Ancestor Worship Around the World

PRIMITIVE - Friday, February 10, 2017

By Masaki Imagawa & Glen Joffe

EDITOR'S NOTE: Google “Ancestor Worship” and aside from 2,260,000 results delivered in slightly over half a second, you will immediately find the following description: “Ancestor worship is a religious practice based on the belief that deceased family members have a continued existence, that the spirits of deceased ancestors will look after the family, take an interest in the affairs of the world, and possess the ability to influence the fortune of the living.” We don’t know who wrote this description, but it is apt for the sake of this blog, albeit a bit generic. Ancestor worship is everywhere in the world. We may not always acknowledge the practice as a religious practice or a form of worship, but each time we look at a photo of a dear deceased relative or even an important historical figure, and ask what they would do under a particular set of circumstances we are engaging in this sort of veneration, or worship, which could also be described as a connection. In this regard, even the act of thinking fondly of the departed may be interpreted as ancestor worship. One real question not answered in the above description is how do our ancestors advise and guide us on our journey in the physical world? It presumes a belief in ancestor worship in the first place; and a willingness to hear voices now silenced. Not everyone may be so sensitive, but we can all make a conscious decision to recognize the influence and importance ancestors play in the daily lives of the living. For example, it is played out daily when politicians and pundits in the USA talk about “the founders,” when we think fondly about our parents or grandparents and some trait we may share, or for that matter, gaze lovingly at a picture of a departed pet. Yes, even our deceased beloved pets may be venerated. The following blog was first written in 2015 and has since been updated to reflect a broader range of locales where ancestor worship is part and parcel of everyday life.

   19th C. Chinese ancestor scroll portrait typically hung above an altar table; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A010827-227
  19th C. Chinese ancestor scroll “portrait” typically hung above an altar table; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A010827-227

In the winter of 1966 a young man in Beijing named Yao Li was waging war with his grandmother. It started earlier in the year when Chairman Mao decreed all elements of bourgeois life had to be eliminated as part of the Cultural Revolution. Yao was a member of the Red Guard, an armed youth organization tasked with the removal of the ‘Four Olds’: old customs, culture, habits and ideas. These concepts included religion in all its forms; and when Yao announced to his family that their ancestral altar had to be removed, his tottering grandmother started her own revolution.

“You cannot!” she exclaimed. “Your grandfather’s spirit lives there. Have you forgotten he saved your life? When you were ten years old, you nearly drowned!”

“I have not forgotten!” Yao retorted. “But worshiping the dead threatens the revolution.”

“What threat is there in giving respect and offerings?” asked his grandmother vehemently. “Where’s your sense of family and honor?”

Compound shrinte cabinet with 2 drawers and 2 doors  
Chinese 19th C. compound shrine over bottom cabinet; PRIMITIVE ID# F0806-047

Yao fell silent. He could not find anything to say in response; however, his sense of duty to the Red Guard ultimately won over and he returned later with his peers to confiscate the altar. When he arrived, he found neither his grandmother nor the spirit tablets inscribed with the names of his ancestors. Yao searched the house in the following days and even questioned his grandmother, but the old woman always said the same thing. Each time he broached the subject of the missing tablets, she would say, “Please be silent; I’m concentrating on the Chairman’s wise words.” She would then pull a Little Red Book from her apron with complete innocence on her wrinkled face. This exchange repeated itself until the next bi-monthly day designated for ancestor offerings. Yao finally caught his grandmother kneeling on the floor where the altar used to stand, lining the spirit tablets in their correct hierarchical order and placing foods, drinks, and spirit money in front of them.

   Altar with canopy top over cabinet with 3 drawers
  Monumental 19th C. Chinese 
compound  altar with heavily ornamented canopy and bottom cabinet; PRIMITIVE ID# F0901-094

Yao’s grandmother locked eyes with him and with complete resolve she said, “Report me if you want. Perhaps I’ll be sent to a labor camp, but I will not stop fulfilling my duty to our ancestors.” Yao finally acknowledged that he could not bring himself to report his grandmother. He loved her, but more than anything else, deep down he shared her beliefs. Habits established during his upbringing were not so easy to shed. Yao bowed his head and quietly knelt beside his grandmother. He thanked his grandfather for saving his life and asked his forgiveness for taking away the shrine. Then he whispered to his grandmother, “Keep the tablets well hidden. I must never see them again for both our sakes.” Such was the power of the Cultural Revolution.

   Carved elm wood altar with inscription
  Chinese mini tabletop altar with inscription; PRIMITIVE ID# A0707-426

Yao Li wasn’t the only one who turned a blind eye to ancestor veneration during China’s Cultural Revolution. Even as people dutifully carried their ‘Little Red Books’ and wore badges bearing their leader Mao’s profile, they continued to pay respect to their ancestors in defiance of new cultural norms and directives. After all, ancestor worship dated back thousands of years. It was an integral part of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and many other folk religions. In China, it was widely believed that upon a person’s death part of their soul rose to heaven while another stayed on earth to reside in their spirit tablet. Living descendants would give offerings at the altar to their ancestors and protect their graves. In turn, their ancestors would influence the gods to bring their family good fortune, health, wellness and prosperity. Traditionally, the Chinese family unit included the living and the deceased with ancestor worship being the cornerstone of familial unity and solidarity. Although the Cultural Revolution could destroy tangible objects like altars and tablets, it could not eradicate the belief responsible for their creation.

