Honoring and working with those who came before us is a tradition as old as religion itself. Ancestors are some of the strongest allies you can have. They are invested in your success, because you are the continuation of their legacy. You also are a part of the ancestors. The blood that ran through their veins is the same blood that runs through your veins. Raven Grimassi has referred to this as the “river of blood” in his works, and I think that’s an extremely beautiful name for it. By learning about the ancestors, we learn about ourselves and who we come from. Many (but of course not all) witches and pagans work with ancestors around Samhain when the veils are thin but seem to neglect them the rest of the year.
Thoughts vary when it comes to ancestor work from tradition to tradition. Some believe that we can redeem the less savory ancestors through our work with them, others strongly recommend avoiding anyone who didn’t live an honorable life in your ancestor work. You may not know any of your ancestors, such as cases of someone being adopted. Recognizing the “unknown” or “forgotten” ancestors is just as important as working with the known ancestors, and can be used in your work if you’re unclear who your ancestors of blood were. Ancestors don’t necessarily have to be biological either.
Who is and isn’t an ancestor and what type of an ancestor they are or how they’re divided also vary from tradition to tradition. I tend to divide them up in these main categories: Blood Ancestors, Companion Ancestors, Hero Ancestors, and Spiritual Ancestors. Blood Ancestors are those that you are biologically descended from. Companion Ancestors are those that were not biologically related to you but whom you had a strong relationship with in life, such as friends, adopted families, or partners who have passed. Hero Ancestors are those who have passed that you look up to, feel a bond through their life’s work and your own and whom inspire you. An example would be if you wrote fiction and were inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe – he would be a hero ancestor. Spiritual Ancestors are those who have passed that were significant to our spiritual tradition. This could be viewed as the Saints of Catholicism, the Boddhisattvas of Buddhism, or the Mighty Dead of Witchcraft. A great example of a spiritual tradition would be someone like Doreen Valiente, whose work was huge on Witchcraft and is inspirational to a lot of modern witches. Check out Ancestors of the Craft. What makes an ancestor also varies. Some believe that becoming an actual ancestor takes long periods of time and refer to the recently deceased as the “Beloved Dead” and those further back as “Ancestors”. But I feel they’re worked with in very similar ways.
Here are some ways to build a relationship with your ancestral spirits. This of course is not the definitive practice on ancestors, merely some of the simple things that I do. For those who want to explore this subject deeper I highly recommend Communing with the Ancestors: Your Spirit Guides, Bloodline Allies, and the Cycle of Reincarnation by Raven Grimassi, Deeper Into the Underworld: Death, Ancestors & Magical Rites by Chris Allaun, The Mighty Dead: Communing With The Ancestors of Witchcraft by Christopher Penczak, and Spirit Speak: Knowing and Understanding Spirit Guides, Ancestors, Ghosts, Angels, and the Divine by Ivo Dominguez Jr. Most people whom work with ancestors (including myself) tend to devote a specific day a week to giving offerings to the ancestors and it’s usually Sunday. However, it can be more often than this and you can commune with your ancestors at any time.
Research Your Ancestors
Know who your ancestors are. Start researching your genealogy. Talk to the elders in your family and ask them about where you come from and information about those who have passed that they remember but you never met. Learning about your ancestors is partially a devotion of time and energy to them and partially a way to understand who they are, how they can help you, and creates a stronger link between you.
Commune With Your Ancestors
Just like any spirit or deity, you want to devote time to them. Some consider time and energy to be the most valuable gift that you can give the ancestors. Take time to meditate and commune with your ancestors. Write them letters. Pray to them. Recite their names at their altars when you give libations and offerings.
Create & Visit Their Sacred Spaces
Creating a special space with their pictures, things they liked, and a place to provide offerings and libations anchors the presence of the ancestors even stronger into your life. Visiting their graves to leave offerings or going to places that held significance to them during their lives (for that sole purpose) is also a strong way to connect with them.
Libations & Offerings
Give libations and offerings. The most universal offering you can give the ancestors is fresh water. The next most common is alcohol, especially if it’s a particular alcohol that person enjoyed in life. Some people also offer kananga water to their ancestors. It’s said that the ancestors enjoy things that remind them of life. So foods that they either enjoyed in life or foods that remind them of earthly sensations are recommended. This is why it’s common to give both extremely sweet and extremely spicy food offerings to ones ancestors. The ancestors are known to also enjoy offerings of cigarettes and cigars (once again, especially if they were smokers). Other common offerings are candles burning in their honor, flowers, and even burning “ancestor money“.
Speak Highly Of Them In Remembrance
Share their stories. Speak highly of their attributes and accomplishments. By doing so you are preserving their memory and doing so in an honorable way. This in itself is an offering.
Live With Integrity & Dedicate Service In Their Names
Living your life with integrity and being successful in different areas of life is a way to honor your ancestors. Being the best version of yourself possible and striving to better yourself is a strong way to honor your ancestors. Remember that you are their legacy. This is especially important in areas that may have been lacking. For example, if you come from a line of deadbeat fathers, being a good father yourself is a strong way to honor your ancestral line and a way of helping redeem it. Perform community service or acts of kindness in their honor and in their names.