Ancestors: Ancestor Worship

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The term ancestor worship designates rites and beliefs concerning deceased kinsmen. Rites of ancestor worship include personal devotions, domestic rites, the ancestral rites of a kinship group such as a lineage, periodic rites on the death day of the deceased, and annual rites for collectivity of ancestors. Generally excluded from the category are rites for the dead having no specific reference to kinsmen, and beliefs about the dead in general that lack any special reference to kinship.

General Characteristics and Research Problems

Ancestor worship has attracted the enduring interest of scholars in many areas of the study of religion. In the late nineteenth century, it was identified as the most basic form of all religion, and subsequent studies of the subject in specific areas have provided a stimulating point of access to related problems of religion, society, and culture.

The worship of ancestors is closely linked to cosmology and worldview, to ideas of the soul and the afterlife, and to a society's regulation of inheritance and succession. In East Asia ancestor worship is found combined with the practice of Buddhism, and ancestral rites compose a major part of the practice of Confucianism. It is generally acknowledged that ancestor worship functions to uphold the authority of elders, to support social control, and to foster conservative and traditionalist attitudes. In addition, ancestor worship is clearly linked to an ethic of filial piety and obedience to elders.

The institution of ancestor worship is properly regarded as a religious practice, not as a religion in itself. It is generally carried out by kinship groups and seldom has a priesthood separable from them. It is limited to the practice of the ethnic group; there is no attempt to proselytize outsiders. Its ethical dimension primarily refers to the proper conduct of family or kinship relations. It does not have formal doctrine as such; where texts exist, these are mainly liturgical manuals. In most cases ancestor worship is not the only religious practice of a society; rather, it exists as part of a more comprehensive religious system.

The meaning of worship in ancestor worship is problematic. Ancestor worship takes a variety of forms in different areas, and its attitudinal characteristics vary accordingly. The ancestors may be regarded as possessing power equivalent to that of a deity and hence may be accorded cult status and considered able to influence society to the same extent as its deities. Typically, the conception of ancestors is strongly influenced by ideas of other supernaturals in the society's religious system. Ancestors may be prayed to as having the power to grant boons or allay misfortune, but their effectiveness is regarded as naturally limited by the bonds of kinship. Thus, a member of a certain lineage prays only to the ancestors of that lineage; it would be regarded as nonsensical to pray to ancestors of any other lineage. Accordingly, members of other lineages are excluded from the ancestral rites of kinship groups of which they are not members. The religious attitudes involved in the worship of ancestors include filial piety, respect, sympathy, and sometimes, fear.

The rites of death, including funerary and mortuary rituals, are regarded as falling within the purview of ancestor worship only when memorial rites beyond the period of death and disposition of the corpse are carried out as a regular function of a kinship group. Thus, the funerary rites and occasional memorials common in Europe and the United States are not regarded as evidence of ancestor worship. However, when ancestors are collectively and regularly accorded cult status by their descendants, acting as members of a kinship group, such practices are regarded as ancestor worship.

Dead or stillborn children, miscarriages, and abortions are generally conceptually distinguished from ancestors. For the most part these exceptional deaths are accorded very abbreviated funeral rites, if any, and they generally receive little memorial ritual. Like those who die in youth before marriage, their fate is regarded as especially pitiable and as a source of possible harm to the living.

The study of ancestor worship involves several different questions. How are the ancestors viewed in relation to their descendants? Is ancestor worship in some sense a reflection of actual relations between fathers and sons? In what circumstances are the ancestors viewed as capable of harming their descendants, and is the ancestors' benevolence or malevolence linked to descendants' sense of guilt toward them? What can be learned about relations of jural authority from studies of ancestor worship? What is the character of domestic rites? These often seem to reflect a feeling that the dead are still "living" in some sense, that they can be contacted and their advice sought. Studies in this area illumine attitudes toward death and reveal a very general perception that the dead gradually lose their individual characteristics and merge into an impersonal collectivity. A recent topic of research concerns the differing attitudes of women and men toward ancestors.

Ancestor Worship in the History of the Study of Religion

In Principles of Sociology (1877) Herbert Spencer wrote that "ancestor worship is the root of every religion." According to his view, the cult of heroes originated in the deification of an ancestor, and in fact all deities originate by an analogous process. Spencer's euhemerist theory rested on the idea, familiar in the scholarship of his day, that religion as a whole has a common origin from which its many forms derive. Knowledge of this original form would provide the key to understanding all subsequent developments.

