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종교 탐방

Systems of Religious and Spiritual Belief


5 Ancestor Worship


The term ancestor worship describes, in a broad and loose sense, a variety of religious beliefs and practices concerned with the spirits of dead persons regarded as relatives, some of whom may be mythical. Although far from universal, ancestor worship exists or formerly existed in societies at every level of cultural development.



The core of ancestor worship is the belief in the continuing existence of the dead and in a close relation between the living and the dead, who continue to influence the affairs of the living. Beliefs in a surviving element of the human person (e.g., the soul) and in an afterlife have been held in all kinds of societies. Attitudes toward the spirits of the dead vary from love, respect, and trust, mingled with special feelings of reverence, to outright fear; the attitudes are sometimes ambivalent. The spirits of the dead are often thought to help the living, but they often are thought to do harm if they are not propitiated. All societies give ritual attention to death or to the souls of the dead, but not all of these practices may appropriately be called ancestor worship. If death itself, rather than the ancestral relationship, is the focus of attention, the name death cults is more appropriate. The deification of dead heroes is similarly poorly distinguished from ancestor worship. Death cults, the worship of dead heroes who may or may not be regarded as ancestors, and clearly distinguishable rites of ancestor worship may all exist in the same society.

Ancestors venerated by elaborate rites are those persons who in their lifetimes held positions of importance, such as heads of families, lineages, clans, tribes, kingdoms, and other social groups. Depending on the manner in which kin are organized into social groups, ancestral spirits that are worshipped may be limited to one sex, or may include both sexes. Among primitive societies that trace descent only through male lines, for example, the titular positions of prestige are held by males, and only male ancestors are significant. (see also  primitive religion)

Ancestral spirits that are worshipped also vary in nearness or remoteness in time from the living. In some societies only the spirits of the recently deceased are given attention; in others, all ancestors, near and remote in time, are included. In still other societies, one ancestor, real, honorary, or mythical, may be the focus of attention, and he is often regarded as a hero.



The presence or absence of ancestor worship relates in a general way to the importance of kinship in the societies concerned. In the primitive world society is ordered and life made possible through bonds of kinship, though intergenerational continuity of kinship extending to deceased forebears may not be regarded as important. Among societies of higher levels of cultural complexity, the importance of kinship and the size of actively functioning kin groups decreases. Where continuity of kinship and inheritance of property are very important, elders are characteristically regarded with respect, and the persistence of bonds of affinity with ancestors is favoured, as was the case in traditional China and Japan. Societies in which the only important kin group is the nuclear family composed of parents and immature children, and where economic support as well as emotional well-being among adults do not depend upon kinship, are ill-suited for the development or maintenance of ancestor worship. Illustrative examples are modern China and Japan, where sociocultural changes, brought about by adaptation to Western civilization and modern technology, have included a great decline in the importance of kinship and the size of kin groups, and where traditional practices of ancestor worship have correspondingly declined.

Ancestor worship includes all of the attitudes and acts usually associated with the worship of nonancestral gods and spirits. According to some scholars and theorists, ancestral spirits are anthropocentric conceptions similar to other supernatural beings; that is, the spirits have the qualities of personality and the capabilities of man, to which supernatural potency is added. The spirits see, hear, feel, understand, and communicate with the living; they make moral judgments; they are wishful, willful, joyful, angry, stern, permissive, kind, cruel, and sometimes capricious; and they have all the other emotions and traits of human beings. All of the behaviour and practices that are customary with regard to other kinds of supernatural beings are found in rites of ancestral worship--veneration and propitiation in the forms of prayers, offerings, sacrifices, the maintenance of moral standards, and festivals of honour that may include pageantry, music, dance, and other forms of art. Where ancestral spirits directly control the affairs of the living, their continued favour is sought by established periodic rites, and their special aid may be requested at times of crisis. Perhaps the only truly distinctive ritual acts of ancestor worship are commemorative ceremonies, held annually or at other fixed intervals, and tendance of graves, monuments, or other symbols commemorating them (see also RITES AND CEREMONIES: e="mso-bidi-font-style:normal">Death and funerary rites and customs ).

