I’m knocking at the door. The Gods answer. The spirits answer. I trip and stumble down hallways of comprehension, beholding their beauty and form.
I’m knocking at the door of the ancestors. There is silence.
In the physical world, the roads through the fields stretch out farther than I can see. The skyscrapers arch into the sky farther than I can see. The marks of humanity, this web of which I am a part, surround me.
Somewhere, surely, there are ancestors waiting for me.
I knock at the door, and it creaks open.
Dust spills out onto my feet. A dark chasm stretches before me. There is, still, silence.
“Anyone?” I call.
I inch a toe through the doorway.
“No thank you,” a kind but firm voice announces.
Next I know, I’m flat on my back, staring at the ceiling. The doorway is sealed shut.
One of my (non-human) spirits is laughing so hard he’s wheezing. I shut my eyes to block him out.
“Sucks to be you!” he taunts.
Ancestor veneration/worship/work is a recurring topic in Pagan spaces. The topic is found in most beginner books, and ancestor veneration of some sort is found everywhere. Across cultures, across traditions, we find humans revering other dead humans. Placing ourselves in the great context is an amazing practice that can combat a lot of common spiritual and existential troubles. We are, none of us, alone. We all come from somewhere, from many someones.
But people are also always arguing about ancestor work. Does it have to be blood ancestors? What about people who have been adopted, what ancestors should they reach out to? What about people who are cut off from their families, like many many queer people are? Who should go on our ancestral altars? What about toxic ancestors or ancestors who committed atrocities? How do we handle that?
These questions do have answers. Most people advocating for ancestor work will point out that ancestors can include adoptive or chosen family as well as cultural ancestors. If you’re more recent ancestors weren’t people you got along with, reach out to the older ancestors. Sometimes ancestor work is about processing the trauma of terrible people in our ancestral line. There’s always an answer for every reason someone might avoid or dislike ancestor veneration.
Because we can’t just not engage in the practice. Goodness no.
I actually think most people will find ancestor veneration, in some form or another, useful.
There are always exceptions.
When it comes to other practices, people seem to understand that not everything is for everyone. Not everyone engages in deity worship. Not everyone does spirit work. Not everyone casts spells, or focuses on herbs, or cares about astrology, or reads Tarot, or…so on and so forth. If someone gets up in another person’s face because they don’t practice one of those things, people tend to acknowledge that as a ‘jerk move’.
Say that you don’t engage in ancestor work, though, and there’s a fair chance you’ll encounter pushback. On one hand, I understand this. Ancestor veneration is found literally everywhere. On the other hand, is it really so hard to believe that some people might be experienced practitioners and still not want to engage in ancestor work?
It seems to be the one practice where you are expected to keep knocking at the door when nobody is showing up. Where people who don’t do it are expected to list out all our reasons why not for the sake of conversation but for the sake of being convinced into the practice.
Call and Response
It did, kinda, suck to get no response when I was doing basic ancestor work back when I was starting out. It really, actually, sucked to get very sharply booted when I tried to press the issue recently (not of my own volition). During my recent experiences with the practices, the reactions I got ranged from what was essentially crickets to a loud ‘go away!’ when I pressed hard.
And how I felt dealing with that, and having very-much not human spirits popping up instead… Well, I still don’t know how I feel about that.
I know that it feels almost impossible to talk about my experiences on this topic, though. There’s a deep discomfort with talking about it explicitly rather than leaving it to pithy and vague tweets.
I have seen and heard some people recommend getting in touch with ancestors farther beyond our human ones, for those who struggle with connecting to their human kin. I don’t think this is a terrible idea. But I wonder if we can really call connecting with non-human ancestors ‘ancestor work’.
One reason people advocate for ancestor work is because our human ancestors understand our human concerns. A lot of not-human spirits, whether we’re talking plant, animal, or ones that have never been embodied, just don’t get aspects of human life. (And it has, absolutely, been my experience that the spirits I work with just fundamentally do not get a lot of the limitations of my fleshy life.)
So putting ourselves in the wider context of living beings, of life, of survival – that is good and useful, but I also don’t think it resembles most tradition’s or culture’s ancestor work. It’s something a bit different.
It would be super cool if people didn’t treat ancestor work as this practice everyone everywhere absolutely must do because otherwise you’ve, what, got spiritual cooties? But that might be too big an ask.
Anyway. I’m going to go out and touch grass. I keep seeing people advocate for that.