Happily Heathen: Healing Old Wounds at a New Ancestor’s Grave

Happily Heathen: Healing Old Wounds at a New Ancestor’s Grave July 22, 2016

[Author’s Note: And now, a break from my lore-based posts, and back to the struggles of Heathenry as it is lived today.]

Two women dressed in warm, outdoor clothes embrace.
The sisters in Sweden. Photo courtesy of author’s sister.

Families aren’t perfect. Not everyone in a family likes or agrees with one another, and everyone has at least one relative who has actively harmed the family in some way. However, we’re Heathens. Ancestor veneration is a key part of our spiritual practice. So how do we honor ancestors who have hurt us? How do we begin to heal the damage to our family’s wyrd?

My Grandfather’s Legacy

My father’s father is a good example of this. The youngest of eleven children (and the third one named “Erik”) from a small farm in Sweden, he moved to the USA in the 1920s to escape poverty and to start a new life. He ended up settling in the Midwest with may other Swedes, married a Norwegian-American woman, and had six children of his own. (My father was the youngest of these children.) Unfortunately, unlike his closest brother who had moved to Chicago, or his sister who had stayed in Sweden, he did not go on to create a better life for himself. Though he did intermittently find work, he became a verbally abusive “weekend” alcoholic who gambled away what few resources they had and left his family in poverty. Being the youngest, my dad endured the brunt of his behavior for many years, as his siblings had each escaped as soon as they could do so.

My grandfather died many years before I was born; I never met the man. I have no personal resentment against him, though I wish he had been a better parent to my own father. What was passed down to my sister and I, however, was my dad’s disdain for all things Swedish and a lifetime worth of hearing about how much he resented my worthless grandfather. So though I value the Swedish-American ancestry I inherited from my grandfather, he also gave me a big reason to avoid it.

I grew up in a Midwestern town that was inundated with Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans. We proudly boast the longest-running Swedish Pancake restaurant in the area, and we have several Scandinavian tchotchkes stores and Swedish-themed hotels or restaurants in the area. Sweden is in our blood here, and we can’t avoid it, no matter how much my dad would love to do so. Despite my father’s dislike of his Swedish roots, however, I’ve always been fascinated with our connection to Sweden. As a third-generation Swedish-American, growing up I distinctly felt the lack of cultural identity, made all the more so because I was surrounded these friends and family members who reveled in their Scandinavian roots. So when I found Heathenry, I was ecstatic. Paganism? Based on deities my Scandinavian pre-Christian ancestors worshiped? Count me in!

two monkey dolls, crudely but expertly made, greet visitors in a restaurant
Swede pride: Swedish sock moneys at a Pancake house in the States. Photo by author.

How Do We Honor Dishonorable People?

I’ve been Heathen for over fifteen years now, and I have been grappling with this ancestor veneration dis-easiness for almost as long. I’m supposed to honor my ancestors, but, according to my father, there was nothing that my grandfather did that was worth honoring. A couple of years ago, I reached out to a friend who is a Heathen seidhkona as well as an initiated Santeria to help me start to piece my ancestor practice together. If you’re not familiar with Santeria (and I wasn’t), it’s a living religious tradition based on Afro-Cuban tradition syncretized to aspects of Catholicism, Ancestor veneration plays a huge role in Santeria, and unlike modern Heathenry, this tradition has hundreds of years of recent practice. Based on her experiences in Heathenry and Santeria, my friend was able to give me a few practical guidelines to rebuild my relationships with my ancestors.

One of the first things she pointed out was we all have hundreds of generations of ancestors. I don’t need to honor just the recently deceased; I can honor specific segments of my ancestors, or, more generically, “my ancestors” as a whole. For example, I can just honor my mother’s family, or I could honor just those family members from Norway.

I could also just focus on those recent ancestors whom I know were honorable in life. There is no reason that one bad ancestor should ruin the whole bunch. My friend pointed out that we can heal relationships with specific people even after they have passed on. In fact, it may be easier to do it this way; after death, some spirits seem to lose some of the enmity and vitriol they possessed in life.

Building an Ancestor Practice

With these things in mind, I built an ancestor altar and started making regular libations. I started visiting my ancestors’ graves at the local cemeteries when I could, and sharing more stories of my beloved dead at Heathen events such as Winternights. I started to toast them as often as I toasted the Gods and the landvaettir (land spirits). And then, after some long discussion, my sister and I decided to go visit Sweden to help rebuild the pieces of family history that had been lost due to my grandfather’s alcoholism.

My father was, in a word, stymied by our decision. He could not figure out why we would ever want to visit Sweden, or why we cared anything at all about our lost grandfather. In our fact-finding discussions with him, he would often get annoyed or angry, or just shake his head in disbelief. I can understand his reactions, though; everything we said or did reminded him of his childhood and the pain he’d carried with him his whole life.

a brick building showing an exterior clock with the Swedish phrase "Nora Stad" (translation: Nora Station)
The train station in our grandfather’s hometown. Photo courtesy of author’s sister.

