Ancestors

(Part three of three)

The Samhain season is at last over for me. Four straight days! The kids’ party, a ritual, our family dumb supper, and singing for All Souls’ Day at the local Anglican church. While the first and second activities tapped into the spirit of mischief and frolic of the season, and activities two and three capitalized on the ‘thinness of the veils between the worlds’, only items three and four were explicitly about the Ancestors and Mighty Dead, two very important parts of the Samhain season.

The last few years I’ve established a dumb supper as a family tradition. It’s called ‘dumb’ in the older sense of the word: no talking. The idea is to set a place at the table, full plate of food and all, for the Ancestors. We eat by candle light and ideally, after toasting the Dead, we’re silent through the meal. However, with a three-year old, nothing is very silent. For this meal we had Welsh sausages and stwmp naw rhyw, or nine mash, a traditional Welsh mash made up of nine ingredients (potatoes, carrots, peas, leek, salt, pepper, milk, butter, and swede, for which I substituted parsnip).

My Samhain altar, glass of whisky to be added later in the evening, poppy for remembrance

This year was more chaotic than most. My husband was upstairs trying to put the baby to sleep when son came to the table. We talked about the meal and the Ancestors and finally started in so our food wouldn’t get cold. The baby didn’t go down, so later, I sat her on my lap and talked to the people in the pictures on my altar, while husband put our son to bed. I talked to my maternal grandmother and told her about some stuff going on my family and asked for her assistance. I talked to Victor and Cora Anderson, thanking them for all they’d given, and asked for their blessings on my work.

It was rather an underwhelming event, if I’m honest. I find that having children makes everything so unpredictable. Holidays and spiritual practice and all of everything – even this blog – cannot be counted on to be uninterrupted. If my aim is perfectionism I would need to give up right now. Instead, I chose to DO, and roll with what comes up. I’d like all the traditions to be Meaningful and Awesome. Just like I’d like this blog to be more consistent and with better writing! But if I wait for the time to make everything Just So, it’ll never happen. In some ways, this is a blessing I’ve gained since becoming a parent.

The Sun, from the deck I use

After I’d cleaned up dinner I sat in the candlelight and did a tarot reading for myself for the dark half of the year. It gave me some great information. Then I did another reading, this one for a friend.

But back to the Ancestors. The more I practice paganism the more I come to honor my ancestors and my elders in general. As a child I couldn’t wait to be a grandparent. I really loved the idea of grandparents. I think it was because I was so disappointed in my own experience of them. This raises an interesting question: what do you do if you don’t like your ancestors? What if you don’t know them? I try to honor them in attitude, seeking out their positive qualities. But, for example, my paternal grandfather was not a nice man. He was cantankerous and I have no positive memories of him. I do not want him on my ancestor altar, so I leave him off. I can speak of qualities he’s passed down the line that I am grateful for, but I don’t think I need to get cozy with him in the spirit world.

The Mighty Dead refers to those whose memories we honor and whose lives and work are the ancestors in spirit of our lives and work. Honoring them is just as important. Perhaps we can call this group our family of choice, rather than our blood kin. This is why I feel it is important to have Victor and Cora’s picture on my altar.

I’ll be honest, I have mixed feelings about the Ancestors. It comes from my ambivalence around my family, living and dead. It comes from my own peripatetic lifestyle and lack of rootedness. I’m not someone who sees or hears the Dead, so I don’t feel like I have a deep relationship here. In a lot of ways, I’m just going through the motions out of an idea that It Is Good to do this. Although… as I’m typing this, I wonder if it wouldn’t be appropriate to have a picture of my hometown, Juneau, Alaska, on the altar. It’s as much a part of my family and my soul as any person. Hm, that’s an idea.

While singing at the church service last night I thought about how little experience with death I’ve had. I am grateful for that. I also felt the lack of community. When the list of ‘faithful’ who were ‘departed in the Lord’ was read, I knew none of them. It was a long list and the dead prayed for were all from the local Church of Wales community. I felt a bit of an interloper. But my recent ancestors were Christians so I lit candles for them and offered prayers for them, as well as for the dead who had no one to pray for them.

Now the holiday really does feel completed for the year. All the decorations are down. I will continue to honor the Ancestors and Mighty Dead through out my practice. I feel like any relationship, it takes time to develop and I have to learn to listen.

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About Niki Whiting
  • Betty Nelson

    Hey my friend,

    For you I hope you don’t see death in any of your family members anytime soon. At that moment that death visits your family it is horrible and you feel enlightened all at the same time. I was also brought up Christian but now I’m not sure what I am. Dad’s death has changed me. I take less things for granted. I love more and let people know I love them a lot more. A part of my soul died when dad died but new people I meet help fill that part of my soul. All my Love, Betty

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Oh Betty, I am so sorry for the loss of your father. Thank you for commenting here, and for reading. I so wish we could continue this discussion over something warming together. Perhaps at our 20th? Love to you, lady.

  • Eleanor

    This raises an interesting question: what do you do if you don’t like your ancestors? What if you don’t know them?

    This is a big question for me. I have no experience with ancestors – no relationship with grandparents or anyone beyond immediate family. Therefore, I feel no connection beyond my tangible, living ones.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      This whole set of questions – ones of kin and belonging and tribe – raise some interesting questions for me. I’ll probably post on them soon.


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