Tradition Building: The Power of Honoring the Dead

Hel, or Hella, is the Norse Goddess of the Underworld who watches over and cares for all those souls who come to Her hall, Helheim, a peaceful realm where the dead are give a chance to rest and reunite with loved ones prior to possible reincarnation. The "Highway to Hel" is something that every person walks from the moment they're born. It is the care with which we cultivate our souls, and the gratitude and courage with which we live each day of our lives.

It is important to honor our dead. We Heathens and Pagans are engaged in a process of rediscovering, rebuilding, and restoring traditions long ago sundered and violently destroyed. We are engaged in the process of restoring not only our religious traditions, but the cultural sensibilities that were inextricably bound up in the exercise of that ancient piety. The fragments that have come down to us are few, the opposition, both conscious and unconscious, great.  We are creating roots for ourselves that our little portion of the World Tree might once again flower. It is a daunting task.

We are not alone in this work. Our ancestors were there. They lived these traditions that we are struggling to resurrect. Some of them bear a heavy weight for abandoning those same traditions. That means they have an obligation to their descendants to put those sundered threads to right. The generation that, for whatever choice, made the decision to abandon ancestral faiths, bears a tremendous burden. Call upon them. Let them have no peace, no rest, no honor, no strength, no rebirth, and no glory until they have made reparation. Call them out and demand their help. Our world is so out of balance that it's going to take both sides of the equation: living and dead working in tandem to put it right again.

Honoring the dead is all about finding balance and maintaining a stable life and spiritual practice. This is the foundation. This is what mature, responsible, pious people do. It's part and parcel of maintaining a proper household. At least in the time of our ancestors it was. Now granted, before we go and demand something of our dishonored dead (and I can think of no greater dishonor than to abandon one's Gods regardless of the political expediency), we should focus first on establishing proper ancestral practices with the rest of them.*

Honoring the dead is simplicity itself. Simple does not necessarily mean easy, mind you. Sometimes establishing a good working relationship, based in love and respect can be the hardest thing in the world. Families are complicated. A difficult relationship with the immediate family can make ancestral work very hard at first. The key to moving forward into practice is to remember that our ancestors are not just those of our immediate family who may have died. Our ancestral line stretches back to the beginning of time, to the moment the first quadruped pulled itself out of the primordial ooze and decided to see what life was like on land. We are but one pearl in a gleaming strand of pearls stretching back into those misty beginnings and onward into our future. That's a lot of dead people one can honor!

If the immediate generations are difficult, go further back. We have our tribal mothers and fathers who watch over the entire ancestral line. The female dead especially, what the Norse call "Disir," are powerful and govern both the integrity and luck of one's line. Call upon them for help in getting started. Call upon the Gods and Goddesses of the underworld and bring them gracious gifts asking that They may help facilitate your relationship with your dead. Then, give it time and consistent effort. The dead are usually more than willing to meet us half way, more than half way if we're sincere in our practice.

I believe we are hard wired to honor our dead. It's a very instinctual thing. In the most secular of cultures we do it naturally: naming children after our dead, displaying their photos, leaving flowers at cemeteries, setting up impromptu shrines where people, especially children, are killed and in dozens of other little ways. We simply no longer put these things in a sacred context. Consciously honoring the dead takes this ingrained awareness one step further. That is the key to ancestor work: mindful attention. When we bring these practices out into the open, incorporating them into our daily lives we are taking a powerful step toward rebuilding our lost traditions. We are creating a bridge whereby our own ancestors, who have a vested interest in our success, can come forward and help us in our lives. That's a very powerful thing.

When it comes to restoring Pagan and Heathen religions, sometimes knowing where to begin to really make a difference is daunting. I say here, begin with your own dead. These were family traditions. They began in the hearts and minds of those gathered in the sacred shelter of home and hearth. Begin with your dead. Let the restoration begin with returning to the ancient practices of celebrating, reverencing, and caring for our beloved dead. Set out their pictures, light candles, set out offerings of food and drink, talk to them, share your victories and your sorrows however small with them, and ask for their protection. Ask for their guidance. Ask for their aid. If you can find and maintain right relationship with your ancestors, they will teach you how to do so with the Gods and other Holy Powers. That is no small thing at all.