Somewhat earlier Fustel de Coulanges wrote in La cité antique (1864) that the ancient societies of Greece and Rome were founded upon ancestor worship. Furthermore, when the beliefs and practices of ancestor worship were weakened, society as a whole was entirely transformed. In the view of de Coulanges, Greece and Rome were founded upon a common belief in the soul's continued existence after the body's death. The family that continued to worship its ancestors became society's basic unit, expanding gradually to the clan divisions of gens, phratry, and tribe. Eventually cities were founded, governed as quasi-religious associations by patrician families.

In Totem and Taboo (1913), Sigmund Freud postulated that the belief that the living can be harmed by the dead serves to reduce guilt experienced toward the dead. That is, in kinship relations characterized by conscious affection there is inevitably a measure of hostility; however, this hostility conflicts with the conscious ideal of affectionate relations and hence must be repressed. Repressed hostility is then projected onto the dead and takes the form of the belief that the dead are malevolent and can harm the living.

Meyer Fortes considerably refined Freud's hypothesis on the basis of African material. In Oedipus and Job in West African Religion (1959), Fortes found that among the Tallensi belief in the continued authority of ancestors, rather than fear of them, is the principle means of alleviating guilt arising from repressed hostility.

Among the Tallensi relations between fathers and sons are affectionate, but, because a son cannot attain full jural authority until his father's death, sons bear a latent resentment of their fathers. However, this resentment does not manifest itself as belief in the malevolence of the dead. Instead, the Tallensi believe that the authority of the father is granted to him by his ancestors, who demand from the son continued subordination. Thus the function of ancestor worship is to reinforce the general, positive valuation of the authority of elders, quite apart from the individual personality of any specific ancestor. A related function is to place a positive value upon subordination of the desires of the individual to the collective authority of tribal elders. This value is useful in ensuring the continued solidarity of the group.

In Death, Property, and the Ancestors (1966), Jack Goody studied ancestor worship among the LoDagaa of West Africa. Property to be inherited by descendants is not distributed until the death of the father. Prevented from commanding the full possession of this property, a son experiences a subconscious wish for the father's death. Repression of this guilt takes the form of the belief that the dead have eternal rights to the property they formerly held. In order to enjoy those rights, the dead must receive sacrifices from the living. If sacrifices are not forthcoming, the ancestors will afflict their descendants with sickness and misfortune. Thus beliefs concerning ancestral affliction are inextricably linked to social issues of inheritance and succession.

In "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors," Arthur Wolf (1974) shows how Chinese concepts of a variety of supernatural beings closely correspond to social reality. In particular, the conception of ancestors replicates perceptions of parents, elders, and other kin. This is not to say that the living and dead are not distinguished, but that the same relations of authority and obedience are found among the living and in their rites for their ancestors.

Ancestor Worship in Practice

This section describes the practice of ancestor worship in various cultural areas and in relation to several religious traditions.


Ancestor worship normally forms only one aspect of an African people's religion. A person without descendants cannot become an ancestor, and in order to achieve ancestorhood, proper burial, with rites appropriate to the person's status, is necessary. After an interval following death, a deceased person who becomes an ancestor is no longer perceived as an individual. Personal characteristics disappear from the awareness of the living, and only the value of the ancestor as a moral exemplar remains. Ancestors are believed to be capable of intervening in human affairs, but only in the defined area of their authority, that is, among their descendants.

In an important study of African ancestor worship, Max Gluckman (1937) established the distinction between ancestor worship and the cult of the dead. Ancestors represent positive moral forces who can cause or prevent misfortune and who require that their descendants observe a moral code. The cult of the dead, on the other hand, is not exclusively directed to deceased kinsmen, but to the spirits of the dead in general. Here spirits are prayed to for the achievement of amoral or antisocial ends, whereas ancestors can be petitioned only for ends that are in accord with basic social principles.

Among the Edo the deceased is believed to progress through the spirit world on a course that parallels the progress of his son and other successors. Events in this world are punctuated by rites and are believed to have a counterpart in the spirit world. Thus it may be twenty years before a spirit is finally merged into the collective dead and descendants can receive their full complement of authority. In this sense the ancestors continue to exert authority over their descendants long after death. Until that authority ceases, the son must perform rites as prescribed and behave in approved ways.