Motives for acts of piety toward ancestors are diverse, and they differ from devotional acts toward other gods or spirits principally in reflecting the idea that the spirits continue in some measure to be kin and are active participants in the life of the community. Rituals directed toward ancestral spirits maintain communion with them in ways that reflect human regard for the deceased elders and desires to aid them in their spiritual existence. These rites and devotional acts also seek to gain spiritual and practical benefits for the living. The powers the ancestral spirits are believed to possess vary greatly from society to society, as do the powers of other supernatural beings. Their powers may be weak or strong, generalized or specific. In some societies, their supernaturalistic roles include that of being intermediaries between living relatives and the gods. Where neglected ancestral spirits are thought to be harmful to the living, the goals of ritual observances may include or emphasize the desire for protection from them. Whether ancestral spirits are themselves gods with powers or are intermediaries, communion with them is a form of transcendence of ordinary states of existence, which may be a conscious or unconscious goal of the acts of devotion.



Until the 19th and 20th centuries ancestor worship in various forms and of varying importance in total religious complexes was widely but irregularly distributed throughout the world. In most societies, however, it was only one element of a complex of supernaturalism, and seldom a dominant feature. The spread of European culture weakened, displaced, or otherwise put an end to ancestor worship in most nonliterate societies, and technological, social, and ideological changes discouraged its continuation in culturally advanced societies.


5.3.1 In nonliterate societies.

Among nonliterate societies, well-developed ancestor cults are limited principally to peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, Melanesia, and some tribal groups of India and adjacent parts of Asia. The greatest development was in Africa, where ancestral spirits are commonly an important part of the roster of supernatural beings. In the aboriginal kingdoms and near-kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa, the spirits of kings and paramount chiefs were often regarded as generalized ancestors and were venerated by all members of society. Spirits of the heads of clans, often a mythical couple, were also worshipped, as were the spirits of founders of lineages and of deceased heads of individual families. Ancestral spirits of kings and high chiefs often were believed to have power over matters of concern to the entire society, such as rain and the growth of crops and cattle, whereas spirits of heads of families, lineages, and clans influenced matters of immediate concern to the particular social groups. Acts of piety were numerous and included sacrifice, prayers, and hospitable celebrations that honoured the spirits by story-telling and other forms of entertainment. The spirits were generally regarded as very helpful to their living descendants and were propitiated in established cyclic ceremonies as well as at times of crisis when help was needed.

In Melanesia the spirits of the dead generally were held to be important, and in some societies were the focus of much attention. An outstanding example is the ancestor cult of the Manus of the Bismarck Archipelago, where Sir Ghost, the spirit of the living male head of the household, was the tutelary god of the family and supervised the behaviour of its members. Only spirits of the newly dead were worshipped, and when the head of a household died, the old tutelary god was discarded. The skull of the deceased household head was placed above the entrance in the dwelling, where it watched the conduct of all within, giving rewards and punishments in accordance with their deeds, and protected the family from the malign influences of the guardian spirits of other families.

Among the Trobriand Islanders near New Guinea, the dead had two spirits, one of which was a harmless ghost that vanished a few days after death. The other spirit, baloma, had an eternal existence as an ancestral spirit abiding in another world. Death rites were clearly distinguishable from ceremonies directed to the baloma. Communion was maintained with these ancestral spirits, who returned to their villages when annual feasts were held by their living relatives, and also appeared in dreams and trances. Seers with special powers of communication with the supernatural world brought news of the spirits by visiting them in person in the land of the dead. The baloma were propitiated but were never feared. They were invoked and believed to provide supernatural aid in numerous acts of magic, especially in connection with the raising of the crops upon which the livelihood of the people depended.

