Ancestor worship is of course not a religion in itself but it is definitely an aspect of religion. Going further, we will notice, it may even have been the very beginning – the root – of religions. Interesting, right?
Why (and how) did something so illogical even start?
Who first could have come up with something so unnatural / weird? Worshipping a dead family member, irrespective of whether you did actually love or respect them when they were alive!
It’s interesting how the dead are appropriated these almost luminescent divine-ish powers just after they’re dead. Alive they might even have been dumb and annoying and maybe even evil, but once dead, we make them worshippable.
I said “worshippable” above. The practice is called ancestor worship usually but many greater minds suggest that it is more like “veneration” rather than actual worshipping.
What Does It Symbolize / When Do They Turn To It
In all the cultures practising ancestor worship, this practise is followed with a clear motive in mind – and that motive essentially is well-being of the self, that is, well being of the living family. It is not done just because they are missing the dead family member or because they truly care about their ancestors’ afterlife but because the ancestors hold power over the well being of the living family.
Ancestors, in their travel to their heavenly abode, are now believed to possess powers and affect the fortunes of their living family.
So with their worship of ancestors, the living family members want to keep the ancestors happy because they now hold the power to influence the quality of their existence. And when the ancestors are unhappy, misfortune can come upon the living family.
Some cultures believe that their ancestors actually need to be provided for by their descendants, and their practices include offerings of food and other provisions.
So, the relationship between the living family and the ancestors is clearly a relationship based on reciprocity. The living have to provide for the ancestor spirits and based on that, the ancestors bring prosperity to their living successors.
Similarities among Cultures Following Ancestor Worship
Cool Fact: Ancestor Worship has appeared in all human cultures so far.
That’s interesting and curious, especially because its origins go back further than 20,000 years.
So what are the similarities in all these cultures that follow this seemingly unreasonable practice?
Ancestor Worship is found to be practiced in hierarchical societies rather than egalitarian ones – societies where fathers and mothers hold a superior position, a role of authority, over their kids and these same privileges pass on to the kids when they have their children further.
Many cultures understand this as a way to honour the continuity to life that comes with parents and procreation. One receives ones physical body from ones parents, who take care of the child till he/she is on a firm footing. To respect the parents in their lifetime and after it, is therefore, natural.
Ancestor worship is seen to exist in cultures where hierarchical structures are emphasized on the father’s side, where the father-eldest son relationship carries its own certain nature, particularly inheritance, passing on of family duties etc.
It exists in societies that have strong lineages – where an identity of the family is felt to be important and is continued on for generations.
Societies practising ancestor worship have a general belief in the existence of spirits – that is, life beyond the existence of the physical body. Which is why, they believe that the dead ancestors still have a spirit and can respond to the veneration being given to them by their living family.
Ancestors are considered mediators between the living members and the divine, and thus hold influence over the fortunes of the living family. They are thus, considered guardians of the well-being of the living family, towards whom the family turns for maintenance of their fortunes, and for guidance & knowledge that comes from traveling to the after-life.
Origins of Ancestor Worship / Why It Could have Started
Ancestor worship has been found to be a part of almost all human cultures we know. From China to India, Africa to Polynesia, aspects from ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures, and even among the Mayan culture and the ancient Hebrews.
It first emerged in complex Upper Paleolithic societies, even among the Neandrathals.
In an attempt to answer the questions similar to the ones I raised at the beginning of this post, a few anthropologists gave forth some ideas.
My favourite one is by Edward Burnett Tylor who offered the concept of animism. Animism means a belief in a spirit essence of things that aren’t alive. So basically animism is a belief that everything has a spirit/soul which survives after death. He suggested that at some point, the ancients started believing that the spirit of the ancestor survives even when his body dies.
This could also have been a very early beginning of the concept of religions (but that’s still debated and probably will be for a long time because after all, it is anthropology).
Ancestor worship could have started to support an important social function in the evolution of humans. It is a practise that strengthens, symbolically at least, family as a strong continuous unit. It might have started to foster family loyalty, to honor the continuity of family lineage, and sacredness of one’s roots.
