The days of the last harvest are all around us and the October aesthetic is gaining steam. Almost every store is carrying some form of skull-themed merchandise and the eyeless grins of memento mori follow us as we go about our daily business. The season of the Ancestors is beginning. Many Pagans have begun to notice the flickers at the edge of our vision, sounds and scents with no discernable origin point, and messages from beyond that tell us the Veil between this world and the next is even thinner than usual.
One question I am frequently asked at this time of year is how to begin a relationship with the Ancestors. Or, what to do if we do not know about our Ancestors or do not like them. I have some thoughts on those subjects. One thing to consider as you get started is what the word ‘Ancestors’ means to you. I personally venerate three different types or categories of Ancestors.
Ancestors of Blood
Ancestors of Blood are your direct, DNA-linked familial line. They are the ten thousand loves that came before you, those who struggled through life and birthing to bring your specific life into existence. The wonderful thing about our Ancestors of the Blood is that they stretch back millennia. If your most recently deceased blood relatives behaved reprehensibly toward you, simply reach back further. If Great Aunt Agatha was a harridan in life, there’s a possibility she is in death as well. However, there’s an entire world of Ancestors of the Blood who have passed through death through to wisdom and redemption. Work with them instead. One useful phrase to use is to specify ‘Wise, Holy and Redeemed’ Ancestors during your veneration.
Even if you do not know your Ancestors of the Blood, they know you. Adoption, immigration or a break in the information about our blood Ancestors does not impact how they feel. Whether you know them or not, you are the hope and light your Ancestors sent forward through time. If you reach out, do not be surprised when they step forward to meet you. Your Ancestors are the most likely to intercede on your behalf. They are also the most likely to understand some of the mundane stresses that humans face. An Ancestor will be able to empathize with the frustration of a jerk coworker more than a Deity will.
Ancestors of Milk and Honey
Ancestors of Milk and Honey are family who took us in as though we were their own. Many of us have an aunt or uncle who is not technically blood related. Many of us have an adoption somewhere in our heritage, or are adopted ourselves. The lack of blood connection does not make those familial bonds any less real. Family of choice can be even more powerful than family of blood simply because the bond was deliberately chosen. The Ancestors of your Milk and Honey relatives are also your Ancestors.
My grandfather was adopted into a German family. Even if my blood does not contain a single shred of DNA from that part of the world, I still have familial ties there. My German family gave me my maiden surname of Grastorf and inspired all sorts of funny little holdovers in my immediate family. I blame those parts of my upbringing for my deep and abiding love of sauerkraut and the need to put spicy mustard on sausage. When I venerate my Ancestors, I do not make a distinction between my Ancestors of Milk and Honey and my Ancestors of Blood. They are all my family, and I am their child.
Ancestors of the Order
Ancestors of the Order are the Holy Dead who walked a similar life-path. For example, an Ancestor of the Order for a scientist might be Marie Curie. An Ancestor of the Order for a musician might be Beethoven. Or Lemmy, depending on your taste in music. I honor the Ancestors of the Order of Witchdom in my personal practice – the Shadow Company of other magickal practitioners who traveled the liminal paths in times before us. These Ancestors love us and are invested in us because we are carrying on their Work, the sacred tasks upon which they spent their lives.
Starting the Conversation
There are many ways to start a relationship with your Ancestors. These techniques are how I personally began my practice, but they are by no means the only way to begin.
Shrine and Offerings
Shrine and Offerings: I created a small space within my home for my Ancestors. In my case, it’s a little curio shelf with a crossroads painted on it. When I first began, the objects on that little shelf were a candle and a cup of water. Shrines do not need to be complex or elaborate to be potent. I started offering my Ancestors fresh water once a week (I refresh offerings on Mondays). When I make an offering, I say something along the lines of:
Hail to the Wise, Holy and Redeemed Ancestors, seen and unseen, known and unknown, named and unnamed. Hail to my family. I am so grateful for your lives, for your work and your struggles. I am grateful for the blessings you passed down to me, for the touch of your hand upon my life. I love you, and I pray that you are healing, recovering and growing. I pray that you know your lives had value, and that you are spoken of with love and reverence.
If I am working on something that is Ancestral in nature, or I simply wish to add additional awareness of their presence to my day, I will light the candle on the shrine.
Conversation: Your Ancestors were corporeal – regular humans like you and I. Speak aloud to them. They love it. It helps them feel more connected to the mortal part of their journey. Tell them how your day is going, how your life is going. Talk to them about your joys and pleasures, your challenges and projects. I frequently use my morning commute to talk to my Ancestors since I’m the only one in the car. Speaking aloud to your Ancestors is also a healthy form of boundary-setting. It demonstrates to them that there are specific times and contexts for communication, and makes it less likely that they’ll pop up in your thoughts at inopportune times.
Prayer: One of my favorite quotes from Orion Foxwood is ‘Pray for your Ancestors because you know they’re praying for you.’ My preferred form of prayer is a piece of journeywork. When I sit in meditation, I frequently travel to a particular sunlit field that is part of my ‘safe space’ in trancework. I stand in that field and welcome my Ancestors into it one by one. I start with the Ancestors I knew and loved and I hug them as they appear to me. I visualize the sunlight in the field blessing them and filling them with light. Once I have reached past the point of Ancestors I knew, I welcome in those I did not know in life: great grandparents and beyond. I welcome more and more Ancestors in until the field is full. I concentrate on blessing them and simply holding them in the light, holding them in my reverence and love. Then I bid them farewell and return. For me, this particular prayer form has been very powerful. I sometimes return a little weepy simply from feeling the incredible wave of love pouring off my Ancestors. Sometimes they talk to me, or make suggestions. Even on ‘normal’ journeys, I return more connected to the vast River of Blood of which I am a part.
Redemption: This is a new piece of work for me and one I think a lot of us could benefit from. Like us, our Ancestors lived in a complex world. They did not always make the right choices. Acknowledging the harm they did and making an effort to redeem my bloodline is part of my Ancestral work now. My Ancestors benefitted from systems of white supremacy. As a result, I have taken anti-racism trainings, continue to read books/articles/blogs on dismantling white supremacy, work to decolonize Paganism and use my white privilege to point to problems and support the Work of voices of color. I am learning and listening, and I am by no means perfect, but I am trying. I do this for myself, my ancestors, and my descendents. Healing the Blood is sacred Work.
They are so very proud of us, you know.
Got questions or ideas? Hit me up in the comments. If you already have an ancestral practice, how did you get started? What’s your favorite form of veneration? I’d love to hear how you honor your Ancestors.