Ancestors are for Everyone

I realize that lately (and for some time now), the general trend on my blog is to talk about either geomancy or philosophical topics involving spirituality and the occult, with only the occasional ritual thrown in.  Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not; I personally feel like I’ve shifted away from talking more about specific rituals I’ve done or some of the concrete results or distinct messages that I’ve obtained, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  After all, this blog has been up in one form or another for going on eight years now, and things have changed from those first days I started talking about XaTuring or how awesome Fr. Rufus Opus’ coursework was.  While I still consider myself young and woefully inexperienced, I can also say that I’ve done a fair bit.  I still have more than a fair bit to do, of course, and I strive to continue learning and practicing as much as I’m able to, and I would like to keep sharing what I do as much as I can to document my own progress and path, and if that helps others with their own works, all the better.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that the general feel of the occult blogosphere has kinda changed.  Again, it may just be my perception, but many of the old blogs I’ve used to follow are pretty much defunct, some having been wiped off the internet for good.  Back when I first started blogging about magic, you couldn’t swing a cat without coming across an occult blog.  I guess these things come and go, but I feel like there has been a notable drop in people talking about the Work.  It could just be that people are moving onto bigger and better things, or simply are at a level where they can’t really talk much publicly about their works and rituals, or it could be that for some people, they got in, got what they needed, and got back out.  It’s fine in any case, I suppose, but it does make me feel a little wistful and nostalgic.  There are some of my friends who I would’ve liked to see keep blogging, but that’s entirely up to them.  After all, in conversations with them, I know they’ve been kept busy, it’s just that writing about their business (and busy-ness) isn’t in the cards anymore for them.

Which then got me to thinking, what about myself and my own writing?  Even though I follow the maxim that one should never apologize for the rate of their own writing on their own blog, I know I have my slow periods, and I’ve noted that I typically don’t write as much when I’m not doing much.  After all, without the Work that acts as my inspiration, I don’t have much to say besides just throwing my thoughts out into the open, which…I mean, let’s be honest, thoughts are cheap to the point of worthlessness.  You can ask anyone for their opinion, after all, but I assume people visit my blog for more than just to see me waste electronic ink on something that may or may not be related to their lives.  And from what I hear, people come here for inspiration and guidance in their own Work, not just moral or ethical guidance (such as it is) from my pontification and soapboxing on whatever debacle or outrage du jour I see on Twitter or Facebook.  And, while I may extol the virtues of the art heavily, not everyone is interested in geomancy.

I assume, dear reader, that you want things that empower your practice and your life, and that that’s what you’re most interested in.  So, let me reintroduce you to a basic practice you may or may not already have heard of: ancestor veneration.

Everyone has ancestors; there is not a single person alive who didn’t come from other people who have already passed or eventually will pass.  If it weren’t for our ancestors and forebears, we literally wouldn’t be here.  It is because of all their labors, efforts, works, and lives that we can exist.  Their blood flows in our veins, their breath fills our lungs, their thoughts and hopes and dreams help shape our own.  More than just our own lives, though, our ancestors have collectively formed the entirety of all human civilization to date: every prayer we recite, every machine we use, every language we speak, every plant we harvest, every building we enter, every philosophy we debate, every thing we use was developed, cultivated, maintained, and passed down to us by all those who have gone before us.  In truly every sense, we owe everything we are, everything we have, and everything we do to our ancestors.

This isn’t a new concept.  Even going back before the Paleolithic era, we find evidence of burials and rituals that honor the dead, and ever since then, every culture has some sort of practice that does just that.  Sometimes there are full-blown ancestor cults, sometimes there are religious specialists who practice specific rituals that interface with the dead, and sometimes there are just passing rituals that mark the passing of someone from life into death, but death is about as universal a thing as anything else could be for the human condition.  After all, every living thing must die, and there have been quite a few living things that have died before we were even close to incarnation.  We honor and respect that passing, even if we struggle to understand it and even if we have no proper way to fathom what may come after, because we know that one day every one of us living will also pass over and join with the rest of the ancestors.

