It’s the season of the Dead, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Ancestors. This is partly inspired by the preparations we’ve been making for the Ancestor Shrine at Stone City, which we have been hoping to build at this year’s Samhain gathering.
It’s also inspired by conversations I’ve been having with my partner about the notion of Ancestor cults. Most of our historic Pagan cultures on which Neopaganism is based practiced some form of Ancestor worship, many of them quite prominently. Yet for most modern traditions (with some exceptions, of course), there is no such practice, or only a vestigial one. It feels like a piece of the reconstruction or revival of Pagan traditions that is not yet complete. Many of us commonly invoke the Gods, work with land spirits, and the like, but many traditions lack a coherent pattern of practice for connecting with our own Ancestors. Here I mean Ancestors in our own family bloodlines – not just spiritual Ancestors such as the Mighty Dead of the Craft, or long-distant generic Ancestors such as “the Celts”. And I think perhaps that distinction is part of the reason this practice has not yet been more fully developed: The vast majority of modern Pagans are first-generation. In other words, most were not raised Pagan, and therefore I suspect that for many, their recent family Ancestors may not seem like meaningful spiritual contacts. Why would I want to invoke the presence and guidance of my great-great-great-grandfather, who was a Protestant? Well, here’s why: he has a direct, vested interest in seeing his bloodline succeed. And who should we expect to take a greater interest in our personal problems and successes: the Gods, or our own Ancestors? Our Ancestors may have more limited powers and spheres of influence than the Gods, but their wisdom is of a kind that is more directly linked to our human needs and conditions, than the (relatively) vast and timeless powers of the Gods.
So I’ve been asking myself this question: What would a modern Ancestor cult look like? I began my practice by adding people from my direct family line to my Ancestor altar, and speaking to them when I make my offerings. Perhaps we can devise practices in which we make honoring our own Ancestors a more regular part of our workings: since most Pagans open ritual space with an invocation or invitation to helping spirits of some kind (Guardians, elementals, etc.), perhaps we ought to invite our own Ancestors at the same time, rather than just honoring them at Samhain. Perhaps we ought to revive folk practices like Decoration Day, or adopt elements from Latin Dia de los Muertes celebrations: visiting cemeteries, caring for and beautifying the graves of our Ancestors, bringing them gifts.
Lately I am also thinking about Ancestral legacies, and in this I’m also inspired by two other things: the movement toward re-learning and restoring old-fashioned skills and crafts, and the current democratic uprisings taking place all over the world. These movements are both responses to the instability of people’s lives in present times, and the degradation of basic security and standard of living of the common people in much of the Western world as the plutocratic elite class strips the wealth of our nations. These movements both strike me as very powerful, perhaps the most powerful, ways of honoring our direct Ancestors. It is all well and good to offer libations and prayers, but I suspect that my great-great-great-grandfather, whose family were farmers and who fought in the Revolutionary War, would be more glad to know that the skills he learned and passed down through generations, and the Constitutional Republic he risked death to establish, were being restored and not dissipated.
No matter where your bloodlines come from, some of your Ancestors likely fought for something equally historic and equally meaningful. How might you honor them and what they worked to establish and to pass on?
October is the season of the Dead. This year, it is also the month that marks ten years of American wars, starting with the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan. Here in the US and most of the Western world, we are coming to grips with the fact that we have been sorely betrayed by our democratic leaders, and that our self-governing process has been fundamentally corrupted by greed and wealth. This month is being observed by worldwide occupation movements in protest of the degradation of democracy and human life. This month, I am honoring my Ancestors with prayers, and with actions. I will be joining the Occupy San Francisco rally on October 15, in honor of my Ancestors who contributed to the first American Revolution and so that their legacy might be preserved. And in honor of the life-preserving skills of my Ancestors, I’ll also be bringing eggs and produce that we grew here, to help feed the occupiers.
And maybe, if we remember them and if we honor them in ways that matter, our Ancestors can help. Perhaps we should invoke their spirits to march with us. Perhaps they might bless and help this movement toward re-invigorating the tree of liberty, hopefully without blood this time.