Friday, 2 March 2012

All A Matter Of Ancestor Worship

Ancestor worship in Vietnam
As children we look up to the adults in our society. We think they are full of wisdom and know just about everything. I still remember the shock I felt when my primary school teacher was wrong about something I knew about. How could she not know that there was a bird called a Great Tit? What had gone wrong with the world when she crossed out the word 'Great' in red ink and wrote 'small' over it? These things can shatter the cosy world of certainties for an eight year old. Teachers were teachers because they knew everything, weren't they? How else did they become teachers?

Just so with parents. Parents knew nearly everything too. Maybe not enough to be teachers, but nearly. Our parents have this strange quality. No matter how old we get, our parents are always older than us. They knew more than us when we were children because they had lived longer; why they were probably around when that fact became a fact. My father was 10 years younger than I am now when he died, yet I still remember him as older than me. It seems sensible that, if he was somehow present now, he would still be older than me and so wiser and more knowledgeable, even though I've got 10 years more experience than he had and have studied things like science and history and art and music. Mind you, he could strip a car engine down, fit new pistons or cam shaft and re-seat a set of valves.

And his parents were obviously wiser and older than him. I even knew his mother and she was certainly old. She had even lived in the nineteenth century when history was called news!

My grandfather, something of a local legend in north Oxfordshire shepherding circles in the 1910s, could just about read and write but he could stick a 'blowed' sheep with a meat skewer and slit the gizzard of a crop-bound hen with a pen-knife, remove the grass ball and stitch it up good as new with a needle and cotton. And he could look at the sky, sniff the wind, and tell you what the weather would be tomorrow.

And so it seems logical that people who lived long ago must have been very wise indeed. Who could possibly question the wisdom of America's Founding Fathers? Why, their great wisdom still underpins the American Constitution and whole law libraries are dedicated to interpreting their words.

In some societies, like Japan and China, ancestor worship is an integral part of the culture. It is simply assumed that granddad and granny are still looking after the family. There is a strange custom in Japan involving chopsticks. It is a serious social faux pas to touch another person's chopsticks with your own when sharing a meal from the same bowl, and the origins of this go back to a time when part of a funeral rite was passing the bones of the dead around a table using chopsticks, when it was a mark of respect to click your chopstick click against the other persons, and this is thought to have developed from an actual or symbolic eating of the dead as an act of homage!

Touching chopsticks is associated with death and death is a taboo subject in Japan because it might offend the ancestors. Do we still teach our children not to speak ill of the dead? I certainly was. Too risky!

Robert Reid, Knowledge (1896).
Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C.
So how obvious it must be that the very old and wise people who wrote the holy books way back in the mists of antiquity MUST have known far more than we do? Stands to reason doesn't it? In fact, they were so wise that they could foretell the future so we call them 'prophets', weren't they?

Er... no, actually. Throughout human history, and especially after we learned language and then writing, the sum total of human knowledge has increased with each generation. On average, we know far more than our parents knew, and they knew more than their parents. We don't need to go far back into history to get to the time when people believed Earth was flat, that miasmas (or noxious odours) caused sickness and possession by evil spirits caused insanity and witchcraft.

We only need go back a couple of thousand years to find people who believed killing an animal, or better still a human, could somehow prevent crop failures, cattle sickness and droughts or floods. And of course these same people believed a human sacrifice could please gods and prevent them from hurting us, just as it would make the sun rise in the morning, stop that volcano from blowing up again or ensure the river rises up to irrigate the land and drop it's precious gift of alluvial mud to fertilise the fields.

But we know better than that now, don't we? We have added to the knowledge of our ancestors and know more than they do. It's now a puzzle how people ever went in for ancestor worship in the first place.

Perhaps they just didn't know any better in those days.

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1 comment :

  1. Actually you *do* have to go far back in history to get to the time when people believed Earth was flat. A spherical Earth has been well-known since the late ancient world. It's the fact of the Earth going around the Sun that's fairly recent in our history. See, for instance:


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