Because of all this, and because we all have a bit of the dead in us that give us life, we all already have a natural connection and relationship with our ancestors.  Especially for people who are new to the Work, honoring and working with your ancestors is a fantastically wonderful, beneficial, useful, and fulfilling practice that pretty much anyone and everyone should be engaging in.  In so many ways, ancestor veneration (or ancestor work, or family necromancy, or however you want to call it) is all but necessary, and is almost always critical for so many people to engage with that it’s a true misery and failing that it’s all but fallen out of the popular Western modes of occulture (pace, Signora LaVaudoise, I know, and I adore the things you share and write about Italian folk magic, as should every-goddamn-one else, so if you’re not Signora LaVaudoise, clicky-click on her name and go to her blog).  There’s been a recent surge in necromancy this and that, sure, and ancestor veneration is definitely related to necromantic practices (you’re still working with the dead, after all), but it’s also so important to so many religions and paths around the world that it’s honestly surprising that it wasn’t one of the first things preserved, or one of the first things redeveloped, in the modern West.  There are cultural pockets where it’s kept alive (such as it is) and well, especially in Caribbean, Latino, African, Asian, and so many other practices, but unless you’re coming from such a community, you’re typically not going to be aware of anything more than the notion there’s something deathy going on around Halloween.

Even a basic ancestor veneration practice is something that I recommend at least as much as I do meditation, a personal daily prayer routine, learning divination, frequent spiritual cleansing, and any other fundamental practice because ancestor veneration itself is often so fundamental to so many other practices.  We already have a connection with these spirits, and almost every possible case, these spirits are already willing to communicate with you; after all, you’re their progeny, and they want to see you do well just like how they hoped their own children do well when they were alive.  You are their continuation and living representatives, and they want to reach out to you as much as they want you to reach out to them.  Not only that, but they’re willing to help you to achieve your goals, because it ties into that “we’re happy if you’re happy” thing.  Between their readiness to talk with you and work for you, there’s another thing that they can do that makes all the difference in the world: they’re able to teach and guide you as well.  After all, by plugging into your ancestors, you’re able to literally get in touch with honest-to-heaven-and-hell literal ancestral wisdom, countless generations of the experiences and stories and tales of full lives lived and led from start to finish.  Recall how, say, you had your first heartbreak when you were a teenager, and you felt that nobody else in the world understood the pain you’re going through?  Then recall how, ten years later, you saw such a teenager was going through their first heartbreak, and understood how it felt and how it would turn out?  For every single problem in your life, your ancestors have already lived through it in every possible permutation countless times over, and you can draw on them to teach you how to fix any problem, deal with any predicament, sort through any crisis, and guide you through every decision you need.

Between the benefits of working with your ancestors, there’s also the actual skills you can develop in the course of building a relationship with them that can serve you well in any later magical endeavor.  All these boil down into two main benefits: you learn how to communicate with spirits, and you learn how to deal with spirits.  For people who struggle with communicating with spirits or who don’t know where to begin, working with your ancestors is a fantastic kick-off point because you’re not reaching out far into the ether to connect with some ancient god or struggling to make sense of the messages from a tutelary animal spirit who doesn’t speak even any sort of human tongue; your ancestors already have a connection with you and you with them, they’re already used to communicating human things in human manners, and they typically already speak your language.  You don’t have to reach out nearly as far or try nearly as hard to listen to your dead as you would other things, so learning how to communicate with your dead is an excellent way to build up the ability to Listen to spirits and how to sense when they’re trying to communicate to you.

