Over the course of the last winter, I dove headfirst into the watery realm of the ancestors. Feeling drowned by depression, I honed my focus on what was really bothering me and learned a few lessons along the way. What prompted the sudden focus was the death of one of our tribal elders. I had asked him when he was alive if it would be alright for me to interact with him as an ancestor since in life he considered himself my adoptive father. He consented. Thus began an adventure that filled in some major potholes on my Path in Paganism.
Ancestral Veneration is nothing new…
Recognizing the importance of our ancestors, whether they are biologically linked to us or adopted is not a catchy new tend. Celebrating the lives of those before us is a tradition that has followed us since Paleolithic times with the discovery of sacrificial offerings at the site of graves. While we will never know all of the words, deities, or ideas invoked in that time period because of the lack of written records, we can observe that ancestors held a place of significance that has been with us since time immemorial.
We see it in the modern day with the Chinese celebration known as the Hungry Ghost Festival with the feasts and fireworks used to feed hungry departed souls and also reflected in scant remains of hieroglyphics from the land of ancient Kemet. The process of one’s death was just as significant as the course of one’s limited time on earth. Ancestors in Maori culture (New Zealand) dance alongside the living during the Haka (War) dance. In other parts of the world, the Ancestors are not gone, they’re experiencing life alongside the living! In the Ceremony of the Cleaning Corpses, practiced in Indonesia, this is quite literal!
How Ancestor Work Can Hep with Self-Improvement
Having lost my father at the tender age of fifteen years old and struggling alone with the reality of the situation, I can tell you that America’s modern relationship with death SUCKS. The schools and other social programs available in my area were ill-equipped to deal with a kid who had felt orphaned. I was also unable to cope with the shock of the circumstances. My sense of loss haunted me like a ghost for most of my life. I struggled for almost twenty years with the vivid imagery of my dad’s passing, the confusion I felt during and after his funeral, and the decisions I made in fear that shaped the course of my life. As a Pagan, I decided to reshape my foundation by going “back in time” via my ancestors and relook at the life we lived together from an adult perspective.
In Pagan culture, ancestor work can help heal old wounds and paint a completely different world view for the practitioner of the craft. We can go back to a place in time where we were hurt and talk to that ancestor as if they were alive without the fear that they have control over us any more. We can catch up with Grandmother and thank her for the supportive figure she provided for you in life. Maybe as an adult, we relive a time with our own parents and look at their choices from the experiences of the present time and not our past selves.
Building a Pagan Ancestor Altar – Ideas from around the World
Building an Ancestor altar is a great way to build a connection with your ancestors. The construction of such an altar is really simple. I personally like to use a space that is separate from my main working altar, however, if space is limited then an existing altar or portable altar is also suitable. The main goal is keeping this area sacred, which means clean, undisturbed, and set aside for solely the task of speaking and interacting with our ancestors.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, I didn’t have much to work with nor did I have a lot of funds to build anything fancy. I started out with a photograph of my dad, some toys that came from his childhood, and also the obituary card of the elder that had passed on in my Tribe. Making your own altar should be fun! I spoke with my biological father about the good times we shared together. I opened up and started reaching out to my Grandmother who had always been a touchy subject. By sharing those stories through my interactions, I began to see patterns and themes that were ubiquitous in my own life.
Offerings are important. It’s a way of connecting with these spirits. It’s a practice in Haitian Voodoo to offer candy, alcohol, cigarettes or foods associated with that ancestor when they walked the earth. Black coffee and rum are common and powerful offerings that are simple to obtain. Candy also seems to be a favorite among my family. There’s the use of certain forms of burnable currency in Chinese culture that is known as Hell (Paradise) Bank notes which are unbelievably fascinating to understand.
I also offer a glass of clear water to my ancestors to symbolize the union between the spirit world and the realm of emotion. This idea was borrowed from the Santeria which has roots in African Yoruba tradition by way of the trans-Atlantic slavery time period. Some other folks have good luck with fresh flowers or plants on these altars. The construction of your altar should reflect your family, your beliefs, and what engages you. Research anything that you adapt thoroughly and make sure you have a clear understanding of what you’re representing on your altar.
I also have deities upon my ancestor altar. While Gods very different from ancestors, certain Pagan Gods are associated with death and act as a “Gate Keeper” when dealing with the realm of the spirit world. Such Pagan underworld deities as Hekate, Hades, The Morrigan, and Hel could be examples of some deities to include if you like working with Gods. One could also work with Goddess Kali and Lord Shiva from the Hindu pantheon as these Gods are associated with death, destruction, and the cremation grounds. Speak with them about opening the boundaries of these words and helping you communicate with your departed loved ones.
The Ancestor Shrine!
One of the key benefits of having Pagan Homeland is the privilege of having land to bury our ancestors that is ours so we are free to venerate them as we see fit. At Deeply Rooted, we have an ancestor shrine that occupies the land and stands as a monument to those elders that passed on and left something of themselves forever in the community. It’s a way of connecting legacy throughout the generations and while it may not seem like much more than a pile of stones, for some it’s an active portal to the experiences and times when the remains of those folks entombed within walked among the living. If you have such shrines in your area, make a pilgrimage and record the experience in a notebook!
The benefits of Ancestral veneration go far beyond what I’ve written about. I think ancestral work helps build a sense of Tribe and a connection to the Wheel of the Year, the journey of life and death, that is everpresent in our Pagan culture. This article only touches the very tip of a huge, forgotten iceberg of our recovering Pagan ways. When we begin to heal our minds, we begin to transform the Magick that we do. If you’re a practitioner of any kind of Magickal system and you want to improve that connection and deepen the connection to that working. In my experience, self-empowerment is a cornerstone to mental health, magickal practice, and the sensation of joy. May this article be of help to someone who is curious about the realm beyond the veil. As always, if you have any questions or comments, reach out below or contact me on FaceBook! )O( Blessed Be! – Shining Quill