Ancestor Worship

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Ancestor Worship



Lineage Clans. The term Zongfa refers to the “descent-line” system of categorizing the shrines from the Zong (recent ancestors) to the Tiao (remote ancestors). The Zongzu (lineage clans) were organized along the lines of patrilineal kinsmen, who were honored by such shrines. The Zongzu were groups of people who had the same sur-name and shared the same descent line; they were organized along the generation-age hierarchy. The veneration of ancestors had a long tradition dating back to antiquity, as described in the Zhu Zi Jia Li (Book of Family Rites): “’The way of humanity is to treat the kin in the way appropriate to kin. Because the kin are treated in the way appropriate to kin, the ancestors are venerated. Because the ancestors are venerated, the descent-line is respected. Because the descent-line is respected, the lineage is united.”

Descent Lines. The association of ancestral worship with the continuity of descent lines became the bonding force of Zongzu in China up to the present time. However, prior to the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), the right to ritualize ancestral worship had been considered a right of distinction, a privilege reserved only for the rulers and nobility; ordinary people were not permitted to install shrines for their ancestors. After the Han dynasty the hereditary dominance of the nobility declined and so did their privileged rights for erecting ancestral shrines. The obvious change took place during the Song dynasty (960-1279) when neo-Confucian scholars strongly advocated removing the status barrier between commoners and aristocrats for conducting ancestral rites. For example, Chen Yi argued that “the great-great-grandfather falls within the mourning grades, so it would be extremely wrong not to worship him in sacrificial rites. From the son of Heaven down to the common people, there should be no distinctions in the mourning grades.” This demand was justified by “righteousness.” Another eminent Song scholar, Zhu Xi, even elaborated on how an ancestral hall should be designed in a common household. He wrote in Zhu Zijia Li: “When a man starts building a house, his first task should always be setting up an offering hall to the east of the main chamber of his house. Four altars should be installed to hold the ancestral tablets of his ancestors.” The flourishing of ancestral shrines during the Song period established a common family practice throughout society. This change paved the way for the thriving of Zongzu in succeeding dynasties such as the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912).

Specifying Lineage. Further development was made in the Ming dynasty in terms of the specifications of ancestral lines. In the Song dynasty an ancestral hall was commonly used to hold the tablets of five generations, as stipulated clearly in Zhu Xi’s Zhu Zi Jia Li. When the time came, each generation was required to add the most recent ancestor by removing the tablet of the fifth generation previous. During the Ming dynasty, when lineage organizations were getting stronger, the need to trace the roots and unite kinsmen broke through the limitation of ritualized worship of only five generations. The emergence of dedicated shrines to distant ancestors in the ancestral hall or temple became a social phenomenon, greatly strengthening the organizational power of kinship clans. From the mid-Ming period onward the installation of altars to distant ancestors became standard family practice;

it became more popular during the succeeding Qing dynasty, when the power of the kinship organization reached its peak as the result of distant ancestral worship that effectively bound kinsmen together. As it turned out, the kinship clans played a significant role in the social control of local communities.

Two Cults. Ancestor worship ceremonies played an integral part in the Chinese family and kinship systems. There were two cults for ancestor worship. In the family cult, worship was given to immediate ancestors who had passed away in the past five or six generations. The family altar held wooden tablets carved with the names of those people; in some regions a list of names was written on a sheet of paper. The altar was the center of all household worship rituals that took place in designated times of the year. Associated with the family cult was the lineage cult, which focused on generalized ancestors that could be traced back dozens of generations. Particularly in southern parts of China, a visible symbol of the lineage cult was an ancestral hall, a temple-like building with a large chamber and beautiful decorations. Standing on a huge altar were rows of carved wooden tablets, bearing the full names, titles, and wives’ surnames of past generations, around which the rituals of filial respect were usually carried out under the leadership of men aged sixty-one years or older in the kin-group.


The following passage is a detailed depiction of a sacrificial ceremony held at the ancestral graveyard of one kinship clan during the festival of Qing Ming.

