Pruning Your Roots, or, Coping with Samhain When Your Ancestors Suck

Pruning Your Roots, or, Coping with Samhain When Your Ancestors Suck October 26, 2018

Hello, beautiful creatures.

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will likely be aware of my discomfort with the whole “Wheel of the Year” concept. It’s not that I dislike it, exactly. It’s a perfectly serviceable frame through which to view the rhythms of the seasons and the passage of time. Mostly, what I find uncomfortable are the ways in which the Sabbats—the eight “high holy days,” the spokes of the Wheel—are interpreted. Not to put too fine a point on it, these magical days seem to be calcified into specific dogmatic interpretations, and any questioning of their meaning or significance can be met with discomfort and resistance. It varies, depending on which day you’re questioning; my previous posts about Mabon and Samhain garnered little opprobrium, while my Beltane post inspired, shall we say, significantly more pushback.

Still, the Wheel of the Year ever turns, and once again we find ourselves approaching Samhain, that most neo-Pagan of holidays: a curious mishmash of Celtic linguistics, European traditions, and Christian aesthetics. If you’re at all witchy, or within a standard deviation of anyone who considers themselves a witch, you already know the drill here. It’s Halloween, the Celtic New Year, the “day the veil between the worlds is thinnest,” and so on.

That last bit is one of the central conceits of this high holy day, of course. For witchy types, this is a day specifically devoted to remembering and speaking with our dead. We make altars, we eat meals, we bring photos and sing songs, and we tell stories about our ancestors of blood and spirit, those who went before us. We remind ourselves about the impact they made on our lives, and we share them with the people around us, ensuring that they live on in our memories and the memories of those we love.

It’s a lovely practice, and in many ways it’s a sorely needed practice in a modern world which seems, all too often, to want to bury the past and rush away from the graveside as quickly as possible. We’re desperately afraid of death, most of us, and sitting with our dead can be educational, healing, and profoundly transformative.

There’s another side to it, though, that we don’t talk about much, to our great detriment. It’s all well and good to say that the dead love us and are there to support us, but what if that’s not true? What if our ancestors and “mighty dead” aren’t the sort of people who would look at us today with anything but contempt and hatred? What if they were genocidal racists and colonizers, or homophobic, transphobic oppressors? What if they were abusive predators, perpetrators of violence and horror that any sane person would denounce and condemn?

In other words, how do we celebrate Samhain if our ancestors were terrible people?

I’m not saying these people were terrible. For all I know, they were lovely. It’s an evocative image, though, isn’t it? (Image via Pixabay.)
I wish I had easy answers to offer, but easy answers are for hypotheticals, and this isn’t a hypothetical question. Many of us have ancestors of blood or spirit who weren’t the sort of people we’d invite into our living room for a drink, much less into sacred space. My partner, in the wake of a ritual practice this past year, reported that the gist of her “ancestor work” in that ritual was listening to those ancestors tell her all the ways in which she was everything they would be ashamed of: an uppity queer woman who didn’t “know her place,” who consorted with all the “wrong” kinds of people. I have blood relatives who were unrepentant racist assholes to the day they died, and ancestors who were colonizers and slave takers. I share initiatory lineages with predators and rapists. I have friends whose ancestors were their abusers, or the abusers of their families and friends. What do we do with those ancestors?

Here’s where I’ll tell you the thing I wish someone had told me, back when I was a baby witch: we cannot change the past, but neither do we owe it anything but the truth.

Some may argue that we owe the past a debt of gratitude, if nothing else, for all the gifts of our present life, that kind of thing. If our ancestors were sometimes less than perfect, well, no one’s perfect, right? It was a different time. They did so much for us. It would be cruel, unforgivable, rude not to honor them, even if they weren’t very nice, wouldn’t it?

No. And not just no, but hell no.

We owe the past nothing but the truth… and if the truth is that our past is filled with toxicity, abuse, rape, murder, and terror, we are obliged to see that for what it is. We don’t owe it honor, we don’t owe it our allegiance, and we certainly don’t owe it a place on our altars in the dark of the year. If our ancestors were not and are not people we would welcome into our hearts or at our hearths, we are under no obligation to bring them into our circles, to gloss over their flaws and abuses, to pretend they were other than they were.

