Ancestors function as official guardians of the social and moral order of a culture insofar as they constitute the basic categories of moral and legal thought by rising above transitory human life. This invests them with sacred significance. A cross-cultural study of the history of religions reveals that deceased ancestors evolved into a religious cult. This practice can be discovered among African societies, Native American Indians, Hindus, Chinese religions, and numerous other cultures. Ancestor cults share some common features that represent a set of attitudes, beliefs, and practices connected with deified, deceased persons with whom survivors are biologically linked.

An ancestor cult should not be confused with worship of the dead. The Chinese ancestor cult involves two parts—mortuary rites immediately following death, and sacrificial rites that perpetuate a long-term relationship between the living and the dead. Chinese mortuary rites (sang li) are performed for the benefit and salvation of the soul, announcing the death to the proper governing authority in the underworld, which facilitates admittance of the soul into the spirit world. Additional activities designed to ensure a safe and speedy journey for the soul include dressing the corpse; putting money into its mouth; placing personal effects in the coffin; scattering paper money at the head of the funeral procession to ward off evil spirits; and burning of personal belongings of the deceased for use in the next world. Wealthy families performed religious services every seventh day for seven weeks after a death. In traditional Hindu culture, rice balls were offered to ancestors along with a service that was as complex as the Chinese rites.

At the same time that such rites are being performed, ancestors are distinguished from the high gods of particular cultures. Ancestors are regarded as heads and parts of families or communities, even though they are no longer living. Ancestors function as spiritual superintendents of family affairs, continue to take an active interest in the family, and retain their social titles after their death. Ancestor worship is rooted in domesticity, kinship, familial relations, and social institutions. It’s a lineage cult in which the oldest son is mainly responsible for perpetuating the rites, chiefly because he replaces his departed father in the social structure. Ancestor worship presupposes the commemoration of ancestors by name—an ancestor receives worship from descendents that is directed specifically to him or her.

Once people die, they must be re-established in the family and lineage through rituals, because death represents a symbolic break with the family deriving from the deceased’s absence. The dead do not receive these rites until they manifest themselves in the life of their descendants. The reinstatement of the deceased establishes their relevance for society.

Among the Dogon of Africa, the dead are considered impure by the very fact of their death. They believe that death disperses one’s vital force, and this dislocation constitutes the impurity of death. Being impure, the dead create disorder, which serves as a warning to the living that the dead are appealing to the living to regularize their status. The Dogon believe that millet beer plays an important part in a ritual to establish order, because a force of an ancestor impregnates the beer, giving it its intoxicating powers—the dead introduce disorder into the beer, which excites the drinker. Through this cult practice centered on beer, the impure deceased are transformed into living ancestors.

By comparison, the Chinese perform periodic sacrifices at the home and ancestral t emple. These rites—which include praying; offering food and drink; burning incense, candles, and paper money; and kowtowing, or kneeling with head bent low to touch the ground three to nine times—are more elaborate on the anniversary death day, festival days, and the first and fifteenth days of the month. Once the departed are incorporated into the ancestor cult, they behave in ways expected of them and permitted to them in the cult. Their behavior as ancestors is irrespective of their prior earthly character. A devoted father may become an ancestor who is the source of illness and misfortune, which suggests that ancestors are unpredictable and often capricious—though they only intervene where they have authority. Where they do have authority, ancestors may punish descendants. The Apache of the American Southwest believe that ancestors can inflict ghost sickness, owl sickness, or darkness sickness. In owl sickness, the deceased returns in the shape of an owl. The symptoms of the sickness include an irregular heartbeat, a choking sensation, faintness, trembling, weeping, and headache—all symptoms associated with experiences of fright.

Ancestors have a particular sphere of concern that is usually focused on the personal morality of the living and their adherence to public norms—they share an important relationship with the living, because they owe the departed obedience, economic service, and respect. Among the Lo Dagaa of West Africa, a person must return to their ancestors a portion of any wealth acquired by inheritance from them, so heirs must appease them through periodic sacrifices of livestock. The relationship between the deceased and living can be crucial for the personal destiny and fortune of the living because of the deceased’s power to shield the living from evil and misfortune. According to the Lovedu, a Bantu society, a witch cannot kill a person without the consent of an ancestor, and medicines can be ineffectual without the cooperation of ancestors. Concurrently, the living can appeal to ancestors for good crops, fertility, good fortune, and success in life.

Although an intimate relationship exists between ancestors and descendants, some cultures hold that ancestors also have an independent existence—a kind of afterlife mode of existence. The Ashanti of Africa and the Mende of Sierra Leone believe in a world of spirits where all ancestors live a life similar to that on earth. Chinese descendants hire Taoist or Buddhist priests to chant scriptures to help spirits travel to the happy land of the Western Heaven, and they have services performed to help souls pass through the ten courts of judgment in the underworld.

In many cultures, ancestors are symbolically represented—such as in the practices of the Ashanti lineages, wherein a blackened stool functions as a shrine of its ancestors and on which descendants make offerings of food and drink. Among the Hopi of Southwestern America, kachina masks are used to represent ancestors. The term kachina is derived from ka (respect) and china (spirit). This spirit can assume the forms of spirits of the dead, or spirits of minerals, plants, animals, clouds, rain, and stars. These invisible forces of life function as intermediaries and messengers that live on the earth for six months and manifest themselves in physical form by participating in fertility rites. Hopi males wear kachina masks to impersonate the spirits to the extent of losing their personal identities and becoming imbued with the spirits they represent. By virtue of the masks, the chief kachinas are invested with power, and they are ceremonially fed and preserved by members of the cult—who must observe certain rules when wearing the masks, such as observing celibacy, refraining from contact with whites, avoiding quarrels, and having only pure thoughts. When the owner of a mask dies, it is buried, to return the mask to its supernatural origin. Kachinas are considered dangerous because they inflict punishments for violations of their sanctity. By comparison, the Chinese represent ancestors with wooden spirit tablets. These bear the name and titles of the deceased on the family ancestral altar, with each tablet signifying a dead ancestor.

The deceased ancestors among Native American Indians are often conceived as personal guardian spirits among such societies as the Ojibwa, Shoshone, or Comanche. They are also conceived as masters of the game animals among the Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Dakota. Although nonspecialized masters of the game, they meet desires usually directed to the actual masters of the game. The deceased spirits are often connected with symbolic representations of them—such as a skull among the Crow, Mandan, and Hidatsa of the plains and prairies; hair among the Blackfoot and Sioux peoples; or a departed person’s scalp among societies of the Southwest.

Ancestor worship acts as a force to make members of a society conform to rules of behavior because departure from social norms might incur ancestral disapproval and punishment. Ancestral rites operate by meeting a society’s need to maintain itself, implying necessarily that a society depends upon its ancestors, and simultaneously, ancestors are dependent on descendants. Ancestors can symbolize the continuity of the social structure, which they help to maintain. Ancestor beliefs and practices promote authority and inheritance relations, are designed to enforce social control, and ensure the continuation of traditional and conservative attitudes. Because ancestors are linked to filial piety, they evoke emotions of awe, fear, reverence, respect, sympathy, and affection.

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