After all things are in readiness, the whole party stands until the director gives the word. He first cries with a loud voice, “Let the official persons take their places”; this is immediately done and the ceremonies proceed.

Director: “Strike up the softer music.” Here the smaller instruments begin to play.

Director: “Kneel.” The priest then kneels in a central place fronting the grave, and behind him, arranged in order, the aged and honorable, the children and grandchildren all kneel down.

Director: “Present the incense.” Here stewards take three sticks of incense, and present them to the priest. He arises, makes a bow towards the grave, and then plants one of the sticks in an incense vase in front of the tombstone. The same form is repeated a second and a third time.

Director: “Rise up.” Here the priest and party stand up.

Director: “Kneel.” Again the priest and all the people kneel.

Director: “Knock head.” Here all bending forward and leaning on their hands, knock their foreheads against the ground.

Director: “Again knock head.” This is forthwith done.

Director: “Knock head a third time.” This is also done. Then he calls out: “Rise up, Kneel, Knock head,” till the three kneelings and the nine knockings are completed. And all this is done in the same manner as the highest act of homage is paid to the emperor, or of worship to the supreme powers, heaven and earth. This being ended, the ceremonies proceed.

Director: “Fall prostrate.” This is done by touching the ground with knees, hands and forehead.

Director: “Read a prayer.” Here the reader approaches the front of the tomb holding in his hands a piece of white paper on which is written one of the sacrificial forms of the prayer. He read: “... I Lin Kwang, the second son of the third generation, presume to come before the grave of my ancestor, Lin Kung. Revolving years have brought again the season of Spring. Cherishing sentiments of veneration, I look up and sweep your tomb. Prostrate, I pray that you will come and be present; that you will grant to your posterity, that they may be prosperous and illustrious; at this season of genial showers and gentle breezes, I desire to recompense the root of my existence, and exert myself sincerely. Always grant your safe protection. My trust is in your divine spirit. Reverently I present the fivefold sacrifice of a pig, a fowl, a duck, a goose, and a fish; also, an offering of five plates of fruit; with oblations of spirituous liquors; earnestly entreating that you will come and view them. With the most attentive respect, this annunciation is presented on high.”

Director: “Offer up the gold and precious things.” Here one of the stewards presents gilt papers to the priest, and he, bowing towards the grave, lays them down before it.

Director: “Strike up the grand music.” Here gongs, drums, trumpets and flutes are beaten and blown to make as great a noise as possible.

Director: “Burn the gold, and silver, and precious things.” Here all the young men and children burn the gilt papers, fire off firecrackers....

Such is the sum of a grand sacrifice. .. . But to many the best part of the ceremony is to come, which is the feast upon the sacrifice. The roast pigs, rice, fowls, fish, fruits and liquors are carried back to the ancestral hall.”

Source: Leon E. Stover, The Cultural Ecology of Chinese Civilization: Peas-ants and Elites in the Last of the Agrarian States (New York: PICA Press, 1974), pp. 207-208.

Social Role. The lineage cult played a significant social role in village life. The lineage elders often assumed considerable moral authority that directed the values and norms of kinship as an integrated community, because the elders were believed to serve as the living link between the deceased and younger generations. In addition, a lineage ancestral hah1 was a center of socialization for a kin-group; social gatherings and public services often took place there. For example, a marriage became legitimate only after a newlywed male showed respect before the ancestral altar. In doing so, the

descent line, as well as spiritual communication between living and dead, could continue without disruption.

Customs. Two customs that originated in the Tang and Song dynasties, and prevailed thereafter, became a standard practice of ancestor worship in the Chinese family. One was the ceremony held at the grave site, and the other was the rite performed before the ancestral tablets at home. The principal occasion each year for grave visiting was during the Qing Ming Festival, sometimes known as the “Grave-Sweeping Festival,” when it was the duty of the living to clean up grave sites—weeding, sweeping, repainting, and repairing. Sacrifices were made to the ancestors, who were worshiped by the whole family, and the ceremonial foods were eaten afterward at a picnic held beside the graves. Yet another ceremony was held at home, where an “ancestor tablet” was placed in a position of prominence; it was a permanent presence, and the ancestors were considered to be watching over their descendants. The ancestor tablet could take several forms. The most common was a narrow wooden block, about one foot in height, sunk into a wooden base. The name, generation number, and attainments of the ancestor were written or carved on the front. Every day, tea and incense would be offered to the ancestors, and an eternal light of some kind was often kept burning before the altar to ensure that the ancestors were constantly borne in mind.

