About ten years ago, I met a practitioner of Santeria for the first time. I had already read many books about Santeria, and was very enamored of the Orishas, but he was the first actual initiate I ever met. We started comparing and contrasting our religious beliefs and practices, Wicca with Santeria.
One of the first things he asked me was how I worked with the Ancestors. Like most Wiccans, I replied “Oh, yeah, I give them a nice big feast once a year at Samhain.” He looked startled, and said, “But that’s not nearly often enough. You need to invoke the Ancestors in every ceremony, even before you invoke the deities. If you don’t acknowledge the Ancestors, and give them food and drink offerings, they won’t help you. And they are magically powerful!”
These were interesting thoughts to me: that the Ancestors should be invoked in every ceremony, and that they needed to receive offerings from me to engage their help. I remembered many mentions of “ancestor worship” in ethnologies I read as an anthropology undergraduate. I started pursuing my own connection with the Ancestors, and learning to engage the Ancestors as a force in my magical work, predominantly in my shamanic healing work.
My shamanic teacher Sandra Ingerman supported my interest in ancestral spirits. Sandra likens us—the living—to a sports team currently playing a game, and she compares the Ancestors to the audience in the stadium, watching, cheering, booing….. and sometimes interfering on their team’s behalf. Sandra invokes the Ancestors as well as the Descendants in every ceremony she leads. Sandra believes we live on a continuum of time, the currently incarnate sandwiched between the discarnate Ancestors and the discarnate Descendants. In Sandra’s opinion and practice, both the Ancestors and the Descendants are sources of healing and magical power.
As I worked with the Ancestors over the course of ten years, I began to see a big difference in the results of my shamanic healings, especially in the areas of inherited disease and multi-generational curse breaking. I came to see that Sandra Ingerman and my Santeria friend were onto something powerful: the Ancestors can provide a lot of magical potency if they are petitioned to help their living descendants. This is a practice found almost universally in religions and spiritual paths with a similar world-view to Wicca, but is absent in the modern construct that is Wicca.
My Wiccan priest and priestess in Ireland, Gavin Bone and Janet Farrar, have this to say about the role of the Ancestors within Wicca:
The idea of ‘the Ancestors’ was something that was never talked about when we first became involved in Wicca; there was no reference to ancestral worship within ritual or the Book of Shadows. This has begun to change in the last few years, as many Wiccans have realised that something intrinsic is missing in their practise. Wiccans have begun to investigate the African Diaspora religions, and genuine Native American and other tribal religions, to learn more about how to incorporate the Ancestors into Wiccan ceremonies. We, ourselves, were honoured to be recognised by the Lesotho Sangoma (traditional healers) Ancestors as Elders when we traveled to South Africa to teach Wicca. As more and more western Pagans begin to investigate the Earth aspect of our spiritualities, they are finding that it is meaningless without recognition and contact with their ancestral spirits.
My much more local Wiccan priest in Delaware, author and teacher Ivo Dominguez, Jr. writes:
Belief in the power of the ancestors is normally associated with a worldview that populates the universe with a complicated ecology of spiritual beings and spiritual forces. Each type of Spirit has its place and merits respect and treatment appropriate to its niche. It is not surprising that interest in working with the ancestors is on the rise in the Neo-Pagan community, as it is an almost inevitable descendant of this worldview. (From Spirit Speak)
So who are the Ancestors? Are the Ancestors different from the ancestors? Again, I turn to Ivo Dominguez, Jr.’s Spirit Speak for enlightenment:
Merely dying does not make you one of the Ancestors. In most traditional cultures, only those people who have led exceptional lives become available as sources for guidance and information after they have died. Exceptional means that they are exemplary, which can mean good, bad and everything in between. A really bad Ancestor makes for a really good cautionary tale. People who become the Ancestors do not fade from memory, because their stories are told and retold.
I began to realize that the Ancestors were not only the dead people in my genetic line, but included diverse dead people from various categories. In his book Spirit Allies, Christopher Penczak highlights this issue:
Ancestors unrelated by blood are kindreds, those people with a similar path, problems, or inspirations as you. They have sympathy for your life and times. Think about those in the past with whom you feel a kinship. If you are a writer, you could feel a bond with a particularly inspiring author from history.
