ancestor worship

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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

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 It might be outdated or ideologically biased.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.
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