Worship Days. On the first and fifteenth days of each lunar month the ancestors would be given offerings of food, fruit, or money in addition to tea and incense. During the lunar New Year the ancestors were provided even more elaborate offerings; on the anniversaries of their birth dates and/or death dates they were again remembered. Any event of importance to the household was reported to the ancestors, and they ritually partook of all special foods that were prepared by the family for weddings, the month-long feast for a newborn, or other ceremonies and festivals. They were a significant part of everyday life. Daily worship was usually undertaken by women, falling as it did within the home, the women’s sphere. On the most important occasions, however, such as New Year or on an ancestor’s birth date, it was more likely that men, particularly the male head of the family, would officiate. There were no monkpriests present, as the ancestors could be worshiped only by their own descendants, and simple rites required no great ritual expertise.

Rites. Designated festivals were observed twice a year—the autumn rites for the distant ancestors and spring rites for the founding generation of the family. During the Song dynasty, spring rites were practiced at the ancestral grave-yard, as kinsmen paid a special visit to “sweep ancestral graves.” The spring ancestral rites usually occurred in the first week of April and were called QingMing. The autumn rites in some regions gradually changed and eventually fell on the Lunar New Year. This festival was also the time for family members and kin-relatives, far and near, to gather together. Rites were usually practiced in the households or in the ancestral halls. The procedures were basically the same. A memorial speech was followed by offerings of burning incense, lit candles, and sacrificial food as symbolic ways to contact the spirits of the ancestors. Foods offered at the shrine table included a whole roasted pig, gourmet dishes, rice, steamed bread, and rice wine. Those in atten-dance then lined up by generation-age order to Kow Ton (kneel and bow) before the ancestral tablets. The rites ended with the reading aloud of ancestral mottos of family instructions, which were passed down through the generations. Etiquette in the ancestral hall called for the utmost solemnity and respect; everyone was required to dress properly to show piety. No one was allowed to come and go at will or to stand without proper manners while the rites were proceeding.

Commensal Feast. After the rites were completed, a commensal feast was held for all attending members to share the sacrificial food. In some regions only a limited number of those in attendance were eligible to eat the sacrificial food—usually only those individuals older than fifty years of age and men with academic degrees and official ranks. The rationale behind this exclusiveness was that old age indicated longevity and prosperity, while degrees and government rankings were symbols of achievement and success. These people, therefore, added to the honor of the family tradition, thus making ancestors proud of them up in Heaven. There was another practical reason to offer such privileges to selected members: they were major sources of donations to defray the expenses of these yearly ceremonies. For some wealthy families the ancestral ritual ceremonies were often followed by kin-group meetings where family matters were discussed and future plans made. Attending the ancestral rites each year was considered a family obligation, but at the same time it was a great honor for all male adults. Most family rules forbade women to attend the ancestral rites. In some cases, if a woman was found at the scene, not only did she have to leave immediately, but her husband or adult son was also flogged forty times as punishment for not having good supervision over her. Women were permitted in some regions to attend the ancestral rites merely for service purposes. Ancestral rites were also the time to punish misbehaving family members. It was an ultimate disgrace for male adults to be excluded from attending the ancestral rites.

Social Role. Ancestral rites played a crucial role in promoting family cohesion. Naturally, they were memorial services for family members to keep past generations in their thoughts and prayers. It was a popular belief in China that the spirits of human beings had a postmortem existence and that the departed spirits of ancestors were able to interfere in the affairs of the living. It was a committed duty of the living to keep communicating with ancestral spirits through these rites so as to be blessed for continued peace or prosperity of the family. Keeping the ancestral rites alive served the purpose of maintaining the family tradition of showing respect for living elders.