So how do these exemplary Ancestors transition from being ancestors to becoming Ancestors? Again, we can learn more about this from non-Western sources, because the rise of monotheism obliterated the rituals our genetic ancestors used in northern Europe. Malidoma Patrice Some teaches a ritual process he calls ancestralization, based on the beliefs and practices of his tribe, the Dagara of Burkina Faso:
Dagara people’s main job is to look the dead in the face, to treat their bodies not as remains but as temples of grace and beauty continuing from this world to the other. People grieve the passing of loved ones, though in this grief they stress beauty and community and continuity. The handing over of the loved one to the realm of the ancestors is what we call ancestralization. It allows for a sense of completion in the vast array of duties following the passing of a person. In this five-day event, we address this issue of fulfilling our duties toward the dead in the interest of transforming restlessness into rest, discontinuity into continuity and homelessness into homecoming.
One of my dearest friends, astrologer and Wiccan priestess Diotima Mantineia, has studied with Malidoma Some and participated in his ancestralization ceremonies. For a couple of years, I nagged her to set up an ancestor altar as part of her spirit worship. She replied that she didn’t get along with her family very well, and would prefer to exclude her ancestral line from her magical and spiritual practices, except at Samhain. Like water on a rock, I continued to nag in what I hope wasn’t an irritating way. Finally, Dio set up an ancestral altar, and some years later, was called to enroll in Malidoma’s class. Here is her description of the ancestralization ceremony:
For five days, our “village” of 25 people came together to make a remarkable ritual happen. We prepared by lovingly creating sticks and stools, physical representations of male and female ancestors, ritually enlivening them, then connecting with our ancestors in an all-night vigil, to give our ancestors the honor and the place in our lives they (and we!) deserve.
The ritual changed my life in profound ways, despite the fact that I had been working ritually with my ancestors for a number of years already. But the power of the rituals we performed during those five days broke through barriers between me and my ancestors that I was not even aware were there, and that was a great gift….
Diotima’s experience illustrates another point about the Ancestors: we Wiccans have left the spiritual path followed by our most recently departed Ancestors. How do the Ancestors feel about us becoming Pagans, and leaving the monotheistic religions of our families? Here is Christopher Penczak’s take on this issue, again quoted from his book Spirit Allies:
Practitioners also fear that the ancestor will not approve of the new spiritual path because they wouldn’t have approved in life. I’ve heard many times new witches thinking their departed loved ones are angry because they do not follow the family’s traditional faith. Once a being crosses over the veil, he or she realizes the truth to spirituality more than we could while incarnated.
This situation arose for me in an interview I did at Samhain in 2003, with a reporter from The Washington Post. The reporter asked me what my ancestors would have thought about my Pagan religion. The answer I should have given her is this: My ancestors couldn’t possibly disapprove of my Wiccan religion nearly as much as I disapprove of them owning slaves. I am the great-granddaughter of slave owners on both sides of my family, and to my shame, at least one of my ancestors was also a slave dealer.
Now, I have forgiven my ancestors for being slave owners. But still I feel a karmic debt to those slaves owned by my family in the bad old days. And I feel this debt calls for actions on my part today. I have taken actions both practical and spiritual over the years, to attempt to address my ancestors’ wrongdoing. Yet I know that nothing I can do will ever erase the stain of racism and slave-owning on my family line.
Among many other attempts at karmic remediation, I have received ceremonies in Santeria, also known as La Regla de Ocha de Lukumi. I wear the Necklaces and cherish my consecrated head of Ellegua. I proudly hold the Cauldron of the Warriors and two soperas, one for Oya and one for Obatala. I have permanent shrines to the Orishas and also some of the Haitian Vodou Lwa in my healing room. I work with Divine possession through these traditions. All of this has been a joy for me, a joy inspired in part by my family’s painful history.
Part of the Ancestors’ Wall in my altar room, Family Ladder by Katie Dell Kaufman
So, our more recent ancestors may not accord to our taste, in terms of their cultural practices, such as owning slaves and oppressing Native Americans and women, or in terms of their monotheistic religious paths. How about our ancient ancestors? Should we modern Pagans be making ritual overtures to our ancient Pagan ancestors?