Another possibility is that ancestor worship may have been started by the elites of complex Upper Paleolithic societies who may have used it to establish the idea of familial continuity and thus, the continued claim on superiority and control over other people. (Vincent W. Fallio)
How Has Ancestor Worship Evolved Over Time
Like in any other cultural phenomena (I don’t like this word), local practices continue under the wider umbrella of one sweeping religion or practise, in this case, ancestor worship. While ancestor worship evolved from burial rites in different cultures (and therefore, probably exist in every single culture/religion).
Similarly, under the wider umbrella of ancestor worship, we notice different cultures following vastly different practices. But one thing remains common – like most things human, these practices have been driven more by fear than love.
As we know, ancestor worship definitely revolves around the basic concept that some essence of the ancestor still is alive even when his body is dead. So what does that mean?
That means, that at some point in the evolution of the human brain, we did improve our imaginary faculties to the point that it lead to things never ever seen or possible to be seen – the conception of ghosts.
Herbert Spencer calls it the “root of all religions”.
Forms of Worship It Takes In Different Cultures
You will notice that ancestor worship is definitely about family ancestors and in a lot of cultures and religions, they also extend to sainthoods.
It takes place in three major physical locations: domestic shrines, local temples and graveyards.
In some cultures, people visit the graves of their ancestors regularly or on a special day dedicated to this, leave flowers and pray to them in order to honor and remember them. The All Saint’s Day on November 1 (the day after Halloween) is famous among Catholic Christians for this. Interestingly, Halloween also actually has its origins in the resurrection of the dead – which is why it has its famous ghostly theme (in case you didn’t know).
In the ancient Egyptian culture, the mummification of the dead body was done so that dead could come and receive gifts from their living family after they had entered afterlife. Mummification was a form of preservation of the body and spirit of the dead ancestors.
In the Egyptian culture, the worst fate a dead person could suffer was to be forgotten. So this led to a few practises to keep them alive. One was of course mummification, offering gifts to the dead ancestors, and among others were hiring priests to keep performing rites of remembrance for the dead in order to sustain their spirit. Of course the priests were allowed to keep a part of the rite offerings as payment for their services.
Similarly, some tomb inscriptions requested passers-by to read the name of the dead aloud so as to keep the memory of the dead alive. They could also offer prayers, water or gifts.
Ancient Rome: In ancient Rome, the month of February was dedicated to veneration of the ancestors. It also included a nine-day festival which included purifications and veneration, and also included a practice in which the family visited the grave of the ancestors and shared cake and wine with them as a meal.
In Madagascar, they follow the practice of the famadihana, in which they exhume the remains of their dead family members, wrap the remains in fresh silk shrouds and bury them again.
In Madagascar, they also follow fady – which is to not do what the ancestor during his lifetime did not do or appreciate. Fady is more of a taboo system. By not doing what the ancestor did not like when he was alive, is a way of showing respect to the ancestor and may encourage him to bless the fortunes of his living family. Not following this, may of course, cause misfortunes to befall the family.
They also do minor everyday activities keeping their ancestors in mind. One of them is the practice of zebu, in which they throw the first capful of rum in the northeast corner of the room as an offering to their ancestors.
In China & Taiwan, many cultures understand this as a way to honour the continuity that comes with parents and procreation. One receives ones physical body from ones parents, who take care of the children till they are on a firm footing. To respect the parents in their lifetime and after it, is therefore, natural.
In Chinese and Taiwanese cultures, they have a system of elaborate gifting to the dead because they believe that the living family should try and make the life of the dead in their afterlife very comfortable. You will see things refrigerators, shoes, car and even actual money taking the form of gifts to the ancestors.
In Ireland and Scotland, they have the festival of Samhain.
In the United States and Canada, gifts to the dead often take the form of flowers, wreaths, decorations on the grave in the forms of stone structures or candles, and sometimes even small pebbles as a way to honour the dead. This is followed in Judaism too.
Ancestor Worship Today
Ever heard the phrase “Don’t speak ill of the dead”?
I wonder if it comes somewhere from ancestor worship.
While today you will see these practises being followed, and you may or may not follow them elaborately, do you have any pictures or mementos in your house of your dead family members? *wink wink*