Elsewhere in nonliterate societies, ancestral spirits sometimes were important, but nowhere were they the lone or primary supernatural beings. In aboriginal Polynesia, where people of high social status were regarded as descendants of the gods, the spirits of kings and high chiefs had power to help men, but they were not the objects of worship to any great extent. Indian tribes of North and South America seldom gave much ritual attention to ancestors. Among tribes of the present-day United States, for example, the greatest ritual elaboration was among the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest, whose complex ceremonial calendar included impressive rites honouring generalized ancestral spirits. These ancestors were impersonated in ritual and appealed to for aid in providing rain, bountiful crops, and general well-being. (see also  Pueblo Indians)


5.3.2 In Eastern societies.

Among the civilizations of Asia, the classic examples of ancestor worship have been China and Japan. In both societies, however, reverence for, rather than worship of, ancestors is a more nearly accurate description of the beliefs and practices. In China the ancestor cult is extremely ancient and emphasized continuity of familial lines. Reverence for elders was an act of filial piety strongly supported by the teachings of the sage Confucius of the 6th-5th centuries BC. The family was viewed as a closely united group of living and dead relatives rather than a group of individuals. Unity of the larger kin group was also stressed through devotional acts at clan temples that honoured all ancestral spirits. Rites of reverence were held in the home, at temples, and in graveyards. Ancestral shrines containing tablets bearing the names of recent ancestors and especially notable forebears were maintained in the homes, and rites were observed before them. Temple rites were also observed; funerals and commemorative ceremonies were elaborate, and custom also called for pilgrimages to graves. Motives for performing rites involved concern for the welfare of the ancestors, who were thought to require solicitous care and, since the kin group was an indivisible unit with common goals and fortunes, a means of continuing to receive the aid and cooperation of the deceased relatives. (see also  Chinese religion, Japanese religion)

The early background of Japanese ancestral veneration is obscure, but most of the historically known practices are adaptations of Chinese customs. Some sort of ancestor cult may have existed in the native Shinto religion before the diffusion of Buddhism from China in the 6th century. When Buddhism came to Japan it was a comprehensive religious system. With the passage of time and in coexistence with the Shinto religion, Japanese Buddhism began to emphasize death rites and commemorative ceremonies, and Shinto became more concerned with matters of daily life. Confucianism was never an organized religion in Japan, but quasi-religious Confucian ideals of filial piety were very important and were sometimes incorporated in the teachings of Japanese Buddhist sects, thereby reinforcing ancestral veneration. Japanese rites, like those of China, consisted of elaborate funerals and many commemorative rites at the home, the temple, and the grave. A great annual ceremony honours all spirits of the dead, who return to their homes at that time. Until recent years Shinto rites of passage at death also were conducted in the home.

The state of ancestor worship in modern China is unclear, but it may be disappearing. In modern Japan ancestors have declined in importance, and Buddhist ritual tends to emphasize funerals, giving less attention than formerly to later commemorative ceremonies.

In India the vast, locally variable, and unorganized complex of theology and rites of the Hindu religion conspicuously includes ceremonies honouring ancestors, but the cult of ancestors is nevertheless a relatively small part of the full religious system. Characteristically, funeral rites are very elaborate and have many motifs of supernaturalism, among which is attention to ancestral spirits. The practices relating to ancestors reflect ideas concerning reincarnation and the system of castes, which are in turn closely intertwined. One of the manifest goals of the funeral rites is to guide the spirits of the deceased during the perilous time between death and rebirth. The idea that one's moral behaviour in life determines his fate in the next life is also connected with caste affiliation. Sinful behaviour will bring rebirth in a low caste. Among some castes and in some regions of India, annual rites are performed in honour of the spirits of the ancestors of the male heads of household, who are believed to give spiritual aid in promoting the growth of crops and in other important matters of everyday life. (see also  Hinduism, samsara)