If you find yourself in the position of confronting a Samhain ritual in which you’ll be expected to make obeisance to ancestors for whom you have no space on the altar of your heart, you have options. You can keep silent, of course. You can opt out and walk away. Or you can stay and speak the truth of your heart, privately or publicly. You can simply refuse to be party to the paying of honors to ancestors you cannot respect, or you can call those ancestors out. I can’t really advise you here. Your circumstances are not mine, nor are your struggles. Any of the things I suggest here might well make Samhain observances uncomfortable.

All I can tell you is that the gods will not praise us for speaking pleasant lies in sacred spaces.

Be blessed, dear ones, and take care of your hearts. ♥

About Misha Magdalene
Misha Magdalene (Seattle) is a multi-classed, multi-geek, multi-queer witch and sorcerer with a degree in gender studies and a slightly odd sense of humor. They're an initiate of multiple lines of traditional witchcraft, including the Anderson Feri tradition and Gardnerian Wicca, and have also been known to dabble recklessly in both modern ceremonial magic and grimoiric goetia. They've been blogging since 2001, negotiating the online world since 1987, playing Dungeons & Dragons since 1981, and listening to weird music since birth. They live on occupied Duwamish territory in the Pacific Northwest with their polymath partner, their precocious daughter, far too much coffee-making apparatus, and a long-suffering bamboo plant named Smitty. You can find them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram, or lurking somewhere around the Seattle area, usually hiding behind a cup of coffee. You can read more about the author here.

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20 responses to “Pruning Your Roots, or, Coping with Samhain When Your Ancestors Suck”

  1. Glad you mentioned this. This “root cutting” is something that I tend to identify with through one of my natal charts I work with. It has Pluto (rx) conjunct the Moon in 4th House. The 4th House symbolizing one’s home, both within and without.

    Cutting away those “toxic roots” is a very empowering “Plutonic” act.

    I support those who take up the sharpened spade to dig at and hack those roots away to be free.

  2. I honestly don’t ‘do’ Samhain because I don’t want to deal with generations of Southern strangers as a modern socialist Pagan in California. It’s just fraught.

    • But if it is helpful to you, to open this door to Samhain, remember that the Southerners were only a few generations. You have dozens, hundreds of generations – and millions of Ancestors – to draw on who existed before that. Out of millions of people, there are millions of mothers caring for their babies, millions of loving fathers, and millions of good people, among the bad. You can pick which type you’ll honor, even if no one can know all their names.

  3. To me honoring my ancestors has nothing at all to do with whether they were “good” people or not, let alone by the standards of the current year. It’s simply about the fact that I would not be here at all if it had not been for the fact that they lived. Nobody is morally perfect, and our ancestors were the products of their times and cultures. Every single person alive today had ancestors who were colonisers because that’s what people did. All civilisations did so at one point or another. Worrying about that is like worrying about the fact that people breath air. Ditto racism. Racism is just a form of bigotry, and everyone, without exception, has their bigotries, no matter how “woke” they claim to be. All human beings, without exception, are crooked timber. None of us is so morally perfect that we can point fingers of righteous judgement.

    But I live and laugh and love and learn because they gave me life. And even if they had views or behaviours that I don’t agree with, that does not mean there is nothing about their lives I can honor, even if it’s just the fact of my existence, or nothing that I may be able to learn from them. Moreover, what they were like at one point in their existence is just one point on a very long spectrum. I am not defined by something I said or believed twenty years ago, and my ancestors are not defined solely by one lifetime.

    Purging our ancestors, sending them to a metaphorical gulag, because they are not just like me, or don’t think just like me, or don’t conform to the standards of the 21’st century, or California, is a failure to understand what the point of honoring our ancestors is really about, and a failure to recognise that wisdom can be found even in the darkest of places and lives.

  4. I’m a bit confused by all this literal-mindedness that has taken over the Pagan world in the last couple of decades. I have only ever honoured the ancestors that I wanted to honour, and it never occurred to me that there was some kind of onus to do otherwise.

    • I think that the author is assuming a scenario where one would not wish to honour any of their ancestors, due to a lack of trust in the family overall and a lot of toxicity. If I had even just one ancestor who I was proud of, I would not of even cared about this article.

