ancestor worship

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Related to Ancestor veneration: ancestor worship, Ancestral 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 manesmanes
, in Roman religion, spirits of the dead. Originally, they were called di manes, a collective divinity of the dead. Manes could also refer to the realm of the dead and, later, to the individual souls of the dead.
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). 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 ShintoShinto
, ancient native religion of Japan still practiced in a form modified by the influence of Buddhism and Confucianism. In its present form Shinto is characterized less by religious doctrine or belief than by the observance of popular festivals and traditional ceremonies and
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 cult and among the peoples of Melanesia. See apotheosisapotheosis
, the act of raising a person who has died to the rank of a god. Historically, it was most important during the later Roman Empire. In an emperor's lifetime his genius was worshiped, but after he died he was often solemnly enrolled as one of the gods to be publicly
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; totemtotem
, an object, usually an animal or plant (or all animals or plants of that species), that is revered by members of a particular social group because of a mystical or ritual relationship that exists with that group.
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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

varying forms of religious rites and cult activity centred on respect for actual or mythical ancestors. Such rites (found in many types of society and in several parts of the world, e.g. West Africa, China) are usually based on membership of a LINEAGE GROUP, CLAN or SIB, and are associated with a belief that the ancestral dead can intervene in human social life, and that religious activity can promote the wellbeing of both the living members of society and the ancestral dead. One suggestion is that ancestor worship reflects the importance of family or communal property within the societies in which it occurs. Another is that it legitimates AUTHORITY, e.g. ‘eldership’, while also unifying these groups against outsiders. In SEGMENTARY SOCIETIES ancestor worship can be an important aspect of the identification of the segments that make up the lineage system. In China, according to WEBER (1951), ‘the cohesion of the sib undoubtedly rested wholly on the ancestor cult’. Since these cults were the only folk-cults not managed by the central state, in Weber's view they were an important aspect of the way in which in China – compared, say, with ancient Egypt – the sib was able to resist the encroachments of patrimonial central power. It is within the context of ancestor worship that a Chinese man without male descendants would often resort to adoption, or his relatives invent fictitious descendants on his behalf after his death.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ancestor Worship


an early form of religion, in which the souls of deceased ancestors are venerated, the power to influence the lives of their descendants is ascribed to them, and sacrifices are made to them. Ancestor worship is known in certain matriarchal clan societies (Melanesia and Micronesia) and became especially developed in patriarchal clan societies, when the submission rendered to the authority of family heads and clan elders during their lifetime passed into deification upon their death (family and clan ancestor worship).

During the breakup of primitive societies there arose a tribal and national form of ancestor worship of leaders and princes. For many peoples the leaders were already deified during their own lifetime, and the leaders’ ancestors were considered particularly powerful (as in Polynesia, South Asia, and Central Africa). At the same time, family and clan ancestor worship continued in force and often even passed over into class-differentiated society. This type of ancestor worship played a prominent role in the polytheistic religions of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Slavs, and many other peoples; in China it formed the basis for Confucianism.

In scholarly literature ancestor worship is often interpreted broadly to include care for the dead, belief in totems, and the cult of family and tribal patron gods who were not considered ancestors. In reality, these are more ancient concepts and cults, which later merged with ancestor worship.


Tokarev, S. A. Religiia v istorii narodov mira, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
(12.) Brian Schmidt (Israel's Beneficent Dead: Ancestor Cult and Necromancy in Ancient Israelite Religion and Tradition [Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1996], 4-13) includes ancestor veneration and feeding of the dead under the general category of mortuary cult, which he distinguishes from funerary rites, along with the distinct categories of necromancy and ancestor worship/cult of the dead.
This is not to confuse ancestor veneration with ancestor worship; for one thing, the dead here lack agency.
In the spirit of cultural rights, Chibarirwe as an African Initiated Church then sought to bring back the converts into contact with facets of their cultural life, like polygamy, use of Shona names during baptism, ancestor veneration, inheritance (kugara nhaka/chimutsamapfihwa), nhimbe, use of their own cultural artifacts like hwamanda (musical horn), dance and ululation in worship.
The two spring and autumn festivals coincide approximately with the Buddhist ancestor veneration seasons known as higan, which fall at the equinoxes.
Their decision is an implicit confirmation of "the old ways": the religion of ancestor veneration, the acute awareness of the spirits of the dead and their connection with the living and the not-yet-born, and the valuing of community above the individual.
Against the background of ancestor veneration, the nature of Christian communion with ancestors needs to be carefully defined if it is not to evoke illegitimate prayer to the saints for blessing.
Several bishops, for example, discussed ancestor veneration and its implications for Christianity.
The priests show some good insights into the possibilities Vatican II (1962-65) offers for religious dialogue, but they do not communicate any of these points to the laity, who still believe that their ancestor veneration, spirit possession, and initiation rites (which, according to the church's teaching, are paganism or idolatry) involve serving multiple gods.
has a sustained meditation on the question of filial piety and ancestor veneration. He shows how filial piety can be interpreted in terms of Jesus as the Eldest Son and Ancestor as a key element for a renewed North American Asian Christology.
The image of the elephant appears on some of the most important ritual objects used in ancestor veneration, masquerades, and rites of passage.
Applying charms and incantations for cures netted five merits for a slight illness, ten for a major one (but no merits at all if payment was received), while ancestor veneration brought ten merits, and burning incense for the sake of country and people, two.
For the pertinence of ancestor veneration to sacrament and worship, see Charles Nyamiti, "African Ancestral Veneration and its Relevance to the Christian Churches," African Christian Studies 9 (1993/3) 14-37.