Religious Beliefs. The ancestor cult is the dominant feature of Shona religion. Ancestors are largely benign; they protect their descendants from malign influences, both human and spiritual. Ancestors make their wishes known through the mediums they possess and often through causing their descendants to suffer mild but persistent illness. They dislike dissension among their descendants and are therefore a force for keeping groups together. Ancestors can be extremely dangerous; when they become angry, they can cause multiple deaths.
Ancestors of chiefly lineages often have a political function. They support and control the chiefly office and are often involved in the selection of a new chief. These spirit guardians are believed to care for all who live in their territory. They are responsible for rain and fertility. In some parts of Shona country, remote hero spirits can take on these territorial and political functions.
Most Shona have a vague idea of a remote High God but no traditional cult in his honor. Among the Karanga and the Kalanga, however, there is a cult of the High God Mwari, with a complex organization, which overshadows local chiefly or territorial cults. Partly through use of the name by missionaries, knowledge of Mwari has now spread throughout Shona country.
There are a variety of lesser spirits that may provide individuals with particular skills or protection. Belief in witchcraft and sorcery is widespread and can become obsessive, particularly under the strain of survival in urban environments.
Around 25 percent of the Shona belong to a variety of Christian denominations, and many ideas from Christianity have penetrated the thought of non-Christians. Among the denominations Shona have embraced are a number of independent churches that emphasize prophecy and healing through possession by the Holy Spirit.
Religious Practitioners. The most important practitioners are spirit mediums, men or women who have been chosen by particular spirits to be their hosts. From time to time, a medium becomes possessed by the spirit, and the spirit is believed to act and speak through the host. Hosts may have relatively unimportant spirits and have little function other than providing entertainment at possession dances. They may have healing spirits and thus be primarily concerned with divination and healing, or they may have ancestral spirits or politically important territorial spirits.
In the south, the cult of Mwari has a specialized priesthood that cares for a number of hill shrines and performs ceremonies at them. Otherwise, any adult male, and occasionally an adult female, may perform routine ceremonies in honor of deceased ancestors.
Ceremonies. Most important ceremonies involve offerings of millet beer to the spirits concerned. Small libations are poured, and the remainder is consumed by the gathering, amid singing and dancing. Sacrifices may occasionally be offered to ancestors and territorial spirits but are regularly offered to Mwari. Spirits may also be honored with gifts of cloth or money, handed over to the medium.
Arts. The most important musical instrument is the mbira , consisting of up to thirty finely tuned metal reeds, set on a wooden base and played inside a gourd resonator. The reeds are plucked with fingers and thumbs. The Shona also have a variety of drums, and in different parts of the country one finds horns, friction bows, gongs, panpipes, and xylophones.
Visual arts were relatively undeveloped in precolonial times. More recently, fine wood and stone carving have become widespread.
Medicine. Western medicine is widely available in Shona country and is widely accepted for most ailments. A wide range of herbs and charms are available for ordinary ailments or protection against them. When illness is persistent or when it is accompanied by tension in the community, spiritual causes are suspected and traditional healers are consulted. These divine the cause by dice or through spirit possession and prescribe both ritual and herbal remedies. Such healers may also prescribe charms for good fortune in various domains. A common result of divination is that a spirit wants the sick person to become its host; in such cases, healing may be achieved through possession trances. Traditional healing is particularly effective in dealing with psychological tensions: responsibility is transferred to spirits, and the whole community is involved in sorting out the problem.
Death and Afterlife. Although the ancestral cult is important, traditional Shona rarely speak about an afterlife; a person's future after death is vaguely thought to depend on having descendants who will remember the deceased and hold rituals in his or her honor. Funeral ceremonies are performed to take a dead person away from the community and to keep him or her away. For an adult with descendants, an additional ceremony a year or more later welcomes the deceased into the company of benign ancestors and back into the homestead.