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Monday, September 3, 2012

Connecting to my Ancestors

  I do not know exactly how long I have been honoring my ancestors, although I do know that I began doing so long before I was associating with any groups or formal religions that encourage it; I would guess probably since around the mid 90's. Of course now I know that many pagan faiths, including Heathenry and Druidism, include aspects of honoring the ancestors, both the person's own family line as well as important past figures or close family friends who are not blood relations. There are different reasons for remembering those who have come before - some people do it to keep the memory of those people alive and to nurture a sense of connection to the past; others do it because they believe that a person's spirit lives on after physical death and can be interacted with. I fall into this second group, since I have always believed that the spirit lives on and that there can still be a relationship with these spirits. I don't think my actual practice directly reflects those taught by any one faith group, rather it seems that parts of what I do are a little like what many other groups do.
     My initial approach to ancestor worship*, which is still a main part of my practice, was to create an ancestor altar. At first this served simply as a way to feel connected to my ancestors, who I had not known in life, but as relatives who I knew and loved began passing away the purpose shifted to a place I could go and talk with them, light candles for them, burn incense, and leave offerings. My first ancestor altars where simple affairs, a small collection of pictures of my relatives, eventually with a simple white candle.
My ancestor altar, circa 2004
As time went on the altar grew and became more complicated, with a decorated resin skull being added in to represent all of my ancestors whose names I did not know, but who were still with me in some sense. I also added a collection of small female statues to represent my Disir, the female ancestors who guard my family line. A special oracle set, and then two, were added for when I felt the need to consult my Dead without wanting to go the full spae route. Many of the pictures acquired little tokens or mementos, usually objects owned by that person in life, and more candles were added. In short the altar developed it's own personality.
Ancestor altar, circa 2012
  I like to light the candles on my ancestor altar and talk with my ancestors, especially my father, the way I did when they were still alive. It acts as a touchstone for me, a place I can go to honor my Dead but also a place I can go for comfort. I point each picture out to my children and tell them stories about their ancestors. I bring offerings of coffee (a staple drink in my family!) and of bread. At the holidays that they celebrated I bring candy. I also make spontaneous offerings outside, usually of coffee or hot chocolate, which seem to be the best received; I simply say whatever I feel moved to say and pour a little bit out onto the earth for them.
   Speaking of holidays they celebrated - yes my ancestors were Christians; Catholic on my fathers side and Congregationalist on my mother's. I have not found this to make any difference whatsoever in their acceptance of my honoring them, although my Catholic grandmother has asked that I have masses said for her which leads to some interesting experiences on my part. I have certain ancestors that feel closer than others and they seem to be the ones that are more likely to ask for specific things and to come through during divination or spae. Others seem content to be there in the background. Actually it reminds me a lot of the experiences I had with family functions as a child where some people were very chatty and others hung out by the food table snacking, so maybe that's a healthy dynamic to have.
    Finally I have honored my ancestors by doing a variety of genealogical research over the years. I did this to honor their memories, but it also proved to be very enlightening for me especially for my mother's side which did not have the tradition of passing down stories of the past generations the way my father's side did. I had known from a young age that my father's mother was half Cherokee and half Scottish, and that his father was the son of a German and an Irish immigrant, for example, and a variety of stories about different family members on that side. But I never knew until I researched that my mother's family had pretty much been in New England since it was a British colony, or that a member of that side of the family had fought in every single American war since the Revolutionary war. It made me feel much more connected to that side of the family. But even if that wasn't possible, even if I had no idea who my parents were or anything else further back, I would still honor them, still acknowledge their place in my life. 
   The Havamal says "Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, --
fair fame of one who has earned"
 So long as we remember those who have gone before us, whose lives gave us life, they are never really gone. They are our roots, our connection all the way back to the beginnings, and knowing them means knowing ourselves, who we are and where we came from. Even nameless, even unknown they are still there. I believe they can hear us when we speak to them and that they care about what happens to us, especially those people who loved us in life (blood relations or not). As long as I feel like they are there and care, I will be here, caring, speaking to them, and pouring out offerings for them.

*worship means ardent devotion or adoration, from the middle english worshipe which meant worthiness, honor. I have no issue using this word to describe what I do in honoring my ancestors, but some people feel strongly about not using this word, and prefer to use veneration, or honor. My use of the word worship is a choice, but I understand others may choose differently; if the word usage bothers you feel free to replace it with "veneration", a synonym for worship that may be more acceptable.


  1. Excellent post! Your altar looks a bit like mine...

  2. My ancestor altar resembles your 2004 altar with the exception I have a large flower vase and candlesticks which belonged to my paternal grandmother. I'm feeling the need to move and reorganize mine, but I want to have it on a western wall if possible which narrows my options.

    Trying to decide just what photos to place on mine is a struggle. I feel like if I leave someone out they're going to be offended somehow. In comparing the two photos it looks like you've decreased the number of photos to give room for other objects. Are the oracle sets you mentioned only used when consulting with the Dead or do you use them for other divination purposes?

  3. Yes Sherri, the pictures change sometimes. I have a core few - my father, my grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother, as well as an uncle, that are always there but sometimes I feel the need to add others or give them a break so to speak. I sort of let my intutition guide me, but I understand what you mean about not wanting to leave anyone out. For a long time I included anyone I had pictures of, but overtime I started to feel like certain ones (generally who I had not known in my life) didn't want to be up there, although then I might later feel like they do. The current altar itself is a desk my grandfather made for me when I was a child so I keep the other pictures in the desk drawer when they feel like they want a break from being on display.
    The oracle sets are one rune set made of cedar and a Celtic oracle card deck and they are purely for consulting the Dead. Both oracles stay on the ancestor altar.