Why I Don’t Worship My Ancestors

I’d much rather return to the sea.

This post is going to have a lot of anger in it, so I want to start by saying – I don’t think it is wrong to revere one’s ancestors. Ancestor worship is simply not something I currently do, and this post is about why I will not ever revere my ancestors of blood and bone/biological ancestry. Working with the dead, communing with the ancestors – I am not saying those practices are worthless. This post is about why I, personally, cannot work with my ancestors.

Some day I may eventually revere ancestors of spirit, those dead who I look up to and honor, who inspire me to greater acts.

But I will burn before I kneel or bow to my ancestors of blood. I would rather face every trial my gods could set forth.

Often, when I tell people I will not revere my ancestors of blood under any circumstances, they are appalled and try to show me the folly of my decision. I am encouraged to worship my ancestors because, without them, I would not live. It is thanks to their heterosexual baby-making sex that I live today! They are the reason I look like I do, why I can move in the world at all.

Of course, single celled organisms are just as responsible for my being alive today as my human ancestors, but people seem to forget that.

Oh, it’s true – my ancestors influenced myself and my family. We bear the same marks and scars and patterns as they did. We wear them so well.

Rampant disgusting racism.

Incest and rape.

Violence and abuse.

Poverty.

I’d rather revere the single celled organism, thanks.

What people don’t seem to understand when they say that I should revere my ancestors regardless of how awful they were was that my ancestors’ actions affected my life. They didn’t just create my life – they created a family environment in which our women can expect to be raped by our uncles or cousins. They gave me life, and they gave me a history of sexual violence. You don’t get to say that the ancestors are responsible for life while ignoring all else they are responsible for.

How far should I go, I wonder? How far back should I go in order to fulfill some ‘duty’ to those that created my family lines? How far back – to a nebulous blob of humanity, a sort of collective human ancestor? Should I go with the lines I can follow – only one, and that one is the one where we see the rape, the death, the abuse, the racism – and what of issues of adoption?

I thought of ancestor worship once, and I went diving into the history of my family, and I knew then that my blood ancestors didn’t just give me life. I’m not going to fix their wounds when I’m too busy trying to patch my own. Another one, someone stronger, may one day honor my ancestors, but not me.

There is nothing in my faith that puts me under obligation to revere my bloodline, and I would rather rip apart everything that forms my family – silence, shame – than hold it up.

About Aine

Aine Llewellyn is a 20 year old girl creature currently mucking about in southern Arizona. She enjoys the winters and rain but can’t stand the heat. She is a difficult polytheist that natters on and on about her faith.

  • http://nornoriel.dreamwidth.org/ Anna MacLeod

    Thank you. THANK YOU. _THANK YOU_. I refuse to honor my own blood ancestors because the lot of them were abusive and fundamentalist and beyond the fact that I feel they do not deserve honor for setting the cycles of abuse in place for my parents’ own for my own, I also know that my religion is offensive to them; I wouldn’t want my (theoretical) descendants to try to call up my spirit in rites I disapproved of, after I was gone, after all. I get very, very tired of the shaming I see in the pagan blogosphere that you HAVE to honor your ancestors. No, you bloody don’t. My life has not been hurt one whit by not acknowledging my blood ancestors, I feel cleaner for having separated my wyrd from theirs.

    So again, thank you for this. So glad this has been said. <3

  • Christopher Scott Thompson

    I’m trying to figure out how to say what I want to say here, but finding the right words isn’t easy. I just had to have a conversation with my older daughter about this a few weeks ago, because she’s very much aware of her ancestors and excited to learn more about how they lived, what their struggles were and so on. And we do leave offerings to them. But I had to explain to her about how our ancestors originally came from Europe, and the American Indians were here first, and… you can see where this is going. She was very disturbed at the idea that her ancestors had done some things that were wrong. All I could do was say that were things they didn’t understand and that we know better now. But there are things we don’t understand and that future generations will understand and maybe condemn us for. I don’t want to be condemned and hated for the mistakes I have made in life, and I don’t want to condemn my ancestors for their mistakes either. We don’t leave offerings to them because we think they were perfect, but simply because we are connected to them. Not saying you or anyone else should do the same, but that’s how I feel about it.

