Our ancestors are hungry. In modern culture they are longed for but forgotten, or avoided, no longer the intermediaries between human life and divinity. This past week I wrote about ancestral connection, something I began four years ago and a path I continue daily to surprise, amazement and empowerment. I received many comments about yearning for ancestral connection, wondering how to build relationship with ancestors absent, or when the only known ancestry--family history--is painful and harmful. What follows is the beginning of my discovery, source and resource, on this journey. There is too much for one post, but here are some introductory ideas on how to work with your ancestors.
First, some perspective. We all have millions of ancestors. The math is complicated by concepts like pedigree collapse and bottleneck situations (major death events like the plague) but on a theoretical level, everyone alive today is related to almost everyone else going back to about 8,000 BCE. So there are a lot of people to work with in our bloodlines. We tend to think of ancestors as those we know, and so if our immediate family is absent, messed up or unavailable, there can be a reluctance to pursue ancestral work. But ancestry is spirit work. You carry within you the genetic code of many. The patterns of people who performed atrocities, yes, they are in there. But also you contain those who perfomed magic. Healing. Nourishment. Who made beauty. Who await your attention.
Ancestor work is especially important now for a number of reasons. The primary one is that we are so distant from living close to the earth and the beings of nature. Who better to teach us about place based, earth centered living than relatives who lived this way for thousands of years? We all have people of the earth in our lineages. Each one of us. Some of us come from traditions that are buried and deeply fragmented, but dreaming and walking with our ancestors can help unearth the wisdom inherent in our bones.
I should also state here that I'm not an expert, I'm a seeker on a particular path. I practice the religious traditions of my ancestors from Northern Europe and so much of my work is focused on those spiritual methodologies. I do include information from my time in the Women's Spirituality program at CIIS, and welcome insights from those practicing in other traditions. My children are multiracial, and one of the reasons I began this path was so that they could have a rich, complete spiritual identity. As a woman racialized as white, it has been revolutionary to explore my ancestors and offer to my children a fuller understanding of their European lineage. It also has led me away from spiritual appropriation. What I seek is available in my lineage history if I'm willing to dig deep and confront my fears.
This work may bring up a lot of fear. We have been conditioned to look outside ourselves for spiritual information. Not only this, but many women of European descent carry deep trauma from the witch hunts, a kind of ancestral obliteration where we had to hide our relationships with the spiritual and magical. Many of the indigenous spiritual traditions in Europe were intentionally dismantled first by church policy, then by political violence. (Huge intersectionality here with the witch hunts, the advent of capitalism, the colonization of the Americas and the beginning of the global slave trade--there is a root of widespread oppression in this time. See the book Caliban and the Witch by Sylvia Federici for more about this complex of shared history.) It was not that long ago in blood time. I find that whole swaths of information in my family line are obscured from me in ritual or meditation, and so the work of claiming is about persistence.
First Steps for Ancestral Connection
Gather as much information as you can about all of your ancestors, including those you may know such as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Start assembling family stories, anecdotes, photos, documents. Look at where you have resistance or wish to simplify matters. I have a friend with a powerful paternal Hispanic presence in her family, who had never explored her mother's Scottish roots because she saw them as less interesting. When she began to investigate her resistance she found an intense connection with the magical practices of Scotland, and was able to uncover the synergy between her paternal and maternal lineages. Resistance can often mean the presence of power, and complexity is strength. We are made of multitudes, you don't have to choose or preference one, and often different ancestries will call to you at different times.
If you have little or no information about your ancestors, don't despair. They are already in you. You can access your ancestors at any time. A lack of information does not mean a lack of connection. You don't need anything except intuition and will to connect with your ancestors.
Tools for Communication
Ancestor Altars: Gateway to the Bloodline
Crafting an altar for the ancestors in your home is most effective when you are clear on your intention. Is it to heal bloodline trauma? To create new connections? To discover their spiritual practices? Once you know the purpose of your altar, allow yourself to be led to the colors and textures that reflect your purpose (once you have a relationship with the ancestors they will let you know intuitively what they do and don't prefer). You may choose to add photos of your actual ancestors, images of places they came from, objects that belonged to your family, or symbolic art representing your intention. Then make offerings. Traditional offerings to the ancestors include food, beverages, fresh flowers, herbs and stones. Tend the altar with a daily ritual practice. It doesn't need to be big, five or ten minutes of attention is enough to begin some energetic collaboration. (For more information on ritual practice, see the 13 Days of Ritual in the Wild Soul School.)
Dining With the Ancestors
A simple way to let your ancestors know you are thinking of them is to set a place at the table and ritually feed them with your family. This can be done in a quiet, informal way, or in a more formal ritual where you call in your ancestors to eat with you. Make a plate of food for the ancestors. Once you complete the meal, you may place the food on your altar, removing it the following morning or when the meal feels done.
Sharing Drinks With the Ancestors
Toasting the ancestors with your beverage of choice (preferably something delicious) then pouring out some of the liquid onto the earth in their honor is a traditional way of making offering and including the ancestors in your daily life. This may be done with regularity. If indoors, you can simply pour a cup for your ancestors, toast them, and leave it on your altar.
Thanking the Ancestors
They are the reason we all exist. Those millions of lives cycled through time so that you could be born at this particular place, with this unique set of characteristics and circumstances. If you have children, the potentiate of the ancestors is even more vital: they live through you and into your offspring. In my spiritual tradition the female ancestors are called the Disír, and have a vested interest in aiding the perpetuation of the lineage. Thanking the Disír, thanking all of the ancestors for the gifts you've received, for the safe passage of a child into this world, or for future protection, is a powerful practice. Dedicating your work in this life to the ancestors and descendants helps orient your offerings in the scope of spirit time.
Daily Power Practice--Ancestor Work
Attune to ancestral wisdom by opening and closing each day with them in intention.
In the morning, as part of a ritual practice, ask your ancestors:
What would you wish of me today?
See what comes forward. This might be a meditation, a journaling exercise or an art practice. Keep a record of your process. The instructions of the ancestors might be obscure at first, but after a while they will become more clear.
As you go to bed at night, imagine yourself in a circle of protection. From this place, set an intention to dream with your ancestors. Ask for guidance on any issue, or for further relationship. In the morning, write down any images or symbolic information. And give thanks.
In the next few weeks I'll offer several posts with more information on specific ancestral connection, including my own journey and a ritual meditation that I've used in The Power Class with incredible results. Most ancestor work must come from your own direct experience. With this in mind, I offer some reading with a caveat: you won't ever find without what is already available within. No one can communicate with your ancestors like you. Because they are yours. Alu.
A few books I've found helpful on my path:
Ancestor Reverence essay by Luisah Teish in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Women's Spirituality
The Well of Remembrance: Rediscovering the Earth Wisdom Myths of Northern Europe by Ralph Metzner
Witches and Pagans by Max Dashu
The Black World chapter in Neolithic Shamanism by Raven Kaldera
The Motherline by Naomi Ruth Lowinsky
May this work reach those who need it. May the balance be regained.