Ancestor worship is often referred to as the ancestral cult, namely, a set of religious beliefs and ritual practices that commemorates the continued existence of the deceased ancestor beyond death. The rites of this cult are meant to cater to the needs of the diseased in the afterlife. The beliefs of this cult center on the ability of the dead to protect kinsmen in return for worship from them. Reciprocity between the living and the dead is the key to ancestor worship.
Two forms of ancestor worship can be identified in the anthropological literature. One is a domestic cult, which is observed by the family in dedication to its recent ancestors rather than remote ones. The other is observed by the descent group in dedication to its common ancestors in the remote past. As a cult of the descent group, ancestor worship functions to prescribe the principle of rights and obligations (jural authority) and the rules of conduct for the living, who form a property-holding corporate group. Not only are these rules and principles institutionalized in social structure and organization, but they also regulate individual access to the benefits of the corporate property. In short, they serve to keep up the social relations of the living world. Members of the descent group venerate their common ancestry communally, in addition to individual observance of ancestor worship as a domestic cult.
Aspects of Ancestor Worship
Ancestor worship, or “the worship of the Manes,” is no ordinary cult of the dead. It is, for example, not applicable to children who die young or to dead elders who belong to a different kin group, because neither qualify as ancestors. Demonstrative ancestry is the litmus test for such worship. The deceased must stand in a line of identified human progenitors to the living in order to receive ancestor worship from them. It follows that the mythical beings or animals revered as totemic forebears by the aboriginal clans in Australia are not receivers of “ancestor worship” in the proper sense of the term.
The concept of ancestor becomes more complicated when parenthood is not based on natural conception and gestation. In adoptions, ancestorhood is created by jural action where natural offspring are lacking. Chinese parents, for example, have the right to manipulate the filiation of their children jurally and put them up for adoption by either partner’s patrilineage in case its continuity of succession and inheritance is tenuous or in danger of a breakdown. It enables close relatives without biological heirs to receive ancestor worship after death and avoid becoming “orphaned ghosts” that would harass the living. In all adoptions, ancestor worship is made to continue on the jural manipulation of filiation.
Marriage provides another way of manipulating ancestor worship. A case in point is in-married males in Japan and China. With offspring typically becoming members of mother’s natal groups in a uxorilocal marriage, an in-married male can expect to receive worship only in the ancestral line of the wife’s family. There is also the Chinese custom of ghost marriage, in which a never-married dead female is wedded to a living male ceremonially so that she can receive worship from the offspring of his future marriage and become an ancestress of the conjugal family. Last but not the least, ancestorhood is jurally sanctioned in many African societies where birth in legal wedlock is often a prerequisite for ancestor worship, but the father is not necessarily the true begetter. It is not unusual that in Asian and African cultures, descent is ultimately defined in the context of ancestor worship.
Ancestor veneration is often used interchangeably with ancestor worship. However, the term worship underscores a reverence of what is divine and supernatural, thus carrying a more religious undertone. Central to the rites and rituals of ancestor worship are sacrificial offerings. Offerings to ancestors may take the form of an informal family rite, a formal temple liturgy, or a community festival. All forms of offering involve purification and communication. Purity may be inherent in the proper preparation of ritual objects, such as the masks used in African ancestor worship, which must stay out of touch by women. But water is the most common cleansing agent, hence the importance of bathing and sprinkling. Communication is typically through multiple channels, including gestures, music, recitations, and chanting.
Since the mid-19th century, a number of paradigms have been proposed for the analysis of ancestor worship. Among them are the body-soul model, the psychoanalytical model, the Africans model, the multifunctionalist model, and the divine ownership model.
The Body-Soul Model. The dichotomy of body and soul dominated the early studies of ancestor worship, as in Ancient Law, by Henry Sumner Maine (1861); La cite antique, by Fustel de Coulanges (1864); Primitive Culture, by Edward B. Taylor (1874); The Principle of Sociology, by Herbert Spencer (1875-1876); and so on.
The body-soul paradigm was built on what appeared to be a universal belief, namely, the belief that after the death of the body, the soul continued to exist, as evidenced by its appearance in dream or in an altered state of consciousness. The worship of the ancestral souls turned the family or gens (agnatic kinsmen) into a corporate group perpetuated by the system of collective property holding. With a legal fiction, ancestor worship invested in the patriarch the qualities of a corporation so that he enjoyed rights in governing the family, or gens, but stood under the duty to hold its collective possessions in trust for future generations. For Herbert Spencer, ancestor worship was the root of every religion.
