Honoring The Ancestors (Or Not)

Every Samhain I’m confronted with several rituals that call for “honoring the ancestors,” (or sometimes “honoring our ancestors”). While I understand the reasoning behind it, it bothers me from both a theological and a personal perspective. This doesn’t mean I ignore the “death” aspect of Samhain, just the opposite, I’ve always embraced it utterly, but the people I choose to honor and remember that night aren’t spirits I think of us my “ancestors.”

On Samhain I like to honor and remember the “recently departed.” I light candles for my grandparents, remember friends I have lost, and still lament the passing of my cat Princess. I have never thought of these individuals (or cats) as ancestors, they have all been immediate family members or friends. On Samhain, I’ve never stopped to think about a distant forbearer, or a relative known only to me from a faded photograph. The losses I’ve had effect me enough that I don’t really want to add any more grieving to my life. (I also often stop to remember how charmed my life has been, I have dealt with far less tragedy than many of my friends.)

A big reason for my lack of ancestor worship (or honoring) comes from being an American mutt. While I’ve always been told that my grandfather’s side of the family was “Welsh” it’s not something I’m sure of, and I’ve never felt a great connection to it. I have many friends who are wrapped up in their cultural identities. “I hate the English because I’m Irish,” or “I’m rooting for Italy in the World Cup because I’m Italian.” I’ve never felt this kind of identification, and while I’m nominally an Anglophile (British rock bands are the greatest of all time, earl grey tea is delicious, Wicca is English), that has nothing to do with my alleged Welsh roots.

While there are lots of elements in Modern Wicca that could be considered “Celtic” (deity choices, the sabbats, much of our modern mythology), I’ve never felt especially close to the Ancient Celts. Out of all the great Western Paganisms, it’s Greek religion, myth, and deity that I’ve always felt closest to, and that started at a young age. There’s nothing in my genetic pedigree suggesting that I have Greek roots, it’s simply been a spiritual calling. When I’m asked to bring a dish at Samhain that my ancestors would have eaten, I’m at a complete loss because I don’t particularly care what the Ancient Welsh ate. Ask me to bring something that my spiritual ancestors might have eaten and I’ll show up with some wine and honey-cakes.

I don’t mean to dismiss the Welsh and the Celts out of hand, I have some interest in them. I do the occasional workshop on Druids, one on British manifestations of the Horned God, and I’m familiar with Celtic/Welsh myth, it just doesn’t call me to like Pan and Dionysus. I don’t know why I would want to call to a bunch of ancestors I don’t feel necessarily connected to, and who may not be my ancestors anyways. Since my Mother left me in the second grade, I have almost no idea where the other side of my genetic code comes from. In other words, even if my Gramps comes from a Welsh background, that’s only a tiny percentage of me.

From a theological perspective honoring my ancestors and inviting them to ritual makes even less sense. The spirits of my grandparents being around is understandable. My Grandmother has been dead for eleven and a half years, my Grandfather for nine, that’s the blink of an eye in the history of the world. If you believe in reincarnation, maybe they haven’t been reincarnated yet, and as weird as it is to write, they are barely dead in the long-view of things. Their presence in ritual from a theological perspective is completely logical, an ancestor from two thousand years ago is much less so in my mind.

If we are going to accept reincarnation as the death/afterlife/rebirth scenario in Modern Paganism, wouldn’t the spirits of our ancestors be reincarnated by now? Who exactly are we calling on Samhain when we welcome our ancestors if that’s the case? Do a few of our ancestors just drop out of the cycle of death and rebirth in case someone comes calling? Writing a paragraph as simply a series of questions feels a bit glib, but the questions are real to me.

My belief in the reincarnation of the soul adds confusion to the idea of honoring my ancestors. Let’s say my genetic ancestors are Welsh, but in my last four past lives I’ve been an Ancient Greek, a Jewish Pharisee, an Italian Merchant, and a low level official in the Inca Empire, what connection do I have to Wales? Does a genetic heritage trump all of those past lives? It seems rather limiting that we’d only be reincarnated into a specific cultural group time and time again.

