A Beginner’s Guide to Honouring Ancestors

Getty Images /  Space Images / Blend Images

Getty Images /
Space Images / Blend Images

Friends in the Northern Hemisphere are celebrating Beltane, but Samhain looms here in the Southern Hemisphere. It is the final harvest for Wiccans, the harvest of blood, the time to honour our ancestors.

I believe we should honour our ancestors year-round, but if you don’t and would like to, now is a great time to start.

What does it mean to honour our ancestors?

Veneration of our ancestors is generally based on the belief that the dead have a continued existence and may have the ability to influence the living. Even people who do not believe in a continued existence after death may still honour the memory of the dearly departed. This is not an exclusively Pagan belief or practice and is widespread in a secular sense. Consider Anzac Day.

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli (in modern day Turkey) during World War I. The day features dawn services with hymns, prayers, laying of wreaths, a period of silence, and the national anthem. It is not specifically a religious event nor is it thought of ancestor reverence, and yet that is precisely what it’s for, and it is perhaps Australia’s most important national occasion. Other secular ways in which we honour the dead is by naming children after them, displaying their photos, visiting their graves, and creating impromptu shrines where people are killed.

While it may look the same for all intents and purposes, ancestor veneration is not the same as worship to those that engage in these practices. While respect, honour, love, and devotion may be involved in both, “worship” is generally an idea applied to deities not ancestors.

Why should we honour our ancestors?

If we believe in a continued existence after life, then our relationships with the people we love do not end at death. Generally speaking, we honour our ancestors in order to maintain our relationships with them, to ensure their continued well-being, to remind them that they are loved, and to aid their continuing spiritual evolution. Other reasons include to honour their memory, to maintain family histories, to carry on family traditions, and to discover more about ourselves. At the very least, consider that, because of those that came before you, you have a body, blood, DNA, knowledge, freedoms, heritage, and so forth.

Like most healthy relationships, our relationship with our ancestors is reciprocal. If you care for your dead, they will care for you. In Santeria, ancestor reverence is extremely important. It is the foundation for a healthy spiritual practice and for a stable home. Many people will go to their ancestors first before going to the orishas with their needs. This is because orishas are enormous, powerful, sometimes chaotic, forces. Oshun is love and sexuality; Ogun is war; Oya is the hurricane. But our ancestors are just like you and me and they are said to better understand our daily human struggles. They understand what it means to struggle financially, to be out of a job, to have a relationships fall apart, and so forth because they likely experienced these as well.

Who are my ancestors?

An ancestor is most commonly defined as a person from whom one is descended. However this definition can be and often is broadened to include people in our adoptive lineage. In Santeria, we also include our spiritual lineage. I also include my Wiccan lineage. You might also include family of the heart (dear friends, pets, mentors, etc.).

What if I don’t know my ancestors?

You don’t need to know your ancestors in order to begin a practice of honouring them. First, it’s impossible to know all your ancestors anyway. Even if you can trace your lineage a few generations, eventually the data ends somewhere. Second, they all know you and, as you develop your practice, your ancestors will step forward and make themselves known to you.

How do I begin a practice of honouring my ancestors?

My egun shrine.

My egun shrine.

Create an altar. In Santeria, we have two types of shrines. The first is rooted in traditional Lucumi practice and involves setting aside a space on the ground in which offerings are made to the egun, our family ancestors. Offerings typically include a white candle, flowers, water, and food and drink offerings our ancestors may have enjoyed (commonly coffee and rum in Cuban Santeria; cigars are often included as well).

The second type of shrine is the bóveda, which is rooted in Spiritism, and is generally for non-ancestral spirits. It involves an altar covered with a white cloth upon which several goblets of water are placed along with a white candle.

Your altar doesn’t have to be large or elaborate. If you have photos of your beloved dead or family heirlooms, you can place them there. You can also add items that represent special people or your cultural ancestry (e.g. a Celtic cross, a coat of arms, a particular type of flower, etc.). Avoid placing images of living persons on your altar.