Patricia Buckley Ebrey, ed., Chinese Civilization and Society: A Sourcebook (New York: Free Press, 1981).

Hui-Chen Wang, The Traditional Chinese Clan Rules (Locust Valley, N.Y.: Association for Asian Studies, Augustin, 1959).

H. P. Wilkinson, The Family in Classical China (Shanghai: Kelly Sc Walsh, 1926).

Ancestor Worship

views updated May 23 2018


Ancestor worship is the reverent devotion expressed by descendants for their deceased forebears through a culturally prescribed set of rituals and observances. The prominence of ancestors as a focus of worship within a broader religious tradition is common in many parts of the world, including Asia, Africa, and Native America, but there are few unifying characteristics cross-culturally. Commonalities include:

Only those deceased of appropriate relationship to the living and who have undergone the necessary rites de passage are worshiped.

Those that are worshiped usually are recognized by name or title, often a special posthumous one.

Services to the ancestors frequently include offerings and libations.

That ancestor worship is related to the animistic belief in a spirit or soul surviving the body after death, as proposed by early anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (18321917), is reasonable, since it is this spirit essence of the ancestor that is believed to continue its relationship with descendants. That ancestor worship is related to the earliest stage of religious expression among humans, however, as Tylor's theory further suggested, is certainly debatable. Other controversies in the study of ancestor worship include whether practices in honor of the deceased constitute actual worship; the extent to which linear versus collateral relatives comprise the worshiping group; the ways in which the living are influenced by the dead; and the individual, family, kin group, or regional variability in practice that can be present in a single cultural tradition.

Ancestors in Africa and Asia

In his work among the Tallensi of Ghana, Meyer Fortes emphasizes the significance of ancestor worship to patrilineage unification and lineage or segment differentiation. In particular, the fatheroldest surviving son relationship is emphasized, the latter having the primary responsibility for performing the appropriate rituals and service. In general, placement of an African ancestral shrine and the performance of its services can also relate to and influence descendants' genealogical position and seniority.

In China, Daoist, Confucian, Buddhist, and folk concepts have contributed to the practice of ancestor worship in which heads of patrilineages are emphasized but other patrilineal relatives are included. There are three prominent sites for ancestor worship: family shrines, lineage halls, and tombs or graveyards of relatives. Proper placement and orientation of the latter will take geomancy (feng-shui ) into account. Physical remains of the deceased are laid to rest in the tomb/grave-yard, which serves as the site of public rituals; ancestral tablets represent the deceased in shrine and temple, in which their spirits are housed, and for which more private and personal observances are made. While the ancestors wield significant authority and influence in the lives of their living descendants, the latter care for and look after their ancestorsfor example, by burning paper money at New Year's to contribute to their ancestors' bounty or prosperity.

Japanese ancestors are also emphasized on the father's side, and their worship is primarily related to Buddhist beliefs and practices. The deceased receive a posthumous or "Buddhist" name, which is written on a tablet and kept in the family's butsudan or Buddhist altar; Buddhist funerary services help purify the corpse from the polluting influences of death. Other services include "death day" memorial services for up to fifty years, New Year's and Bon (or Obon) celebrations, and household prayers. While tradition maintains a differentiation between stem and branch families and a main ancestral altar in the stem house, more modern practice has individual families establishing their own butsudan with the death of a household member. Proper care for the ancestors and observance of appropriate services, offerings, and prayers are believed not only to help the ancestors be restful and in peace, but also to result in blessings and good fortune for the descendants.

Among the Inca

In his early chronicle of Inca customs, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala pictures a mummy with feathered headdress and fine raiment carried on a litter as illustration of November or aya marcay quilla (Quechua for "the month of the dead"). He describes how during the holiday of the dead the deceased were removed from their crypts, adorned with clothing and feathers, given foodthrough burnt offeringsand drink, and carried dancing and walking through the streets and plazas, then laid to rest with various offerings. Such activities occurred primarily in the worship of royal mummies, as an extension of the concept of the divine nature of the Inca king. While Inca beliefs included the departure of the soul from the body at death, royal bodies were mummified, served burnt offerings and drinks, and cared for by official attendants. Royal ancestors participated in affairs of statecounseling living rulers and contributing to their decision making, and, either in the guise of their mummified remains or as idols making formal appearances and visitations, receiving obeisance from their living subjects. Such beliefs were common in the Andes, as ancestral idols of subject peoples were held in Cuzco, the Inca capital, as a control mechanism.