Among the Ewe of Ghana, ancestor worship is an important focal point of the whole society. It is the basis of the entire religious system and a point of reference for the conceptualization of all social relations. The Ewe believe that the human being has two souls. Before birth the being resides in the spirit world; it comes into this world when it finds a mother, and it returns to the spirit world at death. This cycle of movement through the realms is perpetual. The ancestors are invoked with libations on all ceremonial occasions. Rites range from simple, personal libations to complicated rituals involving an entire lineage. During a ritual, the soul of the ancestor returns to be fed through the ceremonial stool that serves as its shrine. In addition to individual stools, there is a lineage stool for lineage ancestors that is kept wrapped in silks or velvet.

The studies of Igor Kopytoff (1971) on the Suku of Zaire raise the question of the appropriateness of the term ancestor worship. The Suku have no term that can be translated as "ancestor"; they make no terminological distinction between the dead and the living. A single set of principles regulates relations between seniors and juniors. The dividing line between living and dead does not affect those principles. Thus it may be said among the Suku ancestor worship is an extension of lineage relations between elders and their juniors. Furthermore, lineages must be considered as communities of both living and dead. The powers attributed to ancestors can only be seen as a projection of the powers of living elders. In this sense the term ancestor worship can be mis-leading.


Ancestors are one of many types of spirits recognized by Melanesian tribal peoples. Regarding the role of ancestor worship in tribal life, Roy A. Rappaport's study Pigs for the Ancestors (1977) presents an innovative approach not seen in the study of ancestor worship in other areas. Among the highland Tsembaga, ancestral ritual is part of a complex ecological system in which a balanced cycle of abundance and scarcity is regulated. Yam gardens are threatened by the unhindered growth of the pig population, and human beings must supplement their starch-based diet with protein. Propelling this cycle is a belief that pigs must be sacrificed to the ancestors in great numbers. These sacrifices provide the Tsembaga with protein in great quantity. Pigs sacrificed when someone dies or in connection with intertribal warfare supplement the ordinary diet of yams, which is adequate for ordinary activity but not for periods of stress. Thus ancestor worship plays a vital role in the ecological balance of the tribe in its environment.


Ancestor worship in India takes a variety of forms, depending upon the area and the ethnic group concerned; however, providing food for the dead is a basic and widespread practice. Orthodox Hindu practice centers on an annual rite between August and September that includes offering sacred rice balls (pia ) to the ancestors. The Laws of Manu includes specific instructions for ancestral offerings. Descendants provide a feast for the brahmans, and the merit of this act is transferred to the ancestors. The feast itself is called the Śrāddha. The form of this rite varies depending on whether it is observed during a funeral or in subsequent, annual observances. Texts prescribe ritual purifications and preparations in detail.


Based on a canonical story, the All Souls Festival, or Avalambana, is observed throughout Southeast and East Asia. The story concerns one of the Buddha's disciples, Maudgalyāyana, known for skill in meditation and supranormal powers. The mother of Maudgalyāyana appeared to her son in a dream and revealed to him that she was suffering innumerable tortures in the blackest hell because of her karman. Through magic Maudgalyāyana visited his mother in hell, but his power was of no avail in securing her release. Eventually the Buddha instructed him to convene an assembly of the priesthood, which then would recite sūtras and transfer the merit of those rites to ancestors. In other words, descendants must utilize the mediation of the priesthood in order to benefit ancestors. The result is an annual festival, traditionally observed on the day of the full moon of the eighth lunar month. At this festival special sūtra recitations and offering rites for the ancestors are held in Buddhist temples, and domestic rites differing in each country are performed. In addition to rites for ancestors, observances for the "hungry ghosts" and for spirits who have died leaving no descendants are performed.

Although one of the key concepts in early Indian Buddhism was the idea of no-soul (anātman ), in fact the idea of a soul is widely accepted in East Asia. The idea of rebirth in human, heavenly, and subhuman forms is found combined with the idea that an eternal soul rests in an ancestral tablet or inhabits a world of the dead. The contradictions involved in this complex of ideas are not generally addressed as problematic by those who hold them.

In East Asia today the performance of ancestral and funeral ritual provides the Buddhist clergy with one of its greatest sources of revenue, a tendency particularly marked in Japan. The Buddhist clergy is typically employed to recite sūtras for the dead and to enshrine ancestral tablets in temples.


