs as to which one of them carries more weight, or what precedes the other (verbal/thought & non-verbal/action). George Bond in summarizing Kilson’s work writes that “Verbal ritual acts establish the contracts between spirits and objects, which the non-verbal components enacts.”[9] In other words, Bond places more emphasis on non-verbal rituals, in that without them there won’t be verbal rituals in the first place.
However, I think Ga rituals rather are in agreement with a more synthetic approach of verbal and non-verbal ritual actions. The two parts form a synthesis, as one scholar writes “Kilson’s analysis show now the same motif of non-verbal and verbal ritual action recur in sacred and secular rites… thereby creating a unified conceptual network of belief that is the foundation of Ga ritual system.”[10] This agrees with the way in which both verbal and non-verbal episodes in one ritual act are interwoven such that the two are inseparable. Even in the case that one points out the preeminence of verbal or non-verbal in the context of libation prayer which is very important in almost all public rituals because they are offered before the rituals can be proceeded with or completed, it can still be added that even in the offering of prayers, pouring of drink to the gods (non-verbal) immediately follows. This is because the two are inseparable.
In addition to the systematic way in which Ga rituals are presented, another thing that one can benefit from by reading this book is its detailed description of some rituals. Descriptions of Ga rituals include libation prayers, Homowo, twin rituals ceremonies, Ga naming rites, and Ga ceremonial kingship rituals.
The Ga twin ceremonies for instance has three episodes. The first is the construction of Twins’ bowl which “sets the terms of the contract between human beings and twin spirits. The contractual relationship is conveyed through both verbal and nonverbal ritual action…”[11]            After this follows the dance of joy “which celebrates the birth of human twins…”[12], and then everything is summed up in the yam festival celebration. A detailed discussion is given of this and an explanation of the various stages involved. What I found fascinating is the discussions about the beliefs surrounding twins in the Ga cultures. Kilson writes “In contemporary Ga society when a pair of twins is born their father or some senior member of his family (we) consults a mediums who invokes the twin spirits to determine whether or not they wish to be worshipped (dza)…”[13] The Ga really place premium on the birth of twins than any other kind of birth. This leaves open the question as to the viewpoint of the Gas pertaining to triplets and quadruplets. If twins are given such reverence and honor, will concurrent births which exceed that be the same.
In all of the book, one part I found very practical was “Ritual Portrait of a Ga Medium.”  In this chapter, Kilson chronicles one medium’s life; she is called Yoomo Dantserebi. An account is made about the practical life of a medium: one who is married her god to death. In medium practice, the gods choose the person, and the person is bound to serve at the shrine until that medium raises another person in her stead. Yoomo Dantserebi is quite an interesting study since she was not just a medium, but a prophetess in a technical sense. Unlike ordinary mediums, those who have the prophetic calling in addition have strange circumstances surrounding them such as in the case of Yoomo Dantserebi. These people have extraordinary powers such as healing, some rainmaking and so on. However, the literature on the agency of prophecy in the Ga culture is grossly lacking. Ammah, has done a very great work outlining the agency of prophecy in his recent book Kings, Priests, and Kinsmen: Essays on Ga Culture and Society, nonetheless it is too general and lacks detailed description. Hence, this chapter of Kilson’s work in my estimation is one of the foundational works for latter writings on prophecy in the Ga culture.
Nonetheless, I think the book ignores a very essential aspect of Ga rituals – blood sacrifice. Although it is discussed in passing, it is not explained in depth. An example is that blood sacrifices are come in the form of a communal ritual meal that and also blood is used for deliverance purposes. Nevertheless, there is no detailed analysis on blood sacrifice, the various types of verbal and non-verbal rituals surrounding blood sacrifice.
 A Solemn reflection on the “crisis” situation of African Rituals: A Reference to Ga Rituals.
Although we can say that Accra, the abode of the Ga is the capital of Ghana, it is sad to say that many indigenous Ga towns have not caught up with the development occurring in it. One problem as Emmanuel Abraham describes is that “… African governments look to western schooling to equip people with the means of transforming their societies into effective prosperous modern nations. And yet, on the basis of performance, these aspirations and promises appear to have seen fulfilment with only with the educated individuals, but not with the societies at large [particularly where indigenes dwell].”[14] He goes on to touch on the core problem am referring to that “The African family has not constructed a composite of values and norms by means of which inclusive yet coherent models could be set before its growing youth.”[15]
Abraham points out two important things here. In the first place, there seems to be a huge developmental gap between the modern Ghanaian culture and the indigenous Ga culture. Whiles the modern “Ghanaian culture” which comprises the educated who enjoy the benefits of technological advancement, the local towns seem not to catch up with this situation. Most indigenous Ga towns seem impoverished and left behind. Most of these areas are slums. This leads to the second point Abraham raises.
The cultural gap between the “modern Ghanaian culture” and the “indigenous Ga culture”. The question is how is this cultural gap closed? Most of Kilson’s work is based on anthropological findings which just describes the cultural to us, however, the second order questions are left unanswered. How do we generate a theology of rituals based on these writings? Is there a philosophy behind Ga rituals? How can all these things be introduced into the “modern Ghanaian culture” to help solve some of our problems?
The thrust of the matter is that technological development has to be accompanied with cultural development. As Abraham puts it “… an exclusive concentration on the technical problems of economic development without attention to cultural development and support, has led to steep declines in gross national product and per capital income.”[16] Hence, the way forward for Africa, is a relook at the cultural norms within indigenous life and practice, and integrating it into the emerging culture.
 Conclusion: In my estimation this book is a very essential theoretical book on rituals which outlines an important category of Ga rituals: verbal and non-verbal. Anyone with interest on understanding Ga rituals in general, must read this book to be duly informed about its purpose, pattern, form and taxonomy.
Abraham, Emmanuel, “Crisis in African Cultures”, in Person and Community, Ghanaian Philosophical Studies I. Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye. 1992.
Adu, Gyau Kumi “The Concept of ‘Affliction’ in the Religious Context of the Indigenous Ga
People of Ghana”, MPHIL Thesis. Department for the Study of Religions: University of Ghana, Legon, 2016.
Ammah, E.A. Kings, Priests, and Kinsmen: Essays on Ga culture and Society. Edited by Marion
Kilson. Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2016.
Asante, Kete, and Ama Mazama, Encyclopaedia of African Religion. A. Califonia: Sage
Publication, Inc., 2009.
Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals, and Festivals. Edited by Frank Salamone. London:
Routledge, 2004.

