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The notion of one or more “spiritual” realms existing alongside the world of our ordinary, everyday experience is taken for granted in almost every religious tradition. One broad area of agreement is that communication between this world and the otherworld is possible. Dreams, which often seem to be experiences of a confused parallel world, are frequently the medium of communication.
One category of inhabitants of the otherworld is the ancestors. Many cultures revere their departed ancestors, so much so in some societies that they are regarded as quasi deities. As beings who now reside with the gods, they are thought to have access to powers and information unavailable to ordinary mortals. Hence, they are invoked to protect and guide the living. Traditional beliefs and rituals associated with the ancestors are sometimes referred to as ancestor worship, although the appropriateness of the term “worship” is debatable. Ancestor worship is especially characteristic of certain African tribes, some strands of Buddhism, Shinto (Japan), and Confucianism (China).
Of particular interest are cultures in which the departed relatives are thought to take an active interest in the affairs of the living. In these societies, ancestors may be requested to help the living with a particular problem, much as one would make requests of a parent or grandparent. Deceased ancestors can intercede with divine forces on behalf of descendants and can provide information—often when the descendants are in a dream state—that will help the descendants live a better life.