Throughout East Asia ancestor worship is found in close association with shamanistic practices. Shamanism in East Asia today consists in large part of mediumistic communications in which the shaman enters a trance and divines the present condition of a client's ancestors. These practices are based on the folk notion that if a person suffers from an unusual or seemingly unwarranted affliction, the ancestors may be the cause. If the ancestors are suffering, if they are displeased with their descendants' conduct, or if they are offered inappropriate or insufficient ritual, they may cause some harm to come to their descendants. However, it is only rarely that this belief is straightforwardly expressed as the proposition that ancestors willfully, malevolently afflict their descendants.

Chinese ancestor worship

An important component at work in the metaphysics of Chinese ancestor cults is indigenous theories of the soul. First of all, since Zhou times (c. 1123221 bce) the idea of the soul as the pale, ghostly shadow of a man has been a perduring notion found in popular stories. These apparitions are called gui, meaning demons, devils, and ghosts, as opposed to shen, the benevolent spirits of ancestors (a word used also to refer to all deities).

Together with this idea of the ghostly soul there developed a conception of the soul in terms of yin and yang. According to this theory, the yin portion of the soul, called po, may turn into a gui and cause misfortune if descendants do not perform proper ancestral rites. If the po is satisfactorily placated, however, it will rest peacefully. Meanwhile, the yang portion of the soul, called hun, associated with shen, will bless and protect descendants and their families. Thus Chinese ancestral rites have been motivated simultaneously by the fear of the vengeful dead and by the hope for ancestral blessings.

Chinese ancestor worship can be seen as two separate cults: one that expresses the unity of a lineage of lineage-segment, the so-called hall cult, and another directed to the recently deceased members of a household, the domestic cult. Lineage observances center upon an ancestral hall in which tablets representing lineage ancestors are enshrined and worshiped by descendants in a Confucian mode. Domestic rites center upon daily offerings at a home altar. Lineage ritual tends to formality and the expression of sentiments of obedience to the authority of ancestors and elders as a group, whereas domestic ritual focuses upon the expression of individual sentiments and continued relations between descendants and particular deceased individuals.

Chinese ancestor worship is closely linked to property inheritance; every deceased individual must receive offerings from at least one descendant who will provide him with sustenance in the next life. However, a specific person is only required to worship those ancestors from whom he has received property.


Confucianism lays heavy emphasis upon the correct practice of ancestral ritual. Special attention is given to minute details concerning the content and arrangement of offerings, proper dress, gesture and posture, and the order of precedence in appearing before ancestral altars. According to the Book of Family Ritual of the neo-Confucian scholar Zhu Xi, the Zhuzi jiali, commemoration of ancestors became primarily a responsibility of eldest sons, and women were excluded from officiating roles in the celebration of rites.

The highest virtue in Confucian doctrine is filial piety, quintessentially expressed in the worship of ancestors. When Buddhism was first introduced to China, one of Confucianism's strongest arguments against it was the assertion that Buddhism was in essence opposed to filial piety and was likely to disrupt the practice of ancestor worship. If sons took the tonsure and failed to perform ancestral rites, then not only would spirits in the other world suffer from lack of ritual attention but social relations in society would also be undermined.

In traditional Chinese society gravesites are located through a geomancer. Based upon the idea that an ideal confluence of "winds and waters" (feng-shui ) benefits the dead and their descendants, a geomancer seeks a site in which the burial urn can be nestled in the curve of rolling hills and near running water. This combination of cosmic forces is believed to benefit the dead and to facilitate their progress in the other world. Lineages compete fiercely with one another for these scarce resources and may even forcibly remove unprotected urns so that new ones may occupy auspicious sites.


In Korea women and men hold quite different images of ancestors. A woman marries away from her natal village and enters her husband's household under the authority of his mother and father. The wife's relations with her husband's kin are expected to be characterized by strife and competition. Her membership in the husband's lineage is tenuous and is never fully acknowledged in ritual until her death. Because women's relation to the lineage is strained in these ways, they hold more negative views of the ancestors than do men. Women's negative conceptions are expressed in the idea that ancestors maliciously harm their descendants by afflicting them with disease and misfortune. Men worship ancestors in Confucian rites from which women are excluded, while women perform rites for ancestors in a shamanic mode, utilizing widespread networks of shamans, most of whom are women. This gender-based bifurcation in ancestor worship is a special characteristic of Korean tradition.


