Ancestral cult

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A Māori genealogical table (poupou) from New Zealand, the only surviving object from a South Sea voyage by James Cook (Ethnological Collection of the University of Tübingen)

Ancestor worship or ancestor worship , even Marxism called (from Latin manes "spirits of the dead"), is a cult , in which dead ancestors ( ancestors ) - more precisely, its persisting spirits - with certain rituals are worshiped. The ancestors are either in direct family line or were the founder or head of the group to which the worshipers belong. The ancestor cult is almost always carried out in connection with an offering , for example a drink, food, burn or clothing offering ; in some cultures it could include human sacrifice .

The ancestor cult is widespread worldwide, especially among settled and farming peoples due to their close ties to the cycle of life and death. It is much less common among hunters and gatherers . It is mainly part of the Chinese folk beliefs (in particular Confucianism ) and the Japanese Shinto culture and plays an essential role in the African and Afro-American religions (e.g. Voodoo ), the ethnic religions of Indonesia and in the Polynesian religions as well in Hinduism The Roman and Germanic religions as well as the veneration of saints in the Catholic Church and in Islam are also characterized by ancestor veneration. Depending on the age and culture, more or less immediate practices of ancestral cult can be identified; this also includes giving flowers to graves, which is customary today.

In the ancestral cult, the spirits of the dead - who can bring salvation or disaster - are counted among the kinship group ( Kindred ) of the living members. Corresponding ceremonies are intended to reinforce the feeling that the ancestors live with and with their descendants (see feeling of we ). Many religions know ways of making venerated ancestors symbolically visible, especially with ancestral figures, ancestral masks or memorial stones (see menhirs ). The sacrifice to the ancestors is seen as a regular commitment to keep the connection going. The ritual ceremonies mostly transfer the social behavior towards the living elders to the ancestors, often in connection with the idea that the world beyond is the continuation or the reflection of this world.

In contrast to the cult of the dead - in which one usually wants to prevent the return of the ancestors - the ancestor cult also venerates ancestors who have been dead for a long time, especially the founder of a lineage or an entire family branch. In addition, large family associations also venerate mythical ancestors who are considered the founders of a clan , for example (see mythical ancestors ).

It is believed that the common belief in an afterlife and the strengthening of the sense of togetherness beyond death brought about ancestor worship.

In the 19th century, researchers (such as the anthropologist Edward B. Tylor ) believed that manism was the origin of religion . That view is outdated today. In contrast, Jack Herbert Driberg , for example, denied ancestor worship any religious reference in 1936.

Examples from the early days

The burial in the living area is not a sure indicator of an ancestor cult, especially in large protourbanen settlements , since other motives are assumed and the ancestor cult is primarily to be assigned to the segmental societies of the hunters.

In the pre-ceramic Neolithic period , in ( Neolithic ) settlements in the Levant such as Jericho, the skulls of the deceased were modeled over with plaster and the eyes were imitated with shells . The skulls, based on living models, were placed in certain corners of the living rooms or under the house, but also buried in caves ( Nahal Hemar ). Such an over-modeled child's skull from Köşk Höyük , however, speaks against addressing this custom as an ancestral cult. Numerous skulls of young adults are also known from other settlements of the pre-ceramic New Stone Age B (PPNB). In the early layers of the Neolithic archaeological site Çatalhöyük (central Turkey, around 5000 to 2000 BC), the residents buried their deceased (or only parts of them) directly under platforms that are considered to be sleeping places.

On the archaeological place Cladh Hallan , on the island of South Uist of the Outer Hebrides , notes were of a complex ancestor worship from the transition of the Neolithic period to the Bronze Age demonstrated where the dead first in a bog preserved , then placed partly over several centuries in houses and finally buried on the floors of the houses.

This closest possible contact with one's own origins dissolved further and further in the course of cultural development and took on more abstract, much more elaborate forms - up to endless royal ancestral lines, recorded by Egyptian priests and provided by them with complicated rites and annual celebrations, which in large numbers of sacrificed animals and gifts (see also: Legend of origin ).

