(Not) Working with the Ancestors

(Not) Working with the Ancestors August 1, 2014

Almost every witch, shaman, or spirit worker I know talks about working with their Ancestors. Some magicians do it. Polytheists, if they don’t work directly with their Ancestors, usually have ways in which they honor them. But me? I’m terribly conflicted.

See, I understand the theory behind most Ancestor veneration and spirit work. It reminds me a lot of the tradition of Saints in Catholicism. Why not send up a prayer to some one who is invested in my well being and has experience in a certain area? Why not reach out to the Beloved Dead? I can’t think of a single religious tradition that doesn’t somehow honor their dead.

IMG_1269I, too, honor my Ancestors. I have a section of my altar set aside for Ancestors and Mighty Dead. In that corner is a sugar skull, pictures of Victor and Cora Anderson and my namesake (my maternal grandmother), a black glass votive candle, and a ramekin of water, which I clean and refill on every dark moon. I regularly wave incense and on Thursdays I honor my Teachers, Guru and Godsoul, which involves the Andersons. My Godsoul, too, is part of my Ancestors.

Every Samhain I honor the Mighty Dead and beloved family members. My family has a dumb supper and we create a special altar on the dining table. Some years I feel more pulled to honor some relatives more than others, but there are a few who are always present.

So I’m not entirely ignoring my Ancestors. I’m honoring them, but I am not working with them. Why not, you may be asking. Here is my list of excuses.

Firstly, I’ve never been one to see or hear the Dead. I’ve known a couple people, who without any formal practice or religion of their own, have had innate abilities to see and hear the Dead. I can tell you that I do not envy them! I have rarely had a knocking in my skull from my Ancestors.

Secondly, I don’t know much about my most of my ancestors. I come from highly adventurous stock, but few of the stories I got straight from the source. I had limited interaction with my grandparents: one had a stroke before I was born and was basically the mean guy in the corner at family gatherings, one lived on the other side of the world (literally), my namesake died when my mother was a child, and one never really spoke all that much. While I have a basic grasp on my family tree thanks to an interest in genealogy as a teen, I don’t have stories or close relations. Of course, this might be all the more reason to strike up a conversation with them now! But that leads me to my next point.

What make anyone so sure my ancestors are interested in me and my life? Some of them weren’t so interested when they were alive, so why assume they feel differently now that they’re dead? What about those who were Christian? Maybe they are hanging out with Jesus and don’t want to enable their devil loving kin?


Fourthly, I don’t know what to offer them. Many traditions seem to offer similar things: incense, various forms of alcohol, smoke in various forms, flowers, and so on. I don’t know what things my ancestors liked. I offer water and incense. At Samhain I offer a few things: hot buttered tea to Victor (I heard he liked that), pie for Cora, a shot of something strong for my friend Tim, and some water and wine for the others, just to cover my bases. What if they were teetotalers? Ack.

You can see that my Ancestor work is fairly generic. However, several times a year I feel a prod to dig deeper, particularly regarding my namesake. Her death left painful, unresolved scars on my family. I am now older than she was at her death. I often wonder if more direct work with her could bring some healing to my family. Something feels very unresolved here, but I just don’t know where to begin.

Yes, a good beginning would be sitting with her. I feel overwhelmed at the thought of having yet another spirit to sit with. You know, more sitting in all the quiet, uninterrupted time I have with three kids! But there’s no other way forward, is there? Nothing is more effective for a beginning than just….. beginning.

I might want to get started. Samhain isn’t too far off.

(I am wide open for advice if anyone wants to chime in!)


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  • I’ve been looking forward to this since you mentioned it yesterday.

    “So I’m not entirely ignoring my Ancestors. I’m honoring them, but I am not working with them.” That’s how I feel and I don’t think that will ever change. I reach out to my grandparents at Samhain. We also have pictures of the Mighty Dead up in our altar room (Gerald, Doreen, Alex, Victor, Cora etc., soon to sadly be Margot and Morning Glory as well) and though they are always welcome at ritual we don’t specifically invite them. I assume they are busy.