Since the Tokugawa period (16001868) Japanese ancestor worship has mainly been carried out in a Buddhist mode, though Shintō rites also exist. As in China, ancestral ritual reflects relations of authority and inheritance, but instead of lineage rites, rites are performed by main and branch households of the traditional family system, the ie. Branch families (bunke ) accept the ritual centrality of the main household (honke ) by participating in its rites in a subordinate status. The honke does not reciprocate. In addition to honke-bunke rites, domestic rites performed before a Buddhist altar are a prominent feature of Japanese ancestral worship.

In Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan (1973) Robert Smith demonstrates that sympathy often provokes the Japanese to enshrine the tablets of entirely unrelated persons in their own domestic altars. They may also keep duplicate tablets out of personal attachment to a deceased person and with no feeling that sanctions will be forthcoming if they fail to do so. Thus, in addition to its reflection of kinship relations, ancestor worship becomes a means of expressing affection.

The "new religions" of Japan are a group of several hundred associations that have appeared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Whether their doctrine is derived from Shintō or Buddhism, most reserve a special place for ancestor worship in some form. Reiyukai Kyodan (Association of Friends of the Spirits) represents a rare example of a religious group in which worship of ancestors is the main focus of individual and collective rites. Reverence for ancestors in the new religions and in Japanese society in general is closely linked to social and political conservatism and to a traditionalist preference for the social mores of the past.

See Also

Afterlife, article on Chinese Concepts; Domestic Observances, article on Chinese Practices; Family; Genealogy; Soul, article on Chinese Concepts.


Ahern, Emily. The Cult of the Dead in a Chinese Village. Stanford, Calif., 1973. A comprehensive study of ancestor worship in Taiwan that clarifies the relation between lineage and domestic observances.

Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow. London, 1975. An evocative study of shamanistic and ancestral practices in Japanese folk religion.

Freedman, Maurice. Lineage Organization in Southeastern China (1958). London, 1965. An anthropological study of lineage organization that establishes the distinction between hall and domestic ancestral cults and includes valuable material on geomancy.

Gluckman, Max. "Mortuary Customs and the Belief in Survival after Death among the South-Eastern Bantu." Bantu Studies 11 (June 1937): 117136.

Groot, J. J. M. de. The Religious System of China (1892). 6 vols. Taipei, 1967. A comprehensive study of Chinese religions with rich data on ancestor worship, principally from Amoy.

Hardacre, Helen. Lay Buddhism in Contemporary Japan: Reiyukai Kyodan. Princeton, 1984. A study of a new religion of Japan with special reference to ancestor worship.

Janelli, Dawnhee Yim, and Roger L. Janelli. Ancestor Worship in Korean Society. Stanford, Calif., 1982. A study of Korean ancestor worship with special reference to gender differences in belief and practice.

Jordan, David K. Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors: The Folk Religion of a Taiwanese Village. Chicago, 1969. A study of ancestor worship and related phenomena, especially spirit marriage, in Taiwan.

Kopytoff, Igor. "Ancestors as Elders in Africa." Africa 41 (April 1971): 129142.

Newell, William H., ed. Ancestors. The Hague, 1976. A useful collection of essays on aspects of ancestor worship, especially in Africa and Japan.

Takeda Choshu. Sosen suhai. Tokyo, 1971. A study of Japanese ancestor worship with special reference to Buddhism.

Wolf, Arthur P. "Gods, Ghosts, and Ancestors." In his Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, pp. 131182. Stanford, Calif., 1974.

Xu, Francis L. K. Under the Ancestors' Shadow. New York, 1948. A classic study of Chinese ancestor worship.

Yanagita Kunio. Senzo no hanashi. Tokyo, 1946. Translated by F. H. Mayer and Ishiwara Yasuyo as About Our Ancestors (Tokyo, 1970). A folkloristic view of Japanese ancestor worship and its place in Japanese culture.

New Sources

Friesen, Steven J. Ancestors in Post-Contact Religion: Roots, Ruptures, and Modernity's Memory. Cambridge, Mass., 2001.

Lee, Kwang Kyu. "The Concept of Ancestors and Ancestor Worship in Korea." Asian Folklore Studies 43, no. 2 (1984): 199214.

Helen Hardacre (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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