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.