- While this word suggests earlier generations, the predecessors of the current generation, its precise meaning varies from one cultural context to another. It is likely that the term is equivalent to “all who have died” in modern European languages. However, even in Europe, the most significant festivals honor specific dead individuals or groups—saints, martyrs, fallen soldiers, and so on—rather than some larger generality. Some indigenous cultures pay considerable attention to deceased members of recent generations but almost entirely ignore those who died longer ago than four generations back. It is equally possible to make offerings to the general community of “the ancestors” without being interested in specific named individuals. The word is also used with reference to cocreative beings who, in Aboriginal Australian understanding, may have a totemic rather than genetic relationship with humans. In some cultures, shamans may be required to communicate with ancestors or with “the dead,” whose demands must be met if they are not to cause harm. Elsewhere, as among the Daur Mongols, shamans do not make offerings to ordinary, nonshaman ancestors (or spirits), being somewhat removed from ordinary human life themselves.
Historical dictionary of shamanism. Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis. 2007.