As for dealing with spirits, I literally mean making deals with them.  When you put your ancestors to work, you get to learn and have a feel for what’s appropriate to ask for and what’s inappropriate; for instance, even though my deceased grandmother would love to give me the world and the Moon, I wouldn’t ask her for guidance on computer programming, because that wasn’t in her skillset or expertise, and she’d be more than happy to say so, but for matters of cooking or learning how to account for documents and records, she’d be glad to share her wisdom.  More than that, you get a feel for when spirits can just help you when asked, when they need something to help them in the work, and when they expect payment for services rendered.  If a particular spirit says they need something, like a shot of whiskey or physical representation of a tool they used in life to do the work you ask them to, I invite you to try to make them do such work without giving it to them, and then see what it’s like when you give them what they need to do the work.  Sometimes they ask for too much, and they need to make do with either nothing or something pared-down; sometimes you need to negotiate and bring the price down, so to speak; sometimes you need to figure out whether it’s just a temporary thing they need to use, or if it needs to stay with them for a longer period of time as a permanent representation of them so as to stick around closer to you and do more and better work.  All that works as well for up-front provisioning as well as after-the-fact payment; sometimes they’ll say “I’m more than happy to do this for you gratis”, but just as often (if not moreso), they’ll want something as a token of your appreciation or something to repay them for the effort they put into the work, just as any human would expect it.  After all, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” is a language everyone and everything understands.

Assuming your family, culture, and religion doesn’t have one of its own, or if you’re detached from your ancestral practices to the point where you’re not familiar with them, then what do you need to get started with ancestor veneration?  Not much, honestly.  For a general template of practice, the bare minimum (and what’s sufficient for most people) that I recommend is:

  • A small, clean surface that you can cover in white cloth
  • A white cloth to cover said surface
  • A clear glass of clean water
  • A white candle

That’s it.  You don’t need anything more than that.  There are other things you can add, of course, like photos or paintings of your ancestors, religious symbols or holy texts held in high esteem by your family, jewelry or perfumes or other tchotchkes owned by them, up to eight other glasses of water for an odd-numbered total, a pot of dirt harvested respectfully from their graves mixed with the ash of their photos and names, and so forth, but you don’t need them, and after a certain point, the more cluttered things get, the more awkward and nasty it is to maintain.  As in so many other practices, it’s best to keep it simple unless you have a distinct need otherwise.

If you can afford to have a table, stool, or pedestal to set your ancestor shrine up on, awesome!  If not, a shelf, corner of a desk, or other surface will work just as well; I prefer to have something that I can sit at and see comfortably, and out of respect for the ancestors I prefer to have the surface be at least waist-high, but those are just my preferences.  So long as it’s a space you can keep clean, quiet, undisturbed, and unprofaned, it’ll work quite well as an ancestor shrine.  Clean the surface off thoroughly; if you have holy water or Florida water, this is perfect to use for this purpose, but if you have any other altar-preparation method for cleansing and preparing a shrine, go ahead and use that.  Cover the surface with a white cloth; it can be a fancy never-before-used new tablecloth if you like, but a simple piece of unstained white fabric in good condition is all you need, so long as you can dedicate it to the use of the ancestor shrine and don’t use it for another purpose.  When the cloth gets dusty or dirty, remove it, wash it, clean the surface of the ancestor shrine again as you did before, recover it with the cloth, and set it back up.

Set the white candle and glass of water on the surface.  Light the candle and dedicate the light of the candle to the empowerment, enlightenment, and elevation of your ancestors.  Let it burn out on its own safely, if you like, or burn it when you actively sit and work the shrine.   Dedicate the glass of water to your ancestors that it may refresh them, nurture them, please them, and quicken them.  Refresh the glass of water on a frequent basis, never letting it dry out completely and keeping it clean every so often.  Try to avoid using that glass for any other purpose once you give it to the ancestor shrine.  If you’re just starting out, I would recommend getting some glass-encased seven-day or novena candles, and keeping one burning all the time for the first month or so or while you’re getting your ancestor-working-legs under you, refreshing the shrine with both a new candle and a new glass of water whenever the candle goes out.  Once you and your ancestors settle into a comfortable relationship, you can change how that works or set up your own routine.