So did the Hellenes ( ancient Greeks ), whose ancestral lines were of great importance for the social status of the family. Regular cult services for the dead also took place here.

In the Roman Republic, pictures of the ancestors were kept in the atrium of the house in the noble families.

In the Indian cultures from Alaska to Central America , it was customary to define one's own origin using a certain totem , that is, a sacred animal or a sacred plant, for example one could descend from the “great eagle”. Here the ancestor cult is extended to non-human, mythical ancestors.

Ancestral cults in different cultures


In sub-Saharan Africa there is a long tradition of including the ancestors in the spiritual community life. This ancestor worship has at least as many forms as there are African ethnic groups , so that few general statements are possible. Where Christianity or Islam have taken root, believers often attempt to integrate traditional ancestor worship into the accepted belief so that they are not cut off from their ancestors by the newer beliefs. Different syncretistic approaches are pursued, which lead to a change in both cult practices. This popular belief is partially tolerated, elsewhere also fought as heresy .


East asia

In East Asia , family ritual ancestor worship is and was the main component of the various folk religions ( Chinese folk belief , Shinto , Bon , Altaic animism , Tengrism , Muism , ...) and a firmly integrated part of everyday life. In older times there was (and often still is today) a house altar to venerate ancestors, and a feast of the dead is still celebrated today (in China: Qingming festival (qingming jie 清明節), in Japan: Obon , ...). Ancestor worship has a long history and tradition that had a major impact on all of East Asian society.

The institutional Chinese tradition begins from the Shang period (around 1600-1045 BC), which is named after the first contemporary dynasty in China. At that time, society was viewed as an alliance of the dead and the living, so ancestor worship was a natural part of everyday life. On the one hand, Di帝 was an ancestor of the Shang ruler and the main deity for the people of the Shang period; on the other hand, nature spirits were also worshiped. They and the souls of the ancestors were offered offerings that were in harmony with one another. Science receives information about the Shang period through texts on what are known as oracle bones . These texts tell of ancestor worship by noble families and rulers. During this period, ancestor worship and ancestral sacrifices played an important role in maintaining social order and legitimizing the ruler's power. In addition, people have asked the deceased for advice and protection. At the end of the Shang period, the rituals were also performed with the help of ceremonial bronze vessels in which inscriptions were poured. In addition, the vessels were used for the ancestral offerings.

Ancestor worship continued to be an important part of social life during the Zhou period (around 1045-256 BC). Offerings had a regulating function in society. The people of the Zhou period considered Houji后稷 an ancestor. At that time, rituals of ancestor worship were also performed with the help of ritual vessels. These rituals were a "bridge" between the worlds of the living and the dead. During the West Zhou period (around 1045–770 BC), ancestor worship was primarily carried out through lineage worship (worship of one's ancestors). But during the East Zhou period (approx. 770-256 BC), this lineage worship changed to an abstract worship of all ancestors and the forces of nature, which had a seasonal character. In the course of the following Chinese history, the ancestor cult changed and expanded. The death was now a kind of sleep seen from the man can wake up again. That is why there is the ritual of summoning the soul of the dead, to whom everyday objects and food are offered. Anciently it was believed that the souls of the deceased would continue the same life that they lived in the realm of the living after death. That is why many objects were placed in the graves to help the deceased to continue this life after death. The world-famous Han tombs at Mawangdui in Hunan Province, which were particularly rich in burial objects, serve as a good example . During this Han period (206 BC - 220 AD) Buddhism came to China and brought its own ideas about life after death with it. Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and post-mortem life were adopted and changed by the Chinese and adapted to the cult of ancestors.

In the late emperor's time, the names of the dead ancestors were on wooden boards in the ancestral hall or on the house altar . Sacrifices were made to them and important family matters (such as weddings ) were decided before them . The bereaved could connect with their ancestors either through sacrifices or oracles . These rituals were only allowed to be performed by men. Therefore, it is important for an ancestor worshiper to have a male offspring. Part of the ancestor worship was also to assign a name taboo to one's own and imperial ancestors ; this cultural rule was followed until the beginning of the 20th century.

