The Universality of Ancestor Worship

By Steadman, Lyle B.; Palmer, Craig T. et al. | Ethnology, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Universality of Ancestor Worship


Steadman, Lyle B., Palmer, Craig T., Tilley, Christopher F., Ethnology


A "professional malpractice of anthropologists to exaggerate the exotic character of other cultures" (Bloch 1977:285) has been detrimental to the study of cultural universals. This is highly regrettable because "universals not only exist but are important to any broad conception of the task of anthropology" (Brown 1991:5). Further, in the anthropological study of indigenous religions, a focus on differences has caused an apparently universal aspect of religion to be overlooked: the claim that ancestors influence the living and/or are influenced by the living. We argue here that such claims of communication between the dead and their descendants are universal and may be the key to understanding the universality of religious belief.

Claims of ancestor interaction with the living have not been recognized as universal because the anthropologists' stress on differences has caused them to be overly narrow in their definitions of both "ancestor" and "worship." Hence, they have tended to overlook the fundamental similarities between religions that have ancestor worship and those that are said to lack it. This division is theoretically significant because even when ancestor worship is found in a majority of the cultures used in a study (e.g., Swanson 1964), its nonuniversality requires it to be explained in terms of unique aspects of certain cultures (see Swanson 1964:97-108). If ancestor worship were recognized as a universal aspect of religion, its explanation would offer a deeper understanding of religious behavior.

One reason for the inability to recognize the universality of ancestor worship is that the term is often reserved for those societies where the dead are explicitly called by a term that is translated as ancestor, thus excluding societies whose religious practices concern ghosts, shades, spirits, souls, totemic plants and animals, or merely the dead. For example, Lehmann and Myers (1993:284) state that

[a] major problem with Spencer's argument [that ancestor worship was the first religion] is that many societies at the hunting-and-gathering level do not practice ancestor worship. The Arunta of Australia, for example, worshiped their totemic plants and animals, but not their human ancestors.

Distinguishing between ancestors and totemic plants and animals is questionable since totems are clearly ancestral in that they identify a person with a line of ancestors (e.g., one's father, father's father, etc.). Indeed, Harris (1989:405) points out that the Australian form of totemism "is a form of diffuse ancestor worship . . . [because by] taking the name of an animal such as kangaroo ... people express a communal obligation to the founders of their kinship group."

The role of ancestors is also obscured in many descriptions of societies whose religions are based on more general, and hence, supposedly nonancestral, spirits or gods. An example of this is the hunters and gatherers living in the Kalahari who are often referred to as the !Kung. Although Lee (1984:103) does state that the !Kung's "religious universe is inhabited by a high god, a lesser god, and a host of minor animal spirits," he also states that "the main actors in [the !Kung's religious] world are the //gangwasi, the ghosts of recently deceased !Kung" (Lee 1984:103).

The failure to see the connection between ancestors and spirits or gods often causes societies to be excluded from the ancestor worship category. For example, Lehmann and Myers (1993:284) state that

[w]hen the living dead are forgotten in the memory of their group and dropped from the genealogy as a result of the passing of time (four or five generations), they are believed to be transformed into "nameless spirits," non-ancestors. . . .

Similarly, Tonkinson (1978:52) claims that the Mardu lack ancestor worship because they cannot remember the names of specific distant ancestors, despite the fact that their religious rituals focus on "Ancestral Beings. …

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