Honoring the Ancestors: Samhain and Beyond

Honoring the Ancestors: Samhain and Beyond October 26, 2010

There’s a great deal of focus around Samhain on honoring one’s ancestors, and honoring the dead in general. Whether we celebrate Samhain or Winternights, that’s what this holiday is all about, right? Well, yes….but ideally the celebrations that mark the end of October, should be the culmination of a year spent regularly and consistently interacting with the dead, honoring them, and recognizing their role in the continuing evolution of our spirituality. Honoring and interacting with the ancestors isn’t just a Samhain “thing,” rather it’s an every day “thing,” and one of the fundamental underpinnings of a strong, nourishing, resilient spiritual practice. 

Many traditions pay special homage to their ancestors, to those who have come before us, to those who, by their struggles and failures, victories and joys have contributed to the common threads of being we all share. Honoring one’s lineage is the first and one of the most important steps in developing a strong spiritual foundation. It is a place of beginning. We all have ancestors. We can all tap into that connection. Ancestors may include those connected to you by blood, but also those who, while a blood relationship might be lacking, were nevertheless close enough to be kin. These are our teachers, mentors, and friends—our spiritual kin. No one lineage is better than another. Paying homage to one’s ancestors is not, in any way, shape or form an excuse for racism, rather it is a means of honoring the process of one’s spiritual journey, honoring those whose actions and lives helped create our own, shape our own. It means honoring those who shed blood for us, so that we might remember and also learn to craft lives of honor. It is an acknowledgement that we are all connected through the Holy Powers, through the cycle that Hela governs. We honor the continuity of Divine presence throughout the course of our lives. We honor their strength, courage, wisdom, struggles even as we seek to learn from them.

In the Northern Tradition, we have several different types of ancestors. The word “Dis” (plural: disir) refers specifically to the female ancestors of one’s line. These ancestors are very important because they are guardians of one’s luck and one’s wyrd. Luck particularly relies heavily on the female line in passing from one generation to the next. Sometimes the word ‘alf’ (plural: alfar) is used for the male antecedents, but in contemporary Heathenry this is not all that common as it leads to confusion with the denizens of Alfheim, one of the nine holy worlds.  So most of us just refer to them as our “male ancestors”…unglamorous but effective!  One might also encounter the word “wight,” an anglicized form of the Old Norse ‘vaet’ (plural: vaettir). This is a rather ‘catch-all’ term for nature spirits, elementals, and land spirits. Some use it to imply ancestors, but that is not its most common usage. The Northern Tradition is an animistic one and these beings, somewhat analogous to what Shinto would call ‘kami’ are no less important than one’s ancestors.  So we honor not just our dead, but the spirits of the places in which we live, of our home, of the land itself as well.

One does not evolve spiritually in a vacuum. The strength of one’s spiritual House depends on the integrity of one’s lineage. By this, I mean being in right relationship with our ancestors. This is attained by honoring them regularly, rightly, and well.  One’s ancestors and the vaettir of our world can assist us in our journey and in our spiritual Work. We can learn much from them but only if we empower them to act with us.  A house cannot be built without bricks. Bricks cannot be secured without mortar. Paying homage to one’s ancestors and the spirits of the land is the mortar and clay from which those bricks are formed. We begin in the physical because we are physical beings. Our own physicality, the sense of touch, of sight, sound, smell, and hearing are the primary filters through which we experience our world. The first step in growing strong and whole and heal in this tradition, is honoring those who have struggled to do exactly that before us. This process is helped by the fact that many spirits choose to stay as guides/watchers and protectors.

