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form of worship which emphasizes the influence of deceased relatives on
the living. The worship is not a religion in and of itself, but a facet
of religious expression which recognizes an element beyond human control.
This form of worship is at the core of people's religious practices such
as in China, tropical Africa, Malaysia, and Polynesia. Aspects of this type
of worship have been traced to the ancient Egyptians and Romans. Various
aspects of it were among the ancient Hebrews, but their worship was more
of a reverence for the dead. The worship is not universal nor widespread
among primitive people.
The basis of ancestor worship seems to stem from two principle ideas: (1)
that "those who have gone before" have a continual and beneficent
interest in the affairs of the living; and (2) more widespread, uneasiness,
fear of the dead, with practices to placate them. The later ideas more often
serve as a form of dispensing emotions than of worship.
During the 19th century anthropological theorists Edward Burnett Tylor,
Herbert Spencer, and Frank Byron Jevons deemed ancestor worship to be a
first inchoate religion (not as one phase). They assumed the primitive people
being observed, savages as they were called, were unable to comprehend the
unseen. Further assumptions were made that the dead were seen as something
unnatural, uncanny, to be feared and conciliated. However, further investigation
has shown primitives do recognize the dead, but also, distinguish between
their own kinsmen, who are commonly thought to have reciprocated friendship,
and those who are to be feared. Further, ghosts are not considered ancestral
dead, but identities who are impersonal, unidentifiable, unpredictable,
inimical, or malignant. Such acts as ridding houses of the spirits of the
dead or foiling ghosts, are common, but they are magical acts rather than
rites of worship and reverence.
Attitudes toward ancestor worship vary among primitive societies. In Polynesian
societies where social rank depends on the nearness on the descent from
the gods and their successors the ancestors, the attitude is one of reverence
and expectation of help and guidance, but it involves little worship. Malaysian
family rites were addressed to diseased kindred who were thought to be always
close by and always concerned that the traditional way of life should remain
Among the American Pueblo Indians the dead were believed to become one with
their mythical forefathers, the kachmas; and there were ceremonials involving
masked impersonation of the kachmas, and prayers to "the departed"
to give the living the blessing of rain, fertility, and happiness.
Ancestral cults are very common in most of tropical Africa. Here family
members include the ancestors as well as the living. The elder members control
the juniors as the forebears controlled them. The basis for such control
is the continuity of family ties. In Dahomey, West Africa, (see Voodoo) ancestral spirits
are of three ranks: the spirit founders of the clans, those who died before
genealogical records were kept, and the known dead. At intervals the recent
dead are established by rite among the ancestors. Yearly there is worship
with dancing, when distinguished ancestral spirits "alight" on
the heads of men to spiritually possess them. Each clan has a mythical pair
of founders, whose son, as the oldest of ancestors, stands as the absolute
ruler of all ancestral spirits. The actual clan head (the oldest man) derives
his absolutism from his association with the ancestral spirits, whose power
he can invoke to enforce his decrees.
In China, the main importance of this worship is the continuity of the family
and reverence for the wisdom of the elders. The practice is very ancient
extending back before 1000 BC. The practices, essentially a family affair,
is held in homes and temples and consists of prayers and offerings before
tablets. It is accompanied by an elaborate burial systems, and afterwards
visiting the graves with deep respect and a horror of trespassing on or
despoiling the graves. The practitioners participate in the worship out
of filial virtue without any sense of fear of gain which helps to preserve
a strong sense of family solidarity. A state worship of Confucius, which
may coincide with the family worship, involves an extension of reverence
for the wisdom of the elders, a mark of respect and honor for a great teacher
rather than giving to those honored power over human affairs. Presently,
however, such attitudes are diminishing on the Communist mainland.
In Japan this form of family worship is participated in from a sense of
duty to elders and ancestors. It is fostered by the government. Also, it
is modified by a reciprocal obligations of parents to children.
Ancestor worship does not play a part in the many religions of India although
they do possess a strong reverence for the past.
There is little trace of ancestral worship in ancient Egypt although it
had an impressive cult of the dead. In this the mummification of the body
play an important part. There was a belief that at death the soul could
live on if the body was preserved, joining the king of the dead, Osiris,
in eternal happiness. The common man did not venerate his ancestors, but
he commemorated their names.
What ever ancestor worship existed in ancient Rome was a family affair,
not a public one. The diseased joined the manes, the household gods.
They visited the families and thus gained immortality by reliving on earth.
There was no great privilege in this; they were greeted and appeased but
had no substantial influence on the living. A.G.H.
Source: Leslie Spier,
University of New Mexico 61.