Kilson, Marion. “Prayer and Song in Ga ritual”, in Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 12, Fasc.

  1. Brill, 1981.

………………  Dancing with the Gods: Essays in Ga Ritual. New York: University Press of America, Inc,2013.
[1] Tom Lansford, “Dance”, in Encyclopedia of Religious Rites, Rituals, and Festivals, ed. Frank
Salamone (London: Routledge, 2004), 11.
[2] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods: Essays in Ga Ritual (New York: University Press of America, Inc, 2013), 1.
[3] E.A. Ammah, Kings, Priests, and Kinsmen: Essays on Ga culture and Society, ed. Marion Kilson (Accra: Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2016), 249.
[4] Gyau Kumi Adu, “The Concept of ‘Affliction’ in the Religious Context of the Indigenous Ga People of Ghana”, MPHIL Thesis (Department for the Study of Religions: University of Ghana, Legon, 2016), 38.
[5] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods, 10.
[6]  Asante, M. K., & Mazama, A. eds. Encyclopaedia of African Religion (Califonia: Sage Publication, Inc., 2009), 575.
[7] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods, 57.
[8] In this thought-action distinction, rituals belong to the realm of action and belief falls within the area of thought.
[9] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods. See back cover of the book.
[10] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods. See back cover of the book.
[11] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods, 103.
[12] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods, 102.
[13] Kilson, Dancing with the Gods, 102.
[14] Abraham, Emmanuel, “Crisis in African Cultures”, in n Person And Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, I Cultural Heritage And Contemporary Change1, vol 1, eds. Kwame Gyekye, and Wiredu Kwasi (Washington: The Council For Research in Values And Philosophy, 1992), 18.
[15] Abraham, “Crisis in African Cultures, 16.
[16] Abraham, 30.

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The Matters Arising blog is a collection of thought-provoking, thought-leadership pieces sprinkled with some blue-sky thinking on pertinent issues affecting African communities both in the diaspora and at home. It includes articles on culture, politics, social and economic advancement, diversity and inclusion, community cohesion topics. It is also a repository of the political history of Ghana, traditions of the Gadagme people of Ghana, and the Pan-African politics of Kwame Nkrumah. Read, enjoy, like, share, and join!


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