So how do you actually develop a relationship with your ancestors this way?  Literally just spend time at their shrine.  Talk with them; don’t whisper, don’t mouth words silently, but actually talk to them like you’d talk to anyone human sitting across the dinner table from you.  Call them out by name; if you have a genealogist in your family, ask them for details on the full names of those from whom you descend.  The more names you know of your ancestors, the better off you’ll be in developing a relationship with them, but if all you know is one or two, that’s sufficient; the unnamed rest will still listen to you.  If you know of one ancestor who passed over while you were alive whom you knew and loved, that shade would be a perfect person to start with, by calling them specifically to help you learn how to communicate, talk with, and organize how to work with the rest of the ancestors.  If you’re young and fortunate enough to not have had anyone close die in your lifetime or living memory, then ask for a particular ancestor to step forward and act as your primary contact, and see who comes forward.  In all cases, whether you’re working with an ancestor whom you knew in life, an ancestor who died long before you were aware of them, or any mix and match of both in any number, just talk with them.  Share your concerns, your worries, your hopes and dreams, your grievances and sorrows with them; talk about yourself, how you’re doing, how your living family members are doing, and your plans.  Literally treat your ancestors like family catching up at the dinner table of a family reunion, because that’s literally what you’re doing.  And just like how hanging out and talking with your cousins more makes them more than just people you’re kin with into friends and allies, doing the same with any of your ancestors will bring them closer to you into a tight-knit relationship that not even death could mess with.

What about prayers?  If your family’s faith and religion has any special prayers or songs they use for remembering and honoring the dead, like the Mourner’s Kaddish for Jewish dead or the Chaplet for the Dead for Catholic dead, those are gold to start with.  Heck, there’s even an entire Wikipedia article on prayers for the dead in different religions and traditions.  Other simple prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer, Hail Mary, and Glory Be for anyone of Christian descent or familiarity, are fantastic to recite at the shrine.  Beyond that, any other prayer you find appropriate to pray at the shrine for your development as well as theirs is good; as in all things, pray from the heart.  You don’t need to invoke this deity or that saint unless you want to, because this shrine is for your dead, regardless of whatever psychopomp, gate guardian, or hieromartyr saint your traditions or faith may link with them.  And even then, you don’t need prayer at all for this shrine unless you want to; the purpose of the shrine is to act as a seat and home for your ancestors in your life, and the real prayer is just talking with them.

Are there any specific times to work the shrine?  Sure, I suppose; if you put faith in the notion that “the veil between the worlds is thinner” at certain times than others, then you might do special works during Samhain, Día de los Muertos, the Ghost Festival, Setsubun, Parentalia, or other culturally-appropriate seasons.  Other dates of importance could be the birthdays and deathdays of particular ancestors for whom you have the records for, especially those whom you knew and loved when they were alive.  But, really, even considering all those, the best time to work the ancestor shrine is literally any time and all the time.  After all, every day you live is one you owe to those who went before you, and every day you live is one they support you and guide you.  They’re always ready and willing to talk with you, so any time is a good time.  You don’t need to wait for a planetary hour or astrologial election to do something unless you want to, and even then, most of your ancestors probably won’t care about them anyway unless you make a point of it.  Daytime or nighttime, waxing Moon or waning Moon, whenever you want and whenever you can, just sit down and start working with them.  If you’re comfortable doing a daily offering and chat with them, like first thing in the morning or right when you get home from work in the evening do it; if all you have time for is a ten-minute chat once a week, do it.  The only thing I would recommend is that the more frequent you do so, the better your relationships will grow, the better your work will go, and the better your results will turn out.