The idea of reincarnation changes the entire equation when it comes to honoring past ancestors, because those ancestors could have come from anywhere. Perhaps the cultures we feel closest to are a product of those past lives, and represent our true ancestors? Is our genetic make-up simply chance? I know, I’m spitting out more questions than anything else, but I don’t have any answers, just thoughts to ponder. I guess you could make a Jungian type argument that our genetic heritage is imprinted with certain keys that connect us spiritually to our ancestors, but I’ve never felt that connection.

One of my friends who has a keen interest and belief in Modern Western Shamanism has often chided me for not reaching out to my ancestors and the other spirits who influence my life. I’ve always appreciated the concern, but my focus has always been on deity. I’ve never had the desire to search out spirit guides or anything related. I feel like I’ve got enough going on with Dionysus, Ariadne, Pan, and Aphrodite often making their presence known in my life. The idea of adding another layer just isn’t appealing to me.

In 2012 I’ll be invited to several Samhain rituals again where I’m invited to honor the ancestors. I’ll again lament the loss of family and friends from my recent past, and then take comfort in their presence. My mind will wander and my spirit will hover, and I’ll say a Goddess Bless to my genetic ancestors, and my spiritual ancestors, and then I’ll return to focusing on the losses that have actually shaped my life.

About Jason Mankey

Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason can often be found lecturing on the Pagan Festival circuit, so you might just bump into him. When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    Ancestral ethnicity is pretty moot, if you ask me. It is all very well and good saying that your grandfather was Welsh, or that my grandmother was South African, but they have ancestors too. From different places. (My grandmother was a white South African, for an obvious example.)

    Also, consider that most peoples ancestors will be primarily Christian and, thus, probably not too happy with being included in a Pagan ritual.

    I think that your ethnicity is largely meaningless, outside of useful medical information. What matters is your culture, which I see as the ethnicity of your soul.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      As to reincarnation, What, then, when you consider the potential for trans-species reincarnation?

  • http://twitter.com/thelettuceman Marc

    I largely follow that ethnicity can be a useful guide to finding one’s path, but it is not an end-all, be-all sort of process. As it is said, if one goes back far enough, you’re eventually going to get to the Toba incident and the population bottleneck that’s assumed to be the case (which I believe is truth). So there’s that whole mass of genetic memory to deal with, plus whatever came before, down to Mitochondrial Eve herself. And then of course, back to the individual in question which was the Mitochondrial Eve to HER, etc. It’s a morass that people don’t really expand upon, unfortunately, save for rare cases of adoption or ethnic-questioning.

    I’m generally in the same boat as you, being an American. While I have an extensive family history on my mother’s side (We predate the Norman Conquest), I most definitely identify as an American, as that side has been in the Americas since the 1600s, practically one of the first groups off the boat at Jamestown. Other than this Anglo-Saxon background, I have the Southern Italian of my father’s family (I’m 3rd generation Italian-stock American), as well as a sprinkling of other groups from the British Isles. One of my grandmothers is from Pennsylvania Dutch stock, so that’s effectively German, but there is dispute that she was actually Jewish. It’s all a mess. I can relate to the confusion and Ancestral dysphoria.

    I feel that some Ancestors/people are not reincarnated, and those that connect to you are the ones that are still hanging around for whatever reason. I fully believe that reincarnation is subjective based on the circumstances of the individual in question, up to their preferences, and not everyone is going to be reincarnated at the same pace, if at all. And at any rate, I feel that just because they ARE reincarnated doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a 100% event. Perhaps some residual imprint exists in the universe which still acts. I’m not sure. This is going into a theology that I’m not familiar with considering, so apologies if it’s disjointed and confusing.

    I agree with you that this time of year has always felt like it was focused more on one’s own Beloved Dead than some distant ancestral personality or force. Both related by blood, or by the bonds of friendship. If I were to construct an altar for my Beloved Dead, which I fully intend on doing, I would place upon it images and memories of some of the friends that I have lost in this too-brief stint of life.

    Ancestral veneration is not out of place here, not by any means, but it always felt like the veil between the worlds is thinnest for the people who have recently (and I mean that regarding the extent which we experience them in our lifetime) crossed it.

