|James Francis Beckett (1864 – 1923)|
When asked to define Paganism, I usually give a threefold explanation: the Divine as female as well as male, a connection to the Earth and its rhythms and cycles, and a resonance with the beliefs and practices of our ancestors. Almost all the rituals I lead include an invocation of ancestors, and one of my daily prayers gives thanks for my ancestors. Ancestors are a big part of Paganism as many of us practice it.
But who are our ancestors? And how can we honor them as part of our Pagan practice when most of them are or were Christians?
Acknowledging our ancestors helps us connect to our roots. It reminds us that there is no such thing as a “self made man.” Our parents may have been wonderful or they may have been horrible, but if it wasn’t for them we quite literally wouldn’t be here. If it wasn’t for our grandparents, we wouldn’t have parents and we wouldn’t be here. You can – and you should – trace those lines going back to your ancestors who first crossed the ocean, who first migrated out of Africa, who first came down from the trees, and who first came out of the oceans.
These are our ancestors of blood: we carry their genes and we are their direct descendants. Because of them we have life in our bodies. At the least, we owe them our remembrance and our thanks. Think of them, call their names, offer them food and drink, and tell their stories. Meet them in meditation. Ask them what their life was like. See how things have changed since their time – and see how much has remained the same.
What about the ancestors we’d just as soon forget? Perhaps you had a parent who was abusive, or a grandparent who was a racist, or a great grandparent who was a murderer. Different Pagans – particularly those whose practices are closely tied to ancestors of blood – have very some very different thoughts on this. My opinion is that no one is entitled to honor – honor must be earned.
If you have a disgraced ancestor, my first suggestion is to accept them for who and what they are. You need not and should not condone things you believe are wrong, but neither is it fair to judge people from another era by the standards of our time. If you are so moved, you may wish to work for their healing and learning so that in their next life – which might be going on right now – they will not repeat the same mistakes. Or perhaps the hurt is too great and too close, or the evil too large, and you simply acknowledge their place in your line and move on.
And how do we as Pagans deal with the fact that for most of us of European descent, our ancestors have been Christians for at least a thousand years? Let’s start by remembering that while that may be true, our ancestors were NOT Christians for tens of thousands of years before that. Let’s also remember we live in a rare era where changing your religion is even possible. Most of our ancestors – like most of the people in the world today – simply followed the religion of their parents. We have choices they did not.
More importantly, while I do not want to minimize the alliances we make with our deities – alliances I suspect frequently carry over from lifetime to lifetime – I believe those currently in the Otherworld have a perspective we do not. To put it plainly, I don’t think they care which gods we worship. They care whether we are trustworthy, compassionate and honorable and whether we build on the legacies they left us or whether we squander them.
And that brings us to the second group of ancestors: our ancestors of spirit. These are the people whose beliefs and practices inspire us: the shamans and healers of the first tribes, the priests and priestesses of the temples now in ruins, the Druids of whom we know so little. These are also our closer ancestors of spirit: Ross Nichols and Gerald Gardner, the Golden Dawn, the Freemasons, the medieval alchemists and kabbalists, mystics from Christianity and Islam and Buddhism. And there are our local elders – those who had a hand in you becoming the Pagan or Wiccan or Druid or Heathen you are today.
You may feel very close to some of these people, while others you may not consider part of your line. But we all have ancestors of spirit whose thoughts and rites we carry as though they were blood and genes. We owe them the same remembrance and thanks and honor we owe our ancestors of blood.
As we approach the season of Samhain, when the veil between the worlds grows thin and our ancestors draw near, let us honor those who came before us. Because of them we have life.
And let us also remember that some day, we will be the ancestors. Some day, future generations will tell our stories and sing our songs. What mighty deeds will they recount? What acts of service and sacrifice will they praise? What great expressions of love and compassion will they remember?
May we live our lives so as to be worthy of their honor.