Siberia and Central Asia

The ancestor cult has probably always played an important role in northern and western Asia.

In the shamanistic and animistic religions of the (pre-Buddhist) Mongols , the Turkic peoples , the Tungus and the many small Paleo-Siberian peoples , the cult of ancestors plays a central role and is in part still practiced today. Many of these peoples adopted other religions over time, but were able to preserve many traditions and customs .

The Altaic Shamanism is based on ancestor worship and belief in the gods, where even the dead can become gods when they are worshiped accordingly.

Southeast Asia and Polynesia

The cult of ancestors also plays a central role in the southeastern part of Asia . The Austronesians have many different rituals to honor their ancestors. In Thailand there is a similar spirit festival as in China or Japan. In Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia, many people still have a house altar. In Indonesia and Malaysia, an ancestral cult is sometimes practiced alongside the state religion of Islam.

In Polynesia , the human ancestors were considered a real and extremely important authority, and asked for their consent for every major decision.


In Hinduism, ancestor worship applies to male ancestors. It imposes the duty on the sons to offer food offerings (donations of water, rice balls) immediately after the death of their relatives (from three to seven generations) and thereafter every year, which are regarded as the ancestor's new body. This is to avert danger through the spirit of the deceased and secure his way into the hereafter .

Further examples

In some cultures in New Guinea the original, direct ancestor cult is still practiced today: Many of the Papuans use the skulls of their ancestors as sleeping headrests. The ritual consumption of the ashes of the dead represents his ultimate salvation from disappearing (forgetting) and his complete absorption in the community of the living.

With the exception of sporadic visits to the cemetery, the ancestral cult has left the evangelical reformed way of life - if "contact" with the deceased is desired at all, it is purely spiritual, i.e. not noticeable from the outside. Catholic believers now and then light a candle for their dead ( burnt offering ). However, it should not be overlooked that in Germany, too, quite a few families are familiar with an unreligious form of worshiping ancestors, which certainly has its rites ; This is easier to observe empirically in noble families .

See also


  • Hans Bonnet: ancestor cult. In: Lexicon of Egyptian Religious History. 3rd, unchanged edition. Nikol, Hamburg 2000, ISBN 3-937872-08-6 , pp. 9-11.
  • Anning Hu: Ancestor Worship in Contemporary China: An Empirical Investigation . In: China Review. Volume 16, 2016, pp. 169–186.

Web links

Wiktionary: Ancestral cult  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d Brockhaus Encyclopedia Online: Ancestor worship. Version dated December 14, 2018 (with registration: PDF at ).
  2. Lexicon entry: Ancestor worship. In: 2014–2019, accessed October 30, 2019.
  3. Bettina Schmidt: Ancestor veneration. Lexicon entry in: Walter Hirschberg (Hrsg.): Dictionary der Völkerkunde. New edition, 2nd edition. Reimer, Berlin 2005, ISBN 3-496-02650-2 , p. 15.
  4. Michelle Bonogofsky: A bioarchaeological study of plastered skulls from Anatolia: new discoveries and interpretations. In: International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. Volume 15, 2005, p. 132 (English; doi: 10.1002 / oa.749 ).
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  8. ^ David N. Keightley: The Making of the Ancestors: Late Shang Religion and Its Legacy. In: John Lagerwey (Ed.): Religion and Chinese Society . 2 volumes. The Chinese UP, Hong Kong 2004, p. 11 (English).
  9. Mu-chou Poo: In Search of Personal Welfare: A View of Ancient Chinese Religion. State University of New York Press, Albany 1998, p. 24.
  10. ^ Constance A. Cook: Ancestor worship during the Eastern Zhou. In: Handbook of Oriental Studies. Early Chinese religion . Brill, Leiden 2009, p. 237 (English).
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