Ancestor Worship is a form of religion emphasizing the influence of deceased kindred on the living. It is not a complete religious system in itself but one phrasing of relations beyond human control, and thus but a facet of religious expression. Among some peoples it has formed an appreciable core of their beliefs and practices, as in China, tropical Africa, Malaysia, and Polynesia. Some aspects of religion among ancient Egyptians, Romans, and ancient Hebrews, involving a more or less reverential regard for the dead, have been mistakenly described as ancestor worship. As a cult it is by no means universal nor even widespread among primitive peoples.

Ancestor worship is based on a variety of mingled motives: continuity with the past; respect for the wisdom of elders; a desire for the blessing that may be given by the dead, who are endowed with knowledge and power beyond human experience; a desire to assuage grief and to tend the dead by offerings and prayers for their wellbeing; and fear of ghostly visitors and their possible vengeful acts. The two principal ideas are (1) that "those who have gone before" have a continuing and beneficent interest in the affairs of the living; and (2) more widespread, uneasiness or fear of the dead, with practices to placate them. But the latter motive gave rise more frequently to simple routine acts to drain off emotion-or to magic-than to rites of worship.

The 19th century anthropological theorists (Edward Burnett Tylor, Herbert Spencer, Frank Byron Jevons) saw ancestor worship as a first inchoate religion (not as one phase). They assumed the inability of savages to comprehend the unseen: the dead as something unnatural and uncanny were feared and conciliated. It is now known that primitives commonly make a distinction between the dead in genera and their own departed kinsmen, who are commonly thought of as reciprocating their affection. Further, ghosts are ordinarily not ancestral dead, but impersonal and unidentified, and hence unpredictable, inimical, or malignant. Such practices as ridding houses of the spirits of the dead or foiling ghosts are common, but they are magical acts rather than rites of worship and reverence.

The religious attitudes of primitives toward their ancestors vary widely. In Polynesia, where social rank depends on nearness of descent from the gods and their successors the ancestors, the attitude is one of reverence and expectation of help and guidance, but does not involve much worship. In Malaysia, family rites were addressed to dead kindred who were thought to be ever present nearby and ever concerned that traditional life should be preserved unchanged. Among Pueblo Indians, the dead were thought to become one with their mythical forebears, the kachinas; ceremonials, involving masked impersonation of the kachinas, were prayers to "the departed" to bless with rain, fertility, and happiness.

Ancestral cults are common to most of tropical Africa. Here family includes not only the living but ancestors as well; living elders have control of their juniors as the forebears had of them. The major theme of these cults is concern with the continuity of family ties. In Dahomey (West Africa) ancestral spirits are of three ranks: the spirit founders of clans, those who died before genealogical records began, and the known dead. At intervals the recent dead are established among the ancestors by a rite. Annually there is worship with dancing, when distinguished ancestral spirits "alight" on the heads of men to possess them spiritually. Each clan has a mythical pair of founders, whose son, as oldest of ancestors, stands as absolute ruler of all family ancestral spirits. The actual clan head (the oldest man) derives his absolutism from his association with the ancestral spirits, whose power he can invoke to enforce his decrees.

In China, emphasis is also on continuity of family and reverence for the wisdom of elders. The worship is very ancient (dating from before 1000 B.C.). It is essentially a family affair, involving prayer and offerings before tablets in the home and in ancestral temples. It is accompanied by an elaborate system of burial and mourning, the visiting of graves as a mark of deep respect, and a horror of trespassing on or despoiling a grave.

Ethically, among the Chinese, the primary virtue is filial piety, an obligation to serve and honor the parents without any sense of fear or gain, which results in strong social solidarity of the family. The state worship of Confucius, with which this is involved, is an extension of this reverence for the wisdom of the elders, a mark of respect and honor for a great teacher rather than attributing to him power over human affairs. Today, however, there is evidence that these attitudes are no longer so prevalent among the Chinese, especially on the Communist mainland.

In the Japanese form of family worship the concept of duty to elders and ancestors is modified by reciprocal obligations of parents to children.

India's many religions are marked by respect and veneration of the past, but not of the forebears, with practice rarely warranting characterization as ancestor worship.

Ancient Egypt had an impressive cult of the dead but little trace of ancestor worship. The Egyptians believed that at death the soul could live on if the body was preserved, joining the king of the dead, Osiris, in everlasting happiness. The ordinary man did not venerate his ancestors, but he often commemorated their names.

In ancient Rome, what ancestor worship existed was a private family, not public, affair. The dead joined the household gods, "visiting" the family and thus gaining immortality by "remaining" on earth. As visitors they were greeted and propitiated but with no great sense that their influence on mortals was important.