My answer is a resounding YES! I have found wisdom and comfort in seeking out Ancestors who were Pagan in ancient times. In shamanism, my Upper World teacher is the last Pagan priestess in my genetic line on my father’s side. In my shamanic journeys, I have seen the tumultuous life she led in 7th century Anglo-Saxon England, when the Old Gods and the Old Ways were being abandoned in favor of the new monotheism, Christianity. Sigfritha, as my distant ancestor refers to herself, says that through our bond in shamanic reality outside of time, our family line of Pagan priestesses and priests is unbroken. Her teachings and her love are vital to my shamanic empowerment and to my magical path. In part through my ancestral connection with Sigfritha, I am a priestess of Freya.
Every shamanic healing ceremony I perform begins with the Ancestors. The Ancestors who come to the ceremonies vary a great deal. Each client brings their own set of Ancestors, and more recently deceased ancestors, to attend the healing ceremony. And then my own Ancestors come to all of my healing ceremonies. They are a motley array of genetic, shamanic, personal, past life and wildly eclectic Ancestors unique to me, a Washington Witchdoctor.
Of all the northern European Pagan paths currently active, the Asatru are taking their connection with their Ancestors most seriously. Here is a nice quote from Steve McNallen of the Asatru Folk Assembly:
Someday we will be dead, whatever that means. Hopefully we have left sons and daughters – and grandsons and granddaughters! – to tell our stories and to pour libations on our graves. As the Havamal says – “Seldom are [memorial] stones erected on the wayside, save by kinsmen for kinsmen.” How will you be remembered? Did you do deeds of worth? Were you true? Did you love much? Did you fight for what was right? Were you Awake, or did you live your life in trivialities? If we lead good lives here in Midgard, we will be good ancestors.
I got a chance to talk about the Ancestors with Steve in July 2007. He told me that he believes we disappoint our ancestors if we depart from the spiritual path they followed in their lifetimes. Obviously, with my extreme eclecticism, I don’t agree with him. But here is a wonderful paradox about working with the Ancestors: one can find ancestral support for Steve’s view, my view, and any other viewpoint as well. The Ancestors are not unitary in their beliefs and loyalties, but various and many. Both Steve and I are working closely and authentically with Ancestors who support our different points of view. Thus, we are not working with the same set of Ancestors. And it’s all good.
Currently, the dismissive way most of us treat our Ancestors in Wicca is all too similar to the way most of us treat our Elders. My esteemed colleague Brendan Myers wrote eloquently about the Elders on The Wild Hunt earlier this week, including how we Pagans can learn from indigenous practices honoring the Elders. We come from a culture that tends not to respect the elderly. We often institutionalize our Elders to keep their needs from intruding on our busy lives. We are missing out on an incredible source of wisdom and knowledge as the generation that won World War II is passing!
Having read this far, you will not be surprised to learn that I spent twenty years taking care of my elderly parents, including six years caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease. It was one of the most rigorous tests of my lifetime so far, and one of the most rewarding. And trust me on this one: if you can’t behave lovingly to your Elders while they are still here on this material plane, you are probably unsuited to working closely with the Ancestors.
At this point, I believe that Ancestor veneration is so important that it amounts to a missing cornerstone in Wicca. And since Wicca is constantly evolving, I suggest that now is a great time for us to begin including the Ancestors in our ceremonies all year round. We really shouldn’t wait until Samhain comes around once a year to invoke them, celebrate them and feast them. I will close with the words to the song I use to invoke the Ancestors at the beginning of every shamanic healing session I perform:
Ancestors, Blessed Ancestors, we’re calling you today for healing. We thank you for the strength you showed while you were here, the sufferings you endured and the love you gave to your children. And now we call to you: we are your sons and daughters, sons and daughters calling to you. Through the mists of time, we stretch out our hands to greet you with joy and ask for your help today, in a healing way. Blessed Ancestors, please help us, heal us, guide us, lead us on our paths into the future, where we will meet the Descendants yet to come, those as yet unmanifest, waiting to arrive, waiting to be alive, we call to you. Blessed Ancestors from the past, blessed Descendants yet to come, look on us with compassion here, and make this moment a time of true healing, a gift from the past, a gift from the future, to heal us now. We welcome you!
All Hail the Ancestors, the Mighty Dead! May we bless our Ancestors, and ask for their blessing often, and not just once a year at Samhain! So Mote It Be!