Ancestor Cults

Ancestor Figure, Kulap
Ancestor Figure, Kulap – J. C. Merriman via Flickr

Ancestor Cults [ancestor, from Latin antecessor, from ante, before + cedere, to go] is the now antiquated and politically incorrect term that until fairly recently scholars applied to individuals or groups who revere ancestors believed to exist in the afterlife.

Various traditions around the world venerate and pray to deceased ancestors.

Adherent of these traditions believe that familial spirits come to aid in daily life by bestowing spiritual power, protection, wisdom and practical guidance through individuals acting as mediums.

With roots in Africa, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, ancestor veneration appears especially in folk religions. Ritual is often present. In Africa, ancestors are said to protect living relatives from witches and voodoo curses. In Asia, ancestor veneration takes on varying degrees of importance in Confucianism, Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism. In China, the graves of ancestors are meticulously kept, despite former Marxist and Communist attempts to eradicate other spiritual practices.

In North American Native religions, the ongoing presence of the dead is taken to be equally as important as the ongoing presence of the living. Western culture tends to view this as odd and some religious groups deplore it as Satanic, probably because of their focus on the trappings and trends of everyday life. But it’s ironic that Catholics, for instance, believe that anybody can be a saint, and as such, mediate divine graces for us.¹

On the other hand, we do have psychologically questionable individuals who believe and follow any voice they hear without question. Some of these folks can do quite well in society, masking their difference (especially when non-violent). If the voices tell them to do bad things, they can still hide it for a long time before being discovered. Usually things start to unravel, however, and the potentially violent person’s family, friends, coworkers and, perhaps, psychiatrist begin to see that something’s wrong. Sometimes this is reported in time. Other times not, and an upsetting event (like failing an exam or losing a job) triggers these individuals into committing unspeakable acts of violence.

This short account of the psychology behind this type of violence might seem out of place here. But I mention it to underscore the fact that the belief in spirit communication is not always benign.

¹ See the entry on intercession.


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