Early 19th C. tabletop altar with 3 drawers and screen  
Early 19th C. lacquered tabletop altar with 3 drawers and screen; PRIMITIVE ID# F021001-145

In China, the altar held special importance within a household. It could be viewed as the residence of ancestral spirits. In larger estates, a whole hall might be dedicated to ancestors with the altar located in a place of honor. Altars varied in style from classic altar tables to cabinets, and even to those that looked like homes themselves, architecturally correct in every way. This was deliberate as many altars were crafted to resemble clan estates so spirits would feel comfortable in their own homes. Some altars were decorated with intricate carvings of mythical animals and birds, wise Confucian masters, and auspicious characters and symbols. Although many of these architectural altars were confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, those that survived illustrate an undeniable level of craftsmanship. It is simply amazing to think of the many generations of prayer and care witnessed by these altars. It gives them a sacred patina.

  Male Tadep or Ancestor Spirit Figures from the Mambila People in Cameroon, West Africa; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A1300-166   Female Tadep or Ancestor Spirit Figures from the Mambila People in Cameroon, West Africa; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A1300-074
  Male and Female Tadep or Ancestor Spirit Figures from the Mambila People in Cameroon, West Africa; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A1300-166 & 074

The worshiping of one’s ancestors was a common custom throughout Asia. Traditional households in Japan often contained altars dedicated to ancestors; and although many families don’t have space for altars today, they still celebrate Bon, an annual festival dedicated to welcoming family spirits home for several days in the summer. In Korea, Jesa is a ritual memorial service held to honor a family’s ancestors. It is performed with offerings and festivities. In Vietnam, the death anniversaries of ancestors are traditionally recognized and considered more important than their birthdays! Just like China, many Vietnamese worship their ancestors and have altars in their homes regardless of any religion they may practice. In other words, ancestor worship is as much a social as a religious phenomenon.

Commemorative Head from the Benin People in West Africa meant to be an illustrative rather than literal portrait; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A0311-111  
Commemorative Head from the Benin People in West Africa meant to be an illustrative rather than literal portrait; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A0311-111

In Africa, especially in the west and southeastern cultures, ancestor veneration is prevalent; some might argue as much a part of daily life as eating or working. In fact, ancestor worship forms the backbone of many religions found on the African continent. For example, in present day Nigeria the Yoruba tribe is found. The Yoruba practice one of the oldest known religions called Ifa. Ifa forms the basis for almost all of the Afro-Carribean religions such as Santeria in Cuba, Voodoo in Haiti, Candomble in Brazil, and Lucumi in Colombia. When the slaves were brought to the new world they were typically baptized on ship or shore and from then on prohibited from practicing their religion. However, the slaves were industrious and they disguised their Gods, known as Orisha, as Catholic Saints. This is known as a syncretization; and this syncretization became further altered and flavored by local custom and geography until the religion itself became known by different names in different countries. Strip away the local and Catholic aspects and what surfaces is an ancient religion with three parts: 1) Orisha worship, a belief in “Gods” who are more than human, but less than the one single creator God; 2) divination; and 3) ancestor worship. The story of Ifa illustrates one way a specific form of ancestor worship spread throughout the world.

Early 20th C. home altar
Early 20th C. Burmese carved and painted home altar; PRIMITIVE ID# A1500-145

There are so many religions in the world it would be impossible to list them all here. At last count, approximately 4,200 religions were counted throughout the world. It would be fair to say; in the vast majority ancestor worship plays some role in the religion's practice. Ancestor worship should not be viewed as religion; but instead, as a facet of religion and more importantly as a function of belief the religion may promote. It is belief in the ancestors and their power (sometimes viewed as greater than their power as mortals) that drives ancestor worship worldwide. Not addressed in this blog are the many means by which ancestors are accessed, but we can state with certainty some of the most compelling objects and art forms made by humankind relate to ancestor worship. These include altars and altar tables, paintings and portraits, sculpture, textiles, a seemingly endless array of objects such as incense burners, incense, and candles, and too many more to list or illustrate here because all of these seem to come in an infinite variety of types, forms and modalities from an exceptionally wide variety of cultures.

Gable from an ancestral house called a Tongkonen among the Toraja People in Sulawesi, Indonesia; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A0901-215  
Gable from an ancestral house called a Tongkonen among the Toraja People in Sulawesi, Indonesia; PRIMITIVE I.D. #A0901-215

Some may think ancestor worship and family altars are exclusively Eastern traditions, but that’s not exactly correct. Have you ever placed family photographs on top of a cabinet, tabletop, in a bookcase or gathered them together on a wall? Were any of these photographs dedicated to deceased family members; grandparents, great grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles? Would you call such an assemblage an ancestor altar? Many people would; and if you did place such photographs together, how did you feel when you examined them? Ancestor worship may sound ritualistic and religious from afar, but isn’t it the recognition of family ties more than anything else. Recognizing these ties often brings relatives together to gather and talk about times they shared with their family. Whether in the East, West or anywhere else, the sentiment expressed by ancestor worship is essentially the same for us all. No matter how it is expressed, in quiet reflection at the foot of an altar, at a festival or ceremony, or simply through the examination of photographs and paintings, it results in actions that reinforce family ties, love, and appreciation. Whether performed by older or younger generations, intermittently or frequently, individually or in a group, or in the expectation of receiving some benefit or reward such as health, wealth or protection, ancestor worship is a means to stay connected, and some might even argue, to tap into the collective wisdom of those who have come before. It’s something our ancestors might appreciate; do you?


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“Cultural objects tell stories; and in each story a simple message is found—all cultures are the same, we just express ourselves differentlyGLEN JOFFE, OWNER