Although your altar can be established anywhere, keep in mind that it is a place where energy dwells in a concentrated way. You might consider setting up your shrine somewhere out of the way and in a room where you don’t sleep. A fixed space is best, but sometimes that’s not possible. One portable method I’ve heard is to use a box. Keep your items in there, set it up and close it down as needed. I recommend that your ancestral altar be a separate space from where you worship your deities.

Make offerings. Offer your ancestors the kinds of things they may have enjoyed in life – flowers, food and drink, incense, etc. Water and a candle are often found on ancestral altars not only because they are easy offerings to make, but because water is a conduit, is cleansing, and refreshing, and a candle offers light and warmth.

Talk to them and practice active listening. Direct contact with your ancestral spirits is cultivated through ritual action. Visit your shrine regularly and talk to your ancestors. These are your family, your friends, your guides – spirits that love you. Share with them the good things that happen and don’t be afraid to pour your heart out. Your ancestors are an important part of your support system. The challenge won’t be getting them to respond, but rather trying to distinguish the mental chatter from direct spirit contact. This refinement comes in time with a balance of faith and scepticism.

If you’re not sure how to get started, one good method is to announce yourself. For example, I would say, “I am Cosette, daughter of Marta, grand-daughter of America…” and keep going as far back as you can (this is my maternal line, but you may also use your paternal line or a combination of both). Keep it simple and heartfelt: “I come to honour my ancestors. I make these offerings.” Invite your loving and protective spirits in, ask them to be part of your life, and let them know they will be cared for. If you know the names of specific people whose love and energy you want to invite, call to them.

What about people I didn’t have good relationships with or that were unpleasant in life?

Spirits are not necessarily any more perfect than we are, but there may be some that are especially difficult to work with such as abusive family members, angry spirits, restless dead, and people that may have committed serious crimes or even atrocities.

There are various opinions about how to proceed with them. Here are two. One is that you don’t have to honour those ancestors. The second is that we should work with troubled ancestors; they need us the most, helping them evolve spiritually helps us as well, and may open new channels. Working with troubled ancestors can be a healing journey for both the spirit and you. There are some interesting techniques for working with troubled spirits, but I reserve these for a later blog entry. I think beginners should start with establishing a regular practice and nurturing relationships with loving, protective spirits.

How often should I tend my ancestral altar?

As often as you like. I recommend at least once a week.

A few tips:

  • If you follow a particular historical paganism or pantheon, I recommend you do some research about how the people of those cultures honoured their dead.
  • Consider days that are meaningful to your beloved dead such as birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Be patient. Ancestor reverence is simple, but not easy. It can take time to feel connected and engaged.
  • Use your favourite divination method to learn more about your ancestors.
  • Talk to your living family members to learn more about your ancestors.
  • Consider a genealogical DNA test to learn more about your ancestry.

Have you ever worked with your ancestors and other spirit guides? If so, what has your experience been like? Do you have any tips you can share? If you haven’t worked with ancestors before, why not? Do you have any questions or concerns not addressed here?

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4 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Honouring Ancestors

  1. The best way to honor your ancestors is by continuing their family forward to the next generation. That’s what Beltane and the fertility cult part of old Wicca is all about. Your debt to your ancestors needs to be paid forward with honor and gratitude. Invite them to Samhain and share your photos of your children with them.

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    • Having children and teaching them about their ancestors is wonderful. However, I don’t take an essentialist approach to Wicca or to ancestor reverence. There are many people who have children who don’t actively honour their ancestors and there are many people that do and are childless by nature or by choice.

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  2. I have and do recognize some of my ancestors. The ones I remember. I love these ideas on how you do it and I will incorporate some of them in my ways too. I especially liked the separate altar Idea. as far as my mom who passed several years ago. she visited me through a friend when I was honoring her and gave me a message Ill never forget. so I think they recognize what you are doing and honor you with visits at times.

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    • Thanks for the kind comments. I’m glad you find it useful. That story about your mother is very nice. I’ve heard similar stories from friends, even non-Pagan ones that don’t honour their ancestors, being visited by their mothers. That’s such a strong bond.

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