The critics of this paradigm called attention to the fact that ancestor worship was a “family cult.” Since the family was absent from the early stages of human society, this cult could not have spawned other types of religious institution. It paved the way for Émile Durkheim to introduce “the cult of the clan,” namely, totemism as the most primitive form of religious life (1912). Before long, however, new study dispelled the myth of “primitive promiscuity” to establish the universality of marital institutions and family life.
The Psychoanalytic Model. The primacy of the family was reinstated in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic model (1913). Within its framework, ancestor worship is a ritual of atonement for the “original sin.” Presumably driven by the Oedipus complex, the first sons committed the sin against their father for his wives. Then overcome by profound remorse and fear of a vengeful dead father, the sons held the first totemic sacrifice, identifying the animal with the dead ancestor and giving him the status of divinity. Thus, ancestor worship arose in response to deep emotional conflicts and weaknesses. Despite its sheer speculation about the original sin, the psychoanalytic model has been influential in the study of attitudes toward the dead ancestor cross-culturally.
According to Freud, ambivalence is characteristic of all human emotions, including love, behind which there is a repressed hostility. Ethnographic fieldwork has revealed that such ambivalence varies cross-culturally. Depending on the socialization patterns that are shaped culturally and historically, some societies express ambivalence in mixed attitudes to the dead, others in predominantly hostile attitudes with the benevolent aspects suppressed, and still others in predominantly benevolent attitudes with the hostile aspects suppressed.
The Africanist Model. This model is intellectually indebted to Radcliffe-Brown, for whom the social needs for continuity are sui generis. For society to maintain its existence and stability, there must be a formulation of rights over people and things that serves to regulate social relationships. Indeed, the Africanists saw social structure as a jural construction. Following Meyer Fortes’s investigation of the Tallensi, several studies examined how ancestor worship provided a jural construction in the African polity. Their conclusion was that ancestor worship is a crucial unifying force in the African segmentary lineage system.
Drawing on his African data, Fortes also refined the analysis of Freudian ambivalence. Among the Tallensi, the father-son relations are affectionate because the patriarchal authority is perceived to operate on a commission from the ancestors, and a positive value is put on submission to the authority invested in the father and tribal elders. Consequently, the repressed or latent resentment that a son has does not surface as hostility toward the ancestors. An interesting twist is reported by Jack Good of the repressed hostility between the heir and property holder among the LoDagaba. This culture allows for duel descent systems. By farming for his own father, a man obtains the right to the goods he needs for bridewealth payments, but not to the property accumulated by his father. In contrast, he stands to gain property (and possibly wives) from his maternal uncle. It is between these two that the hostility is considerable. Upon the uncle’s death, however, guilt prevails, prompting the heir to sacrifice to the dead ancestor, who continues to be perceived as the property holder, capable of trouble making unless the ritual obligations are fulfilled.
The Multifunctionalist Model. With The Common Descent Group in China and Its Functions (1948), Hu Hsien-chin was the first to explore the multifunction-ality of the Chinese descent group zu in sociological terms. By analyzing the zu in the context of ancestor worship, she aptly presented it as a descent-based kin group, a property-holding entity, and a body politic. One of Hu’s most important conclusions is that historically, the development of the zu was the strongest where the government control was the weakest. But it was Maurice Freedman who proposed a coherent theory of the zu (now called a lineage) in addition to a unitary account of its multifarious functions. Theoretically, this paradigm represents a move away from the Africanist emphasis on descent toward the role of corporate land in a centralized polity.
The corporate nature of the Chinese lineage finds expression in its landholdings as ancestral estates rather than a territorial dominion. For Freedman, lineage property in the form of ancestral estates is built “from the ground up,” that is, from the establishment of corporate land by the joint family. The size of lineage property is structurally deterministic. As a Chinese lineage’s accumulation of land increases, so does its structural complexity. Using the functional role of corporate land as the fulcrum, Freedman unravels the multiple layers of the Chinese lineage— social structure, agnatic brotherhood, economic activities, power politics, ancestor worship, folk beliefs (geomancy), and so on. Admittedly, ancestor worship is what shapes the asymmetric segmentation of the Chinese lineage, but its observance depends on proceedings from the ancestral land endowments. It is the uneven distribution of ancestral estates that determines the patterns of lineage life, whether social, economic, or political.