Andean and Inca ancestor worship extended beyond that of royalty, and was probably common among all classes in the pre-Columbian era. Padre Bernabé Cobo attests that when the soul departed from the body, members of the deceased's ayllu (a corporate kin group) and family took and cared for the body, providing the veneration and care that was possible according to the family's means and status. The bodies were kept in relatives' houses, tombs, or shrines and were regularly paid tribute through sacrifice and prayer. This nonroyal worship was performed only by those descended in a direct line, and usually only by the children and possibly grandchildren of the deceased. Such worship was held to directly affect descendants' vitality and fortune, while its lack or disrespect to the ancestors could result in ill health or other maladies.

Ancestral Ambivalence

Ancestor worship is most likely to be practiced in a society with strong lineages or other consanguineal corporate groups whose continuity, standing, and control of resources extends over generations, and one in which there are strong beliefs in an active spirit world. In such contexts the appropriately related and ritually defined deceased continue to be interactive lineage and family members, cared for and reverenced by the living and in turn contributing to the prosperity of their succeeding generations as sources of or mediators with divine power. In general, ancestors who are worshiped are perceived as guardian or authority figures who are difficult to please, whose degree of influence on the living usually decreases with increasing genealogical distance from descendants. The power of the ancestors is therefore ambivalent: as likely to punish as to reward, they offer security and comfort while also contributing to uncertainty in an equivocal cosmos.

See also Animism ; Religion .


Cobo, Bernabé. Historia del nuevo mundo. 1653. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, 1964.

D'Altroy, Terence N. The Incas. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

Fortes, Meyer. Oedipus and Job in West African Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe. Nueva corónica y buen gobierno. 1615. Paris: Institut d'ethnologie, 1936.

Hsu, Francis L. K. Under the Ancestors' Shadow: Kinship, Personality, and Social Mobility in China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1971.

Newell, William H., ed. Ancestors. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

Smith, Robert J. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Stephen M. Fabian

Ancestor Worship

views updated May 18 2018

Ancestor Worship

The term ancestor worship, coined in 1885 by the British philosopher and sociologist Herbert Spencer, refers to a ritualized invocation of dead kin. It is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead have the power to influence the affairs of the living. Ancestors who are respected and remembered by elaborate rites include members of the family, clans, and tribes. Ancestral spirits that are worshiped also vary in distance of time from the living. In some societies, only the spirits of the recently deceased are worshiped, while in others, all ancestors are included.

The practice of ancestor worship is not universal, but exists or formerly existed in many countries including those in West Africa, Europe, the Pacific, and East Asia. Information is most abundant on traditional practices of familial ancestor worship in China (Thompson 1973) and Japan (Yanagita 1970).

Ancestor Worship in China

In China, the practice of ancestor worship has existed since ancient times, and it emphasized continuity of family lines. Filial piety, advocated by the Confucian teachings of the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E., emphasized respect for senior family members (Granet 1975). The practice of ancestor worship, therefore, can be seen as an extension of this reverence. Additionally, the family was viewed as a closely united group of living and dead relatives. Unity of the entire kin group was also reinforced through religious acts at temples that honored all ancestral spirits.

Rites of reverence were also held at home and gravesites. Ancestral shrines containing tablets bearing the names of recently deceased ancestors were maintained in homes, and rites were observed before them. The ancestral tablets, which are the locus of worship for the deceased, operate in two ways within the practice of ancestor worship. In one way they are like the ancestral hall, showing outsiders the public face of the lineage. In another way, they represent the lineage as a body of individual members. Ancestor festivals occur around the fifteenth of July, during which items such as fruit, preserves, candies, two or more bowls containing fragrant wood, some lotus or other flowers in the vase, and a number of dishes or bowls of cooked food are placed in front of the shrine. If the family can afford it, one or more priests are invited to read scriptures and perform certain rituals before the shrine during this period (Hsu 1948).

