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Ancestor Worship

Ancestor worship is to do with systems concerned with the spirits of dead people, including mythical people. It has played a part in the cultural development of most societies and was a part of most societies, even if not a dominant one, until the 18th century when it was generally displaced by increasing education and European systems of spiritual belief.

Generally ancestor worship is thought to have developed in response to fear of death or fear of the unknown aspects of existence (if any) after death. However, in contrast, in Hindu systems of belief the goal is for spiritual extinction rather than extension. The other motivation for ancestor worship is seen to be a moral one wherein the power of ancestor spirits may be a guiding force for the moral behaviour of the living.


The root of ancestor worship is the belief in the continuing existence of dead people on a spiritual level (usually referred to as the soul or spirit) and the influence these spirits have on the physical world. All societies have subscribed to these beliefs at some time.

The feelings for these spirits range from love to fear. Usually the spirits are considered to be helpful if appropriately respected and harmful if not.

Rituals focusing on death itself or on the worship of dead heroes should be distinguished from ancestor worship.

Depending on how societies are organised ancestor worship may focus on one gender or on people that held certain positions in society. Spirits may be accorded different emphasis depending on when the people died, or may hold long term veneration because of who they were.

How It Works

Ancestor worship is related to the importance of relationships in societies. Generally, in the more complex cultures, the importance of family relationships decreases and the size of kin groups decreases. Where property inheritance is important, older people are given more respect and this may extend to deceased family or group members. Societies in which the nuclear family is economically independent also tend to be emotionally independent and the link to older generations and ancestors is weak.

The role of ancestor worship may be independent and done for itself or ancestor worship may provide a link to more important gods whcih have a more general role. The ancestral spirit may be a medium for communication with the gods.

Ancestor worship exhibits the characteristics of spiritual systems about worship of non-ancestral entities. The ancestral spirit has all the personality qualities of a human plus superhuman powers which it gains after death. The spirit can see, feel, hear, communicate etc, plus it has additional powers. The rituals are similar to other forms of worship such as prayer, offerings, festivals and so on. And where ancestral spirits may influence the living, their favour is sought through rituals. Rituals may also take place to aid the spirit in their spirit ual existence or to maintain the link between the living and the spirits. Ancestor worship may be distinguished by the rituals associated with comemoration of birth or death of the object of worship, whcih may be irrelevant in other systems.

Ancestor Worship Today

In ancient societies ancestor worship in various forms existed. Examples include Egyptian veneration of dead royalty, Greek veneration of heroes and ancient Roman worship of family ancestors. Ancient Celts, Teutons, Vikings, and Slavic groups also had rituals of ancestral veneration.

Ancestor worship is still important in some parts of the world especially Africa. In non-literate societies ancestor worship has continued often alongside other spiritual systems. Ancestral spirits in sub-Saharan Africa still are important to societie sin many aspects of daily life including agriculture, family rites and family economics. In some parts of India, Asia and among aboriginal groups in America, Australasia and Polynesia ancestor worship is still practised.

In Asia today, ancestor respect is a common cultural trait, although this does not equate to ancestor worship. This is often intermingled with religious rites of a Buddhist source wherein the dead are revered long after their death. This also happens in some other more traditional societies, such as strongly Roman Catholic Christian societies (e.g. Ireland) where public commemoration (e.g. newpaper memorials) of the dead continues for many years after death. Ancestral rites are also intermingled with Hindu death rituals wherein the fate of the recently deceased spirit may be influenced - rebirth in to higher castes is prefered. The reverence of ancestors in Asian and other societies is declining as these societies become more affluent and family structure breaks down and the nuclear family is becoming more accepted.

Spiritual Systems Main Religions
Agnosticism Atheism Monotheism Polytheism Buddhism Islam
Ancestor Deism Naturism Theism Christianity Judaism
Atheism Dualism Pantheism Totemism Hinduism  

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