Beyond death, there is peace and freedom
and reunion with those who have gone before.
-Doreen Valiente, The Charge of the Goddess
As we approach the Samhain season, our thoughts turn to our dead, those we knew in this life and those more distant from us. The idea that our ancestors watch over us, guide us, and protect us is common to many Pagan cultures and the blessings of the ancestors remain an important part of Paganism today. Like everyone else, we may have family history that is important to us, and genealogy sites, such as ancestry.com, flourish because we yearn to know more about those who preceded us and influenced who and what we are today.
We also have Pagan antecedents who are spiritual ancestors. There are the Pagan pioneers who re-established our traditions in their current forms and whose work enabled us to find our spiritual path. Those of us who belong to traditions that practice initiation or ordination may feel family ties to our initiators and their initiators before them. We may also have close ties with initiates of our own and their initiates and so on down the line. And these ties extend outwards too – to brothers and sisters of our temple, coven, grove, clan or community. These ties are important.
When we pass on an initiation or ordination current, this creates a real ‘tie that binds’ and gives a sense of connection with others. In an era when families of blood may be fragmented and ties disrupted by relationship break-ups, absent parents, or relocating for jobs in other parts of the country, or in other countries or even continents, our spiritual family becomes much more important. Indeed for some of us it is the ‘family of choice’ and the relationships formed within it may be stronger than those of birth.
As well as ancestors, many of us will also have siblings, children, grandchildren, initiates and their initiates who have already gone to the Summerlands before us. These too we honor and remember at this time.
Then there are other important ancestors – those who inhabited our lands before us. Often they too were Pagans like us. Their deities and practices may or may not be known to us, but if we meditate on the land we may find ancient memories buried there and the sleeping gods may awaken for us.
How can we celebrate our ancestors of blood, spirit and land?
Creating the Thread of Memory
Three colors often associated with the three strands of our inheritance are red for blood, white for spirit, and black for the land. These colors are also associated with the Triple Goddess. She is triple in the sense of representing three phases of the life cycle, as Mother, Maiden and Crone, but she is also triple in that she is all-seeing, her three faces facing towards three phases of time – past, present and future. We can connect ourselves to her and to the ancestors by making a necklace or bracelet of red, white and black beads, or braided wool or cord to consecrate and wear.
Visiting Graves & Memorials
Where we live in Brittany, France, it is usual to visit graves at Samhain. Even if we do not have ancestors of blood buried near us, we can still honor the past generations who live on the land we inhabit by visiting graves, memorials, and ancient burial sites. When we first moved to Brittany, we adopted an ancient burial chamber which we visit to pour libations of beer on the land. Our seasonal visits to this ancient tomb of those who lived on the land four thousand and more years ago have given us a deep sense of connection to where we live.
In honoring our human dead we honor the chain of memory and culture, the collective psyche that joins us all, the deep strand of human consciousness that connects us back, generation beyond generation, to our first shared ancestors many millennia ago. We can feel a real sense of connection with those others who like us have shared our frail human condition and transitory lives. Honoring death and the dead reminds us of the importance of living.
It is easy to forget that the simplest ways of honoring the season can be the most powerful. Even if we are part of a ritual group, the practices that we do on our own are essential for maintaining our links to our spiritual center. A good way to help us to think about the messages of the season is to make a small altar or shrine in our homes. To decorate it, we can find fallen leaves, nuts, and berries, even if we are in cities. We can added photographs or other mementos that bring to mind our ancestors of blood, spirit, and place.
If we know nothing about our locality, this is a good time to find out. And if we cannot find any historical record, then we can gather earth or stones to represent the area’s past and the people and other beings who have lived there before us. The actions of creating a sacred place for the season become a meditative act.
And lastly, we can turn inwards to commune with the ancestors. Here is a simple pathworking for the season to help you connect with the ancestors to discover what is important for you at this time.
It is a beautiful sunny fall day. You are walking through a leafy forest. Some leaves are bright yellow, others red, orange, or golden brown. The cool breeze rustles the leaves and leaves float gently down around you. You find that you are coming to a clearing and stop in the center.
Now you can see that there are three paths leading into the clearing. As you stand absorbing the earthy smells of the forest, the sound of wind in the trees, the sunlight glittering on the leaves around you, you sense that someone is approaching along each of the paths. A figure appears on the edge of the clearing at the entrance to each of the three paths and you know they are ancestors of blood, spirit, and place.
Allow time for their images to form, then go to each in turn, in whichever order feels right, and ask each of them two questions, ‘What have I inherited from you? What more can I learn from you?’ Take time for the answers to form in your mind. When you feel you have learned all you can, thank the ancestor and move on to the next.
At the end, return to the centre and thank them all. Return along way you came. At the end of your journeying ring a bell, or perform some other gesture to signal to your psyche that you have returned to the ‘now’. Note down what you have learned and think about how you can use it to help you in the season to come. You may also wish to draw the people that you saw so you can better hold them in your memory.
All photos by Vivianne Crowley