Response to Mike Pitt's 'Don't Knock the Ancestors'. (Debate)

By Whitley, James | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Response to Mike Pitt's 'Don't Knock the Ancestors'. (Debate)


Whitley, James, Antiquity


Mike Pitts (2003) is certainly right to claim that contemporary interest in ancestors is widespread. In A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh Piglet insists that he has an ancestor, 'Trespassers Will[iam]', whose (alas, fragmentary) sign is set beside his house, and whose presence 'legitimates' Piglet's claim to his home. Some of course may suspect that Piglet is mistaken, and that one should use the term ancestor in a strict, anthropological sense, as I advocated in my paper (Whitley 2002). Ancestors are not simply the dead, but more specifically those dead who have had descendants who also choose to remember them.

In adopting a colloquial or populist sense of the term ancestor--'people who came before us'--Pitts puts himself very much in the 'Piglet' camp. Ancestors help you to feel in touch with the past, whether or not they are your actual forebears. It is only from this perspective that it makes sense to equate 'supernatural entities such as the god Woden and other monsters, demons and elves' with 'ancestral creatures'. Here ancestors have been detached from any notion of kinship or descent. This perhaps explains Pitts' reluctance to deal with the knotty problem of descent groups. He presents no hard evidence--osteological or biological evidence that is--that those buried together in long barrows or successively in round were related to one another.

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