As the seasons change and we move into the fall months, discussions of ancestor reverence and the Mighty Dead become more prominent. Seasonal ancestor altars are erected and many practices engaging our connection to those who have transitioned from their physical existence become the focal points of our traditions.
Reverence is the way of radical respect. It recognizes and honors the presence of the sacred in everything — our bodies, other people, animals, plants, rocks, the earth, and the waters.
– Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
These very practices are a part of many different cultures, and are not exclusive to Paganism or Polytheism by any means. Ancestral practices go back as far as we are able to research, and the importance of this connection is essential to many cultures throughout the world. While discussions of ancestors have a place in the greater Pagan community, discussions regarding our connection with the living still continue to be a struggle. How communities embrace their elders ranges widely in a variety of ways, and the struggle of eldership within our communities has not gotten any easier.
The complexity of how we connect, or not, with our elders in this community is not a very black and white issue. The ongoing challenges of any growing community can be wrapped up in its ability to expand and grow with the changing culture, philosophies, and needs of those within the community. Not all factions of society are able to keep up with its changing landscape, which is an ongoing topic of conversation within our interconnected community – and for good reason. It is also important to note that there is no shared definition of “elder” that helps to define the various roles we have within our interconnected communities, or cultural expectations of how we connect to leaders, teachers, or elders within Paganism. The default Americanized cultural perception of how these roles intersect in society appears to be the default in Paganism as well, at least in the United States.
While the role of ancestors in our practices seems to have more agreed upon common threads within modern Pagan society, the perceptions and roles of the “Mighty Living” appears to be more complex. In greater society there seems to be a practice of respect and reverence accorded to someone after death, regardless of their positionality or choices while alive. We see often that people are able to forgive and forget things that were once important when someone crosses the veil, leaving connections to the living as a much more nuanced and complicated process.
Whether there is a correlation with the disconnect around the way we embrace the Mighty Living is another topic altogether, one worthy of some study and contemplation.
There is also the element of knowledge and celebration that comes with those opportunities to embrace those who are elders, leaders, and inspirational people within our given communities. The Mighty Living are the people who help to inspire and motivate us; they reflect the qualities of leadership that helps to define our paths. We have all had those people in our lives, and often they have been the catalyst to great change and actualization. How we define inspiration and motivation is so individualistic that any attempt to break that down more would be problematic; this becomes as specific or as general as it needs to be for any person, community, or culture.
Earlier this month I went to the Pan African Festival at the historic Mosswood Park in Oakland, California. I wrote about this festival last year and its spiritual impact, where I had the chance to engage in the culture of my skinfolk. Seeing generations of knowledge and wisdom brought many thoughts to my mind of how we embrace our opportunities to learn from the living; it was spiritually enlightening, to say the least.This year I had an opportunity to reflect on the importance of the Mighty Living, those people who are still able to share their stories, hopes, and wisdom with us while we are working to be our best selves. The brilliant and inspiring co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, was present for the Pan African Festival this year, and I got the chance to listen to him tell stories of his life. For those who may not know who he is, Bobby Seale is one of the most prolific and monumental leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Being lucky enough to be share family members with Bobby meant that I got to have some private conversations that I otherwise would not have had an opportunity to have. There is nothing like listening to the intimate stories of those who have inspired you personally and have been catalysts towards the work of liberation for your people.
Talking with Seale brought me to a moment, in this changing season, to contemplate the importance of the stories of the living and the important place they hold in preserving culture, history, tradition, and relationships. While the prioritization of these elements vary in different communities, there is importance in all of these elements within every culture. Pagan culture, history, tradition, and the relational connections they have with one another, continue to perform a juggling act that brings beauty and challenges into our ongoing growth cycle.
In Western society we are very geared to the academic nature of information sharing, and that also has its place in our work, but the important relational connection of communing with our Mighty Living should not be undervalued. In the life, death, and rebirth cycle that exists within many Pagan theologies, it is not a stretch to see the importance of connection with those who are transitioning toward the latter phase of life, who possess the wisdom of experience gained along the way. There is no way to replace the value of gained experiential knowledge in our Western society’s search for analytical and empirical data.
This, once again, leads us to ask some very important community-relevant questions to support the unfolding culture of Modern Paganism. How does the Pagan community embrace the Mighty Living? How has this element within our spaces contributed to the way that information is shared among us? How have we been inspired by those who hold these positions within our communities? How can we cultivate our relationships with one another by embracing the importance of the roles we play within our groups, communities, and within society? How do our Mighty Living continue to inspire us in our own paths?
These questions are the same ones that any living, breathing, growing community should be asking itself. It is within these very questions that we all have opportunities to explore the role that the living play in our paths, and how their experiences complement our practice.
What exactly reverence looks like with the living isn’t a formula that will fit all theologies, cultures, people, or circumstances. There are, however, some ideas that we can utilize to uncover what works for us and help us to shift the modern over-culture to embrace and celebrate the wisdom of others in our community. We can:
- Seek out opportunities to listen to the stories of our Mighty Living.
- Identify ways to show honor and reverence to those who inspire us.
- Thank people for their contributions to our paths, lives, and growth. A simple acknowledgement can go a long way.
- Build a living altar as a way to merge what works in our practices.
- Share the inspiration of our Mighty Living with others so that their wisdom can be passed down and preserved through the magic of storytelling. (Make sure to get consent prior to sharing the stories of others, though.)
- Ritualize our connection to the Mighty Living in our practices by finding ways to incorporate these inspirational people into our ongoing story of practice and worship.
I walked away from my amazing experience of meeting Bobby Seale with a renewed sense of connection and reverence for the very power of his work and its impact in my life. As I believe that the power of witchcraft has always been in its usefulness to liberate the oppressed and give tools to the tool-less, the wisdom of such a liberation leader will always have a place in my spiritual practice.