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Ancestor worship is a religious 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 the same.
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.