Honoring the Ancestors: How to Get Started

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I left out Soul Cakes and blessed water for the ancestors on Samhain night

The word ancestor comes from the Latin words ante(before) and cedere(to go); meaning the ones who go before. As I wrote in my earlier post about ancestor veneration, the practice of honoring those who have literally ‘gone before’ can be very meaningful and impactful in our spiritual lives as pagans. Since we have such a strange relationship with death and the elderly in our society, I thought it may be beneficial to outline a few ways that we can being to develop this relationship.

Without further ado, here are six ways to start a practice of ancestor veneration:

Research your ancestors: Genealogy is something that is extremely important to most indigenous people. It is the way that we remember and honor those people whose blood flows through our veins. Without them, we would not exist. My grandparents took genealogy very seriously, they spent the 20 years of their retirement traveling throughout New England looking at gravestones and historical records in an attempt to piece together the story of our family. As they have both passed on in the past few years, I have been struck with the immensity of their loss. They had a wealth of knowledge that I fear will be lost forever. One of my goals for this year (it’s a huge project so it will probably take years in all honesty) is to start digging through the records that they left behind and to start making a cohesive and understandable family tree. I think this research will help bring me closer to my roots and it will also be meaningful to start knowing the names of those who went before. I realize that I am extremely lucky to have this and that most people probably do not have such substantial records. If you don’t know anything about your ancestors there are still several ways you can start looking. One is to get a DNA test (Ancestry and 23andMe both offer these services!), this will at least help you narrow down what part of the world you have connections to and you can then begin to explore the various cultures of your past. There are also loads of really great genealogical websites online, I have used Ancestry with a lot of success but this is a little pricey so check out this article about the best free genealogical websites. Happy researching!

Speak their names: One of the most powerful acts you can do is to physically speak the names of those who have passed on. Many occult traditions speak to the power of names and the Greeks and Romans made curse tablets that used the name of their intended victim. If we view a person’s name as a symbol and representation of the soul of that person then it gains a sort of magical status. I believe that when we speak the name of one who is passed on in the physical realm, they can hear us in the spirit realm and thus it brings us closer together. Tell memories and stories as often as you can and use the name of the person when you do so.

Build an ancestral shrine: Much like sacred space for a deity, an ancestral shrine is a physical place that the spirits of your loved ones can occupy. It is an important and bonding act of love that will be recognized in the spirit realm. You can designate a separate space for a specific ancestor (a spirit vessel) that you want to work with or you can just make a general ancestor shrine. Decorate this space with pictures, crystals, flowers, mementos, and things that that ancestor liked and that remind you of them. This space becomes a gateway for communication and a relationship. One of the advantages of a spirit vessel (like a box with a lid) is that you can ‘shut the door’ when you are not openly communicating with that spirit.

Make offerings: The act of making offerings to spirits is one of the most effective ways to encourage a relationship. It gives the spirit a reason to communicate with you and also shows them that you are dedicated and going out of your way to honor them. If you are making an offering to a person that you knew in their life, it is suitable to offer them something you know they liked. For example, my grandmother drank TAB soda her whole life so this is something she would appreciate. If you don’t know their personal preferences, water is the easiest choice because everyone who ever lived needed water to survive. I would stray away from offering things like alcohol unless you are sure they liked it, I wouldn’t want to offer whiskey to my great-great grandmother, for example, because what if she was a prohibitionist?

Visit significant places: Places like graveyards, houses of relatives, and ancestral home lands all have a sort of power. Making ‘pilgrimages’ to these places can be a very moving experience and will help to strengthen your relationship with your beloved dead. Graves in particular are a wonderful place to make an offering (such as water or flowers) and are also a gateway for communication. If you don’t know where your ancestors are buried or you don’t live close by, visiting any graveyard can be special. The people that are buried there are the ancestors of where you live after all and would appreciate any thought or attention. If you are physically able and can afford it, traveling to the lands of your ancestors is also an extremely powerful act. When I had the chance to visit Sweden (where my paternal grandparents are from), it made me feel very close to my ancestors and helped to strengthen my bond with them.

Invite them to your meals: One of the things that many pagans do during this time of year is to host a ‘dumb supper’. This is a meal that you eat in silence and make offerings of food to your ancestors. The act of being quiet invites an encounter with the spirits of the dead and can be a powerful means of communication. Another thing that many traditions all over the world do is to set a place at the table for their ancestors. This Thanksgiving, for example, set a place at the table for all those relatives who are no longer joining you.

Before I finish up, I just want to stress again that ancestors do not have to be blood relations. If you are adopted or no longer have a relationship with your family of birth, you still have ancestors. Anyone who has ever positively influenced your life and has passed on can be considered an ancestor. Even if you have never met them. I consider Carrie Fisher to be my ancestor because she was a huge influence on me as a young girl and helped to shape the woman I am today.

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