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Ancestors, Gods, and Ancestor-Gods

J. W. Barlament is an author, blogger, and researcher of political, philosophical, and religious issues.

Ancient Ancestor Worship

The following will mostly be an exercise in speculation. Many of the things to be brought up here are so well hidden beneath the veil of time that we may never get to know their details. It's a dive into the deepest depths of the past - perhaps even back when man and ape were not yet totally separate - thus making it a difficult thing to speak of strictly scientifically. But, speculatory though it may be, the following is nonetheless important, for it stems from a paradigm-shifting realization; namely, the wishes of our ancestors and the wishes of their gods were remarkably similar.

Reverence. Remembrance. Ritual. These were the wishes of both the ancestors below and the deities above. The ancients were well aware of their mortality, and even though almost all believed in an afterlife, they were still keen to be sung of after death in the land of the living. To them, it seems, legacy was a form of immortality; a mentality that remains in some minds still today. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “every man has two deaths; when he is buried in the ground and the last time someone says his name. In some ways men can be immortal.” Likewise, the Old Norse Hávamál states as much when it declares, “cattle die, kinsmen die, and you yourself shall die. But fair fame never dies for the one who wins it.”

Such sentiments easily led to ancestor worship when said fair fame became more fiction than fact, thus turning historical figures into mythological ones. Now, not every mythological figure was worshipped, and ancient cultures also often had tiers of deities, where any ancestor-gods likely would've been in the lower tiers. You'd be hard-pressed to find evidence of any actual ancestor being promoted to an ancient people's chief deity. Now, that doesn't mean it didn't happen; ambiguity is everywhere in the study of pagan religions. That's what happens when colonial powers and monotheistic converters ravage pagan peoples for centuries on end. It gets more sadistic the more one thinks about it; not only did the conquering monotheists take their enemies’ territories, but they also tried their hardest to wipe away entire cultural inheritances.

Shrine to the ancestors in Vietnam

Shrine to the ancestors in Vietnam

Between Deities and Ancestors

Getting back on topic, all this talk of the wishes of the ancestors seems strikingly similar to the actions of and rituals around the ancient pagan gods. The ancestors and the gods both being spiritual beings of some sort would make this make sense, of course, but it goes beyond that. Ultimately, people revered the dead because they believed that doing so would grant them some sort of gift in life (whether that gift was good luck, a fulfilled favor, an assured achievement, or something else), and they revered the gods for a similar, if not the same, reason. The ancients thought all spiritual beings operated on a policy of reciprocity. When the living built temples and gave sacrifices to their spirits (gods, ancestors, or others still), they expected the spirit to give them something in return, as they were thought to be able to influence the mortal world for either good or bad. Worship and sacrifice weren't done just for the hell of it, nor were they done to fulfill some gaping hole in the hearts of the ancients. These were practical practices to ensure fortunes. And, upon their own deaths, ancient people hoped that their reverence for their ancestors would ensure that their own descendents would revere them, as well.

Can all of these striking similarities between the ancestors and the gods can't really all be chalked up to their common identity as sorts of spirits, then? According to some, it sure can. But on the contrary, these similarities may really be due to a sort of spiritual intermingling - where the ancestors and the gods combined to form ancestor-gods. This we can see most clearly in the perennial ideas of Mother Earth and Father Sky. The pair is usually a god and a goddess, such as in the reconstructed Indo-European Dyḗus Ph₂tḗr (predecessor of gods like Zeus, Jupiter, and Týr) and Dhéǵhōm (predecessor of goddesses like Gaia, Terra, and Pṛthvī Mātā), as well as in the Sumerian An and Ki and the Maori Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Oftentimes, these gods also serve as divine parents, either of humanity directly or of other gods who would go on to create humanity. This, of course, makes them ancestor-gods, but the Mother Earth and Father Sky motifs are even more intriguing than that.

Indeed, Mother Earth and Father Sky are living ancestor-gods. Mother Earth, or the fertile womb of all life, is inseminated at all times by the breath of life gifted by the Sky Father (though rain occasionally serves as the method of insemination instead). In ancient times, the clear connection between air and life was made - no man can live without air to breathe - so plenty of ancient people thought that it was the air itself that was imbued with the cosmic life-force, and it was this life-force that was needed in the womb to give birth to life on Earth. This fact led them to draw parallels between the sky and semen; thus, they assigned the sky a masculine character and the Earth a feminine character. It seems, then, that the Mother Earth and Father Sky motifs make for intriguing blends of both ancestral and deity worship.

"Jupiter and Thetis" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

"Jupiter and Thetis" by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

A Common Origin

Ancestor worship, common mainly in Asia, Africa, and Oceania today, sees the ancestors sometimes even taking the place of traditional gods. We see this to an extent in ancient China, where solid pantheons of great gods were absent, but strong traditions of ancestor worship (these ancestors often being interchangeable with folk gods) were commonplace. With all of this, it's certain that the ancestors and the gods were often intermixed, but an even more interesting possibility remains; that both ancestor veneration and polytheistic religion came from the exact same source. Now, to better understand something like that, we must take a trip to the Amazon. There, shamans are known for making a brew that the Quechua peoples call ayahuasca, which translates to “vine of the dead”, and it isn’t called that for nothing. The Quechua say drinking the brew allows one to meet the spirits of the ancestors. When Westerners make the trek into the rainforest to experience this for themselves, they may not see what they deem ancestors, but they certainly do see some sort of entities. It is this that is our mysterious missing origin of both the ancestors and the gods.

The ayahuasca entities, regardless of how they’re interpreted, are all assigned great significance by those who encounter them. The same was true of the other psychedelic entities encountered by people-groups the world over (via peyote and salvia in North America, amanita muscaria in northern Europe, iboga in western Africa, possibly psychedelic brews in ancient Greece and India, and various kinds of psilocybin mushrooms all over the world). Even in parts of the world without any special substances lying around, shamans would often enter altered states of consciousness through meditation, sweat lodges, ritual chanting, drumming, breathwork, or other means, and meet their entities there. The experience seems nearly universal in ancient religious systems.

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It is these entities - the entities encountered by a shamanic practitioner in an altered state of consciousness - that are theorized to have formed the basis for all succeeding deities. For some, they would’ve appeared as the dearly departed, and for others, they would’ve appeared as supernatural deities. Today, many practitioners report them as aliens, perhaps as a reflection of our society’s shift toward the futuristic, in comparison with the animalistic figures of early human artwork and the anthropomorphic gods of later history. Now, the idea that these experiences of autonomous entities formed the basis for all later religion is not a universally accepted one. Nonetheless, it seems the most feasible, and it presents an interesting explanation for the connections between ancestor worship and polytheistic religion.

Although the depths of religious history are dark, we can clearly see that there was a strong connection in ancient times between the ancestors and the gods, and that ancient people saw their ancestors in a radically different way than we do today. The great deeds of dead men were not taken for granted, or worse yet, ignored. Rather, they were celebrated, with the living hoping that celebrating the dead would let them harness whatever it was that made the great among the dead so great. And perhaps, to an extent, they were right to go to such lengths to commemorate their history. You know what they say about those who don’t know their history.

Ayahuasca-inspired art, "Misterio Profundo" by Pablo Amaringo

Ayahuasca-inspired art, "Misterio Profundo" by Pablo Amaringo


© 2020 JW Barlament

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