  • Jason Hatter

    One of the things I’ve come across, most recently in the English translation of bits of Baltic mythology, is that the spirit of a person is composed of two parts. One part departs the body/this plane for whatever afterlife there is, while the other part stays behind, to become part of the natural world, and look after the family. This time of year is to honor them, and indeed the ancient Balts believed that the spirits of their ancestors would come home to live with them during the cold months of the year, returning to the fields and forests at the spring time.

    For me, that allows me both the belief in reincarnation AND the honoring of ancestors who are still here. A part of them is still here, to look after their families, and be honored, while a part of them moves on, and experiences new lilfe.

  • Cerridwen

    As an ADF Druid, honoring the ancestors in an important part of ritual as one of the Kindred. In my mind’s eye, these are not just my grandparents and great-grandparents, but also the people who have been mentors to me, such as a dear friend that died a year ago of breast cancer. Her words of wisdom still stay with me and guide me each day; so, in my mind, she is an ancestor.

    As to reincarnation, I believe that some of our energy, or essence stays on this plane. That essence can, and does influence the lives of those who are still living. I feel it, say when I’m cooking one of my grandmother’s recipes that she taught me, as real as if she were standing right next to me.

    • caitlin ni Manannan

      Yay for us ADF Druids! ;)

      I adore that my Ancestors aren’t restricted to people who donated some genetic material to me once upon a time, but are long-gone & are nothing more to me than a name and/or a photo. This makes the whole cultural/ethnic lineage thing a moot point, because the Ancestors that I honor are so much more than just my genealogical predecessors.

      My Ancestors include the family of my blood (I include the worthy members of my adoptive family in this group, despite lack of blood ties), the family of my heart (my friends and those dear to me), the family of my mind (this is people who have touched my life in a big way, whether or not I’ve ever met them; Isaac Bonewits, founder of ADF, is a good example of this group), and also Ancestors of place, the native people who once lived on this land.

      At Samhain, I remember both the people beloved to me who’ve crossed the veil recently (like my friend Nate who died in a car accident this year :( ) and not-so-recently (like my adoptive parents/grandparents, who’ve been gone between 11 and 40 years), as well as those who I’ve never met but who have somehow shaped my life (like Isaac,); they’re all honored equally. :)

    • http://www.facebook.com/patchshorts Chris Godwin

      The author appears to have his spirituality caught up in a game of semantics I only understand this perspective when I limit myself to how others define words. ADF here as well.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=573907649 Mari-Anne Mahlau

    Great considerations. And I have often asked myself why the shrine we keep year-round in our home to our departed relatives and close friends would be called an ancestor altar or shrine, though I find myself calling it that for lack of a better word or habit. You make very good points. And I relate to much of it.

    We can talk about human ancestors. Those early humans who for some reason survived when the other species of humanoids did not. We can think about them as our genetic ancestors. But honestly, there is no deep or meaningful connection for me outside of a curiosity on an intellectual level.

    Being adopted, the idea of blood line and ancestry has always been an ambivalent one for me. I resonated with the Irish because I grew up in a heavily Irish neighborhood, which also meant heavily Catholic, mostly. My father was German by ethnicity. Most of my adoptive family goes back in America to the 1800s, so it wasn’t recent migration. But yeah, I felt kinship with the Irish in my neighborhood. I still do.

    After meeting my birth mother through a brief search, I found out that I am mostly Eastern European through her. The majority of our family hails from what was Czechoslovakia, some from Romania and others from Ukraine. She believes my father’s side is pretty much French, but with some German in there because they are from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. My name would have been Broussard had they raised me together, most likely.

    I have always been rather a Francophile and could never really explain that. As for the Czech, while I’m intellectually curious now to see if I could feel some connection if I dove into it or even visited the Czech Republic, I don’t feel any deep connection. I too have always resonated with Greek Deities…even after trying to learn more about others. Even after researching what is left of our knowledge of the pagan deities of Eastern Europe. So this leaves me in an odd boat with ancestry.

    Is my ancestry really my adoptive family since I really feel the most connected with them? Or is it only my blood ancestry? While I find the idea of doing DNA testing to dig into that more, it’s not out of kinship, but intellectual curiosity of where my forebears hailed from and what their story is. Maybe my feelings will change.

    So I’m with you in the end. At Samhain, I honor the deceased in my own little close circle and respect those of the others present at any gatherings I attend.

