The Muse has decided to flood me with new ideas, and will not allow me to go on my merry way without writing up my ideas. Hopefully all of you are ready to be hit with more posts from me.
Ancestors are a subject which come up often when you delve further into modern paganisms. It’s one area which a lot of pre-Christian religions place a great deal of focus. Without ancestors, none of us would be here right now. Even if you were adopted, even if you were conceived in vitro, even if someone from the future was reading this and you were grown in a vat, you were not created out of a vacuum. People who came before you had to supply the DNA for you to exist. Considering the amazing event life is, we really should be thanking our ancestors every day that we have the opportunity to experience it.
I think it’s a true tragedy that honoring ancestors is seen as primitive, or backwater, and not something worthwhile to do. We lose a link to our history when we try to leave behind where we came from. I also believe there is a deep need in people to KNOW their backgrounds, to know their roots. IF you don’t think this is true, think about genealogy and the popularity of the site ancestry.com. If people did not want to know their past, these sites and disciplines would not exist.
I also believe that our ancestors can gain from it as they are in the Unseen. While there are some cultures which do not encourage active interaction with the ancestors, there’s a good chance that if you go back in time far enough, you’ll find evidence in your culture of ancestor veneration. You might also find stories about what happens when people stop honoring their beloved dead.
Let me tell you a little story. The library where I work has an archive. For one of my classes several years ago, I did a short internship in the archive, updating one of the collections. The collection I was working on was from a missionary who had been in China in the late 19th century. If you think this might have been one of the most boring tasks ever, to look through his letters and update the finding aid, you’re sorely mistaken. In his letters were a trove of information which would be of use to historians (like talk of the Boxer Rebellion as it was happening) and anthropologists (cultural practices) as well as religious scholars. One letter which caught my eye was the missionary recounting the story of a recent convert who had experienced a “demon possession.” I looked at it with the eyes of a polytheist, and saw what happened. The man in question was possessed by one of his ancestors who was causing quite a fuss. Why? Because with his descendant’s conversion, the ancestor would no longer be honored. I don’t know enough about Chinese traditions of ancestor veneration to say what could have happened to this spirit, but I know in other traditions this can lead to the ancestor turning into an angry spirit or just plain fading away.
It’s something to consider, at the least.
Now, for the practical side of honoring ancestors, and the nature of my suggestion. The topic of newbie pagans and 101 material has been coming up again recently. I’ve seen it both on blogs and on Tumblr. When I was resting/meditating earlier this afternoon and my brain was sorting through a heap of ideas to get closure, I thought about this one. As I commented in Sanne’s post on Hagstone, what I would like to see in 101 material are more and varied rituals. As it stands now, when you pick up ye standard newpagan 101 book, what you are most likely to find is this: instructions on building an altar with acknowledgments of the the cardinal directions and associated elements and tools, and rituals which tend toward magical working. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it’s far from the only way to operate. For one, the new person may not be interested in doing that type of witchcraft or may not want to do magic at all. They may want a way to acknowledge their emerging spiritual understanding and it may not fit in with that model.
Maybe what we should start doing is encouraging people to work with their ancestors. As my spiritual mother (who wrote an excellent piece on working with ancestors) is fond of pointing out, you can go your whole life without ever interacting with a God or a major spirit, only work with your ancestors, and still have a very rich and effective spiritual life. Your ancestors are very aware of what it’s like to be alive and have to function in this world. They are likely to have a lot more familiarity with the ins and outs of job hunting and worries over illness than any deity would know. Having them on your side when you’re trying to manifest a change in your life is a good idea. If you’re trying to have a family, definitely go to them. It is in their best interests for the family line to continue.
There may be some questions which come up on this subject:
But what if you’re adopted and don’t know your birth family?
Well, technically you have TWO families to honor, both birth and adopted. You may also be able to find material about your birth family, if you’re interested. I have a friend who was adopted a long time ago, and within days of asking her ancestors to help her find her biological family, she turned up relevant material. And it was more than coincidence at play in this situation, but since it’s not my story to tell, I shall leave it at that.
My family were all horrible people!
I know full well that this happens too. If you have ancestors who did horrible deeds in life, you may not want to have an active relationship with them. To be honest, my own relationship with my biological ancestors is not one where I interact with individuals. They come to me more as a collective mass. Also, look back further in your family line. You may find some OK people there to initiate a relationship.
My family were very religious/Christian/whatever and would not have liked this.
Give it a try anyway. If they don’t want to be honored, they’ll get the message to you. But you may be surprised. Sometimes death can change a person’s outlook on such things. 😉
I have a great fondness for this dead person who’s not related to me. Can I honor them?
I would say give it a try. I have some dead people I honor who are not related to me. Some are historical figures, one is a recently passed elder of the modern magical movement who visited me in a dream soon after she died.
How do I get started?
Find a space JUST for your ancestors. One which will not easily be disturbed by adults, kids, pets, high traffic, etc. Set out photos and/or mementos. Get a candle holder and incense holder, just for them. Light a candle, burn some incense. Offer them food, water, drink they liked, and spend some time with them. You can just sit quietly at first. See what happens.
I would love to see us as polytheists present this as a way to get started in practicing faith. We can revive a tradition which never should have disappeared, get to know ourselves better, and build on this foundation.
What say all of you?
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This post is part of the Pagan Blog Project.