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Ancestor Worship

Ancestral Ambivalence

Ancestor worship is most likely to be practiced in a society with strong lineages or other consanguineal corporate groups whose continuity, standing, and control of resources extends over generations, and one in which there are strong beliefs in an active spirit world. In such contexts the appropriately related and ritually defined deceased continue to be interactive lineage and family members, cared for and reverenced by the living and in turn contributing to the prosperity of their succeeding generations as sources of or mediators with divine power. In general, ancestors who are worshiped are perceived as guardian or authority figures who are difficult to please, whose degree of influence on the living usually decreases with increasing genealogical distance from descendants. The power of the ancestors is therefore ambivalent: as likely to punish as to reward, they offer security and comfort while also contributing to uncertainty in an equivocal cosmos.

See also Animism; Religion.


Cobo, Bernabé. Historia del nuevo mundo. 1653. Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, 1964.

D'Altroy, Terence N. The Incas. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2002.

Fortes, Meyer. Oedipus and Job in West African Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Guaman Poma de Ayala, Felipe. Nueva corónica y buen gobierno. 1615. Paris: Institut d'ethnologie, 1936.

Hsu, Francis L. K. Under the Ancestors' Shadow: Kinship, Personality, and Social Mobility in China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1971.

Newell, William H., ed. Ancestors. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

Smith, Robert J. Ancestor Worship in Contemporary Japan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1974.

Stephen M. Fabian

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ambiguity - Ambiguity to Anticolonialism in Middle East - Ottoman Empire And The Mandate SystemAncestor Worship - Ancestors In Africa And Asia, Among The Inca, Ancestral Ambivalence, Bibliography