Ancestor worship or ancestor veneration is among the world’s oldest religious practices. Ancestor worship is based on the belief that the deceased continue to have an active interest in the daily affairs of the living and that they may be able to influence what happens to the living. On a regular basis, deceased ancestors are honored with ceremonies so that they will continue to help the living. Briefly described below are just some of the many different forms of ancestor worship in ancient Europe and in the arctic.
In Europe the era known as the Neolithic Period marks the expansion of farming in the continent. During the Neolithic, agriculture became the dominant subsistence method and people settled into permanent villages. Also, during the Neolithic, ancestor worship seems to have increased. In his chapter on ancestor cults in The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of Ritual and Religion, Timothy Insoll reports:
“Undeniably the archaeological record seems to attest to an intensification of what might be deemed ‘ancestral’ relations expanding in the Neolithic, as manifest in the British Isles by, for instance, the human remains disarticulated, sometimes sorted, and deposited in the earthen long barrows, megalithic tombs, and causewayed enclosures.”
Neolithic tombs stood out on the landscape and were used for successive internments, often of cremated remains. Archaeologist Francis Pryor, in his book Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland before the Romans, writes:
“The Earlier Neolithic tradition of formal disposal was collective. Their tombs—which one must think of as shrines, temples or churches, rather than just as final resting places for the dead—were among the earliest field monuments of Britain, and they occur in a great variety of shapes and sizes.”
One interpretation of these Neolithic tombs is that they represent a form of ancestor worship. One of the displays at the National Museum of Scotland, puts it this way:
“Many early farming communities commemorated the ancestors by building monumental burial sites, where the bones of the recently dead were mingled with those of the long-dead. Many such tombs were built to resemble, more or less closely, the houses of the living. The dead were buried with objects for the afterlife, things they would have used in life. They were also given offerings of food.”
Ancestor worship or veneration was not a new practice during the Neolithic as there is archaeological evidence for it during the earlier Mesolithic Period (the era from the end of the last Ice Age to agriculture). With the transition to agriculture, ancestor veneration continued and took on some new meanings. In his book Humans: From the Beginning, Christopher Seddon writes:
“The final resting places of ancestors became an important means by which farmers signified their new relationship with the land.”
In Europe, with agriculture—the Neolithic Period—came more elaborate tombs.
One of the indigenous peoples of the Russian North is the Evenki (formerly known as the Tungus). Traditionally, they were reindeer pastoralists who raised domesticated reindeer for milk. They also hunted large game and used the reindeer for transporting the meat and hides from their hunting. They lived primarily in an area known as a taiga.
Like many other hunting and gathering peoples and pastoralists throughout the world during the past 200,000 years or so, the Evenki religion did not include the idea of anthropomorphic gods. Nor did it include anthropomorphic creators or even a clear-cut mythology of creation. The primary focus of Evenki religion is clan ancestor spirits. After death the ancestors become depersonalized. The ancestor spirits are placated and manipulated to help out their living clan relatives.
Religion 101 is a series of essays about various aspects of religion, both ancient and modern, in which the concept of religion is not confined to god-centered religions. More from this series:
Religion 101: Ghosts in Different Cultures
Religion 101: Ceremonial Human Sacrifice
Religion 101: Theism, Pantheism, Panentheism
Religion 101: Secularism
Religion 101: The Great Awakenings
Religion 101: Confucianism
Religion 101: Naturalism
Religion 101: Divination in Ancient Civilizations