Contemporary physical evidence of ancestral worship

The concept of ancestor worship, a central guiding principle in ancient Chamorro/CHamoru society, continues today in some general and some specific ways.

Ancestral worship is tied to the idea that when a person dies they do not leave the world, but remain in some spiritual form. Ancient Chamorros believed their dead relatives returned as manganiti or taotaomo’na, spirits which played a large role in either protecting the living and ensuring they lived safe and prosperous lives, or bringing doom, illness and bad luck to them. Therefore, even after a person passed away, a relationship of respect had to be maintained with their memory, their spirit, their legacy and so on.

The largest practices associated with this worship was the keeping of the skulls of their ancestor in the guma’saga’ (home) and the treating of these skulls, which held the spirits of their ancestors, as respected members of the family, even to the extent that they would be spoken to in reverent tones and offered nenkanno’ (food) and gimen (drink) at meals and gupot siha (parties).

Today, when families keep mementos, pictures and reminders of their lost relatives in their homes, they are practicing ancestor worship by venerating the lives and the spirits of their ancestors. When we hold closely the memory of a loved one that is gone, or even more specifically when in times of crisis we state that we wish that our loved one was here again, or that we wish that they could in some way guide us or help us, we are appealing to the ante (soul) of our relatives.

Another form of ancestor veneration is when we visit the grave sites of departed relatives and bring them some of their favorite foods or drink. Simple practices such as these reflect in small and subtle ways the practice of ancestor veneration of Ancient Chamorros.

The most concrete form in which ancestral worship continues today is through the celebration of All Soul’s Day celebrated 2 November, which involves the actual remembrance and reverence of the ancestor, now buried in a cemetery. Family members and friends prepare for the All Soul’s Day days sometimes weeks in advance, cleaning graves and adorning them with flowers or momentos.

Another form of ancestral worship that carries on to the present is the veneration of Catholic Saints. The victories of the Catholic Church in colonizing Guam and Chamorros came not through force of arms, but also through a blending of Catholicism and Ancient Chamorro religion. Although Spanish missionaries did assert that the ancestral spirits of Chamorros were demons, devils, or did not exist, and destroyed many ancestral skulls to prove this point, this confrontational approach was not their most successful.

The interventions which did the most in terms of turning Chamorros or transforming their consciousness in order to accommodate the invading religion was not to claim that all spirits don’t exist or that all spirits are taomaolek (without good), but simply that Catholic religion offered maolekña (better) and metgotña (stronger) spirits. And these better spirits manifested most prominently in the pantheon of Catholic saints and holy figures.

The technology and weaponry of the Spanish helped make this point. It seemed logical that because the Spanish had more advanced weapons, this might be the result of their ancestral spirits being stronger. Over time, Chamorros replaced their practices of worshiping and seeking aid from the spirits of their ancestors, and began to seek the guidance and protection of Catholic Saints. When Chamorros pray to these saints today for good fortune in business, protection from evil, or even in the finding of lost objects, they are still praying to spirits. And as they collect figures and images, artifacts of these saints, they are still using the system of practices and respect that their ancestors did centuries ago.

By Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD

For further reading

Cunningham, Lawrence J. Ancient Chamorro Society. Honolulu: Bess Press, 1992.

Driver, Marjorie G. The Account of Fray Juan Pobre’s Residence in the Marianas, 1602. MARC Miscellaneous Series No. 8. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1993.

Freycinet, Louis Claude Desaulses de. An Account of the Corvette L’Uraine’s Sojourn at the Mariana Islands, 1819. Translated by Glynn Barratt. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 2003.

Russell, Scott. Tiempon I Manmofo’na: Ancient Chamorro Culture and History of the Northern Mariana Islands. Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historic Preservation, 1998.

Souder-Jaffery, Laura Marie Torres. Daughters of the Island: Contemporary Chamorro Women Organizers on Guam. 2nd edition. MARC Monograph Series No. 1. Mangilao: Micronesian Area Research Center, University of Guam, 1992.

Thompson, Laura M. Guam and Its People. With a Village Journal by Jesus C. Barcinas. 3rd ed. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1947.