The multifunctionalist paradigm has impacted the study of the Chinese lineage for decades. Nevertheless, implicit in its analysis is the idea that the significance of corporate land is to be interpreted in economic terms. This is likely to create serious problems for the investigation of ancestor worship. When lineage members are viewed as utilitarian individuals, each seeking to maximize his own gain at the cost of agnatic brothers, ancestor worship becomes merely a perfunctory product of ancestral estates. But such an analysis leaves many questions unanswered. In reality, most lineage members worship their ancestors in the absence of land inheritance. What makes them do so? How could the lineage property be sustained or grow if the descendants were all utilitarian creatures? Why did they agree to the establishment of ancestral estates against their utilitarian interests in the first place? What is so special about corporate land that it can hold agnatic brothers together despite the temptation to break it up? And so on and so forth.
The Divine Ownership Model. Allen Chun developed his model as a reaction to the Eurocentric utilitarianism of the multifunctionalist paradigm. In his view, the utilitarian analysis of Chinese lineage property betrays a total disregard of the native distinction between “ownership” and “possession” in the traditional Chinese property concepts. While the Western notion of property entails an integration of ownership and possession to some degree, they are conceptually distinct in Chinese. With respect to lineage property, its ownership is to be held collectively by the descendants in the name of ancestors, which makes it divine and inalienable. In contrast, its possession can be properly attributed to the most senior lineage member as the Corporation Sole, who manages the property in trust for future generations. Last but not the least, the Chinese terms used to describe the inheritance of property connote neither ownership nor possession, but rather productiveness, as in chanye (“productive enterprise”) and zuchan (“lineage productive medium”). Because of divine ownership, corporate land has little intrinsic value in itself. What makes land indispensable is its capacity to serve as a means of sustaining production and procuring wealth for the survival of a kin group.
Land is evidently crucial to the existence of the Chinese zu or lineage. However, the assertion that corporate land is the raison d’être of ancestor worship is misguided. On the contrary, it is ancestor worship that gives rise to corporate land and establishes its inalienability in terms of divine ownership. Proceeding from the divine ownership of land, ancestor worship provides a coherent system of norms and values that sanctions the proper transmission and management of lineage property. Among these norms and values are filial piety, agnatic obligations, and descent rules. Common descent, which is to be defined in the context of ancestor worship, is instrumental in securing and maintaining the continuity of corporate land. It brings about a sense of togetherness, enhances the awareness of a collective conscience, and provides the basis for a moral code of conduct. Owing to its adherence to ancestor worship, the Chinese zu is what Durkheim calls a “moral community.”
Cross-Cultural Variation of Transition to Ancestorhood
Beliefs in an afterlife appear to be ubiquitous where ancestor worship is practiced. In Robert Hertz’s view, such beliefs appear to be a response to the basic contradiction between the mortality of the human body and the immortality of the body politic. As a supplement to man’s earthly span, a Land of the Dead is postulated vis-à-vis the Land of the Living. But how this afterlife is postulated varies from culture to culture.
The ancestral cult is widely practiced in West African societies, including the Ewe of Ghana, who have very definite ideas about life and death. The Ewe believe that human life is composed of two souls. At death, their union is dissolved, one returning to Mawu, the creator, and the other to Tsiefe, the spirit world. Rituals are performed to help the dead complete the journey to Tsiefe. It is not until after the performance of the final postburial ritual that the spirit of the dead soul is thought to have joined the ancestral family and invited to partake of the food offered in the ritual of ancestor worship. But the ritual is held irregularly by the lineage or clan and may entail a long wait. Again, the basis of Ewe ancestor worship is that in the afterlife, the dead ancestors continue to show active interest in the mundane affairs of the living. On all ceremonial occasions, the ancestors must be invoked through customary libations, and they are fed on the ceremonial stools that serve as their shrines. The continuity between life and death is made possible by the rebirth of the souls in Tsiefe.
As is obvious from Ewe ancestor worship, afterlife involves a gradual transformation of statuses. It is possible to identify the phases of this transformation with what Arnold van Gennep calls “rites of passage.” The first phase is associated with rites of separation, whereby the dead soul is cut off from his earlier status as a living being. The second phase is associated with rites of transition, whereby the dead comes out of separation and starts the sojourn to ancestorhood in a capacity peripheral to the worlds of the living and the dead. The last phase is associated with rites of incorporation, whereby the dead becomes a member of the ancestral family. The rites of transition appear to show the greatest cross-cultural variation in terms of duration and complexity. This transitional phase is otherwise known as the stage of liminality. In the Ewe case, the liminal period lasts from the burial to the first ritual whenever it comes along.
