The purpose of an ancestral altar isn’t to worship the ancestors, but to honor them as the ones who came before us and gave us life, to remember them, and work with them. We are the trees and the ancestors are the roots from which we gain strength and protection. Returning to our roots is important, especially for those of us living in America who have been long divorced from our original lands where our people dwelt.
So many walk around today entirely oblivious to to the protection they receive from their ancestors and the guidance available to them. So many don’t even think to ask for the help of their ancestral allies, though these allies will do much to remove obstacles and provide guidance and protection. Our ancestors include not only our blood lineage, but our friends and animal companions who become part of our ancestral court when they are born into the Otherworld.
The Otherworld exists within our world as an unseen layer, as a realm which can be accessed from certain natural locations. Our ancestors are living their lives there unless or until they decide to reincarnate. This veil between our world and the Otherworld has thinning moments at certain times of day and certain times of the year in which they naturally cross over and interact. They may come when you ask outside of these times, as well if you’re in a proper space.
Setting Up Your Altar
I usually recommend keeping altars in the public area of the home like the dining room, living room or kitchen. It can be disruptive to sleep to keep any in the bedroom. Make sure you cleanse the space and call in protection from your deities or the elements.
An ancestral altar can be simple or elaborate, but above all, it should be beautiful. Be creative, make it fun. It could be a whole table, or it could be a shelf, or even a window sill. Keep at least one candle on the altar to be lit daily and a glass of spring water as a blessed offering. Change the water every day by pouring it into the ground or a potted plant. You can keep photos of your ancestors on the altar, just don’t include any photos of the living.
You can keep other items that belonged to your ancestors on the altar as well. If you don’t have photos or personal items that belonged to family members, use items that make you feel connected to your lineage and to the earth. Special stones, for example, or a pot of earth. Keeping items that symbolize the natural elements is a reminder that we come from the earth and these elements, which are our most ancient ancestors.
When you’re done setting up your altar, whether its just a candle and a glass of water or more, burn incense (rosemary, lavender, frankincense and myrrh are all good options) to consecrate the space and then invite all your ancestors who come in love to dwell and receive their honors. You don’t have to invite every ancestor, especially ones whose energy you don’t want affecting your life.
Leave food offerings as often as feels right to feed the spirits of your ancestors. I feed mine at minimum once a week. The spirits take nourishment from the spirit of the food. It doesn’t have to be some elaborate meal, just something you know your ancestors would like, or even some things that you like if you don’t know your ancestors.
I often leave mini donuts on mine or a portion of any baked goods I make or buy. When I’m cooking I’ll usually set aside a portion of what I’ve made for this altar as well. Coffee is another great offering. I leave most food offerings out overnight, some I leave longer.
Don’t eat or drink any offerings left for your ancestral dead. There are a few different ways you can dispose of them.
Building the Relationship
To get to know your ancestors if you have no real knowledge of them, after inviting them to the altar that will house them, is in meditation and speaking to them and making space for response, or by creating a dream pillow to help you connect with them when you sleep. It can take time to build these relationships, but it is rewarding. Be patient and don’t give up.
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