Ancestor cult

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The ancestor cult, the ritual and usually sacrificial worship of the spirits of the deceased ancestors, the ancestors or manes (hence the term manism, from the Latinmanes), was widespread in ancient times as an original form of religion. The mortuary cult also includes corresponding burial rituals and is, and often has been, regularly practised in the immediate vicinity of the graves of the deceased. The concept of ancestor worship is broader than that of the mortuary cult in that it includes not only the directly deceased, but also the mythical ancestors and founders of the tribe or people. In fact, the relationship was sought with the etheric body that was laid down after death, which remained relatively long in appropriately developed people. Through this etheric body, the Spirits of Time, the Archai, could reveal themselves; it was these who were actually worshipped.

„If we go back far enough, we find that which people used to have as an atavistic wisdom, as a real contemplation of the spiritual worlds, expressed in the echo of religious world views in that people worshipped what was more or less a significant, highly respected ancestor. This means that in the various regions of the earth we find religious cults which we can call ancestor cults. Such ancestor cults have remained with people who have more or less come to a standstill at earlier stages of development. So people venerate or look up to an ancestor in veneration. What is the basis of this looking up to ancestors? What is the reality of this looking up to ancestors in ancient times, in those oldest times to which history can still look back? Let us say: There it goes back into grey times; then we have a certain epoch in which ancestor cults are there.

Such ancestor cults were not based, as today's superficial science believes, on the fact that people imagined they had to look up to an ancestor, but the oldest ancestor cults were absolutely such that people had a direct view of the ancestor at certain times of their lives. The one who looked up to an ancestor-god, in certain times of his life, in states between waking and sleeping, as they certainly existed in the older development of humanity, came to really be together with what he worshipped as his ancestor. The ancestor appeared to him not merely in a dream, but in a dreamlike imagination which meant something real to him. And those people belonged together to an ancestor service to whom a common ancestor appeared. What people saw in the spirit was indeed a human form that had risen to the sublime; but behind this human form something quite different was concealed. If one wants to recognise what was actually concealed behind this spiritual figure, one must bear the following in mind: The ancestor had once died; he departed from earth as, as I said, a highly respected personality who had done much good for a human community. The ancestor had passed through the gate of death, was thus, while people looked up to him, on the way between death and a new birth. What did the people see of the ancestor when they looked up to him? We know that when a human being passes through the gate of death, he is still in his etheric body for a short time; then this etheric body is discarded. But the laying aside means that the etheric body passes into the spiritual worlds, into the etheric world. The human being in his I and his astral body develops further; the etheric body passes over into the etheric world. Since the human being in question had done consistent things on earth, the memory of the etheric body remained for a long time. People perceived the etheric body of their ancestor in their old atavistic, dreamlike clairvoyance, worshipped that which revealed itself to them through this etheric body. But between death and a new birth, this etheric body comes into contact with the spirits of the higher hierarchies, above all with the spirits from the hierarchy of the Archai, the Spirits of Time. And because the person concerned was an important personality for the development of humanity, he connected himself with the spirit of the time, which brought the development of humanity a little further forward.

That which made itself known through this, let us say for my sake, ghost of the ancestors, was basically the Spirit of Time, one of the Spirits of Time, so that the oldest religious cult worship was offered to the Spirit of Time. Everywhere we go back to the times that history can still see as grey times, we find that people worshipped the etheric bodies of their ancestors as a means of revealing the spirits of time. So by going back to the ancestor cults, we have the worship of the Time Spirits, the Archai.“ (Lit.:GA 172, p. 200ff)

According to Rudolf Steiner, ancestor worship originated in the second subrace[1] of ancient Atlantis, among the Tlavatli peoples:

„The people of this race began to feel their personal worth. Ambition, which was a quality unknown to the Rmoahals, made itself felt in them. In a sense, memory transferred to the concept of living together. Those who could look back on certain deeds demanded recognition for them from their fellow men. He demanded that his deeds be remembered. And it was also based on this memory of deeds that a group of people belonging together chose one as their leader. A kind of kingship developed. Yes, this recognition was preserved even after death. The memory, the remembrance of the ancestors or of those who had earned merit in life, developed. And from this a kind of religious veneration of the deceased, an ancestor cult, developed among individual tribes. This has continued into much later times and has taken on the most diverse forms. Even among the Rmoahals, a person was only valid to the extent that he was able to assert himself at a given moment through his power. If someone wanted recognition for what he had done in earlier days, he had to show - through new deeds - that the old power was still his. He had to recall the old ones, so to speak, through new deeds. What had been done as such did not yet count for anything. Only the second sub-race reckoned so far with the personal character of a man that they took his past life into account in estimating this character.

Another consequence of the power of memory for the coexistence of people was the fact that groups of people formed which were held together by the memory of common deeds. Before, such group formation was entirely conditioned by the forces of nature, by common descent. Man, through his own spirit, did not yet add anything to what nature had made of him. Now a powerful personality recruited a number of people to a common enterprise, and the memory of this common work formed a social group.“ (Lit.:GA 11, p. 35f)


References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
Email: URL:
Index to the Complete Works of Rudolf Steiner - Aelzina Books
A complete list by Volume Number and a full list of known English translations you may also find at Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works
Rudolf Steiner Archive - The largest online collection of Rudolf Steiner's books, lectures and articles in English.
Rudolf Steiner Audio - Recorded and Read by Dale Brunsvold - Anthroposophic Press Inc. (USA)
Rudolf Steiner Handbook - Christian Karl's proven standard work for orientation in Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works for free download as PDF.


  1. The term subrace originates from the terminology used by the Theosophical Society at that time and was later no longer used by Rudolf Steiner, just like the term "root race". Steiner repeatedly pointed out that the term "race" is actually no longer justified in the post-Atlantean period, since now it is no longer the physical but the soul-spiritual development that comes to the fore. The division of humanity into races will gradually be completely overcome and is already meaningless for the spiritual development of humanity.