It wasn’t until we were actually in Sweden, tracking down our ancestors’ familegravs in the local kyrkogården in central Sweden that we understood the far-reaching impact our trip was having. We had decided to go on this trip for us–to heal our own connection with our ancestors. However, this trip was was also giving my father a chance to heal his relationship with his father as well. Alcoholism (and its long-reaching effects) are family wounds, ground into a family’s wyrd; it effects everyone in the family. We were just the ones in our family who had decided to try to stop the cycle and begin to heal it, one step at a time.

An Unexpected Find

It was our third day in Sweden, and we had finally made it to our grandfather’s hometown. The sun was setting against the foggy sky filled with drizzling rain. We had just come out of an amazingly productive meeting with the local genealogist, who had traced our family back to the early 1700s in this area. As he closed his shop, he pointed to the town’s church and kyrkogård (cemetery) a few blocks away. “Your great-aunt should be in there,” he said. “Maybe some cousins, too.” We thanked him for the fifteen-millionth time and left.

My sister suggested that since we still had a half hour or so of daylight left, we should check out the cemetery. We did, splitting up to cover ground more quickly. About twenty minutes later, I cold, wet, hungry, tired from our long day, I was ready to turn in when I heard her yell from the other side of the cemetery. She excitedly waved me over and pointed at the tombstone in front of her. “Ekvall?” I asked. “That’s not our family name.” She pulled out a tattered list of our Swedish relatives that we had inherited from a relative and pointed at it. “No! Look at her maiden name.”

“Hannah Ekvall… Svensson!” I read. We checked the dates and confirmed it—here was the grave of our great-aunt Hannah, the older sister of my grandfather who had stayed home in Sweden when her brothers left. We took a picture of the gravestone, high-fived, and went off to search for others. That night we emailed our parents with our find and the somewhat dark and blurry photo of the gravestone. What we received back the next day from our normally reserved father surprised us both.

You two have discovered a sentimental bone in my body that I didn’t know I had for my Swedish relatives and the village of Nora…. Please put flowers on Aunt Hannah’s grave and thank her for keeping in touch with my family all those years!!

Neither of us had even known that Aunt Hannah existed other than as a name on a list of family members. However, despite never having met her, she had left a huge impression on my father. We later found out that for several years in his childhood she had sent the family Swedish newspapers and individually-wrapped Christmas gifts for the kids (which, if you are the youngest of six and never receive anything new, is a really memorable gift).

The next day, after our breakfast of Swedish pastries, we scoured the rest of the graveyards and found several other great-cousins and a great-uncle or two. However, our biggest find remained Aunt Hannah’s grave. Before we left town, we spent an hour or so weeding her grave. Despite being very kind to her nieces and nephews, she had never had any children, and so no one had tended her grave in decades. We also planted fresh flowers on top of it—purple, red, and white–which we saw several other Swedes doing. We weren’t sure if we’d ever be back, so we also wanted to leave her something that would last.

We each spent some time at her grave in quiet communion with this woman whom my dad had never met, but who had made such a lasting, positive impact on his life from thousands of miles away. I eventually realized that I had a new ancestor to add to my list: Aunt Hannah, much beloved by her nieces and nephews. Among returning home, I found that part of her spirit had come back with me. Now she has an honored spot on my ancestor altar. I greet her every morning by name, along with the rest of my gods and ancestors.

an exterior shot of a brick building with grave markers in the foreground
View of the train station in Nora from the local cemetery. Photo courtesy of author’s sister.

Healing the Wyrd Back in the States

As for my grandfather, when we got back to the States I made a special visit to his grave in my hometown. I brought him a postcard of his hometown that had never visited again and a cardamom-sugar roll from our local Swedish bakery. My father tells me that his parents’ weeknight routine was that after all of the kids had been put to bed, they would sit in the kitchen talking, drinking coffee, and eating cardamom-sugar rolls. Now, once a season, I visit my grandparents, bringing sweet coffee and cardamom rolls, and giving them a chance for a fika break with the granddaughter he never met. I don’t usually get much from them when I visit–mild confusion, if anything–but I try not to have any expectations. I just enjoy the quiet time with them, drinking coffee and sharing news of the family. It helps me as much as it does them, I think. (My sister and I visited them recent when she was in town–we brought coffee and cardamon rolls, and told them news of the family and really bad “Ole and Lena” jokes. It was very healing.)

While we can’t erase our family’s wyrd, we can help mend it in the present day. We can research our ancestry and find new ancestors worth honoring. These worthy ancestors may be hidden, but every family has them. It can helpful and healing to find them and forge deeper connections with them. In this way, we can begin to heal the spiritual and emotional damage in our wyrd and prevent the damage from spreading to our descendants. There is help to be found in even the most pain-filled Ancestors’ Hall, if you look hard enough. We do not need to do any of this reforging alone.

(Because the Gods and Ancestors Are Subtle™, one of my decidedly non-Heathen cousins posted this to my Facebook wall while I was writing this article: “Meter Television is conducting a nationwide search for fun, outgoing and adventurous Americans with Swedish ancestry (even a little bit counts), with a burning desire to find their roots and see their motherland. Chosen participants will compete in extreme cultural challenges to discover their rich and fascinating roots while trying to win the grand prize: MEETING THEIR SWEDISH RELATIVES.” Luckily, I’ve already been, and I don’t need to face “extreme cultural challenges” which would most likely involve eating rotting shark and skinny dipping in ice water. Uff da!)

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