Are there any other disposable or consumable offerings you could make besides candles and water?  Sure!  All you need to do is ask them what they might like or prefer.  If you know that one of your ancestors was fond of a particular meal or type of food, try giving it to them as a nice gift to show that you’re thinking of them.  Whenever you cook a large meal for your family (holiday dinners, like for Thanksgiving or Christmas, are prime choices for this), set aside the first spoonful of whatever you make for the ancestors by putting it on a plate and setting it on their shrine overnight.  Flowers are always a good choice, and occasionally a cup of coffee (black or sweetened, whichever you prefer to give or however they prefer to take it) or glass of rum, whiskey, beer, or soda can go a long way towards keeping them happy and content.  A cigarette or cigar, or some incense lit for them, can also do wonders for establishing contact or getting them closer to you, as well as giving them a little extra spiritual oomph.  Of course, you probably would want to avoid things they hated or stuff they find taboo; I wouldn’t give my Jewish ancestors a plate of absolutely un-kosher fried pork belly, after all, no matter how delicious it might be.  You don’t need to spend oodles of money or time to make them offerings, and you don’t need to be wasteful or go all-out every single time.  In fact, giving modest offerings is often better than lavish ones; the more reasonable of your ancestors will probably be overwhelmed by too much, and the more greedy of them will wonder why you didn’t bring more this time like you did last time.  You don’t need much; whatever’s nice, pleasant, and simple to offer them is all that’s needed to keep their space beautiful, their hearts happy, and their minds reminded that you know them, you recognize them, and you’re thinking of them.

As for the rest?  Spells, works, rituals, ceremonies, protocols, languages, decorations, arrangements, whatever?  It’s literally up to however you want to take things, and how far you want to take them.  If you just want to give your ancestors a seat in your house and keep things relaxed and low-maintenance, do it.  If you want to spend time with them every day in preparation for a full necromantic practice with your ancestors at the helm of your spiritual court, do it.  If you want to make them work for you to keep your blood and bloodline healthy and whole, do it.  If you want to simply venerate them and consistently offer them sustenance and honor for its own sake, do it.  There are no real guidelines besides you doing what you feel is appropriate with them, what they agree to and desire from you, and whatever can inform your practices based on your cultural and religious ties to the past.

While there may be a whole slew of techniques and methods and rules one might follow based on what flavor of ancestor veneration you’re doing (Kardecian spiritism, and especially its developments into Caribbean and Brazilian Espiritismo, are fantastic resources to learn and draw from), all the above can be so individualized and customized and personalized in so many ways that it’s almost pointless to go over them here.  The real thing is to develop a strong relationship with your ancestors and learn from them, and they’ll take it from there.  Ask them questions; ask how to listen better to them, how to get dreams from them, how to pray, what to offer them, what offerings they like, when certain times to approach them might be, when you should undertake that particular project, how to enhance your own skills and trades, and so forth.  Ask who they are, what their stories are, what their specialties are, and just generally how they’re doing.  Ask if they have any problems or have any needs that you can fulfill on their end to make sure that they’re not only resting in peace but able to rise in power.  Ask if there’s any difficulty between you or them, or if they foresee any problems or dangers in your life that they can help protect you from or guide you away from.  Talk with them, chat with them, learn from them, grow with them.  Just because they’re dead doesn’t mean they’re not family, and just because they’re discarnate doesn’t mean they don’t want to be part of your incarnate life.

Your ancestors are almost always going to be the first spirits ready and willing to help you, and they have always formed the first foundation for everything in our lives, so it only makes sense that they should be among the first petitioned for any problem you may have spiritually or materially.  So what are you waiting for?  Go on and give your great-grandmother a seat at the table and have a chat with her.  I’m sure she’d love to learn the latest gossip from this side of the river and share some of her own tips and tricks when she was young.

What about you, dear reader?  Do you have any ancestor practices you follow?  Are there any special rituals you do above and beyond the usual that honor your blessed and mighty dead?  How do you work them or work with them?  Share some of your experiences below in the comments!

