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The Names of the Witches: Ancestral Healing and Reclaiming Wholeness

A hearth with many photos of ancestors, a sheaf of oats, colored flowers and lit candles.
My ancestor altar from last Samhain.

My maternal grandmother, Barbara, loved genealogy. I have inherited this passion, a shared lineage of story. When she died I received her papers, compiled in the years before computers — handwritten or typed notes about her searches. In them I found a reference to her maiden name, Fulton, and the Scottish lowland village of Paisley in Renfrewshire, where her father’s father’s family originated.

This is the village of the infamous Paisley witch trials in 1697, often referred as the “last mass execution of witches in Europe”1, the trials wove a web with the Fulton name. The accuser, eleven-year old Christian Shaw, condemned her great aunt, Margaret Fulton, to death. In all, seven people died, two of whom were also descendants of Fultons, Thomas and James Lindsay, who were seventeen and fourteen at the time of their execution. Their relationship to their grandmother, Jean Fulton, who was among the others accused (there were thirty-five total) and possibly died in jail, was instrumental in their conviction.2

I know from reading other witch trial transcripts and syntheses, such as Emma Wilby’s “Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits,” that it was not uncommon for families to have accusers and accused both in their line, along with cunning folk and witches, healers and harmers, people scary and safe, troubled and true.

The image below is from the book The Names of the Witches 1658, which lists the witches in Scotland. You can view the full text online by clicking on the photo.

It has become fashionable in certain circles for people use the phrase “well and healed” to reference their ancestors. Such as: I only work with my well and healed ancestors. Something large in me resists this.

If the linguistic root of health is wholeness, from the Old English hælþ, then the root of lineage health must be too. How does it serve our ancestors to divide and deny them? How does it serve us to forget we come from the violent and the violated, the oppressor and the oppressed? That these complex conditions cannot be separated, can exist even in the same person. In an integrative whole, can we not learn as much from those who perpetrate pain as those who experienced it? Such as, causality? Such as, the effects of intergenerational shame?

Ultimately, I’ve found that an integrative perspective on ancestry makes me more compassionate. Every human is born an infant and lives through a childhood of numerous influences. When I imagine ancestors, like Christian Shaw, who was an actual child when she cost lives and left imprints that impacted generations to come, I don’t strive to distance myself from them. I see any fear or resistance as an imperative to look closer, dig deeper, and wonder, why? I have never experienced more student fear in any of my classes than I did when I taught Living Ancestral Connection, an inquiry-based course supporting ancestral investigation and research both structured and embodied. Most of the student fear came from a reluctance look closer at their own difficult ancestral stories, worry that by even looking they were somehow complicit. To own the wounds of the past is one thing, but to own the atrocities…that takes a different degree of bravery and strength.

However, such investigations should be grounded in reality: none of us are free from ancestors who harmed others. And it really is not an option to deny the challenges of our ancestral stories, because they live within us — sometimes as patterns or habits, sometimes as family tales and mandates, sometimes as social expectations. We know that the experiences of our ancestors have the capacity to alter the mental health of descendants — both positive and negative.3. Studying history supports the conclusion that we all have ancestors who were violent and harmful, and ancestors who were helpful and kind. We are descended from too many people for this to be otherwise. And we are connected, in our lineage, to other beings too. This model from UC Davis shows some of the hugeness and complexity of ancestry. And I love the explorations of the Last Universal Common Ancestor, the “small, single celled organism,” existing “3.5–3.8 billion years ago” which is the probable ancestor of all living beings on earth. When put in that perspective, we can choose to see ourselves as part of a miraculous teeming web of lineages, in connection with all life. We can find in this wholeness, and the potential for healing and reconnection.

Resilience can then be a kind of reverence. These ancestors literally live within us. Not all of them, because DNA is nonlinear, but also, simultaneously, sort of all of them, because all of life originates from this incredible source. It is tempting to claim virtue in lineages, to cling to the “well” and “healed” only, but this disallows our lived complexities as humans. I am not always well, nor am I always healed, instead I cycle through states of being. The intention of many spiritual practices is equanimity, to find a balance of being with even things that are difficult and hard.

How can we heal if we fearfully attempt to extract one inheritance from the other?

How can we survive and thrive if we refuse to honor the whole? There is no better way to honor our ancestors than to survive. And if we can cultivate an attitude of respect, reciprocity and honoring in the process, we transform lineage patterns for generations to come.

  1. Executed Today:

  2. Broadside entitled “Executions in Paisley”:

  3. Ancestral Stress Alters Lifetime Mental Health Trajectories and Cortical Neuromorphology via Epigenetic Regulation:

Lara Veleda Vesta

Author of Wild Soul Runes, founder of the Wild Soul School. Explorations include disability as enchantment, myth as healer and ancestral animism.

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