Ancestor Worship

General Information

Ancestor Worship is reverence granted to deceased relatives who are believed to have become powerful spiritual beings or, less frequently, to have attained the status of gods. It is based on the belief that ancestors are active members of society and are still interested in the affairs of their living relatives.

The cult of ancestor worship is common, although not universal. It has been extensively documented in West African societies (the Bantu and the Shona), in Polynesia and Melanesia (the Dobu and the Manus), among several Indo-European peoples (the ancient Scandinavians, Romans, and Germans), and especially in China and Japan. In general, ancestors are believed to wield great authority, having special powers to influence the course of events or to control the well-being of their living relatives. Protection of the family is one of their main concerns. They are considered intermediaries between the supreme god, or the gods, and the people, and can communicate with the living through dreams and by possession. The attitude toward them is one of mixed fear and reverence. If neglected, the ancestors may cause disease and other misfortunes. Propitiation, supplication, prayer, and sacrifice are various ways in which the living can communicate with their ancestors.

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Ancestor worship is a strong indication of the value placed on the household and of the strong ties that exist between the past and the present. The beliefs and practices connected with the cult help to integrate the family, to sanction the traditional political structure, and to encourage respect for living elders. Some scholars have also interpreted it as a source of individual well-being and of social harmony and stability. Because it is practiced by family groups, ancestor worship excludes proselytizing and rarely involves a separate priesthood. It has no formal doctrines and is ordinarily an aspect of some larger religious system.

John A. Saliba

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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