    I wrote about this years ago in the early days of RtH, probably before you were a reader if you are interested.


    • See, I think, like Henry above, honoring is work. Unless we have a clear reason to do more, this makes sense to me. I do however feel that there is work to do around my namesake, but otherwise, I like what I’m doing so far. Cora has appeared to me in dreams. I also try to honor Victor and Cora’s birthday and passing. They are most defintely Mighty Dead and quite active in the world!

      Looking forward to reading your post.

  • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

    A lot of the troubles with ancestor work that many people have are due to some of the same things you’ve mentioned here, and a great deal of it has to do with definitions of some of these concepts that have not been as well-known as they would have been in the context of indigenous religious traditions, etc.

    For example, the reason your Christian dead may not want to be honored as ancestors is because they can’t be, because they might not have received the correct funeral rites to turn them into ancestors. When people die, they’re not automatically in the realm of the ancestors, they’re in the realm of the dead, which is different. Most indigenous traditions have these distinctions, and would recognize this to be a problem, which is quite frankly ignored and downplayed by a lot of modern people across religious traditions, but including amongst modern Pagans. This is a consistent problem with why many modern folks from primarily European (and Christian) ancestry have difficulties with ancestor work, because who we’d think of as ancestors are not actually Ancestors, but instead are just among the dead, and have been cheated of their existential rights (and rites) as much as we have been.

    Anyway, it’s a much larger topic than can be covered in a comment on a blog post, but it’s worth thinking about…

    • This hits on some unformed thoughts I’ve had. I feel like my intuition around the Ancestors is pretty right on. I also think that many people who pass just want to…… move on. I have a lot of learning and thinking to do on this topic. But it’s nice to write about my confusion, 1)because of the helpful feedback and 2)I’m not the only one who is confused but I think some people don’t want to ask.

    • Of course interpretations of the afterlife are really a matter of belief or perhaps personal gnosis . . . . another reason people have problems with this aspect of spirituality.

      • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

        Not really.

        If you buy into the matter of ancestor worship, then you can’t play the bricoleur of beliefs and pick and choose what feels best to you. There are rules in pretty much every intact system of ancestor worship that exists, and they actually tend to be remarkably similar across cultures and time periods. And quite often, observing those beliefs is a fundamental part of honoring one’s ancestors.

        If you don’t think any of these things are important or true, then one may as well not think about ancestor worship for another second.

        • How is this not a matter of strictly belief or personal gnosis?
          “For example, the reason your Christian dead may not want to be honored as ancestors is because they can’t be, because they might not have received the correct funeral rites to turn them into ancestors. When people die, they’re not automatically in the realm of the ancestors, they’re in the realm of the dead, which is different.”

          I’m not saying you are wrong or that I disagree only that when it comes to the dead I’m not sure how things can’t be a matter of personal gnosis or belief.

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            Effective ancestor worship can’t be accomplished simply by belief being whatever one wishes it to be. People who don’t have success with it and who tend to falter or have major difficulties getting anything out of it tend not to have the beliefs about it that indigenous cultures do. If they shift to one of those paradigms, however reluctantly, things tend to start working much better. Is that a coincidence?

            Whether it makes people uncomfortable or not, some aspects of what is considered “metaphysical belief” might have laws, customs, and features which can be more-or-less predicted and ascertained, and which must then be respected and accepted in order for one’s practices to be effective. If one’s deities aren’t omniscient, then one can’t expect silent prayer to be effective, for example.

            Certainly, people should be free to do whatever-the-hell-they-want, and can most definitely find meaning and value in any number of things. But if one suddenly decides that a broken Casio pocket calculator is a god, and worships it, and nothing really happens, then one shouldn’t be surprised. Where ancestor worship is concerned, there are things that seem to work, and things that tend not to, and they are (as previously stated) remarkably consistent across traditions in ways that can’t be accounted for by diffusion of practices from one culture to another, etc. Part of those spiritual technologies that are effective is a classification of who qualifies as an Ancestor and what it takes to get them into that state, and part of that is also the roles that living humans and communities play in that process. Mistaking an Ancestor that will respond to veneration with someone who is simply a dead genetic relative (who would be the common, non-spiritual definitions of an “ancestor”) would be a case of thinking the broken calculator is a deity in the metaphor above.

