Genealogists search written records, collect oral histories and preserve family stories to discover ancestors and living relatives. Genealogists also attempt to understand not just where and when people lived but also their lifestyle, biography, and motivations. This often requires — or leads to — knowledge of antique law, old political boundaries, immigration trends, and historical social conditions.
Genealogists and family historians often join a Family History Society where novices can learn from more experienced researchers, and everyone benefits from shared knowledge.
Even an unsuccessful search for ancestors leads to a better understanding of history. The search for living relatives often leads to family reunions, both of distant cousins and of disrupted families. Genealogists sometimes help reunite families separated by immigration, foster homes and adoption. The genealogist can help keep family traditions alive or reveal family secrets.
In its original form, genealogy was mainly concerned with the ancestry of rulers and nobles, often arguing or demonstrating the legitimacy of claims to wealth and power. The term often overlapped with heraldry, in which the ancestry of royalty was reflected in the quarterings of their coat of arms. Many of the claimed ancestries are considered by modern scholars to be fabrications, especially the claims of kings and emperors who trace their ancestry to gods or the founders of their civilization. For example, the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers traced the ancestry of several English kings back to the god Woden (the English version of the Norse god Odin) If these descents were true, Queen Elizabeth II would be a descendant of Woden, via the kings of Wessex.
In fiction, it is common to give a character a complicated fictional genealogy to make his or her background more interesting. A picturesque one is the genealogy for Godwulf of Asgard.