Among the Merina of Madagascar, the duration of liminality for the dead is undetermined for a different reason. This culture requires that members of a descent group have their bones buried in ancestral tombs. Because the Merina do not live in the same place, a member is initially buried where he dies, and the burial is attended in grief and mourning. After the initial burial, at some point in time, the bones are exhumed and moved to the ancestral tomb for a secondary and final burial. The ritual for “regrouping” the body with the ancestors is joyful, for it initiates the dead into ancestorhood and kindles the hope for its expedient rebirth. Actually, birth is symbolized in the ritual by going into and emerging from the tomb as if it were a womb.
The stage of liminality may also be prolonged for concerns about the pollution of death. In Japan, a long liminal period is instituted so that death defilement can be cleansed. It takes the spirit of the dead (shirei) 49 days plus purification rituals to transform into an ancestral spirit (sorei), which is then represented by a permanent wooden tablet on the household Buddha altar (butsudan). But the transition will continue for another 33 or 50 years (depending on the region of Japan) before the ancestral spirit can be accepted into the body of family ancestors. That is to say, on condition that the dead soul has received worship dutifully ceremonially on the death anniversary each year and with additional memorial service on the 1st, 3rd, 7th, 13th, 17th, 23rd, 27th, and 33rd anniversaries if the liminal period is 33 years. The bottom line is that the dead must be purified in order to be accepted as an ancestor. The concern about death pollution is so great that in rural Japan, the grave receiving the body is located far away from the residential area and goes by the name of the “abandoned grave.” A second “ritual grave” consisting only of a headstone may be built near the house so that worshippers can visit it without encountering the pollution of the dead body.
Robert Hertz maintains that the deceased’s integration into the world of the dead is correlated with the survivors’ reintegration into the world of the living. Consequently, the stage of liminality terminates for both at the same time. In his view, this says more about the values and institutions of the living than anything else. Although he makes the comment in connection with “double burial,” the traditional Chinese system of wufu or “Five Mourning Grades” lends strong support to it.
Wufu actually means the five different types of mourning dresses prescribed by Confucian orthodoxy. Each type of dress was worn in mourning of certain consanguine or affinal relatives for a specific period of time. Grade 1 mourning, which was the severest, was for the death of a parent and lasted 3 years. Its mourning dress consisted of unhemmed sackcloth coat and skirt, hemp headdress, straw sandals, and mourning staff. As the principal mourner, the oldest surviving son lived in a hut built of branches against the house. He ate coarse rice for food, had water for his drinking, slept on a straw mat, and wailed twice a day. At the end of the first year, vegetables and fruits were added to the congee-only diet, and the hemp headdress was replaced by a raw-silk hat. No definite times were prescribed for his wailing. For the third year, the severity of mourning was further reduced so as to help the son’s life return to normal.
Stipulated in the law, the wufu imposed a duty of mourning upon the people, sanctioned by punishment. An official must retire from office upon the death of his parent and observe the 3-year mourning. To keep the fact a secret and show no signs of distress would incur serious legal consequences as well as public disgrace. It is important to note that the wufu system heavily leaned toward patrilineal relatives, especially those in the senior generations. The mourning grade for patrilineal grandparents was 2 (1 year), but only 4 (5 months) for matrilineal grandparents and 3 (9 months) for grandchildren. Central to this mourning system was an emphasis on the cultivation of filial piety toward the patrilineal seniors. Filial piety was considered one of the most important virtues in Chinese society, where the father-son relationship was the cornerstone of the Confucian family system. It stressed that the son owed his life and achievements to his father’s love and must attend to his memory after death as if he were alive. Ultimately, however, the wufu system served the living rather than the dead—the needs of Chinese society to strengthen its kinship system.
The Chinese mortuary rites did not necessarily involve double burial. But because of the prolonged mourning periods prescribed by the wufu, the only burial that happened in many cases actually provided what Hertz calls the “provisional ceremony.” With the ending of the wufu mourning came what a secondary burial provides for the institution of double burial— the “final ceremony” that put closure on the chapter of liminality.
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