Epigenetic Inheritance is the study of genetic traits that can be turned on or off depending on an environment, and are passed on to offspring. In other words, our DNA changes based on how good or bad conditions are, and our kids are either better or worse off because of it. It also means we’re the product of our ancestors’ stresses.
In non-human subjects, an epigenetic disturbance can last for several generations (in one, greater than fifty!). In animals with genetics closer to humans, such as mice and other mammals, it seems as though thirteen generations may be the lasting strength for a species to lose its genetic fear markers and to show no fear to its former agressors.
Because humans have such long life spans, and because of the very recent developments in genetics, epigenetic inheritance is hard to prove without several shadows of doubt. However, in one human study, the children of holocaust survivors had the same trauma expressed in their genes.
What does this mean for us witches and pagans?
If this theory can be applied to humans over several generations, it means that we hold the memories and stresses of our ancestors. Think back to thirteen generations ago and what was going on with your ancestors. My ancestors were either living in Europe or emigrated to what would become America at that time. They likely lived through centuries of severe religious persecution in their home countries, enough to make many of them move across the world in the hopes of greater freedom.
Even though a lot of my ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War for a constitution based on religious freedom as one of their primary tenets, they still had to endure a country steeped in conservative Christian belief. They lived in a time when the witch hunts at Salem and Hartford were relatively recent, and threats of such occurrences spread across the new country. They lived through times where it was not only prudent, but life-saving to hide from persecutors and get the kids baptized to hide in plain sight. In short, they lived through times of fear.
As the thirteenth generation, I’m poised to break that fear and change my genetics. Maybe you are too. Lucky 13, huh?!
I’m still confounded by current American culture. Religious freedom is still questioned by so many. To be anything other than white, cis, straight, and of a Christian/Catholic religion is to be suspected by people who hold power. This shows up in our culture regularly, and possibly in ourselves as shame, fear, guilt, and anxiety. Fear of persecution is still strong in many of us.
There’s a tendency for some to play it safe. While that keeps us alive enough to make the next generations, those lives are without power. Those generations make less progress. I understand the fear and isolation of the past, but now, in the age of communication, we’re poised to hold each other accountable more often, to keep records, and to band together against oppression. This is a good tool — one we can use to our advantage.
Does your family have remnants of non-Christian or witchy behavior that are just now seeing the light? Just the other day, someone in my family attended a Christian church to support a friend playing music there. She didn’t like the church because it wasn’t free enough. It was too confining. The preacher probably referred to god as a “he,” like so many churches. She’s always been drawn to Mary, not the Christian concept of a male god or Jesus. My grandmother saw ghosts, and told me it’s a trait passed on from her mother. It made me wonder — how much witchy stuff couldn’t be talked about back in the older times? How much of our witchy history have we lost to a fear of persecution that was still alive and well?
I like to think that if we have the gene expressions from the 1700s, maybe we have even more gene expressions of ancient memories, going back all the way to the dawn of humanity. From reading history books, I know our ancestors were most likely agrarian for several millennia. They planted, worked, and harvested through the seasons and the wheel of the year. More likely than not, they lived in close proximity to nature. They looked up at a night sky so heavy with stars, before light pollution dimmed our connection to it. They ate food so fresh, it was likely picked or slaughtered that day.
Could those memories be with us? Is that why I feel so exalted when I camp and experience a greater connection with nature? When I’m there, I’m more in touch with my intuition. I pay attention to feelings and nature. I connect with animals and feel one with the earth, the wind, the sun, and the bodies of water nearby. Perhaps those ancient memories do guide us, in the same way that birds know that certain butterflies are poison without being taught.
Maybe that’s why the pagan movement seems to be growing — it’s a lovely combination of society’s fears being eradicated and our ancient memories coming forth. I only hope we can create a world that is even more free and empowering for all people, everywhere, especially those who’ve been/who are marginalized. The future depends on it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this has a larger implication for people whose ancestors experienced more recent persecution, such as people of color and Jews. Christian and Nazi terrorists against the ‘others’ are real and recent (i.e. slavery, lynchings, church burnings, Charlottesville). I’m glad we as a society seem to be evolving and changing for the better, but I still feel those moments are so recent that I can’t help but mourn that we haven’t made more headway. There’s still so much to be done in terms of equality, how people are seen and shown, and respect.