Ancestor Veneration is an exciting new topic for a lot of witches these days. As we learn more about the topic and its prevalence in cultures throughout the world, more and more people are coming to me and asking how to get started or what to do with their problematic ancestors. In this article we will cover the basic Dos and Don’ts of the ancestor world.
To begin you’ll need to set up an ancestor altar. These are a lot of fun, and can be done any number of ways. However, there are a few things to consider. First you’ll want three major items, a candle (I use a white glass vigil candle dressed with holy oil and purifying herbs), a glass of water, and incense. These are both offerings and tools for connection.
The candle honors them and provides warmth and light to their spirits. It also acts as a beacon so they can find you, a little like the Bat Signal for spirit. Mine know that when the candle is lit they need to be paying attention.
The water refreshes them and quenches their thirst. It also acts as a conduit for spiritual energy, sort of like an ancestor lightning rod. The surface of the water is a liminal space as well, where water and air meet, and is used as a doorway. It’s important to keep this water clean and refresh it regularly.
I use tap water with great success, but also our water here is pretty good. Use your best judgement. Also, distilled or heavily filtered water doesn’t tend to work as well as tap water or less purified version. I think it has something to do with the presence of dissolved solids (minerals, salts, metals etc.) which help with conducting their energy, but honestly, who knows? The incense is pleasant to them, helps lift their spirits, and carries your prayers up to them.
Another thing you may want to have on the altar is a nice table cloth. Choose something pretty that is white or another cool tone. This is not only practical, it helps set the tone for the whole altar as a place of goodness and purity. I also like to keep spiritual waters such as Florida Water and Holy Water on the altar, in order to cleanse myself and the space regularly, to keep it clean and happy. Other items you may choose are books of prayer, crosses or other religious symbols that resonates with your family, or images associated with the family (crests, tartans etc.).
Once you have the basics you may begin to add photos of your deceased family members and loved ones. It is considered taboo to place photos of the living on the altar and is believed to bring the living person a speedy death, so try to get photos solely of the dead. You may also add items that belonged to the dead (grandma’s Bible, grandpa’s pipe etc.), or things they really enjoyed in life such as a favorite brand of cigarettes or liquor.
Once this is all built, you are ready to begin. One thing we need to cover right off the bat is that spirits can be tricky and dangerous and that includes your ancestors. Over the last several thousand years, there is bound to be at least one jerk in the bunch if not a few dozen. Certainly there are people in your family living now that you are less than thrilled about.
More than that, there are other less than friendly entities that may mistake your invitation to your ancestors as an invitation for them to come into your space. So, how do we sift through these? First and foremost, I like to cleanse the space with smoke and special waters to clear out anything negative or unfriendly before I even begin. Start fresh.
I then begin by calling in my guardian spirits. Each one of us has a guardian angel and other spirits that have signed up to accompany us through this life; I draw them close and make sure they are paying attention before I even begin. I then light my ancestor candle and then light the incense using the candle, and then I specifically call out to the type of ancestors I’m looking for: “I call upon my Holy Ancestors, those who have chosen to guide and protect me in this life for my highest good. May they come forth and commune with me” or whatever floats your goat.
No matter what spirits you are evoking it’s critical that you are specific about who and what you are addressing. Don’t overthink it, but make sure you are intentional with your evocations. I rarely call upon the ancestors by specific names because there are so many of them that go back to creation that you don’t know who you are excluding. However, ancestors that you knew in life can come in handy if they had a specialty. For instance, the Aunty who always had the church gossip might have the tea about enemies who are up to no good.
Whether you choose to work with them individually or as a whole (or both), is entirely up to you. Once they have been evoked, you then may feel free to present offerings, say prayers, and make petitions. I often pray for my ancestors that may not be doing well, those who are trapped or earthbound, with hopes that they may find deliverance and join us in our work. I pray for the healing of ancestors that may have been bad or dangerous people, and I also pray for the elevation of my ancestors who are already doing just fine.
If you feel that a problematic ancestor (your belligerently drunk and racist uncle who murdered eight people for example) is attempting to come through you are more than within your rights to ask them to leave, or tell them they are not welcome. If they continue to be an issue, you may ask your Holy Ancestors to deal with them.