  • meg

    I don’t believe in reincarnation nor an afterlife as is portrayed in many religions as a “place”. When I think of honoring my ancestors, I think of honoring those who have mentored me, those in my immediate family, those who have touched my life by being close with my parents or greeting me at family reunions. I’m lucky to not have suffered loss in my immediate family, so the pain of grief hasn’t made it to me yet.

    Another way I think of it as recognizing the power and sheer unbelievable time involved in evolution, to me sitting here and thinking about it today. Mitochondrial DNA (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_DNA) is passed down mother to daughter and can be traced back for generations; the existence of a “Mitochondrial Eve” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_Eve) (and Y-chromosomal Adam) has been proposed. This web of human ancestry reminds me of the interconnectedness of everything, and of the staggering weight of geological time which has produced me and 7+ billion humans like me, as well as every living thing and every place on this planet.

  • Ywen DragonEye

    As for reincarnation – I had wondered the same thing, but had an interesting journey where I learned an answer. I was wandering the Otherworld and came upon Gawain sitting in a tree. I asked him how he could be there, when I had believed he had been reincarnated. He told me that the part of him that was “just Gawain”, remains in the Otherworld, but the rest of his soul, the part that reincarnates repeatedly, had gone on to be reborn several times since. One can remember past lives because there is residual memory in the part of the spirit that reincarnates. I have thought before that this may be similar to what the ancient Egyptians believed, I need to check that out – thanks for the reminder!

  • MortalCrow

    Excellant questions. It is my opinion that most if us can only trace ancestry back a couple of generations. The rest is either conjecture or assumption. Ithink that the culture one identifies with does not necessarily have to be one you can trace your fmaily back t. It calls to you for a reason. I happen to identify with my parents/grandparents culture (Hungarian-Hungarian and Hungarian-German respectively). Due to the lack of infomation about Hun religion, I mostly identify with the Norse, which I feel is quite close.Anyway, on the subject of reincarnation, and honoring ancestors: I do beleive in reincarnation and do not beleive in ghosts/spirits that stay here or come back. So what I honor on Samhain are the pieces that those ancestors have left inside of me. I honor my lineage so to speak. As well as family and friends that have moved on this year.

  • http://johnfranc.blogspot.com/ John Beckett

    For me, the important thing is to recognize and honor those who came before me. These are both ancestors of blood and ancestors of spirit. Because of them, I have blood and genes and life. Because of them I have heritage and traditions and practices. They are my roots and foundation – if it weren’t for them, my life would be much poorer, if I even existed at all.

    And so I honor them.

    • minnie

      I do the same as you :) I find that it is simply acknowledging the fact that with out ancestors from the distance past and recently deceased loved ones , I would not be here . Plus also the people that have past on that have touch my life that are not kin to me .

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000451145781 MrsBs Confessions

    LOVE this post! As someone else who considers myself an American mutt (in those *exact* words!), and as a military brat who didn’t have a lot of exposure to extended family and their stories, I tend to have closer remembrances of my husband’s recently departed family members, and of much beloved and departed family pets.

  • http://aquapunk.net/ Lo

    For those of us who believe that the soul comes in several parts, or rather that there’s just more than one soul, then there’s really no reconciliation to be done for ancestor veneration and belief in reincarnation. Your great-granddaddy can be reborn as whatever -and- join the collective ancestor group.

    As for ancestor veneration itself, I’m not too big on that. I more or less do what you do… go visit my grandfather (he’s my only real recently departed) at his grave, pour him a beer, and keep company for a while. I don’t actively work with the ancestor collective, though they are there.

    I think of them as representing more of my heritage than anything else, and because they’re not of this world I can ask them for guidance and understanding, especially with things that my gods likely don’t give a hoot about, like family feuding, deaths, or maybe even apartment hunting.

    But it’s like I said somewhere else recently– honoring personalities is more for the living than the dead.

  • kadiera

    We’ve usually looked at it from the perspective of the beloved or honored dead – not just blood relations, but others too.