Emily Ahern (1973) emphasizes that the reciprocal obligation between the living and the dead is an important element in Chinese family life. For example, in a Chinese village that Ahern studied, the living are expected to care for the dead in payment of the debts they owe them, and, in turn, the living hope to obtain the good life as they perceive it: wealth, rich harvests, and offspring who will ensure undying memory and sustenance in the afterlife.

The state of ancestor worship in modern China is unclear, but it was reported to be disappearing (Welch 1969) under the Communist regime. Rennselaer Lee (1964) argues that the Chinese Communists have been fundamentally hostile towards religion, but the government solicited the cooperation of religious leaders in an attempt to create the new China. Others, however, are more cynical of these governmental efforts (Levenson 1965) and report that religious repression has been severe (Welch 1969).

Ancestor Worship in Japan

Most of the historically known practices of ancestor worship in Japan are adaptations of Chinese customs. With the passage of time and in coexistence with the Shinto religion, Japanese Buddhism began to emphasize death rites and commemorative ceremonies. Although Confucianism was never fully developed in Japan, quasi-religious Confucian ideals of filial piety became important and were sometimes incorporated in the teachings of Japanese Buddhist sects, thereby reinforcing respect for ancestors (Tamaru 1972).

Japanese rites, like those of China, consist of elaborate funerals and many commemorative rites at home, temple, and gravesites. A Butsudan (family altar to ancestors), which displays tablets with inscribed ancestors' names, is present in many Japanese households. An annual ancestral ceremony, Bon, takes place in either July or August and along with the New Year's celebration, is considered to be one of the two most important observances in Japan (Yanagita 1970). During Bon ceremony, family members return to their parental homes to honor all spirits of the dead who are believed to return to their homes at that time. As was the case in China, fresh fruit, flowers, and cooked rice are offered on the family altar. Many family members go to meet the souls of their ancestors in the cemetery or at the temple. In many neighborhoods, an annual Bon dance is held to celebrate this special observance in which adults and children dance to Japanese folk music. In addition to the annual ancestral festival, ancestors are remembered and worshipped through the purification rituals that take place seven days, forty-nine days, and one hundred days after the death of a family member, during the first Bon, and the first, third, seventh, thirteenth, seventeenth, twenty-third, twenty-seventh, thirty-third, fiftieth, and one hundredth year anniversaries of their death.

In modern Japan, ancestors have declined in importance, and Buddhist ritual tends to emphasize funerals, giving less attention than formerly to commemorative ceremonies.

To many Japanese, the ancestral festival, Bon, has become nothing more than a few days of rest. In a 1968 survey of religious attitudes of Japanese men, Fernando Basabe found that one in four Japanese men believed that the spirits of the ancestors return to their homes during the Bon festival. Although the lives of most Japanese are intertwined with religious observances such as Bon, and most have Buddhist altars in the homes, the majority of Japanese do not consider themselves believers in any religion (Reischauer 1981). This suggests that Japanese people are slowly losing interest in the worship of ancestral spirits.

Despite these modern trends, ancestor worship continues to be an important mechanism through which the living feel that they are spiritually connected to the deceased family members, thereby ensuring the continuity of family lineage.

See also:Buddhism; China; Confucianism; Japan


ahern, e. m. (1973). the cult of the dead in a chinesevillage. stanford, ca: stanford university press.

basabe, f. m. (1968). religious attitudes of japanese men:a sociological survey. tokyo: sophia university press.

granet, m. (1975). the religion of the chinese people. oxford: blackwell.

hsu, l. k. (1948). under the ancestors' shadow. newyork: columbia university press.

lee, r. w., iii. (1964). "general aspects of chinese communist religious policy, with soviet comparison." china quarterly 19:16–173.

levenson, j. (1965). "the communist attitude towards religion." in the chinese model: a political, economic, and social survey. hong kong: university of hong kong press.