Don’t be completely put off by family stories though; I have several male ancestors who struggled with booze, or had committed suicide. Some of them are very into working with me as a way of working off their sins. There’s a clear difference though. The ancestors who are with me to correct their wrongdoings have a very sober energy about them. They’ve straightened up, and though still scoundrels, they are here to make things right. This means they are doubly invested in the success of your endeavors.
Just be sure to feel out the energy (do they feel chaotic, or do you feel strange or sad after working with them etc.) to discern which ones are helpful and which ones are detrimental. You won’t have to do this through your whole family tree; for the most part the ancestors who show up are the ones eager to help and guide. The riffraff only stumble in occasionally. Though don’t forget, they too can heal and join you later. Just use discernment, and trust your gut.
A major thing you’ll want to pay attention to long term is the energetics of your altar. An ancestor altar should have a cool energy, not hot. Of course, we aren’t talking about actual temperatures here, but the sense and “flavor” (if you will) of the energy itself.
An energetically “hot” altar attracts negative entities. Things like dirt, urine, feces, blood, dust, negative and stagnant energy all make your altar “hot”. As do warm or hot colors. A cool altar attracts good spirits and energies. A cool altar is an altar that is cleaned physically and refreshed energetically on a regular basis. It’s important to keep your altar clean both physically and energetically, and decorate it in colors such as white, blue, purple, green, and other cooler tones.
None of these are hard and fast rules, and all of these things are cumulative. So if you end up with a red picture frame or let a little dust collect, the devil won’t come to get you. The most important part is making sure it stays clean, and that you don’t leave your offerings there so long that they spoil.
If you feel your altar beginning to heat up (or feels anxious, chaotic, or disturbed), remove everything from it and set it aside. In a bowl or spray bottle, combine holy water and Florida water. Use the mix with a white cloth to clean off the surface of your altar, and all the picture frames, statues etc. that go on it. Get a clean altar cloth, or at least refresh the old one and place it on the altar with the rest of the freshly cleaned items and photos. Place fresh white flowers on the altar and light some sweet, calming incense.
You may keep the mix of Florida water and holy water in a spray bottle and spritz the room and altar when it begins to feel like it needs refreshing in between full cleanings. This is helpful when you accidentally leave offerings too long and end up with hot items like spoiled food or dead flowers on the altar for a short period of time. If they get left there for a while though, you may want to do a deep clean on the whole space and start again. A cool altar feels very tranquil, and welcoming.
Now when it comes to offerings, they can be just about anything. The only thing to avoid is any incense that chases away spirits or is intensely cleansing. Salt is also considered taboo because it repels spirits. Some say that you shouldn’t even offer them food with salt in it but I have never had a problem with that. As long as it’s not a dish of pure salt, you should be good. After all, the ancestors deserve flavor!
Make them their favorite foods the way they liked it or make them a plate of whatever you have cooking for dinner. I like to give them food frequently because it seems to strengthen and sustain them and I feel their presence more when they are adequately fed. A good rule of thumb is to leave food and drink offerings out for 1-24 hours and then feel free to dispose of them in the trash or down the drain.
Some folks will get really upset that I just said that. They will also insist that they be disposed of in a fancy ritual where I bury them or burn them. These are also folks that assume everyone around them lives in a cottage on the outskirts of town that has lots of land for public burying of things. I’ve lived in city apartments most of my life and that’s just not an option. I’ve never had a problem tossing my offerings the way I would if I had a guest over. When I have company, and they are done eating, whatever is leftover on their plate gets thrown in the trash. I don’t keep it and bury it at a crossroads. That would be weird as hell.
Food isn’t the only thing you can offer though. Flowers are always a favorite; they bring a lovely energy to any altar! You can give them things they enjoyed in life such as certain beverages, cigars, or read them stories and books they loved. Special candles can be burned in their honor as well, and is nice for something a little different.
You may also give them money, and leave it on the altar until enough accumulates to either buy them something they like (liquor, perfume, tools etc.) or donate the money to a cause that would have meant something to them. Though liquor is common, if your family didn’t drink or had complications with sobriety, you may opt not to give it to them, or only give it to certain ancestors. It’s up to you and your family.
Hopefully this gives you more confidence stepping into the world of ancestor veneration, and provides a strong base for your practice. Good luck, and remember to be safe and keep your wits about you. Even with the ancestors.