Heathen Woman: Honoring Our Ancestors, Part Two

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what it means to honor our ancestors. As the autumn air settles in and October approaches, I would like to take this opportunity to expand on it, since this time of year brings about much discussion on the thinning veil between the living and the dead and remembering those who have gone before us.

When honoring our ancestors, there can be a tendency to reach only towards our pre-Christian ancestors – to those who venerated the heathen gods. I think it’s important, however, to bring our more recent deceased relatives into the fold, as some of these people were those who knew us in life. For instance, my grandmother’s recipes saved me from possible starvation when I rented my first apartment. To this day, I am still able to stretch a dollar at the grocery store thanks to her frugal and clever ways of cooking wholesome, affordable meals. My father taught me how to properly care for a car, while my uncles are fondly remembered for gathering after the big family meal every Saturday on the back porch of my great-grandmother’s home. These are some of my earliest memories of building familial connections.

My grandparents, those uncles, and my father are now deceased, but I keep their pictures in frames on my mantle. Along with my brothers and cousins, I help to make sure their grave sites are properly cared for and maintained. When I’m seeking additional emotional support and guidance from family members, it is these people that I call on.

Why would I honor these individuals instead of reaching far back into my heathen ancestry? Why not call on a past hero or even a king? The answers to those questions stem from my knowing these family members personally. My most recently deceased ancestors knew my flaws and gifts, and I knew theirs. There was a personal bond.

This isn’t to say that I exclude my ancient ancestors. I surely appreciate who they were, and had it not been for their persistence and survival, I would not be here. I also have family members who I did not know, but who are recent enough in the family line that their lives are recorded in the family book that my mother keeps. These included my great-grandparents (x 3) who raised horses – a tradition that they learned from their parents and passed down to my grandparents. However, I cannot maintain their grave sites (caring for a family member’s grave mound was once a common practice) or recall any stories, which have been lost to time. Was this ancestor the tribe comedian? Did that ancestor like beef but not venison? What other preferences did they have that defined their personalities? I can’t answer those questions. I can, however, look at how people lived in those days and remain mindful of them in my own traditions and practices. In this way, I am honoring those more ancient ancestors according to their worldview and activities, and I have the choice of implementing those ways in my life and rituals.

Sometimes the question arises as to how best to honor our ancestors who were not heathen. For a variety of historical reasons, many members of a person’s family may have practiced another religion. This can sometimes be contentious for those who don’t want to offend a family member by including them in heathen practices. Religious affiliation does not have to cause a sticky situation, though. A family member’s religion of choice is not their only defining characteristic. The same can be said for less than savory family members who have passed on. It may be prudent to seek out whatever qualities they had that were helpful to the family. Did they build their own homes? Were they involved in community organizations? Were they known for certain qualities that are positive, such as determination? Perhaps they were artistic, creative, or chose a profession similar to the one that you have chosen. These are all aspects of an ancestor that can be celebrated when they are remembered.

This type of remembrance does require drawing on a few facts about one’s family line, which is why it can be helpful to focus on more recently deceased ancestors as opposed to those who lived in the eleventh century. In some cases, however, there may be a famous ancestor who accomplished great deeds and about whom much is known. It is not necessary to only honor those ancestors who made a name for themselves. An especially honorable person may also come from a family who fulfilled ordinary responsibilities in an extraordinary way. They may not have been famous, but their dedication to their community and ingenuity may have contributed greatly to the preservation and success of the family line. They are equally worthy of being remembered.

Eventually we ourselves will be someone’s ancestor. Building a good name for ourselves is an important part of keeping the frith in our homes and building up our individual communities. Our deeds and commitments will be reflected, and hopefully remembered, down the road. Our ancestors, then, hold the keys to our family history. In honoring the Desir, we might ritually offer items specific to the women in our family. Likewise, we may choose to display or offer things that are special to our family on a mantle or altar that is dedicated just to our ancestors. However we choose to honor those who walked before us, may we include them in a way that expresses gratefulness for their perseverance.


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