Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship

Ancestor worship is a practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and/or possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living. All cultures attach ritual significance to the passing of loved ones, but this is not equivalent to ancestor veneration. [ [ "Ancestor Worship,"] Leslie Spier, "The Encyclopedia Americana, International Edition." Danbury, CT, Grolier, 1987.] The goal of ancestor veneration is to ensure the ancestors' continued well-being and positive disposition towards the living and sometimes to ask for special favours or assistance. [ [ "Ancestor worship,] Micha F. Lindemans, based on "Encyclopedie van de Mythologie". van Reeth, Dr. A. Tirion, Baarn: 1994. ISBN 9051213042.] The social or non-religious function of ancestor veneration is to cultivate kinship values like filial piety, family loyalty, and continuity of the family lineage. While far from universal, ancestor veneration occurs in societies with every degree of social, political, and technological complexity, and it remains an important component of various religious practices in modern times.


For most of the cultures, ancestor practices are not the same as the worship of the gods. When a person worships a god at a local temple, it is to ask for some favour that can be granted by the powerful spirit. Generally speaking, however, the purpose of ancestor veneration is not to ask for favors but to do one's filial duty. Some people believe that their ancestors actually need to be provided for by their descendants. Others do not believe that the ancestors are even aware of what their descendants do for them, but that the expression of filial piety is what is important. Whether or not the ancestor receives what is offered is not the issue.

Therefore, for people unfamiliar with how "ancestor worship" is actually practiced and thought of, the use of the translation "worship" can be a cause of misunderstanding and is a misnomer in many ways. In English, the word "worship" usually refers to the reverent love and devotion accorded a deity or divine being. However, in other cultures, this act of "worship" does not confer any belief that the departed ancestors have become some kind of deity. Rather the act is a way to respect, honour and look after ancestors in their afterlives as well as possibly seek their guidance for their living descendants. In this regard, many cultures and religions have similar practices. Some may visit the grave of his parents or other ancestors, leave flowers and pray to them in order to honour and remember them while also asking their deceased ancestors to continue to look after them. However he would not consider himself as "worshipping" them.

It is in that sense that the translation "ancestor veneration" may convey a more accurate sense of what practitioners, such as the Chinese and other Buddhist-influenced and Confucian-influenced societies, see themselves as doing.


Ancestral veneration in some cultures (such as Chinese) (敬祖, pinyin: jìngzǔ ), also ancestor worship (拜祖, pinyin: bàizǔ), seeks to honor the deeds and memories of the deceased. This is an extension of filial piety for the ancestors, the ultimate homage to the deceased as if they are alive. Instead of prayers, joss-sticks are offered with communications and greetings to the deceased. There are eight qualities of "De" (八德) for a Chinese to complete his earthly duties, and filial piety (孝) is the top and foremost of those qualities. The importance of paying filial duties to parents (and elders) lies with the fact that all physical bodily aspects of one's being were created by one's parents, who continued to tend to our well being until one is on firm footings. The respect and the homage to parents, i.e. filial piety is to return this gracious deed, to them in life and after, the ultimate homage. In this regard ancestral veneration in China is a fusion of the teachings of Confucius and Laozi rather than a religious ritual.

Sacrifices are sometimes made to altars as food for the deceased. This falls under the modes of communication with the Chinese spiritual world concepts. Some of the veneration includes visiting the deceased at their graves, making offerings to the deceased in the Qingming, Chongyang and Ghost Festivals. All three are related to paying homage to the spirits. Due to the hardships of the late 19th and 20th century China, when meat and poultry were difficult to come by, sumptuous feasts are still offered in some Asian countries as a practice to the spirits or ancestors. However in the orthodox Taoist and Buddhist rituals, only vegetarian food or fruit would suffice.

For those with deceased in the netherworld or hell elaborate or even creative offerings such as toothbrush, comb, towel, slippers, and water are provided so that the deceased will be able to have these items after they have died. Often paper versions of these objects are burned for the same purpose, even paper cars and plasma TVsFact|date=July 2008. "Spirit money" (also called Hell Notes) is sometimes burned as an offering to ancestors as well for the afterlife. The living may regard the ancestors as "guardian angels" to them, perhaps in protecting them from serious accidents, or guiding their path in life.


In Korea, ancestor worship is referred to by the generic term "jerye" (hangul: 제례; hanja: ) or "jesa" (hangul: 제사; hanja: ) Notable examples of "jerye" include "Munmyo jerye" and "Jongmyo jerye", which are performed periodically each year for venerated Confucian scholars and kings of ancient times, respectively. The ceremony held on the anniversary of a family member's death is called "charye" (차례). [ [ "Ancestor Worship and Korean Society,"] Roger Janelli, Dawnhee Janelli, Stanford University Press, 1992. ISBN-10: 0804721580.]


Ancestor worship is one of the most unifying aspects of Vietnamese culture, as practically all Vietnamese regardless of religious denomination (Buddhist or Christian) have an ancestor altar in their home or business.

In Vietnam, traditionally people did not celebrate birthdays (before western influence) but the death anniversary of a loved one was always an important occasion. Besides an essential gathering of family members for a banquet in memory of the deceased, incense sticks are burned along with hell notes, and great platters of fruit and food are made as offerings on the ancestor altar, which usually has pictures of the deceased.

These offerings and practices are done frequently during important traditional or religious celebrations, the starting of a new business, or even when a family member needs guidance or counsel, and is a hallmark of the emphasis Vietnamese culture places on filial duty.