There are endless ways of making proper offerings. The first step one should take, is the construction of an ancestral altar. This should be a separate altar from anything given to the Gods – a simple shelf will do, dedicated entirely to the ancestors. In my main kindred, we have a communal ancestral altar with offerings from each person. It’s quite a gathering of energies, because we all come from different backgrounds: Celtic, English, Swiss, German, Lithuanian, Cherokee, African, Italian, Polish. We honor our spiritual lineage too. This means that in addition to those actually related to us by blood or adoption, we also consciously honor those people who may have had a tremendous influence on us, who were teachers, mentors, and guides.  For example, my mother kept a picture of Wilfred Owen on her ancestral altar, because his war poetry helped her through a very traumatic time in her life.  In addition to the shared kindred altar, most of us also have our individual ancestor altars.

I’m often asked how one should go about creating an ancestor altar and it’s really a very personal thing. Creating an ancestral altar can be as much an exercise in creativity as creating an altar to a God or Goddess. Whatever reminds you of your beloved dead can go on an ancestral altar; if you have small objects belonging to specific ancestors and wish to honor those people, all the better. The important thing is that the ancestral altar serves as a potent reminder that these people are still part of one’s family and one can still have an ongoing relationship with them.

The most common items to place on an ancestral altar are pictures of the dead. There is one caveat here: it is appropriate to place pictures of the deceased, even if they died as infants, on one’s ancestral altar, however under no circumstances should the picture of a living person be included. This is considered the equivalent of tempting or thumbing one’s nose at Death, neither of which are wise courses of action. Offerings may include food, cigarettes, raw tobacco, cornmeal (more often given to North American vaettir than ancestors specifically), glasses of water, glasses of wine or other alcohol, and various symbols of our ancestors from farther back in both our spiritual and physical lineage. Any objects belonging to one’s deceased ancestors are completely appropriate as are items from specific areas. For instance, my maternal side is predominantly Swiss and German. I have embroidered cloths from Switzerland as altar cloths, stones from Germany, soil from the little town my maternal ancestors emigrated from, and even a 16th century map of that Swiss canton hanging above my altar

If one believes in reincarnation, one might choose to honor relatives, friends or colleagues from past lives. One student of mine believes he had several strong lifetimes as a Roman soldier and those lifetimes left powerful imprints on his spiritual psyche. To honor those who fought and died with him and who were his ancestors in those lifetimes, he kept little Roman soldier statues on his altar. It’s as simple as that, though it’s vital to remember that an altar is a living, changing thing and there must ever be a consistent flow of energy. Keep the offerings ongoing and fresh. Do not neglect the altar, be it the ancestral altar or the primary devotional one. The altar is a link between the living and the honored dead. It is a pathway that must be walked regularly. In the Havamal, Odin cautions us:

“Hast thou a friend whom thou trustest well,
from whom thou cravest good?
Share thy mind with him, gifts exchange with him,
fare to find him oft.”

(Poetic Edda, Havamal, stanza 44)

As much as this holds true with the living, it holds equally true with the dead.

“I am always surprised when I run into Heathens or Pagans who neglect their ancestors. Our ancestral dead are no less than the lynchpin of our spiritual protection, luck and well-being. They are truly invested in our safety and will gladly defend us, asking only for our love and reciprocal devotion in return. Consistency is the key here; they want to be an active part of our lives.  Honor them regularly, not just when you need a favor.  They gave us life; we owe them our gratitude and respect. Anything less is just bad manners.” (personal correspondence with Loki’s woman and ancestor worker Laura Patsouris)

Much of what I know about the proper protocol for honoring the dead came through Santerian colleagues and friends. While our religions were very different, we always managed to find common ground when it came to ancestral veneration. We often exchanged ideas and altar suggestions. Many of my colleagues would set up what they called a bovida. Traditionally nine glasses (nine being the number of Oya, guardian of cemeteries) of fresh water are set out to ward off malignancy. Bubbling water would be seen as an indicator of incoming negative energy. Water is pure and feeds the dead, giving them vitality. One colleague, an Oshun’s man told me that if the water evaporates quickly, it is a sign that they are “drinking” it. Sometimes the water will absorb negative energy. An odd white film at the bottom of the glasses indicates that the dead are working on your behalf. While this is not something that is part of extant Northern Tradition practice, (in fact, I believe it evolved out of turn of the century spiritualism), it is very, very potent and useful. I have in the past, incorporated elements of the bovida into my own ancestral altar to great effect.  The water should be changed as often as needed but at least once a week and always flush it down the toilet, rinsing the glasses four times before refilling them. Do not use them for anything else.  For me, this was a really nice way of communicating with my ancestors. It helped me to get started and from there, my ancestors were able to point me in the right direction for them and my practices evolved accordingly.