            One can argue “well isn’t that all just a matter of belief” all one wants to, but it’s not going to actually do anything to help establish an effective practice. It’s an armchair philosopher, creedal-based cop-out, in my view, to constantly refer everything back to “well, that’s just a matter of belief” when actual effective practices the world over tend to demonstrate the opposite. It’s not personal gnosis, it’s cultural gnosis, and thus shared gnosis on such a wide level that even phrasing it in terms of “personal gnosis” as a way to invalidate it is extremely offensive, to say the least.

          • lizzysimplymagic

            I admit I have never heard it described this way before. Every book or article I’ve read was largely limited to genetic ancestors, which is problematic for me because 1) I don’t know most of them and 2) the ones I am aware of wouldn’t enjoy being pestered.

            I know you said this was a larger topic, but I would like to learn more. What are some examples of “intact” systems of ancestor worship (vs, I assume, Neopagan views)?

          • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

            African and Afro-Diasporic traditions are particularly rich in this–Vodun, Santeria, Ifa, etc. Chinese and Japanese cultures likewise preserve many of these traditions.

          • lizzysimplymagic

            Thank you!

  • Henry Buchy

    a few rambling thoughts on a rainy morning before work….. pretty much agree with PSVL, on ‘proper rites’, though not just funerary. That can be ameliorated through other rites.
    “honoring” is “working” with them.
    What makes small ‘a’ ancestors big “A” Ancestors is ‘agency’.
    A lot is dependent on the ‘metaphysics’ of mana…..offerings.
    as far as “right” offerings, that can come later. there are ‘generic’ offerings, such as you mentioned-lights, incense, clean water and simple food.
    It’s mana that is being sent, the offerings are ‘containers’ of it.

  • Brian Michael Shea

    You do more than I do, I have to say, that I just am not drawn to ancestor ‘worship’ or ‘honoring’ ,’working’ (I’m not sure of what term to use). I’ve tried, but it just does not call to me. That is the main reason, although I can also relate to your concerns, and, also Jason Mankey’s, which he wrote about in his post that he included a link to here. It seems to be a ‘not said out loud but implied’ idea that it should be mandatory to work with one’s ancestors and the dead. Sometimes it is just said plainly and clearly that you should do it. I have a table set up with a Day Of The Dead type painted skull, a candle, shells, and some candies, that I felt I should have, but it sits unused.

    • I am finding that ‘unwritten rule’ coming through loud and clear in responses to this article, particularly on my personal FB page! I do think honoring Ancestors is important, but I think that acknowledging them can be plenty. I don’t want to force anything, especially not relationships. The comments here are giving me a lot to think about. But I’m starting to see that honoring may be a form of working with – and that I’m on the right track.

  • roberto quintas

    Hello Niki. Honoring the ancestors is one adamant practice in many traditions and religions of Paganism, Ancient and Modern. In Traditional Witchcraft, there are some practices that deals with the dead, or the ancestors, if you like but, even in that case, we must have sure to “depart” the dead, the ancestor. We party, we dring, we eat, calling for the parents and relatives whom died, we call the ancestors in Sanhaim and Walpurgisnacht, but before the ceremony ends, we aks to them to go back to the Hades, because living with a ghost is not pleasing.

  • Henry Buchy


  • Wow, this was a great post to find this morning. I took a class at a festival this weekend that focused on working with spirits. There was a lot of focus on working with the ancestors–you raise a lot of points here that I was questioning (but too nervous to ask the teacher). Honoring them completely makes sense to me. But working with them…I felt that if most were Christian, they wouldn’t appreciate that. Another big stumbling block for me is that if reincarnation is true, they might not even be around to “work with”. It’s something I really need to think about… Thanks for writing about your thoughts on this!