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Ancestor Worship


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

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Ancestor Worship

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

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ancestor worship

ancestor worship, ritualized propitiation and invocation of dead kin. Ancestor worship is based on the belief that the spirits of the dead continue to dwell in the natural world and have the power to influence the fortune and fate of the living. Ancestor worship has been found in various parts of the world and in diverse cultures. It was a minor cult among the Romans (see manes). The practice reached its highest elaboration in W Africa and in the ancient Chinese veneration of ancestors. It is also well developed in the Japanese Shinto cult and among the peoples of Melanesia. See apotheosis; totem.

See J. G. Frazer, The Belief in Immortality and the Worship of the Dead (3 vol., 1913–24, repr. 1968).

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ancestor worship

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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