Regardless of how one chooses to structure an ancestral altar, the important thing is to have and nurture the ongoing relationship with one’s dead.  So once the ancestral altar is constructed, do not forget about it. The altar will grow and evolve over time as the devotee becomes more and more interactive with his/her ancestors. It becomes a living thing, a living source of spiritual vitality, strength, and protection.

In addition to making an altar, there are many other ways of honoring one’s ancestors.  We visit cemeteries (especially on anniversaries of a loved one’s death), tell stories of our dead, name children after beloved dead, keep pictures of our loved ones. These are all ways of remembering the dead, of keeping their memories alive, of reminding ourselves that they’re still part of our families. This is what ancestral veneration is all about and moving those things into the sphere of conscious action and then fleshing them out makes it all the more powerful a practice.

Since our ancestors and the vaettir are part of our spiritual life, it is appropriate to invite them to partake of the energy and offerings of each ritual. Therefore, offerings and calls may be made during services. In our kindred, this is done right after the ritual space is blessed. In many other Heathen gatherings that I’ve seen, offerings are poured out after the ritual is concluded. Sometimes they are given before the space is consecrated. Offerings of bread and beer are traditional for both vaettir and ancestors, but I have found that both will make their personal preferences known. Remember always that these are individuals, not abstract concepts.

I suggest that in ritual practice, after the space has been consecrated, pour or place the offering down and make a formal statement inviting the vaettir and ancestors to partake. It is also proper to set aside a portion of one’s meals, anything one cooks for the vaettir and even an empty place at table for the ancestors. Walking through a graveyard and reading the names on the graves is a way of honoring the dead in general. I will honor other people’s ancestors if there is no one else to do it. (Sometimes I’ll take full ancestral feasts to local cemeteries just to be polite to the local dead). Remembering and speaking aloud one’s name, thus imbuing it with life and making sacred is a way of one’s spirit with eternal life. The same holds true for telling their stories. Cemeteries are sacred places. The gateway into them, much like the torii gate marking the passage into Shinto temples delineates passage between worlds, passage into sacred territory.  Maintaining a devotion to one of the Deities of the Underworld (in the Northern Tradition: Hela) may also enhance ones understanding and appreciation of one’s ancestors.

One way of making proper offerings that is often neglected is just talking to the vaettir and to the dead. It’s possible to develop a vital, interactive relationship with them and they themselves will be the best guide in how to do this. Please remember the ancestors are not infallible. They are not Gods. Be sure to set appropriate boundaries with them. For this reason, I suggest honoring one’s own dead only. I do not suggest working with random wandering dead. This can be dangerous. And for Gods’ sake avoid ouiji boards. They tend to attract the most egregious non-corporeal bottom feeders. Just work with your own dead and allow them to guide you first, foremost, and best).

In the Northern Tradition, the goal of one’s life is to die well. This is not the outcome of some morbid fascination with death but rather the acknowledgement not only of the natural, eternal cycle of rebirth but that dying well encompasses every part of one’s life and involves living well, living each day in true, serving the Holy Powers, crafting something for the future. This is the primary lesson of Hela, our Goddess of the Dead. We strive not only to better ourselves and to grow closer to the Gods but to strengthen the threads of our communal wyrd, to craft something better for those who will come after us. Working with the ancestors in honesty and integrity of spirit is the first step on that path. It’s not just for Samhain or Winternights!

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