5.3.3 In ancient Middle Eastern and European societies.

Ancestor worship in various forms existed among the ancient civilization of the Mediterranean, where cults of the dead sometimes also existed, and among later European peoples. Ancient Egyptian religion featured a cult of the dead but gave little attention to ancestral spirits except to those of royalty, which were venerated by the people and especially honoured in rites observed by their royal descendants. In ancient Babylonia a cult of the dead also existed, and among the members of the ruling class ancestral spirits were honoured by festive rites and sometimes deified. Beliefs and practices of late Zoroastrianism (a religion founded by the 6th-7th-century-BC Iranian prophet Zoroaster) included rites for the spirits of the dead, who were believed to have power in the affairs of the living. In ancient Greece ancestor worship overlapped with hero worship. Some ritual attention was given to spirits of household heads and political leaders, and the spirits of men whose deeds were heroic were sometimes elevated to immortality and made the objects of rites of reverence. In ancient Rome ancestor worship was a familial cult activity. Ancestral spirits were believed to have influence on mortal life and to return to visit their relatives, when rites were held in their honour. (see also  Greek religion)

Among various northern and eastern peoples of Europe, ancestral spirits also held some importance. Ancient Celts, Teutons, Vikings, and Slavic groups conducted rites of propitiation and sacrifice.



The 19th-century sociologist Herbert Spencer regarded fear and consequent propitiation of the souls of ancestors as the earliest form of religion, an interpretation that later scholars set aside as unverifiable. Reflecting the decline of ancestor worship among societies of the world, modern scholarship has seldom given much concern to this subject in isolation but has instead followed the trend of the social sciences in considering ancestor cults in relation to other elements of religious complexes, the social order, and the whole of culture. Early writings often expressed the idea that all people fear death, but this idea is questioned by Hindu thought, in which extinction rather than eternal life is the ultimate goal. It is generally held that all peoples have some beliefs of an afterlife. Such beliefs are presumed by anthropologists to be very ancient, as seems evident from Paleolithic burials dating from perhaps as much as 60,000 years ago containing stone tools, shells, and other objects, and the abundance of later prehistoric burials with grave goods.

No recent study of wide comparative scope attempts to interpret the significance of ancestor worship, and modern interpretations of these practices view them as having essentially the same social and psychological value as other beliefs and practices of supernaturalism. Through their symbolic representations of kinship and of the social hierarchy of kin groups, the beliefs and acts of ancestor worship may be seen as establishing and reinforcing ideas of social roles and identities, thereby contributing to psychological well-being and social harmony. Joint rites promote social solidarity, and characteristically display and thereby reinforce the social order. Where ancestral spirits have power in mortal affairs, they are psychologically and socially significant in ways similar to those of gods and other supernatural beings. In the many matters of life over which man lacks secular control, for example, the intervention of ancestral spirits alleviates anxiety. But, quite like various other beliefs of supernaturalism, ideas about ancestors may also be seen sometimes to instill as well as to allay anxiety. In this connection ancestor cults may have an important moral significance by serving as sanctions of social conformity. In many societies, improper behaviour is usually thought to reflect unfavourably upon both living and dead relatives, whether or not ancestor cults exist. Scholars often interpret the primary significance of ancestor cults in some societies as a sanctioning force. Ancestral spirits are viewed as approving or disapproving the behaviour of their descendants, in a generalized way, without exercising specific sanctions, or they may be regarded as vigilant protectors of morality. Among the Manus of Melanesia, the ancestral tutelary spirit was believed to punish all moral defections by removing the "soul stuff" from the wrongdoer, thereby causing illness. When the offense was serious, death followed unless penitential acts were performed. Where, as among the Manus, ancestral wrath might affect any member of the group for an offense committed by another member, the sanctioning force is viewed as powerful, operating so that all living members monitor the behaviour of each other.

Special value is attributed to the rites of ancestral reverence in promoting familial solidarity, and, to the extent that such rites are emphasized, in promoting the unity of larger kin groups and entire societies. Information is most abundant on traditional practices of familial ancestor worship in China and Japan. In these societies in former times the individual was submerged in the family, and rites of ancestral reverence may thus be viewed as both reflections and reinforcements of the social order. As acts of supernaturalism, they place a special stamp of approval upon familial roles, unity, and continuity. ( E.N.)



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