9 responses

  1. I have been thinking lots about this subject. Here in Brazil we have two different words: “ancestrais (“ancestors”) and antepassados (“forebears”). They have slightly different meanings in Portuguese language. The first one sounds more like those people who lived once, far back in time (in the dawn of times) and whose names aren’t remembered anymore (with little exceptions, heroes for example). It resembles the Greek “Eudaimones”. The second word sounds more like our own deceased relatives, those whose names we still remember and we still have some relationship. I think the ancestors, those lost in time are not common souls, they have evolved beyond our understanding and they are occupied with humanity as a whole while the forebears are more occupied with their lineage businesses. While ancestors can be called for help, they are not simply occupied with our material challenges and not all of our forebears (deceased relatives) can help us because some of them still suffer the consequences of their material lives. In fact nowadays I tend to see every god and goddess more as ancestors (the evolved souls) which once played important roles for their people, but this is another subject! ;)

  2. I hesitated to comment because my practice is quite low key, but then I thought someone newly considering ancestor work might appreciate it.

    I live in the UK, where space within a typical home is limited, so my ancestor altar takes up the left-hand side of a shelf that serves as my working altar generally. It consists for the most part of a few photographs, a few tchotchkes (wonderful word), and a small glass of water. I can’t burn a candle directly on it because of the shelf above, so I have a couple of LED candles that I fire up occasionally, but there’s a surface lower down that I can burn candles and incense on.

    I have a little ritual with which greet my ancestors every morning and spend a bit of time chatting with them. I make occasional offerings of things I know they like, especially for their birthdays. I get information from them, sometimes claircognizantly, but usually by consulting the cards. I ask for they’re assistance in day-to-day things, but I haven’t approached them for what I would deem magickal workings.

    Also, three years ago I was given a ritual to perform every fortnight to charge a talisman bracelet with ancestral energy. I wear this bracelet every day and, coincidentally, it’s due for a recharge tomorrow. :)

  3. So how would one take up ancestor work when they have a deceased relative that they want to have nothing to do with? Say someone that was quite an evil person in some ways. Wouldn’t taking up any such practice while excluding said discarnate relative be seen as a slight and draw that spirit’s attention / ire?

    • While I eagerly look forward to the post that will address this question, I would like to add that the way I was taught to handle unwanted or disgruntled ancestral shades is to:

      1) pray for their salvation and elevation via the mercy of God and the agency of one’s already elevated (or superior) guides. This is sometimes accomplished through various ‘rites of elevation’,

      2) perform a series of ancestral healing prayers/rites to offer and provide the troubled spirit clemency and illumination (similar to the rites of elevation),

      3) utilize the aid and agency of higher spiritual forces (highly elevated guides, ancestors, or angels) to intercede on your behalf and drive back the disgruntled spirit until they have found the necessary light and can contribute to the harmony of the ancestral work (so to speak).

  4. Pingback: Magic: Iamblichus and divination – Wanderings in the Labyrinth

  5. We have two altars in our house for the ancestors. Both are covered with photographs, but the photos on one altar are all people that have already died. The other altar is filled with photos that show a mixture of living and dead people, so that the connections between them and us are more obvious and manifest. Both have dishes of water on them, and dedicated candles, which are periodically refilled or lit; there’s also a raku-pottery cup into which I toss pennies and dimes from time to time, as a way of paying them for their assistance. There’s also a incense burner on the altar of the dead, but we probably only burn incense for them once a month or less.

    I don’t do nearly as much with these altars as I would like or possibly as much as I should, but I do try to acknowledge them every day.

    I’ve also done as Occultivities recommends, and I’ve performed rites of elevation and ennoblement for my ancestors, in order to raise them up and empower them to work for me without affecting me with the prejudices and biases they may have held in life. My general methodology for doing this is to open to the ancestors and then to the limitless light as I understand and work with it, and to invite the ancestors to experience this expression of the divine for themselves. It appears to ‘burn off’ a great deal of their ghostly troubles. Some of them leave after this for a period of time and don’t appear at ancestral gatherings for maybe two or three years, and then return both much changed and happier.

  6. Pingback: Everyone’s Got Troublesome Ancestors « The Digital Ambler

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