    • Aine

      I don’t consider genocide a mistake, but I suppose that’s a difference in opinion. Nor do I consider rape a mistake. Those are all choices and actions. Just because something was ‘the norm’ during a time period doesn’t mean I have to respect it.

      Do you also leave offerings for apes? For, like I mentioned, single-celled organisms? The ‘connection’ argument isn’t compelling to me. I’m connected to everything else on the planet too. It also prizes reproductive heterosexual sex over all else, which isn’t something I’m interested in.

      Someone doesn’t need to be perfect to have been a decent person worthy of veneration.

      • Christopher Scott Thompson

        I happen to think the history of the entire human race is a little more nuanced than that, but since this doesn’t appear to be a conversation I’ll just step back.

      • Constant Reader

        I think I get where you’re coming from. There is a difference between honoring ancestors for who they were while understanding that they lived in a different time that had different values (my Pilgrim ancestors, for instance), and honoring people who lived reprehensible lives (your rapist uncles, for instance). The second category contains people who broke the social contracts of their time and place and made reprehensible choices. I don’t blame you for not wanting to honor them.

        One thing I’ve learned the hard way is that people who were gently raised, no matter how well-meaning, often don’t understand those of us who were not. They think “it can’t have been THAT bad — you turned out well,” instead of realizing it WAS that bad, but you made the hard choices and did the hard work to break away from it. We know it’s a choice because we made it, and continue to make it. I also think that the gently raised simply cannot imagine how bad “bad” can actually get, and the lasting physical and emotional scars it can leave. It’s not “drama” or “unforgiveness,” it’s having to live your life every day dealing with the outcome of the poor choices of others. If you had physical problems from being run over by a drunk driver, folks would be full of sympathy; if you have physical problems from childhood beatings, people call you a drama queen. I know, believe me. I know.

        I’m going to give you some unsolicited advice from a 50-year-old because it’s something I wish I’d been told at age 20: don’t you dare participate in anything that causes you more injury. Don’t you dare! And nobody but you gets to decide what that is. Blessings to you on your journey.

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    I think it’s fine simply not to work with your ancestors of blood if you have reason not to. I do know people who have worked with those ancestors specifically to demand reparations for crimes they committed, though — often by contacting a deeper, more transpersonal ancestral stream in order to get support for that demand. So there are reasons to work with one’s ancestors other than to honor or worship them.

    • Aine

      That is something I haven’t heard of concerning ancestor work, but it sounds like something very needed (and difficult).

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I don’t like or approve of all the Beings I’m in a relationship with. *I* can say that a Grandparent was crazy in the wrong ways and I fear becoming her. But that relationship exists, and if anyone who didn’t live with her says the same, we have a problem.

      I’m probably rare in that one of those relationships also appears to be with single-celled organisms. Do not stare too long at the wriggly thing under the microscope, because when you stare at the wriggly thing under the microscope, the wriggly thing stares also into you.

      But that’s just me.

      • Aine

        I actually brought up the single-celled organisms point because I do think it’s something that needs to be examined more. It seems to not be discussed much at all, yet they’re still vitally important to existence.

        While there are spirits that I don’t like that I work with, I actively refuse to work with my ancestors. Each and everyone of us has to decide where our boundaries are and whether we’re going to associate with whomever we’re associating with – which is why I’ve tried to stay away from saying ‘all ancestral veneration is BAD’ because, it really isn’t. People who have gone through what I have worship their ancestors, and that’s fine. It’s just not something I can do.

        (My only big problem comes when someone tries to say that All Polytheists Worship Their Ancestors or All Pagans Do or You’re Not a Human If You Don’t, because…none of those are true.)

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          I see your point. Thank you.