      • Fair enough. I have tended to separate in my mind “beloved dead” from ancestors, considering the latter to be pre-Roman, mainly Neolithic and earlier. In truth, they were probably not any better people. But don’t forget that ancestors includes ancestors of spirit – teachers, writers, groundbreakers, anyone you *do* value, and it is your right not to include any ancestors of blood whatsoever.

          • I hope it helps. In ritual, in the spiritual life, ancestors are those who made you what you are. It is natural, and broadly, healthy, to want to honour only those that made you the *good* things you are, who gave you the things you value in yourself. Even if you never met them. This is your right.

          • Thank you so so much!!! I really needed to hear this and it feels right in my heart. ❤️❤️❤️

  5. Yes, honesty is very important. No one should ever feel compelled to honor anyone whom they don’t want to honor. With that in mind, the enormity of our Ancestry can help us out here. From 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 Great grandparents, to 16 GG grandparents, 32 GGG grandparents, and so on, we have literally thousands of Ancestors just within the past few centuries, millions before that, all the way back through non-human primates, furry little mammals, lizards before that, and so on back.
    Every single one of us has some horrible people as Ancestors – rapists, murderers, abandoners, and so on. We also all have some wonderful people, and wonderful non-humans as well. In the face of those mountainous numbers, we all have nearly exactly the same proportion of good people vs. bad people. Regardless of you history one way or another, all of us approach Samhain with both good and bad Ancestors, in nearly equal amounts. In fact, if one goes back just a few thousand years (a mere blip in the history of life), we all have exactly the same Ancestors prior to that, to the person (see the research by Chang, et al). All of us, regardless of history, can, and should acknowledge both the good and bad in our Ancestry, in the huge human story. While this past is set, we make the future.

  6. THANK YOU!!! I was starting to worry that I was the only one who felt disturbed by all these Samhain ancestral traditions. I have been a practicing witch for only the last few months and still have a lot to learn but I was really looking forward to see what a Witch’s Samhain is all about – Halloween is by far my favourite holiday. I was disappointed though in all the ancestral rituals. ick. My blood and spirit relatives are also racists, rapists, bigots, and extremely annoying people with no sense of decency. I know that my soul chose this family so that I can learn and grow, but I refuse to call them “my family” or reduce their actions in anyway. To me, soul connections are much more powerful than mere blood relations.

    I also do not relate to the idea of preparing a meal for our loved one who passed (mine is not a blood relative) and having a day to remember them. First of all, the people I really love are the ones I think about daily anyway, and making a meal for them would probably just trigger my grief. If I was on the astral plane and hanging out with them, then sure, we can grab a bite to eat but why waste food and be reminded that they no longer have a seat at the dinner table? I instead plan to heal so much that I can talk to their spirit whenever I want, in a casual manner, and just be all good with our relationship.

    Anyway, for now I am not sure how to celebrate Samhain besides my usual and maybe some meditation.

    Thank you so so much for this article!!!!!!

  7. Thank you for verbalizing exactly what I’ve long felt about the notion of honoring one’s ancestors. My “family,” living and dead, have been mostly racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, transphobic, antisemitic, etc. assholes. I no longer speak to the ones who are still living and the planet is better off now that the ones who are dead can no longer damage this world further.

    Save for my mother, who was the only decent one among them, I will not honor them. Ever.

    The only context in which I can think of remembering them at this time of year, is to be thankful that I came to walk a far different path from them.

  8. I like to focus on pets and the dead people I *do* like. I’d prefer to separate myself from most blood relations.

  9. I see this was written a year ago, but I wanted to add my 2 cents worth. How do you know the intimate history of your ancestors? I can only lay claim to know my parents and grand parents. Anything beyond that is just names, and dates of birth that I found when doing my Ancestry family tree. I am sure that there were many people who came before me in my family that were horrible people. I am also sure that there were many people who were good, honest, loving, caring, respectful, hard working folks who simply tried to live as good and decent a life that they could. When I honor my ancestors, it is not just my mother or father or grandparents, but those 16th and 17th century men and women who are part of my genetic makeup. I also honor those who walked the spiritual path that I walk, not blood ancestors but still I count them ancestors.

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