Ancestor worship is predominant in rural India. In India, if an elder person passes away, the family remembers them during festivals and ceremonies. The family also offers food to the deceased first, before they themselves eat. Everyone makes prayers. Children are asked to wish for something.

Among Indian Hindu, there is an annual ritual called 'Tarpana', when male members of the family offers floral tributes in the holy rivers of Ganga, Narmada etc with chanting of Sanskrit 'sloka' to venerate their forefathers. This is especially observed in the month of 'Ashwin' (around October), before the Durga Puja ceremony, on the 'Mahalay' day, which marks the end of the 'Pitripaksha' (fortnight of Fathers), and beginning of the 'Matripaksha' (fortnight of Mothers).


In most Catholic countries in Europe, November 1 (All Saints day, also known as Day of the Dead) is the day when families go to the cemeteries and light candles for their dead relatives. Fact|date=June 2008 This is a very ancient practice, already present during the time of the Roman Empire, which was adopted by the Catholic Church early on. The official day, according to Roman Catholic church to commemorate the dead who have not attained beatific vision is November 2 (All Souls' Day).


During Samhain in Ireland the dead are supposed to return, and food and light are left for them. Lights are left burning all night, as on Christmas Eve, and food is left outdoors for them. It is believed that food fallen on the floor should also be left, as someone needed it.

Canada and The United States

In the United States and Canada, flowers, wreaths, and grave decorations and sometimes candles, are put on graves year-round, as a way to honour the dead. Times like Easter, Christmas, Candlemas, and All Souls' Day are special days in which the relatives and friends of the deceased gather to honor them with flowers and candles. Hispanics, in particular, celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) on or around All Saints Day (Nov. 1), this being a mix of a native Mesoamerican celebration and an imported European holiday. Ofrendas (altars) are set up, with calaveras (sugar skulls), photographs of departed loved ones, marigold flowers, candles, and more. Some Americans may even have a shrine in their home dedicated to loved ones who have died, with pictures of them; and also, many roadside shrines may be seen for deceased relatives who died in car accidents or were killed on that spot.


Ancestor worship is very prevalent throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and serves as the basis of many religions. Ancestor veneration is often augmented by a belief in a supreme being, but prayers and or sacrifices are usually offered to the ancestors who may ascend to becoming minor deities themselves. Ancestor veneration remains among many indigenous Africans despite the adoption of Christianity (as in Nigeria among the Igala) and Islam (among the different Mandé peoples and the Bamum) in much of the continent. [ [ "Ancestors as Elders in Africa,"] Igor Kopytoff; in "Perspectives on Africa: A Reader in Culture, History, and Representation" (Editors Roy Richard Grinker & Christopher Burghard Steiner), Blackwell Publishing, 1997. ISBN 1557866864.] [ [ Some reflections on ancestor workship in Africa,] Meyer Fortes, "African Systems of Thought", pages 122-142, University of Kent.]

ee also

* Animism
* Anito
* Buddhism
* Bon Festival
* Chinese folk religion
* Day of the Dead
* Death anniversary
* Ghost
* Ghost Festival
* Ifá
* Shamanism
* Sorei


* [ Smithsonian: Ancestor Worship Today]

External links

* [ Photos of Modern Papier-Mâché Objects Found in Hong Kong]
* [ "Hell Money"] by catherine yronwode at
* [ Day of the Dead information, Building Altars, History, etc.]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • ancestor worship —    Worship of the ancestors (pitris) is a tradition in India dating to Vedic times (c. 1500 B.C.E.) Tradi tionally, a man is expected to offer libations of oil and water to his deceased father, grandfather, and great grandfather. The anniversary… …   Encyclopedia of Hinduism

  • ancestor worship — Anthropol. (in certain societies) the veneration of ancestors whose spirits are frequently held to possess the power to influence the affairs of the living. [1850 55] * * * Religious beliefs or practices that involve addressing prayers or… …   Universalium

  • ancestor worship — noun worship of ancestors • Hypernyms: ↑worship * * * Anthropol. (in certain societies) the veneration of ancestors whose spirits are frequently held to possess the power to influence the affairs of the living. [1850 55] * * * ancestor worship,… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Ancestor Worship —    The system of ancestor worship practised by the Chinese, and in other parts of the world, is an essential step in the process of creating gods from cultural heroes. The rank of god was originally a posthumous one, the assumption of divinity by …   Who’s Who in non-classical mythology

  • ancestor-worship — anˈcestor worship noun • • • Main Entry: ↑ancestor …   Useful english dictionary

  • ANCESTOR-WORSHIP —    the worship of ancestors that prevails in primitive nations, due to a belief in ANIMISM (q.v.) …   The Nuttall Encyclopaedia

  • ancestor worship — noun Date: 1854 the custom of venerating deceased ancestors who are considered still a part of the family and whose spirits are believed to have the power to intervene in the affairs of the living …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • ancestor worship — The real or supposed ancestors of the Hebrews were venerated and were felt to be so close that their descendants even continued to suffer for their sins (Exod. 20:5). Not surprisingly it would seem that a cult of the dead infiltrated into Israel… …   Dictionary of the Bible

  • ancestor worship — religious practice in which dead family members are venerated due to the belief that their spirits can influence the lives of the living …   English contemporary dictionary

  • ancestor worship — an′cestor wor ship n. ant (in certain societies) the veneration of ancestors whose spirits are frequently held to possess the power to influence the affairs of the living • Etymology: 1850–55 …   From formal English to slang