  • Jayn

    I see what you mean. Have you thought of venerating/worshipping your less problematic ancestors? You don’t strictly have to worship all of your blood ancestors unless that’s what your belief system calls for. In your position I would probably honour all the women in your family who were hurt or made to feel unsafe, in solidarity so to speak, just as I would try to be there for any living friends and relatives who were abused even if the only thing I could do would be to acknowledge it and hang around if they needed me. There are many other kinds of ancestor worship beyond blood ancestors like spiritual ancestors, for example, people of a certain profession, religion, or something else that speaks to you. This is just my own personal view of course.

    • Aine

      I have. There are a few reasons I’m not sure I can or will. One is that those ancestors who were not so problematic turned their back to the abuse to pretend it didn’t happen (which is, sadly, the biggest gift they’ve given our family – “ignore it and it’s not real”). And the other reason is incredibly selfish, and it’s that I don’t want to keep experiencing the trauma of abuse. It’s been enough in this life. I don’t think it would be healthy or safe for me to attempt that work. (Someone else may be able to handle such things better, but not me!)

      Ancestors of spirit, and family ancestors who aren’t related by blood (the only blood ancestors I have knowledge of were the highly problematic ones – all my other family lines involve adoption somewhere along the line), are very important to me, though I am not nearly focused enough on that since I’m already so busy! But those ancestors are important to me and will become a larger part of my practice.

      • Lindsay Baldassano

        My story is a little off from this, as I was adopted and have no knowledge of blood relatives or ancestors. But I know I have blood kin out there somewhere in the Summerlands and here. Since I don’t know a thing about them, but still wish to honor what I could, and since I don’t want to leave out the family that raised me well, I end calling out to my Kith and Kin of blood, heart, and spirit, and only those of true heart and word.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    It’s a fair enough viewpoint, I think.

    My post on Coming Out to Ancestors (posted the same day you wrote this) didn’t quite get to one of the important points you drew out here: that certain views of ancestor worship privilege heterosexual reproduction as the “reason” for life, etc. It is very alienating to a queer viewpoint, and to a queer theological viewpoint in particular, to state such things unproblematically. And, sadly, I suspect many of the people who espouse this viewpoint are unaware of its heterosexism.

    At this awful conference I was at called “Sex and Spirit” at Findhorn back in October of 2001, there was a workshop I didn’t attend (because I found the presenters rather reprehensible) that one of the people staying in my same residence told me about afterwards, which opened with the presenter asking the question, “What’s the most important fuck of your life?” Everyone went around and said what they thought it was, and when it came back to the workshop presenter, he said, “Nope, you’re all wrong–it was when your parents fucked to create you.” Considering that from a strictly biological viewpoint, one’s life didn’t actually exist at that point, it’s about as irrelevant to most people (who have actually stopped to think for two seconds about it) as saying that Jesus died for one’s sins. It was, sadly, not even the worst of the examples of rampant heterosexism and gender essentialism that occurred at that conference…

    This makes, I suppose, the queer ancestor worship we do in the EA with our Sancta/e/i all the more important, perhaps. Without them, I know I wouldn’t be doing what I am now…

    • Nigel Prancypants

      Exactly.

      I’ve always seen ancestor worship as being more than just our direct bloodline –after all, doesn’t the cousin chart and Mitochondrial Eve say we’re all related?– but also encompasses the broader genetic (and spiritual) cultural ancestry, and those Heroic sorts who had a hand in shaping ourselves.

  • http://paganarch.blogspot.com/ rhyd wildermuth

    Encountering and attempting to understand an ancestor who lived a rather tragic (and mortifyingly disgusting) life before suicide was an incredibly profound and healing experience, but I would not have been able to do so before I did (in my mid 30′s), after decades of life lived as far away as possible from the weight and influence of such horror. Too, it brought to me a better understanding of the consequences of a life lived without thought to what our actions cause even past death.
    I’m all empathy for anyone who has to encounter such a thing and wrestle against such horrors. The reward, though, of redeeming a haunting influence was an end to the haunting and a lot more strength to approach still-living ancestors who bear the burden and trauma of that particular ancestor’s life.


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