reischauer, e. o. (1981). the japanese. cambridge, ma:harvard university press.

tamaru, n. (1972). "buddhism." in japanese religion: asurvey by the agency for cultural affairs, ed. i. hori, f. ikado, t. wakimoto, and k. yanagawa. tokyo: kodansha.

thompson, l. g. (1973). the religious life of man: thechinese way in religion. belmont, ca: wadsworth.

welch, h. (1969). "buddhism since the cultural revolution." china quarterly 40:127–136.

yanagita, k. (1970). about our ancestors: the japanesefamily system. tokyo: japan society for the promotion of science.

masako ishii-kuntz

Ancestor Worship

views updated May 18 2018


An important special form of worship of the dead found in certain cultures. It is concerned with dead relatives, particularly blood relatives. Although ancestors of the larger kinship groups are also included, the cult involves especially the immediate members of the family to the third generation. Families and clansmen, through their veneration of ancestors, maintain solidarity and a sacred dignity. Although the cult of ancestors is, for the most part, characteristic of the primitive religions of the matriarchal agricultural peoples, and is connected especially with planting and harvesting, in general it is the patriarchal feature that is dominant in it.

Of the early higher cultures, the Chinese was the one in which ancestor worship attained its greatest development. It exercised influence on Japanese Shintoism, although in Japan, as in Peru, ancestor worship had its own root in the existing clan system. Among the Finns, a corner in the house was regarded sacred to ancestors. The pagan Scandinavians set out barley and beer on fixed days for their farmer ancestors. The "cult of the fathers," i.e., the worship of male forbears, was widely practised not only among the ancient Germans but also in Aryan India; in fact it is so well attested for other Indo-European peoples that it must go back to the age of primitive Indo-European unity. In Greece, the dead were believed to become incarnate in snakes, and if these creatures appeared in a house, they inspired a feeling of special awe.

H. spencer (18201903) held that manism was the primitive form of religion, but his theory has received no corroboration from investigations of even the lowest and simplest cultures. Mythical ancestors or more or less mythical forbears were given the status of heroes. However, historical members of families were not raised immediately to divine status by their people. On the other hand, it is known that even higher cosmic beings, like Amaterasu, the Japanese sun-goddess in the imperial palace, became ancestor divinities.

Images of ancestors were especially significant in ancestor worship. The ancestor tablets of the Chinese probably go back to such representations. In rites at the grave, these were marked with sacrificial blood by the son of the dead man. They had their place at the domestic altar, before which all significant family happenings were reported. The chief place of cult was the grave, but the temple dedicated to ancestors was important also. The priestly function in the ancestor cult was performed originally by the head of the house.

The Feast of All Souls, celebrated among the ancient Germans in the Yule Festival, the Feast of Lights held in July in the Far East, and the Urabon Feast of the Japanese are all connected with the reception and entertainment of the spirits of ancestors.

Bibliography: f. hampl et al., f. kÖnig, Religionswissenschaftliches Wörterbuch (Freiburg 1956) 2530. w. crooke et al., j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion & Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 190827) 1:425467. c. m. edsman, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 195765) 6:959961. j. haekel, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 1:222223. w. schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion, tr. h. j. rose (2d ed. London 1935) 6172. w. otto, Die Manen (Berlin 1923). f. krause, Maske und Ahnenfigur: Ethnologische Studien (Leipzig 1931). h. findeisen, Das Tier als Gott: Dämon und Ahne (Stuttgart 1956). a. e. jensen, Myth and Cult among Primitive Peoples, tr. m. t. choldin and w. weissleder (Chicago 1963). f. herrmann, Symbolik in den Religionen der Naturvölker (Stuttgart 1961) 109111.

[a. closs]

ancestor worship

views updated May 14 2018

ancestor worship Any of various religious beliefs and practices found in societies where kinship is strong. The spirits of dead ancestors or tribal members, believed capable of good or harm, are propitiated by prayers and sacrifices. It is practised chiefly in sub-Saharan Africa and Melanesia.

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