Ancestor worship is the worship of deceased relatives, or ancestors, as if they were deities.
Ancestor worship may take several forms. In its most generalized form, it is simply the laying out of food or drink for the deceased in the belief that this will encourage them to bring good to the community, and ward off evil. Ancestral spirits are widely believed to be able to influence the fertility of women and crops. Propitiation of ancestors is characteristic of ANIMISM, the world view to which the majority of tribal societies around the world adhere, but since the ancestors are not really thought of as gods, it may be going too far to describe this as “worship.”
A more definite form of ancestor worship is found in Asia, where one part of the spirit of a deceased person is believed to pass into a special tablet after death. The tablets are placed in a ceremonial room and are bowed to, talked to and fed regularly by their living descendants, quite as if they were living persons. The purpose of these acts is, however, the same as in the tribal societies: to please the ancestors, thereby making sure that they continue to look out for the household and community.
An intermediary type of ancestor worship is found throughout West Africa. Here each family line, or lineage, has its own ancestral shrine, inhabited, it is believed, by the founder of the lineage. These shrines are usually carved wooden representations of the persons in question, and they may be fed, cared for and asked for favours, especially for children.
- Radin, Paul. Primitive Religion: Its Nature and Origin. New York: Dover Publications, 1957.
- Tylor, Edward Burnett. Religion in Primitive Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.