  • http://twitter.com/queenj Witchy The Pooh

    As a Black American, I have no idea who my cultural ancestors are. Yes, Blacks came from Africa but Africa is a continent, not a country. That’s like saying you have European roots. I’m sure there is some Native American in my family as well but again, I have no idea what tribe(s). Then there’s my paternal grandmother who was partially white (1/2? 1/4?) so there’s the European part; what country I don’t know. I’ve decided to honor my bloodline even the ones I don’t know. And good point about reincarnation and calling the ancestral spirits. I have to think about that.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=800230509 Terrie Edgar

      Hi there, and Blessed Be :-) As a very white (and I do mean glow-in-the-dark Casper kind of white) person I include, in my Ancestors, the African people. Though I’m “Irish / Scots”, and DNA testing has traced my Paternal families roots to Norway, I still consider all Mankind to be one, and… We all originated in Africa.
      As for “Ancestors” and reincarnation, I think we can honour those that have chosen not to return to the cycle of life, and are near the veil on Samhain, as well as honour the “Spirit” of our ancestors as they manifest in the values they instilled in us and the lessons we’ve learned through them. And that doesn’t have to be blood related family.
      Does that make sense?

  • Blackbird

    “The losses I’ve had effect me enough that I don’t really want to add any more grieving to my life.”

    It isn’t about “grieving” at all. It’s about celebrating (as John Beckett stated) “both ancestors of blood and ancestors of spirit”…friends, coworkers, pets, and yes…blood relatives as they did and still, whether you knew them or not, impact your life and who you are. It isn’t about “grieving death,” but celebrating life and that renewal that will come as part of the dark times.

  • Ian Phanes


    You have a rather idiosyncratic definition of “ancestors” since you don’t include your grandparents among your ancestors. I honestly can’t make any sense out of that.

    More broadly, it sounds like you think traditional ancestor reverence in cultures around the world is directed toward individuals whom the living don’t know. That simply isn’t true. Every culture I’ve read about practicing ancestor reverence honors the ancestors that the individual knew in life, though some traditions also honor key other individuals, such as the apical ancestor of a kinship group. (That’s often culturally parallel to our observance of George Washington’s Birthday as a national ancestor.)

    What’s more, ancestor reverence and reincarnation are closely linked in many cultures, with the expectation that the ancestors will reincarnate within the family.

    • JasonMankey

      There are lots of definitions for “ancestor,” here’s one:

      1. A person from whom one is descended, especially if more remote than a grandparent; a forebear.

      To me, my grandparents are just grand Grandma and Gramps, they aren’t ancestors. Ancestor has always sounded like a relative removed from me by several generations, but that’s just my definition.

      This is an amazing thread, lots of ideas, and both lots of disagreements and heads nodding in approval.

  • Martha

    As a shamanic practitioner, I’ve defined ancestors as anyone who has been a part of making me who I am, blood or no. It’s on their shoulders that I stand. Under that umbrella is my family, teachers, friends, pets, and more.

  • Melanie T

    Well I feel like I have solved this problem in a very “American” way: I light one candle on my altar for “the ancestors” meaning the ancestors of humanity. I come from a mutt background but, I am only a 3rd generation Irish and German immigrant from my different sides – these are the parts of my heritage I honor most and I do so in the kinds of foods I eat on a daily basis. On St. Patrick’s Day I always do a small ritual for my Irish ancestors and I leave it at that. Any other “ancestor work” I do is usually for loved ones who have passed away which amounts to a few pets, a best friend, and grandparents and great grandparents. Samhain for me though mostly goes to my best friend this year though as she passed near Halloween (her favorite holiday) five years ago.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=800230509 Terrie Edgar

    All people are mutts, whether they’re “Pure” stock of a specific place (ie. German or Scots). The “Germans” are a mix of Franks, Galls, Saxons, etc. The “Scots” are Welsh, Saxon, Anglo, Pictish, Irish… I could go on. There is no such thing as ‘Pure Bred’. I know a blonde, blue eyed Italian. Northern Italian, of course ;-) And when you consider that we, as the human species, originated in Africa (per scientific evidence as of this date) we have come a long way, with a lot of variations, to be who we are today (ethnically). Something to think about :)

    • Ywen DragonEye

      I’m half Italian – but the northern part of that is dark haired and brown eyed – the Sicilian side is blond and blue eyed – go figure!